48 Hours in Krakow

Before heading off to Germany, the Netherlands and France last September, I spent some time in Poland with my family. It rained pretty much non-stop. While this dampened our spirits a little, it’s hard to be miserable when you’re surrounded by so much beautiful architecture.

Warsaw Old Town Market Square


While Warsaw has the edge for bright, quirky buildings, overall I definitely preferred Krakow. Despite not being the capital, it definitely reigns supreme for the city in Poland with the most things to do. We had five nights there and still didn’t get enough done! You could easily spend a week here as it is the jumping off point for trips to Auschwitz and the Wieliczka Salt Mines, but if you only have 48 hours and want to stay confined to the city, then here’s what to do..


One World Hostel. It’s spacious, modern, centrally located and breakfast is included. Prices start at ~£6 for a standard 12 people mixed dorm in low season, ~£9 for the same in high season. Book in advance as it fills up quickly (most days in August 2019 are already sold out!)





Most people prefer to explore the city on foot, as everything is pretty much in walking distance. There is also a great tram network if walking isn’t your thing. Vistula river runs through Krakow, and most sights are based to the north of it. Venturing south is worth it though, as this is where museums like Schindler’s Factory are based. 


You can grab direct flights with EasyJet or RyanAir. Cheapest to fly from London. Typically around ~£150 return in high season and ~£99 return in low season. Flying time 2 hours 25 minutes.



Polish Złoty


Arrive early and drop your bags off at the hostel. Then, head to Stare Miasto (the old town) which is only a 5-minute walk away. The entire old town has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site. It is beautiful and its square has the world’s oldest shopping mall (dating back to 1555!) along with other stunning buildings to explore like St Mary’s Basilica and the Cloth Hall.

Interior of St Mary’s Basilica

Then, make your way to Wawel hill where the Wawel Royal Castle and Wawel Cathedral are located. They offer multiple tours of the Castle, the apartments and other aspects of the complex. Either book on to the next tour, or if they are fully booked for that day, then put your name down for the following day. If you are by yourself you are entitled to free entry on Sundays from December 1st until March! We did the guided tour of Wawel Royal Castle but in all honesty, I didn’t rate it that much.  I thought wandering around the grounds was more interesting, especially admiring the cathedral which contains the supposed bones of a dragon.

Wawel Cathedral
Wawel Castle

When you’ve finished up here, head down to the Kazimierz (the old Jewish Quarter). Head to Zupa Bar to grab something for a quick, cheap lunch. Soup is a huge deal in Poland and nowhere does it quite like they do. Then explore the surroundings. Kazimierz is a very hip area, brimming with lots of street art and antique shops.



It is also home to a string of synagogues and museums. A must-visit is the Galicia Jewish Museum. It celebrates Jewish culture and history in Krakow, and southeast Poland,  through physical remnants and a photo exhibition. It also pays homage to victims of the Holocaust.


Kazimierz is one of the best districts to eat in the city. Grab dinner at Pirozki U Vicenta (Vincent Peronist) to sample another food staple in Poland − dumplings!


We ordered a mixture of savoury (one platter of cheese dumplings and one platter of mixed veggies dumplings) and sweet (pear and cinnamon) and they were unreal.


Krakow often surprises people with its wide selection of nightlife, although like many other European cities, it mainly comes alive during the weekend. Most of the bars and clubs are clustered in the old town, on the streets Floriańska and Szewska. Tram Bar is a cool place for a drink, some of its seats are taken from old trams, and old maps are plastered on the walls.

Image result for tram bar krakow


If arranged, spend the morning undertaking your tour of the Castle grounds or tying up loose ends in the Old Town. There are so many little streets to get lost down, so it pays to have a couple of hours to wander aimlessly. Krakow has a strong cafe culture, and Cafe Camelot is particularly quirky and wholesome.  The decor is romantic, there is a huge selection of hot chocolates, their apple pie is famous and they offer an all-day breakfast.

Image result for cafe camelot
Image Credit: MyGuideKrakow

Then, take your pick of Krakow’s museums! The National Museum is a good place to start and is home to Leonardo Da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine. South of the river you can find other gems like Schindler’s Factory or Krakow’s Museum of Contemporary Art.


This side of town also harbours the more harrowing remains of the wartime Jewish ghetto wall from WWII. There is also a poignant art installation depicting 68 chairs in the centre of Heroes Square. Each chair represents 1,000 Jews who were victims of the ghetto. The square was a place of execution, somewhere to organise departures to concentration camps and the entire ghetto was eventually liquidated. The empty chairs also symbolise the fact that they weren’t allowed to bring their belongings with them when they were forced to leave their homes behind.


For your last evening, head to Glonojad for dinner. Here, you can get vegetarian takes on traditional Polish dishes like Goulash. They also have a variety of other dishes from all over the world, and all are reasonably priced.


Then, either head back to Floriańska and Szewska for your pick of bars. Another one I liked was Ambasada Sledzia, a place where locals combine their love of vodka and herrings. If the alcohol makes you peckish, this is the place for Polish tapas, or you can stick to the cherry vodka.




British Council English Language Assistant Placements

At the end of August, I left England for Chile to embark on a year-long placement as an English Language Assistant (ELA) with British Council. I’d loved au-pairing in Italy and teaching in China, and with no post-grad plans on the horizon, I applied on a whim. The programme was appealing: you can live and work abroad, improve your language skills, and experience a different culture. The applications for the 2019-20 academic year will open shortly, so I’ve compiled this mini-guide on what exactly the placement is and what to expect from the application process.

British Council is a UK governmental organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities, founded in 1934. They actually offer a whole range of various programmes to study and work outside the UK, including internships in China and volunteering in Ukraine (a full list can be found here). One of their most popular programmes is their ELA placement which involves teaching English abroad. You can choose from 15 countries to apply for: Mexico, Spain, Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, France, Senegal, Canada, Belgium, China, Austria, Italy, Germany and Switzerland.


To be eligible for most countries, you need to:
– own an EU passport
– be a native-English speaker
– have completed at least two years of university
– possess skills in the language spoken in your chosen country

Most countries ask for B1 level, although Spain only requires A2 and China doesn’t require any language skills. The level is assessed through the European language framework (you can assess yourself here). You don’t necessarily need a formal qualification, but it’s in your interest to meet the minimum requirements as you will need them on arrival. They may also test your language ability in the assessment stages.

