St John Plessington Catholic College

China Expedition 2011-Beijing and Chengdu

Read the exciting story of our Year 10 and 11 students' visit to China.

Click here to view the updated picture gallery.

Tuesday 26th July 2011

Another early start as we took our luggage to the coach.  Afterwards, we headed to the top of the hotel (26th floor) to have breakfast in the panoramic revolving restaurant.  It is hard to know which was more welcome - the bacon, sausage, eggs and beans or the stunning views in the early morning (and unusually clear) views.  Our journey to the airport and check-in/security/immigration all went very smoothly, leaving us time to gather at the departure gate with some small cakes to sing Happy Birthday to James.  Upon boarding the plane, the crew announced to the whole plane that we had a birthday on board and James stood in his seat as we all sang once again.  The purser sent down a selection of cakes and chocolates from first class to help him mark the occasion, along with a message from the comedian Karl Pilkington (also on our flight), which was a nice touch.  One of the BA staff on board was the aunty of one of our Year 7 girls – it really is a small world!

After we landed at Heathrow (with some of our group continuing to practise their new language skills with a group of Chinese students who were with us on the plane), we all got on the coach to head back north.  No relaxing for us however – we used the time to undertake the final task of this trip, which was to complete not just our journals but also special message books which each member of the group will take home and doubtless treasure as a key memento of what has been an extraordinary couple of weeks.

A huge thanks to everyone who made this trip happen, but in particular to the wonderful group of young people who embraced every opportunity and brought the energy, fun and humour which made China 2011 such a special experience:  xie xie.

Monday 25th July

Another 4.30am start was the anti-social start to the day.  After singing Happy Birthday to Holly and loading our cases into the school's van, we all had an early (VERY!) breakfast before heading off to the airport.  We were really touched that four of our Chinese buddies came to wave us off this morning.  The fact that none of the Chinese students from the other classes were there is a good example of the special friendships which have developed in our group.  We all boarded the plane on time, but then unfortunately we sat on the runway at Chengdu airport for nearly three hours as there has been really bad weather in Beijing.  We were given a meal while we were waiting (and Holly was brought some cake by the crew) and kept entertained with games and songs which the students organised.  As part of the normal routine of keeping the cabin cool on the runway, water vapour was constantly pumped into the cabin, making for a very atmospheric wait!  We were all relieved when we finally took off.

Unfortunately, our delay meant that we were too late arriving in Beijing to make it to the Temple of Heaven (I suppose we'll just have to come back!).  On the plus side, the poor weather in the morning cleared the air, leaving us with stunning views of the city which we had not experienced on our first visit. We were met by AnnaLisa, our guide from last time, and all went off to the Silk Market.  This is another very large indoor market, with hundreds of stalls selling anything and everything.  There was baragaining and shopping galore as we all stocked up on souvenirs, shoes, bags, paintings, carvings, masks, special headphones and all manner of other things.  Suitably shopped-out, we went off for dinner, which was a buffet-style meal in a swanky hotel which ended with birthday cake.

We drove through the busy streets off to the Xiyuan Hotel, where we checked in to the very nice rooms. We were delighted to find western-style toilets, baths and extra-fluffy robes.  After a quick turn-around, we went for an evening wander through the surrounding streets.  The cooler evening was full of the sights, sounds and smells of the city as we soaked up the atmosphere, eventually ending up in the local supermarket where we had a good nose around!  Highlights of interest included durian fruit, famously smelly but an acquired taste (a bit like a really strong camembert cheese with the texture of avocado) and many of us really enjoyed the massage chairs.  We rounded off our visit with some last-minute purchases of sweets and drinks for the journey home tomorrow and all headed off with an ice cream.  Our final evening gathering was by the water fountains outside our hotel - a really nice location to round off our last night together.

Sunday 24th July

We began our day with our final Chinese language classes and our test.  Fortunately, we all passed! There was some time for exchanging gifts with our new friends and the rest of the day was spent in packing and preparing our presentation.  We also took the opportunity to have some photos taken with our whole class, Chinese and British alike, for which we all wore our SJP t-shirts - even our new friends, to whom we had given a set!.  After dinner we all gathered in the main theatre for our Closing Ceremony.  After a few speeches, we were treated to some more very professional performances from the staff and students of our host school.  Each class had also prepared a presentation.  Our group sang two songs (one in Chinese, one in English) which were rewarded with thunderous applause.

Afterwards, we gathered together for the final time as a group to say goodbye to our Chinese friends.  It seems that we have been here much longer than nine days- the friendships which have developed in our time here will be remembered for a long time.  We were all very touched by the generosity and warmth of our hosts here in Chengdu and, as you can imagine, there were more than a few tears.  Our final day here in Chengdu has been a memorable one. 

