What Next?

It’s hard to believe, but we now have less than a month left in China. In fact, 3 weeks today we will be leaving Chengdu and flying to Shanghai for a last bit of exploration before returning to the UK and implementing our money-saving holiday ban for the foreseeable future.

Whilst I am undeniably excited to be so close to home time, as it draws nearer it’s starting to sink in that I won’t be back here for a long, long time and that makes me incredibly sad. I’ve harped on about the peachy lifestyle we have out here enough, but it’s not just the high ratio of lie-ins and afternoons off that I am going to miss. First and foremost, although it’s been a little removed from real life, Chengdu really has felt like a home. Despite rat dramas, utterly horrific neighbours and horrendous bathroom plumbing experiences, our little apartment has been the first home that Joe and I have shared. We’ve made it our own and whilst cosy and comforting may not be at the top of the adjectives list that I’d use to describe it, I feel strangely attached to our wooden bench ‘sofas’ and tiny-person-sized kitchen.

Thanks to the trial and error method of testing new restaurants to see if our digestive system can withstand the spice, oil and questionable hygiene, we’ve established a well-trodden network of local eateries and snack joints that help us feel less like clueless-tourists and more like slightly-knowledgeable-local-expats. And, take it from me, nothing makes you feel more settled than knowing where to get excellent noodles or dumplings and good beer!

So, what next?  Heading home, the next year is mapped out for me – a Masters Degree and part-time job in Glasgow. Finding a place to call home should certainly be a whole lot easier in wonderful Scotland and with 18 months worth of gossip, new babies and general life news to catch up on, I hope to intersperse long days in the library and tedious temp jobs with plenty of friend and family dates!

Unfortunately, shirking full time work for yet another year to be a penniless student does mean a new set of restrictions are going to be in place for all these grand plans – finances over distance this time. Having already missed so many weddings, parties and big life events it’s not without a lot of guilt that I already know I’m going to be missing quite a few more over the next academic year. But at least I should be on the same landmass as all the people I owe a making-up drink to once I have an actual salary again.

Of course, being the type of person who constantly obsesses about the future I can’t help thinking ‘What next after the next chapter?’ At the grand old age of 31, when most people are expected to have essentially sorted their shit out, I’ll instead be graduating for a second time and most likely, unemployed. Whilst this may not be the start to my thirties that I envisaged 10 years a go, I cannot wait to have this fresh start, a chance to find a job that I actually like and live and work in a city (location still unknown but absolutely not London!) that doesn’t make me feel like I might actually be going a bit mental.

And of course, whatever the future holds one thing that I do know for certain is that I will be back to China – although strictly as a tourist only.  This crazy and incredible country has been one of the best chapters in my life to date. So China, we might be on a break but it’s definitely not over forever!!

Yangshuo, Guangxi Province

A few weeks a go, after a morning of 5am starts, fog-related delays and hideous turbulence Joe and I were lucky enough to escape Chengdu for a few days to enjoy breathing fresh air and exploring in and around Yangshuo.

Located in Guangxi Province, Yangshuo is a Chinese watercolour brought to life – the romantic version of China you picture before arriving in its concrete jungle, smog-ridden reality. With jutting limestone karsts, towering over lush green plains and waterlogged paddy fields the scenery is absolutely incredible. Having timed our visit to coincide with rainy season – thankfully limited to just drizzle whilst we were there – a fairly persistent mist remained in place for most of our time there. Whilst it meant we didn’t get any sweeping views over miles of karst scenery, it added to the mystical atmosphere and we spent most of our time feeling like we’d wandered into some sort of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon film.

For once, I hadn’t planned a rigid itinerary for our mini-break so we were free to spend our days leisurely pottering around the countryside and fitting in our sight-seeing around the slightly temperamental weather.

Having being full of grand plans to cycle, but with the memories of my (slight) cycling-related temper tantrum in Dali lingering we decided to opt for the far lazier option of hiring our very first e-bike. Despite the fact they are ubiquitous on all roads here (and I regularly fall out with their drivers whilst cycling) I had steadfastly refused to brave riding one before then. As someone who is always slightly convinced of their imminent demise, I was pretty certain that the combination of me and an e-bike would end in disaster. Thankfully the power of my own laziness is enough to overcome my extreme caution and having found a jazzy, Jesus-emblazoned bike for hire we took her out for the day. Despite regular yelps of warning from me, Joe drove it like a boss even as the gridlocked May Day holiday crowds proved to be a baptism of fire.

Thankfully, as is always the way in China, as soon as you get off the main tourist trail you escape the crowds. Even at the famous Moon Hill, where crowds congregated en masse at the bottom, as soon as we set out on the short but steep trail to the summit we shook off the majority of people and enjoyed the beautiful views across the plains below in relative peace. The best part of the day was definitely saved for last though, when we ditched the tourist-map and instead meandered around narrow countryside roads, completely alone save for locals farming their land. Finding such a feeling of peace and space can sometimes feel like searching for the Holy Grail in China so it was with more than a little reluctance that we headed back into the crowds and traffic jams of Yangshuo town.

The following day we hopped back on the tourist bandwagon (literally, a sweaty, cramped bus!) and headed North along the Li River to then ‘sail’ back down on one of the thousands of ‘bamboo’ rafts available for hire. In actual fact made out of PVC tubing and equipped with a rather loud, smelly engine, the rafts are definitely not the peaceful, romantic modes of transport of yesteryear. Lack of authenticity aside, it was still a great trip with the views from the Li River being absolutely incredible.

