If you are a TEFL teacher then you are probably about to move to a completely new country with completely new and sometimes confusing cultural differences. The first thing I want to say is; don’t see this a bad thing. It can be and is a wonderful learning experience and a way to open your mind to other cultures so embrace them!
Cultural differences can present themselves in some weird and wonderful ways, in and out of the classroom. They can range from kids falling asleep in class to fellow teachers giving you little to no information about what is happening at the school. It can be frustrating and it can seem like they are doing these things because you aren’t performing well as a teacher but let me assure you that unless someone has come up and told you that you aren’t doing a good job or that something needs to change then these occurrences are nothing personal!
I have had kids fall asleep in class before, this tends to happen mostly in my middle school classes, I do not take it personally and I often leave them to sleep unless the class is laughing at them. The reason I don’t let this affect my class is because I know how hard these kids work every day. They are often awake well before me, with their school day starting with a 6:30am run around the campus, and are still in school when I’m climbing into bed for a Netflix marathon, they finish classes at 10pm. I design my classes as a safe and fun environment for my students to learn and practice English in, so I never get mad at a kid if they happen to fall asleep in class.
In the U.K. we are used to having instant access to all the school’s timetable information at the beginning of the year. We know in August when the last day of school will be at the end of the year and we know exactly what days off we will receive for each holiday. This is not always the case in China and I have learnt to just go with the flow a bit. This cultural difference can definitely be the most frustrating of all the ones I have come across but the best advice I can give is just to stay calm and every now and then give your school a gentle reminder that you might need to know how many days off you will receive over the Spring Festival so you can start booking your travels. Most of the time if they aren’t giving you any information it is genuinely because they themselves don’t have it yet, my school has to wait for the government to tell them when the exams will be before they can tell me when my last day of term is and that is just the way it is. This semester it meant that I was told the Friday before my last week of term that I only had a week left and it meant changing my lesson plans completely to combine two weeks into one and abandoning the rest of them. A mild annoyance but in the long run it gave me a longer holiday and meant I didn’t have to work on Christmas or my Birthday so I wasn’t complaining!
At the end of the day every country is different and if you can relax and embrace those differences you will grow a better understanding of the world and how it works. How we handle these differences can vastly change our experience of a country and I have always found that calm and understanding gets me further than annoyance and anger. So, be aware that things aren’t going to be the same as home and incorporate them into your understanding of the country and even your daily routine and you will come out the other end will the best experience you can get!
For more TEFL tips why not check out one of these posts?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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;
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.
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.
The Buddha from the boat
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.
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.
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.
My time teaching first grade at Sanxin School came to an end at the beginning of July when the summer holidays began. There were many tears, some of them mine, many hugs and more high fives than I could count, but it is not good bye! I might not be their English teacher next semester, but I will still be able to visit them in when I have time off teaching middle school. I had such an amazing group of kids over the past few months and the last week of school with them was so special but more about that in a later post! For now, I’ll get on with what you came here for; The Terracotta Army.
With school out for summer and contract completion bonus in hand I decided to explore some more of China. The Terracotta Army was one of the things I was most excited about when I made the decision to come and teach in China and let me tell you, it did not disappoint. It definitely has to be seen with your own eyes to appreciate the sheer size and scale of the place!
We flew into Xi’an airport from Zhuhai, a small town just South of the village I teach in. The airport in Xi’an has a bus route but, for ease with all of our bags, we opted to take a taxi to our hotel. The taxi ride from the airport to the centre of town takes around half an hour depending on traffic, we arrived around 8pm so there was very little traffic between the airport and our hostel inside the old city wall.
We stayed in “Bestay Hotel Express” and for the price we paid the rooms were great. The first night three of us stayed in a family room which is a bunk bed that has a double bed on the bottom and a single bed on the top with a reasonably sized private shower room and toilet. After the boys left for Beijing I moved into a one-person room, it was a bit on the small size but how much room does one person really need for one night anyway?
The night we arrived we took a wonder down the Beiyuanmen Muslim Market, jam packed with food stalls and souvenir shops. This sprawling market is a feast for the senses. The Muslim Quarter is the hub of the Muslim community in Xian and is located to the north of the West Street in the city centre. It covers several blocks of the old city and it is definitely the place to go if you are looking for fantastic street food and a keepsake or two.
Saturday morning it was a reasonably early rise to make the most of our only full day in Xi’an. From our hotel we took the public bus straight to the main train station. To the right-hand side of here you will find a coach service to the Terracotta Army. Don’t worry about getting on the right bus, you will be waved down by multiple enthusiastic bus conductors all desperate for you to get on their bus. We literally jumped onto a moving bus as it drove out of the station! I am sure, however, that we would have easily found a stationary bus if we hadn’t been herded onto our coach by one very determined woman so don’t feel like you have to jump onto a moving vehicle.
