Sunday, 31 August 2014

365 days later.

One year ago today, I moved to Paris. A year later, my blog draws to its natural conclusion. I'm back in Blighty, on a permanent basis this time, surrounded by my family deep in the deepest depths of exotic Hampshire. This is the 48th post on this blog (I’ve managed to write a lot more than I had expected that I would when I started this blog!). It’s also going to be the last post, for the obvious reason: there’s no more year abroad to blog about! Sad, sad times :( 

To business, then! This post is going to be a bit of a soliloquy, really. It's a post that I've been thinking about and writing, on and off, for quite a few months now, and the more I enjoyed my year abroad, the more I added to it. It’s become a bit of a love letter to the last year, if you like. Call me a sap if you like, I don't care.

302 days after I moved to Paris, 401 days after I started this blog, my life in Paris came to an end on 28th June 2014. And now, with my return from China, it’s official. All told, by the time I arrived back on UK soil on August 6th, I had spent 341 days as an official year abroader. Not quite 365 days, but I think, quite close enough. My (not-quite) year abroad is over.

And after all that, what can I really say? Sojourn to Chengdu aside, which I have already blogged about in six separate posts this month, my year abroad was really all about la cité d’amour that is Paris.

It really is such a beautiful and charming city, with a lot of character, and it’s not difficult to see why it is somewhere that so many people dream of visiting, it really isn't. Building on something I wrote to this effect back in February: I still prefer London as a city and as a place to live. Snap me in half like a stick of rock and London would probably be written there, I just love it so much. It’s also a gorgeous city, home to my favourite place on the planet, and has its own fair share of excellent restaurants, fascinating museums and historic landmarks. It’s the place I gained my independence, the place I have made most of my friends, and the place which has had a large impact on who I am becoming as an adult. It’s exciting, and fast paced, and a perfect balance between old and new.

I was always super excited to go on a year abroad and come to live in Paris – who wouldn’t be? But perhaps because of this love that I have for the British capital, it took me longer than it perhaps should have to really appreciate Paris as it should be appreciated. The turning point was somewhere in the middle of February, but I can now say this with absolute certainty – Paris is always going to be equally as special to me, just for different reasons.

Going clockwise, from top left: the canal at Versailles; the Louvre; the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, Moulin Rouge, and the Sacre-Coeur

Paris was the place where I spoke in French every day; where French was just another language, not a foreign language. It's where nipping into the patisserie for a freshly baked croissant or a beautiful dessert was part of my normal routine. It has a unique charm that I've not seen anywhere else, with beautiful buildings, narrow streets, and a pace of life that is just slow enough so that you can sit back and enjoy life. (Lunch is so much tastier when you sit back and take your own sweet time to eat it, sat outside a café with a glass of wine!)

Paris is the place where it’s perfectly normal for men to hop on and off the metro with their accordions, playing their French melodies as each station whistles by.

True; the administration is slow; the bureaucracy incroyable, and not in a good way. Drinks, with the exception of wine, cost an absolute fortune, and as someone I know posted on their Facebook status quite early into the year;

"…bakeries are run by culinary angels, but beer is drafted by semi-trained monkeys."

Fact of the matter is, I've studied French since I was 4 years old and even with all that under my belt, I was remarkably ignorant, this time last year, about Paris, France, French life. Not so now, and I love all three of those things more than I ever had before or ever imagined I could.

We Brits might make jokes about the French, but Paris – and France in general – is a massive collection of weird and wonderful extremes, of every variety. It’s been an awesome year. One of the best of my life ever (so far, I hope).

I’m so lucky to have had the chance to do my year abroad there. Anyone can admire Paris, anyone can enjoy visiting it, but I don’t think you can ever understand it until you've lived here. And that’s probably true of most cities on this brilliant planet we call home. 

Going clockwise from top left: Champs Elysees, Palais du Luxembourg, the Catacombs and the Opera Garnier

Over the year, I've not just come to love Paris, but plenty of other places too. I've been to the beautiful franco-germanic gem that is Strasbourg. I've been to Dijon, in the Burgundy region. I've been to Berlin, and then there is the month that I have just spent, and posted about, in Chengdu, in the Sichuan province of China.

Fact of the matter is, my year abroad has given me the opportunity to see so many new things and have so many new experiences that so many people my age don’t have, and many people older than us never will. I imagine that living abroad would just get harder as you get older, and add jobs and mortgages and responsibility to your plate.

In Douglas Adam's story Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the supercomputer, Deep Thought, ponders the so-called "Ultimate Question":

"What is the answer to life, the universe and everything?"

...and eventually decided that the answer is 42. 

If you were to ask that question in reality, I say that the answer to the Ultimate Question is a year abroad. Because the year abroad is an education, about life, the universe and everything. That’s why Erasmus as a scheme and other cooperation agreements between universities in varying countries are so important.

Getting serious for a second, I actually did a bit of research on this point, because I wanted to make my point as effectively as I could, and I found a debate on the New York Times website (links at the bottom of this post), where various people submitted their opinions. For instance, Stacie Berdan and Allan Goodman, co-authors of 'A Student Guide to Study Abroad' write that;

"...[studying abroad] teaches students to appreciate difference and diversity firsthand, and enables them to recognize — and then dismiss — stereotypes they may have held about people they had never met..."

Another contributor, Violeta Rosales, pointed out that;

"[We]… should study abroad in order to realize that we are more alike than we are different… Cross-cultural understanding – the exchange of ideas, information and art – is imperative in a world made smaller by globalization and the internet"

But that's all to easy to write when you think about a year abroad in the abstract. I can speak quite passionately myself on this subject, just more in the context of my own experiences.

