If Mason Buskirk of Kunkletown has to write an essay for school about what he did over his summer vacation, the title could be "China-The Great Wall and Beyond."
Mason spent 17 days traveling throughout The People's Republic of China, from Shanghai to Hangzhou, Wuzhen, Suzhou, Guilin, Honygan Village, Xi'an to Beijing from June 27 to July 13 as a student ambassador of the People to People program. He, and the other 37 student ambassadors and four delegate leaders, traveled by bus, plane and, much to this avid railroad hobbyist's delight, by train.
He traveled over 8,000 miles.
"It was the longest journey away from home I've ever taken. I've always wanted to take a trip like this. It made me feel like a rich man," Mason says.
Mason's 11th grade English teacher Miss Sbognowski recommended him for the People to People program. He had to attend an orientation meeting with his parents, Kim and Tracy Buskirk, and write an essay. There was an interview process.
"I put in all my best efforts. I wore a three-piece suit. When all else fails, go for formality," is his advice.
He could have traveled to either Germany or China. He says he was "delighted" when he learned he was selected for the China trip. He had to attend monthly meetings with all the other Pennsylvania delegates. They learned proper etiquette, customs and background information of China, with a strong emphasis placed on safety.
They had homework and had to keep a journal, which he enjoyed doing. They had to design a T-shirt that could be worn on the trip. Mason's design was selected. It was red with a globe and said, "I'm a student ambassador -The World is My Classroom."
Then Mason was ready to be an ambassador in one of the best outreach programs for young people.
The trip to China took 15 hours. Mason says it was a tedious and uncomfortable trip.
"I would have rather taken a steam ship and stoked the boilers," he says.
Arriving in Shanghai, Mason's first impression was that it was a very industrious looking city with lots of construction.
"It is the most American city in China. There are miles and miles of apartment buildings. And there are clotheslines with wash hanging everywhere," he says.
They visited a silk reeling factory and saw how beautiful silk fabrics are made. He bought himself a handsome silk robe with embroidered golden dragons.
He brought home a carved jade stamp as a souvenir for his brother, Chapman, 14.
They saw the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, the tallest building in Asia and the third tallest in the world. They attended concerts and shows, and the Kun Opera Museum where they interacted with performers and trainers.
In Shanghai they participated in a service project at the Qixing Special Education School and Mason played a game of badminton with one of the students. While visiting another school, the Hangzhou New Oriental School, they helped Chinese students practice their English. When they talked to Chinese students, they all expressed that they would like to live in America someday.
A visit to a factory where Chinese artisans create beautiful fans, they learned the art form of how to hold and fold a fan.
They learned how to write their names in Chinese calligraphy at Yipu Garden, listed as a World Heritage Site, in Suzhou in the middle of the Yangtze River Delta.
Mason says Wuzhen was a typical water town, quaint and peaceful.
"It was the most picturesque place we stayed at ... like the Venice of the Orient," he recalls.
The young ambassadors visited a ping pong school in Suzhou where young athletes train, and engaged in challenging games with them.
He tried his hand at hanging long strips of dyed cloth on 20-foot high racks after learning about traditional techniques of garment dyeing in Wuzhen.
"It wasn't as easy as it looked," he says.
Underground tunnels and a cave in Guilin were explored and they viewed Elephant Trunk Hill. They picked tea leaves, learned how Chinese tea is made and participated in a tea ceremony at a tea plantation. They floated down the Yulong River on a bamboo raft and saw how locals used their pet birds to catch fish.
Mason spent the night with a host family in Hongyan Village, where they were greeted by dancing Chinese dragons. Mason's family of parents with three children welcomed him with a delicious dinner. The next day the delegates worked in a orchard to assist the host families as a way to repay their kindness and generosity.
They visited the Confucius Temple and the amazing site of the Terracotta Warriors, where an 8,000 man army in battle-ready formation made out of clay was discovered in 1974. The site is estimated to be over 2,200 years old.
In Beijing, they attend a cooking school and learned basic skills in Chinese cuisine and how to make decorative roses made of dough.
"Mine was so good the translator asked me to teach the next class since my English was more understandable," he says.
Mason never tasted so many different foods before.
"I loved all the foods that were offered. My favorite was curried rice," he says.
Ever since Mason was a very young child, he has loved trains and is very well versed on the subject. So when he learned they had to take a 720-mile ride on a train and it was an overnight trip, he was in his glory. It was a rolling club car.
"We all loved the compartments," he says. "There were four berths in one. I was the earliest to bed because I didn't want to lose a minute of the experience. It was very comfortable."
He adds that the only thing that could have made it better was if the tain was hauled by a steam locomotive instead of the diesel-electric engine.
He also traveled on a high-speed train to Hangzhou, a city regarded as heaven on earth.
"It was the fastest train ride of my life, traveling at 160 miles per hour. I was in paradise!" he says.
On their way to the Forbidden City, they passed China's first railway station, now a museum.
"I would have given my two front teeth to have visited it, but unfortunately it was not on the itinerary," he says.
In a cloisonn'e factory, Mason had the opportunity to paint his own plate.
Local Kung Fu students taught them some martial arts moves.
A visit to the Beijing Zoo resulted in seeing the famous giant pandas. A Chinese family asked if they could have their picture taken with Mason.
Mason and his friend Jade shared a rickshaw ride through old Beijing.
Mason's three most favorite sights were: the Great Wall of China ("It's more than 3,000 miles. Such a marvelous crafted work of masonry that's over 2,200 years old. A wonder to experience."); the Forbidden City ("enormous!"); and the Summer Palace ("a glimpse of what New Jerusalem would be like. A lovely resort with superb architecture.")
Mason is now in his senior year at Pleasant Valley High School where he is a member of the cross country and track and field teams. After graduation he plans to go to college and major in radio/television communications and broadcasting. He aspires to become a published author and would love to be a railroad man, but thinks he'll have to settle for trains just being his hobby.
"There are lots of things I'd like to do, but I don't know what I will do," he says.
He enjoys reading classic literature of the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne and Charles Dickens. One of his favorite books is "Pilgrim's Progress."
Fitness is important to Mason. He's a competitive bicyclist, having won several prizes at the Valley Preferred Cycling Center. He studies Karate and believes it greatly helped him with confidence and improved his physical strength. He lifts weights and enjoys doing push-ups.
"I can do 100 in a row. Makes me feel like a new man," he says.
The late fitness guru Jack LaLane is one of Mason's role models after he saw him on TV years ago.
"Live Young Forever." "There is no wealth like health; There is no wealth that can buy health," he quoted LaLane.
Mason's mom, Tracy, says she was very impressed with his People to People experience. The months of training involved, the emphasis on safety, went a long way to assure her of her son's well-being when he was so far away from home.
"He was never homesick. And this experience is something he never would get in a classroom. I think it matured him and he came home more confident and outgoing," Tracy says.
Mason took 1,168 photos. He picked out 400 of his favorites, added captions and had them made into a beautiful color-photo book, which he titled, "China-The Great Wall and Beyond."
His China trip has only whet his appetite for more traveling and he plans on going on another People to People trip next summer to Japan.
"My first time ever visiting an island," he says.
Another reason he looks forward to the trip is because of its trains.
"Japan has pioneered the high speed train by reinventing high speed abilities," he says.
Someday he would like to visit India and see everything the world has to offer.
But until then, Mason thinks his trip to China "was just incredible and I will never forget it. What an adventure!"