Getting attacked by gangs with water pistols, etc.


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Dongguan, China

This is well and truly my home now! I am totally settled – I have a routine, I’ve got a bike, I’ve got a gym, I know which buses take me where, I have a favourite place to buy snacks/fruit, I recognise some of the locals, and I know my way around Houjie. Awesome!
Having a bike in China is… interesting. It’s like having a constant stream of near-death experiences. I try and avoid busy areas as much as I can, although to be honest as long as you are constantly aware and ready to brake if you need to, you’ll be fine. Everyone rides bikes here, even children! The thing that makes it scary is that everyone in China just constantly beeps their horn – they seem to do it instead of indicating, or even if I’m just standing at the side of the road and they think I’m going to walk out in front of them (which I’m not, I can see them!). So when you’re on your bike and you’re constantly hearing horns right behind or beside you, it makes you jump a bit and you think they’re honking at you. Also apparently there is no highway code in China. This basically means there are no rules on the road… cars go through red lights, they drive on the wrong side of the road (bikes do too, it’s seriously annoying), they park in the most random and inconvenient places… like the middle of the road. Crazy China. I love having a bike though, it’s so convenient and also useful for exploring.
Week 2 at Dao Ming school left us all completely and utterly drained. Such a tiring week, we’re still getting used to teaching I guess and planning is still taking a while. Still loads of fun though! We observed a few other lessons to get some ideas for our own lessons, which was useful.
The plan was to go to Foshan that weekend, which is a few hours away. In the end though, we just weren’t prepared enough – turns out there is so much to do there and so we would probably have to travel down on Friday after school and book a hostel, so we’ll do it another weekend. And I’m glad we hung around our area – we heard that nearby Dongkeng was hosting a massive waterfight in the square, as good luck for the New Year, so some of us decided to go. Best New Year ritual ever! The idea is that the more wet you get, the more luck you get in the New Year. I say Dongkeng is nearby, it took us 2 hours and 3 buses to get there… that’s ‘nearby’ in China! It is still part of Dongguan. Luckily buses are a few pence each so I didn’t mind the long trip, I even managed to get a few naps in; true China style (they can nap anywhere, even standing up on a super crowded bus).
I don’t think we quite knew what we were letting ourselves in for with this waterfight. We kind of guessed that, being Western, we would be targeted, but we had no idea as to the extent!! We got off the bus quite a way from the square and decided to walk there, as soon as we got off the bus there were cries from all around as Chinese people armed with enormous water pistols ran at us and started drenching us with water! People who lived in the apartments above were throwing buckets of water down, and within 30 seconds we were all soaked through. We rushed to buy some pistols so we had some chance of defending ourselves, and a nearby woman helped us fill up with water out of her bucket which was nice of her! It was all still quite tame at this stage, but we started the long walk to the square and the closer we got the more people there were – this waterfight must have gone on for miles, all the way down the streets of Dongkeng, it was so huge! It started to get way more intense as we neared the square, there were several people in gangs with matching clothes or water pistols, some of them even had their own flag, they were lethal! We were hopelessly outnumbered especially as we all kept losing each other in the crowds. Sometimes all you could do was put your hands up to surrender and let them soak you until their water ran out. The funny thing was that some of the Chinese people in this water fight were practically dry – we were soaked through!! The gangs were definitely targeting people and we were a pretty obvious target, being the only white people there! Everyone had their phones out videoing us and taking pictures, we will no doubt be all over WeChat (the Chinese version of Facebook). The only photos I’ve got are from the very beginning or the very end – there was no chance of getting a camera out in all the craziness once we got closer to the square!
Some people tried to help us – the police got involved at one point, they were in a car and rolled down their window to tell everyone to stop, everyone just started squirting at the police instead, so they gave up. A few of the gangs asked us to join them and they protected us for a bit, but again gave up after a while when they realised what a liability we were! We actually never even made it to the square, we reached a point where the mobs of people meant we could go no further; we literally couldn’t move. So we had to turn back. This was after about 2 hours of being constantly soaked! Seriously fun, and so tiring. Awesome day. And I guess we get good luck now…
Got back quite late, it was nice to get dry. Spent the evening at the food market, which is the best place for street food in Houjie. It was the first time I’d had dinner there as we eat in the school canteen on weekdays. It’s such an awesome place in the evening; there are loads of different stalls doing hotpots, BBQs, dumplings, stir-frys, and other tasty foods, and they set out chairs and tables across the whole market. I went for some BBQ food which was quite spicy and really good. They like spice here! Can’t wait to try some more dishes on the weekends.
Apparently it’s quite common to see animals like pigs or sheep being slaughtered at the market, and there was a dead sheep by one of the stalls that night. The next day it had been skinned and hung up – every bit of it. I can imagine it’s not pleasant to see an animal being slaughtered, but at the same time that is how we get meat…
On Sunday I needed to get the gears on my bike sorted out, so I headed into Houjie. Had a nice chat with the woman in the bike shop and she recommended a restaurant for lunch, so I headed there. Got excited when I saw a picture of what looked like spaghetti bolognaise on the menu, for a very cheap price, so I ordered it… it turned out to be nothing like spaghetti bolognaise, and it tasted really weird! Not sure what it was at all, I ate half to be polite and then just picked up a snack after. After a gym session I had a nice wander around Houjie on the bike, posing for some photos with giggly Chinese people (standard) and I’ve definitely got the hang of where places are now.
That evening, me along with the other foreign teachers at Dao Ming (Catherine, Andreas, Mikkel) had been invited to dinner with one of my Grade 4 student’s parents. It was a really nice evening; her mum is such a good cook, we had some really delicious Chinese food, and I chatted to my student and played with their kitten. Great weekend – now into week 3!


