Essential China: Everything You Need to Know

One of the best things about studying in Shanghai is the easy access it gives you to the rest of China. China is so well-connected, and a great jumping off point for going further afield and exploring Asia. Obviously, it’s huge, but the transport network ensures that you can get to anywhere in the country in a few hours. This series, ‘Essential China’ will focus on the how to travel around China and places to add to your itinerary. We will cover places such as Shanghai, Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Taiwan, Hangzhou, Hong Kong, Suzhou and Nanjing.

Panda in Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding

So, why should you go to China? More importantly, why wouldn’t you? As the fourth biggest country in the world, it is diverse. No matter what kind of traveler you are, China has something to offer you. It has one of the most interesting histories on Earth, is brimming with natural beauty, is famous for its unique food, and is rapidly changing and developing all the time. It has the second most UNESCO world heritage sites in the world (34),  surpassed only by Italy. China is both massively underrated and misunderstood. It often gets such a bad press in foreign media that people subconsciously dismiss it or harbour negative conceptions about it.

Street food in Suzhou
East Nanjing Road, Shanghai

Go to a hostel in Asian countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Japan or Vietnam, and you’re bound to be surrounded by foreigners. China, not so much. Perhaps it’s because getting a visa is more difficult, or that it’s not perceived to be as affordable as other Asian countries. People that I’ve spoken to, just don’t seem to be that interested in China, or if they are, they think that a few days in Beijing and/or Shanghai will suffice. It won’t. If you neglect China, you are missing out big time.

View of Qinianmen from the Temple of Heaven, Beijing

THE BASICS

Getting there
Fly direct from London to Shanghai in roughly 11 hours or from London to Beijing in around 10.

Currency
¥ (RMB/CNY)

Time Difference
+7

Language
The official language of the country is Mandarin, but each province has its own dialect. Even Shanghai has its own dialect: Shanghainese. China is divided into 34 areas. The dialects spoken in them can vary as much as from English to Dutch, but the standard script of the written language remains the same. Due to its pictorial language, China is one of very few places where you can speak the language but also be illiterate.

The art of calligraphy in Chengdu
Tea City, Shanghai

Visa
You will definitely need a visa, unless you are planning on just visiting Hong Kong/Macau. Don’t let this put you off though, the process is simple and quick! Depending on whether you are simply traveling, studying or planning to work here, your visa will differ. All information regarding the process including step-by-step guidelines can be found here. Remember that if you’re planning to go to autonomous regions like Tibet, you’ll need to get a separate visa. Due to the political situation there, foreigners aren’t permitted to travel there solo and must go with a tour group which can be expensive. The best offer I’ve found is here.

Map of China. Image credit: Travel China Guide

Getting around
Something that I’ve found, is that there are many people traveling around China with tour companies. This is so unnecessary. Granted, China is more difficult for the average traveler, but if anything, this ensures that it’s more of an adventure. Do it alone. I believe in you. If you want to attempt to explore the entire country, it may be necessary for you to occasionally take internal flights between your destinations. However, the train network is also huge and continually expanding and developing. There are bullet trains connecting most major cities, for example, you can get from Shanghai to Beijing in less than five hours.

If you’re not in a rush and you wish to save money, you could also opt for the sleeper trains. They have four different types of accommodation: hard seats, soft seats, hard sleeper and soft sleeper which vary in price. By western standards, they are very inexpensive. I’ve taken the sleeper train from Xi’an to Chengdu in winter and it was not uncomfortable in the slightest. There are four beds in each room (two bunk beds). Most cities have efficient metro networks and pretty much everywhere has buses.

Hectic subway scenes in Shanghai
Soft sleeper bed from Xi’an – Chengdu

Political Situation
China is run by the CPC (Communist Party of China). It’s not quite a communist country, they adhere to ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics.’ In the past thirty years, there has been an unprecedented amount of rapid development and privatisation leading to China emerging as one of the global economic superpowers. As the focus has arguably been on economic development rather than social, censorship still plays a role in keeping the peace. Therefore, you will need to download a VPN if you wish to use your phone/laptop to access most social media in China (whatsapp, youtube, facebook, snapchat, gmail, Instagram, skype, BBC news, etc). There are many free options but the best ones are constantly changing, so do some research closer to the time of your trip.

Resources for before you go
If you’re planning to spend a prolonged amount of time there, or if you’re just simply interested in getting to know the culture more, then I’d highly recommend having a look at the following resources. Many are books/films that I’ve studied in my Chinese culture and history classes over the course of my year at STA, and others are simply things I’ve found interesting. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just an introduction. If you want any more, then feel free to ask!