Clockwise from top left: Wenshu Temple in Chengdu, the Mutianyu stretch of the Great Wall, Pandas at Chengdu's Giant Panda Research Base, People's Park and the Leshan Giant Buddha

Clockwise from top left: Berlin Cathedral, the East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, and the Brandenburg Gate

I look on Facebook, and Twitter, and Instagram, and I see photos from people doing their year abroad elsewhere – America, Holland, Australia, Spain… All kinds of places. We’ve travelled, explored, and laughed ourselves silly. We've overcome homesickness and language barriers and cultural differences; we've tried new things, and seen new places, and together, we've got enough photos and tickets and souvenirs to fill thousands of scrapbooks. 

The point I'm trying to make here is that we've had a year in which we've really truly lived, away from the constraints of the education system which for many, me included, is the only thing we've ever really known.

And that’s exactly what it’s all about really isn't it? There’re still so many places in this beautiful world that I want to go and see – I’m very well aware that I have barely even scratched the surface, especially after spending time with some much more seasoned travellers than I in China - but I’m still so thankful that I've had to chance to cover even the small - tiny, really - corner of the globe that I have. I dove into the deep end, feet first, and I don’t regret one single second. Not even the things that went completely tits up. 

Turning onto a different tangent completely: when I think about it, my Law degree has taught me a lot of things over the past 3 years, being completely honest, only a tiny portion of it has been about the laws of the land. The university experience is an education in and of itself, and the year abroad in particular is brilliant in terms of personal development. A year ago, right now, I was completely, gut-wrenchingly nervous. In fact, exactly one year ago as this post is published, I was in the air somewhere above the English Channel heading towards Orly Airport and the unknown – a flat I had never seen, a university I didn’t know, a city I had only ever visited for approximately 6-8 hours as a stop off on a school trip to Futuroscope. So yes – I was nervous, maybe more nervous that I have ever been in my life.

Having said that, I am now a firm believer that the unknown is (or at least, can be), a good thing. I said in one of my earliest posts that I was viewing the year as a confidence building exercise. It’s worked. I am a shy person by nature, but I’m now able to push that to one side and plough on through it. I picked myself up, lock, stock and barrel, and landed in the middle of a foreign capital city where the language isn't my own and where I could count the number of people I knew on one hand. Difficult situations have never fazed me, particularly, but they certainly won’t now. 

Going to China – a country where I couldn’t even pretend to speak the language, or read the characters and where I was really going to be on my own, with no one familiar around, was easy in comparison.

Me, being exceptionally fortunate, without exception. 

That said, I am the first to freely admit that this year hasn't been easy - you only have to read back through this blog and you could probably identify when I was feeling low and when I wasn't, and there were plenty of lows. It is tough, it is difficult, and sometimes I wished that I had never bothered to go away in the first place (these were most definitely half-hearted wishes – I wouldn't throw my year abroad away for anything).

One reason that most people go away – it was certainly an important reason for me – is to improve your language skills. The language gap was also the biggest hurdle I had to overcome.

Obviously, my French has improved considerably. I lacked confidence in my own language skills when I first got here – I just read back through my very first post from Paris, on 2nd September last year, and it was full of doubts. That’s definitely not a problem anymore – I know I can handle most of the demands of everyday life. I’m not, however, fluent, which is what I had wanted to be - and if you go on a year abroad expecting that to be the result, I’m here to tell you now that it’s unlikely, albeit a very worthy aim. (This is partly, I will admit, my fault, for hanging out far too much with other English people). I don’t think in French – ‘Franglish’ is a better description. When I first got home, if I were to say, bump into someone in Asda, my first reaction was to apologise in French. In China, my first reaction was actually French more than it was English (probably because a foreign language felt like the right response, even if it was the wrong foreign language). So, there's definitely been a touch of reverse culture shock. Language wise, though, I’d need to go back for a good few months yet before I could realistically achieve fluency.

Who knows? Maybe one day I will. I'd like to think so.

Left: Strasbourg, Right: Dijon

So - in addition to everything that was said in the New York Times, with all of which I am in complete agreement, I would say that the personal growth is a compelling reason all by itself to go on a year abroad.

This has been the fastest year of my life, and it's been a real journey, one which has helped me prove to myself and others what I'm really capable of. Let's face it; I’m a different person than I was a year ago, in [hopefully] all good ways. I've grown up; I'm more independent than ever, and the boundaries of my comfort zone have widened exponentially beyond what they used to be. The year abroad has opened my mind and I am personally of the opinion that it will continue to do so even after my year abroad is long in the past.

And one day in the future, I will tell my kids about this past year, and what I did and saw, and hopefully they’ll be similarly inspired and will go off and get to do something even more wonderful themselves. The cycle will start all over again – as it should. I am firmly of the opinion that you need to see and experience the world to be able to deal with it.

Last but not least, thanks to everyone who's been reading my blog, whether it was just the one post or each and every one. It's been nice to see the page views on my blog stats gradually creep up and know that people have followed my journey. 

That's it! At risk of sounding like a dodgy acceptance speech at the Oscars, I do need to say a massive thankyou my parents, my brother, my flatmate Parisa, and my two absolute best friends, Ashley and Akeelah, for carrying me through the last year. Couldn't have done it without you. Last but not least, thankyou Chengdu, thankyou Erasmus and most of all, thankyou, Paris, for a wonderful year abroad. 

It's been an absolute privilege. 

Signing off : Au revoir à tous.

Vicky xx

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

China Part 5: Pandas, Poets and Planes

And we reach the last of my China blogs!

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I also took weekend numero 3 in Chengdu to finally get around to seeing some Giant Pandas.

The Sichuan Giant Panda sanctuaries are also on the UNESCO World Heritage list, and although the Chengdu base is not included in that listing, it is surely of equal importance. Today, the Giant Pandas are found only in 3 provinces, and there are fewer than 1000 of them left – and 80% of them are distributed within the Sichuan province alone. So you can see why their care is so important - it would be terribly sad to lose such beautiful animals to extinction. 

And they are really beautiful (and so, so cute!)

We walked around a bit and saw some tiny, tiny baby pandas in what looked like incubators (Pandas are born around 1/900th the size of its mother. They can weigh as little as 50-120 grams, and they look like little pink rats. By the time they are six months old, they are fairly large and completely recognisable as pandas. An adult panda will weigh around 100-150kg; so really, their rate of growth is simply astonishing).

