10 Most Amazing Experiences from My First Year in China - Tom

Tom D.
Tom D.

Photographer, traveler, and teacher in China.

 / Jun 11, 2018




I have now been in China for over a year, and what a year it's been!  I have been fortunate to have had numerous adventures not only within China, but even had time to go have adventures outside of China.  Even within one year I’ve learnt new skills, discovered a new job that I found to be a lot of fun, I’ve made great new friends, and have been able to travel and see some amazing places.  


So much happened in a year, but today I will just share with you the 10 most amazing experiences from my first year in China.


1 - Trekking the Walk of Death on Mount Hua and seeing the legendary Terracotta Army



Barely a month after arriving in the country, I got the opportunity to go on a trip to the Shaanxi province of China, where a number of exciting landmarks are located. We flew to Xi'an, which is the capital of the province and also used to be the capital of China throughout several dynasties. Xi'an boasts a lot of history, and one of the most important historical attractions in China is located nearby. Of course, I am referring to the famous Terracotta Army, a necropolis from the third century BCE with over 8,000 statues guarding the tomb of emperor Qin Shi Huang.


I didn't find the army as impressive as I had expected it to be, however it was still fantastic to witness such a legendary remnant of Chinese history with my own eyes.




The following day we embarked on an epic adventure on one of China's five sacred mountains, called Mount Hua. The main draw for us was what the locals call the "Plank Walk in the Sky", also called the "Walk of Death". Why such a scary name? Well, this section of the mountain is certainly not for the fainthearted. It mainly consists of a narrow plank of wood nailed to the side of the mountain with no safety railing, and a deep, deadly drop underneath. It is perfectly safe though if you're careful and don't do anything stupid, as you are hooked to a safety chain all the time. Completing this trek was a fantastic thrill, and besides that the mountain scenery around us was mesmerizing!


If you'd like to read more about this trip, don't hesitate to check out this article!


2 - Exploring Hong Kong during Chinese Labour Day


In April I had a 4 day weekend due to China's Labour Day holiday, so a few friends and I took the chance to visit Hong Kong. The city is impressive to say the least ! 4 days wasn't enough to visit it properly but it still allowed us to get a good feel of Hong Kong's atmosphere. We explored bustling street markets, admired the epic architecture from various angles (most notably from atop Victoria Peak), checked out the enormous Tian Tan Buddha and nearby Po Lin monastery, snapped some photos with Bruce Lee's statue... and so on.




There are still many things I want to see in HK, but luckily I'm going back with my sister Vanessa in May ! This coming visit will most likely include a meal at a Hello Kitty restaurant. The things we do for family…


3 - Spending Dragon Boat Festival in China's “Hawaii” - Sanya, China



The island of Hainan is often referred to as China's Hawaii. As the plane approached the island before landing in the seaside city of Sanya, I quickly understood why. The mountainous landscape is covered in lush tropical greenery, there are beautiful sandy beaches everywhere and no shortage of fancy resorts.




The Dragon Boat Festival is another national holiday in China, which meant that my friends and I had a three day weekend, and we fancied some beach time. We spent most of our time relaxing at the beach closest to our hostel, but besides that we went on an awesome waterfall trek in the tropical forest, and we also checked out Sanya's Dragon Boat race. Despite the struggle to find a decent spot to watch the race, it was very cool. I enjoyed Sanya so much that I ended up moving there last month !


4 - Enjoying the summer holidays in Bali


One of the best things about working as an English teacher in China, is that when you have holidays, you can afford to go pretty much anywhere you like in Asia (or elsewhere actually, sometimes there are pretty decent flights to other continents). 




The summer holidays were my first opportunity to properly visit a different Asian country, so my girlfriend and I decided to visit Bali together. We spent about two weeks there, enjoying warm sunny weather, visiting beautiful temples, photographing impressive waterfalls and ricefields, trying to make friends with monkeys, relaxing on gorgeous beaches... We even climbed a volcano at night to watch the sunrise from atop ! We had a great time but there are still so many more things to see in Bali and the rest of Indonesia... There will have to be another visit!


5 - Taking a peek at North Korea


My good friend Steevo and I went on a weekend trip to North West China, mainly to see the red sea beach of Panjin, which is a large natural area that turns bright red in September. Steevo had realised that Panjin was pretty close to North Korea, and we thought "Hell, why not go take a peek !" So we hired a driver that took us from Panjin to Dandong, a Chinese city bordering North Korea. 




The two countries are separated by a river over which there are two bridges, which were both bombed by the US during the Korean War. One was restored and is used for rail and freight traffic between China and North Korea, the other was turned into a monument. It only goes about halfway across the river, and at the end of it you can see the torn metal that bears witness to the damages of war. But obviously, the main interest isn't to look at torn metal. It's what lies on the other side of the river, one of the most mysterious countries on Earth : North Korea. We could only see so much from afar, but we were very much appreciative of what we were looking at, and that was definitely quite special. Seeing the North Korean border was initially supposed to be a secondary item for this trip, but it turned out to be the most memorable!




