My time teaching first grade at Sanxin School came to an end at the beginning of July when the summer holidays began. There were many tears, some of them mine, many hugs and more high fives than I could count, but it is not good bye! I might not be their English teacher next semester, but I will still be able to visit them in when I have time off teaching middle school. I had such an amazing group of kids over the past few months and the last week of school with them was so special but more about that in a later post! For now, I’ll get on with what you came here for; The Terracotta Army.
With school out for summer and contract completion bonus in hand I decided to explore some more of China. The Terracotta Army was one of the things I was most excited about when I made the decision to come and teach in China and let me tell you, it did not disappoint. It definitely has to be seen with your own eyes to appreciate the sheer size and scale of the place!
We flew into Xi’an airport from Zhuhai, a small town just South of the village I teach in. The airport in Xi’an has a bus route but, for ease with all of our bags, we opted to take a taxi to our hotel. The taxi ride from the airport to the centre of town takes around half an hour depending on traffic, we arrived around 8pm so there was very little traffic between the airport and our hostel inside the old city wall.
We stayed in “Bestay Hotel Express” and for the price we paid the rooms were great. The first night three of us stayed in a family room which is a bunk bed that has a double bed on the bottom and a single bed on the top with a reasonably sized private shower room and toilet. After the boys left for Beijing I moved into a one-person room, it was a bit on the small size but how much room does one person really need for one night anyway?
The night we arrived we took a wonder down the Beiyuanmen Muslim Market, jam packed with food stalls and souvenir shops. This sprawling market is a feast for the senses. The Muslim Quarter is the hub of the Muslim community in Xian and is located to the north of the West Street in the city centre. It covers several blocks of the old city and it is definitely the place to go if you are looking for fantastic street food and a keepsake or two.
Saturday morning it was a reasonably early rise to make the most of our only full day in Xi’an. From our hotel we took the public bus straight to the main train station. To the right-hand side of here you will find a coach service to the Terracotta Army. Don’t worry about getting on the right bus, you will be waved down by multiple enthusiastic bus conductors all desperate for you to get on their bus. We literally jumped onto a moving bus as it drove out of the station! I am sure, however, that we would have easily found a stationary bus if we hadn’t been herded onto our coach by one very determined woman so don’t feel like you have to jump onto a moving vehicle.
The bus will drop you at the entrance to the main square, this is a good place to stop for something to eat if you arrive around lunch time. I found the food was priced around the same as the rest of China, but drinks can be almost three times the price, so look out for that when you order. Leave the square to the right and follow the stream of people towards the main entrance gate. Here you will find the ticket office, make sure you have cash on you before you arrive because they do not accept card or WeChat pay.
You come through the gate into a garden and there is about a fifteen-minute walk through this before you actually reach the hangers built to protect the historical site. Hanger one is by far the best in terms of showing the massive scale of the Terracotta Army site as it has had the most excavation work done to it out of the three hangers that are open. If you are interested in the archaeological process, hanger two has the best examples of warriors still half buried in the ground. Hanger three is the smallest but gives you the best views of the warriors close up and in situ (you can see them in glass casings in hanger two if the hanger three is too crowded for you). There is also a museum on the site with the bronze chariots that were found on the site as well an exhibition about Pompeii, which I was not expecting to find in the middle of China if I am being honest!
The Terracotta Army took us the whole day to explore and was absolutely fascinating to see in real life! To think that something of that scale can remain hidden for thousands of years until one farmer needed to dig a well blows my mind. Another bucket list item ticked off the list!
I have recently been receiving a lot of messages about how I became TEFL qualified, how I got my placement and what company I used to get here. I do always try to reply to these as soon as possible but with the time difference between China and the UK, the not so reliable internet access here in China and working a five-day week; I thought it might be a good idea to put as much information as I can in one place. This is not to say I don’t want to be asked questions, I am more than happy to chat about my TEFL experience, it is more about making it easier for anyone looking for information on becoming an ESL teacher to find what they are looking for in one post.
How did I become TEFL qualified?
I completed I-to-I’s 120 hour online course. This course requires you to work through a series of modules on I-to-I’s website, at the end of each module you sit a mini test in order to be able to move onto the next part of the course. The tests do not count towards your final mark but you do need to pass them with a certain percentage to be able to move through the course. Once you have completed all the modules you then have to submit a lesson plan and an essay explaining why exactly you have chosen to carry out a lesson in this particular way. You are then given three hours to complete the final test which, combined with your lesson plan, determines whether or not you pass the course and become TEFL qualified.
If you pass the course you are awarded a certificate, make sure your name on this is exactly the same as it is on your passport, including your middle name. This is important if you are planning, which I assume you are, to get a job teaching English as a foreign language because most embassies require all of you documents to be exactly the same when they are handing out visas.
They will email you the certificate and you will also have the option to get a hard copy sent to you. Get the hard copy, you will need it when you start applying for jobs. I did not get the hard copy when I was based in the U.K. and now I may have to pay around £60 to get it shipped out here to China! Not ideal…
How did I find my placement?
I-to-I is partnered with a company here in China called ImmerQi. ImmerQi are who placed me in my current school here in Sanxiang, Guangdong. So really I didn’t have to do anything to find my placement.
I have since had to look for my next job which was easier than I thought it would be. My current school offered me a job here in the middle school. There are also a lot of companies that specialise in finding foreign teachers for Chinese schools and education centres, I had interviews with EF – Education First and TIC – Teach In China.
I-to-I’s website has job listings and placement options from all over the world, if this is your first time teaching abroad then I would highly recommend applying through I-to-I’s website as most ESL jobs require you to have at least one year experience in teaching before they accept a foreign teacher. This can also be the case when it comes to getting a visa, some countries give working permits or visas to people who do not have experience in the field.
Another thing to look out for is that a lot of countries, like Vietnam, require you to have a BA degree or higher in order to work as an English teacher in their country. Some countries will accept foreign teachers without a degree but the salary they offer you will be considerably less than those with a degree.
What company did I use?
