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Hiking in Beijing, by Matthew Harhai

I never dreamed that I would visit a wonder of the world three times in one month. I did just this in October. It’s quite easy to catch a bus out of Beijing to many of the different sections of the Great Wall. There are several tour companies that cater to those without cars. If you don’t feel like leaving the city district entirely, but want to escape the hustle, catching a bus to the west hills is a breeze. Shijingshan, the district where most Aihua schools are and where first year teachers live, borders the west hills with many gorgeous temples among them. Popular hiking spots in the west hills are Badachu and the Fragrant Hills. Hiking in these areas is not so much of a rustic dirt trail endeavor as it is a cultural exploration. What a nice departure from most western hiking to be able to appreciate intricately designed temples, practicing Buddhist monks engaging in their chants and prayers, beautifully manicured gardens, and the smells of many varieties of incense.

The Fragrant Hills is a huge park of several different historic and holy sites. It served as a military stronghold of Mao and his army during the early days of the Communist Party. Badachu translates to eight great sites, of which it contains eight temples and nunneries throughout the west hills. Badachu also features some 600 year old trees. If your feet are hurting from a day of walking around Beijing, or if you’re lazy, you can pay to take a cable-car to the top, afterwards you can ride a toboggan down. Go to the west hills during September and October to enjoy fantastic fall colors! As far as my Great Wall expeditions go, the highlight was visiting one of the oldest sections at Gubeikou also known as Crouching Tiger. The oldest portions were built 1400 years ago and feature construction from 5 different periods including the Liao, Jin, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.

It’s easy to find a Great Wall tour with as little as six people through a company like China Hiking (at chinahiking.cn). Others like Cultural Exchange Trips run large bus tours splitting the seating between 25 Chinese and 25 foreigners. For less than $200 USD you can join an overnight Great Wall trek and camp tour, with food and camping gear provided. For less that $30 USD it’s possible to take a day trip to one of the many Great Wall sites. There are several Great Wall sites in the Beijing area, all within two hours or less of city center. Whatever you do, don’t go to Badaling: it was built by the Mao regime to boost national pride. I hear it’s a tourist trap these days. Instead, go to one of the many historic spots. Come to Beijing and experience great hiking mixed with amazing culture!

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How to love China, by Juliene Terblanche

When you come to China, it’s not just a matter of simply arriving in a new country, it’s more like entering a whole new world; a fascinating, inspiring and mesmerizing new world. I would advise anyone and everyone to experience China for themselves and I am confident most people will love it. I say this so often that people always ask me why I love China so much?

The answer is simple. Like I’ve already said, China is so much more than just another country. It’s like nothing you’ve experienced before. In the event, however, that you get to China and you find yourself unsure about it, here are a few tips on how to love China.

1. Straight face
Learn to shop like a local and you will learn more about the people than you thought possible and also save a ton of money in the process. Shopping like a local entails going to the various markets and buying everything from fruit and vegetables to furniture. In order to get the best deal, however, you should never look excited about your purchase, at least not until you’ve more than halved the price and paid for the item and you have it in your hand and you’re walking away with it. If you show your real emotions about your prospective item you will always pay more because the seller will clearly see how badly you want it. But if you simply just go to the markets and look around you will always learn something about the culture and the people of China in the process. Without even realizing it, you will find yourself falling a little more in love with China as a whole.

2. Zero expectations
When you come to China, it is best not to have any pre-conceived notions or ideas about the country because it doesn’t matter how many books, blog posts or articles you read, nothing will prepare you for what you will experience once you arrive. It’s really best to arrive with a blank slate and form your own opinions about the people and the country. China is very different and you will be disappointed if you try and put it in a box before you’ve visited. Best to let the people and the country make their own first impression than you trying to create one out of thin air. I personally didn’t read anything before coming to China besides living cost comparisons and I am so grateful for that because I honestly didn’t know what to expect and it allowed me create my own opinions based on my own experiences and now I absolutely love the city of Beijing and China as a whole.

