TEFL Tip Tuesday: A Year of Teaching English, What Has it Taught Me?

A year ago today I landed in China, I had no idea what to expect. My original plan was to spend six months teaching in China and then move onto Vietnam. There I would spend another six months teaching and move onto Australia for a year before finally heading home to the U.K. It’s safe to say that isn’t exactly what happened. I fell in love with teaching English, fell in love with China and fell in love with the school I had been placed at. Now I don’t know when I’ll finally be heading home; I have just finished a year teaching in China and I am at the beginning of a six month contract in Myanmar. Teaching English has surprised me in how much it has taught me about the world we live in, about how language evolves and how to deal with unfamiliar situations and why they are not always a bad thing.

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Orientation week in Beijing

I travelled to China alone, this was not by mistake. I didn’t even try to convince anyone to come with me. When I made the decision to travel the world I did so with the conviction that I would be doing it alone! The reason behind this was not because I had no friends or because I was “travelling to find myself”. No, I chose to travel alone because I wanted to go and I wanted to go as soon as possible. I wasn’t about to wait for anyone to join me, who knew how long it would take to find someone willing to move themselves halfway around the world. I have always travelled alone, it’s the only way I knew and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right? This year has taught me that my belief in solo travel runs deep within me and that it gives me the freedom to go and do whatever I want to do while I’m travelling. On the reverse of that it has also taught me that sometimes it is nice to have a travel buddy or a friend to visit in a country. Making friends and travelling with them is part of the appeal of solo travel for many people, and without some of the friendships I have made this year I would not have done or seen some of the incredible things that I have.

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Travelling solo doesn’t mean you are always alone.

When it comes to the teaching side of things I could go on for days about how much it has taught me. If you have ever had the pleasure of being introduced to me in a bar after a drink or two you’ll know just how much I can talk about the advantages of TEFL, to the teacher and student alike! The most surprising thing I have learnt this year, and the thing that really should be the least surprising at all really, is how much I have learnt about the English language. I always enjoyed English at school and, despite my Dyslexia, it was always one of the subjects I performed best in, but since teaching English I have found myself more and more fascinated by how our complicated and at times completely irrational language came to be the way it is. English as a language honestly makes little to no sense unless you have grown up speaking it, this is something I have discovered this year and something I have discussed with my fellow teachers at length. I think to understand this allows you to become a better ESL teacher. It’s not just about having fun games and a lot of energy (although these things definitely help) if you understand how much English really doesn’t make sense sometimes then it will allow you to think about the language from a non-native speaker’s point of view. If you can do that then you are going to be a much better English teacher!

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Chaotic but we made it work.

I always say to my eighth grade students “Chinese is so difficult” and they always say to me “No, teacher English is so difficult” it’s become a bit of a pantomime call scenario at this point, we’ve come to the conclusion that both languages are difficult. As much as I teach them English they teach me new things about English daily by questioning the language. This forces me to really think about why we use a word the way we do or why some words are spelled the way they are when really they could be spelled completely differently (even while writing that sentence I had an inner-battle of spelled vs. spelt). Teaching English has made me better at English.

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Grade Eight Girls on my last day.

Teaching English as Foreign Language has put me into situations that are completely unfamiliar and unknown to me. I had never stepped into a classroom as anything but a student until I arrived in Sanxiang, China one year ago. I had no experience as a teacher and my experience of working with children amounted to weekend Pizza Parties at my part time job and a short stint as a Young Leader with my local Girl Guides unit. This year has pushed me out of my comfort zone completely and taught me how to handle situations that I would not have come into contact with had I not become an ESL Teacher. It has taught me how to think on the spot when my lesson plan finished ten minutes before the end of class, it has taught me how to be a role model to teenagers who I thought saw me as the very uncool foreign teacher when in fact they saw me as the cool foreign teacher with two cats (having my cats associated with my cool factor is always going to make me happy) and it showed me how taking an interest in the cultures and language of the countries you visit can completely change that experience for the friends you make there as well as yourself. Unfamiliar situations used to fill me with dread, the unknown was worse to me than knowing something bad was about to happen (mainly because if I didn’t know I would think of about twenty bad things that could happen and these would spiral until it was better just to not do anything) but now I find myself excited at the prospect of an unfamiliar situation or an unknown challenge. I have definitely learnt this year to trust myself and my judgement in these situations because more often than not they turn out to be the best kind of adventures.