As you can see from the two questions above I used more than one company to wind up in China. In fact I went through three companies in total:
The first company I used was STA Travel; STA, if you haven’t heard of them, is a student and young person travel company specialising in budget travel, working holidays and round the world trips. When I walked in to the Aberdeen branch of STA Travel, back in October 2017, I only had the smallest idea of what I wanted to do. I had looked into TEFL but thought I might have to go back to college in order to become qualified and after six years in higher education that was about the last thing I wanted. Essentially I wondered in, said “I want to travel the world, how do I do that?” and my travel agent Jordan helped me pick out a two year plan. Obviously that plan has changed slightly since arriving here in China but I never would have taken this first step if I hadn’t walked into the STA shop on a whim. If you are planning to travel on your own then I definitely recommend booking at least the initial stage of your trip with a company like STA, they have years of experience and a team of people ready to help you out if and when things don’t go to plan.
The second company I used was I-to-I TEFL. When I booked my Paid China TEFL Internship with STA Travel my I-to-I TEFL course was emailed to me directly. One thing to look out for with the course, that almost tripped me up, is to pay attention to your course deadline ( how many days you have to complete the course after you start) and when you actually need to have completed the course for your placement (these will probably be different dates). My dates only varied by a few days so I ended up getting very confused when I was asked almost a week before I thought I was meant to be finished, why I wasn’t finished…
Then third and finally I was passed on to ImmerQi. It was ImmerQi that I dealt with when it came to visa applications, arriving in China and of course they are who placed me after the orientation week in Beijing. To work or study in China you need a letter of invitation before you can apply for your visa. ImmerQi organise all of this for their interns before they leave their home country. The only downside to this process was that ImmerQi could not tell us where we were going to be placed until we arrived in China, for a number of different reasons. This meant that, because China has provinces stretching from way up North bordering with Russia to way down South in the Sub-tropics, I had to pack for any and all possible climates… no easy task when you over pack as badly as I do! Luckily I got placed in the nice warm Sub-tropics and the woolly jumpers have been in the back of my wardrobe since I arrived.
If you are considering teaching English abroad then I hope this blog post has been helpful to you. I 100% recommend becoming TEFL qualified, it is one of the best decisions I have ever made! My advice would be to go straight through I-to-I to become qualified and find your first placement if your plan is only to teach English abroad. If you are planning a Gap Year or are travelling for the first time then I would definitely recommend STA Travel, it’s always nice to know there is someone in the know available to you if you find yourself needing to change travel plans and they have a huge selection of trips to choose from.
If you have any questions about TEFL or life in China please leave a comment below or send me and email, I am more than happy to help in any way I can.
I am about a month away from completing my internship here in Sanxiang and the original plan was to move on from here to Vietnam at the beginning of August… but I just can’t quite do that, turns out China isn’t finished with me yet. I have been offered a job at the middle school here. It might not be teaching my adorable little first graders, but it meant a chance to stay in China for another six months, an opportunity I just couldn’t turn down!
There are so many amazing things about living and working in China, but I managed to somehow slim them down into my top ten reasons why I’m staying in China:
1.Life is Simple: I’m not going to lie, I found life in the U.K. stressful, the pressure once you come out of university to go straight into a job and start your career is a lot to handle! This is especially true when, like me, you aren’t even one hundred percent sure a career in your chosen field of study is what you really want. I was stuck working in the same part time job I had taken to get me through university. I was working to make money and as much as I enjoyed parts of waitressing, it was obviously not where I wanted to be. I tried to find a grad job (admittedly I didn’t try very hard) but found the process anxiety inducing. Some may say the same about uprooting your life and moving it half way around the world but for me it just made sense. Life in China is a simple as working at a job I love, it might not pay much but that has never been a motivation for me in terms of finding work. The hardest part of my job is planning a lesson that will keep forty six-year-olds entertained for forty minutes, then I get to go home and relax for the rest of the day! The most stressed out I have felt since arriving in China was the weekend where my USB stick went walk about and I thought I had lost all my lessons, then Monday morning it turned up in class, simple as that. This is possibly the least stressed out I have been in my adult life, that alone is reason enough for me to stay.
2. The people are friendly: It is impossible to walk anywhere without someone saying “hello” to you or waving at you from across the street. You smile at someone walking past and they smile right back at you. Westerners in China are somewhat of a rarity which means that quite often you will be stared at but not once has it made me feel uncomfortable or weird. They aren’t staring to be rude, but because they have most likely never seen a westerner before, that and the fact that pale skin is considered beautiful here and I have never been able to catch a tan in my 24 years living on this Earth! Almost anywhere you go in China you will be asked for your photograph, if you want to feel like a celebrity then this is the place for you! Maybe this is just because I live in a relatively small town, but I don’t think I have been anywhere in China where the people aren’t genuinely friendly. It is such a contrast to back home where, my tiny little village aside, smiles are most often met with a blank face at best and a suspicious look at worst. It’s just the British way, but I much prefer to walk through life smiling outwardly and receiving smiles in return.
3. Everyone wants to help you: Not only are Chinese people incredibly friendly but they also have the most generous spirits. They are so helpful it is almost unbelievable, and they don’t want anything for it. No matter if you are friends or complete strangers they will help you and expect nothing in return, except maybe a WeChat add. I actually had a shop assistant insist on helping me pick a deodorant only last week. I know it is their job, but where in the U.K. could you go and have someone actively try and help you pick out a deodorant without it being considered ‘a little bit weird”? Obviously, I needed no help in this task and yet I received it anyway, I already knew what deodorant I wanted before I went in there to buy it, but how do you explain that when your Mandarin level is below beginner? I also walked out with a VIP card so no complaints here!
4. The food: Unpopular opinion but I am not a fan of traditional British food. I find it bland, boring and mostly fully of meat, the only British tradition I am partial to is maybe “Chip Shop Chips” and even then, I would never say I crave them. In China finding vegetarian food is so easy and it’s not just a boring old salad like everywhere in the U.K. seems to want to feed us vegetarians. My first choice in just about every restaurant is, of course, egg fried rice but I have also found a love for Hot Pot (just don’t pick the spicy option), Chinese BBQ (grilled garlic aubergine and spicy tofu is incredible) and my new favourite meal Egg and Tomato. This is served everywhere from the canteen to higher end restaurants and I have even learnt to cook it for myself, I love it that much! The food in China is just some of the best food I have ever eaten. I eat so much healthier here and I actually want to cook for myself. For once in my life I’m not living off of pasta, grated cheese and tomato ketchup (although I’m not going to lie, there is always a bottle of ketchup in the fridge for emergencies).
