FINAL UPDATE: 28th JULY
Tuesday 27th July
Back to Dubai and, after a delay of 2 1/2 hours we were in the air and heading for home. We arrived inManchester and met Ms Phillips in the SJP minibus and finally, after nearly 24 hours of travel, we made it back to Bebington to be met by friends and family. Tired but pleased to be back and looking forward to telling our stories and sharing our photos, we all went our separate ways for the first time in two weeks. A brilliant trip all round - "Xie Xie" to everyone who made it happen and to all the group who made China 2010 such a special experience for all.
Monday 26th July
After a quick supermarket trip, we all assembled with our luggage for a late-morning checkout from the hotel. First stop of the day's main events was the nearby Beijing Zoo where we had the chance to meet a number of China's most famous residents - Giant Pandas. These beautiful animals were having a lazy morning but they still certainly melted a few hearts. Some of us, however, are still of the opinion that they are really children in costumes! Afterwards we headed into the business district, where we had lunch in one of the very impressive modern skyscrapers, the interior of which was really unusual, with thousands of glass globes suspended from the ceiling. A further journey in the very welcome air-conditioned atmosphere of the coach took us to the Summer Palace. This vast complex of buildings, gardens and lake was the summer retreat for the Emperors. We were all impressed with the intricate art work on display throughout the park, including the very long wooden walkway alongside the lake. We are almost getting used to the many requests from local people to have their photo taken with us - how quickly we have adapted to the celebrity lifestyle!
After a long hot afternoon, our next journey took us once more past the Birds' Nest Stadium - this time the visibility was better, so we could actually see it this time! We then pulled up at our final shopping destination, the densely packed Silk Market. With bargaining skills now finely-tuned, some hard-fought deals were done and some fantastic deals struck. Our final meal was at the Ramada Hotel and we headed off through the bright lights of the city and off down the expressway to the airport. After sad farewells to Maggie (the teacher from Xi'an who had accompanied us) and Sandy we all made it swiftly through passport control and security before jetting off to Dubai just before midnight. After another long and full day we settled down to catch some sleep on the first leg of our journey home.
Sunday 25th July
Up very early for a 6.30 departure for the airport at Xi'an. A small number of our Chinese pupil buddies came to see us off. One smooth and sleepy flight back to Beijing later and we were reunited with Sandy, our Hanban guide. Our luggage was sent on to the hotel while we went out for lunch to a truly stunning restaurant. The building was traditional Chinese-style, with pools and rocks as well as ornate ceilings and decoration. The sumptuousness of the surroundings was, I am happy to report, matched to the quality of the food. We have been really spoiled with some fantastic culinary experiences on this trip!
After lunch we headed back out into the heat and humidity of the afternoon (over 40 degrees) and we made our way to the Temple of Heaven. This vast park contains a large number of buildings used in the traditional worship and ceremonies of the Chinese dynasties, including the famous Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests shrine where the Emperors would make their offerings for favourable agricultural conditions. This stunning building is 38m high and the entire wooden structure has not one nail - the whole thing is engineered to be supported on a series of 8 pillars. Walking through the park provided some welcome shade as we had a brief journey to a local shopping institution - the Pearl Market. For some of the group, this was bargain heaven, with all manner of shoes, handbags, trinkets and arts and crafts being keenly bartered for. We only made it to three floors - you could easily spend an entire day there. We returned to the Xiyuan Hotel laden with presents and goodies galore to find a pleasant surprise - the floor we are staying on is an 'upgrade' to the rooms we had at the start of our trip. After a very quick turn around we all headed out again for the evening, keen to make the most of our last full evening together in Beijing. Once again we made for the subway, this time with a renewed team focus to get every member of the group around regardless of access issues. The group responded to this task magnificently as we emerged once more into the bright lights of the Xidan area. Having had a look around, we decided to return to our 'food court' where we all picked dishes and drinks - this time with noticeably more idea of what and how we were ordering!
We ended our day with a night-time walk along to Tiananmen Square, past the large number of locals with the same idea. The route was lined with orange lanterns and lights and the square itself was lit up. Unfortunately, we arrived in the main part of the square just as they were starting to put out the lights! A few hasty photos (complete with quickly-growing local interest) later and we headed back underground to make our return journey to the hotel. The trains were absolutely packed, but that did not stop us and we joined in with the good-humoured, heaving crowds before returning to Beijing Zoo station. It had been a long time since our early-morning wake-up calls but we certainly made the most of our time and fantastic power showers and ridiculously comfortable beds were the perfect way to round off the day.
