5 Things I Miss About China

Dodgy “Chinglish” translations should also really be on this list…

It’s more than a month since I arrived back to the UK from Beijing, and in the typical fashion of a freshly-returned, well-travelled and irritatingly nostalgic bore (if you hate reading solipsistic indulgence, don’t read on), I’ve been musing over what I miss the most about expat life in China. I could also say that these are aspects of China which I’ll be happy to be reacquainted with if (hopefully, when) I return at some point in the future, in whatever capacity. These are just five things which I thought of really quickly off the top of my head, I suppose in some sort of order of how much my life is simply a misery without them.

 

5.        TRANSPORT.

Some love two-day-long train journeys, or the cities’ occasionally pungent subways, or the buses, and some loathe them. I had some really memorable nice train journeys (such as the 35-hour train to Xinjiang in the far west), although I also (as I imagine any commuter would say) found the twice-weekly subway journey to my English teaching job mind-numbingly dull. Yet the ease and cheap price at which you can get around both Beijing and China makes a laughing stock of the UK. I’ve never experienced a line closure, strike or delays in transport anywhere in China. A single-use London Underground ticket costs about £4. In Beijing, it’s 20p. That’s all I’m saying.

4.         “FOREIGNER” CONVERSATIONS.

This is probably the most unexpected one on here, but striking up a conversation with a total stranger (or having one started for you) is by no means uncommon, especially if they somehow pick up that you can speak a bit of Chinese. They can strike at inconvenient or stressful times (such as one example of comparing tuition fees in China and the UK while we were trying to haul heavy bags through a bus station), which sometimes makes you want to strike back with a good kick, but it’s all part of the experience and, most of all, 9 times out of 10 it’s out of well-intentioned curiosity and interest for your life.

(A side note on conversations – and something I’ll also miss – is being able to talk about people in English in crowded places on the assumption that they probably won’t understand. I wouldn’t recommend this 100% of the time, though, after a few embarrassing experiences.)

3.         PRICES.

It’s not as cheap as it used to be, and in certain places it’s all too easy to get ripped off (*cough cough the Silk Market*), but everything is generally cheaper in China than in the UK. Transport (as I’ve already mentioned), food (as I’m about to mention) and services are all significantly cheaper than at home, which left us more money to go on trips exploring the China outside of Beijing.

2.         GOOGLE MUSIC CHINA.

This really would have been at number 1 if it wasn’t soon to be taken down because of some strategic business reason. Basically I downloaded a huge amount of music (with any artist or album already released for a few months available), for free and legally. I still have no idea how the whole funding/copyright issue worked. If it were still around, then it would probably encourage me to become one of the first people ever wanting a VPN to China rather than out of China (which is what many Chinese-based expats do to circumvent Internet censorship and access Facebook, YouTube etc.).

1.         FOOD.

Obviously this is the main reason I’ll come back to China. If the bland anglicised nonsense that we Brits buy at the local takeaway is good, then the real thing is mind-blowing – it’s a huge variety of food cooked in all sorts of ways and in all sorts of sauces, from filled steamed buns (包子baozi) and dumplings (饺子jiaozi) and big oily crepe-like things called 煎饼jianbing to fried noodles and spicy home-style tofu. There are the chickens’ feet as well, for the real adventurous types. Some people are put off Chinese food when they come to China (and fair enough, because it’s really different), but I honestly can’t say how good the real thing is. The best thing of all – we ate out in restaurants pretty much daily, and it rarely crept above £2 per head.

 

It’s great being back in the UK now for lots of different reasons, although I’m finding it hard readjusting to being extorted on the trains, not having my blonde hair scrutinised and fondled by strangers, the moral dilemma of “do I or do I not pay for music”, and Marco Polo’s bastardisation of noodles. It’s nice to know that all these things will be reversed when I go back, hopefully sometime soon.

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The Return…

So yeah, the blogging thing didn’t end up working for much longer after about May, although it had a fair run.

I did a whole load of getting around China in July and August (Sichuan with my sister who came over from the UK, Nanjing, Huangshan, Hangzhou, Mount Sanqing (especially awesome!), Wuyishan (meh), Quanzhou, Xiamen, Guangzhou, Kaiping, Macau, HK – so yeah, quite a bit). Memorable experiences:

  • Pandas in the Panda Research Base near Chengdu in Sichuan (standard, really)
  • 4 hours of strenuous steps up Huangshan, freezing camping overnight on the top, misty but spectacular sunrise, crowds, 8 hours of up and down to the bottom of mountain
  • Mount Sanqing, camping without a pillow but with a yowling cat outside keeping us awake all night, freezing, but waking up at 4am to see the sunrise, above the clouds, spectacularly blue skies and an awe-inspiring walk along a stone pathway clinging onto a completely vertical cliff face. Pretty much the most memorable experience of China.
  • The Guangzhou smog and heat
  • Days/nights out in Hong Kong, followed by kicking back on the beaches with white sand and clear water, as well as a day hiking the MacLehose Trail to sections of isolated coastline.

So yeah, this year has overall been a great experience and, even though I feel that it’s all been a whirlwind of travelling, there’s so much more to see and do in China – and I’m determined to go back. Most of all, the south west (the typical “Chinese” scenery of Yangshuo, and especially Yunnan province). Further delving into Xinjiang (in the north west) and, although currently difficult, Tibet are on the list as well.

The situation with me now is that I’m preparing to head back to Oxford in about two weeks while currently running a marathon trying to catch up with the work that I should have done in China instead of exploring the country. I’m going to carry on posting China-related stuff, fingers crossed.

