Sunday, February 10, 2013

Field Trips

Everyone put his or her full engine into studying especially the students of year 1977. They were generally older and knew how fortunate it was to come to college. For me, I did not find it was difficult and I actually enjoyed studying compared to the last year of my high school. My average wasn’t the highest in class, but with high grades in a few subjects, English was one of them, then math, statistics, botany, and a few others. My weakest subject was physical education, which I just passed. I just couldn’t get interested in political subjects and some other classes. Almost every teacher liked me as a student because I raised good questions, especially on class field trips. I was known to notice small details that most others ignored. I always found some mushrooms or plants I did not know, so we had to ask teacher for identification. They were my contribution to the collection. I was also a good mountain climber, always within the first three with all boys. Especially down hills, I was able to run down so I would be the first one at the bottom. My classmates said I flew down like a bird.
I asked my professor, “how about this one?”
     Because of our major, students from other departments admired our adventurous field trips. We took field trips to MT Emei (峨嵋山) starting at 500 meters elevation and reaching over 3000 meters elevation, the highest of the four sacred buddhist mountains in China. The name (秀甲天下) means the most beautiful place under the sky. It has over 3000 plant species and 2500 animal species in subtropical, temperate, and subalpine zones. It usually takes three days to climb from the bottom to the top, from summer shorts at the base to winter coats at the summit.
Field trips on Mount E’mei (峨嵋山)
     The school bus took us to the upper part of the mountain. Fortunately, there was a forest station there for our stay. On some of our field trips, there were no stations because there was no transportation by car. In those cases, we had to carry everything from our personal luggage to things we needed for our community. For girls in the class, the school hired a few local young farmers to carry our luggage for us. Boys had to carry their own luggage. Some boys complained that we girls received too much special treatment. Actually, none of the girls were empty-handed. We just carried less or just helped the boys.
     The only special treatment that we had was whenever one girl had a period; she could stay in, instead of going out to work for a few days. So it looked like girls took breaks by turns, and boys were always out doing fieldwork. The reality was that 90% of the girls had bad cramps during their periods. Some of the girls had to stay in bed for a day because of the pain. I usually had four hours of bad pain at the beginning of a period. My pain was so bad that I became nauseous, couldn’t eat, and my face became pale. I had to stay in bed during that time. After the pain was gone, I took a nap, and then I was back to normal again. My mom always told me that after I got married it would be better. Every time that I had pain associated with my periods, I wish I were married.
    After we settled down at a forestry station, our school bus drove us up or down the road. We walked around to the other side of the mountain to see the changes in vegetation with elevation changes, set up plots, and collected plant specimens. We walked more than 30 miles for most of the day. We had a tight schedule everyday.
      On one of the temples on Mt. Emei (峨嵋山), we took a little break. One day though, we planned to climb to the peak. We were up very early that morning before 5 AM. We had an early breakfast. The school bus was going to take us to the highest point that the car could reach (about 2700 meters). Then, we would climb the rest by ourselves to 3000 meters. We had just driven a few miles, when we saw policemen and police cars everywhere. We were stopped and told that we couldn’t use the road nor climb the peak that day. We could only stay within five kilometers of the forest station, and not beyond or there would be consequences. We angrily called them “government dogs” because they refused to tell us anything more. Our teacher said, “let’s go back.”
     Finally, around noon that day, we first saw a group of police cars, then two or three fancy minivans driving up the hill. A few boys ran to the site where they learned that Deng Xiaoping (邓小平) and his wife and daughter had come to see Mt. Emei because they stopped and actually got out of the car to talk to them. So, we went out by the road to wait until they drove down. It wasn’t long. They probably drove as high as they could and then they turned around. When they came down, we expected to be able to talk with him. But the cars didn’t stop this time. They slowed down and waved at us. Oh well, their two hours ruined our whole day, but because it was Deng Xiaoping, we weren’t angry after all. This was his hometown. We were glad that he went out of his way to come here.