The bus will drop you at the entrance to the main square, this is a good place to stop for something to eat if you arrive around lunch time. I found the food was priced around the same as the rest of China, but drinks can be almost three times the price, so look out for that when you order. Leave the square to the right and follow the stream of people towards the main entrance gate. Here you will find the ticket office, make sure you have cash on you before you arrive because they do not accept card or WeChat pay.
You come through the gate into a garden and there is about a fifteen-minute walk through this before you actually reach the hangers built to protect the historical site. Hanger one is by far the best in terms of showing the massive scale of the Terracotta Army site as it has had the most excavation work done to it out of the three hangers that are open. If you are interested in the archaeological process, hanger two has the best examples of warriors still half buried in the ground. Hanger three is the smallest but gives you the best views of the warriors close up and in situ (you can see them in glass casings in hanger two if the hanger three is too crowded for you). There is also a museum on the site with the bronze chariots that were found on the site as well an exhibition about Pompeii, which I was not expecting to find in the middle of China if I am being honest!
The Terracotta Army took us the whole day to explore and was absolutely fascinating to see in real life! To think that something of that scale can remain hidden for thousands of years until one farmer needed to dig a well blows my mind. Another bucket list item ticked off the list!
I have recently been receiving a lot of messages about how I became TEFL qualified, how I got my placement and what company I used to get here. I do always try to reply to these as soon as possible but with the time difference between China and the UK, the not so reliable internet access here in China and working a five-day week; I thought it might be a good idea to put as much information as I can in one place. This is not to say I don’t want to be asked questions, I am more than happy to chat about my TEFL experience, it is more about making it easier for anyone looking for information on becoming an ESL teacher to find what they are looking for in one post.
How did I become TEFL qualified?
I completed I-to-I’s 120 hour online course. This course requires you to work through a series of modules on I-to-I’s website, at the end of each module you sit a mini test in order to be able to move onto the next part of the course. The tests do not count towards your final mark but you do need to pass them with a certain percentage to be able to move through the course. Once you have completed all the modules you then have to submit a lesson plan and an essay explaining why exactly you have chosen to carry out a lesson in this particular way. You are then given three hours to complete the final test which, combined with your lesson plan, determines whether or not you pass the course and become TEFL qualified.
If you pass the course you are awarded a certificate, make sure your name on this is exactly the same as it is on your passport, including your middle name. This is important if you are planning, which I assume you are, to get a job teaching English as a foreign language because most embassies require all of you documents to be exactly the same when they are handing out visas.
They will email you the certificate and you will also have the option to get a hard copy sent to you. Get the hard copy, you will need it when you start applying for jobs. I did not get the hard copy when I was based in the U.K. and now I may have to pay around £60 to get it shipped out here to China! Not ideal…
How did I find my placement?
I-to-I is partnered with a company here in China called ImmerQi. ImmerQi are who placed me in my current school here in Sanxiang, Guangdong. So really I didn’t have to do anything to find my placement.
I have since had to look for my next job which was easier than I thought it would be. My current school offered me a job here in the middle school. There are also a lot of companies that specialise in finding foreign teachers for Chinese schools and education centres, I had interviews with EF – Education First and TIC – Teach In China.
I-to-I’s website has job listings and placement options from all over the world, if this is your first time teaching abroad then I would highly recommend applying through I-to-I’s website as most ESL jobs require you to have at least one year experience in teaching before they accept a foreign teacher. This can also be the case when it comes to getting a visa, some countries give working permits or visas to people who do not have experience in the field.
Another thing to look out for is that a lot of countries, like Vietnam, require you to have a BA degree or higher in order to work as an English teacher in their country. Some countries will accept foreign teachers without a degree but the salary they offer you will be considerably less than those with a degree.
What company did I use?
As you can see from the two questions above I used more than one company to wind up in China. In fact I went through three companies in total:
The first company I used was STA Travel; STA, if you haven’t heard of them, is a student and young person travel company specialising in budget travel, working holidays and round the world trips. When I walked in to the Aberdeen branch of STA Travel, back in October 2017, I only had the smallest idea of what I wanted to do. I had looked into TEFL but thought I might have to go back to college in order to become qualified and after six years in higher education that was about the last thing I wanted. Essentially I wondered in, said “I want to travel the world, how do I do that?” and my travel agent Jordan helped me pick out a two year plan. Obviously that plan has changed slightly since arriving here in China but I never would have taken this first step if I hadn’t walked into the STA shop on a whim. If you are planning to travel on your own then I definitely recommend booking at least the initial stage of your trip with a company like STA, they have years of experience and a team of people ready to help you out if and when things don’t go to plan.