5. Cost of living: Honestly, I am not lying when I say I earn next to no money, I am an intern after all, but my small monthly allowance is more than enough to live on and that is taking into account my ridiculous shopping addiction! I can do a weekly shop for around ten pounds if I am smart about it. If you know where to look for it, fruit and veg are so cheap it feels like stealing. I take away plain rice from the canteen for no cost every day to use when I cook my evening meal and even eating out never costs more than a tenner at a time (I’ve even seen us have a meal for two for under a fiver)! Everything is cheaper here, even alcohol; a cocktail can cost as little as three pound and there are no entry fees for clubs or bars. I get my nails done every few weeks, something I would never be able to afford back in the U.K. but here it only costs about six pounds! The cost of living in China made the decision to stay here all that easier.
6. Public Transport: This is something else that is amazingly cheap here in China, but not at the sacrifice of quality or cleanliness. I have used the subway, busses and DiDi (China’s answer to Uber) to get around in China and all three have been pleasant experiences. My most used form of transportation is probably the bus, it is cheaper than DiDi and there is no subway in Sanxiang as it is not a big enough town for such a luxury. The bus costs about 50 – 80p to travel between towns, some of which are about an hour away from us here in Sanxiang (imagine getting the bus from Aberdeen to Dundee for 80p). The busses are always on time, clean and they are, possibly most importantly, air conditioned! Take note First Bus and Stagecoach, China knows how to run a bus service.
7. Speaking Mandarin: I think learning another language is probably a plus side no matter where you choose to live abroad but honestly nothing makes me happier than when I say a full sentence (well an almost full sentence) to one of my students in Mandarin and I watch it blow their little minds! “Teacher you spoke Chinese!” and then they start talking to me one hundred miles an hour in Mandarin and I have to try and tell them that actually “Teacher only knows that one sentence in Chinese and now I have no idea what you are saying to me.” In all seriousness though I have never been the best when it comes to learning languages, despite really wanting to be able to, so when I pick up on random words or phrases that Chinese people around me are saying I feel like I have really achieved something. I am still nowhere near even being able to have a conversation in Mandarin and don’t even ask me to read the characters, but the longer I stay here the more I will pick up and it is definitely one of the best things about living and working in China.
8. There is so much to explore: I have been in China three and a half months and I have visited three of its provinces, I have barely scratched the surface of what this incredible country has to offer. Of the three provinces I have travelled to each one has me with a completely new and different experience. Firstly, there was my week in Beijing for orientation, this was a big city experience like I have never had before. from the bright lights to the crowded markets, the incredible great wall of china to the peaceful gardens of the Forbidden City; Beijing was a month of experiences packed into one week. Then there is the unreal natural beauty of Zhangjiajie Natural Forest Park in the province of Hunan. Sandstone Quartz pillars as far as the eye can see and more rain forest than anyone person could hope to explore in one life time all make Zhangjiajie feel like another planet and don’t forget the imminent threat of a monkey ambush to keep you on your toes. Finally, we have my current home province of Guangdong, I am discovering more and more about this area of China every day. I am still finding stumbling upon new places in my own town of Sanxiang let alone the bigger cities of Zhuhai, Zhongshan and Guangzhou. How can I leave now when China still has so much more to offer?!
9. I feel inspired here: I have always been a creative person, I didn’t choose to study a creative subject to pay the bills, but I had fallen out of love with my creative side back home. Maybe this is what happens when you work so hard at one thing for a long period of time (try six years of studying art and design in the same city you grew up in), but I think I just desperately needed a change of scenery. China definitely has no shortage of inspiration, whether that be for photography, blog post or any other creative projects I manage to sink my teeth into while I’m here! Living in China has definitely allowed me to revisit my creative side from a different angle and I find myself actively searching for places to go in my spare time that allow me to practice my photography, write an interesting blog post or even create exciting content for a video.
10. No two days are the same: When I tell people I teach the same lesson plan twenty times a week to roughly eight hundred students I guess I can understand why they might think my life can become a bit repetitive at times but every day is a completely different experience. What works in one class might be a complete disaster in another, what keeps one class entertained for forty minutes might only hold another classes attention for ten minutes and it is through these challenges that I find myself constantly motivated. At home I think I had fallen into a rut, working four or five days a week and spending at least the other two or three (if not more) in one bar or another, occasionally a club if we were feeling particularly adventurous. I’m not saying I hated my life at home or that I wasn’t having fun but I knew the world had more to offer me than this and I also knew that I had more to offer the world. “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” Maybe one page is enough for some people but for me, I need to fill the book and then start a new one.
So there we have it, I’m staying in China! Not forever, there are too many countries out there for me to pick just one and stick to it, but for now if you need me this is where I’ll be…
Moving to a completely new country can be a terrifying idea. Leaving everything and everyone you know behind, packing up and moving your whole life to another part of the world might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for some it might be exactly the right move (pun not intended). I’ve been living in China for three months now and while I might not be an expert on all things relocating related, I like to think I have learnt a thing or two in the past couple of months. If you are trying to decide if moving abroad is for you and want some words of worldly wisdom then, well, I guess that’s why you clicked on this post (unless you are just my number one fan and read everything I post on here… Hi mum!) so keep on reading to find out how to do it and why you should!
How to do it:
The first thing you need to decide is what you want to do in your destination country. You can do almost anything you do in the you home country abroad; from waiting on tables to working in a hotel to teaching to volunteer work. Really if you have the skill then you can take it and apply it anywhere. One of the easiest and most common ways to relocate yourself is to become TEFL qualified. This is exactly what I did, and it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I got my TEFL qualification through I-to-I TEFL, completing their 120-hour online course all from the comfort of my own home, various coffee shops around Aberdeen and my good friend Hannah’s front room (cheers again Hannah for letting me sofa surf). Pretty much, adding TEFL to your skill set isn’t going to do anything apart from open up your options in terms of what countries you can choose to work in.