Saturday 24th July
Classes this morning consisted of preparing for our presentation this evening and also for the exam (spoken) which we all took after lunch. In order to revise, we went back out for a wander in the local streets where we sampled some beautiful fresh melon and were given plums to try. You will be pleased to know that we all did really well on the test - certificates are on their way to Wirral. After dinner the whole group (over 100 UK pupils) gathered with the Chinese teachers and pupils for the Closing Ceremony. This involved speeches and presentations from each of the teaching groups. Our role-plays went down particularly well. The evening concluded with the exchange of gifts between the host and visiting schools and pupils before some emotional farewells at the end of a hectic, packed, challenging and rewarding stay in Xi'an.
Friday 23rd July UPDATED
We spent today on campus reviewing what we had previously learnt and practising our pronunciation. We played language games as a class and sang a traditional Chinese poem about the moon (Yue). After lunch we were taught Tai Chi and Calligraphy using brushes, ink and rice paper. We found this a lot more difficult than we thought we would but enjoyed the challenge. The rain seems pretty endless today (the first day it has been this bad) but that is not dampening our spirits! After classes, we all went out in the local area with our Chinese student friends. We went to a restaurant where our friends ordered the food - and what a great meal they put together, including an amazing whole fish (carp, we think) cooked fresh in sweet and sour sauce. Afterwards we went for a wander where the streets were coming alive with local people out and about in the relative cool of the evening. We saw a whole row of traders and shops, with people making and selling noodles, clothes and basically anything you could want. This is a time for the local people to gather and socialise and we saw a number of games of cards and Chinese board games. We also saw lots of families with babies and people were really keen for us to take photographs of the little ones. This was a fascinating and very friendly way to spend the evening and we had plenty of opportunity to practise our budding language skills.
Thursday 22nd July
After learning how to barter in our morning Chinese lessons (including "I've got a family to feed!" and "100 yuan - are you crazy?!"), we were eager to put our new skills into practice during our Ancient Wall tour and downtown shopping time. We walked through the Muslin Quarter from the South Gate to the Bell Tower and had fun bartering for souvenirs on the way. The bargain of the day has to be a set of jasmine flower paintings which 2 members of the group managed to haggle down from 60 Yuan to 32 Yuan. One young lady even got given 2 bracelets just for being English! The group thoroughly enjoyed this experience and were proud to have been able to practice their language in a real context. The pupils were delighted with how the locals interacted with them and were happy to help them with their English in return. We walked back to the bus excitedly exchanging our bartering stories and laden with bags full of goodies.
Wednesday 21st July
Another early start and we boarded the coach and headed towards the village of Huxian where we were to spend the morning with a host family. The village itself was newer than we expected and we couldn?t help but feel the perfectly straight hedges and symmetrical houses where geared towards the tourists. Despite this, we enjoyed the community spirit of the village and felt very welcome as we sat and ate in the dining room of one of the family homes. We were treated to a constant stream of local dishes including a type of thin garlic bread, noodle soup, a selection of mixed vegetables and cold beef slices. After the meal, half of the group watched some Chinese cartoons while the others explored the rest of the house. We were very surprised to see how small the kitchen was and were amazed that the Mother of the household had managed to cook so much food on just one hot plate. We were delighted to also meet the Grandparents who were tucking into their lunch in the courtyard between the kitchen and the main house. The host then took a break from the mound of washing up we had created and showed us the way to the Village Hall where a local artist had displayed some of his work. The 'Farmer Painting' style was very different to the styles we had seen previously and we enjoyed trying to create their bold, colourful technique ourselves. We then took a rather bumpy drive further into the countryside up in to the mountains. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking and we were thrilled when the coach stopped at a shallow part of the river and we were told that we could go paddling. Half an hour later, a very water-logged bunch of people squelched their way back to the coach and faced a rather soggy ride back down the mountain and home.