The second company I used was I-to-I TEFL. When I booked my Paid China TEFL Internship with STA Travel my I-to-I TEFL course was emailed to me directly. One thing to look out for with the course, that almost tripped me up, is to pay attention to your course deadline ( how many days you have to complete the course after you start) and when you actually need to have completed the course for your placement (these will probably be different dates). My dates only varied by a few days so I ended up getting very confused when I was asked almost a week before I thought I was meant to be finished, why I wasn’t finished…
Then third and finally I was passed on to ImmerQi. It was ImmerQi that I dealt with when it came to visa applications, arriving in China and of course they are who placed me after the orientation week in Beijing. To work or study in China you need a letter of invitation before you can apply for your visa. ImmerQi organise all of this for their interns before they leave their home country. The only downside to this process was that ImmerQi could not tell us where we were going to be placed until we arrived in China, for a number of different reasons. This meant that, because China has provinces stretching from way up North bordering with Russia to way down South in the Sub-tropics, I had to pack for any and all possible climates… no easy task when you over pack as badly as I do! Luckily I got placed in the nice warm Sub-tropics and the woolly jumpers have been in the back of my wardrobe since I arrived.
If you are considering teaching English abroad then I hope this blog post has been helpful to you. I 100% recommend becoming TEFL qualified, it is one of the best decisions I have ever made! My advice would be to go straight through I-to-I to become qualified and find your first placement if your plan is only to teach English abroad. If you are planning a Gap Year or are travelling for the first time then I would definitely recommend STA Travel, it’s always nice to know there is someone in the know available to you if you find yourself needing to change travel plans and they have a huge selection of trips to choose from.
If you have any questions about TEFL or life in China please leave a comment below or send me and email, I am more than happy to help in any way I can.
Moving to a completely new country can be a terrifying idea. Leaving everything and everyone you know behind, packing up and moving your whole life to another part of the world might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for some it might be exactly the right move (pun not intended). I’ve been living in China for three months now and while I might not be an expert on all things relocating related, I like to think I have learnt a thing or two in the past couple of months. If you are trying to decide if moving abroad is for you and want some words of worldly wisdom then, well, I guess that’s why you clicked on this post (unless you are just my number one fan and read everything I post on here… Hi mum!) so keep on reading to find out how to do it and why you should!
How to do it:
The first thing you need to decide is what you want to do in your destination country. You can do almost anything you do in the you home country abroad; from waiting on tables to working in a hotel to teaching to volunteer work. Really if you have the skill then you can take it and apply it anywhere. One of the easiest and most common ways to relocate yourself is to become TEFL qualified. This is exactly what I did, and it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I got my TEFL qualification through I-to-I TEFL, completing their 120-hour online course all from the comfort of my own home, various coffee shops around Aberdeen and my good friend Hannah’s front room (cheers again Hannah for letting me sofa surf). Pretty much, adding TEFL to your skill set isn’t going to do anything apart from open up your options in terms of what countries you can choose to work in.
Speaking of, the next thing you need to decide is where you want to move to. When I was trying to decide on a place to travel to my plan was originally to go to Thailand, this didn’t work out due to timing issues but luckily second on my list was China and this worked out perfectly for me. Depending on what you choose to do abroad, the options of where you can move to will vary (there isn’t really much need for TEFL qualified individuals in America now is there?) but that is all part of the fun of researching your destination country. My original plan was one year of TEFL in China and Vietnam and then waitressing/bar working my way around Australia. That plan has changed slightly but my point is think about what your skills are and where you can apply them and choose the destination that best suits you. Another important factor is also, obviously, where in the world has always fascinated you, what culture interests you the most and what do you want to get out of your time living and working abroad? All of these things should affect your decision, I started with the idea of moving to South East Asia because visiting this part of the world has been at the top of my to do list since I was in secondary school (literally I made a binder on it and everything) and let it grow arms and legs from there until I ended up teaching English in the South of China!
I recommend finding yourself a company to apply for jobs through if you are planning to teach English. I-to-I are partnered with a company called ImmerQi who specialise in teaching internships and other work placements in China. From providing a week orientation in Beijing to the help and support throughout my placement (Ben I hope you are still reading these because this is the genuine and sincere shout out that you have been so desperately waiting for) they have been excellent! If it is your first time working abroad then going through a company like ImmerQi gives you that little bit of extra reassurance in case something goes wrong. It also means you have someone to fight in your corner if things aren’t up to scratch at your placement or like me you need a meal allowance because you are allergic to everything in the canteen .
