In true time-flying fashion, it has now been over a month since my last blog post - so I reckon a bit of a Zoe in China update is long overdue...
By far the most exciting thing that's taken place over the past month is our trip to Xi'an last weekend. Thanks to a national holiday here in China, Sarah and I got five days off work, and decided to venture out of Xingtai (now semi-affectionately nicknamed 'Mingtai') to see a bit more of what this vast country has to offer. So on Friday evening off we went to the train station, and 9 hours and one 'soft sleeper' (with not much sleep) later, we arrived in the city of Xi'an.
Xi'an - one of the oldest cities in the country and the capital of some of the most influential dynasties in Chinese history - is located in Central Western China, and is perhaps most famous for being the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, as well as home to the Terracotta army. Compared to Xingtai, Xi'an is much bigger and significantly more cosmopolitan - meaning we had a welcome break from being constantly stared at, and there was lots more interesting stuff to do and see!
After a bit of a rest in our lovely hostel, we spent Saturday afternoon fulfilling a lifelong ambition of mine - to ride on a tandem bicycle. Now I can't really explain why riding upon a two-saddled, two-wheeled, four-pedalled vehicle came to be so high on my 'list of things to experience before I die', but it's just something I've long longed to do - and I cannot think of a better place to have done it than the Ancient City Walls of Xi'an.The walls were built in the fourteenth century under the Ming Dynasty, and are almost fourteen kilometers in length, standing 12 metres above the ground. This means that from the walls you have really amazing views across Xi'an, and the chance to look at the city from many different angles. Getting the hang of riding the tandem was tricky at first, but Sarah and I soon discovered we were naturals, and even discussed purchasing our own tandem when we return to Manchester / starting up a lucrative bike rental company in Piccadilly Gardens called 'Totally Tandem' (because, let's be honest, what else can English Literature graduates really do?). On Saturday evening we tried to venture to a Malaysian restaurant the guidebook gushed about, but had a bit of a taxi crisis which ended up in us having to take a horrendously overpriced tuk tuk to the restaurant (well, I say we 'had' to, but I actually have a bit of a soft spot for tuk tuks so wasn't terribly peeved). The fifteen minute journey was kind of enjoyable for the first fifteen minutes- weaving through the traffic with the wind in our hair - but after that it just got bumpier and fumier and more and more apparent that the driver had no clue whatsoever where he was going. And Sarah was about to wee herself so we abandoned ship at the first sight of a decent looking restaurant - so though we didn't manage to have the Malaysian feast we were hoping for, we did have some very nice pizza - the best pizza we've had in China so far in fact. Every cloud…
On Sunday morning our friends Rachel and Sebrina joined us from Beijing, and we spent the day queuing for, and then finally visiting, the Shaanxi History Museum (which me and Sarah speed-viewed in about twenty minutes in favour of sitting outside and eating ice cream). After that we went to see the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, a really rather pretty seven story pagoda built over 400 years ago. We spent the evening browsing the market stalls and eating delicious street food in the bustling Muslim Quarter - spicy bread, vegetable pancakes, almond cakes, and dried fruit - before heading to 'Bar Street' for a few cold beverages where I learnt how to play a Chinese drinking game involving five dice, one cup, and lots of drink.
On Monday morning we got up early and got the bus out of Xi'an to see the Terracotta Warriors. Probably one of the most famous sites in China, this is the one of the places I really wanted to visit whilst I was out here. The story goes - in 1974, some local farmers were digging a well and came across this life sized warrior statue buried underground. Some archaeologists were called in to investigate further, and it turned out there was this whole network of warrior, chariot and horse statues - the Terracotta Army - which had been buried underground for over 2000 years. Apparently they date back to around 210 BC, and were commissioned by Emperor Qin (who was only 13 at the time - little legend!) who ordered that no two soldiers were to look alike. Their purpose was to help him rule another empire in the afterlife you see. It was quite a spectacular site to behold - so far 3 pits have been excavated so we got to look at the warrior, chariot and horse statues as well as the weaponry. It was swarming with tourists though, and you can't actually get that close to the statues - I had this (admittedly quite unrealistic) vision of being able to walk through the pits side by side to the army, but apparently that's an honour only bestowed on such world famous figures as Queen Elizabeth II - and being Xingtai's token westerners / local celebrities didn't really qualify us. Shame really. We just chilled at the hostel on Monday night, ate some local street food (Chinese veggie burgers and cold noodles - yum), and befriended some fellow travellers.
Tuesday was designated 'panda day'; we drove into the nearby countryside to a panda breeding and research centre. Though a long way away from seeing pandas in the wild, and certainly nothing on my Rwandan Gorilla adventures of summer 2008, it was actually quite a nice sanctuary and we got to see a few pandas (and other interesting animals) up close. What was also nice was just being in the countryside - I feel like until then I hadn't inhaled any fresh air for the whole two and a half months that I'd been living in China. We had a nice lunch at a local restaurant, and then headed back to the hostel to kill time before our night train back to Xingtai. The twelve hour journey home was long, hot and unpleasant - we shared a compartment with two middle aged Chinese men with whom we soon exhausted our 'I am from England. I am a teacher' conversation threshold, and who snored and farted their way through the night. I've never been happier to get off a train!
So - now we're back in Xingtai and gearing up for the second half of our teaching placement. It's hard to believe that we're half way through our time in China already; seems like no time ago at all that I was sitting in my room in Nottingham packing my massive pink backpack! Luckily, the weather here is now hottening up (I was getting tired of hearing everyone at home talking of the sunshine and BBQ weather whilst it was gloomy here) - today it is 27 degrees and that looks set to stay all weekend and beyond. So, yeah, i'm feeling pretty positive about the next two and a bit months here - both work and weatherwise. My parents arrive in Beijing in just over 3 weeks, which I'm massively looking forward to, and we potentially have a school trip to the seaside on the horizon which sounds super. To top it all off, I can't wait to fly to Vancouver in July to see my lovely friend Lucy for our summer of road trip fun. Life is good!
Other amusing / noteworthy happenings of the past month or so:
-Performing the 'Hokey Cokey' in the middle of a public park for a school trip - cue hoards of amused onlookers and even more stares than usual
-Giving a 'Parents Evening' talk in English to non-English speaking parents
-Discovering that yes, there is a decent Pizza place in Xingtai
-The arrival of parcels containing delicious, mainly chocolate themed treats from Sooz and Emily (Thank you guys! Cheered me right up!)
That's probably sufficiently long enough a blog post to give you all a good idea of my life of late, and a cheeky ten minute break from whatever work you have waiting for you at your desks. As ever, hope all is well at home, and please do keep in touch.