Once back on dry land we were efficiently bussed round to the famous 20rmb scenic spot – so called because it is this view that is printed on the 20rmb banknote. Obligatory ‘20rmb in the foreground’ photo taken our final stop was the picturesque town of Xingping. Although the main strip has been taken over by the usual tourist tat there were still lots of lovely little alleyways and ramshackle building to admire and photograph.

In the hope of getting some better views, we decided to hike up one of the karst peaks. About 15 minutes into this (thankfully) short hike my aforementioned sense of doom returned as the steps became ever more slippy and steep, with sheer drops and rickety step ladders making me quite convinced that I was about to plummet off the side of a karst to my death. And who says I am overly-pessimistic?! Having unsurprisingly survived the climb the views from the top were beautiful and more than worthy of increased anxiety levels.

As evidenced by the huge number of Western tourists we saw over our time in Yangshuo – more than we’ve seen over the last year combined – Yangshuo and it’s neighbouring city, Guilin are key points on most holidaymakers’ China-itinerary. Whilst this has definitely had a negative effect on the cities themselves – both Yangshuo and Guilin’s centres are dirty, crowded, homogenous-tourist-shop-filled nightmares – I was hugely relieved that the surrounding countryside remains largely untainted. In a country where so many seem blind to preserving natural beauty when a new skyscraper can be thrown up in just 19 days, it is wonderful to visit places that are actually protected under ecological preservation schemes. I would thoroughly recommend it as a must-see destination and whilst I may never want to be part of a lanyard toting tour group, should we make our way back to China in the future I would definitely add Yangshuo to my must-see-again list.

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Wishing my time away

I am definitely someone who is guilty of wishing my life away. I think everyone does it when they’re young – desperate to escape school, dying to hit 17 for that first driving lesson, counting down the days to your 18th birthday, then your 21st, closely followed by the anticipation of your first post-graduation paycheque. However, even as the years march by at an increasingly alarming rate, and I am quite happy for my birthdays to just stop appearing so regularly, I still find myself spending a lot of my time focusing on the next chapter, wishing it would get here faster rather than appreciating what’s happening in the here and now.

Whilst I don’t think I am ever going to be the person who stops living for the weekend (even if I do manage to find myself a career I enjoy!) I am trying really hard to not spend our last 3 months in China just joyously ticking off the days and thinking only about how soon we can go home.

After what will be 18 months here, we are both definitely ready to head home and get back to normality for a while. The thought of being a mere train or Megabus ride away from our family and friends is enough to induce a full on adrenalin rush when I think about it. Add the thought of the endless brunch, cheese, chocolate, wine and carbohydrate options that will soon be available on our doorstep and I practically explode with glee.

Of course, coupled with all the excitement is a slight sense of trepidation about leaving our relaxed lifestyle out here to settle back into something far more reminiscent of real-life. It’s the same for everyone when they come back from a holiday – questioning whether you remember how to be responsible and capable of managing a daily routine. Only this time our holiday has been 18 months rather than a fortnight. As well as wondering if I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have full-time commitments, I also have to face my fears that my old friend anxiety will be there to greet me at arrivals. Having successfully left 18 months of panic attacks, tears and dread behind me on the airport tarmac when we left London I am hopeful that the running-away solution has provided me with a lifetime cure from that particular brain-bad-habit.

And it’s this reminder, that China has been a fantastic, responsibility-free and ultimately sorting-my-life-out experience, that helps me appreciate just how lucky we are to have had this experience. And ensures I continue to appreciate it until we leave. Arriving in Chengdu last February, I literally did not have a clue what I wanted to do with my life. A half-cooked idea of teaching was quickly shelved when I realised that a career with kids is really not my bag, and after a few months of musing about the merits of opening a sausage dog themed coffee shop versus going back to university, I thankfully decided the latter option was probably more sensible. So now the next chapter is a Masters Degree in Glasgow…who knows what comes after.

Coming back to the UK to study for degrees, get jobs, save for a house and other grown-up things it’s safe to say that we are not going to have the chance to do something where we can afford to be so totally selfish and irresponsible again for a very long time. As such, I fully intend to spend our last 3 months of relative freedom enjoying as many relaxed mornings, lazy afternoons and chilled evenings with friends as possible. As well as making sure we tick off every adventure plan we can stretch our extra ESL earnings to cover. With a trip to Yangshuo, a visit from some VIP family members, hiking in the mountains of Western Sichuan and a city-break in Shanghai scattered nicely across our remaining weeks, it’s safe to say we’ve still got a lot of China things to get excited about.   So whilst I might still wish away my work hours, it’s OK if mid-July takes its time to get here.

 

The Contrasts of China – Shaxi and Lijiang

Living in a city devoid of almost any architectural history, historical landmarks bulldozed long a go to make way for shiny high rises and the ubiquitous (and hideous) white tiled and blue-glassed apartment blocks that are so inexplicably favoured here, it’s safe to say that I am used to China’s seeming lack of regard for architectural preservation.

However, in recent years the authorities seem to have switched on to the fact that tourists – both Chinese and foreigner alike – actually like to escape the concrete jungles and catch sight of a bit of ‘Old China’. Hitting the tourist trail in Yunnan at the start of the year, we had a welcome break from the dual carriageways and skyscrapers and visited places that fit neatly into the China I had imagined before we arrived – pagodas and timber, mudbricks and narrow alleys.

