As you're all probably sick of reading, I've been living in China for the past 9 months, teaching English. With less than 80 days to go (yes, I'm counting down), I thought I'd reflect a bit on some of the most amazing experiences I've had here and share them with you. This year has really been life-changing for me, and while I'm excited to go home, I know a part of my heart will remain in this small seaside town for the rest of my life.
Every tiny corner of China is infused with rich history. I've seen maybe 1% of what this amazing country has to offer, but I feel very lucky to have had this opportunity. So, with that, let's get into the list.
10. Qufu/Confucius's palace
I live in Shandong province, which is home to the Tsingtao brewery, China's most sacred mountain, the spring of eternal youth, and Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius. Qufu is poorer and less well-developed than Shandong's seaside, but it's definitely worth visiting, if you're into history and philosophy. Confucius's school, palace and tomb are all located there. The palace is the most impressive and well-maintained. Kongzi (Master Kong) didn't actually live there – he was born into poverty – but his descendants did for many years while they governed the area.
Bonus: across the street from the Lingxing gate of the Temple of Confucius (the school) is the best Korean BBQ restaurant I've ever been to.
9. Beijing/the Summer Palace
Beijing is a very impressive city, but despite visiting there twice, I haven't really gotten a good sense for its character, because I've only really seen the tourist destinations. That being said, my favourite place to visit was the Summer Palace, which was rebuilt by the Empress Dowager Cixi in the early 1900s. The gardens were beautiful and serene, despite all the tourists, and the blossoms were perfect in May.
8. Learning Mandarin
Wǒde zhōngwen bù hǎo, dàn wǒ huì shuō yīdiǎnr.
Mandarin is hard, you guys! So many intonations! The grammar is not super complex, but when there are rules, they're very hard. You need to attach a classifier to the number when you're counting nouns, and there are approximately 10 billion different ones, and usually it's hard to explain why certain objects fall in the same category (desk and paper have the same classifier, and swords, keys and chairs are in another category together).
That being said, it's a fun language to learn, and I definitely plan in continuing my studies when I go back to Canada.
This isn't some bullshit "Asians are bad drivers" thing, but the driving culture is definitely different and one of the first things foreigners notice. It's not at all uncommon to watch a car cut diagonally through the lane, or just drive into the opposite traffic lane for 20 meters or so, because there is a divider preventing their left turn. Drivers often signal when they're passing another car by beeping. Someone told me that driving culture here is very influenced by the way people ride bikes, because cars have only become widely available in the last 10 years or so.
One thing that amazes me is that people just don't get mad the way we do in North America. I've never seen a driver swear or use their horn because they were cut off in traffic or something. It's just how it is. I have, however, ridden in an illegal taxi whose driver had one phone pressed to his ear, while texting on another and driving with his elbows on the highway, and that was fun.
6. The food
Oh my god, the food. Wow. Such taste. So yum. Wow.
Things on a stick. Dumplings. Beijing roast duck. Dry pot. Hot pot. Moon cakes. Pig ears. Pig feet. Chicken heads. Pro tip: cicadas taste better fried in peanut oil than barbequed. Silk worms are just bitter and chewy.
Bonus: The worst thing I've tasted in China is sea cucumber. It's chewy, almost like cartilage, and it has a mild fishy taste. It's about as gross as you'd imagine. It's kind of a big deal where I live, even though nobody actually seems to like it. It's a big honour to be treated to it, however, so I've had to choke it down a few times. And if you're sick and your friends and relatives love you, they'll bring you a case of sea cucumber milk, which is milk with chunks of sea cucumber in it. It's supposed to be very healthy. I haven't tested its health benefits myself, but I guess if you can drink a case of the stuff, you can survive anything.
5. The Great Wall
It was great. Also, I got to ride a luge back down to the bottom.
Qingdao is a port-city in Shandong. It's named the most livable city in China. It has a very European feel, due to its history of German occupation during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The famous Tsingtao beer is brewed in Qingdao, and the brewery is well worth a tour. I only spent one night there with my boyfriend, but we got to sample some of the amazing food at the Jiangning Road Food Street and drink Tsingtao poured from a keg straight into a plastic bag (with a straw for easy drinking). If you want to stay there on the cheap, look up the Kaiyue International Youth Hostel and find Beer Mama's stall for the best beer-in-a-bag experience in town.
Home of the Terracotta Warriors, China's ancient capital is really majestic. There is really no way to describe how amazing the Terracotta Army is. Every single soldier is different – different armor, accents, face, hair, body shape. My boyfriend even got to pee next to the farmer who discovered the army back in the 70s, as he was at the museum, signing copies of his book.
The city itself is also really impressive, especially the walled-in section. We rented bikes on top of the city wall and rode around for a while, though I don't recommend the tandem bikes. Those puppies have no shocks and it's an old and bumpy wall. My butt was sore for days. The Muslim Street is also a great place to visit and get some yummy snacks and souvenirs.
2. Climbing Mount Tai
Mount Tai is sacred in China's history. Its summit is the first place where you can witness the sunrise. Confucius climbed it and declared that the world is small. China's emperors used to make a pilgrimage to the top as well. It is said that passing through the Archway to Immortality at the top of the mountain would allow you to become a celestial being.
Today, climbing Taishan is practically mandatory if you're Chinese, I'm told. There are stairs all along the way, more than 7,000 in total, as well as temples, shops and restaurants, which are all supplied by hand. My boyfriend, my friend and I started our climb around 3 or 4 in the afternoon and made it up to the top around 9 or 10 at night. I'm not going to lie - it was rough and I did whine a lot, but it felt like a huge accomplishment when we made it to the top. We were not able to find a hotel that accepted foreigners, so we rented some army surplus coats and a tent and spent a very uncomfortable and sleepless night on the hard ground, but we did get to watch the sunrise.
1. My students
I love my kids. I teach students aged 5 to 10 and it's a very rewarding experience. Watching a kid go from zero experience with English to being able to read short words and answer simple questions is powerful, even if it doesn't seem like much from the outside. I will miss every last one of them.
Final bonus: Here's a funny sign from a local bar. I don't know why.
Those are my top ten experiences in China so far. I might write another post after my trip to Shanghai at the end of the month. Feel free to share your favourite places to visit or things to do in China!