Saturday 23rd July

Up as normal for our lessons, which included preparing for our performance at the Closing Ceremony tomorrow night.  We are all dreading this - not the performance itself, but the fact that our time here in Chengdu is drawing to an end.  The friendships made here have been extraordinary, with language and culture proving no barriers to bonding.  These lessons were punctuated by the roar of a big rainstorm with some thunder and lightning.

Fortunately the weather cleared up by late morning.  Lunch was followed by our final Chengdu outing. This trip was arranged through the local government, who provided six brand new electric buses for the occasion.  This was to demonstrate to the British visitors the medium-term plans the region has for environmental issues, a major consideration here as the population is growing so rapidly (we are told that there are already more than 80 million people in this region).   Our journey was to the ancient town of Luodai.  This is a town where the community is ethnic Hakka people, transported here centuries ago at the order of the Emperor.  We were there for the annual Dragon Water Festival.  Wandering through the streets, which were full of people, stalls and laughter, we took part in the ritual of soaking - basically, a mass water fight. Our group were given basins to join in and some of us managed to get hold of water pistols.  All great fun, but fortunately we all brought spare clothes!

After a quick stop at the school for showers, we all went out again for a short ride out to a local restaurant.  This is dedicated to the regional speciality dish - hot pot.  People sit round a table, in the middle of which is a large metal cooking pot, heated from below, containing bubbling stock into which you dip all sorts of foods to cook.  There were two sections in the pot - one was spicy, the other REALLY spicy.  We were all very adventurous in trying out the food on offer, with some of the group trying goat stomach, pig brains and intestines as well as steak fillets, pork and dumplings.  Totally delicious!

We now have a regular order for the 007 drinks - there really is nothing like an icy cool lemon refresher at the end of a very hot and steamy day.

Friday 22nd July

Today was the day of the small groups/home visits.  Our group spent the time doing all sorts of things - visiting parks, trying foods, experiencing all manner of aspects of daily life.  Our daily gathering took much longer than normal as there were so many brilliant stories to share.  A very packed day - yet again!

Thursday 21st July

A slightly different day for the group today.  Some of us were a little tired after the big thunderstorm during the night (although many of us slept right through it).  After breakfast, we all gathered for class as usual.  After a couple of 'regular' Chinese lessons, before lunch we were learning Chinese songs.  We focused on a romantic song about the moon.  Everyone got in the swing of things - literally, in some cases, as this prompted some improvised waltzing from several members of the group!  After lunch all the British and Chinese students met together in the main theatre, where we had an extended music lesson, this time with everyone learning and singing together 'moli hua' a famous Chinese song about a jasmine flower.  This was led by the talented music teacher here who got the whole group to produce an impressive sound together.

Following dinner, we all went to our final classes of the evening, which was all about Chinese ink painting.  This ancient and deceptively simple art form was a real challenge for us.  Introduced to special brushes, ink and paper, we were all soon producing images of the pandas we saw yesterday.  After this, the group had the chance to produce our own designs for masks (inspired by the Face-changer we had seen at the opening ceremony). 

Some of us had the chance to see how our new favourite drink, the 007, is produced as we gathered together at the end of the day for some much needed sleep.

Wednesday 20th July

An early start today (up at 6) as we were heading out on an excursion first thing.  For all of our trips here in Chengdu we have a police escort which, as well as being a clear sign of the importance the regional government attaches to this project, makes getting through the traffic a breeze.  Actual breeze, however, was in short supply when we arrived at our destination, the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base.  This is a world-renowned centre for helping to secure the future for this highly endangered species - some scientists estimate that the total population (including in captivity) is now around 1600.  We were lucky enough to see quite a few pandas in the centre, where they are cared for in an area of over 100 hectares.  We particularly liked the younger animals - a group of three one-year-olds playfighting was a highlight.  Also at the Research Base are quite a number of less famous red pandas, which were quite curious about us.  A number of beetles and spiders also caught our eyes!

After lunch we had our afternoon Chinese lessons.  Appropriately, this covered seasons and weather - it is once again very hot today.  Our celebrity status continues to grow here - many of the groups were invited to visit the main Chinese classes and got a near-riotous response.  Some of our group are finding it harder to move around the campus as they are constantly being stopped for photos and Chinese students are writing letters to them!

Dinner was followed by movie time, and the suggestion of our hosts was the much-appreciated Kung Fu Panda!  We gathered together as usual at the end of the day, where we all had 007 - a hugely refreshing iced lemon drink - before heading for bed.