Baby Panda!
We also saw some cubs under a year old, who were just adorable and reminded me of toddlers. We got to the base really early in the morning, because once the sun gets up, that’s it – its too hot for them and they’re all taken inside – and we were able to watch them being fed. Two of the pandas were sitting on a platform and eating bamboo, of which there was enough to go around, but they just wouldn’t share it, and kept snatching the same bit of bamboo from each other, and playing tug of war with it. It was hysterical.

There was another panda in the same enclosure who decided to climb a tree, but he (or she) just couldn’t get comfortable, because (s)he was climbing and twisting and wriggling, and at one point was hanging out of the tree, upside down supported only by his/her legs.

They’re very beautiful and entertaining animals and I’ve come home with a mind to give some money to WWF when I can afford it, because it really would be a tragedy if they were to go extinct.

We also got to see some Red Pandas (who did not look like what I expected, being more reminiscent of foxes than pandas) and some Black Swans, which really surprised me, and was actually a little bit creepy.

The beginning of the week saw a spate of volunteers leaving China to go home, which was a real shame as we had a really lovely group going. Speaking of the other volunteers, it actually occurred to me lately that my one month in China was more Erasmus and international than all of the 10 months I spent in Paris combined. There were Brits, Americans, French, an Italian, Norwegians, an Australian and probably a few others that escape me right now.

That week had lots of ups and one very big down, when I was walking to the metro one morning. It was tipping it down with rain, and I suddenly felt a weird tug to my side. I turned to look, and caught a man with his hand literally in my handbag, trying to nick my phone. I have no idea how he managed to get the zip open without my even noticing – My bag was tiny, I kept it very close to me, and I was walking pretty fast to get out of the rain – but I was extremely lucky that I turned around when I did, or he’d have lifted it and been off. I wished I’d yelled at him or something but I literally was just so gobsmacked that me and the pickpocket just had a bit of a staring match for what felt like forever but was probably only a second or two before he bolted, the tosser.

Mid-week, there was another PA Social. We went to a Tibetan restaurant, which was really cute. When we got there, we all got shown into a separate room, with low benches and tables, and ordered a range of Tibetan food including a really spicy dish which was actually lovely, and Yak Sausages.

That’s right, Yak. And they weren’t half bad either!

That night was Jane’s last night in China, so we went out afterwards to a bar near this bridge, which I thought was pretty cool, although the river smelt appalling:

And we had a lot to drink. And that is the night summarised!

The Friday of that week was the last day of my internship, which worked out very nicely, since it meant I had a long weekend with which to do some frantic sightseeing and cross as much off my ‘to-do’ list as possible! I initially had a mega weekend lined up which would have involved staying overnight in a mountaintop temple, but unfortunately it all fell through, so I had to fill my weekend with other things instead, starting with, on the Saturday, Du Fu’s Thatched cottage.

Du Fu is considered to be one of the greatest Chinese poets, and set up a thatched cottage in the park in the Tang Dynasty, around 759, where he was apparently inspired to compose more than 240 poems. The original building is obviously long since gone – what’s there is completely modern – but it’s set within a beautiful park (beautiful – and quiet! A real contrast from People’s Park down the road). …

Inside the thatched cottage: gardens are quiet; streams are winding; bridges and pavilions are interwoven; trees reach for the sky; plum trees and bamboos stand side by side; and classical architectural styles bring you a strong cultural atmosphere.

After that I went to Qinyangong Taoist Temple, which is the oldest Taoist temple in Chengdu. It was built during the Tang Dynasty, and is also known as the ‘Green Goat Temple’. It's another working temple, full of intricate pavilions, dragon carvings and bright colours. They all have a deep significance in terms of Taoism, but I didn't see any tourist leaflets or anything like that around, and as what I read on the signs next to each thing of importance has now been forgotten, said significance is now, sadly, lost on me completely, although I did recognise what I am 99% certain were the animals of Chinese New Year fame and the Yin/Yang symbol.

That night, I finally made it to Jinli Old Street, which is an old market street stretching for over 300 metres through Chengdu. It is full of tea houses and stores which are an utter tourist trap for foreigners and Chinese alike - embroidering, carvings, other handicrafts and such things. It was crowded with people (crowded should be China's buzzword) but also utterly charming.

But best of all was the Sichuan Opera. Now, this isn’t opera like you’d get in Covent Garden. It’s not even opera at all, really. And it’s held in a tea house (although unfortunately, the tea was way too bitter for my taste).

Sichuan Opera is more of an entertainment show, and it is particularly important in Chengdu Culture. There are a few clips in this video that I made – watch it to the end for the best bit!

The last two clips are of something called ’face changing’, and it was pretty amazing. They change their Sichuan opera masks in magically quick succession, by waving their arms about and swishing their clocks, the mask on their faces changes over and over again. Apparently, this idea started about 300 years ago. They wear full face, painted silk masks in layers, and they pull them off one by one. It was pretty awesome to watch because you just couldn’t see him do it! My other favourite part was definitely the shadow shapes. I didn’t manage to record all of it, because the memory was running low on my phone, but that was also pretty awesome. I’m so glad I got to go.

On my last full day in China, Noémie and I finally got to go and see the Leshan Giant Buddha (yet another UNESCO World Heritage site).

The morning started in stress. For all that China is rapidly catching up with the rest of the world in a lot of areas, it can be so behind the times. Example One: E-Tickets have apparently not made it there yet. We turned up at the coach station in the morning, and joined the longest, loudest, most chaotic queue I have ever seen. Everyone around us looked confused, which did not bode well for us, as it wasn't like we had the advantage of speaking Chinese, and (obviously) it was boiling hot.  And then when we finally got handed our tickets, and got onto a bus, there was a few absolutely heart stopping moments where it was clear to utterly no-one where the bus we were sat on was actually going. 