As beautiful as many of the towns and villages that we visited were, what’s hard to escape in many of these ‘Ancient Towns’ is the fact that really, they are not very ancient at all. Instead they are replicas, restored and, in some cases, entirely rebuilt in recent years to satisfy tourists’ demands. Whilst in some cases restoration efforts have been fantastic, a peaceful town tastefully restored, in others it’s like stepping into some kind of Disney version of China. Having visited the ‘Epcot World Showcase’ at Disneyworld many years a go, this same artificial, plastic version of a caravan town with not a timber beam or brick out of place is readily available in much of China.  In fact, Chengdu has its very own red-lanterned, perfectly cobbled ‘Ancient Jinli Street’ which is significantly younger than I am!

Nowhere is the divide between tasteful and terrible more clear than between Shaxi and Lijiang, two towns which, whilst only a couple of hours from one to the other by bus, could be worlds a part. We visited both on our trip – Shaxi we loved, Lijiang we loathed.

Our dislike of Lijiang came as no great surprise. In the lead up to our visit, reactions to Lijiang fell into two distinct camps – Westerners who hated it and locals who loved it.   Having hoped to buck the Westerner trend, on arriving we quickly joined their ranks. Whilst it’s an undeniably beautiful place, filled with endless picturesque options for the selfie-stick toting majority, it lacked any authenticity. Wandering around the alleys, finding somewhere that wasn’t a gift shop selling identical over-priced souvenirs seemed nigh on impossible.

As night fell, the reason it’s a particularly popular place with Chinese teenagers and early-twenty-somethings became apparent – anywhere that wasn’t a gift shop or food stand became a techno-blasting, pink lit, balloon filled nightclub with an endless stream of podium dancers and live performers massacring Western ballads. Whilst undoubtedly amusing, it was also just fairly hideous…and weird. The propensity for neon lights and balloons in clubs here is something I just can’t get my head around.

Having been on my own teenage holidays where all I was interested in was karaoke, wearing minimal clothing and long vodkas I completely understand why a weekend away to Lijiang must be such an exciting prospect for young people here. And perhaps it’s just a sign of my getting-old-and-boring that I disliked it so much. However, it’s hard to escape the thought that Lijiang is an opportunity wasted. With a rich minority population, the chance to show a underrepresented piece of China’s cultural history has been foregone, replaced instead by buckets of alcohol and vomiting youths. If a cookie cutter town where you can shop for beads and embroidered fabric before partying until dawn is what you’re after then Lijiang is your place. Otherwise, I’d recommend avoiding.

In complete contrast to Lijiang is Shaxi. A tiny hamlet that’s off the beaten track between Dali and Lijiang, it’s incredibly easy to overlook it as a destination. In fact, with only a page dedicated to it in my trusty Lonely Planet, we would have bypassed it ourselves had it not been for the recommendation of our friends who had been the previous year.

Once a crucial node on the old Tea-Horse Caravan Trails that stretched from Yunnan to India, stepping into Shaxi feels like you are going back in time – the fact that it’s a popular location for period Chinese movies is no surprise at all. Our first reaction when we arrived was that it was almost impossibly picturesque and having not really known what to expect we were pretty much blown away. Shaxi is a prime example of restoration done well with its cobbled streets, ancient square and mudbrick lined alleys lovingly patched up. Thanks to a joint project between the local government and, oddly enough, Switzerland, the jewel in Shaxi’s crown – its large public square and theatre – underwent an expert facelift in 2001, becoming a magnet for anyone in town with a camera.

Admittedly, with no highway to bus tourists in directly, it’s easy to see why its significantly quieter than Lijiang. However, given just how lovely it is, we were very (and pleasantly) shocked at how peaceful it was. The occasional group of Chinese tourists would flock in en-masse, presumably taxied in en route to Dali or Lijiang, and then disappear just as quickly. Finding anywhere so quiet and relaxing in China is no mean feat and we loved our 3 leisurely days there, walking through the surrounding countryside, drinking coffee, eating incredible deserts and retiring to bed ridiculously early after a couple of glasses of the local plum wine.

Having bumped in to a couple of other Westerners who’d visited Shaxi later on on our travels, the overarching consensus was always the same – everyone should go! Although, actually, given that one of the best things about it was how few tourists there were maybe I should shout about it a little less loudly!

Photos below are, unsurprisingly, only of Shaxi.

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Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge

It’s been very quiet around here recently. With almost two months off work (thank you university job!) I’ve been on, not one, but two holidays sans laptop, therefore forgetting all about this corner of the Internet for a while! Most recently, I had 3 glorious weeks in the UK where I filled every gap between visiting family and catching up with friends, stuffing myself with carbs and chocolate.  Having been back in China for just under a week, with a day of kindergarten teaching already under my belt, it really feels like I have never been away!

Prior to my trip home I enjoyed an amazing 2-week adventure around China’s Yunnan Province. In the planning pipeline for months, it was an incredible trip which more than lived up to expectations and provided plenty of fodder for this here blog…should I ever actually get round to writing about any of it.

One part of the trip which absolutely must be written about however, is Tiger Leaping Gorge. Literally the first picture I saw when I cracked open my China Lonely Planet many, many months a go, Tiger Leaping Gorge and all it’s snowy peak and dramatic cliff glory has been at the top of my must-see list ever since.

Like almost every other traveller who, like us, opts to hike the gorge over 2 days rather than take the easy and exceedingly crowded option of being bussed through, our trip began in the small and rather grotty town of Qiaotou. Grey and industrial, its place as a gateway to the gorge is literally the only reason to ever go there. Having journeyed from Shaxi, about 2 hours south of the town, we arrived ridiculously early in the day due to our own lack of clarity about how easy it was to make that particular journey. Not setting off on our hike until the next day, we spent several long hours huddled by a fire at Jane’s Tibetan Guesthouse. Having expected basic accommodation, Jane’s managed to surprise even our low-expectations by being considerably dirtier and more depressing than we had anticipated. They did however have electric blankets and a hilariously angry pug so not all bad! Despite our rather dismal surroundings, that night honestly felt like Christmas Eve, my levels of excitement had become so ridiculous.