For some countries there are also minimum and maximum age requirements. While most ELAs are students on their year abroad, graduates are welcome to apply and are not necessarily at a disadvantage. However, some countries do prioritize certain applicants. For example, Argentina is a 6-month post and therefore favours dual-language undergraduates who need two posts to make up their year abroad. Italy also prioritises undergrads studying Italian who need to undertake a year abroad. These aren’t exclusive requirements though, so if you feel like these countries are perfect for you, don’t be deterred!

THE role of an english language assistant

Your role will vary depending on where you are based. In general, ELAs can expect to introduce UK culture and support the teaching of English in their institution. You do not need to have a teaching qualification to apply, but some countries do want their ELAs to take on a more independent role than just assisting. Therefore, it’s important to do your research on the British Council website to ensure that the country you are applying for is a good fit for you. In these cases, you could have your own class of students, whose progress you’re responsible for monitoring.

ELAs work between 12-20 hours a week, and do get paid, although salaries vary. They are enough to cover basic living expenses, but not to live luxuriously. With the exception of China, you are responsible for covering the costs of flights, visas, and other pre-departure necessities. You also need to make sure you have enough money to support yourself on arrival for up to two months as salary payments can be delayed in the beginning.

Which type of educational institution you will be placed in varies from country to country. For example, you could be in a primary school, a language centre, or a university to name a few. I’m working at a university as are the majority of ELAs in Chile. Most posts run for an academic year, although some are only for six months. The amount of assistantships in each country also varies drastically (Ecuador only has two available!). Some countries are definitely more competitive than others, which is the case for Latin American counties.

The view over the Andes as I flew into Chile
The application

When applications open, you can apply online. You do not have to complete it in one sitting. It’s possible to come back to it, redraft it and then submit it in your own time. You will need to provide personal information, a supporting statement, and a reference. Then, you list your three top countries in order of priority, along with other preferences such as preferred regions and age-ranges. The supporting statement last year needed to be a minimum of 1,500 characters and a maximum of 6,000 characters. It asked the applicant to cover the following:

Outline your reasons for applying to the programme and explain your motivation to be an English Language Assistant. This could include any relevance to future career plans (if known) and what you would bring to the role. Describe relevant previous experience such as teaching or working with children/young people. This could include both formal and informal examples such as work experience, babysitting, mentoring, sports clubs, brownies/scouts etc. Demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of your first-choice country and its culture.

I would definitely recommend sending your draft to a personal tutor or a friend to receive objective feedback before submitting. This application is a job application and you should treat it as such. Posts in places like Latin America are extremely competitive and you need to ensure you’re answering the question in the best way you can. If you are successful at this stage, you might advance straight to the allocation process. Or, you will progress to a telephone or web-based video interview for further assessment, usually in February or March.

Further Assessment

As an applicant for a Latin American country, the latter was applicable for me. The interview took place through a program online which displayed the question, gave you time to prepare, then automatically started recording your answer for an allotted amount of time. You have the chance to practise this process, before beginning for real. In my opinion, the interview definitely required preparation. I trawled through GlassDoor looking at previous questions and researched the answers before I did the interview.

If I remember correctly, they asked me the expected questions regarding my previous experience/suitability followed by a couple of tougher ones. They were along the lines of: if you arrived at your host-university to encounter ongoing strikes during the first six weeks which showed no signs of stopping, what would you do? Bearing the culture and political context of your first-choice country in mind, which topics would you avoid teaching? Other tricky questions that the application could ask include:

  • You are in a remote village and have to teach a night class, how would you get to the school safely, what steps could you take?
  • What would you do if there were warnings of a tsunami? (Or other natural disasters such as earthquakes or floods)
  • If you were in a position in which you were not able to contact British Council staff during a state emergency, what would you do?

If you are successful during the further assessment stage, then British Council will put you forward to their partner agencies. This occurs during their matching meetings which take place from March to May. It was at this point that they informed me my application for Argentina (my original first choice) had been unsuccessful. However, they said that they thought my application would be more appropriate for Chile, and transferred me.

A couple of months later they will inform you of the outcome of the matching meetings. An allocation, a place on the waiting-list, or a rejection. They usually manage to match everyone, so don’t fret too much about this stage. Then, you will be invited to a pre-departure briefing and begin undertaking preparations to move.

I will address the whirlwind of pre-departure prep in another blog post. For Chile, it involved racing the clock to obtain visas, health reports, ICPC certificates and vaccinations!

Until then, the British Council website is a good place to start your research.

Myself and two other ELAs in Valparaiso, Chile

The Art of Travel

During my most recent InterRailing trip through Europe, I read Alain De Botton’s The Art of Travel. To say that I’m a huge fan of his would be an understatement. You may have stumbled on his content without realising: he is the creator of and voice behind Youtube channel The School of Life. He believes that philosophy is a practical tool to improve society rather than an abstract idea to be confined to the classroom. His book, The Art of Travel, doesn’t prescribe a list of places to go like other travel literature does. Rather, he talks about why and how we travel, and argues that we should tailor our trips more to our psychological needs. It identified a lot of thoughts that I’d been having about traveling that I hadn’t quite collected until I read the words on the page.

The Art of Travel + a vegan kebab = winning combo

His thoughts on the pressure that traveling can bring particularly struck a chord with me. When you are in a place for a short amount of time, you feel as if you must see and do as much as is humanly possible. Rather than following the natural arc of your curiosity, you may feel as if you really should go to a certain monument, because your guidebook suggests it. Or, if you find yourself disagreeing with what you’ve read about a place, then you suppose that perhaps you have inferior taste. Another point he makes is this:

A danger of travel is that we may see things at the wrong time, before we have had an opportunity to build up the necessary receptivity, so that new information is as useless and fugitive as necklace beads without a connecting chain. 

I had arrived in Berlin and felt this was especially accurate. I’d been twice before: once with family, and then when I went InterRailing a few years ago. When I returned for the third time, I was shocked at how many places I had yet to experience, despite my previous visits. Surely my interests couldn’t have changed that much? I found myself in a similar situation when I arrived in Paris (for the third time) later that trip, and finally went to The Louvre. My first visit to Paris was a day trip with my school when I was 11, and it wasn’t on the agenda. Fair enough. The second time, though, was with a friend a few years ago. We decided to give it a miss because we assumed entrance fees would be too expensive. I was 17 and therefore entitled to the free entrance, but as she had just turned 18 she narrowly missed out (we presumed).

