Bleary eyed we boarded the coach outside SJP at four in the morning. We bade farewell to our loved ones, conscious of our long journey ahead, and excited for our collective experience of the unknown – none of us had been to China before; this would certainly be an education!
Our journey was certainly long but our building wonderment of what this trip would be like seem to curb all attempts at sleep. So twenty five hours later we arrived in Beijing airport. This gave us some clue as to what to expect. The terminal was epically huge and extremely efficient. The sun began to rise as we boarded our coach and met Lin, our guide for the entirety of the trip. Lin was formidable: she used to be a teacher and you could tell – any nonsense would result in the students having to undertake a “performance” at the front of the coach. There was nothing Lin didn’t know and we soon realised that without her, our trip would be all the poorer!
And so our first day began with sight-seeing in Beijing: the Temple of Heaven and surrounding park was our first stop. It all seemed strangely surreal due to sheer lack of sleep but the weather was warm and what we saw was instantly absorbing. Elderly Chinese citizens were dancing (Granny Disco as Lin liked to call it), stretching, flinging themselves around high bars and generally loving life. We couldn’t help but join in – it was infectious and alien to us. What struck us most was the apparent joy on their faces as we attempted to dance and the welcoming smiles we were given.
The Temple itself was impressive and beautiful; typical of Chinese ancient architecture. As we strolled around the grounds we absorbed the varied activities taking place around us. Huddles of four engrossed in cards, people touting their wares to the tourists: fans, decorative chopsticks, games and such like. There were people everywhere. Lunch was a traditional treat of Peking duck (crispy duck pancakes would be the equivalent) and it became obvious that the array of dishes and flavours would be an integral part of our immersion into Chinese culture. We were proud of the students as all of them used chopsticks pretty much throughout our time in China – this would prove invaluable by the time we got to Wenzhou as it isn’t a tourist destination and cutlery was scarce!
The afternoon brought more sunshine filtering through the hazy 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, tranquility, 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 the history and how it had defined the culture.
We were seriously in need of some sleep by this stage and our evening meal in the hotel was a necessity to complete in order to get to bed!
Day two was a much anticipated trip to The Great Wall. I can’t explain the excitement we all felt – a wonder of the world and we were about to view it, walk on it. Firstly, we visited 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. But The Wall dominated our thoughts…..
A cable car took us to the top of the ridged landscape and there it was. 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 (four days later we saw footage of snow on the wall and intrepid tourists were literally sliding their way over the paved areas!).
After our evening meal we went to the theatre. A famous Kung Fu troupe were performing their skills based around a traditional tale of self-discipline and enlightenment. The skills displayed were phenomenal and impressive; high kicks, head flips and acrobatics were relentless for over an hour. The students loved the spectacle and it was a perfect way to round off day two. This would be our only time in Beijing; the capital steeped in history but with clear evidence of the commercial, modern world of high rises and glass facades towering above us. The population of Beijing is 21.71 million. It was hard for our brains to commute but we were so lucky to have visited and cram what we did into such a short space of time before travelling to Wenzhou.
The fast train was a real experience – 330km per hour, for eight hours. It gave us time to catch up on some sleep, observe the beautiful scenery and witness some of the many factories that were dotted along our route. We also saw tea plantations and paddy fields within the rural parts of the country. Mainly though, it allowed us time to get over the frenzied atmosphere of Beijing railway station which was an experience in itself! Chinese people don’t queue and “tut” if someone breaks the queuing etiquette like we all do here in the UK. Instead, they just simply move to where they want to be regardless. They are not rude or aggressive but they WILL just flood in front if you leave a millimetre of space. Keeping thirty students together with no millimetres of space as we waited to show our tickets was certainly a challenge!
Wenzhou was another epically huge city with a population of over nine million. Our first morning was spent in glorious sunshine where we visited an ancient city dating from about 2000 years ago but, after being burnt down, it was rebuilt in 1341. It gave us more of an idea of traditional buildings and ways of life that weren’t quite so evident in what we had seen in Beijing. It was beautiful and remarkable that people still lived in this village today. We wandered through the little cobbled streets, the school dedicated to Confucius, and the waterways that directed the paths.
We had lunch in a traditional farmers’ restaurant and the dishes were yet again varied in flavour. Each table looked like a king’s banquet to be honest and it was a struggle to eat everything! In the afternoon we went into Wenzhou itself and experienced the more familiar experience of a shopping mall which had excellent views right across Wenzhou. We had an early night as the next day we would be getting up in our uniform to visit school.
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 to a giant billboard welcoming us to Wenzhou Foreign Language School no.2 our excitement removed our sleepiness! We all marched out onto the recreation area outside which was vast. All students from the whole school stood on a little dot and faced forward. Music played and the flag ceremony began. The national anthem played and all students saluted the flag. Next, awards were handed out in a ceremony that took approximately thirty minutes and we were welcomed in Chinese and English by the vice principal and staff. It reminded us a little of our own fire drill positions where our pupils are a total credit to us and stand in silence and respect until they are dismissed. The level of attention was the same. Uniforms were all neat and tidy and there was no unruly behaviour at all. Pupils who received rewards literally sprinted to receive them, such was their enthusiasm and desire to succeed. This was fascinating and a great experience for our students who saw a culture where by it is acceptable to be proud of success and openly display it in front of all your peers.
Then 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 three days. The classroom activities laid on for us were fantastic! Over the next couple of days we experienced mask making, a personalised tour round the island of Jiangxinyu, traditional Tibetan dance classes, Mandarin lessons, traditional kite making, calligraphy Chinese writing and 3D model making, followed by a sporting festival of orienteering, team work and an international football match. This match summed up our experience really and symbolised the point of such an experience. The camaraderie between different cultures, working together as a team, supporting by the whole school was unforgettable. Three different countries (a German school party also participated) who together created an exceptional atmosphere of support and mutual respect. Rather appropriately the match resulted in a draw! Our students felt like film stars as they were asked to sign their autograph and ritually cheered as they made their way off the pitch! A truly magical and unforgettable day in school.
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 the majority of the school. We were treated to some beautiful traditional Chinese dancing and an exceptional musical performance. As gifts were exchanged between buddies there were many tears as it signalled our time to say goodbye. I cannot thank Wenzhou enough for the time they created for us. Our students seem to be metaphorically walking taller: they had learned and gained so much from their time, not just about another culture, but about themselves. Surely this is why these trips are so important to the development of our students and life skills that extend far beyond the classroom?
Our last day was a soggy one to say the least in Shanghai. It poured with rain. And then poured some more. We visited the spectacular vista of the Bund (high rises across the river) and toured round the beautiful Yu Gardens (also in the rain!). Our final couple of hours in Shanghai were spent haggling for souvenirs to bring home to our families and mementos for ourselves. We were very sad to leave for the airport as we all realised how lucky we were to be part of something so amazing. On the plane, before settling to sleep, we couldn't help reflecting on the trip and the magnitude of what we had seen, learnt and experienced: memories to treasure forever.