Books: The Rape of Nanking, China: A Modern History, China in Ten Words, Factory Girls: Voices From The Heart of Modern China, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, The Art of War, The Peony Pavilion
Films: Raise the Red Lantern, Farewell My Concubine, To Live
Ted Talks: Behind the Great Firewall of China; Are China and the US doomed to conflict; Learn to Read Chinese With Ease; Understanding the Rise of China

The Great Wall of China

Interrailing: Rite of Passage or Waste of Time?

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Let’s all take a moment to thank the old Gods and the new that interrail.eu have confirmed that Brexit will not affect our eligibility to obtain an InterRail pass. For many teenagers, European and otherwise, InterRailing (or for the latter group, EurRail) will be their first experience traveling without their parents. For me, it was at least the first extended period of travel that I’d taken without my family. I’d been to Paris for a week, but that didn’t seem like such a big deal. I just had to take the Eurostar, and everything was pretty easy. With InterRailing, you’re thrown into taking flights, planning an itinerary and booking multiple places to stay.

For those who don’t know what it actually is, an InterRail pass is one ticket which gives you access to Europe’s largest network of trains and ferries for up to one month. You can either opt to buy a pass which covers transport in one European country, or the global pass which covers 30 countries. This is arguably the biggest perk of InterRailing – being able to see so many places in such a short amount of time.

Take our route for example:
We flew from LONDON, ENGLAND →

MADRID, SPAIN (two nights in The Hat Hostel, our favourite hostel of the trip – spacious, clean and complete with a rooftop bar)

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The Hat Hostel
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Plaza Mayor, Madrid

BARCELONA, SPAIN (three nights in Hostel Tierra Azul)

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Tierra Azul
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Parc Güell, Barcelona

From which we spent over 24 hours on various trains →

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (four nights – one in a random hostel we stumbled into on the night we arrived earlier than expected and then three in Infinity Party Hostels)

St Stephen's Basilica
St Stephen’s Basilica

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VIENNA, AUSTRIA (one night in Hostel Ruthensteiner)

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Schönbrunn Palace

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC (two nights in Miss Sophie’s)

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View of Charles Bridge and Prague Castle

BERLIN, GERMANY (two nights in Lett’em Sleep Hostel – they really do let you sleep, not recommended for those looking for a more sociable experience)

Berlin Wall
Berlin Wall
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The Reichstag building

AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS (two nights in the White Tulip Hostel)

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One of many pretty bicycle strewn bridges

From where we flew back → LONDON.

Due to chaotic nature of InterRailing, it is unlikely that you’ll get bored. How can the novelty of a place wear off when you’re only there for a few days before being whisked off to somewhere new? Of course, this has its downsides. It’s unrealistic to expect to achieve anything more than a basic understanding of a location if you’ve only got a couple of days to spare. This is fine if you just want to sample a variety of places and then plan your future travels based on which ones you found most appealing. If you don’t particularly like a place, then you’re free to simply move on. However, it won’t appeal to you if you’re the kind of person who likes to take their time with getting to know a place and doesn’t like to be rushed around.

Another positive aspect is that you’ll probably be able to cover most of the touristic sightseeing in any given European city in a few days. You should do your research though as some places require longer than others. For example, two nights in Amsterdam was just about manageable, where as two nights in Prague was nowhere near enough. We went out both nights and were pretty exhausted during the day. This caused us to do the majority of our sightseeing at 5am on the last morning, guilt stricken, having just come out of Karlovy Lazne and realizing just how scenic Prague is. The streets were empty and the sunrise was magical, but I didn’t feel like I had gotten as much out of my time there as I could’ve done, leading me to go back to Prague last December.

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Charles Bridge
Prague at sunrise
Prague at sunrise

It is also important to establish what you want to get out of the trip especially if you’re going with someone else. Europe has so much to offer so it is essential to ensure that you’re on the same page. It’s not going to work out if you want a cultural few weeks peppered with art galleries and exhibitions while they are planning to focus on Europe’s nightlife. It is hard to get the sightseeing-partying balance right, especially if you’re only in a place for a couple of days, but it’s not impossible. Since my InterRail experience, I’ve learned to try to get the majority of the more physically demanding sightseeing completed on the first day so you can go out in the evening and not worry about an early start. Then, the next day it’ll be easier to cope with a hangover if you’re not doing anything too strenuous.