As a side note, Steevo runs a pretty dope Travel account on Instagram, check it out here!


6 - Admiring the astonishing Rainbow Mountains and playing in the Gobi Desert's giant sand dunes


The Rainbow Mountains in Zhangye's Geopark had been at the top of my travel list for a long time. Back when I worked in England, the thought of seeing them felt so far-fetched, yet here I was in October last year, gazing upon this completely surreal landscape. It's hard to believe this place actually exists, but it does, and trust me, it is absolutely stunning ! Zhangye's Rainbow Mountains are hands down the most amazing thing I've seen anywhere in the world.




On the same trip, we also went to the city of Dunhuang which used to be a major stop on the Silk Road, and is located in the same province as Zhangye (Gansu). The city is famous for the enormous sand dunes on its outskirts, and we spent a while exploring those. They are truly gigantic, and it's quite a workout to get on top of them ! We had loads of fun there. We had a bumpy 4x4 drive, practiced archery, raced down the dunes, threw each other in the sand, watched the sunset over the Crescent Lake…


The sights in Gansu are just too exceptional to be seen only once, so I will most definitely visit again !


7 - Visiting Taipei, Tawain from China 




Later in October last year, three friends and I were due a visa run, so we decided to take a weekend trip to Taiwan's capital. I didn't really have any expectations about the place, and I ended up loving it ! To me, it felt like a smaller version of Hong Kong. The city is very modern with tall buildings (the most famous being the enormous Taipei 101 tower) yet isn't quite as oppressively dense as Hong Kong, and it has lots of greenery as well. The climate was also very pleasant, and another perk was the many locals who could speak a bit of English, which is rather rare in mainland China... Taipei is also a great destination if you're a foodie, as there are many delicious dishes to be tried on the night markets ! My favourite was the torch-cooked steak, absolutely delicious !


I really enjoyed Taipei's vibe, and I would love to go again.


8 - Hiking the Great Wall of China


Now of course, hiking the Great Wall of China is on most people's bucketlist. After all, it is one of the most impressive architectural feats of mankind and is of great historical significance. And, well, it also looks really awesome…




I've been lucky enough to explore three different sections of the Great Wall last year, which were all quite different from one another. I started off in February, visiting the fully restored and quite touristy Juyongguan section whilst on a day off from my training in Beijing. Then, in October during the Gansu trip, I visited several sections within the Gobi desert, including the impressive Jiayu fortress. And lastly, in December, I trekked a little-known, remote section in Beijing's countryside that has never been restored.




As you can tell from the photos, the aspect of the Wall changes quite a bit from one location to the other.


You can read more about my latest Great Wall experience here!


9 - Living in Nanjing


I am absolutely in love with Nanjing. I had to fight to land here, and I'm so glad I did because man I really do love this city !


I just find it to be the perfect mix, the perfect balance. It is modern yet has lots of history; it boasts a beautiful skyline and cityscape yet remains very green, with a mountain in the middle and several lakes; it's big and busy, yet not oppressively so like Beijing or Shanghai. It also has four distinct seasons which give the city four different atmospheres throughout the year, and it remains strikingly beautiful in each of them.




There is no shortage of things to do or restaurants to eat at, and yet should you get bored of the city, you are only a short train ride away from Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, the Yellow Mountains... And even if you're fancying a trip further away, you're covered, as both Nanjing's and Shanghai's airports are easily accessible.


I was really sad to leave Nanjing, but I was forced to due to administrative reasons. My girlfriend still lives there, so I'm quite happy that I'll still be in Nanjing regularly!  That said, Sanya is definitely not a bad place to live in…


10 - Teaching with First Leap



OK, this last item isn't travel-related, and you may think "Oh, I get it, he's getting paid to say that." Well, here's the disclaimer : this article is indeed sponsored but I was given no instruction whatsoever to include any mention about the company. I genuinely do feel that teaching at First Leap has been a tremendously positive experience. I made great friends through the company in Beijing and Nanjing, the job itself has been lots of fun and I feel it has also made me grow as a person. The kids were obviously the most enjoyable aspect of the job, as they are just unbelievably cute, and with time you get to develop really strong bonds with them.




Of course, there have been lows as well, some things did get on my nerves, yet overall it has been an extraordinary experience that has allowed me to do what I love (travelling, obviously!) whilst enjoying a really cool job.



Author Bio:

 

Tom is a U.K. expat currently living in Sanya, China.  He is an advid traveler who is always looking for the next place to check off his travel bucket list.  You can read more of his travel articles at http://tomswanders.com/ 




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Tom D.

Photographer, traveler, and teacher in China.