It actually reminded me forcefully of this extract from Jerome K Jerome's wonderful 'Three Men in a Boat':

"We got to Waterloo at eleven, and asked where the eleven-five started from. Of course nobody knew; nobody at Waterloo ever does know where a train is going to start from, or where a train when it does start is going to, or anything about it. The porter who took our things thought it would go from number two platform, while another porter, with whom he discussed the question, had heard a rumour that it would go from number one. The station-master, on the other hand, was convinced it would start from the local.

To put an end to the matter, we went upstairs, and asked the traffic superintendent, and he told us that he had just met a man, who said he had seen it at number three platform. We went to number three platform, but the authorities there said that they rather thought that train was the Southampton express, or else the Windsor loop. But they were sure it wasn't the Kingston train, though why they were sure it wasn't they couldn't say.

Then our porter said he thought that must be it on the high-level platform; said he thought he knew the train. So we went to the high-level platform, and saw the engine-driver, and asked him if he was going to Kingston. He said he couldn't say for certain of course, but that he rather thought he was. Anyhow, if he wasn't the 11.5 for Kingston, he said he was pretty confident he was the 9.32 for Virginia Water, or the 10 a.m. express for the Isle of Wight, or somewhere in that direction, and we should all know when we got there. We slipped half-a-crown into his hand, and begged him to be the 11.5 for Kingston.

"Nobody will ever know, on this line," we said, "what you are, or where you're going. You know the way, you slip off quietly and go to Kingston."

"Well, I don't know, gents," replied the noble fellow, "but I suppose SOME train's got to go to Kingston; and I'll do it. Gimme the half-crown."

Thus we got to Kingston by the London and South-Western Railway.

We learnt, afterwards, that the train we had come by was really the Exeter mail, and that they had spent hours at Waterloo, looking for it, and nobody knew what had become of it."

Anyway, stresses aside and confusion overcome, we finally made it to Leshan.

The first thing I'll say about our experience at the Buddha itself, is that it resulted in the best 'Worst English' sign that I saw during my month in China, and I really regret not taking a photo of it. For one reason or another, we didn't get to Leshan until quite late in the day, and so we planned on seeing the Buddha by boat.

We walked over to the booths where tickets for this were sold, were a solemn looking Chinese lady pronounced 'No boat'. We asked why, and she pointed to a sign which was clearly there for the benefit of English speaking tourists, and which proudly announced:


Que blank faces on our part. 

Bless the efforts of whoever tried to put that sign together, but that doesn't really tell me anything other than a little about foreign language education in China. A few more questions and some deciphering of severely broken English, and it was established that the water level was too high for the boats to run safely, or something like that. I'm not sure how Be Limited Export is supposed to indicate 'Danger' to tourists, but there we have it. 

Initial plans scuppered, we payed to go into the scenic area on foot and climbed up towards to Giant Buddha. Unfortunately, the only part of him we got to see was his head, because after half an hour of standing in the queue that would lead us down to his feet, it became clear that we'd never get to the end of said queue without waiting there overnight, which obviously wasn't an option.

Still, his head was very impressive, and by not waiting in the queue we got to see a bit more of the park than we would have otherwise, so maybe it was for the best.

Have a few pictures - they'll describe it better than I ever could.

And after that... well, before I knew it, it was the 5th August. I had to give a presentation to a group of people with Projects Abroad in the morning, but then the rest of my day was devoted to packing and getting ready to go home. I had planned to fit one more thing in, but it just proved to be impractical in the end. Late that night, I left my keys in my safe, headed out to grab a taxi and before I knew it, I was at the airport, and then I was connecting in Doha, and then I was back at London Heathrow and zipping homebound down the motorway. I was lucky that I had an evening flight, because I was able to sleep (or try to sleep) through most of it and it made the journey go that much quicker.

So that’s it! One month in China, blogged about in rather more installments than I had originally envisaged. I’m glad to be home, and I’m looking forward to getting back to London and finishing off my degree - but I had an absolutely cracking month out in China and I don’t regret a second of the past year, even the things that didn’t pan out how I would have wanted them to.

On the 31st I’ll upload my final blog post looking back on the 12 months that have passed since I first got on that plane headed for Paris (fastest twelve months of my life, no question).  

Until then –

Vicky xx

Friday, 22 August 2014

China Part 4: Tianfu, Tinder and Tea

Last time I posted about my mega weekend in brilliant Beijing, but in doing so, I missed out one or two things which happened before that, so I’ll quickly write about that before I go on to week 3.

Two days before I flew to Beijing, a group of us headed back to Tianfu Square (which I wrote about last time) for the Water Show…

“Every evening at dusk, as well as at noontime, an elaborate water show, synchronized to music, bursts out from the square’s fountains and attracts crowds of people during the spring and summer.” (

Now don’t get me wrong, the fountains were lovely, but you are talking to a person who’d been to the water show at Versailles about three weeks prior, a show which set such impossibly high standards that I’ll probably always be cold hearted and unimpressed at every other fountain show. (Not really. But Versailles was very fresh in my memory). 

Anyway, what was lovely about this was the atmosphere. Crowds of people were gathered, and there were load of little kids running around twirling pretty ribbons on sticks.

And being a big kid myself, of course I had to have my own one.

So me and the others joined the little Chinese kids mucking about in the square, having a good laugh twirling our own pretty ribbons, and attracting, at one point, quite a large audience, which was a bit embarrassing and very amusing at the same time. I think I mentioned when I wrote about People’s Park that people stopped us to take photos – westerners seemed to be a bit of a novelty (at least twice that week I found myself stood by two groups of girls who kept looking at me and bursting into giggles whenever I looked back at them, which was a bit uncomfortable). Anyway, I dread to think how many people took photos of us that night in Tianfu Square.

It was fun, anyway :)

If you read my last post about Beijing, you’ll also know that the whole weekend we were struggling with the heat. Well, we arrived back from Beijing late on the Sunday night and I had to take the Monday off because I was more dehydrated than I think I’d ever been and was feeling extremely rubbish as a result. So the Monday became a bit of a write off, really, as did a lot of that week for one reason or another, although I did have fajitas!