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Outside your comfort zone is sometimes exactly where you need to be!

A year of teaching English has taught me that you can’t run away from problems, you have to face up to them and moving halfway across the world doesn’t make them go away. China has given me the confidence to stand up for myself, it has shown me what I am capable of and it has shown me that people value my time and opinion. Being asked by students and teachers alike if I will be returning to teach in Sanxiang made me happy and sad at the same time, to tell them I was leaving made me sad but to know they wanted me to stay made me happy. I made myself completely at home in China and although I had to leave I know it is not forever. Teaching in China taught me so much and I know it still has much more to teach me. Here’s to another year of TEFL and many more to come, whether that be in China, Myanmar or countries as of yet undecided!

For more TEFL tips why not check out one of these posts?

Harbin Ice Festival: The Three Main Parks and What They Have to Offer.

We arrived in Harbin on new Year’s Eve after a long and interesting journey by sleeper train. Once we had checked into our hotel and freshened up a bit, we decided to go for a walk down the main street to see if we could find a bar or a restaurant to spend the evening in and celebrate the changing of the year. The main street was beautifully decorated with fairy lights and lined with ice sculptures, some still a work in progress. Along this street you can also find high street stores, shopping malls, restaurants (yes there is a McDonald’s) and some of Harbin’s famous ice cream parlours. Apparently no trip Heilongjiang province is complete without ice cream and so, this is how we found ourselves in a bar at quarter to midnight ice cream in one hand and a drink in the other. I think the main appeal of Harbin ice cream is the novelty of eating it in sub-zero temperatures, but it is still really good ice cream so I do recommend giving it a try.

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Harbin Ice Cream
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The strongest Jack and Coke I’ve had in my life!

The ice festival in Harbin doesn’t actually start until the 5th of January so we travelled Yabuli for three days of snowboarding. Yabuli is located about three hours south of Harbin by train and is probably the most well-known Ski Town in China, boasting three major ski resorts. More about this in a later post though…

There are three main parks in the Harbin Ice Festival, two I would say are a must do and one that I would recommend you squeeze in if you have time but is not essential for the overall experience.

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The snow sculptures were indescribably impressive!

The first park I suggest you go to is Sun Island Snow Sculpture Competition and Scenic Area. My research told us that it was best to see this park during the day and I do agree with this but make sure that you stick around for sunset as seeing the large snow sculptures bathed in the orange glow of the setting sun was definitely one of my favourite things about this park. We arrived just before midday and left as the sun was setting around half past three, spending roughly four hours there in total. I don’t think you need four hours to see the whole park, you could probably see everything in around two and a half hours, but we spent a good amount of time warming up in the coffee shops that are scattered around the park. Another reason we were at this park for so long was because of the amount ice related entertainment on offer, they had everything from giant ice slides to ice bikes and sledging. I pretty much had to drag Justin away from the attractions before I froze to death!

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Sunset over the ice rink.
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One of my favourite features were the sculptures you could climb inside and become part of!
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He told me not to dab but I did it anyway…
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No such thing as too much fun!

Also on offer at this park, and included in your ticket, is a shuttle bus from the main entrance to various stops around the park and back again. We chose to walk around the park first and then got the shuttle bus back to the entrance  because when the sun goes down in Harbin the temperature starts to drop really quickly!