The next morning, armed with backpacks mainly comprised of Snickers bars and Oreos we set off. After 2.5km walking along the paved road, we came to a dusty track leading off to the gorge’s high trail. This track was steep and only led onto even steeper things. Having surprised myself with my levels of endurance during our Gongga Shan trek I had rather optimistically hoped that my fitness levels would be just-about-OK for this particular walk. It didn’t take long for me, my lungs and my legs to realise that actually, I was still hideously unfit and that it was going to be a bloody hard slog. Scrambling up over rocks, high quantities of sugary snacks were consumed regularly as I struggled to not lie down every few meters. Thankfully the views as we gained ground were more than enough motivation to keep going as the promise of the gorge opening out in front of us loomed closer.

A couple of hours in we hit the infamous 28 bends. Described in the Lonely Planey as being a gruelling series of switchbacks that even seasoned hikers find exhausting I had been slightly dreading it. Particularly after spending 2 hours gasping up trails, the whole time thinking ‘Oh my God, the 28 bends are only going to be worse, I really might die!’ In actual fact, whilst very steep and slightly demoralising at times to zig-zag back on yourself it wasn’t much harder than some of the earlier sections we had covered. And although I admittedly had to stop at around bend 17 because I thought I might actually black out, we made good progress and got through them in under an hour!

Reaching the top, looking out over the gorge we were treated to some of the most beautifully dramatic, and vertigo inducing, scenery I have ever seen.  Standing there, looking at landscape so wonderful I was reminded just how privileged I am to have had this ‘China chapter’ for the last year and a bit – something that had been a little too easy to forget towards the end of 2015 as the work-study-sleep monotony set in.

Thousands of pictures taken, we headed on following the now, mercifully, much flatter trail as it wound along the side of the gorge. Our destination was the inaccurately named Halfway Guesthouse, actually over two-thirds of the way through the gorge and we arrived, more than ready for a cold beer, in the late afternoon. Having read less than flattering reviews of the place online and expecting another Jane’s experience, we could not have been more pleasantly surprised. Basic but clean and with the most spectacular views imaginable, I could not recommend it highly enough. We ate dinner that night with a group of fellow hikers, enjoying a couple more well-deserved beers before retiring to bed with pretty sore legs!

The next morning we knew we had a much shorter walk ahead of us so enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before donning our backpacks and setting off. With my legs suffering from the day before, there was thankfully only a little bit of climbing. Instead the majority of that day’s walking was spent negotiating the steep descent back down to the road – this time it was my knees rather than thighs that were screaming for mercy! Ever a glutton for punishment, when we reached Tina’s Guesthouse – the final destination for lots of hikers – we opted to push on to Walnut Garden, rightfully billed as a far more picturesque alternative to the concrete blocky, rather bleak Tina’s. We made this last part of the journey via Middle Gorge, descending yet further down towards the river where we could see the infamous stone from which the tiger is said to have leapt across the gorge, giving the place its name.

With my puny little legs already having endured quite the hike, the last push back up out of the gorge to our home for the night, Sean’s Guesthouse, absolutely finished them off. Within about 2 minutes of sitting down with our obligatory post-check-in beer, they seized up and sentenced me to a solid 2 days of hobbling around like an eighty year old. However, it’s safe to say that limited mobility was entirely worth it. The whole experience of walking the gorge was incredible and having been slightly worried that I had perhaps hyped it up too much it surpassed my expectations! In short, I should always trust in the Lonely Planet – there’s a reason the gorge is featured on one of its first pages!

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This has been 2015

As an expert procrastinator, I spend many a lazy morning in bed, break at work or time that should be spent working, reading various blogs. And as the New Year rolls closer I’ve been reading a lot of 2015 roundups. Always one to quite happily hop on a bandwagon I thought I would do one of my own, particularly as I think it’s safe to say that not many years of my life will involve quite as much change, adventures or nerves as this one!

Bye Bye London

Just one month shy of my 6 year anniversary in London, and after approximately 3 years of talking about doing it, I finally donated half my clothes to charity, got rid of the collection of bedding I had ruined with fake tan, packed up my remaining belongings and left London behind. A city I both loved and hated I was more than ready for our break-up. As much as I loved (and still love!) the people I know there, I was more than sick of the Victoria Line commutes, evil landlords and the feeling that I was throwing away my money to support a lifestyle I no longer wanted. Whilst I definitely miss having endless options for both mindless entertainment and culture just a stones throw away…and ready access to M&S and Waitrose, I am more than happy to leave my London living days in the past. More greenery and a whole lot less rent are my criteria for our next move!

Becoming an Auntie

Just 15 days before I left for China, my nephew was born! Having last seen him in real-life when he was a tiny, tiny human of just 10 days old I have spent the last year watching him grow up on FaceTime. I’ll next be seeing him almost a year after I said my goodbyes and I cannot wait. It remains to be seen how he will feel about the realisation that there are two copies of his Mum – identical twin Auntie could well be amazing or utterly terrifying!

