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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!!
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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
I had a thought recently that maybe I could share what I’ve learnt over the past year on my blog for people who are looking into teaching English as a foreign language. Coming into a classroom as a new teacher can be daunting and sometimes it is nice to feel like there is someone right there with you when you are faced with forty (or more) new students all staring at you expectantly. That thought turned itself into an idea and that idea is TEFL Tip Tuesday!
Essentially every Tuesday I will post a tid-bit of knowledge, a helpful hint or a fun way to get your students involved in the classroom and really loving English. The novelty of having a foreign teacher will always mean that your classes will be more looked forward to than their usual school English teacher but it can be hard to get students to focus in class, especially when you don’t speak their language! Hopefully through these posts I can share with you what I find useful and maybe, just maybe, you will find these things useful too.
If you have any questions about teaching English abroad then please feel free to leave a comment below, message me on Instagram or pop me an email. I’ll be posting a blog with my most commonly asked questions soon as well, so watch this space…
For now why not check out some of my previous posts about teaching abroad:
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.
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…
This time last month was my first day in Sanxaing, I know I keep saying it, but I cannot believe how quickly time is going here. The last month has been an absolute blur of experiences but I am going to try my best to put them into words.
Our first week started with us finding a true hero, that hero is called Jack and he also works here in San Xin Bilingual school as an English teacher. We found Jack in a crowded cafeteria when I spotted the only other white person in the room and we descended upon his table like moths to a flame. He was then bombarded with the same set of questions twice as those of us at the end of the table struggled to hear the conversation. Luckily for us this was somehow not an off-putting experience for Jack and he has become our guide, translator, handy man, rice pudding chef and an invaluably useful friend to have around. He has helped us so much, we probably should have paid him some kind of fee to be honest! First stop on Jack’s guided tour of Sanxaing was a trip down the main road next to the school. Although affectionately known as “Death Alley” (due to the sheer volume of traffic, including busses, that somehow squeezes itself through the narrow street along-side pedestrians) by the foreign teachers we were quickly reassured that no one has actually died there… to the best of their knowledge. Here you can find everything you need; grocery stores, hairdressers, E-bike shops, coffee shops, the lot!
Next on to the main market street which runs on weekends, and then down to the shopping mall. This has everything from a two-story supermarket to a cinema, a KFC to more traditional restaurants and even a small arcade. Dinner was an experience that I’m sure no one will be forgetting in a hurry. Spicy Hero is a hot pot restaurant near the mall and really the clue is in the name, order spicy you will get spicy!! We ordered a mild spice soup for the vegetarians and plain soup for the meat eaters, but mild spice at Spicy Hero is anything but mild. I have never been reduced to actual tears by a meal before but here I was bright red, sweating and shivering at the same time and despite my best efforts eyes watering like someone was cutting onions under my nose. We took about two full cups of chillies and chilli oil out of that soup added litres of new water to it but in the end, we had to admit defeat and switch to plain soup. Mild spice in China is not the same as mild spice in Britain… lesson learnt!
That weekend we made the forty-five minute bus journey into Zhongshan, the neighbouring town, to visit some of the other interns and to see the Lantern Festival that marks the end of the Spring Festival celebrations. The festival took place in Sun Wen Memorial Park in Zhongshan which had been filled with lanterns of all shapes and sizes. Unfortunately, we missed the fireworks, but it was still incredible to see the park lit up completely by lanterns and LED lights. There are many theories as to the origin of the lantern festival, but its roots can be traced back almost 2000 years and it is most commonly believed to be linked to the reign of Emperor Ming of Han and the rise of Buddhism in China. In the past it was most likely that the lanterns would have been of simple design and would have probably been red to symbolise good luck going into the new year. Now the lanterns are shaped into everything from animals to buildings as well as the more traditional simple designs.
A trip to one of Sanxaing’s hot spring resorts provided us with the most relaxing day. There was a pool for every flavour you can think of; vinegar, coffee, rose petal, lemon, wine, mint, the list goes on! For around £16 you have access to the hot spring, swimming pool, buffet and nap area for the whole day (provided you don’t leave the resort). They will even help you organise a car back into town, just be prepared to wait a little while for it to arrive…
Jack also introduced us to his friend Enrico who owns an Italian restaurant in the centre of Sanxaing. Between them they have shown us some of the best places to eat around town, but we always go back to Enrico’s, and why wouldn’t we with Nutella Pizza and Tiramisu on offer for desert!