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Looking like a marshmallow is mandatory in subzero temperatures

The second must see park and main attraction of the Harbin Ice Festival is Ice and Snow world, also located on Sun Island. A popular option for visitors to Harbin is to do the Sun Island Scenic park and the Ice and Snow World park in the same day. This is definitely a good way to do it but is not necessary if you are in Harbin for more than two nights. We chose to do the parks on separate days as we had more than enough time in Harbin and didn’t want to feel too rushed.

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Ice and Snow World begins to impress before you’ve even made it through the gate!

Ice and Snow World has been on my China bucket list since I made the decision to come to China way back in 2017 and it did not disappoint. I have never seen anything quite as impressive as the ice sculptures in this park. Before we travelled to Harbin I watched a few videos online and read a couple of blog posts as research for our trip, but even that did not prepare me for the scale of this place! The park has everything from to-scale replicas of famous landmarks to rides and slides made from ice. There were towers of ice blocks as tall as a block of flats and actual castles made from ice! Words honestly cannot do this place enough justice and even in photos it is hard to appreciate the wonder that is Ice and Snow World. I would say two hours is probably enough time to walk around the park and, as with the Sun Island Snow Sculptures, there are plenty of place to nip inside and warm up when the cold starts to get too much. We arrived around seven in the evening and stayed until the park closed at half past eight, we would have arrived earlier but I could not figure out how to get there. My advice would be to flag down a taxi and just show them a picture of Ice and Snow World, this is what we ended up doing and it was far easier than trying to figure it out on google maps!!

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Replicas in ice form can be seen of famous landmarks such as the Roman Colosseum.
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The ice blocks are carved from nearby Songhua River.
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Fireworks over the Ice Sculptures of Ice and Snow World.
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The view from the highest point in the park is like nothing I have ever seen!

The third park I recommend taking a look at is Zhaolin Park. This park is free to enter and has more than 1,000 ice sculptures. These sculpture are more like what you would traditionally think of when someone mentions ice sculptures. Intricately carved designs lit up brilliantly with coloured lights line the pathways through the park; figures of animals, people and even an axe made up the art works alongside some smaller ice-block buildings. Don’t feel like you have to squeeze this one in if you are a bit short on time, it is worth checking out but there are ice sculptures dotted around all around the city so if you don’t make it to Zhaolin then you are still pretty much guaranteed to see one somewhere!

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Zhaolin Park has some smaller ice buildings and has no entry fee.
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There were some incredibly intricate designs on display!
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Harbin’s main walking street is lined with ice sculptures during the festival.

Harbin was the perfect way to end off my year in China (I was originally meant to begin my year there but with the Chinese New Year festival they changed our orientation week to Beijing instead).  The festival for me really summed up my experience in China, it is the perfect combination of Chinese culture and the “how is this real?” moments that were a running theme throughout my time there. If you find yourself in need of sub-zero temperatures and pretty lights then Harbin is the place to go. Given the opportunity I would return to the Ice and Snow Festival in a heartbeat and I wouldn’t mind another one of those ice creams either!

Why not check out some more of my adventures around China?

 

China by Sleeper Train: If Sleep is for the Weak then call me a Body-Builder…

December 29th, the day after my 25th birthday, I boarded my first ever sleeper train. It is a backpacker rite of passage when travelling through Asia to take at least one journey on a sleeper train and, having been in China for a whole year, I figured it was about time I gave it a go! Besides, I had only ever heard good things about China’s sleeper train network.

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Snow on the tracks delayed our train by about six hours!

Let me tell you first of all that the thirty-six-hour journey between Guangzhou and Harbin is not for the faint hearted! One hard sleeper ticket buys you a bunk in a six-bed compartment that is roughly the size of a large cupboard. Justin had taken a sleeper train before so reserved us each a top bunk as, in his opinion, it was the best option. It does offer the most leg room of the three and you do have easy access to the luggage rack, but that would probably be where the benefits end for me.