Tuesday 19th July

We had a treat in classes today.  In honour of the two birthdays in the group (which are actually next week) and as today is the feast day of St John Plessington, one of the Chinese students made two amazing cakes.  One of them had an unusual candle in the shape of a flower, which (when lit), opened out to reveal a ring of lit candles and played 'Happy Birthday,' a tune we all sang in English and Chinese.  Later in the morning, we went for a wander in the area immediately around the school.  This is a small residential community set within a farming district.  We were particularly interested in the sights, sounds and smells of the local market, where we saw a huge range of meat and produce being prepared. 

After lunch, the temperature soared.  We played some table tennis in the shade while the temperature hit 95 in the open spaces in the campus.  Because of this, our schedule was rearranged.  We had a lecture on Chinese cultural festivals before dinner, as well as the opportunity for some of our group to have a session with the drums here.  Others in the group went to visit one of the regular Chinese classes, to huge excitement.  To avoid the heat of the afternoon, the much-anticipated China-UK football match took place after dinner.  A rag-tag collection of UK students faced the top team in the school (complete with their astro-turf boots).  In spite of this, the visitors managed a clear victory by four goals to two, with one of our pupils scoring three!

We gathered as usual before the end of the day to share our experiences and observations before heading to bed at the end of yet another busy day.

Monday 18th July

Up and out for Chinese lessons from 8.30 this morning.  After our classes we had lunch and then gathered together for our first outing in Sichuan province.  We boarded the coach with our buddies and spent the ninety minutes travelling time in an extended 'sing off' between China and the UK during which our hosts demonstrated an unexpected degree of expertise in cheesy 70s ballads.  We eventually arrived at Dujiangyan Irrigation system.  This is a very old (more than 2000 years) system of channels and a man-made river which has kept the region safe and fed all that time.  Water is diverted in different ways at various times in the year, sometimes to provide the irrigation for agriculture and at other times to prevent the populated areas from flooding.  This leafy, cool part of the Minjiang River is now a United Nations World Heritage Site.  We crossed bridges and visited a series of Buddhist and Daoist temples which were very impressive.  As the afternoon warmed up, we cooled down with ice creams and some of us refreshed ourselves in the water spouting from the dragon's mouth sculpture.  Another great day!

Sunday 17th July 2011

We were woken in typical Longquan style by the blowing of a whistle on each corridor.  After breakfast (which included cake, much to the delight of many of our group!) we all gathered together for the official Opening Ceremony of the China Bridge Programme.  The first part was very formal, with a platform party made up of representatives from the school, the local education board, Hanban (the agency of the Chinese government which has arranged the trip) and the Deputy Regional Governor.  This was a prestigious event and shows the importance of this project to the area.  There were several speeches (in both Chinese and English) and afterwards we headed outside to the 'sunken square' area of the school for a big group photo with the visiting VIPs.  Following this, we went back to the theatre where we were treated to an opening show.  This was presented by four of the Chinese teachers in full Eurovision style and consisted of a series of performances by staff and students from the school.  The acts were amazing and included folk dancing, singing, tea ceremonies, traditional Chinese instruments, kung fu and, perhaps best of all, a performance by a traditional 'face changer' - this is an ancient art which is passed down through only a few families and in fact there are now only around 200 people in the country who know the closely-guarded secrets of this art.  This extraordinary act finished with a fire-breathing puppet!  Our morning ended with Chinese language lessons before we headed off for a lunch.

The school day is structured differently here. There is a set time for eating lunch (11.50) which is then followed by a lunch break, meaning that classes don't resume until around 2.30pm.  This allows for the pupils to have a rest during the day (a concept our gang are finding a little strange, so they are using the time for games etc) and also means that in the hottest part of the day they are taking it a little easier. As a result, classes go on until later in the evening (the final lesson ends at 8.30).

After our lunch break, we had three different cultural sessions.  These included exercise, kung fu and Tibetan-style folk dancing.  We were really proud at the way the SJP group threw themselves into all of these activities, gaining lots from the experiences as a result.  One of our pupils even had an extended one to one session with the kung fu master, which they both seemed to enjoy immensely.  After dinner we had the final two classes of the day.  These were arts sessions, the first being instruction in the tradition of paper cutting.  We saw some amazing examples of fine work in Beijing (one piece had taken two months to complete!).  There was a meeting for teachers during the last of these lessons up in the staff room, which we were surprised (and delighted!) to find has three massage chairs!