Most importantly, DO YOUR RESEARCH. We wandered aimlessly around Vienna in the completely wrong district, assuming Schönbrunn Palace was all it had to offer and writing it off as rather boring. We didn’t even notice that the public can enter the palace! It wasn’t until I revisited Vienna with my family that I realized just how dynamic it is, making it one of my current favourite European cities. It’s always good to go with the flow and be spontaneous, but have a rough idea of what the place has to offer, and if you can learn a few phrases in the local lingo, even better.

Visit InterRail.eu to view example itineraries and plan your trip

The 10 Most Common Questions Asked About Au-Pairing

Last year, I spent the summer au-pairing in Rome and it’s one of the best things that I have ever done. It was an invaluable insight into a foreign culture and another family’s way of life. I would encourage everyone who loves children and travel to do it. Since then, I am often asked many questions about my experience so thought it would be helpful to comprise a list of the 10 most common ones… 

1) What is it?
The literal definition is:
au pair
əʊ ˈpɛː/
noun
a young foreign person, typically a woman, who helps with housework or childcare in exchange for food, a room, and some pocket money.

Au-pairing often involves going to another country and participating in a cultural exchange. This usually involves looking after one child or more and becoming part of the family, effectively a big brother/sister. Different families will be looking for different things but most of the time, you engage with the children and organize fun activities for them to do, such as take them to the park or have an arts and crafts morning. You may be asked to assist them with school work, and are usually required to speak to them in English (or your native language) so they can improve their language skills. You might also be expected to help the family with some light housework.

2) How much are you expected to work?
This differs in every country, but for Italy where I was, you shouldn’t be working more than five hours per day, six days per week. So, I usually looked after Domi from 8am-1pm. When I was originally looking for a family, I was talking to a woman who seemed lovely. While elaborating on my duties, she explained to me that I would be expected to look after the children Monday-Saturday from 7am-6pm. When I contested that this would go against the regulations, she blocked me. A few people do misuse the concept of au-pairing to find naive young people to exploit for cheap labour, so make sure you are aware of the regulations for your country. You are not a nanny, and you are not a cleaner.

3) How can I do it?
There are many websites which facilitate au-pairing, the one that I used is called aupairworld.com. I originally found out about it from a friend who spent a year in Italy as an au-pair. I was always watching her snapchats and it looked like she was having an incredible time so I decided that was how I wanted to spend my summer. She helped me set up my profile, but it is pretty straightforward and self explanatory. You just write a little bit about yourself (try to make sure you stand out as much as possible) and then you can enter in your preferences regarding age range, location, if you’re happy to work with a single parent, etc. There’s a great function called ‘EasyFind’ which automatically matches you up with families who share your preferences. Don’t be afraid to make contact first! Try and personalize your emails, don’t just send the standard formatted one, but tell them what you particularly liked about their profile and what you feel you can bring to the table. Don’t sell yourself short! There are also au-pair agencies if you’d prefer, but these may charge money whereas the websites are often free.

4) How should you choose your family?
You should take a while to deliberate over whether the family in question is right for you. After examining their profile, ask them any questions you are burning to know. You might feel awkward now, but that’s better than arriving there and having to book a flight home because you’re not compatible. Here is a good list of questions you should be asking them: https://www.aupairworld.com/en/how_to/questions_host_family – everything from if you’re expected to drive to what kind of food do they eat. When you’re comfortable talking to them, it would be a good idea to conduct a meeting over Skype to see what they are like and decide if you want to take it any further. If you’re both confident that your expectations align then au-pair world provides a contract for both parties to sign which explicitly outlines your duties and hours so there are no misunderstandings.

Try to start looking in advance so you have a good selection of options to choose from and aren’t forced to go with the first family that offers you a place. This is especially important if you’re looking to au-pair in your holidays. A lot of families need a commitment of a minimum, of say, three months. There are those that just need help during the summer holidays, but there will undoubtedly be a lot more competition for these places, especially as they’re popular with language students. I started looking in January and found my family shortly after, when I was due to start in August.

Domi playing dress-up
Domi playing dress-up

5) Where can you go?
You can go pretty much anywhere around the world, which is why it is such a great opportunity. You usually have to cover your own flights and insurance, which is why it easier for Europeans to go to most places in Europe hassle free. Some countries have taken to it more than others and it seems especially popular in Spain. Where you go is obviously a personal choice, as this is somewhere you will be spending your time. On aupairworld.com you can list your top five preferences for countries and they will match you up with families accordingly. You can also specify whether you’d like to be in the countryside, in a big city/small town, etc. It is good to go somewhere which gives you the chance to improve your language skills. Some families will offer a language exchange or even include lessons at a local institution for you in your contract.