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This is me for two nights…

As I settled down in my bunk I suddenly remembered how much I disliked small spaces… The space between the bed and the roof of the train is not even enough to sit up in which does lead to a feeling that the you are the last sardine being pressed into the tin before it is vacuum sealed and ready for the shelves. Getting up and down from the bunk was a whole other struggle for me and my non-existent upper arm strength, the top bunk is about twice my height! The sight of me trying to pull myself up onto the bed must have given a few passengers a good laugh. Take care on the steps, they are about the size of cd covers and they can be folded away so double check they are still there before you get out of bed. There are designated smoking areas on the train but either people were just ignoring them or maybe the doors weren’t closing properly because all I could smell was cigarette smoke which is not what I would call a pleasant smell and definitely did not help me sleep. Our train also ended up delayed by about six hours which put our journey time up to forty-two hours, almost a full two days!! On the plus side I did read about ninety percent of “Eat, Pray, Love”, a book I have wanted to read for about a year so it’s not like I wasted my time in sleepless solitary confinement.

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My Kindle saved me on this trip!

At the end of the day it got us where we needed to go for next to no money, so I can’t complain too much. You get what you pay for, and the heavy duvets were definitely appreciated as we were travelling in winter! All I can say is that the sleeper train is an experience that everyone should try at least once. I have been told since that I was unlucky and that the cigarette smell is not usually a feature of the sleeper train experience. If you have been to the gym more than five times in your life, then pulling yourself onto that top bunk also shouldn’t be an issue for you like it was for me (maybe start the push-ups now though, just in case).

Final verdict: do it for the backpacker points, but I highly recommend choosing a shorter journey than Guangzhou to Harbin… much, much shorter…

 

Sleeper train from Guangzhou to Harbin: 600 yuan (about £68), 42 hours

Flight from Harbin to Guangzhou: £186.98, 4 hour and 40 minutes

 

How to get to the Leshan Buddha (from Chengdu).

I arrived in Chengdu with one plan and one plan only: visit the Panda Research Centre! With four days to explore the city it was clear I was going to have to add some other activities to my itinerary, so I did a little research and discovered the Leshan Buddha just outside of Chengdu.

Despite being the largest stone Buddha in the world, the Leshan Buddha was not exactly easy to find and definitely took a bit of planning to get to. Leshan is a town about an hour away from the city of Chengdu if you take the bullet train, which I recommend! Travelling by train in China is cheap and the trains are comfortable and air conditioned, so if you have the option of travelling by train then I would take it over a coach journey. Book your ticket in advance using the Trip (trip.com formerly known as Ctrip) app, the ticket should cost about £9 per person each way and the app makes it so easy to pick up your tickets from the station.

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trip.com is the easiest way to book trains in China.

When you arrive in Leshan head right out of the train station and cross the road to the bus station. From here you take the number 13 bus and it should only cost about 1 yuan (roughly 10p). There is another bus that goes to the Buddha from the station as well and either one is fine, just ask one of the members of staff in the station if you are unsure. The bus goes all the way to the gate of the Leshan Giant Buddha, so it is ideal!

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The bus takes you right through Leshan town and across the river to the Buddha entrance.

When you arrive at the gate there are two options available to view the Buddha:

Option one – take a boat ride down the river, 70 yuan (about £7): the boat ride lasts about twenty minutes to half an hour and gives possibly the best view of the Buddha. The boat stops right in front of it and you are able to take in the sheer size and scale of the sculpture without the crowds.

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The boat has a open viewing area as well as an indoor seating area.
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The boat stops for about 10 minutes in front of the Buddha, plenty of time for photo opportunities.