Settling into school life


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Dongguan, China

As I am writing this I am already in my second week of teaching. We have 18 weeks working here I think and I can already tell my time here is going to go very fast. I’ll talk a bit about my first week of teaching and also settling into Houjie.

So I woke up at 7am on Monday morning and we were at the school before half 7 to have breakfast. I was introduced to the fact that a breakfast of noodles and dumplings actually could be delicious – the breakfast in Beijing I found practically inedible, but down here it was really really tasty (I actually missed the Chinese breakfast over this weekend!). Every day they have these steamed buns called baoze (not sure if that’s the right pinyin spelling), which I love so much. Each day of the week I have 4 classes to teach, plus on Monday I have an extra class called VIP class, with the 20 students who are best at English in the year. It’s a pretty long day, but teaching is really fun. The children really like foreign teachers, because we do games and activities in our lessons so I think they look forward to English classes. All day I hear excited ‘Hello!’s from pretty much every student I pass. My lessons last week all went really well so I was relieved! Some classes are noisy but not badly behaved at all, and if students can see that I want to speak then they tell others to be quiet.

After Tuesday (which is the day I have grade 1s), my voice hurt a LOT. I have to try hard to speak loudly, I don’t naturally have a loud voice. But I think I must be getting used to speaking loudly because my voice isn’t hurting that much any more! So the structure of the school day goes like this: every Monday is the Flag Raising Ceremony from about 8am, it lasts for an hour. We don’t have to attend but I watch some of it out the window; they have commentary in English and Chinese and sing the National Anthem. As I’m walking through school in the morning, from all the classrooms I hear lots of chanting and repetition – this is how they learn things in China, and when they are reading or studying they say it out loud. Proper lessons start around 8:15 (apart from on Mondays when they start later). After a few lessons the children have morning exercise, which is bizarre to watch – some days it is very organised, the children line up in rows and do synchronised exercises to music. Other days they just get out their skipping ropes and hula hoops and do what they want – on those days, we supervise them and play with them, they were impressed with my hula hooping skills but not so much with my skipping skills! The playlist during this break is hilarious though, they play things like Ke$ha and Maroon 5! There really is such a stress on learning English here. During the synchronised morning exercise the other day they started to play Pirates of the Caribbean. Me and Mikkel both burst out laughing, and seeing 3000 students exercising to Pirates of the Caribbean music was quite something!!

As the day goes on, they have short sessions for writing, video watching and eye exercises inbetween lessons. There is also a nap time after lunch, which is an hour and a half! So awesome, the children all just nap with their head on their desks – Chinese people seem to be able to fall asleep wherever. The teachers nap in their offices as well, and I’ve been sleeping too on particularly tiring days. During nap time, some of the students mop the floor. Saves on cleaners I guess. They also each have a plant to look after that they leave outside their classroom, which is a nice idea and gives them responsibility.

At the beginning of school, the end of a lesson, and the end of the day, the whole school blares out music. It’s actually quite nice walking into school at the beginning of the day and hearing some calming Chinese music. At the end of the day they have been known to play things like My Heart Will Go On…

We have Mandarin classes twice a week after school, until 7pm, and when we leave school there are still so many kids around, which is really bizarre. They seem to practically live at school! No wonder they need nap time. Even if we are walking around Houjie late at night there are still so many very young children playing in the streets, or sitting with their family in the shop they own. It’s a really nice atmosphere, but at the same time I’m thinking… why aren’t they in bed?!

As well as a busy week at school, we also had an explore round the main street in Houjie, where all the shops are. Just… crazy! Cars/bikes/rickshaws everywhere, lights everywhere, people everywhere. They have these massive loud speakers outside all the shops which blurt out music, apparently they’re illegal but if the police take them away the shop just replaces them again. It’s busy and hectic all the time, and again a really awesome atmosphere. I joined a gym this week too, there’s only one woman there who speaks English and she giggles so much and gets all embarrassed when she talks to us, it’s really funny. I feel a lot more settled now I have a gym to go to!