I mention this as a highlight of my week mainly because it was around this point that I realised that there is such a thing as too much Chinese food. Western food is not exactly in abundance out there, and what there was tended not to be great. And so, every day for nigh on three weeks I’d been eating noodles, rice, dumplings, more noodles, more rice, and more dumplings. Then a few more noodles, then some more rice, and then some more dumplings again. It was all delicious, of course, but...

Chinese Proverb*: Two Tons of noodles bring man great fortune
*This may or may not be made up.

You get the picture.

Now I’m home, I’m torn between not wanting to eat Chinese again for some considerable time and wanting to show off my newly found chopstick skills to my parents. I think the former will win out, but who knows?

On Friday night, the PA team had a social at KTV. Now, I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this or not, but the Chinese love karaoke. They love it. When Jane and I went over to People’s Park that week, there were karaoke stations set up along pathways, and every five metres there was someone else singing their hearts out. KTV is a dedicated place for this. Groups of people go in and you can hire a room to sing in with your group – no strangers to act as an audience.

I should also mention that I am no great fan of karaoke, and categorically swore before I left for China that I would not be drawn into it. Nu-uh; no way José.

I could hear my parents and my brother laughing hysterically from thousands of miles away.

Still, it was actually quite fun - it quite quickly descended into a lot of loud group singing, of which I have some hysterical and very embarrassing videos tucked away on my iPhone, and we all had a laugh, and that’s the main thing, really (although, if any of my friends are reading this, don’t expect me to give in and go to karaoke with you any time soon. It’s still not my cup of tea). Although, it did make me realise how much I appreciate the smoking ban back home. My clothes were reeking of smoke by the end of the night.

After that, we all went out to a bar for some more drinks, and then to a club called Muse (which was much flashier than any club I’ve been to back home) where not a lot of people seemed to be dancing. It fell to the western contingent to fly the flag, and so we clambered up on the stage, danced a lot, probably got stared at a lot, got invited over by some man for loads of free drinks, danced some more, had a really good time, and then finally stumbled in about 4am, which was a shame in a way, since it meant I didn’t wake up until embarrassingly late and wasted most of my Saturday.

The weekends were the best parts of my time in China, because as valuable as an internship is, who wants to go all the way to China to sit inside an office all day? I wanted to explore *whines*.

So, when we all regained consciousness, a few of us summoned up some energy and headed over to Wenshu Monastery, which is the best-preserved Buddhist temple in Chengdu. I’d tell you when it was built, except that I found three different websites telling me that it was built in three different dynasties, and so I have no clue.

Still, it was very large, and very interesting to walk around, looking at all the statues of Buddha, the flowers placed in front of individual statues, and people lighting incense and placing them in large cauldrons or something similar.

It was very traditional and tourist site or not, really made me think of real China.

Outside the monastery, there were a few local shops and stalls, and a local performer... 

This was also where Noémie and Michela also had an unfortunate (but quite entertaining) experience with durian, which is a fruit very common in Asia, particularly, I’m told, in Thailand. They’re everywhere, so this wasn’t the first time I’d come into contact with it – you can’t miss it, really, as it smells absolutely revolting. I simply cannot emphasise enough how bad this thing reeks - you don’t even need to crack the shell open for this fruit to smell extremely strongly, and I don’t exaggerate when I say it could set off my gag reflex. Jane didn’t like the smell either, and she told me that it tastes exactly how it smells, so I wasn’t about to go trying it. But Bryan, another volunteer from Macau, was with us, and he convinced them that it was lovely and that they really should try it…

Mean trick. They tried it, they hated it, and their faces were absolutely priceless. It was hysterical.

On Sunday, we headed back to People’s Park, where we stumbled across something very, very bizarre.

Picture the scene. You’re stood in the middle of a very large and noisy park. Along one pathway, there are lots of older Chinese people, both men and women, stood next to large easels on which big posters have been set up, full of Chinese characters and numbers, and sometimes photos.

These posters are listing all the personal details of the children/grandchildren of these old folk. And I mean all the personal details.

Age, Height, Weight, Degree, Job, Do they drive a car? What is their salary?

And then people walk around reviewing these posters, and they will do some sums to see if the numbers match up – if they’re lucky according to Chinese superstition, and the like – to see if two people are an acceptable pair, hoping to get the subjects of these posters married off.

It’s a dating service run by your mum, essentially.

Oh, China, you’re so wonderfully weird.

Heading out of TinderZone, as I have baptised it, we walked past a group of men painting Chinese characters on the floor with water, which was oddly fascinating to watch.

Really, when I’m talking about China – and People’s Park in particular - I think my only option is to upload the odd video that I took. Everything is so different, and to me, who before now had only ever travelled in the West, every new little thing like this was a constant source of fascination to me. In any case, I really think that China is not a place to be described, it is a place to be seen, and so my dodgy videoing skills shall have to suffice in the meantime.

We also made sure to have some tea in a teahouse that me a Noémie found the first time we went to the park. I had Chrysanthemum Flower tea, which I didn’t think I’d like, but which was actually surprisingly nice, which might be down to the sheer amount of sugar that came in the bottom of the glass. Some of the other, more traditional teas looked somewhat suspect to me though, and I’m not so sure I would have liked those, although I’m not in a position to judge since I didn’t actually try them.

We also went to the Wide and Narrow Alleys, two old fashioned streets in Chengdu which have lots of traditional teahouses and places to eat. Last, but most definitely not least, I also went to see the Pandas (yay!) but, to do them justice, I’ll write about them in the next blog post (which will also be the last one on China).

By the end of the weekend I only had 5 days of internship and 9 full days in China left. Those first three weeks went extremely quickly, which I’ll admit, I was quite happy about. I’ve spent a lot of time away from the UK and from home this year and despite the fact that I was having the time of my life; I was also rapidly reaching my limit, and the idea of spending more than 5 days at home before rushing off somewhere else again was looking increasingly attractive.