The Louvre, Paris

A quick scour online would’ve revealed that The Louvre, like the majority of art galleries and museums in France, is free to residents of Europe who are under 25. I didn’t realise this until I attempted to purchase an online admission ticket to the Louvre, rather than queue on arrival. The website mentioned that admission was not only free for under 18s, but also for European Economic Area residents between 18-25. It didn’t click that this literally meant Europe until I googled it. Considering that full price admission tickets are usually €17, this is an amazing deal. It also might not be available post-Brexit as one sassy ticket vendor kindly reminded me. So many concessions are available for young adults and students. Do some research before you travel to plan ahead, it’ll save you valuable time and money.

Giving (arguably) the best art collection in the world a miss is laughable to me now. However, if I’m honest with myself, at that time I probably wouldn’t have fully appreciated it anyway. I wanted to be outside, strolling down the Champs-Élysées, having a picnic beside the Eiffel Tower and reading by the Seine, not devoting an entire day to art. I was intimidated by art then. I didn’t realise that, just like literature, it merely requires a toolkit to analyse and engage with the work. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve developed a deeper knowledge of and consequential appreciation of art.

17 year old Fran would rather read about existentialism than go to The Louvre thank you very much

Back in Berlin, I felt a fair bit of pressure to cram as much in as I could. My original plan was to stay for three nights, which I extended to four, and then five (and I probably would have stayed longer if my itinerary had allowed). I felt guilty that I didn’t make it to any of the accredited museums on Museum Island (Museuminsel). I kept telling myself that I should be doing this or should be seeing that. Then, I decided to stop scrambling around and limit my excursions to two themes that interested me at the time: the Cold War, and modern art.

Street art in Berlin

Of course, I allowed myself flexibility with this, but it helped to narrow down the exhaustive list of tourist attractions in Berlin and relieve myself of pressure if something didn’t fit into my schedule. The Neues Museum, for example, is probably the best museum in Berlin with antiquities from the Egyptian and Trojan periods, among many other collections. I didn’t make it there. If I had more time, then perhaps I would’ve fitted it in, but it just didn’t pique my interest as much as other museums did.

I stuck to my themes and I could see a bigger picture emerge while surveying modern art across collections like the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the galleries in Charlottenburg in Berlin. Combining Krakow, Warsaw and Berlin, and digging deeper into the effects of Nazi rule across them was particularly interesting. Visiting Auschwitz; the Jewish museums in Berlin and Krakow; and seeing the ghettos in Warsaw and Krakow was like fitting the pieces of a puzzle together. It’s not for everyone, but I found traveling according to specific interests very productive, and would wholeheartedly recommend it.

The view from Centre Pompidou

You can buy The Art of Travel here

Culture Shock and The Realities of Study Abroad

It’s been exactly four months since I flew home from Shanghai to London. At the time, I couldn’t wait to come home. Not that I didn’t love Shanghai, but I’d been living there for almost a year and felt like I’d done all that I wanted to do, and that it was time for the next adventure. Yet, now that enough time has passed for me to forget the day-to-day reality of my study abroad experience, and instead focus on the grander, more exciting moments – I’m pining terribly for Shanghai. I miss the steamed buns, the ridiculously cheap transport, the way you could go to one of the fanciest cocktail bars in town and still buy a drink for around £5. I miss the tree-lined boulevards of the French Concession, speeding in and out of traffic on a scooter, having hundreds of types of tea to peruse at Tea City. I miss the people that I met, especially Bianca who became one of my closest friends. She is still in Shanghai, having the time of her life without me. Quite selfish in my opinion.

When drinks are so cheap, it’s only right that you get the entire tasting platter
My partner in crime and I

I’ve always had a tendency to be extremely nostalgic. I find it a challenge to be present, and would rather romanticize the past or the future as a means to escape existing in the now. This can be a problem while traveling, as before I’ve finished enjoying the trip I’m on, I’m hyper-conscious of time running out, and already on to planning the next one. While I’m sat here wishing I was back in Shanghai, and looking through rose-tinted glasses, I have to remind myself that it wasn’t perfect. While the challenges definitely helped me grow, it was not smooth sailing, and I had periods where I felt very disheartened. Some of this I’ve already talked about on this blog – managing missed flights, losing bank cards, filing insurance claims, cracking my head open and ending up in hospital.

It would seem that perhaps I’m in the re-entry phase of culture shock whereupon you crave to return to the country you were placed in. I remember being in a pre-departure talk before studying abroad, and the speaker was trying to explain the phenomenon to us. One sure fire sign, is when the things that excited you in the beginning, what is termed ‘the honeymoon period’ start to really frustrate you. Things that seemed quirky, like the food, or the way that the traffic seems to have a logic of its own, becomes aggravating. Everyday tasks that should be easy like doing your laundry, buying food or hopping in a taxi now seem insurmountable, especially for students with no previous language experience of the host country they find themselves in. I was lucky enough to have Chinese friends who could help me use Chinese apps to order a taxi, accompany me to the phone shop to help me buy a sim card, and ring the bank to cancel my lost card and order in a new one. While I’m so grateful for their kindness, this dependency can make you feel quite powerless in a way.

Culture shock
Image source: Global Graduates

I was never overtly aware of culture shock, but could feel it subconsciously permeating through a lot of what I did. I knew it was there, for example, when I was dreaming about home every night. There are so many differences between Chinese and British culture that it would be difficult to cover them all, but one thing that really bothered me in particular was the total excess of bureaucracy in China. Everything seems to be done completely by the book, with no room for manoeuvrability, even if it’s something as simple as trying to substitute an ingredient in a meal at a restaurant – which made it even more difficult being a vegetarian in Shanghai. I’ll explore differences in censorship, and educational systems in more detailed posts as they require more in-depth explanation, but just in general, the West as a whole and Asia are so different. Graphic artist Yang Liu has produced posters, which now make up her book East meets West, which illustrate some of these polar differences. Some of the images might seem slightly reductive or an oversimplification but I personally found them to be pretty accurate at explaining the differences in a succinct, simple manner (West is blue, East is red).