The four of us at Dao Ming school got into a little routine last week – every day at the end of school and just before dinner in the canteen, we would walk to this coffee shop called Coffee 85 and relax for a half hour with a drink. It’s quickly become our local coffee shop! The menu is in English and the drinks are excellent and a great pick-me-up after a long day. They do smoothies and hot chocolate which is great for me. But we’ve agreed that maybe going every day is not a great idea since drinks average 20 kuai (£2).. it all adds up.

We decided not to travel far this weekend, and to hang around Dongguan. Me, along with Andrea and Josephine (from the other school) and Nikki (who has worked here for a year already) decided to climb a ‘mountain’, as the Chinese call it. It is called Shuilianshan and is just a large hill. To get there we had to get on a bus, and buses here are ridiculous, they pack as many people on as possible and it’s a bit of a wobbly ride! It was definitely an experience. Shuilianshan takes about 40 minutes to climb, up lots of stairs and slopes. The weather has started to get very warm and humid so it was a rather sweaty walk, through lots of trees and little streams, also the big butterflies have started to come out – very pretty. It was a rather cloudy day so we couldn’t see much from the top, except for all the trees below and some buildings further away that were the surrounding towns (including Houjie). Nice to get my bearings a little. And we are definitely in a subtropical climate down here!

That evening we went to a Western bar called Irene’s. Although this isn’t a very touristy place, there are a lot of expats around because there is a big shoe business down here, so this bar is where they all hang out. It was fun and I met lots of new people, it was bizarre seeing so many foreigners in one place; almost like I wasn’t even in China! I don’t think I’ll be going to Western places a lot though… seems a bit pointless when I’m in a new country. It’s nice to get to know all the other foreigners who live here of course, and to hear their experiences, but I can go to a bar anywhere in the world, so I’m not too bothered. Nice, chilled night though.

On Sunday a few of us headed into Dongguan, just to have a look. It involved getting on more crowded buses and having to hang on tight whilst the bus bumped around, which after a late night and lack of a lie-in (lie-ins just don’t happen here, China wakes up and becomes noisy about 5 or 6am) was exhausting. Dongguan was nice, it’s a lot cleaner than Houjie with lots of big buildings and shops, also trees and grassy areas. They also have a lot of Western shops around Dongguan area such as a big Decathlon sports shop. Another good day with lots of walking and exploring. Busy now doing lots of planning for travel in the coming weeks, China is so big that we’re expecting long train journeys at the weekends.

First few days in Houjie, Dongguan


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Dongguan, China

So, here I am, settled into my new home and my new job in Dongguan (province of Guangdong), where I will be for just over 4 months. We are in a town called Houjie, about 20 minutes from the center of Dongguan, and I love it here! I’m beginning to realise that what everyone was saying about Beijing is true – ‘Beijing’ and ‘China’ are two very different things. Now I’m in real China, right in the south, where everything is green and humid, there is cheap street food everywhere, cars often drive on the wrong side of the road for no reason, and it is noisy ALL the time.

Anyway, back to my last week in Beijing (it feels so long ago now). We had another week of lessons after teaching practice, but we had handed in all our assignments and everyone was a bit more chilled out – there was time to just enjoy each other’s company for a bit, and go for drinks in the evenings. On the last night (also my birthday) we had the graduation dinner, where we were presented with our TEFL certificates. It was a really nice evening, followed by a night out at this insanely fancy club where we got free drinks all night, seemingly because we were Westerners?! So it was also a very cheap night out! It wasn’t fun getting up really early the next morning for our 22-hour train to Guangdong though.

The train was actually fine, I slept for most of the way because I could feel myself getting ill after a non-stop month. It was a bit cramped and the food was expensive and not good, but I chatted a bit to the Chinese people in my cabin (with great help from my Mandarin phrasebook) and saw lots of fireworks and Chinese lanterns out the window (because it was the Lantern Festival that night) which were really pretty. We also went through some really nice cities all lit up in the dark. As the sun started to come up and we were nearly there, you could immediately tell the difference between the north and the south – suddenly everything was green, people were working in the fields, there were banana trees and many of the houses were like little sheds – it definitely felt a lot more rural. Exciting!

