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.
I have recently been receiving a lot of messages about how I became TEFL qualified, how I got my placement and what company I used to get here. I do always try to reply to these as soon as possible but with the time difference between China and the UK, the not so reliable internet access here in China and working a five-day week; I thought it might be a good idea to put as much information as I can in one place. This is not to say I don’t want to be asked questions, I am more than happy to chat about my TEFL experience, it is more about making it easier for anyone looking for information on becoming an ESL teacher to find what they are looking for in one post.
How did I become TEFL qualified?
I completed I-to-I’s 120 hour online course. This course requires you to work through a series of modules on I-to-I’s website, at the end of each module you sit a mini test in order to be able to move onto the next part of the course. The tests do not count towards your final mark but you do need to pass them with a certain percentage to be able to move through the course. Once you have completed all the modules you then have to submit a lesson plan and an essay explaining why exactly you have chosen to carry out a lesson in this particular way. You are then given three hours to complete the final test which, combined with your lesson plan, determines whether or not you pass the course and become TEFL qualified.
If you pass the course you are awarded a certificate, make sure your name on this is exactly the same as it is on your passport, including your middle name. This is important if you are planning, which I assume you are, to get a job teaching English as a foreign language because most embassies require all of you documents to be exactly the same when they are handing out visas.
They will email you the certificate and you will also have the option to get a hard copy sent to you. Get the hard copy, you will need it when you start applying for jobs. I did not get the hard copy when I was based in the U.K. and now I may have to pay around £60 to get it shipped out here to China! Not ideal…
How did I find my placement?
I-to-I is partnered with a company here in China called ImmerQi. ImmerQi are who placed me in my current school here in Sanxiang, Guangdong. So really I didn’t have to do anything to find my placement.
I have since had to look for my next job which was easier than I thought it would be. My current school offered me a job here in the middle school. There are also a lot of companies that specialise in finding foreign teachers for Chinese schools and education centres, I had interviews with EF – Education First and TIC – Teach In China.
I-to-I’s website has job listings and placement options from all over the world, if this is your first time teaching abroad then I would highly recommend applying through I-to-I’s website as most ESL jobs require you to have at least one year experience in teaching before they accept a foreign teacher. This can also be the case when it comes to getting a visa, some countries give working permits or visas to people who do not have experience in the field.
Another thing to look out for is that a lot of countries, like Vietnam, require you to have a BA degree or higher in order to work as an English teacher in their country. Some countries will accept foreign teachers without a degree but the salary they offer you will be considerably less than those with a degree.
What company did I use?
As you can see from the two questions above I used more than one company to wind up in China. In fact I went through three companies in total:
The first company I used was STA Travel; STA, if you haven’t heard of them, is a student and young person travel company specialising in budget travel, working holidays and round the world trips. When I walked in to the Aberdeen branch of STA Travel, back in October 2017, I only had the smallest idea of what I wanted to do. I had looked into TEFL but thought I might have to go back to college in order to become qualified and after six years in higher education that was about the last thing I wanted. Essentially I wondered in, said “I want to travel the world, how do I do that?” and my travel agent Jordan helped me pick out a two year plan. Obviously that plan has changed slightly since arriving here in China but I never would have taken this first step if I hadn’t walked into the STA shop on a whim. If you are planning to travel on your own then I definitely recommend booking at least the initial stage of your trip with a company like STA, they have years of experience and a team of people ready to help you out if and when things don’t go to plan.
The second company I used was I-to-I TEFL. When I booked my Paid China TEFL Internship with STA Travel my I-to-I TEFL course was emailed to me directly. One thing to look out for with the course, that almost tripped me up, is to pay attention to your course deadline ( how many days you have to complete the course after you start) and when you actually need to have completed the course for your placement (these will probably be different dates). My dates only varied by a few days so I ended up getting very confused when I was asked almost a week before I thought I was meant to be finished, why I wasn’t finished…
Then third and finally I was passed on to ImmerQi. It was ImmerQi that I dealt with when it came to visa applications, arriving in China and of course they are who placed me after the orientation week in Beijing. To work or study in China you need a letter of invitation before you can apply for your visa. ImmerQi organise all of this for their interns before they leave their home country. The only downside to this process was that ImmerQi could not tell us where we were going to be placed until we arrived in China, for a number of different reasons. This meant that, because China has provinces stretching from way up North bordering with Russia to way down South in the Sub-tropics, I had to pack for any and all possible climates… no easy task when you over pack as badly as I do! Luckily I got placed in the nice warm Sub-tropics and the woolly jumpers have been in the back of my wardrobe since I arrived.