Option two – go into the park and climb the cliff face that the Leshan Buddha was carved out of so many years ago, 80 yuan (about £8): this option really gives you a real sense of how difficult it must have been to carve such a giant figure out of the rock that sits right on the river edge. The climb also shares a side of the Buddhist culture and history of the site that is not visible from boat. Stone steps that lead you to the clifftop are accompanied by many more small stone carvings, some worn and eroded by the weather and others perfectly preserved but all equally beautiful. Once you have reached the top of the stone staircase you are greeted by the Buddhist temple and the smell of burning incense as it floats throw the temple doors. From here you are level with the Buddha’s head and have the perfect view to count the 1,021 buns in his coiled hair! If you are willing to wait in the queues then you can take the narrow stone staircase down to the giant feet of the Buddha, each foot is large enough to fit 100 people each.

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The Leshan Buddha temple.
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Worshipers light candles at the entrance to the temple.
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The Leshan Buddha has an impressive 1,021 buns carved into his stone head.

We chose to do both the climb and the boat ride and if you have the time then I would recommend doing both. The two options give such different perspectives of the site and it is so cheap to do that it is definitely worth it.

I had absolutely no idea that this incredible statue existed until I was looking into things to do in Chengdu and I am so glad I took the time to visit despite how difficult it was to find. It is definitely a whole day excursion but completely worth it if you have the time. I hope this little guide will help if you are heading to Chengdu because it is incredibly easy to get to when you know how!

Check out my last blog post if you are looking for more inspiration for things to do in Chengdu.

Chengdu: More than just the Panda capital of the world

Think of Chengdu and the first thing that comes to mind is, of course, the Giant Panda Research centre but as I found out recently there is a lot more to this ancient town than the fluffy face of the world wildlife foundation.

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Young Panda Cubs at the Chengdu Panda Base

Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province in Western China and has some outstanding places to visit that weren’t even on my radar before my visit in July. It took four hours to travel to Chengdu from Xi’an on the fast train, I accidently booked myself onto a first-class carriage but no complaints from me (that leg room was more than worth the extra £5)!

The metro system in Chengdu is easy to navigate for the most part, as long as you check the map before you get on the train it is almost impossible to get lost. There are however a few places that are not accessible by the metro lines such as the main market street, the panda base and the Leshan Buddha which is actually located outside of town (I will be writing a separate post all about how to get there soon because it is a bit more complicated than other attractions in Chengdu).

My accommodation was perfectly central and easy to get to from the main railway station when I arrived in Chengdu. I stayed in a quirky little backpacker’s called the Blacksmith Hostel and I have to say you definitely get what you pay for. If you are looking for luxury then I maybe wouldn’t stay here but it was perfect for me and my tight budget. My only complaint would be the lack of insect screen on the windows as the room was almost constantly filled with mosquitoes and I ended up covered in bites, literally from head to toe! The toilets and showers were both accessed from the balcony which made the thought of going to the toilet slightly unappealing in the middle of the rain storms that frequented my stay. I maybe wouldn’t stay there again, but it fulfilled it’s primary purpose of somewhere to pass out at the end of each day.

 

I spent 3 full days in Chengdu and hardly even scratched the surface on what the city has to offer but if you are heading there anytime soon then these are the places I recommend visiting;

 

  1. The Chengdu Research of Giant Panda Breeding

No trip to Chengdu is worth the journey if you don’t make it up to the research base on the outskirts of the city. This is usually the main reason people visit Chengdu and it was definitely my motivation for booking a trip to Sichuan province. The base is currently home to around 83 pandas varying from new born cubs to adults and is by far the best place to see these adorable creatures up close. The base has been working in Giant Panda conservation since 1987 and has played a huge role in taking the bears off the endangered species list. It rained the entire time we were at the base, but it was still one of the best experiences of my life. Being able to see pandas up close and watching them interact with each other was beyond anything I had ever imagined before. There are plenty of places to eat around the park as well as a panda museum and red panda enclosures; definitely enough to keep you occupied for a whole day.