It really baffles me that you can go on a 22-hour train and still be in the same country. After arriving and a 1.5 hour bus journey, we arrived at our apartment and met some of the Chinese English teachers. I think at first we weren’t too impressed with our apartment; it was very basic and quite dirty too, and we seemed to have a park bench instead of a sofa! But it didn’t take long for us to be happy with it. We’re in a perfect area, right near a massive food market with awesome street food and fruit, and also a Tesco’s, bizarrely. We have a balcony that looks out over some trees and a square where people play basketball, and the building even has a roof garden! Now we’ve unpacked the apartment looks a lot more homely and we’ve become the ‘host apartment’ for everyone in Houjie, there’s quite a few of us! I live with Catherine, and Andreas and Mikkel are just across the hall. These 3 are also at the same school as me, and others are in nearby schools. There are some others living in the same building and a few more people about 20 mins away.

We also went to visit the school on our arrival day, and it was quite overwhelming – we had a lot of information thrown at us about what we’re supposed to do etc., it would take some getting used to. We all loved the school as soon as we saw it though. There are 3000 people in the primary school, which is small for China! Our classes have 45 pupils each, and I teach 10 different classes – 450 names to remember! Not happening. There is a running track and basketball court, also palm trees in the grounds. The walkways between classes are all outdoors too which is really nice, it feels very open.The school is called Dao Ming Foreign Language School, and the thing I love most is that along all the hallways and the stairs are inspirational quotes in both Chinese and English… things like ‘Do everything in love’. It’s really sweet and I love reading them as I walk to my classes, there are so many that I can see new ones every day. Also our school is 5 minutes walk from our apartment which is wonderful, and they have piano practise rooms which I’m excited to make use of.

We were shown to our office which we share with other English teachers (Chinese English teachers). So us foreign teachers teach mainly speaking, and the Chinese teachers will teach the English grammar, vocabulary and writing. It’s nice to share an office, the teachers are all really friendly and I’m looking forward to getting to know them better. We have assistants in our classes, not sure if they will always be there but for the first few weeks at least. All of mine are great and it’s good to have someone to help translate sometimes!

After being shown around the school, and grabbing some dinner at the canteen (the food is so much better than from the canteen in Beijing, luckily!), we had a lot of lesson planning to do that weekend so we made a start. We had been invited on a school trip on the Sunday so we had to get it done quickly! On Sunday we made our way to the school, the plan being a bike ride around a nearby lake (I can’t remember the name). We squeezed into one of the little school buses and headed there, then hired bikes. It was a super-warm day and the sun was shining, we had a few hours to cycle round and it was great being outside, being warm, and being in such a pretty area with actual flowers and green trees! The park was really busy and apparently it’s always like that… Chinese people are just as crazy on bikes as they are on cars, ringing their bell at everyone and zooming around. I got into the spirit and did the same. Had quite a few near misses in terms of bike collisions, it was that busy! So much fun though and nice to meet some other people who work at the school, most don’t speak English though so it’s hard to communicate.

After the bike ride we had a quick trip to the centre square of Dongguan, just to have a stroll. It was so pretty there! They had lots of decorations up presumably for Spring Festival, palm trees and lanterns were everywhere, and it was a really massive square and so clean (very different from Houjie!). Everywhere people were wandering around with their kids and playing games of badminton. I’ve noticed around here that Chinese people love to get out, walking or biking, with the whole family – including babies and children. It’s really nice! They don’t just stay in at the weekends and watch TV or go for a drink, they are always out doing things in parks or in the town. Whenever I see kids around though, they are always younger children. Once they get to middle school they are always, always working; every day until late, even at weekends. No wonder they’re all so clever! It’s nice to see the younger kids just being kids – playing on the streets, being out and about, making the most of their childhood before the hard work starts.

Early night that night, because of an early start on Monday and the beginning of our first week at Dao Ming. Exciting and nervewreaking… the first week felt like the ‘make or break’, and I really wanted the children to like me. I would be teaching Grade 1 and Grade 4 – a really good mix of ages (grade 1s are cute and you can play loads of games with them, and grade 4 you can have conversations with and do a bit more teaching with). I’ll talk about my first full week in my next post.

I really need to take more photos of my area and of the school, these are the few I’ve taken so far. Sorry for the bad quality… most are just off my phone.

Great Wall of China – the beginning


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Beijing, China

On Saturday, I went on an adventure out of Beijing, along with Charles (from UK). We had an assignment due today so most people stayed at the hotel to finish that, but I really wanted to see another part of the Great Wall and I knew I’d regret it if I stayed in to do my ‘homework’, so we took it on the train and did it on the way there and back. Luckily I’d already started so it didn’t take long. Sorted!