If you are considering teaching English abroad then I hope this blog post has been helpful to you. I 100% recommend becoming TEFL qualified, it is one of the best decisions I have ever made! My advice would be to go straight through I-to-I to become qualified and find your first placement if your plan is only to teach English abroad. If you are planning a Gap Year or are travelling for the first time then I would definitely recommend STA Travel, it’s always nice to know there is someone in the know available to you if you find yourself needing to change travel plans and they have a huge selection of trips to choose from.
If you have any questions about TEFL or life in China please leave a comment below or send me and email, I am more than happy to help in any way I can.
I am about a month away from completing my internship here in Sanxiang and the original plan was to move on from here to Vietnam at the beginning of August… but I just can’t quite do that, turns out China isn’t finished with me yet. I have been offered a job at the middle school here. It might not be teaching my adorable little first graders, but it meant a chance to stay in China for another six months, an opportunity I just couldn’t turn down!
There are so many amazing things about living and working in China, but I managed to somehow slim them down into my top ten reasons why I’m staying in China:
1.Life is Simple: I’m not going to lie, I found life in the U.K. stressful, the pressure once you come out of university to go straight into a job and start your career is a lot to handle! This is especially true when, like me, you aren’t even one hundred percent sure a career in your chosen field of study is what you really want. I was stuck working in the same part time job I had taken to get me through university. I was working to make money and as much as I enjoyed parts of waitressing, it was obviously not where I wanted to be. I tried to find a grad job (admittedly I didn’t try very hard) but found the process anxiety inducing. Some may say the same about uprooting your life and moving it half way around the world but for me it just made sense. Life in China is a simple as working at a job I love, it might not pay much but that has never been a motivation for me in terms of finding work. The hardest part of my job is planning a lesson that will keep forty six-year-olds entertained for forty minutes, then I get to go home and relax for the rest of the day! The most stressed out I have felt since arriving in China was the weekend where my USB stick went walk about and I thought I had lost all my lessons, then Monday morning it turned up in class, simple as that. This is possibly the least stressed out I have been in my adult life, that alone is reason enough for me to stay.
2. The people are friendly: It is impossible to walk anywhere without someone saying “hello” to you or waving at you from across the street. You smile at someone walking past and they smile right back at you. Westerners in China are somewhat of a rarity which means that quite often you will be stared at but not once has it made me feel uncomfortable or weird. They aren’t staring to be rude, but because they have most likely never seen a westerner before, that and the fact that pale skin is considered beautiful here and I have never been able to catch a tan in my 24 years living on this Earth! Almost anywhere you go in China you will be asked for your photograph, if you want to feel like a celebrity then this is the place for you! Maybe this is just because I live in a relatively small town, but I don’t think I have been anywhere in China where the people aren’t genuinely friendly. It is such a contrast to back home where, my tiny little village aside, smiles are most often met with a blank face at best and a suspicious look at worst. It’s just the British way, but I much prefer to walk through life smiling outwardly and receiving smiles in return.
3. Everyone wants to help you: Not only are Chinese people incredibly friendly but they also have the most generous spirits. They are so helpful it is almost unbelievable, and they don’t want anything for it. No matter if you are friends or complete strangers they will help you and expect nothing in return, except maybe a WeChat add. I actually had a shop assistant insist on helping me pick a deodorant only last week. I know it is their job, but where in the U.K. could you go and have someone actively try and help you pick out a deodorant without it being considered ‘a little bit weird”? Obviously, I needed no help in this task and yet I received it anyway, I already knew what deodorant I wanted before I went in there to buy it, but how do you explain that when your Mandarin level is below beginner? I also walked out with a VIP card so no complaints here!
4. The food: Unpopular opinion but I am not a fan of traditional British food. I find it bland, boring and mostly fully of meat, the only British tradition I am partial to is maybe “Chip Shop Chips” and even then, I would never say I crave them. In China finding vegetarian food is so easy and it’s not just a boring old salad like everywhere in the U.K. seems to want to feed us vegetarians. My first choice in just about every restaurant is, of course, egg fried rice but I have also found a love for Hot Pot (just don’t pick the spicy option), Chinese BBQ (grilled garlic aubergine and spicy tofu is incredible) and my new favourite meal Egg and Tomato. This is served everywhere from the canteen to higher end restaurants and I have even learnt to cook it for myself, I love it that much! The food in China is just some of the best food I have ever eaten. I eat so much healthier here and I actually want to cook for myself. For once in my life I’m not living off of pasta, grated cheese and tomato ketchup (although I’m not going to lie, there is always a bottle of ketchup in the fridge for emergencies).