3. See the city not the sights
The best way to see a city for yourself is to go off the beaten path, explore by foot and definitely take the road less travelled. Beijing has incredible tourist spots and great sights, but the best way to see and experience the city is definitely not by restricting yourself to those. The side streets next to and behind the major sights are some of the most marvelous to see. I once got lost somewhere in the middle of the city and as I was walking through the streets I stumbled across a beautiful, traditional Church. Something I didn’t even know existed in the city. It was such a beautiful building, it reminded me so much of home but it being surrounded by traditional Chinese buildings made it even more special.

4. There’s always more
The number one way to fall head over heels in love with the majestic country that is China is to go travelling across its enormous spaces. China is a country of extraordinary size and the different landscapes found in this one country are impressive. When you get the chance go to different cities and towns you should try the local cuisine. You will also get to meet more of the local people and get a better window into Chinese culture. You will never be able to see all of China in one lifetime but you can have an amazing time trying. The nature this country has to offer is incredible and you can’t help but fall in love with China when you’re surrounded by mountains.

I have no doubt that anyone can fall in love with this country and this city as much as I have if you simply open your mind, shop like a local person, forget about your preconceived notions, go off the beaten path and explore the natural beauty of the country. Try it for yourself, you just might love it as well.

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A scooter for Beijing, by Nicholas Flesch

There are few adventures that match riding an electric scooter through Beijing. Best of all, this adventure can be had every day. The electric scooter has replaced the bicycle as Beijingers’ transportation of choice, and as such they are everywhere. Little dealerships are located on almost every street corner, and you can pick one up for less than $500 new or $200 used. They’re great for getting around, too, so long as you can develop a Zen attitude when it comes to traffic.

Traffic rules are fluid here; people do what’s convenient when it’s convenient. For every person going along with the flow of traffic there is another person going against it, and for all those people there’s going to be someone coming at you from the side. I don’t know how it all works out, but somehow between the slaloming between oncoming traffic and slow moving grandpas no one gets hurt and everyone makes it to where they’re going more or less on time.

Although in the first month or two a scooter, new or used, feels like a big investment it’s worth it. The freedom it gives is great. It makes getting around so much easier. I don’t have to figure out the bus schedules or wait for the buses. I just walk out my door, hop on my scooter, and take off to wherever I want to go (within about a 20 kilometer range).

The only word of advice I have for buying a scooter is to expect nothing, and that way you will expect everything.

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In the spotlight in China, by Sonja Magnus

I have been in China for almost three months now. Before I came to Beijing I didn’t really have any expectations for what it was going to be like. However, after only a short amount of time here I have come to realize that not only is China an extremely diverse and interesting country but the people here are also some of the most interesting individuals I have ever met.

Chinese people are welcoming, hard-working and very family-oriented. They are also rather curious about foreigners, which often leads to funny encounters with the locals on daily basis. That being said, one of the things you have to get used to China is getting your pictures taken. The way Chinese people do this is not subtle to say at least and I often spot someone taking a picture of me on the subway, bus or on the street without even trying to hide it. It can come as a bit of a shock in the beginning when random people approach you and suddenly you realize you are posing for a “selfie” with a Chinese family. Especially for a lot of the mainland Chinese people, it is very exciting to see a westerner and it just adds to their excitement if you try to speak some Chinese with them. I have no idea of what they actually do with the photos of my confused face but I’m just trying to embrace it and get used to these moments in the spotlight.

Probably the funniest encounter I’ve had so far was a couple of weeks ago on my way to work. I was walking towards my center from the bus stop when an older Chinese man spotted me. His whole face lit up, he raised his hands in the air and joyfully started running towards me. Speaking in extremely fast Chinese (way beyond my non-existent Chinese skills) he excitedly pointed at my hair and did a funny dance around me. Then for my amusement he got on one knee, took my hand and obviously jokingly proposed to me. People around us were clapping and cheering. Then this sweet man disappeared as fast as he had appeared and I was left on the street with a confused smile on my face.

