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.

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)

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)

Too Hot (Pot) to Handle: Exploring Sanxaing and Zhongshan

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.

 

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One of the best days and the best view!

 

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!

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Market street

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!

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No Spicy Not a Hero (We are not heros).

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.

 

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Fairy Light Covered Trees.

 

 

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Lantern Structure.

 

 

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Fairy Light Tunnel.

 

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Of course I found the Panda Lanterns.

 

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…

 

 

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Chrysanthemum Pool.

 

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!

 

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Jess, Jack, Jessi, Molly, Luke, Me, MC and Justin at Enrico’s.

 

 

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More of the crew at Enrico’s.

 

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”.

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Jumping photos are hard to perfect… I think we need a bit more practice.

 

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.

 

P.S. Benjamin is Awsome…

Back to Blogging – P.s. I’m in China!

I’ve not written a blog post in over a year! Well not for this site anyway, but I’m in China and I want to document it. So as of Monday I hope to be posting a weekly blog about my experience.

I arrived in China on the 20th of February and it has been a whirlwind of adventure and friendships and experiences since then! All of which I will update you on properly in the blog posts that follow this one.

After I graduated University in July I realized that as much as I loved my course and everything it involved, a desk job just wasn’t for me, not right now anyway. I had the travel bug, I needed to GO somewhere, anywhere, and where better than China?! A completely different culture, new people, new places and a chance to try my hand at a possible new career. Also… Pandas! The decision was obvious, the choice easy. So to China I went…

 

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View from the window flying into Beijing.

 

To give you a basic run down of my current situation, I recently passed my TEFL qualification certificate which allowed me to apply for a teaching internship in China. The lovely people at STA travel, I-to-I TEFL and ImmerQi all helped in setting up my trip and I will also be writing posts for I-to-I TEFL so keep an eye out for those, I’ll let you know when they are posted. I have been placed in the South of China in a Province called Guangdong, my school is in a “small” (I use inverted commas because it is bigger by far than Aberdeen but by China standards it is classed as small) town near the city of Zhongshan. I’ll go into more detail in a future post, but it is BEAUTIFUL! I could not be happier with where I’ve been placed and the people I’ve been placed with!

 

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The school campus.

 

My plan as it stands just now is; complete my internship here in China, spend a month travelling around South East Asia and then go on to do another 5 months’ internship in Vietnam. Who knows where from there but I feel like trying to plan further than a year ahead is just not how I work.

I left home almost a month ago, after a wonderful send off from my friends and family, I spent a week in London and then hopped on my flight to Beijing for a week of orientation, cultural classes and exploring. It was a ten-hour journey by bullet train down from Beijing to Guangzhou and then a further hour to our town. As I write this I am sitting in Sanxaing, Guangdong Province, China, in my new home, with my new flat mates, easting pancakes because it’s International Woman’s Day so what else are we meant to do?! (I should be creating a lesson plan for my first graders… but I thought I’d post this little update first).

 

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Flat mate goals! (We only own chopsticks… they are suprisingly versitile).

 

Morocco – 18th of June

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The first thing I did in the morning was look across to the the mountains opposite us. The clouds were tucked in-between them, just under their peaks, hugging the sides like fluffy white glaciers. It was a beautiful start to my day.

We had a free afternoon after our morning’s work on the building site so Imogen, Lorna and I went explore the village a little bit. We walked up to the castle that Abdul had taken us to on the first day and the hills next to it. We then decided to go somewhere new and followed a path that went past the castle and back into the village but we had never been to this part before. While we were trying to decide which way to go next some of the villagers start talking to us. Of course we had no idea what they were saying so Lorna tried speaking french to them, which worked until they exhausted her knowledge of french and both sides settled with pointing at things.

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We met for tea at the usual time but instead of going to the main house for it, we were invited to one of the local builder’s house where they would show us how to make traditional Moroccan Mint Tea. We sat around a long room on the floor which was covered with brightly coloured mats and cushions to put behind our backs. Abdul was sitting down at the far end with a tray full of various tea related items and began explaining how they made their tea

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After the tea had been boiled for five to ten minutes we were each given a glass and some traditionally baked bread. I had really started to like the mint tea but I still had to wait for it to get to at least room temperature before attempting to drink it.

When we came back from dinner there was a good fire burning outside the local cafe type thing that was under our house. The children were sticking branches in the fire and chasing each other while spinning these branches around. They found this game hilarious fun but all I could think of was that it would end in someone getting burnt. As far as I know no children were hurt by flaming branches of doom that night…

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TO BE CONTINUED