Speaking of, the next thing you need to decide is where you want to move to. When I was trying to decide on a place to travel to my plan was originally to go to Thailand, this didn’t work out due to timing issues but luckily second on my list was China and this worked out perfectly for me. Depending on what you choose to do abroad, the options of where you can move to will vary (there isn’t really much need for TEFL qualified individuals in America now is there?) but that is all part of the fun of researching your destination country. My original plan was one year of TEFL in China and Vietnam and then waitressing/bar working my way around Australia. That plan has changed slightly but my point is think about what your skills are and where you can apply them and choose the destination that best suits you. Another important factor is also, obviously, where in the world has always fascinated you, what culture interests you the most and what do you want to get out of your time living and working abroad? All of these things should affect your decision, I started with the idea of moving to South East Asia because visiting this part of the world has been at the top of my to do list since I was in secondary school (literally I made a binder on it and everything) and let it grow arms and legs from there until I ended up teaching English in the South of China!
I recommend finding yourself a company to apply for jobs through if you are planning to teach English. I-to-I are partnered with a company called ImmerQi who specialise in teaching internships and other work placements in China. From providing a week orientation in Beijing to the help and support throughout my placement (Ben I hope you are still reading these because this is the genuine and sincere shout out that you have been so desperately waiting for) they have been excellent! If it is your first time working abroad then going through a company like ImmerQi gives you that little bit of extra reassurance in case something goes wrong. It also means you have someone to fight in your corner if things aren’t up to scratch at your placement or like me you need a meal allowance because you are allergic to everything in the canteen .
Visas, they are a pain in the back side but an important and mandatory part of moving abroad, so what are you going to do? Apply for them, that’s what!! And don’t make my mistake and leave planning your visa application to the last minute. Honestly it was one of the most stressful months of my life! Even if you can’t apply for your visa until a month before you leave, make sure you get all of your documents organised and ready to go for when you need them. Your company should tell you what you need to do in order to apply for your visa, whether it is a placement company like ImmerQi or your new employer, it is in their best interest as well as yours that your visa is present and correct. Also, this probably won’t be their first time employing someone from overseas, so they are really the best people to ask all the technical questions to. Another invaluable source of information is the embassy you are applying for your visa through, I phoned the Chinese embassy in Britain multiple times and even ended up emailing back and forth with them to make sure everything was perfect in my application before I sent it off, Visa applications are expensive and non-refundable you do not want to mess them up!
It is sad but true, we can’t get anywhere without a little bit of money to help us along. As well as a bit of help from family members, I worked as a waitress from October to January to save up enough money to make my dream of travelling the world a reality. Everything adds up so keep track of what you have paid off and what still needs to be paid. Flights, visas, vaccinations and insurance are the most expensive costs that you will have to deal with when moving abroad, they are also the most important and should be at the top of your list. After these are dealt with you need to think about spending money, you probably won’t receive your first pay check until a month after you arrive at your destination country, so you will need a little bit of money to live on until you do eventually get paid. Then you need to buy a rucksack, first aid kit and a travel organiser (trust me this is an essential if, like me, you have a tendency to misplace important things…) Once all of this is out of the way then you can go and buy that perfect bikini or sundress to take with you to your new tropical destination.
I absolutely hate packing, I overpack like my life depends on it, I’m a “but what if I’m suddenly invited to the Oscars of China and I have nothing to wear” kind of packer. Basically, my years as a girl guide had a lasting impression on me and I like to “always be prepared”. The issue with this is that you end up with a rucksack that weighs more than you and won’t close without excessive force that you somehow have to get from one side of the world to the other. Not ideal, especially if you are travelling alone! It is in times like this I need to bring in outside help and as my Grampa wisely pointed out “you only need to pack for two weeks really, and then you can just wash everything and wear it again”. Words of wisdom duly noted and with my Nana supervising and questioning everything I tried to pack into my bag I managed to pack only the essentials. Anything you find yourself needing once you land can most likely be bought at your destination (I told you I needed to pack my blue denim shorts as well as my white denim shorts Nana…) or if they can’t be bought then they can always be posted over by a family member, if you really need it that desperately!
Why you should:
Living in a completely different country is such an incredible opportunity. China is actually the second country I have lived in, Scotland obviously not included, I spent three months living and volunteering in South Africa. When you visit a country for a short holiday you only get a snapshot of how that country works, maybe pick up how to say “Hello” and ask for the bill in that countries language and maybe have a cultural experience or two depending on the type of holiday you choose to take. Living in a country for an extended period of time allows you to truly immerse yourself in the culture. For me the thing that appeals most to me about travel is the opportunity to learn about another culture, this is why pool holidays or Ibiza has never really interested me. Before South Africa I had been on one holiday abroad and it was a pool holiday with a friend and her family when I was 16; I had a lot of fun on that holiday (I think because of the company and it was where I discovered my love of tofu) but I wasn’t involved in any of the planning, there was no sight-seeing and I didn’t feel like I learnt anything from my time there. At 18 years old and three months in South Africa later I knew what kind of “holiday” I preferred; solo, action packed and plenty of opportunity to learn about the country I am visiting.
Moving away from everything familiar is also an opportunity to learn about yourself. This is especially true if you travel on your own, being solely responsible for yourself in a foreign country makes you learn a lot about yourself very quickly. Travelling alone for a long period of time means you have to learn to rely on yourself, your own sense of judgement and puts you fully in control of your own life. In South Africa I learned a lot about how to budget my money while travelling, I became a lot more confident in myself as time went on (the first night I arrived I cried myself to sleep, I had never felt so alone, by the time I it came leave I wanted to cry because I didn’t want to go) and I discovered that I could do a lot more on my own than I had thought possible. Since then I have achieved so many things that I don’t believe I could have done if it wasn’t for those three months in South Africa. In China I have discovered that I have a keen interest in language and how different languages grow and develop over time, I have realised that I am actually quite brave (turns out I am the only one in my flat that isn’t scared of cockroaches, who’d have thought?!) and I have found a job that I absolutely love!
Working and volunteering abroad forms some of the strongest friendships you can find in this world. I have made some incredible friends and even more incredible memories from my time in South Africa. Thinking of those memories and friends will always make me happy no matter where I am in my life. When the opportunity comes to meet up with those you formed friendships with while living abroad it will be as if no time has passed, you know a friendship is solid when you only see each other every four years but it’s as if you only saw them yesterday (Hey Lynda, if you are reading this, two year until the next reunion)! When you live and work so closely with people who are just as far away from home as you are, are completely new to the whole experience just like you are and share the same passion for travel as you do, how can you not end with friends for life?!