It’s little encounters like this with the locals that add to the experience and make your stay in Beijing so much more memorable.

Teach English in China - Matthew Jones

Walking on Ancient History, by Matthew Jones

For two weeks every year, inter-city transportation in China is buzzing with tourists. Famous attractions and sights have queues around the block. Chinese flags sprout up everywhere, and in the most unlikely of places.

But these are not foreign tourists. It’s time for a ‘Golden Week’, when residents of China travel, relax, and spend time with family and friends. These are two seven-day national holidays around Chinese New Year, in January or February, and National Day, at the beginning of October.

So, three of us lovely teachers at Aihua – residents of China – were faced with a problem: how could we visit a national treasure, during a national holiday, and avoid the crowds? Our solution: a two hour bus journey, followed by three hours of hiking on challenging terrain, to a remote section of the Great Wall.

The scenery during the hike up the mountain was spectacular, but nothing could surpass the views along the Wall at the top. Did you know that parts of it are over 2,300 years old? Whilst much of where we hiked had been restored we were still, literally, walking on ancient history.

Having spent some time exploring and taking photos, we set up our tents and our guides cooked us dinner. We looked at the stars, sat round the fire and – rolling back the years – roasted some marshmallows. Eventually, we went to sleep. How many people can say they have slept on a ‘wonder of the world’?

The next morning we climbed down the mountain and began the journey back to Beijing, safe in the knowledge that our memories (and photos) of the trip would always be with us. If you decide to work in China, which you should, camping on the Great Wall is a priority. That is, if you like once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

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Riding the buses in Beijing, by Patrick Watters

Back home I was not someone who would typically use public transportation. That option is usually a last resort. In America we are so accustomed to driving our own cars everywhere that we forget about the benefits and possibilities of such a service. Since the traffic in Beijing is scary and daunting at all times of the day, I told myself I would not purchase a scooter or motor bike for the fear of ending up at the hospital. Therefore, public transportation is the way to go for me and after my first month it has really grown on me now. I am both a fan of the busses and the subway system, however I tend to use the busses on a more regular basis to get to and from work. I never learned the schedule because they arrive five to ten minutes in between each other so I can catch one at any time essentially. Most of the time I stand because they are crowded, but this too has grown on me. I don’t expect a seat anymore. It is very cheap to ride the bus so when another coworker mentions grabbing a taxi instead I find myself declining the offer because what’s the point? Sure it may take a little longer and you make be squished in with what feels like 100 other people, but you get to your destination in the end. As a foreigner you do get stared at a good amount, and this is no different on public transportation. Many people stare at me and if they are close enough, try to look at my phone and see what I am doing or what music I am listening to which I find pretty funny. You most likely will hear people practically yelling into their phones, but odds are they aren’t mad they are just having a regular conversation. A tip to remember about riding the bus though is to make sure you scan your card before getting off, otherwise you pay more in the end. Trust me its happened once or twice and I wonder where all my bus money went after only a handful of rides. All in all it’s an interesting experience each day I go to work.

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Arriving in China, by Peter Campion

As I am writing this, I am marking the end of my sixth week with Aihua in Beijing. Every day presents new challenges, however these challenges have made this experience more enjoyable and I am definitely looking forward to the months ahead. My impression of Aihua from the outset was positive. Throughout the interview and visa application process, communication was clear, comprehensive and prompt. Since my arrival, this professionalism has continued and helps to make life in Beijing somewhat easier.

Training
During our first two weeks, we complete a training course with the school’s Training Managers. For somebody coming from a non-teaching background, we were provided with practical advice on managing your class. Beyond this, our Foreign Centre Supervisors are on-site to provide us with help and support when issues arise.