So the aim was to go to the beach, to see the very beginning of the Wall. In case you didn’t know, the wall starts on the beach, barely touching the sea. Couldn’t the enemies just get round it?! I don’t know, but you never really think about the start or end of the wall, so it was weird to see it just stop! Yet another early start, and about half an hour (including standing in 4 different, and wrong, queues) trying to find the ticket office at Beijing Railway Station, saw us on a 3 hour train to Shanhaiguan. First class as well, because it was only 10 kuai (£1) extra! Not much to see on the journey unfortunately, a few little villages/shacks and lots of farmland. It was snowing which made everything pretty. We arrived in Shanhaiguan about midday, very hungry. This was our first time out of Beijing since being in China, and there was no English anywhere. Makes everything a lot harder! I actually managed to order us both a plate of noodles for lunch, with no chicken feet or weird things in. Then we managed to work out which bus to get on to get to Laolongtou, where we would find the Old Dragon’s Head (start of the wall).Result!

As soon as we were out of the bus we could feel that we were near the sea. The air also felt a lot fresher – nice after nearly a month in a smoggy capital city. We walked up some steps towards the wall and got our first view of the sea, the beach, and the start of the wall – it was very exciting! I couldn’t believe we were actually there. Seeing the sea, but also the Great
Wall, felt so out of context with each other. Spent a while hanging around enjoying the view, and walking along the beach. We could see the outline of an impressively sized boat in the distance. Popped into the nearby Sea God Temple, which also stretched out to sea a short distance away from the wall. I also managed to have a short conversation with a Chinese man about what country I came from, which I was pleased about.

Afterwards, we made our way to the First Pass Under Heaven, which is another part of the wall. To get there, we walked down hutongs with lots of quaint shops, there were some really pretty streets actually. The town wall surrounded this but the Great Wall was also winding around, it was hard to tell which was which at times. The part of the wall with the First Pass Under Heaven was definitely a lot bigger/taller than the part we visited a few weeks
ago, so I can see how it was used as a defence. It was also less restored which was nice. There was a good view as we walked along – hutongs and Chinese-style architecture on one side, and the sight of the wall continuing on the other side.

We’d heard of a really nice place to see the wall nearby, at Jian Shao – it winds up into the hills. Due to a lack of taxis around, we hailed a rickshaw, and made sure to agree on a price before we got in (easy to get ripped off in these; at least in Beijing, I wasn’t sure about here). We told the guy where we wanted to go, and for a while he kept driving around and
then stopping, and talking at us in Chinese. We just thought he was trying to get more money out of us, so just kept telling him to take us to Jian Shao. Well, we arrived there, to find the site closed. Turns out that’s what he was trying to tell us – it only re-opened the next day! Oops. I guess the lesson is to learn more Chinese! Still, we had a view of part of the wall over the hills
which was very beautiful, and then we headed back to the town to start our journey home. Time to do a bit more of the assignment in a restaurant before the train arrived. Long day, but so good to get out of Beijing and experience ‘real’ China! I used more Mandarin that day than I have so far the entire trip, and actually picked up a few new phrases too. Awesome.

Getting off the train back in Beijing at about 11pm that night was just crazy. It’s the end of Spring Festival, so everyone is commuting back to Beijing, and there was an insane amount of people! Seriously, London rush hour is nothing compared to this. It was like an ocean of people all getting off trains and heading towards the exit. The taxi queue must have been a mile long. It was overwhelming.

Teaching Practice, and some last few outings


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Beijing, China

Our week of Teaching Practice is over! It was time for another ‘weekend’. We all needed rest and sleep, but I also needed to see more of Beijing before we leave next week, so rest and sleep were not had.

Teaching was really fun. The first day was so nerve-wracking, because we didn’t know what to expect at all. We were put into groups of 4 – I was with Emily (from Australia), Granita (from Norway), and Sebastian (from Denmark). Luckily all nice people and good teachers, so I was happy with my group. We were given a 2 hour slot each day and had to teach for 30 minutes
each, whilst the others observed at the back of the class. We were also observed by a tutor once. We were teaching 8-10 year olds. This TP was voluntary school for the children – they were still on their New Year’s holidays, but they could come and get English tuition from us for free during this week. I don’t think any of them wanted to be there! Their parents would have made them come, so if we weren’t careful they would get very restless very quickly. My first day of teaching went really well actually, I had planned for the possibility that they would all be shy and no one would speak to me, but they were all very responsive and enthusiastic. Unfortunately my observation day the next day didn’t go quite as well – the lesson I’d planned was too easy for them, and I’d planned some harder work too in case that had happened, but even that was too easy! We’d massively misjudged their level on the first day. However, I still got good feedback from my tutor especially for my lesson planning and presence in the classroom. It’s just annoying that my worst lesson of the week was the one that was observed!

The rest of the week went well for all my group I think – all of us had a couple of activities that we either didn’t explain properly, or just didn’t work, but that’s the point of TP and we learn from these experiences. We had a few naughty kids in our class, which were hard to deal with at times, especially when one of the naughty kids from another class then got moved to our class! And seriously, how do Chinese children younger than 10 know English swear words and hand gestures?!