Beijing Culture Shock

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Our first taste of China was Beijing. Although it was only 10 months a go, it feels like a lifetime since we were deposited in a freezing Beijing Hutong by a very irate taxi driver, overwhelmed, jetlagged and realising that we should really have learnt some Mandarin before we departed the UK. Although we had a great time exploring the city and the Great Wall it’s fair to say that we were both pretty dazed by the culture shock and madness of Chinese New Year tourism. So much so, that it almost feels like it was all just a surreal dream when I look back on it now. I would definitely love to go back one day when it’s both warmer and a whole lot less terrifying! Plus I’ve never quite got over the guilt that I spent the day we should have been at the must-see Summer Palace fast asleep instead.

New Home, New Job, New Lifestyle

Within a fortnight of landing in China we were in Chengdu, had a flat and were well on the way to getting our first pay cheques as demo classes and job offers rolled in. In a country as fond of paperwork, hoops to jump through and general disorganisation as China, it’s amazing that settling in happened so quickly!

As I wrote about in this post, it didn’t take long for Chengdu to feel like home, perhaps aided by the fact that we swapped our 9-5 working weeks for roughly 12 hours a week in total! These days we’re working significantly more but still have more free time than we could have dreamt of in London. Safe to say, it’s going to one heck of a shock to the system when we come back to full time studies (me) and full time jobs (Joe) next summer!

 Walking. Lots of Walking

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With the urban setting of London not providing much opportunity for hiking or hill walking, I was most excited about getting the walking boots on and hitting some mountain trails in China. Admittedly, recent months have not seen much countryside or hiking but the spring and summer months saw me do more walking than over the previous 6 years combined.

Forever grossly over-estimating my own fitness levels and indeed enthusiasm for outdoor pursuits, we first tackled Emei Shan just a couple of hours by train from Chengdu. Ignoring all advice to make maximum use of public transport and instead subjecting ourselves to hours upon hours of stairs, it was a beautiful but exhausting trip and involved a lot more concrete steps than I am used to in the hills! Therefore when the opportunity to truly get off the beaten track was offered I couldn’t resist and we found ourselves spending 6 days and 5 nights trekking around Gongga Shan on Western Sichuan’s Tibetan Plateau. Having already written about this trip extensively I won’t ramble on about it but it is without a doubt one of the hardest yet best things I have ever done. And taught me that you should never, ever stray from Skippy peanut butter.

Unexpected Malaysian Trips

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Having experienced immense amounts of visa-related angst before we even left the UK it was somewhat inevitable that it was all going to go horribly wrong as our first visa expiration date approached. And go very wrong it did! Having learnt a harsh lesson that you should never, ever book flights before your passport has been adorned with your next visa, we unexpectedly found ourselves heading to Kuala Lumpur for a 2 and half-week holiday this summer!

After initially shedding some very stressed tears about the logistics of it all, this break was actually just what was needed. 16 glorious days of decompressing after several months in China, enjoying easily available Western food and drinking way too much delicious white wine. Cheers Pa!

 Hong Kong

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A city that’s always been on my travel-list I was pretty delighted that a ‘mandatory’ trip to Hong Kong was required over the summer in order for me to finally secure my work visa. With visa paperwork taking a refreshingly short amount of time we had several days free to explore the city.

Cramped, boiling and always busy, Hong Kong still managed to be one of the best cities I have ever visited. We ate budget food until we wanted to explode, wandered around the steep streets at our leisure and even had an unexpected catch up with an old UK pal!

Christmas Season in China

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Even though Christmas isn’t celebrated in China, it turns out foreigners are still required to judge a children’s English-speaking Christmas themed talent show. Of course they are.

Officially one of the maddest things I have taken part in since being in China, watching an endless stream of children perform Christmas carols, plays and dance routines was probably the weirdest way I will ever spend Boxing Day. Having dreaded it from the moment I was signed up as a judge, it was actually pretty hilarious and if nothing else, the interpretative belly dance to ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’, as performed by one of the Chinese teachers makes for one of my best China-tales yet.

………………….

As 2015 comes to a close, it’s both sad and exciting that we are now on the China home-straight, with only 6 short months remaining before we pack up once again and start our move home – hopefully via a couple of exciting destinations before we officially land back in Blighty. Writing this list of ‘2015 highlights’ it’s been great to remember just how much we have squeezed in to our time out here so far.  Naturally, as we enter 2016 I have a long list of trips to make, things to see and places to eat that all need to be ticked off before our time in China comes to an end.  Definitely a lot more fun than my usual New Years Resolutions!

Happy New Year everyone.  I hope your 2015 has been just as wonderful!

Only in China

China is home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, the most moving and unbelievable history and what I honestly believe to be the world’s best food.  But undoubtedly, in amongst all this greatness are some of the weirdest and most hilarious oddities you will find on Earth.

It’s these things that aren’t written about in the guidebooks and which you don’t expect before you arrive here.  Compiling your own personal ‘Weird things I see in China’ list is all part and parcel of being an expat out here.  And honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Normal is boring!  Stay weird China, you excellent, infuriating, wonderful, baffling place!

Running Commentary

Apparently, my day-to-day life as a foreigner, however mundane can still be fascinating to the locals. Whilst the constant shouts of ‘laowai’ or ‘waiguoren’ are downright rude and annoying, when observers get a bit more creative with their foreigner-spotting and provide a running commentary of what I am doing for their pals it’s hard not to find it entertaining. No matter how insignificant, it appears a foreigner doing pretty much anything warrants comment. My personal favourites (heard regularly) are:

  • When stopped at any junction or red light: ‘Ha, the foreigner is riding a bike’.
  • In the supermarket ‘Look the foreigner is buying bananas/tomatoes/potatoes *insert entirely nondescript grocery item here*’
  • On the bus: ‘Oh, a foreigner is on the bus’
  • Whilst getting off the bus: ‘The foreigner is getting off the bus’
  • In a restaurant: ‘The foreigner can use chopsticks’

All riveting stuff as you can see. I am sure these comments are sometimes accompanied by none-too-flattering observations but other than constantly hearing mutterings of how tall I am being bandied about I thankfully don’t understand any of the more personal remarks!