One of my favourite days so far has to be when we climbed the hill at the back of our school for sunset. From the top you can see the whole of Sanxaing and it was one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen. The hike up only took us about an hour and for the most part there was a very clear path through the trees, only towards the end did it get a bit overgrown, but we made it through with a bit of effort. Coming down we got a little bit lost as I suggested we avoid the overgrown path in favour of a path that looked a bit more manageable in the dwindling light. Despite this diversion we did eventually make it home and joined up with the rest of the group to go bowling at the bottom of “Death Alley”.
There is still so much more to see and do here in Sanxaing and I cannot wait to experience all of it. There are probably things that I have done here already that I have missed out from this post just because this month has passed by me in such a blur. I am slowly starting to figure my way around the area and to be honest as quickly as it has gone, it also feels like I have been here my whole life at the same time. I don’t usually find it hard to settle into a place, but I didn’t really think I would feel as at home here as I do. This is my home now, for now at least.
I have been in China for three weeks, I did mean to start these blog posts earlier but time has been flying by! Now that I have settled into my placement and got my timetable of classes, I finally have the opportunity to sit down and write about it.
My journey began with a couple of days in London to catch up with friends and, because it actually worked out cheaper to fly from Heathrow than Glasgow or Edinburgh, it just made sense to travel from there. London to Beijing involved two seven hour flights, one airport sprint and about zero hours sleep! Add this to a time difference of eight hours and it might just be understandable that I made a bit of a strange first impression on my fellow interns… Let’s just say that if you don’t want to be known solely for your favourite type of cheese, then maybe don’t spend ten minutes talking about Halloumi the first time you meet a new group of people. Luckily I wasn’t the only jet-lagged traveller in the group and soon enough the conversation had escalated to what can only be described as over tired nonsense, but hey if you can’t bond with a group of strangers over the classic Nintedo game Nintedogs and British tv drama Dr Foster then what can you bond over?!
Week one in China was orientation week; a chance to meet the rest of the interns, learn some Mandarin, gain some cultural knowledge and explore Beijing. First thing I did was join a couple of interns to a convenience store at the end of the street, this was definitely and experience! With my knowledge of Mandarin limited to “hello” and “sorry”, no existence of a queue system and a 100RMB note that was clearly far to big to be buying one bottle of water and a chocolate bar with, I have to say I have never felt more British in my life! Thankfully, we survived the ordeal and legged it out of there and back to the safety of the training centre until we had a bit more of a clue as to how to communicate with, well, anybody.
The first official day of orientation and with a good night sleep, a freezing cold “refreshing” shower and the shop incident pushed to the back of my mind we headed down for breakfast. I don’t know what exactly I was expecting but when I was met with a plate of rice and a boiled egg, I did wonder for a minute if I had slept in and somehow wandered into lunch time. It was breakfast though and I should have saved my judgements because it actually tasted incredible! For the non Coeliacs there was also a choice of interesting looking fried buns if rice was a bit too adventurous for a Tuesday morning.
Orientation began with a quick introduction about ImmerQi and what we might expect from our placements and time in China. We then organised Chinese sim cards (so if you have tried to text my old number I’m afraid I won’t have received it) and spent the majority of the remainder of the day using the WIFI, reasuring family members that we had survived the journey.
Day two and we were up bright and early for a Tai Chi demonstration in the grounds of the training centre, if the cold shower didn’t wake you up that morning then the temperature outside did the trick, but I would not have missed it for anything! The instructor was quite possibly the most chilled out person I have ever seen. He made each move look completely effortless as he flowed from one leg to another gliding through every motion with an ease that put us all of us wobbling and falling about to shame. He also had the best sense of humour, “attacking” some of the boys in the group to show why each step was important in terms of defending yourself against someone if they came at you in a fight.
After this we were taken to a Calligraphy class where we were shown how to write Chinese symbols with traditional brush and ink. It is fair to say my attempt was not the best in the class, but at the same time I don’t think it was the worst either, so at least I have that. (This is also where I learnt that “squint” is used only to refer to someone “squinting their eyes” in every other country apart from Scotland… where it can also be used refer to something being squint, or off centre as everyone else calls it!) Traditionally the symbol painted on red paper for the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) is done so with the paper at an angle. I was not very successful at this part of the task; for some reason, even though I started with my piece of paper squint it somehow ended up straight again. The important thing is I tried.
