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It Was So Great!
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It Was So Great!

by Jeff Page (Lake Stevens High School)

"For a guy who hasnít run in five months, Iím doing pretty well", I thought, as I climbed another flight of 9 stairs. I paused to look at the money scattered around the three statues of Buddha along the wall of the interior landing, then started up another nine steps to the outside. We were ascending the Six Banyan Temple, a 200 foot tall tower in Guangzhou, China, built in 537 AD. In spite of the 95 degree temperature and stifling 95% humidity, I was charging up the 182 steps (I counted on the way back down) and feeling like I was in great shape for an old guy, climbing the tower faster than many of the teenage track athletes with me. After reaching the top, waving and shouting to the members of our Washington Cultural Exchange group who were still on the ground, and looking over the ancient but booming city of twisting streets, ancient temples and modern highways and skyscrapers, I started back down. And reality, and my age and (lack of) fitness hit me. My legs began to cramp up from the exertion and dehydration of the climb. The descent was a lot slower than Iíd figured, but I had the company of Ehren Reich, a 6 foot 5 inch hurdler from Richland, who was going just as slow, and backwards and bent double on the way down, to avoid hitting his head on the low ceilings of the stairwells. Iím sure we were a sight, a sweaty, rubber legged middle aged track coach and a tall, thin backwards teenage hunchback slowly descending the ancient temple.

Ehren and I were part of a Washington Cultural Exchange group of 33 high school athletes, parents and coaches traveling to Hong Kong and Guangzhou (Canton) this past July. During our eleven day trip we saw incredible sights, made lots of new friends, ate numerous 14 course meals of wonderful food, and competed in two track and field meets. Our visit to the Six Banyan Temple was just one of many unforgettable experiences of the trip of a lifetime.

Our journey began with an 11 hour flight from Seattle to Seoul, Korea, where we spent the night after bussing for an hour across town to the hotel. Seoul seems to be filled with nice, late model cars, but two of the shot putters in our group pointed out that many had small dents and dings from the give and take style of traffic control. They were convinced that starting an auto body shop/car insurance business would be the path to riches in Seoul.

The next day we flew four hours to Hong Kong, landing at the new Hong Kong airport just two days after it opened. From Hong Kong we immediately took a bus into the Peoples Republic of China and rode the 100 miles to Guangzhou, a city of six million people founded over 2800 years ago. We stayed at the elegant White Swan Hotel, on the banks of the Pearl River. Guangzhou, long known in the western world as Canton, was for years the only port in China where western merchants were allowed to trade, and then only for certain months of each year. These restrictions were overturned as a result of wars between China and England, the major trading nation of the day, in 1840 and 1856. These are widely known as the Opium Wars, but, as our guide told us, in China at least they are now referred to as the Sino-English Wars. Shamian Island, site of our hotel, was the western enclave in Guangzhou. From 1859 to 1949 only westerners lived there, and Chinese were not permitted on the island, except as servants in western residences and embassies. When our guide informed the group of this an audible gasp went up. Imagine foreigners forbidding people from part of their own country in one of their oldest and greatest cities.

The biggest surprise to me was all of the capitalism in China, one of the few communists countries left. It sure looked like free market capitalism is going great guns, with shop after shop filled with goods of all kinds, from shoes to cell phones. It looked like anything you could get at the Alderwood Mall, you could get in downtown Guangzhou. The people were well dressed in clothing seen in any American town, and the black Mao Zedong suits and hats that Iíve always associated with "Red China" were no where to be seen, and neither was any image of Mao. In fact, when we went to the Guangzhou Museum of History, Mike Ritch, the trip coordinator and my roommate, kept hurrying me along to get to the top floor to see the great exhibit on the Long March of the Chinese Communists in the 1930s and the Revolution of 1949. When we finally reached the top floor to see the exhibit, it was gone. The whole floor was a restaurant, with absolutely no sign or reference to the Communist Party or the revolution.

Our first morning in Guangzhou we traveled by bus for a good hour or more, out of the city and into the countryside of Guangdong Province, to visit a dairy farm. While I appreciated the opportunity to see a bit of rural China, our athletes from places like Kittitas, Finley, Prescott, and Sequim, were less thrilled. Amanda West, who lives on a farm near Burlington, told me, "It looks and smells just like home only with tropical plants." I pointed out that while the cows looked the same, and the milking machines were the same, the cooperative farm arrangement was very different than in the U.S. The families on this farm, even out in the country, lived in a four story concrete high rise, for one thing. Of course, this failed to impress teenagers, who were at the moment more interested in photographing a big, bright green praying mantis.

Much more impressive to the kids was our visit the next day to the kindergarten, where the children performed songs and dances for us. Unfortunately, we had to perform for them as well, and I doubt if our rendition of "Iím a little Teapot" made much of an impression. Next we played and colored with the children, and I was quite surprised when one little boy wrote the letters NBA. He was thrilled when Ehren drew a basketball player, and he and many other little boys and girls cried out "Nike!" when Ehren drew the swoosh on the shoes.