Anyway, we all felt a lot more confident in front of a classroom after the week, and all of us passed the TP, which is really good news. Straight after our last TP feedback, me along with Lars (from Norway) and Zoe (from Germany) caught a cab to 798 Art District. It is the most famous ‘arty’ place in Beijing, with galleries and quirky shops, lots of graffiti (good graffiti, not stupid graffiti), and random sculptures on the street. It was really empty due to Spring Festival, which was a shame because I imagine this to be the kind of place that’s more fun when it’s buzzing with people. Was kind of eerie how deserted it was, and some of the galleries were still closed. Still, I spent a good few hours wandering around (the others went back earlier), and I managed to look around a few galleries with some pretty cool artwork. I loved just wandering around the streets too, taking in all the weirdness. Wouldn’t mind going back there, it’s well worth doing.

The next day, it was back on the bus at 7am for our second organised tour day. A lonely few of us boarded the bus – most people couldn’t handle the early start after a tiring week, so would meet us later on. We headed to the Summer Palace – the new one, not the one that is in ruins. It was an absolutely freezing day and I did worry a few times about getting frostbite
– yes, it was that cold! What a beautiful place though. I can only dream about how amazing it must look in summer, with all the trees green and the lotus flowers blooming around the lake. Even in winter, it was charming. The Emperor would live here during the summer months in Beijing, and move to the Forbidden City in the winter, when the Palace became too cold. We walked in through a grand entrance to the administration area. More typical Chinese buildings, along with some weird statues. One of them looked like a cross between a dragon, a horse, a snake, and various other animals. I finally had a chance to ask what the purpose of the lions are, that guard most imperial places – like the ones you might see outside Chinese restaurants at home – they ward off evil spirits, and one is male and one is female. Common people aren’t allowed to have them, so they tend to guard mainly the palaces.

The Summer Palace is (predictably) very big, so we wandered through various areas, all very ornately designed – each section of each building being a unique painting, and they were on both the inside and the outside. The most spectacular artwork was the entirety of the Long Corridor – this is basically what it says it is, a long walkway with a roof, used for shade in the summer when walking beside the lake. So many paintings – tiny, unique and delicately created. It was spectacular to see. Our guide said that, at nearly 800m long, this was the longest art gallery in the world. Not sure how true that is, but cool to see nonetheless.

The lake was enormous, and surrounded by some of the Palace buildings as well as large hills in the distance. There were some pedal boats that are used in the summer, and ice skating is normally common in the winter – but it’s been too warm this year. Shame, that would have been really fun. Anyway, after a few hours of wandering around the grounds and the lake, admiring the scenery, and eating a disgusting sausage in the hopes that it might warm us up
(it didn’t), we were all so cold that we decided to head back to the bus and onto an early lunch.

After lunch, we headed to Tiantan Park (Temple of Heaven). Me and a few others had already been a couple of weeks earlier, but that was in the evening so it was nice to see it in the daytime – not quite as spectacular but still pretty and this gave us the chance to see some more of the park. I really do love the park there. I would have liked the chance to go inside the
temple, but a couple of people asked if we could stay in the park for just a half hour because they were too cold. This was annoying… we would have been inside! Oh well. We were told that the emperor came to the temple twice a year to pray for a good harvest. The reason it is round is because the Chinese thought heaven was round and earth was square. So most of the other temples and palaces are square (or rectangular); this is the only round one I’ve seen.

The Pearl Market is just across the road from the park so that was the next stop. Famous for its pearls, but you can buy anything there from phone chargers and fake designer clothes to head massagers and chopsticks. I wandered around for a bit and headed to the top floor where there was a terrace garden, with a lovely view of the park – all the trees with the temple
in the middle. Then I managed to find a Starbucks, which made me very happy because I was missing hot chocolate a lot, so I sat and relaxed. Soon everyone else had the same idea. Sat with some of the Danish guys among others, and they told me some things about Denmark. Was nice to just sit down and stop for a couple of hours!

After dinner, we headed to the theatre for something I had been looking forward to since I arrived – the acrobatics show! Seriously, if you are ever in Beijing, go and watch an acrobatics show. So so so awesome. It was only an hour long but there was so much variety and randomness involved – champagne glasses, umbrellas, straw hats, bikes, hamster wheels, hoops, motorbikes… I know that makes it sound really weird but it was amazing, and so much talent and colour. I spent the whole hour with my mouth wide open and I heard other people gasping. I want to go again!