6) Is it essential to speak another language?
No, not necessarily. It is probably more attractive if you have the basics of the language down, but it’s not always a prerequisite. I went to Rome for the Summer, and didn’t speak Italian. My host family prioritized their child improving her grasp of English and I spoke to her in my native language the entire time, so it wasn’t necessary for me to already know Italian. I was only there for six weeks, so I picked up bits and pieces of Italian, but if I were there longer term I would have definitely invested in language classes.

7) How much do you earn?
You don’t earn an official salary, but you are given ‘pocket money’. This isn’t a huge income so you probably shouldn’t be an au-pair if you’re trying to spend the summer saving up. Your food and accommodation comes as part of the deal and you will usually be provided with your own room so this money will just be your spending money. This varies depending on where in the world you are so check the guidelines, but for Italy where I was, it is usually around 50-70 euros a week. You could live off of this, but I took some extra money with me for any trips I planned to take, and so I could afford to occasionally go out for dinner or to a nice bar. It’s always good to have extra with you incase of emergencies such as if you need to book a flight home prematurely.

8) What is expected of you outside work hours?
Again, this depends. You might be expected to partake in family activities, so make sure that you discuss everything before entering into a contract to ensure that you’re on the same page. If you are the kind of person who prefers solitude and want to spend a lot of time on your own, you might not be compatible with a family who expects you at breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. Usually though, during your free time, you are permitted to do as you wish.

9) So is it basically a free holiday?
Not exactly. While you should absolutely take advantage of the opportunity to live in another country and throw yourself into the experience, it would be wrong to assume that this is a holiday. You shouldn’t be doing this solely as a means to travel cheap if you’re not willing to show any interest in the children whatsoever, it’s just not fair. By all means, go out and have a good time, but try to do this on your nights off. You should have at least one day a week off and some families are more generous and will permit you to have the entire weekend free. It’s just common sense, you can’t be expected to function in the morning after a late night fueled with heavy drinking, maybe if you’re working at a coffee shop, but remember that you’re being entrusted to look after someone’s child. Children are hard work and require a lot of attention. You should be engaging with them, not looking at your phone while they occupy themselves or else what’s the point of you being there.

10) Is it safe?
I would say so, yes. I met a lot of au-pairs, and I didn’t hear any horror stories. Some hadn’t got on with their families, so they moved on to another family, but nothing too bad had happened. Of course, you should have your wits about you, like with anything. My family was concerned at the fact that I’d met my host family over the internet. Especially my mother, who has watched Taken one too many times, and was convinced that I was going to be sold into the sex slave trade. In the end, they made me feel so worried that I began getting paranoid about everything. If my host family took a while to reply, I thought they were planning to kidnap me on arrival. When I got there, I couldn’t have asked for a better host family. They were so welcoming, inclusive and wonderful. Make sure you do have contact numbers such as that of the local embassy, the police, and nearby hotels in case you do need them in emergencies throughout your stay.

The sunset from our balcony
The sunset from our balcony

How To: Prepare For Your First Solo Travel Trip

Although I have spent a great deal of my life traveling, the prospect of doing it alone was a daunting one. During my time in sixth form, I started branching out with my best friend: we went to Paris, and then the following summer we traveled around Europe. It was during this interrail trip that I considered the possibility of a solo trip for the first time. After all, the two of us were managing fine booking hostels, catching flights, and organizing ourselves – why would it be any different if I was on my own? These days anyway when you are traveling alone, you are never really alone. The hostel culture which now exists worldwide means that you can mix with like minded travelers and essentially have ready made friends waiting for you. Gone are the days when hostels were dingy, dirty and looked down on. Now, if you choose wisely you can go somewhere with free wifi, a quirky roof top bar, and clean, spacious rooms. Of course, you still get what you pay for and quality is varied, but that’s what the review section of hostelworld.com is for!

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The view from the Rooftop Bar in the Hat Hostel

I was set up to spend last summer in Rome as an au-pair when my host family told me that for two weeks they’d be going on holiday. It was a few weeks before my planned arrival. I thought, I could remain in my apartment in Rome, await their return and explore the city but I had my entire placement to do this. Croatia kept popping in to my mind. It was on my list of places to go and earlier that year, I had unsuccessfully tried to persuade friends to travel around it with me. Before I could change my mind, I’d booked myself a flight to Split and started looking at hostels.

