Most were surreptitious, mixing in among the gathered crowd, their presence given away only by a quick flash of light.
But others were much bolder. Expensive cameras in hand, they had no shame stepping in and snapping as many photos as time would allow.
“I felt famous,” Elayna Rice said with a good laugh.
It’s not often that residents of China see a large group of American women -- many of them tall American women -- wandering amid their daily lives.
“We would stop to take a group picture and people would quietly try to take one of us and we’d see the flash,” said Rice, herself 6-foot-3. “And all of a sudden, there would be guys with expensive cameras around taking pictures. We were like, ‘Uh, OK.’ ”
Rice was one of the 14 members of the Northwest Nazarene University volleyball team that traveled 11 days in China as part of a cultural exchange.
The group spent time in Beijing and Xi’an, where host Northwest University is located. Beijing has 21.5 million people. Xi’an, one of China’s oldest cities, has a population inching toward nine million.
It was a 13-hour train ride from Beijing to Xi’an in sleeper cars not meant for tall athletes.
“They were teeny,” Rice said. “That was quite an experience.”
“Just how fast-paced their culture was,” continued the 2012 Billings Senior graduate of what stayed with her the most. “For being a Montana girl, it’s a big change. Now you’re in one of the biggest cities of the world, if not the biggest city in the world.
“So many people flow in and out all day long. It was pretty neat. It was an unbelievable experience.”
The Crusaders from Nampa, Idaho, were scheduled to have six matches but only played two, winning both. One was against a men’s team.
“The men’s team was athletic, but you could tell they didn't compete as a team,” Rice said. “But they had one guy who could absolutely kill the ball. The volleyball was super fun to play.”
The team tried to practice twice a day on outdoor courts.
The rest of the time was spent sight-seeing, including the Great Wall, the Confucius Institute and Pearl Market (twice), along with some local museums. Xi’an’s history dates back 3,100 years.
“The Great Wall, that was amazing,” said Rice. “It was a great day, with blue sky. You could see how long it was … it goes on forever.”
To prepare, the group took 40 hours of class in the spring to learn Mandarin Chinese.
“Fluent? Not at all,” Rice said with another laugh. “It would leave us as soon as we left class. I can say, ‘Hello,’ ‘Thank you,’ and ‘What is your name?’
“We also learned customs and protocol. We learned that when accepting a gift, you take it with two hands. To take it with one hand is a sign of disrespect.”
Along with working on her volleyball skills – Rice led NNU in kills last season – she worked on the art of bartering.
Earlier this summer, Rice traveled to Nicaragua as part of a mission trip with I-61 Ministries. That group put on a sports clinic, helped the locals build a garden and aided in whatever way needed.
“Spending time with the kids was the best part,” she said. “When I was there, I was terrible (at bartering). I told myself my goal for China was to get better at this.”
“I was getting a T-shirt for my brother and the woman wanted 125 Yuan (equivalent to .16 of a U.S. dollar),” Rice said. “I got her down to 25. I felt feeling pretty good about that one.
“Being there with some of my best friends was a great experience. It was definitely an eye-opener. It makes you appreciate what you have, like your own car.”
And after enduring 12-hour flights, 13-hour train rides and being constantly surrounded by people who might snap a random picture, she’s glad to get home.
“I love coming back,” she said. “The blue sky, green spaces. I’m definitely doing some hiking in the mountains.”