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You’ve never seen a happier human than me next to a group of panda bears!
  1. The Leshan Buddha

The largest sitting stone Buddha in the world, Leshan Buddha has to be seen to be believed! This impressive stone structure took 90 years to build and was completed only after the death of the Monk who originally commissioned it. There are two options to view the Buddha; you can take a boat down the river to right in front of the towering monument or you can view it by climbing to the top of the cliff face it has been sculpted out of and descending the steep stone steps that are carved all the way down the side of the figure’s surrounding walls. We opted to do both, and I would highly recommend this if you have the time.

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The Buddha from the boat
  1. Chengdu Museum

Firstly, this is a completely free activity, so you have no excuse not visit the museum! Secondly, I spent so much time wondering from floor to floor and learning about Chengdu’s history that the place was closing by the time I strolled out of last exhibit… oops! Seriously though this should definitely be on your list of things to do if you are interested in the history of the places you visit. The museum covers everything from the first settlers in the area all the way up to the present day including a very detailed and fascinating showcase of traditional Chinese shadow puppets. Add to all this that it is right in the centre of town you really have no reason not to have go and check it out.

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I waited ten minutes for this guy to leave so I could take a photo of the shadow puppets and ended up liking the photo with him in more than the one without…
  1. Jinsha Site and Museum

While you can find most of the information about the Jinsha site in the Chengdu museum if you are interested at all in archaeology then it is worth-while going to the Jinsha site to see the excavation process. As well as the impressive archaeological site there is a whole museum dedicated to the important finds found on location including the beautiful “Golden Sun Bird” a ring shaped piece of foiled uncovered in 2001 and the “Golden Mask” an eerie gold mask believed to be over 3,000 years old. Also on the site is a beautiful bamboo garden and “ebony forest” surrounding the two museum buildings.

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The excavation site at Jinsha Site Museum

I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of history there is to find in Chengdu. I arrived knowing only that I was desperate to visit the Panda Base and left with a deeper understanding of the city and it’s culture. I could easily return to Chengdu and have a completely different list of things to do, there is just so much to this city it truly took my breath away. I know it is easy to book onto a tour that takes you to Beijing for the Great Wall of China, to Xi’an for the Warriors, Chengdu for the Pandas and back again, all in one week! But, if you can, I highly recommend spending at least a week in Chengdu in order to fully experience everything this city has to offer.

Xi’an: How to get to the Terracotta Army and what to expect when you get there.

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!

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The scale of this place blew my mind!

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.

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Beiyuanmen Muslim Market
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Mango ice-cream made from scratch!!

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.

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Egg fried rice from the main square.

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!

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Hanger 1: Front Entrance View.
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The warriors are reassembled and put back where they were originally found.
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One of the reconstructed warriors on display in hanger two.
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Hanger three.

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!

Trip details and costs:

  • Flight from Zhuhai to Xi’an: £60
  • Taxi from airport: £15
  • Bestay Hotel: £15 per night, per person
  • Bus from Xi’an to the Terracotta Army: £1
  • Terracotta Army entrance fee: £15

Rain Rain Go Away!: Zhangjiajie, Hunan, Day Four

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!).

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The Longest Cableway in the world

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.

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Cable Car Views.

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!

 

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In a cloud with my new hat.

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.

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What I’m sure should have been a beautiful mountain top view.
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Can you even tell we’re on top of a mountain?

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)!

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At the top of “The Stairway to Heaven”

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…

 

Trip Info:

  • Zhangjiajie 1982 Chujian International Youth Hostel: 135 yuan (£15 for 3 nights) http://www.booking.com/Share-ayycez 
  • Tianmen Mountain Cableway ticket: 258 yuan (about £26) includes cable car up the mountain, escalator down the mountain and shuttle bus back to cable car station.
  • Glass walkway: 5 yuan (about £6)
  • Zhanjiajie National Forest park ticket: 248 yuan (about £27.60) allows entry to the park for 4 days.
  • Local Bus: 10 yuan each way (about £1 per ticket)

The Grand Canyon that Keeps on Giving: Zhangjiajie, Hunan, Day Three

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?).

 

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I’m not scared, you’re scared!