Computer access was made available to the students at the end of the day before everyone was back in the dorms for 9.30 for showers, games and bed - our first full day in Chengdu was indeed very full!

Saturday 16th July 2011

One major discovery of this trip so far has been that it turns out that in China there is a 4.30 in the morning as well as later in the day.  Bleary-eyed, we took all our luggage on to the coach for the journey to the airport.  On the way, there were 31 bags from McDonald's waiting for us - a chicken sandwich Chinese style and various flavours of sweet fruit pie (including the purple taro).   After checking in at Beijing airport, we boarded our flight for Chengdu, catching up on some sleep on the way (and trying the in-flight meal, which included jellyfish).

When we arrived we were met by staff from our host school, Longquan No 1 High School and then headed down the surprisingly empty roads.  We were even on a 10 lane road at one point, with no other traffic - a real contrast from Beijing.  The staff told us that Chengdu has a reputation for being much more laid back than Beijing and the area is much more green and the temperature a little cooler.

When the coach pulled up at the impressive entrance of the school, there was a crowd of several hundred excited Chinese students waiting for us.  With a great cheer and waving of flags we had an amazing welcome.  All the Chinese 'buddies' had a flag printed with the name of their partner British student and first hellos were exchanged as we headed to the dormitory blocks.  This is a very popular local school with more than 5,500 students.  Only the older students are here at the moment (a mixture of those living on the campus and those who travel in daily).  We were waved at from what seemed like every available balcony!

Lunch (like all the meals we will have here) was a buffet-style, with some delicious local dishes.  The Sichuan region is famous for its spicy foods, so we will be trying increasingly hot things during our time here.

We had a briefing meeting with Mr Li (the director of the China Bridge programme here at the school) and then all the British and Chinese students (around 80 of each) went to have a rehearsal for the group photo which will take place tomorrow.  After some time getting to know the sports facilities (especially the astro-turf and basketball courts) we had dinner.  Following this, we were introduced to our class teacher Mr Chen Liguo (who prefers to be called Mr Tony) who will be looking after the SJP group.  We are all in the same class (along with our buddies).  Ice-breaking activities were followed by a tour of school campus.  The buildings are very light and airy, with classes taking place in a series of five-story blocks.  The atmosphere is very calm and friendly, with students everywhere keen to try their English skills.  The end of a very long day was our gathering as an SJP family group, showers and then bed.

Friday 15th July

Another early morning and we were off into the city.  The coaches were, as ever, followed by our personal ambulance with the medical team from the school in case of any difficulties with any of the pupils.  We really are being very well looked after.  Our first stop of the day was in the heart of one of the oldest parts of the city - the drum tower.  Climbing the 108 stairs was rewarded with hazy views over the city and the chance to have a look at the drums which used to be used to keep time for the city. We were treated to a drumming demonstration before heading off to the Hutong - part of Beijing which retains the original courtyard houses, home to three (and sometimes four) generations of families.  A short walking tour was followed by great fun in the rickshaws, which provided a welcome breeze in the heat of the morning.

After this, we all headed off to the Hanban office, headquarters of the Confucius Institute who are our hosts for this amazing trip.  We had a good look round their cultural exhibition, which included opportunities for dressing up, trying musical instruments and various computer activities - all of which we threw ourselves into.  Lunch took place in another very smart restaurant called Wahaha (although we never did find out why a restaurant was named after a comedy evil laugh!).  We were then dropped off to walk through the vast expanse of Tiananmen Square.  Passing the Great Hall of the People and some displays to mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, we headed through the Gate of Heavenly Peace and into the Forbidden City.  This stunning and vast complex was home to the Emperors of China for centuries and houses political, ceremonial and residential areas which are among the most important sites in all China.  Lots of walking led to us all enjoying peach ice lollies before braving the hordes of souvenir sellers and heading back to the coach.

Our next stop was an extra addition - an hour of shopping at the world-famous Pearl Market.  This indoor market is home to more than four floors of extraordinary bargains just waiting to be discovered. Our group responded to the challenge magnificently, engaging in sophisticated (and lucrative!) bargaining like pros!  All shopped-out for the day, we had dinner at a restaurant specialising in Peking/Beijing Duck - this did not disappoint.  After devouring the lovely food yet again, we clambered back on board the coach and headed back to the school: another very full, fun, informative and filling day!

Thursday 14th July 2011

After a good night's sleep we were all up bright and early at 6.30 to head down for our first Chinese breakfast.  This was a bit new to us: rice, cake, hot dogs in sweet bread rolls and warm milk.  The drinking yoghurts were particularly good.  Afterwards we gathered at the statue of Confucius, our normal meeting point in the Beijing Royal School before clambering on our coach for the journey further north. On the way we spotted all sorts of things, including toddlers on mopeds and computers being delivered by pedal power.