Visas, they are a pain in the back side but an important and mandatory part of moving abroad, so what are you going to do? Apply for them, that’s what!! And don’t make my mistake and leave planning your visa application to the last minute. Honestly it was one of the most stressful months of my life! Even if you can’t apply for your visa until a month before you leave, make sure you get all of your documents organised and ready to go for when you need them. Your company should tell you what you need to do in order to apply for your visa, whether it is a placement company like ImmerQi or your new employer, it is in their best interest as well as yours that your visa is present and correct. Also, this probably won’t be their first time employing someone from overseas, so they are really the best people to ask all the technical questions to. Another invaluable source of information is the embassy you are applying for your visa through, I phoned the Chinese embassy in Britain multiple times and even ended up emailing back and forth with them to make sure everything was perfect in my application before I sent it off, Visa applications are expensive and non-refundable you do not want to mess them up!
It is sad but true, we can’t get anywhere without a little bit of money to help us along. As well as a bit of help from family members, I worked as a waitress from October to January to save up enough money to make my dream of travelling the world a reality. Everything adds up so keep track of what you have paid off and what still needs to be paid. Flights, visas, vaccinations and insurance are the most expensive costs that you will have to deal with when moving abroad, they are also the most important and should be at the top of your list. After these are dealt with you need to think about spending money, you probably won’t receive your first pay check until a month after you arrive at your destination country, so you will need a little bit of money to live on until you do eventually get paid. Then you need to buy a rucksack, first aid kit and a travel organiser (trust me this is an essential if, like me, you have a tendency to misplace important things…) Once all of this is out of the way then you can go and buy that perfect bikini or sundress to take with you to your new tropical destination.
I absolutely hate packing, I overpack like my life depends on it, I’m a “but what if I’m suddenly invited to the Oscars of China and I have nothing to wear” kind of packer. Basically, my years as a girl guide had a lasting impression on me and I like to “always be prepared”. The issue with this is that you end up with a rucksack that weighs more than you and won’t close without excessive force that you somehow have to get from one side of the world to the other. Not ideal, especially if you are travelling alone! It is in times like this I need to bring in outside help and as my Grampa wisely pointed out “you only need to pack for two weeks really, and then you can just wash everything and wear it again”. Words of wisdom duly noted and with my Nana supervising and questioning everything I tried to pack into my bag I managed to pack only the essentials. Anything you find yourself needing once you land can most likely be bought at your destination (I told you I needed to pack my blue denim shorts as well as my white denim shorts Nana…) or if they can’t be bought then they can always be posted over by a family member, if you really need it that desperately!
Why you should:
Living in a completely different country is such an incredible opportunity. China is actually the second country I have lived in, Scotland obviously not included, I spent three months living and volunteering in South Africa. When you visit a country for a short holiday you only get a snapshot of how that country works, maybe pick up how to say “Hello” and ask for the bill in that countries language and maybe have a cultural experience or two depending on the type of holiday you choose to take. Living in a country for an extended period of time allows you to truly immerse yourself in the culture. For me the thing that appeals most to me about travel is the opportunity to learn about another culture, this is why pool holidays or Ibiza has never really interested me. Before South Africa I had been on one holiday abroad and it was a pool holiday with a friend and her family when I was 16; I had a lot of fun on that holiday (I think because of the company and it was where I discovered my love of tofu) but I wasn’t involved in any of the planning, there was no sight-seeing and I didn’t feel like I learnt anything from my time there. At 18 years old and three months in South Africa later I knew what kind of “holiday” I preferred; solo, action packed and plenty of opportunity to learn about the country I am visiting.
Moving away from everything familiar is also an opportunity to learn about yourself. This is especially true if you travel on your own, being solely responsible for yourself in a foreign country makes you learn a lot about yourself very quickly. Travelling alone for a long period of time means you have to learn to rely on yourself, your own sense of judgement and puts you fully in control of your own life. In South Africa I learned a lot about how to budget my money while travelling, I became a lot more confident in myself as time went on (the first night I arrived I cried myself to sleep, I had never felt so alone, by the time I it came leave I wanted to cry because I didn’t want to go) and I discovered that I could do a lot more on my own than I had thought possible. Since then I have achieved so many things that I don’t believe I could have done if it wasn’t for those three months in South Africa. In China I have discovered that I have a keen interest in language and how different languages grow and develop over time, I have realised that I am actually quite brave (turns out I am the only one in my flat that isn’t scared of cockroaches, who’d have thought?!) and I have found a job that I absolutely love!