Tuesday 20th July
Today was one of the best days yet! We contently boarded the coach after a Western treat of a breakfast consisting of toast, jam and tea (We still haven?t quite managed to get our heads around rice and noodles for breakfast) and headed for the Shaanxi History Museum on the other side of the city. The entrance was guarded by a line of Terracotta Warriors which gave us a sneaky glimpse of what was to come. The museum itself was ultra-modern and displayed artefacts from all over China. We also had the opportunity to look at the work of a local artist who?s work depicts traditional Chinese landscapes, flowers and proverbs. A few members of the group are now proud owners of original pieces. After the museum we made the short journey to the Xi?an Hotel for a typical Chinese banquet. The stream of delicious food seemed endless and soon our bellies were full of local delicacies such as crispy sweet chilli fish, dumplings, peppered chicken and barley broth. We were lucky enough to have a couple of the bus drivers on our table who showed us how to eat the food. I think they found our excited squeals and chopstick skills, or lack of them, quite amusing! We slept off our feast during the journey to the warriors. When the coach pulled up, it felt like we?d arrived at a Theme Park. It was much more commercial than we?d expected. After a long drag up a hill in the blistering sunshine, we finally made it to the relief of the cool pits where the warriors were housed. The scale of Pit 1 in particular was unbelievably breathtaking and we were surprised to see that each and every member of the army was life-sized and had individual faces and expressions. The army was lined up in vast trenches and the figures were grouped according to their role. Archers and generals to name just a few. There were also some figures and horses displayed on the walk way in glass cabinets which gave us the opportunity to take a close look at the amount of detail and craftsmanship that went into the vast project. The Emperor himself is still to be located and several members of the group felt there were many more surprises to be unearthed. We made sure we practiced our bartering skills in the stalls which lined the walk way back to the coach .... Just hope our suitcases are big enough for all these souvenirs!
Monday 19th July
After a morning of Language and Culture lessons we boarded the bus and headed for the Guanzhong Folk Art Museum which was about an hour?s drive from the school. It was a baking hot day so we were pleased to discover that it was an open air Museum. We walked up some steps and under an ornate arch and onto a long straight walkway lined with lion-topped stone posts and shrubs. Leading off this walkway there were several other paths which lead to courtyards, rooms and secret gardens. One of these passages opened out into a traditional theatre. Our group gathered around and watched open-mouthed as a cluster of local men preformed energetically and loudly for us. The instruments they used were unusual and made really high-pitched sounds. We carried on exploring and eventually reached an elaborate fountain at the top of the walkway. Next we headed to a local supermarket and were left to explore the many Chinese culinary delights on display. The variety of different fruits available was amazing and the live fish, turtles and lobsters made some of the group feel uneasy. The boiled pigs' trotters and chicken feet were a bit of a shock too! We finished off the day in more western-style with a chocolate-cream-covered peach cake (complete with Mr Rylance figure) to celebrate the feast of St John Plessington.
Sunday 18th July
Up and at 'em for breakfast and Chinese classes all morning. After lunch we had some free time for ping pong (outdoors for us amateurs) and basketball before afternoon classes, which involved learning a Chinese song and an art lesson in Chinese-style painting. Afterwards there was time for swimming - there is indeed a lifeguard on duty and the pool is fantastic (Olympic size), once you have bought your swimming cap. Dinner was followed by "OK Karaoke Fun Time" to which students both British and Chinese contributed. A quick stroll in the cool of the late evening concluded another packed day. We could get used to this...!
Saturday 17th July
After breakfast we all donned our smart gear and gathered together for the opening ceremony of our China Bridge Summer Camp. A series of formal speeches was recorded by the local TV station once again, then our lessons began. Text books and dictionaries have been provided and it seems like the language we have learnt back home was a big help. There are a number of Chinese students in the classes with us to help with our learning who are quickly becoming part of our group. One of the pupils got to explore slightly more of the city than the others (a quick trip to the local hospital to check out a sore toe) - Anna and BL went with one of the local teachers and had the opportunity to see how different health care is in China (far less waiting and a much more informal attitude to queueing).
After lunch we had a class on local culture, which set us up for some of the trips and activities for later in the week. In the evening we all got on to a coach into the city. There was a real buzz about the downtown area and then we arrived at the Great Wild Goose Pagoda Square. This is a park-style area with shops, fountains, market stalls and cafes where people meet in the evenings. This was also the first time we had actually seen the sky and the sun as the clouds began to clear. There was much larking around to be done in the fountains and joining in with the locals. After sunset, there was an amazing light and sound show, featuring the extensive fountains - truly spectacular. We returned home tired, happy and, in some cases, wet! We all remarked on the relaxed and friendly atmosphere we have found so far in China, but especially tonight in Xi'an where there were large crowds of locals; we have been made to feel truly welcome here.
Friday 16th July
Another bilingual 6.45am wake up call and a 20 minute wait for a free lift and we were back in the Revolving Restaurant for our breakfast. Unfortunately the view was no better. It seemed the whole hotel was moving out that day and the atrium of the hotel was filled with organised lines of suitcases which would magically re-join us at Beijing Airport. With all the pupils from across the UK Wearing our matching white T-shirts, our coach headed for Hanban head quarters where we were greeted by some of the staff who had made our Summer Camp possible. We participated in a wide range of activities including identifying the animal of our birth year, playing traditional Chinese instruments and studying the many artefacts that were on display there. Some of the group also enjoyed dressing up in traditional costumes. The colours and detail in the fabrics were amazing!