Next Time – China part the last (part 5): Pandas, Poets and Planes

Vicky xx

Sunday, 17 August 2014

China Part 3: Hostels and Hiking

When my trip to China was being planned, travelling in China was not on my to-do list. There were just too many practical issues. I wouldn’t have enough time; I wouldn’t have enough money, blah blah blah. I would just stay in Chengdu, where it wasn’t exactly like I would be bored, and one day in the long distant future when I’m not a poor student any more but (hopefully) a career money with some cash in the bank, I’d return to China and explore properly later.

But then I got to China, and I got jealous of everybody talking about all the travelling they’d been doing, and someone said, “Hey, let’s go to Beijing for a weekend!”

I thought about it.

For all of about two milliseconds.

Carpe Diem, as they say.

So ten days after I landed in China, I found myself back on a plane and Beijing bound. We managed to book tickets on the 07:30 Sichuan Airlines flight out of Chengdu and were in Beijing nice and early.

We stayed at Sanlitun Hostel, in the Chaoyang district, which we found on It was perfect for what we needed; not expensive, and it had a small restaurant/bar where we could grab breakfast or a drink in the evenings, and it was only 20 minutes or so away from Tiananmen Square and the like, which was where we headed first.

We started out in Tiananmen Square, which aside from being extremely large (it’s the largest public square in the world, and can hold over 1 million people) is perfectly unassuming, and it’s hard to relate the square as I saw it to the famous tank man picture taken during the infamous events of 1989.

It’s home to the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, the National Museum of China (or something like that, I forget exactly what it was called) and a large monument in the centre which Google tells me is the Monument to the People’s Heroes.

It’s also roughly where you go to get into the Forbidden City, which was the imperial palace for the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. It was listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site in 1987, and you can see why. It is extremely impressive. The buildings are huge and ornate, and the gardens were beautiful. You can’t really go to Beijing and not visit.

That said, there are drawbacks to visiting. The Forbidden City is also the world’s largest palace complex (the Chinese like to be the biggest, apparently!).

Seriously. Once we got inside, it seemed to go on and on and on and on forever and ever and ever. I thought I was going to die there, old and grey, if I didn’t melt first. (Not really). There are so many courtyards, one after the other, and after a while, everything began to look the same and all we wanted to do was find the exit, which took a while. Also, even though it was a weekday, we are slap bang in the middle of peak season, and the crowds were pretty bad.

So – if you ever go, here’s my advice. Don’t go in the middle of summer, when it’s at its most boiling, and make sure you get an audio guide or something, so you actually know what you’re looking at (rookie mistake, I know, but there we have it).

We also had a bit of a weird food moment in the Forbidden City, when I was dared to buy a pea flavoured ice cream. I shouldn’t need to tell you that it was absolutely vile, and went in the bin pretty quickly. (Also, out of curiosity, I looked up #peaicecream instagram later on, and apparently if I had actually tried to eat the thing, I would have found actual peas on the inside. Gross)

Luckily, food for the rest of the weekend was perfectly fine. That night we went to Gui Jie and found a restaurant to have some proper Beijing Peking Duck, which (when it arrived – we were sat waiting for it for ages) was tres bien.

We essentially organised our Saturday around the tours that were advertised in the lobby of our hostel, so we started the day by heading about 70km northeast of Beijing on the coach, hopping on to a chair lift and up a very large mountain to see the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China.

I don’t know what was more impressive, really: the fact that this wall, crawling over mountains and through thick trees, was just so massive – it’s quite the commanding site – or the fact that something so massive and it was built by hand. On said mountains, through said thick trees, and from the middle of the 6th century, no less.

Anyway, once we got to the top and took a few lots of photos, we decided to hike towards one of the many watch towers on this stretch of the wall, and the last part open in that direction before the dilapidated section, and then head back and do the other direction after that.
This proved to be a bit optimistic.
The mid 6th century Chinese builders did not build the wall with 21st century tourists in mind, and in places the stairs up to this watch tower were so steep that the staircase was essentially vertical. Rock climbing gloves would not have gone amiss (okay, I exaggerate, but seriously, climbing the wall took effort. When they say that you go hiking on the wall, they mean it, it’s no gentle stroll!). It also did not help that on the wall; the temperature was at least 40°C, with little to no cloud cover and little to no breeze.
Anyway, having sweated out at least half my body weight, we got to the top (yay!) where there was a little man selling bottles of water. He wanted ¥20 for one, which was a bit steep when we’d been paying about ¥3 in Beijing, so I didn’t buy one. Looking back, this was exceptionally stupid, given just how hot it was, and given that the man only wanted what was essentially £2, and this was probably one of the reasons why I ended up severely dehydrated by the end of the weekend, but perhaps I can blame said dehydration for my pig-headedness (Can’t I?)
Still, the wall was very impressive and offered some seriously brilliant views of the valleys around the bottom of the mountains, and we really couldn’t have gone to Beijing without going, could we?

Going back down to the bottom of the mountain, we took a slightly more interesting route than we had on the way up. We tobogganed down, which was quite fun (if slightly alarming on the sharper corners), and then went to a restaurant for our lunch, which was included in the amount we’d paid for the tour, and which turned out to be a lot bigger that I’d been expecting. We definitely got our money’s worth :)
When we got back to Beijing, we showered up and grabbed dinner at the hostel before heading a few minutes down the road for a show put on by the China National Acrobatic Troupe, which was also really good – there was a contortionist, and a juggler, some seriously cool stuff on a tightrope and loads of other stuff. You can see why the Chinese win so many medals in gymnastics, with the way this lot were jumping around. They must put so many hours of training in to do what they do – would you want to climb onto a tower of people balanced on a moving bike? I wouldn’t!

After the acrobatics show finished, we got back on the subway and went to Wanfujing’s snack street. It’s packed with food stalls which served some seriously strange street food – live scorpions on sticks, anyone? No? How about starfish? Still, it was actually really fun to meander around and look at the good and the stranger elements of Beijing, and we all did a bit of souvenir shopping.

