It occurred to me the other day that it’s been exactly 12 months since Joe and I, at the tail-end of an amazing staycation at his parent’s house first dreamt up the idea of leaving our London lives behind and moving to Asia. Fast forward one year and no one is more surprised than me that this plan, cooked up in the throes of extreme Sunday night blues, actually happened, especially since running away to travel is something I’ve endlessly dreamt about and bored my friends with since I got back from my last travelling adventure almost 7 years a go. Now we are out here the inevitable first question that we tend to be asked when we meet anyone new is ‘Why China?’ While I am not sure even I have a firm answer to that question it has made me reflect on just why we decided to jet off to such a far flung place when most late-twenty-somethings are sort of getting their lives together.
It’s no secret that I wasn’t particularly happy for my last few months in London. Whilst it’s filled with lots of lovely people that I miss very much, the astronomical rent, hideous commutes and anxiety inducing job hatred meant that I was pretty determined to leave the city at the earliest opportunity. So came the escape plan. Although the more sensible Edinburgh has been the long term plan for a while, both Joe and I had the feeling that it was now or never with regards to travelling and seeing more of the world on anything greater than a two week holiday. So we chose to go with now.
After a brief spell thinking that Korea was our destination of choice, we settled on China. I can’t lie and say that we settled on coming here purely due to romantic ideas of adventure – practicalities of easily secured jobs and more flexible (sort of) visa situations definitely played its part! However, the culture and sheer number of travel opportunities offered was a huge draw – the sheer scale of China means you could literally travel for years here and never see the same thing twice, a fact that is now stressing me out as I try to shortlist a Top 5 must-see list for our time here.
I was also hugely intrigued by the Chinese culture. Before leaving London, everyone was sure to warn us what a huge culture shock living somewhere like China would be. Whilst hugely daunting, that was also a massive part of the appeal – it’s a total cliché but I wanted to live somewhere that felt totally new and which hadn’t been completely westernised. To be fair, since getting over the initial hurdle of almost no one speaking English and me no Mandarin (and getting over my awkwardness about being substantially taller than 99% of the people here) I haven’t really felt like it’s been much of a shock to the system. Of course, there are most definitely some aspects of living here that I will never get used to – public spitting or urination anyone? – but living in such a metropolitan city like Chengdu it’s actually pretty easy to forget we’re in China most of the time.
What has changed is the pace of life, and not just because our working hours have been more than halved! Chengdu is known in China for being an incredibly laid back city and that’s certainly true and could not be more of a welcome change from the frenetic pace of London. The two main pillars of society here seem to be family and food. Whilst Joe and I may not have any family out here to spend time with (sob!) we are more than happy to get involved with the food – something that deserves an entire blogpost on its own at a later date. The earliest fact that stuck in my mind when researching Chengdu was that it was the first Asian City, and only second in the world after Popayan in Colombia, to win a UNESCO listing as a City of Gastronomy. As two people who love their food, this was a huge draw for Joe and I and since arriving we’ve discovered that Chengdu is more than deserving of this award– the food here is phenomenal. Nothing at all like the syrupy, neon sauce stuff you get from the Cantonese style take-aways back home. Here it’s all about burning chilli, numbing Sichuan pepper, intense flavours and copious amounts of oil – whilst it’s delicious it does take a whole lot of getting used to digestion wise.
Aside from providing us endless opportunities to feast, Chengdu is also a gateway to some of the most beautiful parts of China; Western Sichuan’s Tibetan plateau, around 10 hours by bus from us, is particularly high on our travel list. To the South we can cross to Yunnan, home to over half of China’s flora and fauna, and to go further afield we have a wealth of high speed trains or flights to choose from. Travelling to each of these places I am sure we will experience that infamous culture shock as there is literally nowhere else on Earth like them – that above all else is the main appeal of China and scouring the Lonely Planet before I left only cemented the fact that there is no other country that I would rather move to and explore as much of as possible.
Whilst my day-to-day life in China can drive me just as mad as London with the constant noise, questionable hygiene practices and downright mental driving, I haven’t regretted moving out here once. I feel happier and more relaxed than I have in a long time and if I could just move all my friends and family out here, or at least set up some system to ensure regular visits, life would be perfect. For now, homesickness is kept at bay with discovering new restaurants, mastering new snippets of Mandarin and figuring out where in that Lonely Planet we’ll go next. Having asked myself ‘What the hell am I doing’ several times in the run up to getting on that plane I am now totally content that choosing China was the best late-twenties-crisis decision we could have made!