Working and volunteering abroad forms some of the strongest friendships you can find in this world. I have made some incredible friends and even more incredible memories from my time in South Africa. Thinking of those memories and friends will always make me happy no matter where I am in my life. When the opportunity comes to meet up with those you formed friendships with while living abroad it will be as if no time has passed, you know a friendship is solid when you only see each other every four years but it’s as if you only saw them yesterday (Hey Lynda, if you are reading this, two year until the next reunion)! When you live and work so closely with people who are just as far away from home as you are, are completely new to the whole experience just like you are and share the same passion for travel as you do, how can you not end with friends for life?!
I hope this has been helpful for somebody out there, I know I could have done with a post like this before I left the U.K. for South Africa back in 2012, but I don’t even think I knew what a blog post was back then… Feel free to email me with any questions you might have about moving abroad or teaching English as a foreign language!
Our last day in Zhangjiajie was also our worst weather wise, not ideal considering our chosen activity for the day was Tianmen Mountain which is more suited to a warm sunny day than the wet and cold day we were stuck with. We decided to give it a go anyway, we had known this was going to be our worst day in terms of weather when we booked the tickets and you never know when the sun is going to break through the clouds here in China (seriously, one minute it is chucking it down with rain, thunder, lighting, the whole lot and then you blink, and it is glorious sunshine, blink again and the ground is completely dry!).
Tianmen Mountain offers two ticket options; option one is to start at the Stairway to Heaven and then take the escalator the rest of the way up the Mountain and the cable car back down, option two is to do the opposite and start with the cable car. We chose option two, we figured we’d done enough walking up concrete stairs for one week, walking down seemed like the much preferable option. We were advised to go for the earlier ticket time as the queues can get very long in the afternoon, and I have to say that even in the morning the queue took about half an hour to get through! The Tianmen Mountain tourist information boasts its cableway as the longest cable car in the world; the journey takes around half an hour and, despite the rain, it was a spectacular way to view the city. The lower cable car station is located right in the centre of Zhangjiajie city passing over the bus station, houses, train station and even takes you over a smaller mountain first. All before the ascent to Tianmen Mountain even begins.
About ten minutes before the end of the cable car line we realised the main disadvantage of our weather situation, the cable car began rocking in the wind and then, slowly, we entered the cloud that had draped itself over the summit of Tianmen Mountain. From here all we saw was the occasional cable car appear out of the fog periodically and pass by us on the right-hand side disappearing back into the fog; until we reached the top of the Mountain, where we saw the occasional human appear out of the fog. The minute we stepped off the cable car we were hit by the freezing cold wind that was circling the summit. I made a B-line for the concession stand to buy myself a woolly hat, predicting that my two jackets and thick jumper just might not be enough for what was waiting outside of the centre. Best two pounds fifty I ever spent!
Our main attraction for Tianmen Mountain were the glass walkways that could be found at various points around the summit so, given the fact it was about 2 degrees Celsius, we decided to head straight towards which ever one was closest. I can only describe the view from here as a wall of pure white cloud. I imagine there is an almost straight drop underneath the walkways, which on any other day would have left me as petrified as the previous day on the glass bridge, but with the clouds safely masking the truth from sight I managed to stroll across the walkway as if I was walking on solid ground.
We didn’t hang around long after this, the wind was bitterly cold and the warmth of pretty much anywhere was the only thing any of us could really think about. We decided to head back down the mountain and relax for the rest of our day, agreeing that we all deserved a rest after such a busy week. I have to say that of all the experiences Zhangjiajie has to offer, an escalator through a mountain has to be one of the more bizarre experiences I encountered on this trip. Just the thought of an escalator inside a mountain seems a bit surreal, but it exists and I’ve taken it.
As you exit the escalator you find yourself in Tianmen cave, a naturally formed archway through the mountain that is around 430 feet tall. The cave leads out to “The Stairway to Heaven”; the stairway has an incredible 999 concrete steps built into the mountain-side and it is ridiculously steep (not ideal when it’s been raining for the better half of two days and you are as clumsy as I am)!
A shuttle bus service is provided from the bottom of “The Stairway to Heaven” back down to the cable car station in the centre of town and is included in your Tianmen Mountain ticket. The shuttle bus route takes you along the 99 bend road and, let’s just say, you’ll never be more glad to have a seatbelt securing you to your seat than when you are whizzing down this steep and winding road…
On our third day in Hunan we travelled to the Grand Canyon of Zhangjiajie and the Glass bridge that is suspended over it. This is about an hour bus journey from where we were staying and was not included in our National Forrest Park ticket. We decided to check out of our hostel in the valley and move to a hostel closer to the airport and Tianmen mountain for the last two days of our trip. The hostel staff allowed us to leave our luggage with them while we were out for the day as we weren’t relocating until the evening and also allowed me to put my DSLR camera behind the check in desk as you aren’t allowed cameras on the Glass Bridge (honestly I cannot recommend this hostel enough if you are visiting Zhangjiajie, they are super helpful and friendly and they have a dog… what more could you ask for?).