Next morning, we decided to head back to Tiananmen Square and go to Mao’s Mausoleum, which is worth a visit if taking a few hours out of your day to see an embalmed communist leader is your thing. This was a simple enough plan, except that when we got to Qianmen station, we emerged into what can only be described as chaos. When we had been to Tiananmen Square on Friday, visiting hours at the Mausoleum were already over, and it was quite quiet. We wandered up to the Forbidden City with no problems.

Not so this time.

People were queuing up to get through security in droves. There were thousands and thousands of people, none of whom knew the definition of queuing, all of whom knew the definition of queue jumping, all of whom were happy to yell and scream and elbow the people next to them to get through quicker. Similar behaviour when we actually got into the square; similar behaviour when we actually got into the queue.

Then the realisation that we weren’t actually allowed to take any bags into the mausoleum. Helpfully, there were no signs anywhere to point this out, and the City Guide by TimeOut Beijing, which we’d been relying on, also very helpfully neglected to mention this. So (once we’d eventually established what the problem was and where I had to go to solve it) I had to dip out of the queue, head to the opposite side of the square to deposit our bags, and then wrestle through queues and security again to try and get back into the queue, which was exhausting. And then we spent an hour and a half queuing to get in (under relentless sunshine and with no water, seeing as we weren’t allowed our bags or anything really in the way of possessions, which just led to us feeling simply awful later).

It was actually this visit to the Mausoleum where I really saw for the first time that, for all its friendly façade and influx of capitalist brands, China is after all a communist country. When a big figure dies in the UK, or wherever, there’s obviously some public mourning – think Princess Diana, and the like – but it goes beyond that in China. It’s not just your average respect for the dead: there is a personality cult surrounding Chairman Mao (I mean, there’s a giant portrait of him adorning the entrance to the Forbidden City, which predates the communist regime by thousands and thousands and thousands of years!)

When we finally got close to the Mausoleum, people were buying yellow flowers, which, when we got inside, they laid in front of a giant statue of Mao, usually bowing at him several times. And then of course, there’s the fact that they embalmed him in the first place, for people to go and gawk at.

It’s an interesting phenomena, particularly when you take this in the context of a simple google search - the Cultural Revolution, or the famine caused by the 'Great Leap Forward', which killed 30 million Chinese peasants, or thereabouts, in between 1959 and 1962... I don't claim to be particularly knowledgeable about Mao, and I'm sure he did good things for China, but there is a reason he has his critics. 

It’s all very odd, and slightly uncomfortable.

Anyway, after this brief interlude (we were only actually in the mausoleum for about five minutes, after all that), we went and got our bags, and some lunch, and headed over to the Temple of Heaven, which is another complex of China’s ancient sacrificial buildings (the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest is the most famous part).

It’s also yet another UNESCO World Heritage site – China has 47 of these, second most in the world behind Italy, who has 50. I managed to visit a fair few of them in the short time I had.

By this point, though, I think the heat just got too much. It was extremely hot, we were sweating faster than we could replace the water, we’d done a lot of walking, and although we had time to do at least one more thing if we had wanted to, I think if we’d tried, one or all of us would have ended up with pretty severe dehydration and heatstroke. So we headed back to the hostel to freshen up and hang around in the air conditioning until it was time to head to the airport for our flight back to Chengdu.

Obviously, Beijing is a lot bigger than just the stuff that we saw. There was loads of stuff that we didn’t see, like the Summer Palace, the Ming Tombs and the famous Olympic Park, and that’s just the sights, not the real Beijing. But we just ran out of time, (and I suspect we wouldn’t have been able to summon the energy to do more in any case, it was just so hot).

Still, it was a really good weekend, and I’m so glad that I went and got to see a little bit more of China while I was there. It would have been silly to travel more than 5000 miles to somewhere I am extremely unlikely to be again very soon, and not make the most of it while I could.

I know this was another super long post, but you can’t go somewhere like China and not have a lot to say about it!

Next Time – China part 4: Tianfu, Tinder and Tea

Vicky xx

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

China Part 2: Internships and Intestines

Once I had been in China for two days, I went into my placement, at a law firm called King and Wood Mallesons, for the first time. For the law nerds amongst you, King and Wood Mallesons is a top law firm in China, established in 1993. It merged with an Australian Firm, Mallesons Stephen Jacques in 2012 and with UK firm SJ Berwin in 2013 (SJ Berwin is temporarily known as King and Wood Mallesons SJ Berwin, which is a mouthful, but eventually the SJ Berwin element will be dropped completely). This makes it the first global law firm to have their headquarters in Asia. They have over 2700 lawyers, including more than 550 partners in 31 worldwide locations.

Spiel over.

Anyway, on my first morning, I was supposed to go in about 9 (and I left in some seriously torrential rain) when the PA staff called me and said my supervisor wasn't in the office. So I finally got there about 11ish.

The building is brand new – part of a giant shopping centre with lots of luxury brands - and on the 16th floor. (Interestingly, I later noted in the lift that this building has a 13th floor and a 13A, but no 14th floor. I assume that this is because 4 is considered an unlucky number in Chinese culture – its pronunciation sounds a lot like the word for death – but it struck me as a bit ironic, because, obviously, in our culture, 13 is considered to be unlucky, and yet this tower block had two 13th floors!)

View from the Office

It was a spacious office, with lots of glass and chrome and all very modern and whatnot, which was sort of what I expected, but after that, I found lots of and lots of differences to what I had anticipated.

When I got there, the receptionist is wearing pink trainers, jeans and an Adidas t-shirt, as were some of the lawyers. Very loud gobbing was common (and I’m sorry, but I can never suppress a shudder when people do that, no matter where I am. It’s rank) and when I came back from lunch everyone, and I mean everyone, was napping at their desks, with the pillows they had brought in specifically for this purpose, which the other intern said was totally normal. Random men would occasionally wonder in and try to sell their wares. In fact, the office atmosphere was probably the biggest culture shock to my system during my time in Chengdu, although I did manage to adjust fairly well (I think).  

