China: Change and Tradition

This is a sample itinerary. No two Dragons courses are the same. Every itinerary considers the unique strengths of the instructor team and interests of the student group.
WEEK 1 After arriving in Chengdu, we travel to the village of Anlong, about 90 minutes outside the city to begin our Orientation! In the village, we spend our nights in a large family home and meet representatives from CURA (Chengdu Urban Rivers Association), a non-profit that is helping local communities outside of Chengdu implement environmentally friendly agricultural, bio-waste, and developmental practices. We learn about innovations in Anlong while we get to know one another, go over health and safety guidelines, and prepare to travel as a group for the journey ahead. After a few days in Anlong we return to Chengdu, cultural and economic hub of southwestern China, and learn about its unique culture and traditions with Chengdu natives, researchers and artists from abroad, getting a variety of perspectives on the place and on cities in China today.
WEEK 2 From Chengdu, we head southeast into Guizhou Province. One of China’s less economically developed provinces Guizhou is home to dramatic karst scenery, densely forested mountains, and numerous ethnic groups with distinct cultural traditions. Heading by road into an ethnically Han area several hours away by bus, we hike six hours from the nearest road to remote homes in the bamboo forests of Chishui County where we can see firsthand the impact of labor migration on rural life for people in rural China and learn about subsistence farming and gathering here using techniques and knowledge that goes back many generations. From Chishui, Guizhou, we’ll head into Chongqing Municipality. Exploring this “Mountain City” by foot we get an immediate sense of how different it is from it’s rival Chengdu, where we began our trip. Just having left a rural area where many people of working age are absent because they’ve left for work in the cities, we learn about the other side of migration in China when we visit a busy employment market in Chongqing and speak with street porters who have traveled from the countryside for difficult (but much more lucrative) work in the city. Heading out of the city we travel about two hours north to the small “ancient town” of Laitan, also the location of a historic Chan (Zen) Buddhist monastery. At the monastery, constructed about 1,000 years ago with sponsorship from a Song Dynasty emperor, we immerse ourselves in the religious practice of the monks and engage in a “silent retreat” something many Buddhist lay people from the city of Chongqing come here to do as well.
WEEK 3 We depart Chongqing and head northwest, into Qinghai Province, historically part of the Tibetan Kingdom of Amdo. Here, we see contrasts between Chinese Buddhist traditions and those of major Tibetan Buddhist monasteries like Labrang and Langmusi. Surrounded by the grasslands and mountains of the Tibetan Plateau, we live with Tibetan homestay families whose livelihoods depend on the animals they raise and care for - mainly yaks. We also explore the rich tradition of tangka painting that this region is renowned for and learn about the ways in which life is changing for people deep in the interior of China. Amidst spectacular scenery and hikes, we learn about Tibetan identity and ethnicity, economic and environmental issues in what still feels in many ways like a "frontier" region. Our local contacts teach the group about Tibetan ritual and ceremony and we try our best to learn some Amdo Tibetan language along the way.
WEEK 4 Finally, we leave Qinghai and head for China’s capital, Beijing, where our last few days of activity are guided by group interests and a student-planned itinerary guiding us among the many historical and cultural treasures that Beijing has to offer and learning about social issues and politics in China’s center of power. We spend our final days together as a group in a small village, located just below a remote and un-renovated section of the Great Wall, about 2 hours outside of Beijing. Here we wrap up the course and reflect on everything we’ve seen and done and everyone we’ve met as we prepare to return home. With the Great Wall just a short hike from the family guesthouse we spend our nights in, opportunities for hiking and taking in the spectacular mountain views are abundant. From Beijing, we depart for home!