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous for this particular day, I have a slight fear of heights and the idea of walking over a bridge entirely made of glass was giving me a bit of worry. We allowed ourselves half a day for the bridge and canyon combined, as we had a trip to Baofeng lake planned for the afternoon. If you can I would recommend giving yourself a full day for this experience as there is a lot to pack in! When arriving at the bridge make sure to enter within your allocated time slot that you were given when booking your ticket, the tickets are split into different entry times throughout the day to control the flow of people that pass over the bridge at a time. We were told that it was easy enough to change your time slot once you arrived at the entrance but we were rushed through the barriers in order to get through our gate at the right time, so I am not sure how true this actually is, in any case better safe than sorry. Once you are in, however, you can spend as much time on the bridge as you feel necessary, we ended up on there for an hour!!
Although named “the Glass Bridge” the reality is only sections of the bridge are glass. The rest is solid metal and I have to say I was kind of glad of this considering my fear of heights. It took me a little while to get used to but eventually, with the help of Justin, Mat and Karin, I managed to ease my way onto one of the glass sections of the bridge. Everything about standing that high up and being able to see teeny tiny people directly underneath your feet feels completely wrong, but it was an absolutely incredible experience at the same time! As is the norm in China we were stopped by multiple Chinese tourists and asked for our photographs, the boys’ gymnastics drew in quite a crowd, and of course we obliged, even stopping to have a chat with one of the guys who seemed just as excited to be talking to us as he was to be on the glass bridge.
While the bridge is the main attraction of Zhangjiajie’s Grand Canyon, it is far from all it has to offer. Once off the bridge you make the long descent down into the canyon itself. About half way down there is the option to take an elevator the rest of the way, since we were on a time limit we decided to take this option (really a missed opportunity for a glass elevator if you ask me). From the canyon floor the bridge looks ridiculously high up! The silhouettes of the people walking across the glass sections appear to be no larger than ants and the stark contrast of their black outlines against the overcast sky was staggering.
This is where the true natural beauty of the Canyon begins to reveal itself. First with a waterfall that has burst it’s way through the side of the canyon wall appearing, as if from nowhere, about half way from the top. From this point every corner we turned revealed another surprise; from turquoise blue water to a zip line over the river and an ornate stone bridge to “Smuggler’s Cave”, all finally leading to a boat ride out of the canyon itself. This really is a full day out and somehow we managed to squeeze it all into half a day!
Baofeng lake was formed when the faults leading into the area were sealed up with concrete and the water level was allowed to rise. It is about 72 meters deep on average and covers around 15 hectares. It looks like a scene straight out of “Jurassic Park”; the water is an unbelievable shade of blue and the sand stone quartz pillars that Zhangjiajie is famous for tower above the lake, making it a walled off paradise on a good day. Even though it was overcast when we visited, the emerald green/turquoise water was still enough to take your breath away! The best way to see the lake is by taking a tour boat that lasts around 30 minutes, just don’t expect to understand anything unless you are fluent in Mandarin. Really though it was enough to just sit back and take in the beauty of the scenery, and the occasional Chinese folk singer who appeared from wooden huts on the lake as the boat drifted past…
After such a packed day the day before we didn’t think Zhangjiajie could possibly have anything left to blow our minds with, we were wrong…
We set off early taking a public bus from the centre of town to the Jinbian Stream gate of the National Forrest Park. The bus stops just outside of the entrance to the park, giving us a five-minute walk to slowly take in what we were approaching. From this side of the park the sandstone quartz pillars tower above the main gates and stand in stark contrast to the sky making them look like a painted set from a movie.
As you enter the park the first thing you come across is a beautiful garden that opens up to a fully uninterrupted view of the peaks. From here we had two choices, walk along the valley floor by the Golden Whip stream to where we had ended our day yesterday or climb one of the stone pillars. We decided to climb the pillar (despite not actually knowing how long it took or where it ended up). Before we started climbing I thought it would be a good idea to have a quick snack. My first mistake was not checking my surroundings; seconds after opening my snickers bar I saw it, a huge monkey started making its way towards me, slowly at first but then it picked up the pace. Being the stubborn human I am, I was determined not to waste my snickers bar, I took one big bite and threw the remainder as far from me as I possibly could! This satisfied the larger monkey who chased it off into the bushes but then I had to get passed his two friends sitting on the stone steps in front of me. Despite the fact I had visibly thrown my chocolate snack far from myself, these monkeys looked ready to search my backpack for anything else that might be edible within it. I took a deep breath and, hiding behind friend the whole way, ran past them as they were distracted by a group of Chinese tourists.