After lunch it was Mandarin class and then a group of us decided to take the subway system into the centre of Beijing. I always knew Mandarin was going to be hard but, man is it hard! A few more lessons are definitely required before I can attempt to have a conversation. The centre of Beijing was an interesting experience, I had been told about Chinese people taking photos of westerners on the street but I don’t think I fully understood what that involved. I am not exaggerating when I say that we were, at one point, surrounded by a group of about ten all trying to take photographs of us and telling us we were on tv.
The highlights of the week for me were definitely getting to explore the Forbidden City Gardens and visiting the Great Wall of China. The Forbidden City is breathtakingly beautiful; the moat was completely frozen over and the art work was so delicate and perfectly painted on to each structure it was like nothing I have ever seen before. We spent a whole afternoon just wondering around the gardens before heading back to the training centre, where I promptly passed out after such a full week.
Our last official day of orientation was our trip to the Great Wall of China. The Great Wall has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember and it was at the very top of my list (after visiting Pandas) of things I wanted to do while in China. It did not disappoint; the views were incredible before we even started climbing, some of the steps were higher than my waist and it was actually surprisingly warm considering how cold the rest of the week had been. It took us around an hour to reach the top of the section of wall we were climbing, including rest stops for photographs and water along the way. From the top the views were even better than expected and I have to say that it was the perfect way to end our first week 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…
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!
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).
It’s 12am, it’s pitch black, all you can hear is the sound of your own heart beat and someone being sick a few steps in front of you. It’s cold, it’s windy and all you have is a head torch to guide your way. It’s summit night on Kilimanjaro and it’s about to be the hardest night of your life!
I had such high hopes for this blog post, I was going to write notes from each day, record everything, do a video diary. By the time I got to camp on day one all I wanted to do was eat my popcorn, sip my tea, locate the nearest toilet, curl up in my sleeping bag and pass out! (Which is exactly what I did.)
Don’t get me wrong I didn’t for a second think that climbing the highest free standing mountain in the world was going to be easy, in fact a small part of me was convinced I couldn’t do it but I just told that part to go to hell and kept pushing on. The thing I found both this year and with Toubkal last year was that it didn’t seem to matter how physically fit you were if you weren’t determined to make it to the top. It was mind over matter with me, my body wanted to give up, it was falling asleep as I walked but my head wasn’t going to let that happen.
This is my Kilimanjaro experience (as well as I can remember) it day to day over the six days it took to complete the biggest challenge of my life!
Day one started at the Machame gate 1640m above sea level, it was a bit of a gloomy day so we didn’t get to see the whole mountain before the climb (probably for the best to be honest…) It was like walking right into the Jungle Book, hanging vines and stone steps all the way to camp. I was glad of the cloud cover if the sun had been out in full force the heat and humidity would have been unbearable. It was quite pleasant walk to Machame camp stopping for a lunch of chicken and chips under the trees about half way. A couple of times I felt I was going to tumble back down the path, my awful balance and walking poles being attached to my back pack were not helpful, but there was always someone behind me to give me that slight push I needed to correct myself.
At camp we met our porters who showed us to our tents (I’m just going to say now that my porter was the best human being I have ever met and I owe him so much because he pretty much did everything for me, including putting aftersun on my very burnt hands, and I love him). We were shown the mess tent and given a briefing for the next day and then it was straight to bed for me because it got unbelievably cold as soon as the sun went down!
Day two the sun was out and we raced the clouds up the mountain. I thought they were going to catch up with us but we stayed ahead of them until they couldn’t climb any higher. I found this day one of the hardest because we had to walk all the way to camp before lunch and it felt like a life time! I also dropped half of my NAKED Banana Crunch bar at our second snack stop and it was heart breaking. Staying at the back allowed for a lot more conversation though I felt like I got to know some of my Brunel team mates a lot better on day two.
Everyone told me about how beautiful the stars look from Kilimanjaro before I went but I can’t say I really saw them properly until summit night. They were there, I was just absolutely exhausted every night when we got to camp that I went to bed straight after dinner and looking up while walking in between 20 something tents is not advisable. A few people stayed up to watch the stars and came back to me with tales of shooting stars and the milky way but I just couldn’t keep myself awake to watch with them.