I hope this has been helpful for somebody out there, I know I could have done with a post like this before I left the U.K. for South Africa back in 2012, but I don’t even think I knew what a blog post was back then… Feel free to email me with any questions you might have about moving abroad or teaching English as a foreign language!
Our last day in Zhangjiajie was also our worst weather wise, not ideal considering our chosen activity for the day was Tianmen Mountain which is more suited to a warm sunny day than the wet and cold day we were stuck with. We decided to give it a go anyway, we had known this was going to be our worst day in terms of weather when we booked the tickets and you never know when the sun is going to break through the clouds here in China (seriously, one minute it is chucking it down with rain, thunder, lighting, the whole lot and then you blink, and it is glorious sunshine, blink again and the ground is completely dry!).
Tianmen Mountain offers two ticket options; option one is to start at the Stairway to Heaven and then take the escalator the rest of the way up the Mountain and the cable car back down, option two is to do the opposite and start with the cable car. We chose option two, we figured we’d done enough walking up concrete stairs for one week, walking down seemed like the much preferable option. We were advised to go for the earlier ticket time as the queues can get very long in the afternoon, and I have to say that even in the morning the queue took about half an hour to get through! The Tianmen Mountain tourist information boasts its cableway as the longest cable car in the world; the journey takes around half an hour and, despite the rain, it was a spectacular way to view the city. The lower cable car station is located right in the centre of Zhangjiajie city passing over the bus station, houses, train station and even takes you over a smaller mountain first. All before the ascent to Tianmen Mountain even begins.
About ten minutes before the end of the cable car line we realised the main disadvantage of our weather situation, the cable car began rocking in the wind and then, slowly, we entered the cloud that had draped itself over the summit of Tianmen Mountain. From here all we saw was the occasional cable car appear out of the fog periodically and pass by us on the right-hand side disappearing back into the fog; until we reached the top of the Mountain, where we saw the occasional human appear out of the fog. The minute we stepped off the cable car we were hit by the freezing cold wind that was circling the summit. I made a B-line for the concession stand to buy myself a woolly hat, predicting that my two jackets and thick jumper just might not be enough for what was waiting outside of the centre. Best two pounds fifty I ever spent!
Our main attraction for Tianmen Mountain were the glass walkways that could be found at various points around the summit so, given the fact it was about 2 degrees Celsius, we decided to head straight towards which ever one was closest. I can only describe the view from here as a wall of pure white cloud. I imagine there is an almost straight drop underneath the walkways, which on any other day would have left me as petrified as the previous day on the glass bridge, but with the clouds safely masking the truth from sight I managed to stroll across the walkway as if I was walking on solid ground.
We didn’t hang around long after this, the wind was bitterly cold and the warmth of pretty much anywhere was the only thing any of us could really think about. We decided to head back down the mountain and relax for the rest of our day, agreeing that we all deserved a rest after such a busy week. I have to say that of all the experiences Zhangjiajie has to offer, an escalator through a mountain has to be one of the more bizarre experiences I encountered on this trip. Just the thought of an escalator inside a mountain seems a bit surreal, but it exists and I’ve taken it.
As you exit the escalator you find yourself in Tianmen cave, a naturally formed archway through the mountain that is around 430 feet tall. The cave leads out to “The Stairway to Heaven”; the stairway has an incredible 999 concrete steps built into the mountain-side and it is ridiculously steep (not ideal when it’s been raining for the better half of two days and you are as clumsy as I am)!
A shuttle bus service is provided from the bottom of “The Stairway to Heaven” back down to the cable car station in the centre of town and is included in your Tianmen Mountain ticket. The shuttle bus route takes you along the 99 bend road and, let’s just say, you’ll never be more glad to have a seatbelt securing you to your seat than when you are whizzing down this steep and winding road…
On our third day in Hunan we travelled to the Grand Canyon of Zhangjiajie and the Glass bridge that is suspended over it. This is about an hour bus journey from where we were staying and was not included in our National Forrest Park ticket. We decided to check out of our hostel in the valley and move to a hostel closer to the airport and Tianmen mountain for the last two days of our trip. The hostel staff allowed us to leave our luggage with them while we were out for the day as we weren’t relocating until the evening and also allowed me to put my DSLR camera behind the check in desk as you aren’t allowed cameras on the Glass Bridge (honestly I cannot recommend this hostel enough if you are visiting Zhangjiajie, they are super helpful and friendly and they have a dog… what more could you ask for?).
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous for this particular day, I have a slight fear of heights and the idea of walking over a bridge entirely made of glass was giving me a bit of worry. We allowed ourselves half a day for the bridge and canyon combined, as we had a trip to Baofeng lake planned for the afternoon. If you can I would recommend giving yourself a full day for this experience as there is a lot to pack in! When arriving at the bridge make sure to enter within your allocated time slot that you were given when booking your ticket, the tickets are split into different entry times throughout the day to control the flow of people that pass over the bridge at a time. We were told that it was easy enough to change your time slot once you arrived at the entrance but we were rushed through the barriers in order to get through our gate at the right time, so I am not sure how true this actually is, in any case better safe than sorry. Once you are in, however, you can spend as much time on the bridge as you feel necessary, we ended up on there for an hour!!
Although named “the Glass Bridge” the reality is only sections of the bridge are glass. The rest is solid metal and I have to say I was kind of glad of this considering my fear of heights. It took me a little while to get used to but eventually, with the help of Justin, Mat and Karin, I managed to ease my way onto one of the glass sections of the bridge. Everything about standing that high up and being able to see teeny tiny people directly underneath your feet feels completely wrong, but it was an absolutely incredible experience at the same time! As is the norm in China we were stopped by multiple Chinese tourists and asked for our photographs, the boys’ gymnastics drew in quite a crowd, and of course we obliged, even stopping to have a chat with one of the guys who seemed just as excited to be talking to us as he was to be on the glass bridge.
While the bridge is the main attraction of Zhangjiajie’s Grand Canyon, it is far from all it has to offer. Once off the bridge you make the long descent down into the canyon itself. About half way down there is the option to take an elevator the rest of the way, since we were on a time limit we decided to take this option (really a missed opportunity for a glass elevator if you ask me). From the canyon floor the bridge looks ridiculously high up! The silhouettes of the people walking across the glass sections appear to be no larger than ants and the stark contrast of their black outlines against the overcast sky was staggering.