     At evening before dark, we usually went out for a walk. I met a few local farmers’ boys. They were about seven or eight years old. I knew that orchids were very famous but I couldn’t ever find them anywhere. I asked one of the boys whether he knew where orchids grew there and he brought us to this wet, shaded valley. There were patches of blooming orchids. I was amazed how much the local boys knew. I took a few orchids home, but they did not survive.
     When we did fieldwork in the remote forest stations, our rules were very strict. On the college campus, we had to return before 11 PM or the college gates would be closed. The whole college is enclosed with a high wall on the outside. Since we were at the forest station, we had to be in our rooms before 9 PM. Each night, the head of the class counted all of the students. One night though, one boy and one girl were missing. They didn’t come back after 10 PM, so everyone started to worry. Our teachers and the students divided into several groups to look for them with flashlights. Finally about 11 PM, one group found them in a shelter. From that moment, we knew that they would be sent to some remote place where they wouldn’t want to be after graduation. They were sent to the Far West Tibetan region in my province. It was like the school did them a favor so they could stay in no man’s land forever and do whatever they want. They did get married and they are still married today.
      Sister Liu had asked a blind fortuneteller on Mt. Emei to tell her about her future. The fortuneteller told her that she would get the man she wanted very soon and they would marry and have a son. I didn’t pay any attention to her predicted fortune at that time. “What fortune teller?, I did not see any on Mt. Emei.” She said, “you were skipping ahead so fast; of course, you did not notice anything, temples just passed you one by one.” She was right, I passed temples one by one, did not pay much attention since they looked more or less the same. I was outside in the woods observing the plants and trees as we were expected. I told her that the fortuneteller just told her what she wanted to hear, but she was very serious about it. She said that everything that the fortuneteller told her about her past was true. Not long after the field trip, she got her wish to date the boy she liked. They were married after graduation and soon had a little boy and lived a happy life together. The fortune telling incident made me think about the supernatural.
     One thing I did notice was that the people were very friendly. As we passed by one, one would stand aside, let us go ahead and always say “God bless you.” Inside temples, people crowded, waiting in line to take turns to kneel in front of the Buddha statue and bow three times. Then they put so much cash into the collection box. For me, I could not do it and I might just laugh if I had to kneel down and bow before a Buddha statue. That much money looked like it was the poor person’s life savings. I did not understand, but it certainly impressed me.
     During our entomology field trip to Baoxing (
宝兴), we were high in the mountains (夹金山) west of Sichuan province. We stayed in a temporary shelter where a logging company had just finished wiring for electricity. That night we just settled down and first turned on the light. Suddenly, we smelled smoke and looking up, the electric wires started a short and the wire above us went from smoke to a little flame running so fast along. We were “freaked out” to watch. Suddenly, I remembered the switch. I ran to the switch and turned it off. The wood around the burning wire was so damp that it did not catch fire and all the girls thanked me for my fast thinking and action.
    We were far from the nearest town. We could see the big shiny gold dome atop the town hall down in the village. We had to go down to the town to go shopping but we were not supposed to go. We craved sugar and candy because our meals were very poor. One sunny day, we went down the hill while we were supposed to be collecting insects nearby. The town was very small with only very basic items for sale. There was no candy, only loose sugar for baking. We bought some anyway. It did not take us long to explore the whole town. We did find some moss and butterflies that we couldn’t find on top of the mountains.
     The way back was uphill. We were soon very tired and hungry. We knew we had to make it in time for dinner so we would not have to explain our tardiness. So we encouraged each other to keep up the pace. Suddenly, we saw this giant white horse flying down towards us. We could not believe our eyes; it was like we entered the heavens or something from an elevational effect. Soon the horse was close by. We woke up. One yelled, “Get out of its way.” We all stood against the hillside and watched the white horse gently stride by. The horse did not have anything on him. It looked like a wild one; yet, it seemed to know how to follow the road down hill by itself. Finally we understood the famous Chinese idiom by Han Fei (韩非). The 老马识途 means “an old horse knows the way.”