Day Three was acclimatisation day, we climbed high until lunch time and then back down to sleep low giving our bodies a chance to get used to a thinner atmosphere at higher altitudes. The climb to lunch was hard, breaks were very welcome, but I did not feel any symptoms of altitude sickness and made it to the Lava Tower in the first half of the team. After lunch I decided to stay back with the team members who were suffering from altitude sickness to make sure everyone was doing ok and to provide my encouragement. This was going very well until about ten minutes before camp when out of nowhere altitude sickness hit me and the entire contents of my stomach emptied onto the side of the trail. It completely knocked me for six. I felt dizzy, weak and wasn’t entirely convinced I wash finished throwing my guts up. My head guide, James, had to hold me up for the short distance to camp, my vision was blurry and I don’t really remember getting to the check in point. All I remember thinking was how impressed I was with the members of my team who had been dealing with this all day, I felt absolutely horrendous and could only imagine what it must be like to experience altitude sickness from the morning knowing how far away camp was! When I finally got to camp all I wanted to do was go to sleep but I knew that would just make me feel worse so I made myself go to the mess tent for popcorn and a hot cup of tea, followed by a handful of pain killers and a lot of water. Within the hour I felt absolutely fine again.
Day Four we tackled the Barranco wall. This steep ridge was an almost vertical scramble on which I ripped my nana’s walking trousers she had lent me, almost had my hand pulled off by the guides (they did not know about my dodgy wrist) who yanked us up that wall like their lives depended on it and saw the most spectacular view from above the clouds. This was actually the fun part of the day because they then made us walk down a valley, back up a valley, down another valley and finally back up a valley and into camp. What’s wrong with bridges Kilimanjaro?? I have never wanted to pee more in my life than the last twenty minutes of that day and I was so relieved (in more ways than one) to see a toilet block just out side of camp, there was no way I would have made it through check in without an accident occurring!
We had made it to base camp! There wasn’t exactly much time to celebrate though, we were to leave again at midnight for summit so it was dinner, toilet and bed! Having said that dinner was still an emotional meal; a couple of my team were very upset because they did not believe they could make it to the summit! I had full belief in every member of my team and to see them so upset made me completely break down into what was the first of many tears in the 24 hours that followed.
Sometimes in life you believe you have been super sneaky and no one could possibly know what you are up to! I tried to organise a surprise for my team along with the team leader from Brunel by contacting the teams loved ones asking for a letter of encouragement to read before summit night. I would like to think that most of the team were completely clueless but one member of RGU had asked me on several occasions if I was organising said surprise. Getting more and more frustrated at this members willingness to spoil the surprise for himself when he finally called me over after all the letters had been handed out I thought it was to gloat that he knew what was going on the whole time and I hadn’t surprised him one bit only to be handed a letter from my own loved ones and have to return to my seat feeling bad for all the times I told him to let it go! My letter is pictured below and while most of the team were sitting in their seats crying I couldn’t help but laugh at my mum’s favourite story of me and my stubborn ways!
So here we were, summit night, with two to three hours sleep my nervous chatter had already set in, I had one mouthful of “breakfast” and thought I was going to see it again almost immediately, the cold was unbelievable, the sky was glittering with star light and my water bladder had already frozen solid. For most of the climb I focused on Mars, it was usually directly in front of me and distracted me from the tiny head torch lights in the distance that reminded me of just how far we had still to climb. My day bag was taken off me by a guide almost straight way so I could focus solely on where to put my feet. This guide (who fell over once and scared the absolute living hell out of me, if he had fallen over then all I could think was that there was absolutely no hope for me and my clumsy self!) stayed with me the whole way to the summit and for the life of me I couldn’t pin down his name. I know I would never have reached the peak if it wasn’t for him, shear determination and a packet of Haribo Tangfastics that I had saved specifically for that night.
I almost gave up on several occasions, absolute exhaustion and fear threatened to overcome me at any moment. Every time we stopped for a break I thought I was going to fall asleep. When James said it was time to move again tears came from nowhere, but he grabbed one arm and my guide grabbed the other and hoisted me to my feet, up we went higher and higher until we started to see the sunrise over the clouds so far below us. That was the moment I knew I could do it, my phone had died from the cold so I had no idea what time it was but when I saw the sunrise below and Stella point above and beyond that Uhuru Peak I knew I was almost there, to give up now seemed as impossible as the whole climb had felt 6 hours before and I pushed myself that last hour and a half, to the Summit of the worlds highest free standing mountain.