Work
Following the training period, we were allocated to one of Aihua’s six centres in West Beijing. I was assigned to Wanshang. I work alongside four foreign teachers, our Foreign Centre Supervisor, five Chinese teachers and the Chinese sales staff. From the outset, we were made very welcome with offers of food on a daily basis, as well as a welcome gift following our first month. Besides working with a fantastic bunch of Chinese and Foreign Staff, I was pleased to discover a coveted “Western loo” on the third floor of our building! It’s the small things…

Accommodation
Aihua provides all Foreign Teachers with accommodation in Shijingshan. West Beijing is traditionally not frequented by many westerners and consequently, we are a novelty for many of our neighbours who frantically force their grandchildren to speak English with us. Nevertheless, people are very welcoming and friendly.

The accommodation is of a Western standard. I share a two-bedroom apartment with one other Foreign Teacher. We have been unfortunate enough to experience a number of maintenance issues over the last few weeks, however Summer (foreign affairs officer) has come to our rescue on each and every occasion.

Administrative Support
Aihua provides Foreign Teachers with a Z visa, which is necessary to work legally in China. Luke (foreign affairs officer) completed this timely and complicated process on our behalf. We had to make one visit for a medical check and one visit to the visa-processing centre. Both visits were uncomplicated and fast. During the first few days, Summer and Luke also helped us to open a bank account and buy a SIM card. Again, without Summer or Luke, both processes would be timely and almost impossible.

Food
Food is cheap and plentiful in Beijing. You can enjoy a Chinese meal for 10-30RMB. Nevertheless, after a few days of fried food, a trip to a Western restaurant is welcomed. Many Western dining options are available in Shijingshan, however they do tend to be somewhat more expensive than a Chinese meal. Grocery stores are also common and offer a variety of Western products.

Beijing
Beijing is an awe-inspiring city. As the capital of the PRC, it has a long a long and varied past and this is seen in it’s people and it’s architecture. Over the past six weeks, I’ve visited many of the tourist sites in the city, as well as making a visit to a village outside of Beijing. The highlight of my experience thus far has been visiting the Great Wall. This mammoth structure is something to reckon with and I will most definitely return.

As week seven approaches, I’m looking forward to our October holiday and the coming months. I’ve yet to experience a “bad China” day and I am confident with the support shown so far, these days will be very few and far between.

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Misadventures in Chinese, by Sinead Hegarty

While my love for China and the Chinese people grows most days, the language barrier is still one issue that refuses to let go. Every day brings new challenges and tests in communication. One such test occurred when ordering my favourite breakfast food – baozi or 包子 – a small steamed bun filled with meat or vegetables and typically dipped in a concoction of chili and vinegar. Delicious. Now, when you first start learning Chinese you soon realise the importance of choosing the correct quantifier for each word, for example it’s not one water it’s one bottle of water. In my excitement for baozi all this went out the window and instead of ordering a plate of baozi I ordered one tiny little bun with a side dish of one bemused waitress. Being too embarrassed to admit my mistake I explained how I had already eaten today, ate my tiny baozi and left. Never will I neglect my Chinese grammar again.

While I would love to say this is my only mistake in Chinese, unfortunately it is merely the beginning of a very long list. This list includes ordering pig intestine rather than mushroom, realising I was saying diarrhea instead of thank you, ordering 50 dumplings rather than 15 and buying a train ticket to the completely wrong city. The final mistake was only rectified when I started speaking to people in the queue and realised I was about to travel 700 miles north of where I wanted to go. However, despite my frustration with Mandarin the language has allowed me to make Chinese friends, experience the amazing variety of food that this country has to offer and see the most breathtaking landscape.

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My first month in China, by Lucille Van Niekerk

If you had asked me a year ago where I would find myself living and working I would most assuredly have said somewhere in South America. Yet, here I am in China. The question that begs answering is, why? I instinctively knew that it would be the antithesis of my own culture and upbringing. In this contrast and difference I have experienced a plethora of emotions. I have vacillated between extreme joy and frustration. Now, now before you go and diagnose me with a personality disorder let me explain further.

