If I had to sum up my time in China with one word, it would be different. Different from the life I had experienced before, different from the life I had in Africa and different in every place you visit in such a vast country. The sheer size of China makes it almost inevitable that things will not be the same as you travel around its many provinces, but nothing could quite prepare me for the unique, strange and exciting things I would come across in my Chinese adventure.
I was based in Beijing throughout my year working in China and was lucky that my work in media allowed me to travel within and outside the highly populated country extensively. Beijing is a city that is truly at odds with itself. Travelling into the old parts of the city (known locally as the Hutongs) you feel as if you have transported into a distant past. The almost impossibly narrow streets wind their way around the city like an ancient maze; but hidden among these cobbled paths are a range of trendy micro-breweries and coffee shops that reveal your first taste of how modernized and western China has allowed itself to be among its truly Eastern facade. The range of European designer stores and super cars driving around the CBD shows this ‘new’ China even more; but the past is inescapable here and a visit to the iconic Tiananmen Square,Forbidden City and The Great Wall reminds you exactly where you are!
One of the first places I visited upon reaching Beijing was of course, The Great Wall of China. There are many different places within Beijing you can go to to experience the Great Wall. I say experience because its not just a place for iconic selfies which appeal to modern tourists but also to actually climb and stop at intervals to enjoy the rich views which consist of nature at its best, trees, hills, sunrises and sunsets. Many tourists don't know of the various “Great Wall” options and opt to visit the insanely busy “Badaling”; I visited the quieter “Mutianyu”.
The other mega city in mainland China is Shanghai, another place that shows the differing sides of China. While Beijing might be the political capital of China; Shanghai is definitely the fashion, social and modern cultural hub. The way the Bund River winds through the city with its unique architecture on either side, is reminiscent of any modern European city. A walk down the riverbank is enough for you to forget exactly which country you are in; though you are soon reminded as soon as you get a whiff of the street markets serving traditional Chinese street food; which do consist of body parts in animals you would rather forget existed, citywide.
Taking a short trip of the mainland brings you to Hong Kong and Macau, the playground of the rich and hopeful souls trying their luck on the tables of Las Vegas style Casino that line the main strip. While Macau is a place to chance your luck; Hong Kong is a place to celebrate it. It is a spectacular sight to see some of the most powerful financial institutions and hotels in the world line up against the backdrop of the night’s sky. A short trip across the harbor there is an absolute must for anybody travelling to this part of the world.
During my time in China I have had battles with taxi drivers; difficulties with ordering the simplest of items and times. Not one to give up though, I learnt how to navigate my way through the city and jump into taxis and learn the very basic words and phrases to get around and order food! Being able to order pizza to my home was a triumphant moment for me!I have also had a unique insight into real Chinese life. I got to know the people and its culture and the many delights it has to offer; this includes their love for “hello kitty”, selfies and occasionally eating a pigs brain in their traditional dish called “Hotpot”. My experience in China is something I will treasure and something I will always take with me in my adventures to come.