For me, culture shock wasn’t anything debilitating, it was more the occasional onset of low moods, which could’ve been due to a multitude of things. I still don’t really know what culture shock is or how it can be measured, I suppose it’s different for every person. Even now, I find it hard to believe that I was in China for a good part of the year. Perhaps one of the reasons that culture shock was minimised in Shanghai as opposed to the rest of China is that it the most westernised city and a lot of the time you could be forgiven for thinking you were walking down a street in, say, New York. This definitely isn’t the case in other cities like Suzhou where traditional Chinese gardens and architecture mirror the idea of China that most people hold in their mind. Shanghai is the largest city in China (and the world, by population) but to tell the truth, I’ve felt more claustrophobic in Oxford Street, although perhaps my experience was different because our university and dormitory is in the French Concession, which is one of the quieter areas.

There is no cure for culture shock, although distracting yourself with a full schedule seems to help. Making friends with local people who can help to immerse you more into the culture so that it isn’t so alien to you is always helpful. Something I found to relieve the stress was to make a list of what I wanted to achieve from my year abroad, and all of the things that I loved about my host country to look back on when you’re missing home. It’s quite a good idea to keep a journal in general, to help put things into perspective during your time there and after you arrive home.



While now I could write extensively about the things I miss about Shanghai, I could probably write just as much about the things I don’t miss, and looking back on journal entries helps remind me of that. It might just turn out to be the best year of your life, but expecting that adds an immense amount of pressure, especially when you’re first settling in and struggling to adjust. A semester or a year is a long time, and you probably won’t love every minute of it. It made it a lot easier that another girl on the course was also British. When we were feeling homesick, Rachel and I used to have Brit days where we’d go to Mr Harry’s (a British restaurant) and watch something like the British Bake Off. There’s not much that a roast dinner and cup of English breakfast tea can’t fix!

Mr Harry’s

Ich Bin Ein Berliner

“Ich bin ein Berliner.” That’s what JFK proclaimed standing in front of the Rathaus Schöneberg in 1963, just 22 months after East Germany had erected the Berlin Wall. It was to express the United States’ support for West Germany and to underline that as people who stand for unity and democracy, we are all Berliners. Berlin during the Cold War is one of the main interests that I pursued during my third stay in Berlin. I learned extensively about the Weimar Republic and the Nazi rule in history lessons, but never reached as far to cover the topic of the aftermath of World War II in Germany. Whether it’s tracing your fingers across chewing gum studded remnants of the wall, or walking across the Tranenpalast (the border crossing where families used to say goodbye to each other), it’s still difficult to fully grasp the extent of division which was apparent in Berlin. For those who are not very familiar with German history, here’s a brief (albeit an oversimplification) summary of events: after WWII, the victorious allies carved Germany up between them. The West was divided up and allocated to France, the US and the UK, and the East went to the Soviet Union.

Meat Mural by Marcus Haas

As so many people from the East relocated to the West, the GDR (German Democratic Republic – the official name for East Germany) put up a wall to prevent people from moving. This started as a simple structure, but eventually morphed into the extensive wall that we tend to think of when we envision the Berlin Wall. Obtaining a permit to enter the West became increasingly more difficult until it was near impossible. Countless families were torn apart, and people went to desperate attempts to cross the wall. Tunnels were dug, hot air balloons were crafted, planes were hijacked. Those who were manning the wall were told to shoot anyone they saw attempting to escape on sight. At least 140 people were killed or died at the Wall in connection with the East German border regime between 1961 and 1989. It is more difficult in speculating how many people died at the hands of the GDR regime, as many ‘accidents’ conveniently occurred and there were no records kept of suicide statistics.

Berlin Wall memorial at Potsdamer Platz

You can see traces of the wall, the barbed wire and the lampposts across the city. One of the most popular sections that are still standing is the East Side Gallery which was decorated by artists from all over the world who turned the grim, grey wall into the largest open air collection of murals in the world. The art is beautiful and definitely worth a look, although it can get pretty overcrowded at times. I went the last time I came to Berlin on an InterRail trip, but aside from walking past it and admiring it, I didn’t spent too much time there this year. Perhaps a more insightful primer is the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer which extends for 1.4km in one of the areas most affected by the construction of the wall. It’s an outdoor, free exhibition and memorial which includes original remnants of the wall, with engaging information throughout, to read, to watch and to listen to, including sections such as the lives of those who manned the wall and escape methods used. The grounds and open-air exhibition is open daily from 8am-10pm. The Visitor Centre, which has a viewing platform, is open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-6pm.

Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer


Another free exhibition is at Checkpoint Charlie, named as such as it was the main gateway for foreigners and diplomats between the two Berlins, and the border between the American and Soviet sections. This outdoor open-air exhibit provides more of an overview on Cold War history in general. This is also a museum located here, Museum Checkpoint Charlie (also known as the Wall Museum) which you can pay to enter. The Checkpoint itself is more of a tourist trap, with people paying €3 euros for a photo with dressed up American soldiers (unless you flirt your way to a series of free photos. €3? Ha. Don’t make me laugh).




For more of an insight into the policing of East Germany, the Stasimuseum which charts the methods of the Secret Police in their former headquarters, was fascinating. The Stasi watched everyone’s every move, and had informants in every corner. If they wanted to keep an eye on you, as well as bugging your house and phone with cameras, they’d also recruit someone from your family, your workplace, your friendship group, etc. If you said anything to ‘undermine’ the party or their intentions, or acted in a way that they deemed wrong, then you were liable to be arrested, or have an ‘accident’. They refrained from physical torture as they didn’t want any visible evidence of their regime when they sold political prisoners to West Germany. Instead, they relied on psychological warfare and destabilization, driving people to psychosis and suicide. As they had studied you incessantly, they knew everything – your hopes, your dreams, your fears and this enabled them to personalize their torture to ensure they broke you. The culture of denunciation reminded me starkly of the Mao era in China.