We’ve just found out our placements – I will be in Dongguan, in Guangdong province. Really happy with my placement, it’s right down south which is awesome, kind of near the sea, right next to Hong Kong and Hainan! Unfortunately I can’t go to Hong Kong because I’m on a single entry visa, which is really frustrating… maybe at the end of my trip. Hoping for visits to Hainan though to relax on the beaches, as well as lots of travelling elsewhere, as there is some
really amazing places nearby! I’m in a Foreign Language school along with Catherine (from UK), Andrea (from Australia), Andreas (from Denmark), Josephine (from Denmark), Hannah (from Norway), and Mikkel (from Denmark). So I assume we will be living together, and I’m really happy with my group, they’re all cool. There are a couple of other people in the same city but a different school, and 67 of us in the province! Some people haven’t found out their placements yet so we will probably have some more joining our school too. I’m really glad I’m with a lot of people – as interesting as it would be to be more rural, I can imagine it might get quite lonely. It’s nice to be in a city with lots of others, with the opportunity to visit rural places nearby.

New Year temple celebrations, and some ruins


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Beijing, China

Chun jie kuai le (Happy New Year!) How else to start the New Year than by going to a traditional Spring Festival temple fair? I had heard that the White Cloud Temple had a particularly spectacular fair, so me and Annelieke headed there (most people were too tired after the night before, but I just drank a lot of Diet Coke and that seemed to help). There were so many people there, all Chinese – we were the only foreigners! I imagine most of the people there were still tourists however; most people who actually live in Beijing leave for the New Year. It was so busy and buzzing inside the temple complex, which was nice because Beijing has been pretty empty so far (everyone’s gone home!). We walked in amongst hanging decorations of lanterns and flags, and there were so many police around – I guess because it is an important event. There was a long queue of people waiting to touch this stone decoration which was part of the entrance archway, I can only guess that it brings good luck. We couldn’t be bothered to stand in a long queue to touch the stone so I hope that doesn’t mean we get bad luck!

I think most of the activities going on in the fair were routines to ensure a good year for the individual. You could buy a big mound of bronze coins near the entrance, and everyone was throwing them underneath this bridge where there hung a big bell, trying to hit the bell. I would have liked a go but unfortunately there were no English translations on the signs so we couldn’t work out how to buy the coins.

The White Cloud Temple is a Taoist temple – I don’t know much about Taoism yet so I will have to read up about it, but from what I can gather it is about balance and opposites. It is the religion that has the yin-yang symbol and they also have a lot of deities who protect them in various ways. They had some pretty and ornate statues of these deities in the temple rooms and the usual people praying with incense sticks. There were also massive open fires that the incense sticks were being thrown into after they were used. I wish I knew the significance of some of these rituals, they are so interesting to watch!

It was really nice walking around and observing everyone going about their rituals throughout the temple. I could tell that this is not a temple that foreign tourists tend to visit, so I’m glad I managed to find out about it. All throughout the complex there were stone statues or wall carvings and people were slotting small change into the nooks and crannies, and touching the stone. We came across a lovely long carving of all the animals in the zodiac, and another long queue of people waiting to touch the stone. Nearby were more carvings which I think represented religious stories.

After all these warm days we’ve had, New Year has begun by reverting to ‘normal’ Beijing temperatures – freezing, and snowing! Oh well, it was good while it lasted.

The remaining free day we had, some of us went to see the old Summer Palace – the one that was bombed by the British and is now in ruins, in a massive park. This was a few hundred years ago I think and we took all the Chinese artefacts and put them in museums in the UK… apparently they’re still pretty annoyed about it (understandably). Awkward. The ruins were still charming to see, and I was very surprised that the Summer Palace had been European architecture. China is the last place I thought I would see European designs, but apparently they used to employ people from Europe to build in that particular style. I found that interesting when they seem to have such a ‘set’ style for most palaces/temples/buildings in China – those I’ve seen so far have all had very similar designs to each other.

The ruins were only in a small area of the park, so we explored all of those (we were able to climb around on them which I found odd, I tried to avoid climbing on them anyway!). There were also some small (and very creepy looking) statues of all the animals in the zodiac – I’ve found them to be quite common so far, and have seen statues or drawings of them in lots of public places – even massive statues of them (which were also creepy) on the top of a shopping mall! They are obviously very important for the Chinese, especially around this time.

The park was massive so we didn’t walk round the whole place, but just like the day before it was super busy with Chinese people, and again the atmosphere was buzzing. There were lanterns hanging everywhere, and music, and also a massive TV showing random things like people roller skating. It was a really pretty walk around the lake (unfortunately not frozen enough to skate on, it’s been too warm), with tall trees surrounding the path and weeping willows beside the lake.