What’s coming up…

So the next few weeks are going to be go-go-go in our household. This is what’s lined up:

  • This week, friends from the UK are coming to visit for two weeks. We’ll be spending time taking them around Beijing and then we’ll go with them to Shanghai and Suzhou.
  • It’s going to be another mountain climbing trip, but this time to Huangshan. The scenery there is meant to be notably better than Mount Tai, and it’s a climb which requires camping at the summit, as well.
  • For the first week of May, there’s a toss-up between South Korea and Xinjiang (far western, Muslim China). I’ll decide on which is most affordable nearer the time.
  • At some point among all of this, there are murmurings that some of our group may take a day-trip to the Ming Dynasty Tombs, located just to the north of Beijing.

Of course through all this mayhem it might mean that I’m stretched for time to write this blog, so apologies in advance.

Welcome! First impressions and future goals.

Thanks for taking time to have a look at my blog! If you want to know a bit about me before getting into reading my blog posts, take a look at the About Me page which you can access by the tab at the top of the page.

I’m currently sitting here writing this back in the UK, having already spent a good 4 months in China (from late August, up until December) previous to Christmas. I’m at the end of a month’s break from classes and will be heading back to China to continue my studies this week. I really regret not having kept a blog (or any kind of record) up until now, so this is where things will hopefully change! When I have a period of few interesting things to write about in the future, I will try to rack my memory back to these previous trips, which included:

  • Hohhot, Inner Mongolia (including a trip to the grasslands)
  • Shanxi province (Datong, Taiyuan and Pingyao)
  • Tianjin
  • Xi’an
  • Qingdao

It’s been a jam-packed four months since I first arrived in China (the first time I had visited Asia, let alone China), so there’s no way that the following account can do it justice, however I’ll do an extremely brief run-through of my first experiences in China.

First came the trip to Hohhot. It was a fairly big mistake to go on this trip at that time – I had less than 24 hours to settle in Beijing before jumping straight onto a bus. I was not alone – there were two of my classmates from the UK with me – but together with my first experience of intense jet lag, having to haul a year’s worth of luggage around, doubts of whether I really wanted to continue studying Chinese, uncertainty about where we would be living for the following year, the inevitable impact of a foreign environment upon one’s immune system, the onslaught of 24/7 Chinese and culture shock, it is definitely an experience that I will learn from. The biggest lesson was that the latter of these factors is a force never to be under-estimated; I did not imagine that the change of surroundings would have such an impact upon my frame of mind. In retrospect, Hohhot is in fact not a bad place, and I dare say I wouldn’t say no to another trip there in the future. I might write another post in the future, detailing what we did in Hohhot.

Having safely returned to Beijing, I was reunited with the remaining six classmates with whom I would be living for the next year. It was a time of apprehension and excitement for all of us, and many among the group did not have the faintest idea of what to expect. We stayed for two weeks in accommodation on the campus of Peking University, whilst spending a few days house-hunting. There is a big difference between this process in the UK and in China: in the UK, it is not uncommon for months to pass before a buyer has chosen and finalised the purchase of a new house, yet in the China, the process happens in a day. It was admittedly a long day, but we had seen all potential houses and chosen where we would live. The process took place entirely in Chinese, which made the process ever the more tiring. It was at a time like this that I was extremely thankful to be with other classmates, whose collective vocabulary and comprehension of the infamous Beijing accent are the reason why we have a roof over our heads in Beijing! We left the campus accommodation and moved into or flat, and after a very thorough scrub of every surface in the flat and a handful of trips to IKEA, we had a permanent base in Beijing, and the city was starting to feel more like home. Here is a picture of our apartment block, situated within a compound of many other similar apartment blocks in Wudaokou.

Our apartment building, located in the vicinity of Wudaokou

Classes got going, workloads got piled on, bikes got bought, Internet (finally) got sorted out, and our McDonald’s got accustomed to the frequency of our visits. (Just so you know, Chinese food is great, and we’ve firmly established favourite haunts for dining out most evenings, but a portion of fries is a nice break from time to time!)

After a short while, we got down to the routine of life (or rather taking our lives in our hands) cycling along Chengfu Road to and from class, and explored many different corners of the city. We have found Beijing to be an immensely varied place, with narrow, scrubby alleyways (hutongs) shooting off wide motorways heaving with traffic, tiny, dilapidated restaurants nestled among complexes of gargantuan, modern skyscrapers, and low-income manual labourers brushing shoulders in the streets with high-earners from China’s new sector of twenty-first century global business. It is an incredibly interesting place to spend a lengthy period of time and I feel that the longer I spend there, the more I seem to understand the many faces of this huge metropolis.

But now, let’s look to the future! I’m really looking forward to embracing a little bit of insanity and plunging into the deep midwinter freeze of Harbin in early February (as soon as I’ve arrived back in China, after a quick night-stop at our apartment in Beijing). Of course, the world-famous Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival will be the reason for our timely visit to this city, located in the Heilongjiang province of China’s far northeast. Time and funds permitting, I also hope that later in the year I’ll visit:

  • Shanghai
  • Hangzhou
  • Suzhou
  • Nanjing
  • Huangshan
  • A variety of places in vast and mountainous Sichuan province, including Chongqing, Chengdu and Mount Emei.

Of course I’ll be spending the majority of my time in Beijing, so I’ll give lots of further updates on my impressions of life in the city and Chinese society from the viewpoint of a foreign student.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you stay tuned!

James