But they were all very nice, which did make life considerably easier.

By 4pm, though, I still hadn’t been given anything to do – and my advice is, if you ever go on an internship like this, you have to be proactive and keep asking for work, or you won’t any and therefore you won’t get anything out of your experience. Eventually, I got sent a legal brief on the PRC rules for doing foreign investment in China which I read through, found quite interesting, and sent my supervisor a bunch of questions about it.

Anyway, in the process of reading this digest, I googled - well, no, the Chinese firewall is reluctant to let Google load very often, if at all, so I had to use Bing instead - an organisation here called the National Development and Reform Commission of the Peoples Republic of China. Bit of a mouthful, I know. This is its list of departments: 

…The General Office, Department of Policy Studies, Department of Development Planning, Department of National Economy, Bureau of Economic Operations Adjustment, Department of Economic Operations Adjustment, Department of Economic System Reform, Department of Fixed Asset Investment, Department of Foreign Capital and Overseas Investment, Department of Regional Economy, Department of Western Regional Development, Department of North-eastern Region Revitalization, Department of Rural Economy, Department of Basic Industries, Department of Industry, Department of High-Tech Industry, Department of Resource Conservation and Environmental Protection, Department of Climate Change, Department of Social Development, Department of Employment and Income Distribution, Department of Trade, Department of Fiscal and Financial Affairs, Department of Price, Bureau of Price Supervision and Anti Monopoly, Department of Laws and Regulations, Department of International Cooperation, Department of Personnel, Office of National Economic Mobilization, Office of Key Project Inspectors, the NDRC Party Committee, Bureau of Retired Officials, State Bureau of Material Reserve, State Grain Administration and the National Energy Administration. 

Seriously. For one commission. And is it only me or do several of them look the same? 

Point is, learning a little bit about how China really operates while I was there ended up being quite interesting, seeing as I've been completely ignorant of it before now.

On my second morning, things didn’t start out so well, because the way I was shown how to get to the office the day before took me through the shopping centre, which wasn’t even open when I tried to take the same route  and I ended up getting lost.

King Kong Panda climbing the office
*not really. He was part of the rooftop sculpture garden

Still, when I eventually got there, word had spread that there was another intern in the office and I got a few things to do – for instance, one lawyer came and found me and emailed me a Sino-Foreign Equity Joint Venture Contract to look over and proofread) – and I got asked to collaborate with another intern, who’d already been there for a few weeks already, on a presentation about Chinese Investment in Europe.

One good thing about working here was that all the employees and other interns were really welcoming and friendly, and we went out for lunch with them a fair bit, usually to places I would never have found on my own and which are clearly local haunts. This meant that a lot of my ‘authentic’ food experiences were done in the course of my internship, rather than by me alone.

There are eight culinary traditions in China, and Sichuan cuisine is one of them. Chengdu was actually declared by UNESCO to be a city of gastronomy in 2011, in order to recognise its style of cooking. According to Wikipedia, (and I would agree with this assessment), the most prominent traits of Sichuan cuisine can be encapsulated in four words; spicy, hot, fresh and fragrant.

For instance, on one occasion, we went somewhere where I tried bamboo for the first time (not bad, although it seemed to meet with mixed reviews amongst the other volunteers) and Chengdu Hotpot, which is a specialty to this area and can't be found anywhere else in China, or so they told me. It also lives up to its name. I swear there were about 50 chillies crushed on top of this dish alone, ignoring the amount that had been mixed into the sauce. Chengdu is a region that likes its spice! It was full of flavour though, and the spice numbed my mouth as opposed to setting it on fire, which was not what I’d expected. Anyway, once I got over the spice, I actually quite enjoyed it.

Another benefit of going to lunch with the people from the office was that, of course, they all spoke Chinese, which made ordering easier.

Or at least, mostly easier.

On another occasion (which I’m still a bit traumatised by) someone said we were going to get chicken. Fair enough, I thought. A dish turned up in a big bowl with loads of sauce and vegetables, so it was hard at first to tell if anything was different. I ate a piece of the ‘chicken’ and I didn't like it very much at all. It was very chewy and just… not pleasant. About five minutes or so later, I picked another (bigger and much more suspicious) piece up – I was paying for this, after all – and was looking at it dubiously, when I was informed that what I was actually eating was not chicken, but Pig Intestines.

Anyone who knows me can, I’m sure, picture the expression my face at this announcement. Happily, there are no pictures. 

But… I was in China, where this kind of thing is not uncommon, and I decided that if I really wanted to call myself a traveller, I couldn’t and shouldn’t be a wuss. So to give myself credit where credit is definitely (in my opinion) due, I took a deep breath and I did actually willingly eat the bigger (and upon further examination, much more intestiney-looking) bit. Honestly, I’m not sure I've ever been braver!

The problem is, it was no less gross than the first time, and this time I actually knew what it was. My brain was alternating between screaming at me, “How dare you willingly eat pig intestine?!” and repeating “It’s just pork, It’s just pork, It’s just pork” like a mantra the whole time. It was all I could do not to hurl while I forced it down. I actually thought I was going to at one point, but luckily I didn't embarrass myself. 

Well anyway, this put me off my lunch a bit quite considerably. After that I stuck to the potato and lotus roots. Much less risky. 

I made sure to have KFC that night. Call me a heathen, but a nice, safe chicken burger sounded like a good way to restore my… culinary equilibrium, if that’s even a thing. Something like that. 

Back in the office, I continued to proofread and research and generally do internshippy things which I don’t need to describe in detail here. In fact, the only other thing I should mention in this post is how lovely my supervisor was when I approached him begging for a day off so I could go exploring.


Next Time – China part 3: Hostels and Hiking

Vicky xx

PS. Today is my parent’s silver wedding anniversary. Congratulations Mum and Dad, I love you both so much xx