The Stasi Museum

There are free guided tours in English at 3pm Thursday-Sunday. Our tour guide was amazing. Although she fully conveyed the horrors that the Stasi conducted, she also humanized them. She told us to bear in mind that post-War, many people didn’t see the Soviets as the ‘bad guys’ as they’d helped liberate the Germans from Hitler. Therefore, a lot of people who worked for the Stasi genuinely thought they were doing what was best for the people of East Germany, protecting them from capitalists and ensuring that a war never occurred on German soil again. You see a range of material that they used for watching people. Something I found particularly interesting was a clunky bird house with a clearly visible camera on the front. As our guide explained, there’s no need to invest in specialist equipment when you can put up a seemingly ‘obvious’ camera. If people know they’re being watched, they behave.

Bird house camera

I didn’t get time to go to the Stasi Prison (officially called the Gedenkstatte Berlin-Hohenschonhausen) but I’ve heard that it’s also very insightful and chilling – the tours are often led by former inmates and reveal the abuse they used to endure. The DDR Museum is also apparently a great one to go to, is very interactive and informative on communism and life in East Germany. Again, sadly I didn’t have enough time for this. I think I’d need a solid fortnight to work my way through all the museums that I’d like to go to in Berlin! Something that is particularly fitting for reflections on the Cold War is the Brandenburg Gate. Once a symbol of the Cold War as it separated East and West Germany during the years of the Wall, the Brandenburg Gate is now a symbol of the unification of Germany, a patriotic symbol, which seems adept with Liberty riding a chariot atop the structure.

The Brandenburg Gate

I was staying in Friedrichstrain which was formerly East Berlin. I’d definitely recommend the area – and the hostel I stayed in, Industriepalast. It was less than a five-minute walk to the S-Bahn and Underground stations, just over a five-minute walk to the East Side Gallery, and the area is full of amazing places to eat. Perhaps the most advantageous is that it is the main district for nightlife, with Suicide Circus, Berghain, RAW and many others within its confines. Bursting at the seams with street art and cheap food (it even has a vegan supermarket!), what more could you want?

Zum Schmutzigen Hobby


If you want more of an introduction to the history of East vs West Berlin before your trip, but don’t fancy reading up on it, I’d definitely recommend watching The Lives of Others and Goodbye Lenin! They are both two of my favourite films and critically acclaimed in their own right. The former is about a Stasi officer who becomes enwrapped in the lives of a couple he’s spying on, and the latter is about a boy who does what he can to prevent his mother from finding out that the GDR has fallen after she wakes up from a long coma.

Happy Planning!

How To Do Tokyo On A Budget: Things To See & Do

Contrary to popular opinion, there are plenty of cheap (and even free) things to do in Tokyo, so a trip there doesn’t have to burn a hole in your wallet. As I explored in Part 1, I had to manage survival in Tokyo on a budget of less than £20 a day, so found myself being more selective about what I did and where I ate. I was pleasantly surprised with the number of cheap attractions on offer.


The Imperial Palace is the official residence of the current emperor, Akihito. I didn’t realise this, but much like the United Kingdom, Japan is a constitutional monarchy, so the emperor doesn’t have any substantial political power. While you can’t go inside the residency, the palace grounds are free to walk around, and there is a park, bridges, and moats to admire. Free tours are run by the Imperial Household Agency most Tuesdays through to Saturdays (some exceptions July-Aug or public holidays) at 10:30am or 1pm and last around 75 minutes. On Sundays (weather dependent), from 10am-3pm, you can rent bicycles for free to take for a 3km lap around the Imperial Palace. The palace was built on the site of the old Edo Castle and within the beautiful East Gardens where you can see remnants of the original castle fortifications which still stand.






Despite being a bustling, futuristic metropolis, like London, Tokyo has a number of beautiful parks to explore with a camera or relax with a picnic. Shinjuku Gyoen (this one charges a small admission fee), Kasai Rinkai, Showa Kinen – the list is endless. My two favourites, however, were Yoyogi and Ueno. Yoyogi park is perfect for people watching and is where you will find cliques like the Harajuku girls on a Sunday.




The area of Harajuku itself is also worth an explore, with quirky fashion street Takeshita nearby which then juxtaposes with the boulevard lanes of Ometasando lined with designer stores (window shopping is entirely free!) The Louis Vuitton building also has a gallery at the top called Escape. Even if you don’t fancy the current exhibition being shown there, you can get a great view on the city!




Ueno was conveniently located right next to my hostel so I had ample opportunity to explore it. It is free to go into, and is also one of Tokyo’s oldest parks (it was established in 1873). It has a beautiful pond, spacious grounds, a large collection of museums and a shrine (although the latter two vary in admission procedures).



A lot of museums and galleries are free, or at least have good student discounts. In the park just mentioned, Ueno, there are a whole host of choices: The National Science Museum, The Museum of Western Art, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art (TMMA) and the Tokyo National Museum (TNM). I went to the latter two, and with a student card, I paid ¥410 for the TNM, and was granted free entrance to the TMMA. You could easily spend a day in Ueno combining these two, the TNM alone takes a while to get around as it has five exhibition halls.




I also checked out the Mori Art Museum which was hosting the Charming Journey exhibition by N.S Harsha which explored post-colonial India, philosophy and the effect globalization has on human rights and trade. What was on at the National Art Centre didn’t appeal to me (and I was still bitter about just missing the Yayoi Kusama exhibition), but usually they have pretty good stuff. You have to pay for admission, but prices are reasonable. At the moment, both galleries are hosting Contemporary Art from South East Asia 1980s to Now and it’s ¥800 for a student ticket to both, or 500 for a student to ticket to one (around £3).




Mizuma is an art gallery which doesn’t charge any admission, is a good size, and also has branches in China and Singapore. When I was there it was exhibiting Lust by Matsukage.


SHRINES & Temples

Most shrines and temples are free to visit. Meji Shrine is free and is located next to Yoyogi park, so it’s ideal to combine the two. It’s dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken who used to frequent an iris garden in the location that it is built.



Nezu Shrine is one of the oldest shrines in Tokyo. Even if you don’t believe the legend that says that it was created around 2,000 years ago, it is proven to be dating from at least 1705, which is still quite impressive.



Yasakuni Shrine is dedicated to those who served for their country, but is also deemed quite controversial as it enshrines even those who were found guilty of being war criminals. It also has a museum next to it, Yushu-Kan, about Japanese military history which some find to be a nationalistic and a skewed representation.



Ueno Shrine is inside Ueno Park, and you need to pay to enter inside the walls, although you can walk around the grounds for free. It retains its structure from the Edo period so is well worth a visit.