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!!

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You need to wear shoe protectors on the bridge. They give you them for free before you get on and there is a bucket to leave them in on the way out.
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Luckily for me the bridge wasn’t completely glass!

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.

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Don’t look down!
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Ok this isn’t so bad after all…
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I had to hold all of their hands to get onto this glass…

 

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How to draw in a crowd…
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Not as scary as it looks

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.

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About a quarter of the way down the canyon wall.
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Those little black dots are people!
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At the bottom (classic run into shot before the timer function counts down from 10 pic…)

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!

 

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Quick take the photo before I fall off this rock!
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You never know when you’ll need an umbrella

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…

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Boat tour round Baofeng Lake.
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Boats on Baofeng Lake

Check out the Vlog from the this day here: https://youtu.be/aAgK7bx4Tp0

Trip Info:

  • Zhangjiajie 1982 Chujian International Youth Hostel: 135 yuan (£15 for 3 nights) http://www.booking.com/Share-ayycez 
  • Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon and Glass Bridge: 297 yuan (about £34) tickets are provided on a time slot basis and you must enter within your allocated time, no entry after 4:20pm.
  • Zip line through the valley: 30 yuan per person (about £3)
  • Baofeng lake: 98 yuan (about £9)
  • Zhanjiajie National Forest park ticket: 248 yuan (about £27.60) allows entry to the park for 4 days.
  • Local Bus: 10 yuan each way (about £1 per ticket)

 

 

Keep on Climbing: Zhanjiajie, Huan, Day Two

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…

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Walking towards the entrance.

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.

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Unreal.

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.

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Before the stairs…
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Walking through the garden
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Pink trees, what more could you ask for?
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They’re watching me…

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).

 

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Taking a break.

 

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Stairs for days!

 

 

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.

 

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Justin and his new friend.

 

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Matt feeding the Monkey
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Me feeding the monkey.

 

 

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.

 

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View across the pillars.

 

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Spot the cave.

 

 

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.

 

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So so so steep!

 

 

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The path down under the cableway.

 

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”.

Check out the Vlog from this day here: Zhanjiajie, Hunan – April 3rd 2018

Trip Info:

  • Zhangjiajie 1982 Chujian International Youth Hostelhttp://www.booking.com/Share-ayycez 135 yuan (£15 for 3 nights)
  • Zhanjiajie National Forest park ticket: 248 yuan (about £27.60) allows entry to the park for 4 days.
  • Cable car ticket (if you choose not walk): 72 yuan each way (about £8)
  • Local Bus: 10 yuan each way (about £1 per ticket)

Mountains, Monkeys and Magic: Zhanjiajie, Hunan, Day One.

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!

 

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Adventure crew!

 

 

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Ready for take off!

 

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!

 

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Hostel bunk.

 

 

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Also, did I mention they had a company dog…?

 

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.

 

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Cable car to the top.

 

 

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Blossoms and mountain views.

 

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.

 

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Ladder to Tianbo Mansion

 

 

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Practicing using my tripod and voice activated setting on my phone at Tinabo Mansion.

 

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Tianbo Mansion.

 

 

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Spicy Tofu.

 

 

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.

 

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Fence of wishes.

 

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Ribbonsin the wind.

 

 

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.

 

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The Natural Bridge.

 

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).

 

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Avatar Mountain

 

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Cake to crumbs in one minute.

 

 

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!

 

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Walking down to the valley.

 

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Stone pillars as far as you can see.

 

 

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.

 

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Walking between the pillars.

 

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.

 

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Karin and her new monkey friend!

 

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!

Trip Info:

  • Zhangjiajie 1982 Chujian International Youth Hostelhttp://www.booking.com/Share-ayycez 135 yuan (£15 for 3 nights)
  • Zhanjiajie National Forest park ticket: 248 yuan (about £27.60) allows entry to the park for 4 days.
  • Cable car ticket: 72 yuan (about £8)