I didn’t summit with anyone but my guide, I was about ten minutes behind the first group from my team to summit. When I got to the rest of the team I was swallowed whole by a group hug and burst into yet more tears at the sight of my team mates tears. Then there was the queueing for photographs (other groups had summited at the same time as us), the realisation that my camera had died from the cold, losing the friendly square that a kind man had given me for good luck on the bus to London, my phone getting a second wind and switching back on for photos at the summit and finally a member of my team collapsing from hypothermia in his legs*. This all happened in about 30 minutes and then it was back down the mountain.
Heading down was arguably harder than the way up. Firstly the ground was no longer frozen so it was like walking down the biggest sand dune you have ever seen in your life, secondly it was about eight in the morning and I had had about two hours sleep and thirdly there was no motivation left in my entire body. I’d made it to the top, I was done, I just wanted to curl up on a rock and go to sleep. This was not helped by the fact that every couple of meters I would fall on my back and lie there like an overturned beetle until the James caught up with me again and put me back on me feet. By about the fifth fall I told him I was staying put and he would have to drag me down because I refused to fall over again. So that is essentially what he did after I had one more cry, this time asking for my mum and pizza. He took my bag on his back, threatened to piggy back me down the mountain, took my hand and led me down the sand dune of death with complete ease despite his allergy to dust (wise career choice there…). When we reached solid ground I got a complete second wind and marched of into the distance only to be met with yet another impossible downward climb and had to sit for about 20 minutes for someone with a bit more technical skill to show me the correct path.
Finally, after what felt like a life time, I made it back to base camp. I was met by my porter who gave me the biggest hug and a cup of pineapple juice which lasted all of five seconds. He led me back to my tent, took my boots off for me, ran to fill my water bottle up, gave me a well deserved fist bump and zipped me into my tent. I should have had a nap here, I was exhausted so it should have been easy but I just couldn’t fall asleep! I spent the rest of the time we had at base camp packing as best I could with my sunburnt hands, eventually admitting defeat I had to get someone to help me stuff my sleeping bag back into it’s compartment.
We had lunch and then set off again down the mountain. I think we had been walking all of two minutes when I had to stop. I couldn’t breath properly, my vision was blurry and I was about 90% sure I was going to be sick. I was right. Up came my lunch, up came my pineapple juice, up came my Tangfastics and, you guessed it, out came the tears. Altitude sickness is not a fun thing, why it only happened to my on the decent I do not know but I am very glad that it didn’t happen before then because I don’t think I would have managed to summit if it had. Instead of the four hours it should have taken me to get down to the last camp of the trek it took more like six and it was pitch black by the time I arrived. My porter, being the absolute amazing human that he is, guided me to my tent, took my boots off for me and even offered to take my dinner to the tent. I refused this last offer as food was about the last thing I wanted. I struggled into my sleeping bag, closed my eyes and passed out till morning.
The last day was definitely the easiest but it also felt like a never ending trail of trees upon trees. I was impatient to get down but also very aware of how slippery the ground was and if I was to go to fast the likely hood of me ending up on my backside was very high. When we finally made it to the bottom there was an enormous sense of relief. I signed out, took of some layers, found my porter and that was it finally over. This is where my porter very kindly put aftersun on my hands for me and took my day pack off my back. He even carried it all the way onto the bus for me. The final day was a good day for chatting and reflecting on the day before. For myself it still sort of feels like a dream, I know it happened but there was such a big build up to that day and then for it all to be over already is just surreal. This was by far the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life, there is no way I would have made it with out the support of my team, my family, my friends and the amazing guides and porters.
I took on this challenge partly to prove to myself that it was possible (partly because a certain RAG chair who shall remain nameless convinced me it was a good idea) and also to raise awareness for an amazing charity who do work all around the world. If you would like to donate to Childreach International you can still do so on my fundraising page linked below.
*this team member is absolutely fine and still has full use of both of his legs. The guides acted amazingly and got him down to base camp quickly and safely and part from feeling a little bit silly for not listening to the head guide about wearing more layers no harm was done.