Thursday, 7 August 2014

When in China...

The Wanderer has returned! And she has photos (despite having to abandon a very worn out and much-loved, broken 5 year old Samsung digital camera in a Beijing hotel)! Camera, you served me well, and visited three continents. Phone camera, you are not as good in quality, but make up for it in perseverance, good job!
The campus at Beijing Normal University, Zhuhai. Complete with mountains, lakes, sub-tropical plants, butterflies and terrapins... 
 For the first two weeks of my time in China I was based on a university campus in Zhuhai, a Special Economic Area just across the water from Hong Kong, and obviously on the mainland. Zhuhai started in the 1980s as a state-funded commercial venture, attracting people from the cities to move south, where there is cleaner air and more space. Now, the city seems to function as a holiday destination for northern Chinese people, especially those from Beijing who might want to escape the smog. The city was developing rapidly, with new apartment blocks appearing all over the place. However, inside the bubble of the campus, I was much more preoccupied with the novelty of sitting back in a classroom, and having lectures. Not to mention the fantastic outdoor pool, surrounded by palm trees...
Traditional courtyard-style Cantonese restaurant in Zhuhai
The Chinese students, who were from both the Zhuhai and the Beijing campuses of Beijing Normal University, were incredible hosts, translating menus for those westerners who were useless at both Mandarin and Cantonese, and taking us to places filled with history, or just great food! At the restaurant pictured above, we had a morning tea of dim sum, little snacks which were mostly either sweet cakes, meat dumplings, and other vegetable dishes, all brought to the middle of the table for everyone to share. I'm not so keen on seafood, but the rice cakes, egg tarts and New Year cake were lovely, I could definitely get used to having cakes for breakfast!

Potted Bonsai tree!
 We went to the former home of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen is regarded as a "founding father" of the People's Republic of China, despite not being Communist. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen helped to facilitate the transition between China under the last emperor of the Qing (sometimes Ch'ing) dynasty in 1911, and the beginning of a new republic. Now, his home village is preserved, complete with a modern museum, and various artifacts.
Traditional lucky red lanterns hang on a doorway of the preserved village of the revolutionary leader Dr. Sun Yat-Sen
 The natural surroundings of the museum were nice, very green, with some of the buildings brightly painted. Yet, there was something distinctly eery about walking around a preserved village, as though there had been some kind of natural disaster and everyone had just got up and run without taking any of their belongings, never returning. Maybe I just have a morbid imagination...
Local temple
 The temple we visited in Zhuhai could be found by getting off the bus in (what seemed to be) the middle of nowhere. One of the students showed us how to correctly enter the temple (depending on your gender you put a different leg forward when stepping over the threshold) and also how to make offerings using incense. Fresh fruit was offered by statues as well as candles and ribbons with prayers written on them. I couldn't get over how colourful everything was, and how much gold there was, on jewellery, painted figures.
Catholic cathedral in Guangzhou 
 My group, compromising of five Chinese students, myself and a student from the University of Birmingham, went on a day trip to the provincial capital of Guangdong, called Guangzhou. Guangzhou has a modern shopping centre and train station, but it also has great street food (egg waffles!) and many reminders, that this city was once called Canton, home of the dialect of Cantonese, and with a European influence. In the 19th century there was a strong French presence in the area, in the same way that the British were able to hold some sway over Shanghai. As a result, we came across some very incongruous European-style architecture, in the middle of a bustling (and, it has to be said, quite dirty) modern Chinese city. The fast speed train got us to Guangzhou from Zhuhai in about 2 hours, but although Guangzhou still felt provincial, it was the first time that I'd seen foreigners since arriving in Zhuhai.
Temple of Heaven, Beijing
 After finishing our research in Zhuhai (where we looked at the training of student volunteers, and carried out interviews in English and Mandarin) we got the 21 hour train to Beijing. Oh my. The train, the train. There were no doors on the compartments (hard sleeper) and 6 beds in a cabin. Craziness. The lights automatically shut out at 10pm, and at 7am someone came round and opened all the curtains, and let in the bright sunlight. I lived off mainly biscuits and crisps, unfortunately, and just before we reached Beijing, the train ran out of water, and so the toilets didn't flush, nor did the sinks function. Yet, this was still the best train ride of my life.

The international students outraged and entertained the Chinese students by playing hours of "truth or dare" and parading down the train corridor and into different compartments performing various stunts. We sat, 4-to-a-bed and discussed life, our feet dangling over the railings. We stared out of the window, and watched the scenery switch from peaceful fishing lakes, and blue mountains, lit by lanterns, to industrial development on the scale of Pandemonium in Milton's Paradise Lost. By the time we arrived n Beijing, it was like entering the New World, full of more people, wealth and history than had been seen before.
The Great Wall at Mutianyu 
 We only actually had 5 days at the Beijing campus whilst we were still on the internship. We attended some more lectures, mainly concerning the history of the University, its current study programmes and modern Chinese politics, which was fascinating, We presented our projects and some academic staff walked around to examine display posters showing our research findings. We looked at the museums contained on campus, and tried some northern Chinese food in the canteens. Before we'd blinked, it was time for the Closing ceremony, with a video of the past 3 weeks, and speeches in Chinese and English. Representatives from both the Chinese and UK universities presented, and certificates were handed out. After saying goodbye and exchanging gifts, everyone parted ways, and our independent travelling began!