The things that have made me so happy are the following;

On arrival to Beijing I was met by the Recruitment Manager, Rob. He was the epitome of friendliness and truly made me feel welcome. It was later that I found out that he and a new teacher fondly known as KB, our Georgia peach had waited for me for 6 hours. Despite this extreme punishment for them and imposition both were lovely and had to be subjected to my verbal diarrhea for an hour. How they never landed in therapy after that is beyond my comprehension. These two individuals allayed any anxiety I might have had and made me feel that coming to Beijing was a good choice.

Meeting the other new foreign teachers just solidified my belief that my China experience would be good. They are truly a bunch of gifted, talented and intelligent people. I have read most of their dissertations which is a newly discovered passion of mine and they are truly a clever bunch. The older foreign teachers have gone above and beyond to facilitate an easy transition and to assist us with anything.

The school’s foreign affairs officers, Luke and Summer are the reason we function so easily in China. They have patiently and kindly assisted us with everything. I mean everything. You struggle to communicate with the plumber, telephone guy we call poor Luke or Summer. Despite this these two individuals still smile and are not yet on antidepressants.

The Chinese staff and teachers known as CT’s were very welcoming and kind. They truly made an extreme effort to make us feel welcome. My first centre meeting they arranged food for us and eagerly laid out the table. There was an abundance of fruit and health drinks and for a brief moment I thought they were hinting I need to diet. Fruit however, is a big deal in China and this was their way of making a big deal to welcome us.

All of the above bears mentioning as without it my story would have read differently. If I was surrounded by people I did not have an affinity for and not felt welcome no matter how many treasures China had I would have missed it because my vision would have been distorted. So, to the lot of you thank you.

I have discovered that Chinese people love salsa dancing. A common passion we share. Beijing has Salsa clubs and I attended a class at the International Art Plaza. I was the only foreigner in the class and it was so much fun.

Music is a great love of mine and Beijing has a treasure chest full of gems I am still discovering. KTV is a karaoke club and normally it would not be something I enjoy. Karaoke in China is just so much fun and different. I enjoyed it so much I lost my voice.

Getting lost in any foreign country I find is an adventure. China is no different. I had such a great experience whilst wandering in the street trying to find a restaurant. A Chinese guy noticed that I was discombobulated and decided to help me. The next thing I know a woman on a scooter tells me to hop on the back and proceeds to take me to the restaurant.

Another joy filled moment for me was whilst I was travelling on the subway. I had a 20 minute discussion with a Chinese lady each speaking our own language and gesticulating profusely. Pure joy! I think we solved the world’s issues in those 20 minutes and I reckon on some strange level we really understood each other.

My frustrations are based around the following;

The toilet issue – It has to be said. I now value, love and respect western toilets on a level I never thought I could or would. When I find one it is one of the greatest joys of my life. I can truly say with utter conviction that I will never truly get comfortable with squat toilets.

My ineptitude at learning Chinese – I feel I have regressed and feel mentally challenged as I point and nod all the time when communicating with Chinese people. I order my food by pointing and a noodle restaurant I frequent has now become so accustomed to my pointing that when I walk in they point. It’s not hard for them as I order the same thing every time.

Chinese traffic rules – China has a unique interpretation or set of traffic rules. When crossing a road at the pedestrian crossing be careful green means a scooter will still ride and cars too even if you are walking across the street.

Rush hour traffic on a subway – I have never experienced been jammed like a sardine before. I still can’t conceptualise how so many people filled one train compartment. I spent an hour with my face in a guy’s armpit due to been vertically challenged and squashed from all sides.

Beijing is truly a vibrant, beautiful city. It has cast some spell on me this surprises me the most. I find the mountains, temples and sites magical, alluring and just beautiful. I feel at home here already. I feel at home in a country where I cannot communicate effectively, have toilet and pollution issues and am afraid of rush hour on the subway. I have found with my travels that anywhere you go you will be faced with frustrations and issues but I warn you Beijing will seduce you with its unique charm.