We left SJP in the small hours of the morning. 30 students ranging from year 8 to year 13: eyes full of sleep yet excitement!
Our flight was smooth and we arrived in Beijing 8am local time. We were all exceptionally tired we couldn’t wait to experience the flavour of our new surroundings. Lin, our guide from last year, was reunited with us which was comforting as our ability to speak the language was limited. It didn’t stop us trying though and Lin taught us more phrases throughout our time in China.
Our first stop was the Capital Museum to educate ourselves a little more about the history of China, looking at artefacts dating from 900 BC, costume, art and relics of dynasties past. Here, the students experienced the warmth of the Chinese people, particularly other school children, who all wanted to have their photos taken with our pupils. It was lovely to witness the interactions taking place between the two cultures. After an amazing lunch filled with typical Chinese cuisine (as we struggled with our chopstick usage) we visited the main street leading up to the north gate: one of four gates remaining in Beijing. It was statuesque and impressive and we were beginning to appreciate the scale of this great capital. Our hotel was a welcome sight that evening as we caught up on some much-needed sleep!
The morning brought sunshine filtering through the blue sky and a walk around Tiananmen Square. Here the Communist influence was most obvious within the style of buildings, the sheer scale of the place and huge image of Mao dominating the square. This took us to the Forbidden City. Lin gave us some historical context and a map (we needed one - once again the scale of the place was epic) as well as a challenge for the students to locate three items within the city. This was more the vision of China we had imagined as we’d seen images back at home. It was simply awesome. Temple after temple, all with their own significance in terms of peace, tranquillity, harmony and spirituality. The colours within were vibrant and opulent. Outside, but within the walls of the city, were vast open paved spaces where the Emperor used to survey tens of thousands of soldiers at a time. Everywhere was laced with symbolism and ancient cultural references alluding to the various dynasties that had formed the history of China. We started to realise the richness of history and how it had defined the culture.
Beijing Zoo was our afternoon destination and a highlight was witnessing the pandas there. These animals were beautiful and it was a privilege to watch them at feeding time, apparently oblivious to the faces pressed against the glass as they munched on bamboo! The pupils absolutely loved this and the gift shop did very well out of us as their panda teddy stock was seriously depleted. Another full day and a welcome rest after a delicious Chinese meal.
Day three took us to the Wall – probably a highlight for all. Badaling was our destination. Many of us felt a little emotional as we walked in the sunshine along impossibly steep meandering slabs punctuated at regular intervals with towers. It was a feat of genius and it was hard to absorb the magnitude of it as it snaked across the crests of the mountains as far as the eye could see. The cherry blossom, synonymous with China, was beautiful as were the views extending to the horizon. The sun shone on us all - we felt special. Some of us were intrigued by the fact that random camels were also atop the wall providing photo opportunities for tourists!
The afternoon comprised of our flight to Kunming as we would be visiting the sister school for the next 3 days. We arrived quite late in the evening to our beautiful hotel right in the heart of this beautiful city.
School starts early in China; 7.15 am to be precise. This was not a popular cultural shift for our students but as soon as we arrived there was the formal meeting ceremony which was treated as an official occasion. The banners and flags celebrating the union of the schools were fantastic and speeches were made in both Chinese and English to welcome us all formally. The pupils were then introduced to their “buddy” for the next 3 days. The classroom activities laid on for us were fantastic! Over the next couple of days, we experienced robot making, Mandarin lessons, traditional paper cutting, traditional music playing, calligraphy Chinese writing and some sorry attempts at traditional lotus flower painting! The talent show in the evening was truly fantastic as an array of traditional and modern Chinese performances were put on for our benefit. Two of our own students also took part with a piano performance and a solo singing performance. A truly magical and unforgettable day in School.
The ceremony is very important in China as is the sharing of gifts (a token of respect shown between the visitors and hosts). The final ceremony was full of emotion as both schools performed for each other in front of each other. We all had to sing and perform the song we had learnt to play on the musical instrument the day before. As gifts were exchanged between buddies it signalled our time to say goodbye. I cannot thank Kunming enough for the time they created for us. Our students gained so much from this experience and learnt an awful lot about themselves as well as a whole new culture.
And so our last day arrived and, after a three and a half hour flight back to Beijing, and a good night’s sleep, we went to visit a market. We were keen to purchase souvenirs and trinkets to help us celebrate and remember such a wonderful time; a truly a trip of a lifetime.