Since Saturday we have all been busy lesson planning, since we have been teaching this week. I’ll talk about that more in my next post. Anyway, it’s been a week since the official Chinese New Year, and fireworks are still a daily occurrence… luckily I have my earplugs…

Bargaining, more temples, and Chinese New Year


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Beijing, China

After a busy few days, I was feeling rather happy that I’d finally seen quite a bit of Beijing. The thing is, because it’s so big, it’s not somewhere you can just wander around and find interesting things (believe me, I’ve tried) – you have to seek them out and do your research. Going to interesting places normally involves going on at least a bus and a subway journey… so it’s not something you can do quickly. I had a lot of work to do after the trips so that restricted my exploring time quite significantly for a few days. However we were able to make an evening trip to the Silk Market, to try and bargain for some smart clothes to wear for teaching practice. I had most things already but wanted a couple more shirts since you can get them for about 60 Yuan (£6). The Silk Market is basically a massive indoor market with lots of small shops, selling fake designer clothes – mainly shirts, shoes and trousers. It’s become a bit more touristy recently, which is a shame because the shopkeepers try and rip you off with the prices, knowing tourists will pay more. They all speak perfect English and start asking for prices like 800 Yuan for a shirt, pretending the item is really good quality etcetc. You basically have to be really firm with them, refusing to pay that amount and not budging from your own offer (about 90% lower than what they’ve asked for). If they won’t agree with your offer, just walk out the shop and they will (hopefully) call you back with lower offers. Sounds simple right? Well it’s not… they are all so much more stubborn than I thought, it’s hard to make them budge on an expensive price, and they make you feel bad by saying stuff like ‘oh, you’re robbing me..’ etc. It was a lot more difficult (and even hostile) than when I’ve bargained in the past. Luckily Rob (one of our tutors, he’s lived in China for years) helped me out and got me a good price for a shirt, but the woman who sold it to me literally looked like she hated me with a passion as she sold it to me, she was calling me cheap and all sorts. Rob says it’s just an act. And I guess if we were offering too low a price they just wouldn’t sell it!

On Valentine’s Day, we had a Mandarin lesson and learnt how to sing a Chinese love song. It’s kind of annoying that this is the only Mandarin that’s really stuck in my head, and I can’t really use it because it means something like ‘you smell fantastic, I have dreams about your sweet smell’. It was so funny singing it in class though. When I get more time I really need to keep practicing the language. I’ve picked up bits and bobs and carry my phrase book everywhere. I’ve also started to look at the symbols when I’m out and about. I know meanings for a few and am starting to recognise quite a lot of them too – if I see a certain symbol quite a lot, I try and ask someone what it means, because it’s obviously a common word!

A couple of days ago, after class a few of us headed to Tiantan Park, location of the Temple of Heaven. I’d heard it was a beautiful park and so my idea was to go and watch the sunset, unfortunately big buildings and trees were blocking it so that didn’t really work… but it was still such a beautiful evening, and so peaceful in the park – despite it being quite a touristy area (I think we came at the right time, most people go during the day). We could see the Temple of Heaven in the distance, and strolled down amongst tall trees, smaller temples and also a group of men singing very deeply – which just added to the atmosphere. A few people were jogging in the park or playing ping pong. As it got darker, the Temple of Heaven and the surrounding trees were lit up with very bright lights, and it made the temple look truly amazing; like it was glowing. I’ve seen pictures of it in the daytime and it is beautiful, but it looked even better at dusk. The colours and designs really stood out. It was just such a pretty and peaceful walk. Further on there were lanterns on the trees, and you could see the busy Beijing with all the lights, traffic and high-risers in the distance through an archway – a little reminder that despite the quiet park, we were in one of the biggest cities in the world.

After Tiantan Park, we headed to Hotpot which is a restaurant that I’d been recommended. You order a massive saucepan full of a certain flavour soup, which is boiling hot. You then order lots of different food, and it comes to you uncooked. You have to put it in the soup to cook it. I had dumplings, lamb and lettuce, and tomato soup. We weren’t sure what to do at first and all the Chinese people eating there were laughing at us! We must have looked ridiculous. It was really good though, an interesting experience.

Today is Chinese New Year! It’s the year of the sheep. So last night to celebrate New Year’s Eve as well as the handing in of two difficult assignments we had a karaoke night – pretty much everyone went. You hire out booths with maybe 15-20 people in each, but we all ended up in one room by the end! It was so much fun, there were a couple of microphones but everyone sang along together anyway. That ended at 10pm and afterwards most of us went to bars. Walking along the streets, everything was lit up and the atmosphere was buzzing. People were setting off fireworks literally everywhere, all over the street, it was pretty albeit very dangerous (none of us got hurt luckily). Everyone was in a crazy good mood. New Year is such a huge thing for the Chinese. Fireworks have been going off all day today too (one right outside my window woke me up at about 8am)! Apparently fireworks are pretty normal in China and they’ll set them off even for the most random things like a new supermarket opening!