Akagi-jinga might be particularly interesting to those who are into architecture, as it remodelled to make it look more contemporary and now has a glass box for its main shrine building.


The oldest buddhist temple Senso-Ji and it’s charming grounds are free, although you can pay ¥100 to discover your fortune.




Along with Escape, there are plenty of other places to get a great view of the city on the cheap. You can, for example, access the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building which is made up of two towers. Both towers have observatories at the top that are open from 9am-11pm, making it perfect for tagging on the end of a long day of sightseeing.


Paying for entrance to the Mori Art Museum grants you access to the exhibition and a viewing platform. You can pay also a little extra to go up to the sky deck on nice days which provides you with an open air view, unrestricted by windows.


In part three we’ll be looking at cheap places to eat. Bear in mind though, these suggestions are just the beginning! Tokyo has so much on offer, and there were other cheap attractions that I didn’t get round to. For example, rather than paying to go to a sumo match you can go to see a morning training session in a stable. There are around 45 stables in Tokyo, and the training sessions usually commence early and last for a few hours. You can read more about that here. Something else I wish I had time for was the Tsukiji fish market which holds a famous tuna auction you can attend for free, before treating yourself to a fresh sushi breakfast. Again, it starts early (about 5am) and only a limited number of people can fit inside the auction area. You can read more about that here.

A City with Seoul

While out at dinner with Yun Jin Lee, a lovely South Korean girl who I’d met that evening through a friend, I asked her: which three words would you use to describe South Korean culture and its people? She thought about it and replied, ‘competition, education, and appearance.’ I could definitely see this in the capital I had been exploring, Seoul. There is a huge onus put on education. From schooldays, children work hard, starting as early as 7am, and attending after school cramming sessions that can drag on well into the night. Parents can fuel the competition, hoping for their children to secure a place among the few top-tier universities in what’s been dubbed as an ‘education arms race’ as it will dictate their perceived success in society.



The emphasis on education is not all bad news, as it is also what transformed South Korea from a war torn country into a leading economy. There are reminders of its past all over the city. For example, statues of comfort women (women forced to work as prostitutes for the Japanese) can be found around the city to commemorate them. You can also visit the Seodaemun Prison which was used by both the Korean government (to suppress uprisings) and the Japanese during the Japanese-Korean Wars.

A statue of a comfort woman
Seodaemun Prison


With South Korea being the plastic surgery capital of the world, it’s no wonder the other key word was appearance. It’s so common, that an operation is often a high-school graduation gift. No wonder then, that the shopping districts (Insadong and Myeongdong were my favourite) overflow with shops specialising in face masks and skin care. The make-up and skin care products are phenomenal and a must buy while you’re in the city. A personal favourite purchase was a face mask that bubbles. If you want to take pampering to the next level, then you can drop into a jjimjilbang (a Korean bath house/spa.) Alongside the multiple indoor & outdoor pools, saunas, cedar baths, and beauty treatments, they have cinemas, game rooms, restaurants and chill out/meditation areas. They are open 24 hours a day and you can even stay there overnight. Dragon Hill is a very good one.

An assortment of face masks, make up removers, face wash, hand cream, a blackhead clearing kit and hair masks


I briefly mentioned in a previous blog post how my trip to Seoul culminated in me missing my flight. Despite this, I think Seoul may just be my favourite city in Asia so far. I know that’s a big claim, but it really blew me away. South Korea seems to be massively underrated, but it has a fascinating history and culture. The food is also unreal. While it’s largely meat-based and famous for its BBQs, it is possible to still thoroughly enjoy it (being a temporary pescatarian definitely helped!) Since being back in the UK, Korean food is actually one of the few Asian cuisines I’ve been hugely craving rather than being sick of the sight of it. I have a long list of London based Korean restaurants I need to attend.

So why should you go to South Korea (or officially, the Republic of Korea, ROK for short) and Seoul in particular? To be honest, if I’d had more time to spare I wouldn’t have limited myself to just Seoul. I would’ve headed out to spend time in the countryside, or gone out to the book village which caught my eye while perusing my guidebook. The good thing about Seoul though, is that it is a good introduction to ROK and a good base from which to start exploring the rest of the country. If you don’t have time to do the latter, you’ll still come away feeling satisfied. You need at least four days in Seoul. I spent five nights and I barely scratched the surface, so I’d recommend a solid week to get through all the main attractions.



Currency: South Korean Won
Language: Korean
Time Zone: UTC +8
Visa: Not needed (for UK passport holders)

Gyeongbokgung Palace

There are five grand palaces in Seoul which were built in the Joseon dynasty, but we only had time to go to one. We chose Gyeongbokgung, which is the biggest and oldest one. It is a huge complex with museums and a daily changing of the guards ceremony at 10am and 2pm in front of Gwanghwamun (the main gate). It is open Wednesday-Monday whereas most other palaces close on Mondays so this is something to bear in mind when constructing your schedule. The other palaces are: Deoksugung, Changdeokgung (a world heritage site which requires you to join a guided tour), Changgyeonggung (this one has a secret garden) and Gyeonghuigung.

Changing of the Guards ceremony at Gyeongbokgung

Seoul also has an abundance of hanoks (traditional Korean houses). The most popular collection of these in Bukchon Hanok Village which has around 900.


A couple dressed in traditional Korean attire

Seoul has some beautiful art and architecture. There are tons of galleries and museums, but with limited times and funds we had to be very selective. There are lots of free galleries though, like the ones that are dotted around in Insadong and an abundance of street art.




There is stunning architecture all over the city. Cheonggyecheon, for example, is a man-made river that was installed to bring a natural space into the city and is now a hub of life. The City Hall is also a sight to behold.



There is also a section of Seoul called Mullae-dong or Mullae arts village, which is in a district that is mainly dedicated to steel production. The inhabitants wanted to make it look more aesthetically pleasing and it has since been transformed, with art murals dotted throughout the streets.


While nightlife in Japan can feel slightly seedy, and China a bit uptight, ROK (or Seoul, at least) seems to strike the perfect balance. Soju (a clear liquor, similar to vodka) is very popular to drink. Don’t underestimate it, with strengths of up to 53%, it’s lethal. I thought I’d be fine. A few hours later and I’m speaking Mandarin to a poor taxi driver and wondering why he’s refusing to take me to my university dorms (which are in Shanghai.) Sounds like too much? Korean beer is pretty good and how can you resist when some are endorsed by K-popstars. Girls Generation have actually outsold Spice Girls (85.10M vs 85M.) GIVE K-POP A CHANCE.


