In December 2015 I quit my job as a graphic designer to travel South America with my boyfriend. We had been saving up for a few years and decided it was the right time to up sticks and start our adventure, with the initial goal of traveling for as long as possible.
We meandered through the length of the continent, from Brazil to Colombia; hiking, exploring and taking in some of the amazing sites that each country had to offer. A sizeable chunk of time was spent volunteering and working to make ends meet. In October, after a 5 week stint in the Bolivian jungle, we were fast running out of money so we took a few days to work out what to do next.
1. Go back home to the UK and start over.
2. Figure out a way to keep travelling.
We had worked so hard to get ourselves to this point: not merely by saving for many years, but rather by taking the massive step of liberating ourselves from the daily grind and committing our lives to a single backpack.
After having a little think, we decided to make use of the fact that we are both native English speakers, and teach English abroad. Prior to coming away, and in a bid to keep our options open, we had both completed full TEFL courses. After 13 months on the road, we were ready to settle down for a while, but didn’t want to miss out on the chance to immerse ourselves in a completely new culture.
We loved our South American adventure and wanted our next destination to be somewhere that is accessible, interesting and of course well paid too!
After researching some options, there was only ever one place that fitted the bill, and for me that was China!
I had wanted to visit China ever since I was little. It was somewhere that had always fascinated me: the language, the history, not to mention the food.
As one of the biggest countries in the world there would surely be so much to see. It is also located smack bang in the middle of the world’s largest continent, so we could travel across Asia with relative ease.
Photo from Nicola and Jack at https://www.instagram.com/squarepeg.photo/
The more we researched, the more excited we became. Back home everyone kept asking us: why China?
• It is a huge, diverse country. (The lonely planet guide was as thick as our South America edition!) China is nearly as big as Europe, which means there is so much to see that we would never be bored.
• It has some of the largest mega cities in the world - some you probably haven't even heard of are bigger than London or New York. We chose to live in Nanjing, which has a population of around 8.23 million people, which is comparable to London.
• It has some of the most beautiful landscapes. Although China is famed for its mega cities, its rural landscapes are other worldly and something you can’t experience anywhere else.
• It is the most populous country in the world. You’ll never be short of a people-watching opportunity.
• It is full of historical culture and architecture. China has such an amazing history and one which I want to learn much more about. Its ancient temples and buildings offer a stark contrast to the glistening sky scrapers and malls that are popping up all over the place and are a constant reminder of the diversity of Chinese culture.
• Every region is dramatically different. China is home to the Gobi desert as well as tropical beaches, meaning there is something for everyone.
• It has the most spoken language in the world. Different versions of Mandarin are spoken throughout China, and it is not easy for speakers of latin based languages to comprehend, as it is a tonal language. A word may sound the same to our untrained ears, but could mean four different things depending on which tone is used to say it. Mastering the language is one thing, but China uses traditional symbols instead of roman phonetics. This means you may not be able to read it. This is a hard thing to overcome in any country, especially one in which few people outside of the main cities speak English. If you have an adventurous side and a willingness to use translation apps then you should be able to communicate ok.
• China has some of the most interesting and varied food you can imagine. Ranging from what we in the west would consider normal to what would be perceived at home as outrageous. It is best to adopt an open mind and a “better-not-to-know” attitude. Each region has its own delicacies, from the famous Peking duck in the North to the spicy Sichuan in the South. China is one of the most famed culinary countries in the world.
Photo from Nicola and Jack at https://www.instagram.com/squarepeg.photo/
Every time I speak to someone who has visited China, I come away with new ideas of places to visit. China is a huge country, so it will be impossible to see everything but I am certainly going to try. I am going to be here for at least a year so here are some of the things I’m looking forward to seeing the most:
• The Great Wall, Beijing. One of the most famous sites in China, this is a must-see on anybody’s bucket list. The wall is extremely long and different sections offer vastly different experiences - I personally would like to go to a more rural (less touristy) part and camp overnight to catch the sun rise over the wall - well, that’s the dream anyway.
• Night time in Shanghai. Shanghai is one of the country’s largest and most vibrant cities and there is no better time than after dark to see the magic of the neon lights come to life. Shanghai is dubbed the Paris of the east and i’m looking forward to experiencing this bustling city. It is only an hour and a half away from my city, Nanjing.
• Zhāngjiājie national park. These otherworldly mountain towers claim to be the inspiration behind the mountains in the film Avatar. They look absolutely huge and certainly out of this world - something I need to see to believe.
• Dim sum in Hong Kong. Apparently there is no better place to eat it, and I can’t wait.
• Chéngdū, Giant Panda breeding research base. I love animals and nothing is more Chinese then this national icon.
• Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan. This picturesque hike encapsulates the ‘wild’ China that I want to see.
• Silk road to Kashgar. The ancient city of Kashgar bares a far greater resemblance to a central Asian country than it does to the rest of China and seems like it would be a fascinating place to go to experience a totally different side to Chinese culture.
• Rice Terraces of Lóngji or Yuányáng. Both of these terraces offer stunning vistas, which come alive after the rain.
• Jiuzhàigōu National Park. From beautiful blue lakes to snow capped mountains, this park has everything. A new ecotourism scheme means it is more accessible than ever, so I can’t wait to go camping there for a few days.
• Terracotta warriors, Xian. This incredible archaeological discovery is the top site to see in the city, I am excited to see them stare back at me.
• Yángshuò and neighbouring city Guìlín. Upon seeing the picturesque scenery you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Vietnam or Thailand, not China.
• The Yellow Mountains of Huángshān. The granite peaks make for spectacular views, and it is not all that far from my city Nanjing.
• Harbin ice and snow festival. Every winter magical ice sculptures attract visitors from all over to gaze at these fantastical creations. Some of the sculptures are absolutely massive and are lit up at night - it seems like it would be a prefect winter wonderland.
• Hulunbuir Grasslands Inner Mongolia. I love nature and this seems like a perfect place to get intentionally lost in order to escape the hustle and bustle of the Chinese cities.
• Tibet. This region of China has long stoked my imagination, surrounded by beautiful mountains and modestly nicknamed ‘The roof of the world’. The landscapes alone are a great reason to go but this region seems to be bursting with heritage and culture and I am sure it would be an incredible experience.
• Trans Siberian Railway. This has always been my dream rail trip and I hope to top off my time in China by returning home from Beijing through Mongolia to Russia.
As this list details, there is simply so much to see! China borders a staggering 14 countries and is a true gateway to a world of new adventures.
But China is about so much more than lists. Every walk to work, interaction or gestured conversation with a friendly local is a new experience and I can’t wait to explore all that China has to offer. I have been here just a matter of weeks, but I am quickly falling in love with this wonderful and enchanting land.
Written by Nicola Armstrong from www.wearenico.com
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