Cold Drinks Give you Diarrhoea

Admittedly, now we are in the throes of a grey and freezing winter here I am entirely on board with the habit of only drinking warm water. However, when I first arrived I was completely baffled by the arrival of tepid water whenever liquid refreshments were requested. And I was downright annoyed by the fact all water coolers are in fact falsely advertising their services, instead only dispensing a choice of either lukewarm or bloody boiling water, even in the height of summer.

Even with my tastes for warm water developing I still find it bizarre to walk into any convenience store to find that the rows of fridges, packed with iced tea, beers and juices are never actually switched on. In fact, 9 times out of ten the bottles found in there are actually warmer than those on the main shop floor. It gets even more odd when at a restaurant you have to specifically request that you want your beers served cold, at which point you are usually met with an incredulous double-checking of the facts before a mildly chilled bottle is produced from the depths of the storeroom.

The reason for this aversion to ice cold beverages is due to the Chinese-belief that cold drinks give you diarrhoea. Now, in a city where oil and chillies are the main components of the absolutely delicious but digestively lethal Sichuan cuisine, I think it’s fair to say that the temperature of the drinks is the least likely of culprits when it comes to explosive stomach issues. However, the healing properties of warm water cannot be debated here and should you ever feel slightly under the weather, whether with aforementioned digestive troubles or the common cold it can be almost guaranteed that the first thing any kind local will offer you is a cup of warm water.

Weather Proofed Bikes

As I have previously written about, e-bikes and bicycles are prolific here in Chengdu and two wheels are still the most popular form of transport even as the weather turns icy and we are treated to regular rain showers. As such, people must ensure their bikes – electric or otherwise – are geared up for any weather eventuality. The range of all-weather accessories you witness, particularly on e-bikes is quite impressive. My personal favourites have to be the huge mittens, essentially resembling extra-padded oven gloves, attached to each e-bike handle to ensure the rider keeps their hands warm. As the weather worsens often a backwards puffa jacket is added to these, forming some form of weird duvet/coat hybrid that keeps your front half warm and dry whilst the rest of you remains exposed to the elements.

Of course, no truly efficient bike would be complete without its very own umbrella. These are used year round – in the summer to shield the user from the sun and in the winter to provide basically no shelter from the rain and drizzle. Given that the bike-lane driving here is hazardous at the best of times it seems that a lot of road users like to add an extra level of daring by choosing to have their umbrella mounted with the pole smack-bang in the centre of their field of vision. Because nothing aids your navigation skills better than obscuring your view of everything in front of you.

Kept in the Dark

On the subject of interesting driving, now that my commutes are mainly carried out prior to sunrise or post-sunset I am realising that the lack of headlights is not just confined to e-bike drivers. Instead car drivers favour the no-headlight approach too. Who needs them when careering down the city’s jam-packed roads with no street lights anyway?

Staff Dance-Offs

I think my personal favourite of all the hilariously weird things you see in China has to be the workplace dance-offs I frequently witness. Be it estate agents or beauticians starting work in the morning or chefs and bartenders preparing to start their evening shifts, it seems that the number one method for getting your staff ‘in the zone’ is to have them stand out on the street and participate in some kind of group chant before breaking into a perfectly choreographed and very vigorous dance routine. One of my favourite surreal moments happened just the other week as I was strolling back from the supermarket and came across about 15 chefs, kitted out in their paper chefs hats, boogying away on the pavement whilst being yelled at by an enthusiastic young woman at the front. It took all my willpower not to stop and film them.

Perhaps this is what businesses in the UK should look at introducing next time they force their employees to go on the universally dreaded team-building day!

Dog Fashion

Anyone who knows me knows that I am actually obsessed with dogs. My Instagram feed is 99% dogs, I regularly send my friends videos of dogs and barely a day goes by when I don’t talk about how great life will be when I finally achieve my dream of owning a sausage dog – 2016 is going to be my year, I can feel it!! So imagine my delight when I moved to China and discovered that cute dogs are very much in vogue here. And no self-respecting pooch in Chengdu is complete without a perfectly groomed coat and its very own wardrobe.

Whilst I do question the cruelty of cramming your dog into clothes and dying its fur, it’s impossible to deny that it’s flipping hilarious to see a toy poodle bounding down the street with a better outfit and hairdo than its owner. Whilst no dog has yet been able to beat a toy poodle I witnessed rocking a full bee outfit in the fashion stakes, coming in a close second are the two chihuahuas I often see being walked by a very grumpy, slightly unkempt man who are always in eye-catching matching outfits…usually featuring fairy wings.

Not Sweating the Small Stuff

It’s been hard to think of things to write about recently! With permanent, contracted jobs and completely mismatching schedules, Joe and I have effectively been tied to Chengdu for the last few months. In fact, bar one epically long (and sorely misjudged) cycle to a village 30 miles outside of Chengdu a few weeks a go, I haven’t left the city since August. Having spent my first few months out here craving a routine, I have now, somewhat inevitably, become slightly bored with the monotony of my work-sleep-day off-work–study routine. Believe me, I have already told myself off several times for being one of those terrible people whose never going to just be happy with my work-life balance!!