This is where the true natural beauty of the Canyon begins to reveal itself. First with a waterfall that has burst it’s way through the side of the canyon wall appearing, as if from nowhere, about half way from the top. From this point every corner we turned revealed another surprise; from turquoise blue water to a zip line over the river and an ornate stone bridge to “Smuggler’s Cave”, all finally leading to a boat ride out of the canyon itself. This really is a full day out and somehow we managed to squeeze it all into half a day!
Baofeng lake was formed when the faults leading into the area were sealed up with concrete and the water level was allowed to rise. It is about 72 meters deep on average and covers around 15 hectares. It looks like a scene straight out of “Jurassic Park”; the water is an unbelievable shade of blue and the sand stone quartz pillars that Zhangjiajie is famous for tower above the lake, making it a walled off paradise on a good day. Even though it was overcast when we visited, the emerald green/turquoise water was still enough to take your breath away! The best way to see the lake is by taking a tour boat that lasts around 30 minutes, just don’t expect to understand anything unless you are fluent in Mandarin. Really though it was enough to just sit back and take in the beauty of the scenery, and the occasional Chinese folk singer who appeared from wooden huts on the lake as the boat drifted past…
After such a packed day the day before we didn’t think Zhangjiajie could possibly have anything left to blow our minds with, we were wrong…
We set off early taking a public bus from the centre of town to the Jinbian Stream gate of the National Forrest Park. The bus stops just outside of the entrance to the park, giving us a five-minute walk to slowly take in what we were approaching. From this side of the park the sandstone quartz pillars tower above the main gates and stand in stark contrast to the sky making them look like a painted set from a movie.
As you enter the park the first thing you come across is a beautiful garden that opens up to a fully uninterrupted view of the peaks. From here we had two choices, walk along the valley floor by the Golden Whip stream to where we had ended our day yesterday or climb one of the stone pillars. We decided to climb the pillar (despite not actually knowing how long it took or where it ended up). Before we started climbing I thought it would be a good idea to have a quick snack. My first mistake was not checking my surroundings; seconds after opening my snickers bar I saw it, a huge monkey started making its way towards me, slowly at first but then it picked up the pace. Being the stubborn human I am, I was determined not to waste my snickers bar, I took one big bite and threw the remainder as far from me as I possibly could! This satisfied the larger monkey who chased it off into the bushes but then I had to get passed his two friends sitting on the stone steps in front of me. Despite the fact I had visibly thrown my chocolate snack far from myself, these monkeys looked ready to search my backpack for anything else that might be edible within it. I took a deep breath and, hiding behind friend the whole way, ran past them as they were distracted by a group of Chinese tourists.
This was perhaps the hottest day of our trip and the shade of the trees seemed to do nothing to stifle the heat. The Chinese love hiking, but it is not hiking like we would think of it; every trail is marked by steep concrete steps that seem to go on forever as they disappear into the trees, this makes it almost impossible to know exactly how much further is left to go. After about an hour of walking we came across a fork in the path and luckily met some Chinese tourists on their way back down the mountain; they advised us to take the path leading to Huangshi Village as it would give us “the second-best view in the whole park” (the first being the Avatar Mountain view that we had seen the day before).
It took us another hour to climb to the top of Huangshizhai (there is a toilet near the fork in the road… I advise using it if you need to as there isn’t another one until the top. Don’t make the same mistake I did! I was too scared there were going to be large bugs inside to check it out). We had been warned the whole way up that there were monkeys waiting to pounce on anyone with a backpack and after my experience at the bottom and Karin being jumped on by a monkey the previous day we took that warning seriously! We found out that this warning was maybe a slight exaggeration when we reached the top; the monkeys were definitely interested in us, but they did not appear to be aggressive or after us in any way. Justin even managed to befriend one and it trusted us enough to eat right out of our hands. It was so gentle and just sat on the fence reaching into our palms for a nut when we offered it. In the end we drew quite a crowd of people all lining up to feed this monkey and eventually more monkeys showed up, we took this as our que to move on and check out more of the viewing points.
Huangshi Village is a loop of the top of Huangshizhai pillar that offers a view of the sandstone quarts pillars from just about every angle. Seeing the park from so many angles really gives you a scale of just how big it is! The loop takes around half an hour to complete if you don’t stop at every point and at one section you can even see across to the Natural bridge where we had been the day before.
There is the option to either take a cable car down or if you aren’t too tired from the way up there is a different path down the mountain that leads back to the same entrance we came in. We chose to take the path down as it is 72 yuan to take the cable car. This seems to be the unpopular option as we hardly saw another person on the way down and the path is definitely less travelled than the way up with moss growing between the stairs and even a bridge that had been almost completely reclaimed by the forest. It took us around an hour to reach the bottom and from there we decided to go for a short walk along the river. We spent about half an hour relaxing next to the river before catching the bus back to our hostel.
This was my favourite day in Zhangjiajie just because of how relaxed the day was, we didn’t feel the need to rush anywhere and there was plenty to do and see at Huangshi Village. Having the opportunity to feed a wild monkey on the top of a sandstone pillar in China alone puts this at the top of my list of favourite days full stop! It was just a once in a life time experience! “He who fails to climb Huangshizhai, need not have come to Zhangjiajie”.
The 5th of April marked the Tomb Sweeping festival in China, as a result our school here in Sanxiang was closed from the 2nd to the 6thof April (to allow people to travel home and celebrate the festival, which involves visiting ancestors and burning paper offerings for them to enjoy in the afterlife). They call this a holiday in China but it’s not a holiday as we might imagine it back home. In order for the school to be closed for five days during the week it had to be open both the weekend before and the weekend after the festival so that the kids didn’t miss any education time. This means a seven-day work week, a five-day break and then another seven-day work week. As you read this I am at the end of my seven-day long week and, if I’m being honest, it actually passed by pretty quickly, so I can’t complain. Our five-day break was completely jam packed and maybe not the relaxing holiday that some people might choose to sandwich between two long weeks of 9 – 5 work, but it was exactly what we were looking for!