The food is very diverse, with only one certainty – kimchee will be served with everything you order. Kimchee is basically a collection of mini side dishes such as pickled vegetables. This isn’t restricted to just Korean food, I went to an Italian restaurant in the Mullae arts village and the spaghetti still came with kimchee!

Other foods to try:

Yachae Jook (Vegetable porridge which tastes A LOT nicer than it sounds.)


Yachaejeon (The vegetable pancake pictured in the left hand side of the image)


Odeng (fish cakes)


Tteokbokki (Rice cakes in a spicy red sauce)


Melona ice pops (Just a personal fave)


Street food is also very popular, with a very good (if little on the pricey side) selection in Myeongdong

*Special shout out to Abby for making my time in Seoul even better. I met this little ray of sunshine on my first night at the hostel I was staying at as a further testament to the perks of solo travel! We subsequently spent most of our trip together, and then met up in Hong Kong and Shanghai. See you in Utrecht!*


How To: Do Tokyo on a Budget

It’s no secret that Tokyo is a particularly expensive city. The fourth most expensive in the world to be exact. Tell someone that you’re planning to visit Tokyo (or Japan in general) and the first thing they’ll warn you of is that prices are extortionate. However, I was recently in a rather tricky situation in which I was forced to be on a strict budget. Basically, my card had been swallowed by the ATM in my student dormitory, again. This is something which will most likely happen to you if you move to China from the UK. The ATMs here eject your cash first and only produce your card upon prompting (whereas in England both are ejected automatically). If you don’t manually eject it, wave goodbye to your card. Luckily, people come to empty the machine every few days and you can retrieve your card from them. Not so luckily, I was departing for Tokyo the next morning, so I had no choice but to go with the cash I had on me and take my chances, then pick my card up when I returned to Shanghai.

Now, those of you who may know me are probably well-aware that my travels don’t always go smoothly. During my last two trips (to Hong Kong and Seoul), one involved me ending up in hospital after cracking my head open and needing stitches, and the other one culminated in a missed flight (sorry dad, I’ve learnt my lesson ok.) Safe to say, without my bank card in either of these situations, I would’ve been screwed. So it probably wasn’t the best risk to take to travel sans a safety net, but I had spent too much on my flight and thought probability wise, things can’t get much worse than they already have been. I had about £200 on me to see me through five nights, including accommodation, so how did I manage? The article will be split into two parts, with us firstly looking at accommodation and transport.


the basics

Currency: Japanese Yen
Language: Japanese
Time Zone: UTC +9
Visa: Not needed (for UK passport holders)


Pick a time of year that’s low-season. I visited in late May, after the rush of Golden Week and before the summer holidays. This mean I missed the height of cherry blossom season, but beggars can’t be choosers. Consequently, my overall experience (and especially my hostel) was more affordable – in Tokyo terms. I paid around £13 a night for a basic six bed dormitory in Hotel Graphy Nezu which turned out to be one of the best hostels that I’ve ever stayed in. The facilities were luxurious for a hostel. It had two common rooms, a cafe, terrace, living room with books & a large screen TV, a beautiful kitchen, clean rooms, powerful showers and A BATH

Living in a student dorm, long gone are the days when I could take a bath on a whim, and so I spent every evening in the bath trying to make the most of it. It was like a budget version of an Onsen. They also have fancy hair and body wash which most hostels scrimp on (if they provide it at all.) So while it was more expensive than I’m accustomed to paying for a hostel, I had no qualms about coughing up the cash. It’s admittedly out of the way of the centre, but only a 5-min walk from a metro station and in an area that deserves to be explored in its own right (next to Ueno Park with the National Museum, shrines and other galleries.) After paying for this, I worked out that I had around ¥3,000/£20 I could spend a day.

Image courtesy of Hotel Graphy
Image courtesy of Hotel Graphy
Image courtesy of Hotel Graphy

Transport is notoriously expensive in Japan. First and foremost, never take taxis. Even the metro is expensive, so you can imagine the taxi prices. Also, from Tokyo Narita International Airport, rather than taking the sky train into the city, I just took the cheapest option which was the Keisei line. This cost around ¥1,000. **Disclaimer** the £200 I had for my budget in Tokyo does NOT include the flights. The round trip from Shanghai was ridiculously expensive, I paid £420 for mine. I’d been looking at flights since last autumn and waiting to pounce on a cheaper option, but one never came. 

The only way to get it cheaper would be to go on the flights that arrive/leave at ridiculous times in the morning, but then you’d still have to pay to taxi from the airport to Tokyo which would cost you what you’ve saved anyway. I suspect they do it on purpose because either the Chinese government don’t want people going to Japan, or the Japanese government want to make it inaccessible. A girl that I’d met had paid LESS for her round trip from LONDON (she went via Hong Kong). So if you have the choice, don’t fly from China.


During my stay in Tokyo, I walked to my destinations as much as possible. If you’re on a tighter schedule this might not be as possible, but as I had four full days (not inc. Friday evening or Wednesday morning), I essentially dedicated each day to exploring a 1-3 neighbourhoods on foot. On the handy Lonely Planet Guide Travel App that I swear by, they split Tokyo into 11 districts:

1) Shibuya & Shimo-Kitazawa
2) Ginza & Tsukiji
3) Harajuku & Aoyama
4) Ueno, Yanesen & Komagome
5) Marunouchi & Nihombashi
6) Ebisu, Meouro & Around
7) Asakusa & Sumida River
8) Shinjuku & NW Tokyo
9) West Tokyo
10) Akihabara, Kagurazaka & Korakuen
11) Odaiba & Tokyo Bay
12) Roppongi, Akasaka & Around


Obviously walking may not be physically possible for everyone, but if you can do so, then I would definitely recommend it. I’ve stumbled on many interesting and beautiful sights through walking most places. Then, at the end of the day, I’d usually buy a single ticket on the metro back to my hostel (single tickets are about ¥200-¥300.)

