Summers back home meant three things: a week at the beach with my family; tennis in the morning and afternoon with friends; and at least one trip to a major amusement park. Summers in China have consisted of: week-long excursions to the country's interior; morning and afternoon trips to the Great Wall; and other thrilling experiences, but no thrill rides.
Two summers ago, I was too immersed in the whole "I live in China" experience to care about missing my homegrown trifecta/ troika of summer fun. But as the summer heat this year gave way to the cool, if a bit smoggy, fall air I looked back on the past three months and said, "Something's not right."
Then I went to Happy Valley.
Happy Valley in Beijing - not to be confused with the wildly popular college football haven in central Pennsylvania and home to my alma mater Penn State - is one of China's major theme parks. Split into different themed areas, visitors can travel from the ancient Aegean of Greek legend to the lost city of Atlantis and then work their way through a larger-than-life Ant kingdom. Think Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure, minus the American movie theme and comic book characters.
Going to the theme park was important. I hadn't been on a roller coaster in two years and missed the completely legal high you get from plummeting hundreds of feet, spinning into barrel rolls and then jolting to a stop at the rides end. And more importantly, riding roller coasters is somewhat of a family tradition.
For the better part of a decade as a kid, my parents, brother and some family friends and their children would end each summer with a trip to Knoebels Grove, enjoying a day of fun, food and thrills each August. I rode my first roller coaster, the Phoenix, there and quickly developed the need to experience bigger and faster coasters.
Hershey Park and Dorney Park provided quick fixes for my need to ride bigger and better roller coasters, and throughout high school my dad and I would take summer trips to more intense and elaborate parks. At Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey we rode the Nitro and at Cedar Point in northern Ohio we rode the Millennium Force, one of the tallest roller coasters in the world.
Happy Valley is a nice moderate level theme park - it doesn't have the tallest or fastest or best roller coasters, but they are still scream-worthy. One roller coaster allowed my feet to dangle as we soared along. Another flying coaster, similar to the Superman at Great Adventure, had me soaring through the ruins of Atlantis. A third coaster was closed for repairs (a typical letdown that we roller coaster enthusiasts are used to).
There was even a log flume offering riders, and observers, the chance to get soaked. I opted out because of the cool Fall weather, but a few friends cast caution and better judgment to the wind and went on. Happy Valley even had its own Phoenix mini-coaster, albeit it smaller and much less thrilling than the Knoebels version.
But the best part of the day in Happy Valley were the crowds - or lack thereof. The more comfortable weather of the summer months was gone, but so too were the long lines of people - ideal conditions for anyone who has waited three plus hours in line for a roller coaster ride that lasts about a minute.
The food was a bit less thrilling: typical Chinese chuan, kebabs with a variety of meats and vegetables; instant noodles; or KFC. A few vendors had something that looked like cotton candy, but was probably a rice variant of the fluffy treat. I didn't even bother asking about funnel cake, a staple of any carnival or theme park in Pennsylvania.
After lunch - KFC style, since Chinese food and thrill rides probably aren't a good mix - my friends were eager to immediately get back on the rides. I told them that, much like swimming, I was observing a 30-minute rule: no rides of any kind for at least half an hour. I'd never gotten sick on a ride, and I wanted to keep it that way.
Happy Valley Beijing definitely wasn't like Happy Valley, Pa. - even without rides, you can't compete against football Saturdays and the college life. It wasn't as thrilling as American amusement parks, and it didn't really compare to any summer trips with family and friends. But it was fun, and more exciting than walking 3 km up and down the Great Wall or waiting in line to see the preserved corpse of Chairman Mao. And fun was all I was looking for.
Brandon Taylor is a language consultant/foreign expert for the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine in Beijing, China. He is a former correspondent for the TIMES NEWS. He can be reached at email@example.com.