We arrived at the Juyongguan gate on the Great Wall and were bowled over at the number and mix of people already there.  The weather was misty and a bit cooler and gave an added dimension to the atmosphere at this global treasure.  We headed away from the crowds and up the steep climb to the first tower.  Hard work in the humidity, it was well worth it.  Along the way we kept getting stopped by various people (from all over the world) asking to have their photos taken with us.  Some of the group were delighted at their instant celebrity!

A well-earned cold drink was our reward when we came back to the main gate house, where some of the group bought some amazing paintings and bamboo certificates.  A short coach journey later and we were at the Golden Palace restaurant.  The ground floor of this large building is an arts centre, where we watched some highly-skilled craftsmen producing amazing enamel work.  Lunch was a buffet which we all enjoyed, including pigeon eggs!

After lunch we were back on the coach and back into the city.  Some of the modern architecture is amazing and standing alongside the more traditional Chinese style of buildings makes for a very impressive scene.  Eventually we arrived at the Olympic Park, home to the Games in 2008. We saw the famous Water Cube and Birds' Nest Stadium.  We then headed to the extraordinary China Science and Technology Museum.  This new institution is home to four floors of hands-on exhibits.  We particularly enjoyed the pedal-powered propeller bike but perhaps the favourite attraction was the western-style toilet!

Dinner was in another very nice restaurant in the city centre where the sweet and sour whole fish was delicious.  Afterwards we headed off to the Red Theatre where we excitedly took our seats for the evening performance.  This was kung fu show which told the story of Chun Yi, a young boy who enters a Buddhist monastery and learns the ways of kung fu and zen as he eventually becomes the abbot.  The show was truly spectacular, with demonstrations of extraordinary athletic and acrobatic abilities.

A long journey back to the school in the heaving Beijing traffic and an impressive thunder storm wound up a packed but brilliant day.

Tuesday 12th and Wednesday 13th July 2011

We set off very early: sleepy but excited at the prospect of our exciting trip ahead. After a smooth journey we arrived at the new Terminal 5 at Heathrow in plenty of time.  We spent our time waiting for departure with eating, chatting and talking to people from all over the world who were curious to know what we were up to.

We all settled together for a long flight over Scandanavia, northern Russia and Mongolia before landing in the humid heat of Beijing around 9.30 on the morning of Wednesday 13th July.  We were met by the Hanban staff and shown to our bus; complete with air con!  When we were told that the journey to the school would take around 20mins, one of our party (who shall remain nameless!) asked if that was the same as English minutes.  Perhaps we will find many cultural differences between our two countries, but as far as we know the laws of Physics remain consistent!

We are staying at the Beijing Royal School, where the welcome is warm and mattresses a little thinner than we are used to.  After an introductory briefing and a buffet lunch, we all headed off to the Beijing Zoo where the stars of the show were of course the pandas.  We were even filmed at various points; we are told for the local news - and some of the group were asked to pose for photographs with some locals: yes, our SJP celebrity status is with us once again!

On the way home we stopped at a beautiful restaurant where we all enjoyed a gorgeous dinner together with the other groups who will be joining us in Chengdu.  Not even the staff could tell us the English names of some of the dishes, which were truly delicious.

The first of our daily gatherings saw everyone in the group share their impressions and key moments from these first 36 hours of what is already proving to be a memorable trip.  The way everyone has thrown themselves into all the activities and dishes on offer, in spite of the heat, humidity and lack of sleep, has been everything we have come to expect from what is shaping up to be a fantastic group.  Our China adventure has well and truly begun!

Monday 11th July 2011

Welcome to our China Blog for 2011! The preparations for this amazing trip began in earnest last week when the 14 students underwent a week of language tuition and cultural briefings with Mr Camilleri. This was alongside a programme of teambuilding and reflection activities led by Miss McKenna. Everyone found all these sessions really helpful in developing the skills which will be needed over the coming weeks as we head East.

On Thursday the whole group went over to China Town in Liverpool. As well as a flavour of the sights, sounds and smells of this important element of our local area, we all enjoyed a fantastic meal at Yuet Ben, where the manager described to us some of the differences we might expect to find when we arrive in China.

For now, all that remains is final briefings, going over language notes and packing before our very early start on Tuesday morning...

Flying over Mongolia heading for Beijing

2011 China Expedition Students pictured at the entrance to China Town, Liverpool.