One of the most memorable things we did in Beijing (or technically outside of the city, towards some mountains) was to climb the Great Wall at Mutianyu. It's less crowded than the section of the Wall at Badaling, and was well worth the complicated bus-minibus/ taxi journey, though we ended up on a very slow bus on the way back! Anyway, it rained slightly on the day we went, which was good for washing away tourists (being British, we stuck to our guns and had whole sections of the Wall to ourselves as a reward!) but bad because it meant that we couldn't go on the toboggan slide back down, which would have been awesome. Luckily the cable-car made for a good substitute.
Goldfish Market, Tung Choi Street, Hong Kong. Goldfish are seen as being lucky, and able to bring luck into a household. Apparently if something bad happens to the fish, it's good, because it means it didn't happen to you!
 I spent a total of 10 days sight-seeing in Beijing after the official end of the internship. I saw most of the main sites, and thoroughly enjoyed them, but I won't go through them all on here. The metro system is efficient, though crowded, and in general, the food is tasteful and good value for money. My friend and I got used to locating the busy shopping streets, and then walking down a side street or two until we found somewhere that let us sit out on the street and eat. My favourite dishes were spicy pot-fried sliced potato, and of course, Peking duck, either in pancakes with plum sauce and cucumber, or just in slices with rice. There was also this good green bean and aubergine dish which we had in a couple of different places. At this point, my suitcase broke, and I brought a new one from a shop on Qiamen street. Oh, and we visited the Pearl Market several times to buy souvenirs for family & friends. Haggling was pretty intense, and there was this one stall I refused to walk past because this woman scared me so much, she was very persistent!
Hennessy Road, Hong Kong, the youth hostel that I stayed in was on the left hand side, and my room was on the 6th floor
 After Beijing, I headed to Hong Kong. I've made it sound simple, but there was actually 13 hours of delays, and a night at the airport involved, including 4 hours of queuing to get onto another flights, at about 3am-7am (stupid tropical storms!). Enough about that, I got there eventually!

The glorious thing about Hong Kong is that you can nearly always be understood in English, and that it is comfortably western (goodbye squat toilets!) whilst still being definitely exotic to a westerner, and appealing in that way. The combination of shopping districts, neon lights and bamboo scaffolding made me think "Asian New York" at first, but Hong Kong is so much more than that.
Temple on Lantau island
 Lantau island was the place where I spent most of my time in Hong Kong, despite staying in Causeway Bay, and despite the fact that the MTR system stops at Tung Chung, on the north of the island. A personal highlight of my whole trip was the day that I went with a group of people from the youth hostel, and we got the ferry to Lantau, then a public bus, then hiked up and beyond a nature trail, until... we reached a waterfall with an infinity pool!
Infinity pool on Lantau island - NOT my photo!

The view from the peak we hiked up on Lantau island, overlooking a beach, again NOT my photo, sadly :(
Statues by the Big Buddha
Ngong Ping, Lantau island is also home to the centre of Hong Kong's Buddhism. The Giant Buddha has become one of Hong Kong's newest and most popular tourist attractions. It's the biggest bronze outdoor statue of the Buddha in the world, and it was completed in 1993. It's called the "Tian Tan Buddha" (named after the model it was based on, the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, see above), and it symbolises peace and harmony between man and the natural world.

The walk up to the Big Buddha, Lantau island
 Stunning outlook on a day this sunny and clear, but also scorching hot! I had to stop several times on the stairs on the way up and down, but at least I got a chance to properly take in the scenery.
International landmark signpost! Reminded me of my sister, and myself in NYC, this time last year...

Neon street lights in Wan Chai
 This was another thing I liked about Hong Kong. It felt pretty safe to walk around central areas at night, even when I was by myself. There were always so many shops open, and people everywhere, that the place didn't really seem to go quiet until the early hours of the morning, where as in Beijing the metro stations definitely closed earlier. There was a huge choice of markets to visit, Stanley Market, the Ladies' market, the Temple Street night market, and also the day markets, like the Goldfish and Flower market (pictured above) which were fun to walk around.
Probably the most famous view in Hong Kong, Victoria Harbour at night
Final favourite thing of the trip (I promise!). Sitting on the promenade by the clock tower (the former Canton railway tower) and waiting for the sun to go down to take photos of the harbour. There were a lot of families around, and, inevitably, foreign tourists (who am I to criticise on that front?) but I just have this memory of this one old man, sat by himself on the railings, looking out at the water, and muttering, as though he couldn't believe all of the bright lights and boats. Perhaps he remembers the same place 40 or 50 years ago, maybe he doesn't like all of the crowds and the cameras. Or maybe he's just an old man who likes looking at the view, and comes there every night. I don't know, but it was somehow refreshing to see him there.

So there you have it, that's what I've been up to for the past 5 weeks. I can't summarise in a sentence how eye-opening this trip was, and to say that it was "life changing" in a lot of ways is cliche, but still true. My overwhelming impression was of the enormous variety of experiences to be had in China, and that things are far less homogeneous up close, compared to how they are viewed in the west. I think what will stay with me the longest is the kindness shown to us foreigners by the Chinese students who were willing to speak to us about anything, and show us the things that were beyond words. It was a completely out-of-this-world welcome which consequently developed into genuine friendship, and certainly this is something that I think we should all consider sharing, wherever and whoever we are today,