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F&M Students' Journey to the Top of the World

By Kristina Montville '14

Editor's Note: Nineteen Franklin & Marshall College students traveled to China in May and June as part of "Chinese Life and Culture," a summer travel course led by Adjunct Assistant Professor of Anthropology Monica Cable. From bustling Beijing to the peaks of the Himalayas, the group experienced a whirlwind tour of Chinese culture and history. In the following piece, F&M junior Kristina Montville recounts her experiences on the 23-day trip. Visit a gallery on F&M's Facebook page to see additional images.

It's not every day you find yourself waking up next to a yak.

Whether I was meandering market streets, trading quips with taxi drivers, ingesting mountains of white rice or being startled by a curious yak in the shadow of Mount Everest, my time in China was certainly a crash course I had never imagined into the country's culture and history.

On May 14, I found myself flying to the opposite side of the world, a much easier route than digging straight through my sandbox, which I frequently attempted as a child. Led by Professor Cable, 19 students began the "Chinese Life and Culture" class with a 13-hour flight through the night, during which we had a constant battle with armrests, tray tables and clashing elbows. Somehow it wasn't surprising when I woke up with a fellow passenger using me as his new favorite pillow.

  • chinaphoto
  • Nineteen Franklin & Marshall College students traveled to China in May and June as part of "Chinese Life and Culture," a summer travel course led by Adjunct Assistant Professor of Anthropology Monica Cable. Here the group displays an F&M banner at Rongbuk Monastery, Tibet, with Mount Everest—the world's highest peak—in the distance. (Photo courtesy of Kristina Montville ’14)

We fell right into the bustling Beijing lifestyle, despite fighting off heavy eyelids. Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall of China and the Temple of Heaven were our first stops. For anyone who thought the Great Wall was an easy stroll, I assure you it is not. I found myself scaling and jumping from step to step, followed by the locals who chatted behind us, excited by the arrival of potentially gullible souvenir-buyers.

After long days of touring, we ventured from street vendor to street vendor. They were selling everything from big pots of fried noodles to the occasional bowl of snakehead soup. Luckily for us, the soup was not included on our dinner menu at local Chinese restaurants. Our large and very boisterous group attracted many stares as we gobbled down plate after plate of Kung Pao chicken, spicy eggplant and juicy dumplings. Our fellow diners chuckled as they watched us try to tame what seemed to be a never-ending supply of noodles with chopsticks; from that point on, forks would be a distant memory.

After an overnight train ride, we arrived early in Xi'an, capital of the Shaanxi Province. There we visited the legendary Terracotta Warriors, hundreds in perfect order, no face among the sculptures the same. The most striking part of our time at the excavation site was watching the archaeologists and scientists work even as tourists wandered about. Visitors could see the slow and meticulous work in progress by the way a terracotta arm or leg would jut out of a pit wall. I learned that the soldiers are merely the tip of the iceberg. Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi's tomb, which the soldiers had been built to protect, has yet to be opened.

Chengdu was our third city, and one that held a wonderful surprise for all—baby pandas!  Not one or two, but piles and piles of roly-poly bamboo snackers. The Chengdu Panda Research Center certainly has its hands full maintaining a world-class research facility and conservation education center while caring for more than 80 giant pandas and their young.

From Chengdu we braced ourselves for skyrocketing altitudes as we reached the rooftop of the world. I gazed at the white-peaked Himalaya Range as our plane descended into Lhasa, Tibet. Our hotel was a few blocks from the main Barkhor Square, and the streets were lined with ornate and brilliantly colored architecture adorned with Tibetan script. Flags colored blue, white, red, green and yellow, representing the Five Pure Lights (central elements in the Dzogchen tradition of Bön and Tibetan Buddhism), constantly blew in the breeze, down city streets and across impossible mountainsides.

How do I even begin to describe the people? Some of the most beautiful people I have ever seen, the Tibetans never hesitated to share a warm smile or greeting of "tashi delek" ("blessings and good luck"). Their deep, dark eyes were some of the most welcoming I had ever encountered. I walked through streets admiring jewelry of every color and three-dimensional Thangka paintings, crafted by hand by Tibetans to serve as a guide for contemplative experiences. Red-robed monks were ever-present, along with faithful pilgrims taking offerings of butter to the Potala Palace. I could see the peaceful devotion of their faith by the daily prostrations around the Jokhang Temple.

As we left the capital city of Tibet, our group prepared for a three-day trek by Jeep deep into the Himalayas. Everest was our final destination, and I was certainly not expecting the off-road twists and turns of tight mountain passes. Our drivers were fearless and handled the steep, gravelly roads, even in places where guardrails were missing. Our driver, who knew not one word of English and played the same Bollywood soundtrack on repeat for three days, became part of our Jeep family.

I distinctly remember the moment Everest came into view. Our driver had slammed on the breaks, jolting us out of our naps. The mountain stood perfectly framed by desert cliffs; the peak was completely clear. A few brave souls chose to battle the altitude and winds to hike toward the base. Taking a single step resulted in heavy panting. How far we had come really hit me as we neared the base camp of Mount Everest (more than 17,500 feet) and I saw clouds floating lazily beneath my perch. I really had made it to the top of the world.

We spent the night huddled as a group beside the evening fire at Rongbuk Monastery. Blankets around our shoulders and hot cups of soup in hand, we listened to our drivers chat away as we shared stories of our last few days. The fire was about to be put out and we were in for a night of no heat or running water. I quickly fell asleep, surrounded by yaks and staring out my window to a picture-perfect view of Everest.

With journals and term papers written, our course came to an end. The closer we came to the airport, the more I was looking forward to cell service and limited rice intake back in the states. But no matter how hard it was trying not to text, or what I would have given for a good slice of pizza, I will truly miss our amazing trip and seeing the world from a different point of view.