There will be people who tell you that going on a year abroad is nothing more than a six-month/year long holiday. I would refute that allegation, but this blog entry is not going to back me up on this. I would like to point out that I have been on summer break, as such have had three months off, so there was plenty of scope for a spot of holidaying. Since I’ve not blogged since December, I should include the fact I spent a week after exams visiting Bali- which is the favourite destination for the people of Perth, being cheap to get to while also offering cheap accommodation and beer. The island offers an interesting contrast between traditional culture (Ubud) and tourist-town (Kuta and Gili T). I much prefer the former to the latter and the week was the perfect end to first semester; a good detox for exam stress.
After Bali, I headed back home to the UK. A lot of people I know who are studying abroad out here chose to stay upside down for the whole three months, but I’d always planned to come home as a way of visiting family and friends, especially over the Christmas period. The other upside was that it allowed me to earn some money for this semester, as I was offered hours at the job I’d taken two summers ago working in the Met Office canteen (it’s highly glamourous).
I had originally planned to leave the UK in mid-January and do some travelling before coming back to Perth, but was offered work hours for the whole month while re-organising my travelling plans (more on which later). The extra time spent at home also provided me with time to sort myself out for my last year in Southampton. I was able to actually go and look around the house I’ll be renting on my return which was definitely a positive over just relying on my house mates from 14,000km away!
Though many of my contemporaries thought it an odd decision to abandon the sweltering summer heat of Perth for the cold and rainy confines of the British Isles, I thought it was more than worth it to see people I’d been missing while in Perth. My time at home ended with a great trip to London with my boyfriend to see Matilda the Musical (which I can thoroughly recommend) also getting to visit the Churchill War Rooms (as with earlier recommendation) before I started preparing for my travels.
The aforementioned re-organising of these plans had come about on account of the fact I would not be travelling alone. Joe, a friend with whom I had lived in second year, is currently studying abroad in China and I’d figured even before I left for Perth that I’d not get a better a chance to visit a country which had interested me for so long. Shifting the trip to the start of February was definitely a good move as it made the travel costs cheaper, given that we avoided flying during the Chinese New Year season where prices are hiked right up.
Our first stop was Beijing and I found myself quite quickly settling in to the rhythms of the city. It was by far the most crowded place I’ve ever been (though at six foot two I carried a certain advantage over the far more diminutive locals) and the Chinese are somewhat less courteous than is customary in Western cultures. You quickly have to learn that what would be considered queuing rules in the UK are in China more likely to be considered ‘guidelines’ and that any gap is a goal if it allows you to move forward.
Being in the Chinese capital obviously allowed us to take in all the famous landmarks: the Olympic Park; Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall (only a two-hour bus journey out of the city) and after five days I felt like I’d started to get the hang of the place. Even though many of the locals spoke limited English there was dual language signage almost everywhere and the Metro system made it easy to get around. However, I was about to be lurched out of this comfort zone. We flew south from Beijing to the Wuyishan National Park, which is not a typical tourist destination for Westerners but is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. It also provided me with an insight into what it is like to be in a totally foreign environment.
I’ve travelled in Asia before, but never experienced a situation where I’ve felt so helpless. This was the case both in Nanping (the town near the park) and in Xiamen (the next city we travelled to, where Joe is studying). No one really spoke any English, no restaurant menus were in English and the only mode of transport was buses, so one had to work out the route in advance as there was no chance of asking for directions. I was incredibly lucky to be with Joe as he speaks Mandarin, but on the occasions I found myself on my own it was certainly a struggle. Staying in Xiamen also had me experience a nasty illness, possibly a result of indulging too much in the unfamiliar local food of Wuyishan, though I was over it in a couple of days.
I experienced a slight hiccup on my final night in Xiamen as it turned out not to be my final night there. Instead I should have been on a flight to Hong Kong, but had got the days and dates mixed up and therefore had to hurriedly re-arrange my plans for the next day. I ended up getting a train from Xiamen to Shenzen and then enjoyed a stint on the Hong Kong metro but finally made it to the house of some family friends, who had only been mildly confused by my late arrival.
Staying in Hong Kong, if only four days, was an amazing experience. The city combines the sprawling glass and steel high-rise metropolis of Hong Kong Central with beautiful beaches and a variety of smaller islands that can only be reached on local junks. I managed to experience a bit of everything, from the hustle and bustle of the lady’s market to the relaxed atmosphere of the town of Tai O on Lan Tau Island, a tiny fishing outpost which feels like a different world to the city centre. It was also nice to be back in a place where being an English speaker didn’t make you the equivalent of a Martian!
All too soon I was boarding my flight back to Perth, and the reality of tutorials, reading lists and essay deadlines. I also had the small matter of a rental house that needed to be furnished and trying to find some kind of employment, but I’m aware as I write that this post is getting obscenely long for a blog post, so my next Perth update will have to wait a while, but having been back only two weeks I already have plenty to write about!