After the kindergarten, we went to the Guangdong Sports Institute to practice for our first competition. This is a live-in sports academy for promising young athletes selected from a province of 56 million people (about the same population as France), so you can be sure we faced some tremendous athletes the next day. As we practiced in a warm rain, I wondered about the trees planted at various spots around the field. The next afternoon it was sunny, humid and 95 degrees, and the purpose of the trees was obvious, as all the athletes were crowded under the shade of each one. Our hosts were very talented, (and some were as old as 22) and we didnít win many events, but the Chinese athletes and coaches were very gracious, and the friendship exchange of hats, pins, t-shirts and names and addresses was the real highlight of the day. Allison Selway, a triple jumper from Lake Stevens, was so excited afterwards, and told me "That was so great! Iíve got 4 new pen pals! Iíll never forget this."

That evening we all got dressed up for a banquet with representatives of the Sports Institute, a memorable experience. Our bus driver got lost, and what should have been a 7 minute ride to the restaurant took 90 minutes as we drove around and around downtown Guangzhou. We began to wonder if we were lost when we went by the huge neon sign for Mr. Sausage for the third time, and eventually we came to recognize the street for each of the three McDonaldsí we kept passing. Once we reached our destination, with the aid of our guides cell phone and a pilot car from the Sports Institute, we experienced a magical evening. The restaurant was on a lake, with a huge Banyan tree in the central courtyard, On a stage beneath the tree a woman was singing traditional Chinese opera to an audience of outdoor diners, while we enjoyed the music and the tropical evening from our banquet room on the second floor. Like all the meals we had in China, the food was interesting and delicious. This one featured a full roasted pig, with the head on. I was given an ear, which I gnawed on without much success until I gave up and sampled the better pieces of pork.

Our final day in Guangzhou we walked through the open air market just a few blocks from our hotel, and then to a jade factory. The market was slightly different than the Pike Place Market in Seattle, featuring things like dried lizard on a stick, coils of dried snake, and baskets of dried seahorses, along with live catfish, crawfish and a cage of rabbits. I was fascinated, and tempted to buy a lizard on a stick, but I couldnít figure out what Iíd do with it.

We took the train from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, and immediately you could feel people in our group relaxing as they arrived in a more familiar environment. Hong Kongís population density is the highest in the world (about 5000 per square mile), but the street signs were in English as well as Chinese, and the pace of things was perceptibly faster. Unlike the traffic in Guangzhou, which moves in sort of a constant, organic flow with vehicles weaving in and out and no one ever really stopping or going much more than 15 or 20 mph, Hong Kong traffic is just like home - go fast, then stop at a light; go fast, stop. Except they drive on the opposite side of the road, and drivers have the right of way, not pedestrians. Needless to say, we were VERY careful when crossing streets in Hong Kong. There was also a 7-11 store around the corner from the hotel, a Pizza Hut a block away, and a shopping mall within walking distance. All the comforts of home, only in Chinese.

Our first full day in Hong Kong was a day long track and field competition. Unlike Guangzhou, here all the competitors were juniors (19 and under) and there were more than 20 teams and hundreds of athletes, not just from Hong Kong but also from Macau, Taiwan, Guangzhou, and other parts of China, and of course, Washington, USA. It was like an Asian Pasco Invitational. Our kids performed well, winning lots of medals and making many friends. Amanda West was a gold medalist, winning the shot put, and we took numerous 2nds and 3rds. One unique feature I particularly enjoyed was the 2 hour break for lunch. The coaches of all the teams were taken to a restaurant for another 14 course banquet. Every time I close my eyes I still see the huge platter of fresh, boiled prawns, all youíd ever want. Another vivid memory is of a girl triple jumper from the Peoplesí Republic of China, who jumped 42 feet and change (12.94 meters - I did the conversion in my head), and didnít seem to be having a particularly good day - she only marked 2 of her 6 jumps! This was a wonderful meet in a beautiful stadium, well run, competitive, and it was the coolest day of all the time we were in China, temperatures only in the mid-eighties, and overcast, so there was no need for shade trees.

Our last three days in Hong Kong were taken up with shopping and touring. We visited a pearl jewelry factory, and we bought wonderful things. We visited a gold factory and we bought more wonderful things. We fanned out through Kowloon and shopped on our own and every night we showed each other the great deals weíd gotten. We visited open air markets and bartered with the vendors, a skill Allison proved to be very good at. She soon had a following of shoppers from our group, all hoping to benefit from her bargaining skills. We visited Victoria Peak for the panoramic view of Hong Kong harbor; Repulse Bay and waded in the South China Sea; and the floating fishing village at Aberdeen, where some families live their entire lives aboard, rarely setting foot on land. We traveled around Hong Kong by subway, ferry, double decker bus and taxi cab. We marveled at the crowds, the wealth, the skyscrapers, the poverty, the go-go capitalism of the place, the traffic. We had a great time, and after eleven days we were all most out of money and ready to come home with our memories, treasures, new friendships and rolls and rolls of film.

Our trip home was an adventure in and of itself. We flew from Hong Kong to Seoul, Seoul to San Francisco, San Francisco to Seattle, and some kids still had to catch connecting flights to Spokane or Portland. For me, it was 26 hours from the time we left our hotel until I walked in my house in Snohomish. Still, not one of the 33 of us was eager to see the trip end. Our eleven days in two of the most remarkable cities in the world, in the company of wonderful people on an incredibly well-organized tour, the chance to compete overseas representing the United States, had all been the experience of a lifetime. As we said our good byes to each other, we all were thinking what Allison had been saying all along about each day of the trip: "It was so great!"