After a short presentation on how Hanban have developed their links with the UK, we jumped back on the coach and headed for the Hutong area of the city. We pulled up in front of an impressive arch which symbolized the beginning of the district- it looked even more mystical through the mist- and walked past several cafes and bars, snapping with our cameras all the way. There really was so much to take in and to quote one of the group ?This is exactly how I imagined China to be.? We were lucky enough to see a bride being photographed on her wedding day. She wore a vintage looking cream dress. Sandy said that most brides now choose to change from their traditional wedding attire into something more western for the evening reception. With a lake and bright red pagoda as a backdrop she looked stunning.
However, as soon as we turned the next corner, there was an instant buzz of excitement within the group (staff included!) as we saw tens of rickshaws lined up and waiting for us! We quickly paired up and were soon racing each other through the narrow streets, our drivers expertly but sometimes narrowly avoiding other vehicles and and passersby. The group screamed with delight as the drivers exhorted themselves to gain that all important first position. We dismounted our rickshaws and were lead into a courtyard around which a traditional Hutong home was built. A guide explained the layout of the house and described the roles of the family members who lived there. The group was amazed to learn that nothing was left to chance and that every aspect of the building was planned. This included how the north part of the house was left for the Elders as this is the part of the house which gets the most sunlight and the pomegranate tree which was planted for Prosperity. The house we visited belonged to the family of Duze Zhou, a General in the Chinese Army who had been with Chairman Mao on the Long March back in the 1930s. Now aged 96, sadly we were not able to meet him as he was out at a meeting of former generals.
Another rickshaw ride later we were back on the coach and heading towards Beijing Airport, with a delicious Subway sandwich awaiting us and Shaanxi province as our destination. After a short 1 hour 40 minute flight and a few patches of turbulence we landed in a slightly less misty Xi?an. As we walked through the arrivals gate we were met with TV cameras from local stations which was quite surreal. We instantly noticed that this area wasn?t as built up as Beijing and hardly saw any high-rise buildings on our drive to Bodi boarding school which is to be our home for the next ten days. Following another plate of delicious Chinese delicacies, we explored the campus, discovering basketball courts, a swimming pool and a huge Ping-Pong hall. None of us fancied our chances against the impressive 8 year olds though!
Thursday 15th July
An early start as we all made our way up to the top of the hotel - floor 26 - and the Revolving Restuarant. Sadly, the weather was not great today: lots of low cloud and really limited visibility. The breakfast was a buffet-style mix of east and west, including bread and butter pudding! Afterwards, we headed on to our coach for the hour's journey north through the Beijing traffic. The city is very well-developed and continuing to grow (there is lots of construction work going on, including the site of the new China Disneyland). We all liked the mix of differesnt architectural styles, including traditional old Chinese buildings and some amazing modern skyscrapers.
We eventually arrived at the Juyong Pass, a river passing under the world-famous Great Wall. It seemed that the world had turned out to visit the Wall that same day - it was really crowded and very narrow in places. We climbed the steep path to three watchtowers, passing traders and souvenir sellers. You could even borrow some traditional Chinese costumes to pose for photos (which the local people were keen to do). Our journey along the wall was made considerably slower, however, by the many, many people who kept stopping us and asking to have their photographs taken with us. Maybe it had something to do with our gang insisting on wearing sunglasses even in the mild drizzle! Either way, some of the party were clearly enjoying their minor-celebrity status and seriously milking it!
The Wall was beautiful even with the poor weather. All too soon we had to make our way back on to the coach to head off for lunch. This took place at an arts/crafts centre with a top floor restuarant. The food was great, with everyone making the most of the revolving centre and some impressive chopstick work! After lunch we headed to the centre of town, briefly passing the Birds' Nest Stadium built for the Olympic Games in 2008. Eventually we arrived at the truly stunning Forbidden City. The complex of palaces and shrines is incredible in both scale and detail. Our guide, Sandy, was really helpful in introducing this wonder to us. Many photo stops later and we emerged through the southern gate of the Forbidden City into the huge expanse of Tiananmen Square. The weather was misty at this point, which only added to the atmosphere. Bargains of the day (allegedly) were the Rolex-stlye watches on sale - one of our group was unable to resist. Passing the Great Hall of the People and the Mausoleum of Chairman Mao, we got back on the bus and returned to the hotel.
After a short rest, the SJP group went out exploring. Taking the underground from Beijing Zoo (just along from the hotel) was a great experience. We successfully managed not only to buy tickets but also to get on the right train and off at the right stop! As well as TV screens in the carriage, moving images were somehow projected on to the sides on the tunnels - we had no idea how.