This was perhaps the hottest day of our trip and the shade of the trees seemed to do nothing to stifle the heat. The Chinese love hiking, but it is not hiking like we would think of it; every trail is marked by steep concrete steps that seem to go on forever as they disappear into the trees, this makes it almost impossible to know exactly how much further is left to go. After about an hour of walking we came across a fork in the path and luckily met some Chinese tourists on their way back down the mountain; they advised us to take the path leading to Huangshi Village as it would give us “the second-best view in the whole park” (the first being the Avatar Mountain view that we had seen the day before).
It took us another hour to climb to the top of Huangshizhai (there is a toilet near the fork in the road… I advise using it if you need to as there isn’t another one until the top. Don’t make the same mistake I did! I was too scared there were going to be large bugs inside to check it out). We had been warned the whole way up that there were monkeys waiting to pounce on anyone with a backpack and after my experience at the bottom and Karin being jumped on by a monkey the previous day we took that warning seriously! We found out that this warning was maybe a slight exaggeration when we reached the top; the monkeys were definitely interested in us, but they did not appear to be aggressive or after us in any way. Justin even managed to befriend one and it trusted us enough to eat right out of our hands. It was so gentle and just sat on the fence reaching into our palms for a nut when we offered it. In the end we drew quite a crowd of people all lining up to feed this monkey and eventually more monkeys showed up, we took this as our que to move on and check out more of the viewing points.
Huangshi Village is a loop of the top of Huangshizhai pillar that offers a view of the sandstone quarts pillars from just about every angle. Seeing the park from so many angles really gives you a scale of just how big it is! The loop takes around half an hour to complete if you don’t stop at every point and at one section you can even see across to the Natural bridge where we had been the day before.
There is the option to either take a cable car down or if you aren’t too tired from the way up there is a different path down the mountain that leads back to the same entrance we came in. We chose to take the path down as it is 72 yuan to take the cable car. This seems to be the unpopular option as we hardly saw another person on the way down and the path is definitely less travelled than the way up with moss growing between the stairs and even a bridge that had been almost completely reclaimed by the forest. It took us around an hour to reach the bottom and from there we decided to go for a short walk along the river. We spent about half an hour relaxing next to the river before catching the bus back to our hostel.
This was my favourite day in Zhangjiajie just because of how relaxed the day was, we didn’t feel the need to rush anywhere and there was plenty to do and see at Huangshi Village. Having the opportunity to feed a wild monkey on the top of a sandstone pillar in China alone puts this at the top of my list of favourite days full stop! It was just a once in a life time experience! “He who fails to climb Huangshizhai, need not have come to Zhangjiajie”.
The 5th of April marked the Tomb Sweeping festival in China, as a result our school here in Sanxiang was closed from the 2nd to the 6thof April (to allow people to travel home and celebrate the festival, which involves visiting ancestors and burning paper offerings for them to enjoy in the afterlife). They call this a holiday in China but it’s not a holiday as we might imagine it back home. In order for the school to be closed for five days during the week it had to be open both the weekend before and the weekend after the festival so that the kids didn’t miss any education time. This means a seven-day work week, a five-day break and then another seven-day work week. As you read this I am at the end of my seven-day long week and, if I’m being honest, it actually passed by pretty quickly, so I can’t complain. Our five-day break was completely jam packed and maybe not the relaxing holiday that some people might choose to sandwich between two long weeks of 9 – 5 work, but it was exactly what we were looking for!
Zhangjiajie is home to the sandstone quartz mountain pillars that were the inspiration behind the planet of Pandora in James Cameron’s “Avatar” and to visit it’s national forest park is to feel as if you have truly been transported to another world. As far as the eye can see the pillars extend into the haze of the jungle’s rising mist, from the top of these peaks the bottom of the valley is indistinguishable from the tops of trees that look small enough to be held on one finger. Wrapping your head around the scale of this landscape is not easy, it takes the eyes a while to adjust to just how high up you actually are.