On my last full day in Tokyo, I thought I’d treat myself and buy a 24-hour metro pass and use it as much as possible. It wasn’t until after purchasing it that I realized a lot of the central essential stations were actually on the Toei Line rather than the Tokyo Metro Line. In London, if you buy a (admittedly expensive) day pass for the underground, it is all inclusive, even for the DLR. Can’t Tokyo just make it more simple and have them all under one ticket? Anyway, this could also be a frugal option, but unless you plan to use the metro more than twice a day, then I don’t think it’s worth it. Also, bear in mind that the metro closes around 11pm. If you want to go out at night and are on a budget, then your best bet is to stay out until public transport opens again at 5am.


In Part Two and Three we’ll be looking at cheap things to do and places to eat. In the meantime you can start planning your trip by checking out flights here, Hotel Graphy’s website here, or more hostel options here.

Happy Planning!

Under the Radar: Laos

Laos is often used as a stopover between Thailand and Vietnam. The majority of the travellers that I met whilst there confessed that they were merely there for visa purposes for one of the adjoining countries and didn’t particularly have much admiration for it. Contrary to popular opinion, we loved Laos! I thought it was an amazing country in its own right, and definitely deserving more than stop over status. However, it is enchanting in more subtle ways and doesn’t have the WOW factor that other Asian countries might have so it’s easy to see why it goes under appreciated.


Currency: Lao Kip
Language: Lao
Time Zone: UTC +7
Visa: Purchase on arrival (for U.K. passport holders)

For Debauchery..



As a seasoned backpackers haunt, Vang Vieng is arguably the place in Laos that needs the least advertisement. We met several travellers who headed straight for Vang Vieng and neglected anything else that Laos could offer. This is because it is party central. While it is definitely not as wild as it used to be, it is still a hedonistic escape. It became infamous when in 2011, there was a record number of 27 tourists who died mostly due to drowning or colliding with rocks. This was caused by the phenomenon of tubing: an activity where you float down the river in a rubber tube and are pulled in to various bars by ropes. The combination of excessive drugs, alcohol and tubing was often fatal. With my complete lack of coordination, I found it hard enough to go tubing sober, let alone wasted. The currents are deceivingly strong, there are rocks everywhere and there is no one to supervise you or intervene if anything goes wrong. After the chaos, many of the bars on the river were shut down, but there are still a few that live on, albeit more chill. With conditions improved, it remains a huge tourist pasttime, especially as the river is coupled with the beautiful scenery of the karst formations.


1) Don’t take any valuables with you. There’s nowhere to put them and people always ended up losing cameras or other precious things.
2) Make sure you are aware of the time. Going around the whole course takes at least a couple of hours and you need to return the tubes back by a certain time to get your deposit back. Tubing in the dark also isn’t fun (not to mention, dangerous), which we discovered after we spending too long at the bar!
3) Try to stick together as much as possible! Tie your tubes together or something. Make sure no-one is left to find their way back alone.
4) Take clothes in a waterproof bag. It is disrespectful to wear swimwear with nothing else in public and annoys locals for cultural and religious reasons.

Other than tubing, Vang Vieng offers many options for outdoors activities. You can go caving, swim in the lagoons or ride in a hot air balloon (we never got to do this, but apparently it’s among one of the cheapest places to do it, so I wish we had). If you are going simply for the party side of things, there is a main ‘strip’ type thing in town which contains the main bars. They rotate happy hours, so you can if you like whisky then you can drink for free. If you hate whisky, try a whisky & pineapple and you’ll be surprised by how much it tastes like juice! We spent around five days here, but you could make the most of it within three.

It’s super cheap, but be wary of being ripped off when you’re drunk. One night I was buying a sandwich and gave the vendor a large bill and he didn’t give me my change. He probably thought I was a typical drunk western girl who wouldn’t notice (which to be fair, usually I am), and when I demanded it, he ended up coming at me with a chair. Luckily the situation was diffused quickly, but safe to say, I didn’t get my change.

The Blue Lagoon

For a UNESCO world heritage town..


We never made it to Luang Prabang as we were on a tight schedule, but I feel that I’d be doing it a disservice if I didn’t include it here. The city has the status of a UNESCO world heritage site (there are two in total in Laos, the other is Vat Phou, a ruined Khmer Hindu temple complex in the south). It looks stunning. It is home to the Royal Palace museum and gorgeous waterfalls, with temples at every turn. It seems the perfect place to retreat and detox after losing sense of time in Vang Vieng.

Another place that I really wanted to visit in Laos is the Plain of Jars, an ancient historical site containing mysterious giant stone jars of unknown origin in Phonsavan. This is why I’d advice anyone to spend at least a week in Laos rather than the few days that it is usually allotted! It has so much to offer, I will definitely be making a trip back here when I get the chance.

For History & Culture..


Pha That Luang

Vientiane is the capital city, but one of the more sparse capitals that I’ve visited. It is a very calm, tranquil city, yet still full of temples, night markets and some cute bars. It’s great if you’re getting fed up of overwhelming cities like Hong Kong and Bangkok. People sometimes complain that there isn’t a lot to do, but there is. There’s not a huge checklist of tourist attractions to run through, but it provides access to Laotian culture and history. COPE Visitor Centre should be number one on your list. COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise and they provide most of the artificial limbs, wheelchairs and walking aids in Laos.


It’s free to enter the exhibit which will teach you about the issues in Laos surrounding undetonated ordnance. Between 1964-1973, more than 2 million tons of ordnance was dropped on Laos. This is more than was dropped in Europe during WWII and has earned Laos the titled of the most bombed country per capita in history. 30% of them have yet to explode, and civilians are still dying or becoming seriously injured from encountering them.


The Lao National Museum is located in Vientiane and Pha That Luang is one of the best temples to go to see. If you can handle a trip to the outskirts of the city then the Buddha Park is fascinating. The sculpture park was established in 1958 and contains over 200 statues from Hindu and Buddhist tradition. Tuk tuks are extremely cheap, so just barter for a good price with one who will take you there, wait for you while you look around and then take you back. You can see pretty much everything here in 2-3 days.

Rosie enjoying the Tuk Tuk




If you are a UK passport holder, then you are allowed into the country for up to 14 days without pre-purchasing a visa. We were wrongly advised by our hostel and told that we needed one, and subsequently wasted a lot of money. Don’t make the same mistake!

Happy Planning!

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


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


Time Difference

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

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