That said, I am very much enjoying my new job and my itchy feet are shortly to be satisfied with our upcoming 2 week adventure to Yunnan which promises 14 days of eating, cycling, hiking and soaking up new scenery and experiences. Following that trip I am jetting back to the UK for a 3 week visit which will fall almost exactly a year after I left. Having not seen my wonderful family or friends for 12 months I am already so full of emotions about seeing them all again that I very nearly bawl my eyes out with excitement just talking about it. All Scottish stoicism will be dying a death as I walk through the Aberdeen airport arrival doors!

With our ‘China Adventure’ being a little less adventurous of late, I have been very conscious of how easy it could be to start picking holes in our day-to-day lives out here. With my circle of expat acquaintances expanding I have really noticed how easy it is for expats to fall into a cycle of bitching about China and essentially looking at it as a place that is inferior to wherever their respective homes may be. Although I hasten to add that my main circle of friends are all a delightfully positive bunch! At a recent comedy gig I attended, the compere poked fun at this trend, with the clientele of a particular bar, well known as a black-hole of expat whining, being on the receiving end of some fairly unflattering (and not terribly funny) jokes. Lack of laughs aside, he made a very valid point – why do people come here and see the differences in culture as nothing but terrible. If your life out here is that miserable then surely you can recognise that as Westerners, we are privileged enough to hold enviably valuable passports that grant us the freedom to globe-trot relatively freely! Exercise this freedom and go somewhere new!

I too have been guilty of China-bashing. You just have to read a couple of the blog posts I wrote at the height of our visa stress and my homesickness over the summer to see me bitching about what drives me mad about living out here. And while those things do still drive me a bit nuts on a fairly frequent basis, I can now see how insignificant they are. They are so trivial they can barely tip the scales towards negativity. For example, my frustrations with being unable to communicate (something that is entirely my own fault) are outweighed by the enjoyment I feel about actually using my brain again as I slowly make my way through my current Mandarin textbook. And the mini-fist pumps I give myself when I cross a ‘Mandarin milestone’ such as arranging repairs with my landlord via text solely using Hanzi or finally telling my neighbour to stop bloody yelling at his poor child (long story!) are way more heartfelt and rewarding than any metaphorical back-patting I gave myself in my previous jobs.

Ultimately it’s essential to remember that as soon as you leave the comforting borders of your home turf, there’s always going to be culture clash. 6 and a half years a go, just moving to London was a wake up call as I adjusted to the every-man-for-himself attitude on the tube and resolutely avoided eye contact with all strangers. Visiting home I had to remind myself that outside of zone 6 you say thank you to bus drivers as you disembark and strangers chatting to you is a sign of them being friendly rather than mentally disturbed.

Leaving the familiarity of your own small pond to experience new places, whether a new town, city or country is all part of making the most of life and expanding your horizons. Niggles and annoyances are inevitable but without learning to accept this you are pretty much guaranteed to drive yourself mad.

Of course, it’s undeniable that moving to China brings with it way more cultural differences than just moving to the next county, or even country, over. A recent thread I found on a Chengdu forum called ‘Weird Things I’ve seen in China’ made me howl with laughter as I related to almost all of them (and I am of course compiling my own list to share on this blog in the future). Sadly it didn’t take long for this thread to turn nasty at the hands of aforementioned negative foreigners but before it did it was an excellent reminder that these, often baffling, differences are frequently hilarious and at the very least make for an excellent ‘This one time in China…’ story.

Therefore, although it’s a little early, my New Years Resolution for 2016 is going to be to make the most of my last 7 or so months in China and stop tying myself in knots over the little things. So I’ll be reminding myself that I love my parka and should therefore enjoy the fact I have to wear it indoors at all times and look at the 6am Chinese Opera wake-up calls as a far more cultured alternative to my alarm. All joking aside, the key thing I have to remember is that the whole purpose of our move to China was to experience somewhere completely new while visiting as many new places as possible. Have we achieved and will we continue to achieve these aims before we move home? Yes. So really, what else matters?

Christmas in China

I was just doing our daily bottled water run to the local convenience store when I heard my first Christmas carol of the year – an incredibly low tempo and slightly depressing rendition of ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’. My initial reaction was to wonder why on earth they were playing it at such a random time of year before I remembered that it is very nearly Christmas season – in my book you have to wait until December before cracking out the songs and decorations! Back home in the UK, it’s all John Lewis adverts (which I’ve still not seen), terrible X Factor contestants gunning for Christmas Number 1 and sparkly M&S TV ads showing off their Christmas nibbles – what I wouldn’t do for some of their brie and cranberry filo parcels about now!

Over here in China it’s hard to believe that it’s that time of year again! Particularly because Christmas is not recognised as an official holiday or celebration, given that only around 1% of the population are Christian. Instead it’s February’s Spring Festival and its accompanying red envelopes of money that is the big thing here! So it was a bit of a surprise to hear any form of Christmas music and, perhaps rather cynically, I assume it’s mainly being played for the benefit of the relatively large expat community that live in my neighbourhood. Or maybe the shop-owner was just completely unaware of its seasonal significance given that it was an English language song!

Despite it not being an official holiday over here, Joe and I are determined to celebrate in our own way and are full of grand plans to somehow prepare a roast chicken, stuffing and roasties in our toaster oven. I use the word oven loosely to describe this particular piece of kitchen equipment – it’s essentially a large box with a top and bottom grill that’s partial to burning anything and everything as well as giving you a good electric shock if you happen to touch its metal outsides while turned on. This doesn’t stop it being the best thing we have acquired since moving here! I actually have a full day’s work at the university on Christmas Day itself so will be leaving cooking duties in the far more capable hands of Joe while I attempt to teach some form of Christmas themed lesson to my students!