We arrived in Zhangjiajie late on Sunday night/early on Monday morning and after a small confusion with airport pick-ups and check in times we were shown to our rooms for the night. We managed to fit in a couple of hours sleep before being up at nine thirty to begin exploring. The staff at our Hostel were so helpful, organising our tickets and supplying us with a map of the park before we set off in the morning. They told us how to squeeze everything we wanted to do into our short amount of time in Zhangjiajie, where the best viewing spots were and what days were best to do what activities on! The rooms had everything we needed, we chose to stay in the dormitories, and you could order an extra mattress for your bed if you found it to hard (to be honest if you are not used to Chinese mattresses I would recommend doing this when you check in). If you are thinking of heading to Zhangjiajie yourself then I couldn’t recommend them enough and I have linked their website below if you want to check them out!
The main park entrance was only a five-minute walk from our Hostel past a busy little street of market stalls and small restaurants. We decided to stop here for some breakfast and to stock up on snacks for the day before heading to the park gate. From there you could catch a bus to just about any spot you wanted to visit in the park. We started our day by catching the cable car to the top of the sandstone quartz peaks and the views from the cable car were absolutely incredible. From here we caught another bus through the mountains to the first viewing point which gave as a panoramic of the mountains with pink blossoms framing the landscape perfectly.
The next stop was the walk up to Tianbo Mansion which boasts one of the best views of the peaks in the park. The walk totalled about one and a half hours, up and down, including multiple stops for photographs and a break for some spicy tofu in the shade of one of the many food vendors. For the most part this walk was fairly easy, if steep in places, but the last five to ten minutes involved an arrangement of metal ladders that had been welded to the side of one of the stone peaks. It was well worth the climb though with a 360 view of the mountains and forest below them. For a small while we even had the top of the peak to ourselves, a secluded island in a sea of trees and tourists.
After this I thought “there is no way the views can get better”, turns out I was wrong. The next and final stop for the day was the famous “Avatar Hallelujah Mountains”. This was the longest walk of the day, we had been told we needed three and a half hours to complete it, we did it in two and a half. The walk started much like the others had that day with a collection of souvenir stalls and places to buy food, but it soon faded out into a wash of reds mixed into greens of the trees as we approached “the natural bridge”. Red ribbons with wishes written on them were tied to any free branch, beam or fence post with the belief that a higher power will grant them. With a slight breeze blowing gently around the mountain top and the sunlight dappling the path through the trees as we walked along it, it definitely felt like if a wish was going to come true anywhere, it would be here.
As we crossed back over “the natural bridge” we saw exactly how it got it’s name and, to be honest, my stomach did a mini flip as I realised what I had just walked over. Two peaks are joined by a thin, in comparison to the peaks themselves, natural walkway of sandstone that crosses above the sheer drop into the forest below.
Rounding the corner we were greeted by the “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain” itself, marked by one of the blue “mountain banshee” creatures from the film waiting to welcome visitors into the area. Not alone on top of the peak, the “mountain banshee” had plenty of company in the form of Macaque monkeys that took advantage of the tourists and their food. They were not afraid of us at all and I even witnessed one dive bomb a man in order to steal his cake, plastic wrap and all (they are to Zhanjiajie what seagulls are to Aberdeen, only maybe slightly cuter).
From this point there was the option to take a cable car down to the bottom of the peaks or to walk down the steep steps into the valley. We chose to do the latter, purely because we didn’t want to pay the 72 yuan it cost to take the cable car. This turned out to be the best decision we could have made because as we began our decent we were treated to the most fantastic view of the day. Dozens of sandstone quartz peaks with forest running through them like rivers of green stretched out before us as far as we could see and we were the only people there to see it!
It took us about half an hour to get to the bottom of the valley, from which we could finally see the scale of where we had just been. On all sides we were surrounded by stone peaks towering above us like the skyscrapers of London or New York City. A river ran through the valley and we stopped for a while to take in the scenery, fully believing that there was no way we would make the last bus back to the hostel at half six. We followed the river between the peaks and finally in ones and twos started to see other people heading in the same directions, maybe we would make the bus after all.
About ten minutes from the end of the path we came across another group of Macaques, with a lot less people around to distract them from our presence one monkey took quite an interest in us and actually ended up on top of Karin’s head, leaving me with no idea what to do and my bananas were about one hundred meters back in Justin’s back pack. So for about five minutes Karin stood with a monkey on her head while I panicked about it doing a pooh in her hair! Finally the boys caught up and unfortunately I lost a whole bunch on bananas to the Macaques of Zhangjiajie’ National Forest Park.
Traumatising monkey experience over all that was left to do was walk back to the bus and try to process the incredible first day we had just experienced. We’re still not entirely sure how we managed to do a three and a half hour walk in just two and a half hours but somehow we did and I had the sore feet to prove it!