     When we finally made it back, it was almost too late for dinner. It was very kind for our teacher to not blame us for anything, although we expected to be in trouble because the insect we collected would tell the teacher we went downtown. It turned out that the sugar would save us for the next day’s climbing.
     We stayed at an elevation of about 2700 meters. We had to climb to one of the highest peaks around, which was at 3500 meters. We didn’t take lunch with us; we usually didn’t bring lunch on these trips. We started our climb after breakfast. In the beginning, it wasn’t too hard. We followed the trails.
     After 3000 meters, we passed the tree line, which meant no more trees. There were some rhododendrons there. It felt windy and difficult to breathe even though some slopes were not even steep. Students scattered further apart. I was in the lead with the first ten students. I felt that my ears were ringing, besides I was becoming very tired. The top of the peak looked so close; nothing blocked our view of the top; yet, it was so difficult to reach the summit. When we finally reached the top, we felt like we were in the clouds. A harsh wind was blowing. We could see that the southern slope was dry, without trees, and with only scattered shrubs. The northern slope was moist and green, with spruce, firs, and rhododendrons. Close to the summit, there was a field of purple lady’s slippers that I had never seen anywhere before. For awhile, we all felt like we were in another world, like angels or something looking down on the world.
     Very soon, our stomachs growled and we realized that it was way after lunchtime. It would be lucky if we could make it back home by 4 PM. We all sat there and felt like we couldn’t get up. We had that sugar we had bought the day before, so we divided it up into a teaspoon for each person. Some of our classmates begged us for more, calling us by whatever we wanted to hear, even those who considered themselves the strong, proud men of the class. I had been to 4000-m elevation by bus, but 3500-m elevation was the highest peak that I ever climbed.
     The most difficult field trip was the whole month before college graduation; our job was to survey the whole county’s forests while walking. Our two classes of 78 were divided into groups of three or four. Boys were assigned the more remote and tough terrain. We girls were assigned areas closer to the town. We followed the county map, set up plots in the forests, measured the diameters of the trees and using a hand-held instrument measured the heights of the trees. Every now and then, we ran into our adjacent boy group on the road. We actually walked together for awhile. They were by their nature challenging us by testing our estimates. I was always up to the challenge. I would say that a tree’s diameter was 25 cm. Then a boy would actually measure that tree with his tape. It was the same way with the height of the trees. I was one of the best estimators in class.
     We had to basically beg for our lunch and dinner from farmers’ houses since there were no restaurants. Usually we planned ahead by asking the farmers in the field, “can we come to your house for lunch?” Most of the time we were successful at the first try. Sometimes, a farmer would say that they didn’t have anything good to offer, even though we said that was okay. We would eat whatever they ate. They declined and suggested that we try better ones.
     It was the same for dinner and a place to stay overnight. The meals were one thing, staying overnight was another. We were all scared even though the village leader had recommended a place. We usually had one room and one bed. But either there was no door or we could not close it. Once we stayed in this farmer’s house, they actually slaughtered a pig for us. But we were very tired from our fieldwork and were in no mood for a party with the farmers. We had dinner and were ready to go to bed. But the husband kept drinking and talking. Finally, we excused ourselves to go to bed. We could still hear him mumbling to himself in the other room. He kept trying to come to our room, which was usually his bedroom. We were so scared that we thought he was drunk. Fortunately, his wife yelled at him to stop him from walking into our room. She kept asking him be quiet so we could get rest and he kept saying, “I know, I know.”
     Our team of three girls actually finished our assignment a day early. We went back to town and helped the other group finish theirs. We stayed a few more days to map the county’s New Forest map with all the summary data. The county official thanked us and gave us a big banquet as payment. We were so hungry like we had not eaten that well for years. One of the boys got drunk and ended up in the local hospital for a few days with a stomach ulcer.