Initially rather gloomy about teaching on Christmas Day, I am now seeing the benefits of this arrangement. Knowing that my sisters, brother-in-laws and nephew will all be in Aberdeen enjoying my Mum’s amazing Christmas dinner, it’s easier to not feel homesick if my day out here just doesn’t feel like Christmas at all! It also helps that I have informed my Mum that it would be great if we could have an extremely belated Christmas dinner when I am home in February…although I’d settle for just a plate of pigs in blankets smothered in bread sauce.

I’ve also been exercising my limited crafting skills to prepare some decorations we can put up once we’ve crossed the crucial December threshold. It remains to be seen whether paper snowflakes and cardboard Christmas trees will look any good or indeed survive the onslaught of our paper-munching cats.

It’s not unexpected to feel a little sad that I am so far away from all my friends and family as they get into the Christmas spirit and I am sure that both Joe and I will suffer from the inevitable fear-of-missing-out as our Facebook newsfeeds are flooded with photos of parties, presents and all that Western food we’re craving. However, it’s also easy to remember that this is one Christmas that’s going to be totally different from the many, many more we have to come! As I sat around the table stuffing myself with turkey last year, even with our flights to China booked, I can honestly say that I couldn’t have imagined I would be seeing in 2015’s Christmas Day in Chengdu. So whilst we are swapping the Waitrose bakery aisle for hotpots and noodles this year, I am most excited to conclude our 2015 in China and see where on earth we end up next year!

Kids Today…

It occurred to me yesterday that it’s been a year since I handed in my notice to my old boss in London. Although I then had to work out a very long 3 month notice period, I can still remember how much of a relief it was to finally quit and not have to keep the whole moving-to-China thing a huge secret anymore. It was also at this time, as my colleagues asked lots of questions about where I would be living, what I would be doing, how I would make money, that I began to get exceedingly nervous that I was never going to be in receipt of an actual paycheque ever again.

Fast forward 12 months and lo’ and behold I am back working at a university but this time in a very different capacity – rather than organising lunches and receptions, I am now delivering 14 classes a week to a total of around 600 undergraduate students! My new job title is Oral English Lecturer or Oral English Teacher, depending on which piece of documentation you refer to, and 5 weeks in, it’s safe to say I am enjoying it a million times more than teaching kindergarten kids.

Having been offered the position way back in May, and subsequently spending all summer in various stages of visa-related angst, actually starting to teach seemed like a distant, and at times impossible, task way off in the future. As September loomed closer I began to get pretty bloody nervous about swapping my one-to-one classes with kids for standing up in front of up to 60 young adults at a time. In classic Chinese style it didn’t help that literally no information was provided by the university – all I knew was that I was starting sometime in September so should probably be prepared to down tools and get myself off to work with minimal notice.   Which is basically exactly what happened.

Possessing an intense hatred of public speaking, I felt physically sick on that first day as I loaded up my Powerpoint and prepared to spend the next 45 minutes introducing myself and playing ice-breaker games with my students. Thankfully it turns out that Chinese students are a whole lot more enthusiastic and generally supportive of their teachers than their counterparts in the UK – I say this as someone who spent roughly 80% of my first year lectures asleep, hungover or playing hangman with my pal.

It’s not just their general enthusiasm for learning which contrasts with my university experience back in the UK. Having expected to feel like I was lecturing adults, it actually still very much feels like I am teaching kids. The students here seem so much more sheltered and possess an immaturity that makes them seem so much younger than first year students in the UK. This is not surprising considering they have spent the majority of their lives so far in an education system which largely quashes free-thinking and instead teaches them to memorise everything by rote. Their teenage years are spent focused on learning, leaving them little to no time to be independent and build their own hobbies, interests and social activities. Even after they come to university they are not granted anything like the freedom I was when I first flew the nest back at 18 years old. Far from spending all night in the student union, the first and second year students here have strict curfews and power is cut off to their dorms at night so they can’t even while away the midnight hours online.

Of course, it wouldn’t be fair of me to apply this ‘sheltered and young’ description to everyone I teach but it can certainly be applied to the bulk of the students I see. Whilst it can be hugely frustrating to ask a question to students still so shy that they become mute or find that their off-the-cuff presentations are actually memorised from online sources word-for-word, this relative innocence makes for a lovely bunch of young people who largely lack any sort of ‘too cool for school’ attitude and instead try as hard as they can to be great students. A prime example of this was when I asked for volunteers to be my class monitors. Those who stepped up have since been brightening up my days with emails stating how honoured they are to help me and regular offers to clean my board or help me pack up my bags at the end of their classes. Can I imagine an 18 year old in the UK doing this? No.

Another huge perk of the job is the creativity it allows me when it comes to lesson planning. Having spent the last 8 months mainly teaching a well worn loop of lessons about colours, shapes and animals it is amazing to move beyond the realm of picture flashcards and embarrassing songs to think up of engaging and fun lesson ideas. So far we’ve had World Leader Elections – an experience which completely shot down my preconceptions about young people’s thinking in China as they championed gay rights and equality for women – and roleplays about fake girlfriends and the art of lying, with future weeks holding Oscars acceptance speeches and a Dragon’s Den competition.

And the absolute best part of the new job – holidays! All 2, fully paid, glorious months of them next January and February! So whenever I might get a little bored of delivering the same lesson for the 14th time that week I just need to remind myself of the 2 week trip to Yunnan I have coming up next January, followed by a 3 week homecoming next February and I am reminded that I am unlikely to ever get such excellent working benefits again!