1) Start small
I’d already had some experience in navigating around Europe, and Croatia was only a short flight away from Rome so it didn’t feel as overwhelming as it would’ve done if I’d decided to whisk myself off to Australia for a fortnight. If you try smaller trips away nearer to home, then eventually you’ll have the confidence to go further afield. After a few solo trips, I’m now quite happy at the prospect of my year abroad in China in which I plan to travel as much of the surrounding countries as possible.

2) Choose your hostel wisely
As a solo-traveler, it is so important to look at the reviews and try to gauge what kind of accommodation you’re considering. I always go for hostels closest to the centre, but now I was also looking at how they were rated for atmosphere and social life. If you’re by yourself, you don’t want to go to a hostel which has more emphasis on peace and quiet. Good websites to peruse include: hostelbookers.com, hostelworld.com, and other travel blogs. Try to go for the ones with later check out times, you don’t want to get kicked out at 9am after only getting in a few hours before and scrambling to round up your stuff while you can barely function.

3) Get involved
A great way to make friends is to stay in the largest dorm they offer (which is also the cheapest) and start chatting to your roommates on arrival. It’s all too easy to slink off by yourself and go sightseeing alone (which, as I’ll come to, is fine on occasion) but you could be missing out on making friends for life. I’ve stayed in touch with so many people that I’ve met in hostels, some of whom are included in this post. In fact, I found it easier to make friends when I did finally take the plunge into traveling solo. When you are with someone, not only are you complacent because have them to cling onto, but others do not feel as strong an urge to talk to you as you are already occupied. Chat to everyone, explore the hostel, hang out in the common room and enquire at the reception to see if there are any organized activities. If you do go to a hostel renowned for it’s social atmosphere then try to go to the group gatherings. Most party hostels, for example, will organize pre-drinks for everyone before leading you off out to the local bars. There are also usually fun daytime activities too. For example, in Carpe Noctem in Budapest they organized an underground tunnel trip among other things, or if we didn’t fancy the event on a particular day we would explore by ourselves.

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Sightseeing with Sammie, my soul sister I met in Carpe Noctem

4) Don’t be afraid to be alone
By the same merit, don’t be afraid to have a bit of down time, especially if you’re traveling for a more prolonged period. After a few days of being constantly surrounded by people, it is nice to take yourself out for lunch or have a wander around. We live in a society where quite often people feel embarrassed to be seen in a restaurant on their own. There is nothing wrong with spending time by yourself and it’s not at all an indication of your popularity. If you feel intimidated, then take a book with you to occupy yourself or write in a journal (I would recommend everyone to keep a travel journal, they are fascinating to look back on). People who are confident to spend time (and travel) alone are more self assured and more in tune with their instincts – they need to be as there is no one else looking out for them.

5) Go with the flow
The good thing about traveling alone is that you can do exactly what you want, when you want without having to compromise with anyone. A lot of the time people get to a place and end up extending their stay a lot longer than planned. Allow for this. That’s one of the best parts about traveling, and meeting people, joining them temporarily then going off in a different direction when the time is right. I wish I’d done more of this. While I was in Zadar, I met a great group of people from Liverpool who invited me to go along with them to Soundwave (a music festival). I didn’t go and it was probably a good thing because it would’ve taken up quite a lot of my budget, but I still regret it.

6) Keep organized and stay safe
Make sure you’re organized at all times. I am probably the most disorganized person I know, so I made sure to keep several copies of my flight and hostel itineraries on me, both on my phone, and hard copies. The majority of hostels – in Europe anyway – have lockers (and you can usually confirm this on their website/review sites), so you don’t need to worry about your valuables although I would keep the ones you bring with you on your trip to a minimum. I’m prone to losing things so I always leave my passport at the reception desk. Obviously, use your common sense while traveling. The same rules apply to traveling alone as traveling in general. Trust your intuition. It’s probably not a good idea to get completely wasted on your own unless you’re with people who you’ve come to trust, but even then try to be more cautious than usual. Always have the name of your hostel written down in a couple of places (some of them have wristbands so you can just show a taxi driver where to take you if needs be). When you first arrive, familiarize yourself with the area and any major monuments you can use as pointers in case you get lost.

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Sophia and I in Split

Above all, have fun! These are just things I’ve learned from my own experiences, I’m by no means an expert as the few solo trips I’ve taken have been short term. Even so, they taught me a lot about myself. Not in the sense of ‘finding myself’, but in the practical sense of how I react to certain situations, how I organize myself, and how I handle being on my own and the feelings that accompany this.