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SHANGHAI, China - Shanghai was a whirlwind. From the moment that our delegation of 43 dancers and affiliates of the Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre arrived in the city on Sunday, until we caught our departing flight on Thursday, we were whisked from site to site by a trio of government guides in a well-intentioned attempt to see it all.

But there was simply too much to comprehend in the sprawling, cosmopolitan port city of 20 million. The mind staggers when faced with the scale of the city.

Even when that scale is 1:1,000.

That's the scale of an enormous model of the city at the Shanghai Urban Planning Hall, our group's first stop before we even arrived at our downtown hotel last Sunday. The very name of the place bespoke a kind of tedious bureaucracy that hardly inspired our already exhausted group when we arrived there.

But then we saw that model.

Gasps of "whoa!" and "no way!" filled the large room as the teenage dancers from Montana first caught sight of the model. Though none of the tiny, detailed buildings stood more than a few inches tall, the model filled the floor of a room that measured at least 50 by 50 feet.

Our guide explained that the model represented a plan for the city as of 2020.

"One third of the buildings you see are not built yet," she noted. "But they will all be completed by then."

It was yet another "we're-not-in-Montana-anymore" moment on a trip that's been filled with such moments. Others materialized as we sped from event to event, landmark to landmark around Shanghai and its nearby little sister, Suzhou (with its paltry

6 million residents), over the course of the next four days.

In Suzhou, we visited the Humble Administrator's Garden, the most famous of the many well-known Chinese historical gardens; and the historic Number One Silk Factory, where we were treated to a tour and educational lecture on the surprisingly fascinating and work-intensive process of silk production.

In Shanghai, the RMBT dancers put on a performance for an audience of about 300 at the Shanghai Drama Academy, and visited sites including the Oriental Pearl TV Tower - a gargantuan structure that looks like a Jetsons version of Seattle's Space Needle - and the beautiful and peaceful Jade Buddha Temple.

That last stop came literally on the way to the airport on Thursday morning. Once at the airport, the group finally paused for a breath, and to contemplate this trip that was coming to a close.

"When I started this trip I had no idea what it was going to be like; people were telling me that we'd see snake on a stick in the market and we can't wear green, and all this other stuff that sounded so exotic," said Jennifer Kerber, a 21-year old dancer with the group. "But in reality, China was just more amazing than I could have imagined."

Of course, what was most amazing depends on who you ask.

Haley Bunch, a 12-year old dancer who attends Meadow Hill Middle School in Missoula, was most impressed with the visit to the Great Wall, at a spot just outside Beijing.

"Climbing the Great Wall, that was the most amazing thing I've ever done," enthused Bunch. "It was so pretty and you just look at it and are amazed at how much work it must have taken to build it."

Several dancers mentioned a bicycle ride that they took in the countryside near the steaming southern town of Yangshou as the highlight of the trip.

"I really liked that," said Hayden Murray, a dancer and the son of RMBT co-director Charlene Campbell. "We went through the small villages that were really poor, and so it really showed the life of Chinese people, with their rice paddies and all their livestock. We saw lots of pretty parts and sewage right there together, which was interesting. Also, I fell in the mud. So it was an interesting day."

Gretchen Alterowitz, a 32-year-old professional dancer from Seattle who was on the trip performing with RMBT, brought a broader perspective to the trip than some other dancers. Having traveled across Eastern Europe and in Israel as a dancer, she knows a good bit about the breadth of culture that exists outside America.

Even so, she said she was "blown away" by the realization of just how privileged she is, living in America.

"Even when I've seen people who are poor, it's not been the same as what we've seen here," said Alterowitz. "All the things we take for granted - clean water and plentiful food and reliable shelter - are just so precious here, and not everybody has those things. I felt like, with all the people selling stuff to tourists, there was an air of desperation to it that I don't see in our country; those people seem like a lot of them are truly teetering just on the brink of staying above water. So I'm really grateful for that perspective because I think it's really important to always keep in mind when we're enjoying our lives at home."

A similar sentiment was voiced by Wade Black, a trick-roping cowboy from Idaho who came along on the trip.

"China wasn't really a country I would have necessarily picked to visit," he admitted. "I just didn't know much about it before I come. But after being here, I love it so much. The culture is really, really neat; and the hospitality has just been overwhelming.

"I love our country, and this trip makes you appreciate what we've got - the open spaces, the blue skies, the cleanliness. It gives you a better appreciation of your own country and of this country, too."

Numerous dancers admitted they were ready for home - for familiar beds and comfort foods and normal routines.

"I'm looking forward to hot dogs from Ole's (Country Store)," joked Salish-Kootenai fancy dancer Louie Plant. "I'm going to kick back and just watch some movies at home in St. Ignatius. That sounds like fun at this point. I'm all about relaxing."

But then again, all of them knew that in coming home, Missoula wouldn't seem the same.

"I can't believe I have to go back to school on Monday," mused Sentinel High School sophomore Kelsey Foshag. "That just seems so far away from here."

Amazing what a couple of weeks in China can do to flip your perspective.

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