We emerged at Xidan station, which is a big commercial district with many of the bright lights of the city. What we weren't expecting to see was an Aresenal store! We went to the top floor of one of the shopping malls where there was a food court and we had a brilliant time picking from the vast range of mystery food and drinks on offer and negotiating with the staff who were delighted, if a little baffled, with our efforts.
One swift subway ride later (we are old hands at this now!) we were all back at the hotel and heading for bed after a packed, fascinating and just generally all-round-amazing day.
Tuesday 13th July and Wednesday 14th July
We all gathered at SJP for a 10am departure. Pausing only to put on our China 2010 t-shirts and take copies of the visa stamps, the intrepid 14 headed off in the minibus to Manchester Airport. After some close competition, Olivia emerged as he bearer of the heaviest luggage!
We had a slight delay to the departure of the plane which allowed for some wheeling and dealing with the "Buy one get one half price" offer on books and a keenly-fought round of Pictionary - "The Sound of Music" and "Lovely Bones" generating some inspired designs.
Off to the packed gate and on to our first fight of the day - Emirates Air to Dubai. A really smooth and pleasant flight with good food plus an amazing range of music, tv, films and games for us all to pick from. We arrived at Dubai around half-past midnight (Dubai time), some of us managing to catch sight of the Burj Khalifa, the new tower which is now the worlds's tallest building. We had a couple of hours to take in the amazing terminal building, complete with waterfall wall and garden.
Some tired faces boarded the plane for the 4am departure of our next flight which took us from Dubai to China. We flew over Pakistan and northern India and crossed the border into China over the staggering sight of the western Himalayas, snow-capped teeth soaring above the clouds in the morning sunshine. Those of us who were awake at this point even saw K2 before we flew on, following the northern edge of the Tibetan plateau and finally arriving at Beijing just after 3pm local time.
This new airport terminal was opened for the Olympics in 2008 and is truly vast (it took us a 10 minute train journey to move from one part of the building to another). Customs and passports were sorted smoothly and we emerged into a cloudy and relatively cool (unusually so, 29 degrees this week - it was 41 last week) but humid Beijing afternoon. Although it is the rainy season, it is difficult to know if the cloud is just the result of the weather or reflecting the levels of pollution in the city.
We were met by our Hanban Hosts - Charlie (from the Bodi School in Xi'an) and Sandy, our guide for our time in Beijing. SJP hared a coach with the groups from the schools in Crosby and Chester who had travelled with us and with whom we will be working during our stay.
We finally arrived at our hotel - Xiyuan Hotel, just near the zoo - around 5pm (10am UK time) which was almost exactly a full 24 hours after we had left Bebington. The hotel is very impressive - there were lots of banners and someone playing a grand piano to welcome us.
After a buffet-style dinner we all headed out to check out the local shops and stretch our legs. The local supermarket was a big hit - very busy indeed and with all sorts of fascinating things to see, from weird and wonderful fruit (such as jackfruit) to all manner of drinks. There was even an entire section devoted to an astonishing range of soy sauces. It was really interesting to see how many things are the same as back home but also how even when things appeared to be familiar, lots of little differences made it clear that we are now in a totally different cultural and economic context.
A foggy darkness had fallen as we made our way back to the hotel, crossing the really busy road via a footbridge which by now had become an impromptu marketplace, with peope selling anything from socks to roasted sweetcorn and memory chips loaded with music files. An early bed for everyone after a long but rewarding journey. Our adventure has begun!
UPDATE 13th July
Our students flew out this morning to China and are currently in Dubai waiting for their connection flight.
China group at Dubai airport
This fantastic experience is sponsored by the SSAT (the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust) and Hanban, the culture and language office of the Chinese government and further subsidised by the governors of SJP. The group will be learning Mandarin (the Chinese language spoken in the region) and culture. This placement in Xi'anwill allow our pupils to meet and get to know Chinese students as well as to sample the incredible historical and cultural highlights of a city with more than 3,000 years of history. Xi'an is perhaps best known as the home of the world-famous Terracotta Army . As the start of the ancient silk-route to the west, Xi'an has a long story of reaching out to other cultures and peoples, an ongoing tradition SJP are proud to be a part of.
The lucky twelve had to undergo a rigorous application process, including a formal interview with Mr Quinn and Mrs Marks, our Chair of Governors. The pupils involved (who have just finished their GCSE courses) are currently undertaking introductory language tuition and enrichment activities in preparation for what is sure to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.