5. Cost of living: Honestly, I am not lying when I say I earn next to no money, I am an intern after all, but my small monthly allowance is more than enough to live on and that is taking into account my ridiculous shopping addiction! I can do a weekly shop for around ten pounds if I am smart about it. If you know where to look for it, fruit and veg are so cheap it feels like stealing. I take away plain rice from the canteen for no cost every day to use when I cook my evening meal and even eating out never costs more than a tenner at a time (I’ve even seen us have a meal for two for under a fiver)! Everything is cheaper here, even alcohol; a cocktail can cost as little as three pound and there are no entry fees for clubs or bars. I get my nails done every few weeks, something I would never be able to afford back in the U.K. but here it only costs about six pounds! The cost of living in China made the decision to stay here all that easier.
6. Public Transport: This is something else that is amazingly cheap here in China, but not at the sacrifice of quality or cleanliness. I have used the subway, busses and DiDi (China’s answer to Uber) to get around in China and all three have been pleasant experiences. My most used form of transportation is probably the bus, it is cheaper than DiDi and there is no subway in Sanxiang as it is not a big enough town for such a luxury. The bus costs about 50 – 80p to travel between towns, some of which are about an hour away from us here in Sanxiang (imagine getting the bus from Aberdeen to Dundee for 80p). The busses are always on time, clean and they are, possibly most importantly, air conditioned! Take note First Bus and Stagecoach, China knows how to run a bus service.
7. Speaking Mandarin: I think learning another language is probably a plus side no matter where you choose to live abroad but honestly nothing makes me happier than when I say a full sentence (well an almost full sentence) to one of my students in Mandarin and I watch it blow their little minds! “Teacher you spoke Chinese!” and then they start talking to me one hundred miles an hour in Mandarin and I have to try and tell them that actually “Teacher only knows that one sentence in Chinese and now I have no idea what you are saying to me.” In all seriousness though I have never been the best when it comes to learning languages, despite really wanting to be able to, so when I pick up on random words or phrases that Chinese people around me are saying I feel like I have really achieved something. I am still nowhere near even being able to have a conversation in Mandarin and don’t even ask me to read the characters, but the longer I stay here the more I will pick up and it is definitely one of the best things about living and working in China.
8. There is so much to explore: I have been in China three and a half months and I have visited three of its provinces, I have barely scratched the surface of what this incredible country has to offer. Of the three provinces I have travelled to each one has me with a completely new and different experience. Firstly, there was my week in Beijing for orientation, this was a big city experience like I have never had before. from the bright lights to the crowded markets, the incredible great wall of china to the peaceful gardens of the Forbidden City; Beijing was a month of experiences packed into one week. Then there is the unreal natural beauty of Zhangjiajie Natural Forest Park in the province of Hunan. Sandstone Quartz pillars as far as the eye can see and more rain forest than anyone person could hope to explore in one life time all make Zhangjiajie feel like another planet and don’t forget the imminent threat of a monkey ambush to keep you on your toes. Finally, we have my current home province of Guangdong, I am discovering more and more about this area of China every day. I am still finding stumbling upon new places in my own town of Sanxiang let alone the bigger cities of Zhuhai, Zhongshan and Guangzhou. How can I leave now when China still has so much more to offer?!
9. I feel inspired here: I have always been a creative person, I didn’t choose to study a creative subject to pay the bills, but I had fallen out of love with my creative side back home. Maybe this is what happens when you work so hard at one thing for a long period of time (try six years of studying art and design in the same city you grew up in), but I think I just desperately needed a change of scenery. China definitely has no shortage of inspiration, whether that be for photography, blog post or any other creative projects I manage to sink my teeth into while I’m here! Living in China has definitely allowed me to revisit my creative side from a different angle and I find myself actively searching for places to go in my spare time that allow me to practice my photography, write an interesting blog post or even create exciting content for a video.
10. No two days are the same: When I tell people I teach the same lesson plan twenty times a week to roughly eight hundred students I guess I can understand why they might think my life can become a bit repetitive at times but every day is a completely different experience. What works in one class might be a complete disaster in another, what keeps one class entertained for forty minutes might only hold another classes attention for ten minutes and it is through these challenges that I find myself constantly motivated. At home I think I had fallen into a rut, working four or five days a week and spending at least the other two or three (if not more) in one bar or another, occasionally a club if we were feeling particularly adventurous. I’m not saying I hated my life at home or that I wasn’t having fun but I knew the world had more to offer me than this and I also knew that I had more to offer the world. “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” Maybe one page is enough for some people but for me, I need to fill the book and then start a new one.
So there we have it, I’m staying in China! Not forever, there are too many countries out there for me to pick just one and stick to it, but for now if you need me this is where I’ll be…