Zhangjiajie is home to the sandstone quartz mountain pillars that were the inspiration behind the planet of Pandora in James Cameron’s “Avatar” and to visit it’s national forest park is to feel as if you have truly been transported to another world. As far as the eye can see the pillars extend into the haze of the jungle’s rising mist, from the top of these peaks the bottom of the valley is indistinguishable from the tops of trees that look small enough to be held on one finger. Wrapping your head around the scale of this landscape is not easy, it takes the eyes a while to adjust to just how high up you actually are.
We arrived in Zhangjiajie late on Sunday night/early on Monday morning and after a small confusion with airport pick-ups and check in times we were shown to our rooms for the night. We managed to fit in a couple of hours sleep before being up at nine thirty to begin exploring. The staff at our Hostel were so helpful, organising our tickets and supplying us with a map of the park before we set off in the morning. They told us how to squeeze everything we wanted to do into our short amount of time in Zhangjiajie, where the best viewing spots were and what days were best to do what activities on! The rooms had everything we needed, we chose to stay in the dormitories, and you could order an extra mattress for your bed if you found it to hard (to be honest if you are not used to Chinese mattresses I would recommend doing this when you check in). If you are thinking of heading to Zhangjiajie yourself then I couldn’t recommend them enough and I have linked their website below if you want to check them out!
The main park entrance was only a five-minute walk from our Hostel past a busy little street of market stalls and small restaurants. We decided to stop here for some breakfast and to stock up on snacks for the day before heading to the park gate. From there you could catch a bus to just about any spot you wanted to visit in the park. We started our day by catching the cable car to the top of the sandstone quartz peaks and the views from the cable car were absolutely incredible. From here we caught another bus through the mountains to the first viewing point which gave as a panoramic of the mountains with pink blossoms framing the landscape perfectly.
The next stop was the walk up to Tianbo Mansion which boasts one of the best views of the peaks in the park. The walk totalled about one and a half hours, up and down, including multiple stops for photographs and a break for some spicy tofu in the shade of one of the many food vendors. For the most part this walk was fairly easy, if steep in places, but the last five to ten minutes involved an arrangement of metal ladders that had been welded to the side of one of the stone peaks. It was well worth the climb though with a 360 view of the mountains and forest below them. For a small while we even had the top of the peak to ourselves, a secluded island in a sea of trees and tourists.
After this I thought “there is no way the views can get better”, turns out I was wrong. The next and final stop for the day was the famous “Avatar Hallelujah Mountains”. This was the longest walk of the day, we had been told we needed three and a half hours to complete it, we did it in two and a half. The walk started much like the others had that day with a collection of souvenir stalls and places to buy food, but it soon faded out into a wash of reds mixed into greens of the trees as we approached “the natural bridge”. Red ribbons with wishes written on them were tied to any free branch, beam or fence post with the belief that a higher power will grant them. With a slight breeze blowing gently around the mountain top and the sunlight dappling the path through the trees as we walked along it, it definitely felt like if a wish was going to come true anywhere, it would be here.
As we crossed back over “the natural bridge” we saw exactly how it got it’s name and, to be honest, my stomach did a mini flip as I realised what I had just walked over. Two peaks are joined by a thin, in comparison to the peaks themselves, natural walkway of sandstone that crosses above the sheer drop into the forest below.
Rounding the corner we were greeted by the “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain” itself, marked by one of the blue “mountain banshee” creatures from the film waiting to welcome visitors into the area. Not alone on top of the peak, the “mountain banshee” had plenty of company in the form of Macaque monkeys that took advantage of the tourists and their food. They were not afraid of us at all and I even witnessed one dive bomb a man in order to steal his cake, plastic wrap and all (they are to Zhanjiajie what seagulls are to Aberdeen, only maybe slightly cuter).
From this point there was the option to take a cable car down to the bottom of the peaks or to walk down the steep steps into the valley. We chose to do the latter, purely because we didn’t want to pay the 72 yuan it cost to take the cable car. This turned out to be the best decision we could have made because as we began our decent we were treated to the most fantastic view of the day. Dozens of sandstone quartz peaks with forest running through them like rivers of green stretched out before us as far as we could see and we were the only people there to see it!
It took us about half an hour to get to the bottom of the valley, from which we could finally see the scale of where we had just been. On all sides we were surrounded by stone peaks towering above us like the skyscrapers of London or New York City. A river ran through the valley and we stopped for a while to take in the scenery, fully believing that there was no way we would make the last bus back to the hostel at half six. We followed the river between the peaks and finally in ones and twos started to see other people heading in the same directions, maybe we would make the bus after all.
About ten minutes from the end of the path we came across another group of Macaques, with a lot less people around to distract them from our presence one monkey took quite an interest in us and actually ended up on top of Karin’s head, leaving me with no idea what to do and my bananas were about one hundred meters back in Justin’s back pack. So for about five minutes Karin stood with a monkey on her head while I panicked about it doing a pooh in her hair! Finally the boys caught up and unfortunately I lost a whole bunch on bananas to the Macaques of Zhangjiajie’ National Forest Park.
Traumatising monkey experience over all that was left to do was walk back to the bus and try to process the incredible first day we had just experienced. We’re still not entirely sure how we managed to do a three and a half hour walk in just two and a half hours but somehow we did and I had the sore feet to prove it!
Most people who know me will know how difficult I am to feed. I was diagnosed with Coeliac Disease at the age of eight; this means I cannot eat gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and (indirectly through cross contamination in mills) oats. When I told people I was moving to China for five months one of the most common responses I received was “China?! But you can’t eat noodles or soy sauce. What are you going to eat?!” I’m not going to lie this was a concern for me as well, I never eat Chinese food at home because the risk of contamination is usually too high. Add to that the obvious language barrier and well, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
Having said all of that, I have never let my Coeliac Disease stop me from travelling before and I wasn’t about to let it stop me this time either. After a conversation with the ImmerQi team here in China, via skype, I was reassured that food would not be an issue. On arrival in Beijing we were each handed a name card along with our room key, on the back of mine was a hand-written note explaining in both English and Chinese that I am allergic to gluten (still not entirely sure everyone in China knows what gluten is but it seems to have served me well so far). I used this every day in the canteen in Beijing and they knew exactly what I meant.
