It's this time of the year again: everyone I know at uni has jetted off on wonderful journeys of self-discovery, whether helping indigenous communities in the Brazilian rainforest or spending three months hitchhiking the Silk Road. Even though I can't help but turn my nose up at expeditions like this, when I got asked to come to China to teach for three weeks, with all expenses paid (and yes, I do mean flights), I couldn't say no.
And that's how my journey began...
Had I been slightly less cocky about my own travelling prowess, I would have recognised the misdelivery of my luggage to Hong Kong for what it really was - a warning of what was in store.
I was flying via Beijing, but obviously the airport codes HKD and PEK are really easy to muddle
To tell you the truth, I wasn't disappointed with the amount of friendly attention we received both from our students and people on the street. I don't think I have ever taken as many (or any) selfies with complete strangers in a given period of time as I did in China. Still, nothing beats the (exceedingly handsome) taxi driver turning around to say: it's very nice to meet friends from so many different places.
Sadly friendliness on individual level didn't translate into a friendly and helpful attitude from the authorities. Besides the unhealthy obsession with checking our passports, an essential document for buying anything from a sim-card to train tickets, the levels of bureaucracy were staggering, even compared to Japan - a country where getting a bank account involves getting a seal beforehand. Let me gloss over the fact that it's impossible to enter any train station without your ticket and passport being checked, only to be checked again at an airline-style boarding gate. But, this can be expected from a police-state that is China.
Chengdu station with all its many white barriers, we climbed over some
Quite unexpected however was the 2h+ it took me to receive a Western Union transfer at a bank - and I had a friend translating. At some point after the first hour the Western Union system actually logged out my superwoman cashier, presumably for being too slow.
Another surprise was the complete lack of English comprehension, funny accent or not, from the people dancing in the park to McDonald's staff and shop assistants. Even the lady at Reception at the Ibis in Deyang adopted what seemed like the typical attitude of shouting very loudly in Chinese, in the hope that this would make it easier to understand.
Now, as a seasoned cosmopolitan traveller I must admit that both sides were to blame for the dodgy communication, since we were no more able to understand them than they us. Something I was painfully reminded of, that one time one of my friends offered to practice her Mandarin skills and haggle on my behalf. When confronted with a price of (what we thought) 65 yuan for a pink cap with the words Lolita emblazoned on it in Russian, she told the shopkeeper that we will pay 40. At which point the woman burst out laughing. Upon returning to shop with a Singaporean friend who actually spoke Chinese, we discovered the original price was 30...
Moving on swiftly from that disaster, China is exceptionally well endowed in natural and historical wonders. Shortly after I bought the pink cap, a Chinese friend took us to Xiaoquan a city with a Mosque on one side and a Ming Temple to the Green General from the Book of Three Kingdoms on the other. As an added bonus, Islamic presence in the city provided a welcome break from pork-based food.
A mix of traditional Sichuan and Islamic culture in Xiaoquan
So, China ain't lacking in world-class attractions. Having said that, getting to them can prove a challenge and a half. At least for young bright things like us who spend our time and money boozing 'round London instead of driving lessons. Especially if you have the need (or the urge) to visit some off the beaten track locations, like Mount Qingcheng (青城山) a UNESCO World Heritage site. So we diligently got our passports inspected and bought tickets, ready to get up the next morning at 04:00 to catch the 5 o'clock train to Chengdu. When we got to the train station, our train was delayed by 3 hours...
Some time spent escaping the aggressive taxi drivers posing as our Uber, and an hours journey, we arrived at the Chengdu train station just as our train was pulling out. So at 09:00 we were standing ankle-deep in the pouring rain in front of Chengdu station (remember you can't walk in without a valid ticket). At which point, we gave up on the Mountain and decided to see the pandas instead. Needless to say, we managed to get in a visit to a temple and retail therapy on the way.
Escaping the madness of Chengdu station in the gardens of the Wuhou Temple
And I haven't even started on my students, but that's for another blog. But let me tell you one thing - Mao was the most popular example of a hero...