I was placed in a Southern Province of China, I assume this because in the South it is more common for people to eat rice than noodles. As part of my placement meals are provided by the school cafeteria, I found after the first week that this was a bit of a hit or a miss for me in terms of what I could actually eat so I decided to apply for a meal allowance from the school instead. This was initially turned down. I applied a second and the this was accepted, thanks to the efforts of my awesome ImmerQi contact Ben and my wonderful school contact Rani. I will now receive a food allowance along with my living allowance that is already provided as part of my internship on the fifteenth of every month.
Healthy cooking for myself
My egg fried rice
Eating at restaurants has been an interesting experience, I find myself spending more time asking “can I eat that?” than actually eating anything. It’s a long process but eventually you get a meal out of it, even if everyone else is finished by the time yours arrives. It helps to have someone with you who speaks Mandarin if you don’t speak it yourself, this way you don’t spend the whole meal trying to communicate through google translate (not to put down google translate because I have to say it can be an absolute life saver in some situations).
I think the key to being a Coeliac in China is to have patience; be prepared to explain yourself, sometimes multiple times, it’s just one of those things. Coeliac disease and gluten intolerances aren’t really a well-known thing in China like they are becoming in the Western World. Also, it helps if you like rice…
Some tips for a travelling Coeliac (whether you are travelling to China or France, Tanzania or Morocco):
Before you leave the country visit this website http://www.celiactravel.com/cards/they have an explanation of Coeliac disease translated in just about every language. Print a few out so you can hand them to your servers in restaurants. I have been using them since I went to Portugal in 2010!
If you don’t have the card with you have “I am allergic to gluten” saved as one of your top phrases on google translate and LEARN IT! Before you go, while you’re there, up to you but if you can say it and show it then people are much more likely to take you seriously when you say you can’t eat something.
If it doesn’t look gluten free, it probably isn’t. Don’t risk it! There is absolutely nothing worse than being glutened abroad, especially if, like me, you tend to travel alone. Try explaining to 3 people you just met why you need full use of the bathroom for the next hour…
Be prepared. I always have snacks on me; not just because I like to snack but because if we go out to eat and it turns out there is nothing there for me, at least I have a back-up to keep me going until I can find a proper meal
This time last month was my first day in Sanxaing, I know I keep saying it, but I cannot believe how quickly time is going here. The last month has been an absolute blur of experiences but I am going to try my best to put them into words.
Our first week started with us finding a true hero, that hero is called Jack and he also works here in San Xin Bilingual school as an English teacher. We found Jack in a crowded cafeteria when I spotted the only other white person in the room and we descended upon his table like moths to a flame. He was then bombarded with the same set of questions twice as those of us at the end of the table struggled to hear the conversation. Luckily for us this was somehow not an off-putting experience for Jack and he has become our guide, translator, handy man, rice pudding chef and an invaluably useful friend to have around. He has helped us so much, we probably should have paid him some kind of fee to be honest! First stop on Jack’s guided tour of Sanxaing was a trip down the main road next to the school. Although affectionately known as “Death Alley” (due to the sheer volume of traffic, including busses, that somehow squeezes itself through the narrow street along-side pedestrians) by the foreign teachers we were quickly reassured that no one has actually died there… to the best of their knowledge. Here you can find everything you need; grocery stores, hairdressers, E-bike shops, coffee shops, the lot!
Next on to the main market street which runs on weekends, and then down to the shopping mall. This has everything from a two-story supermarket to a cinema, a KFC to more traditional restaurants and even a small arcade. Dinner was an experience that I’m sure no one will be forgetting in a hurry. Spicy Hero is a hot pot restaurant near the mall and really the clue is in the name, order spicy you will get spicy!! We ordered a mild spice soup for the vegetarians and plain soup for the meat eaters, but mild spice at Spicy Hero is anything but mild. I have never been reduced to actual tears by a meal before but here I was bright red, sweating and shivering at the same time and despite my best efforts eyes watering like someone was cutting onions under my nose. We took about two full cups of chillies and chilli oil out of that soup added litres of new water to it but in the end, we had to admit defeat and switch to plain soup. Mild spice in China is not the same as mild spice in Britain… lesson learnt!
That weekend we made the forty-five minute bus journey into Zhongshan, the neighbouring town, to visit some of the other interns and to see the Lantern Festival that marks the end of the Spring Festival celebrations. The festival took place in Sun Wen Memorial Park in Zhongshan which had been filled with lanterns of all shapes and sizes. Unfortunately, we missed the fireworks, but it was still incredible to see the park lit up completely by lanterns and LED lights. There are many theories as to the origin of the lantern festival, but its roots can be traced back almost 2000 years and it is most commonly believed to be linked to the reign of Emperor Ming of Han and the rise of Buddhism in China. In the past it was most likely that the lanterns would have been of simple design and would have probably been red to symbolise good luck going into the new year. Now the lanterns are shaped into everything from animals to buildings as well as the more traditional simple designs.
A trip to one of Sanxaing’s hot spring resorts provided us with the most relaxing day. There was a pool for every flavour you can think of; vinegar, coffee, rose petal, lemon, wine, mint, the list goes on! For around £16 you have access to the hot spring, swimming pool, buffet and nap area for the whole day (provided you don’t leave the resort). They will even help you organise a car back into town, just be prepared to wait a little while for it to arrive…
Jack also introduced us to his friend Enrico who owns an Italian restaurant in the centre of Sanxaing. Between them they have shown us some of the best places to eat around town, but we always go back to Enrico’s, and why wouldn’t we with Nutella Pizza and Tiramisu on offer for desert!
One of my favourite days so far has to be when we climbed the hill at the back of our school for sunset. From the top you can see the whole of Sanxaing and it was one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen. The hike up only took us about an hour and for the most part there was a very clear path through the trees, only towards the end did it get a bit overgrown, but we made it through with a bit of effort. Coming down we got a little bit lost as I suggested we avoid the overgrown path in favour of a path that looked a bit more manageable in the dwindling light. Despite this diversion we did eventually make it home and joined up with the rest of the group to go bowling at the bottom of “Death Alley”.
There is still so much more to see and do here in Sanxaing and I cannot wait to experience all of it. There are probably things that I have done here already that I have missed out from this post just because this month has passed by me in such a blur. I am slowly starting to figure my way around the area and to be honest as quickly as it has gone, it also feels like I have been here my whole life at the same time. I don’t usually find it hard to settle into a place, but I didn’t really think I would feel as at home here as I do. This is my home now, for now at least.