I was having a typically hardcore, party kind of Friday night; y’know, browsing Facebook and eating bibimbap in my underwear, when I came across an article entitled Everyone Should Live in China At Least Once.
In recent weeks, I’ve perhaps been guilty of translating my excitement for the next chapter in my life into something more akin to a distaste for China. I’ve certainly been guilty of preparing myself for the separation by focusing on the things I don’t like about China, and forgetting the many unforgettable experiences I’ve had as a result of being here.
If Korea is where the Aussie on the Road was born – China is where he came of age. I may never have reached the dizzying heights of the happiness I felt while living in South Korea, but it’s certainly been more up than down.
Driving the Karakorum Highway
My first travel experience in China came just a month after I’d arrived, as my co-worker Kara and I took advantage of the May vacation to go someplace exotic. China’s definitely got no shortage of exotic destinations, but we felt that far-flung Xinjiang in the country’s west was the right place for us.
The less said about being underwhelmed by Urumqi the better, but in Kashgar we found a place completely unlike the China we’d come to know in the country’s east. We happened upon a tour company and booked our passage from Kashgar to the Pakistan-China border by way of the Karakorum Highway and beautiful Tashgorkan in the mountains.
What followed was a 48 hour journey through sun scorched and blood red valleys, across a desert where snow fell on the towering dunes, by the icy shores of Lake Karakul, and up into the perennially snow-capped and beautiful mountains that separate Pakistan from China. We stopped off in quaint Opal for local food, watched local dancing at a food festival, and explored the tumbledown ruins of the old Stone Fort in Tashgorkan.
What makes the trip most memorable, perhaps, was the gut-clenching, head swimming agony of my worst ever bout of food poisoning as we bounced and swerved our way back towards civilization on that second day. Teeth clenched and sweat on my brow, every kilometer was agony.
I won’t describe it all over again here, but feeling near death on the Karakorum Highway is a memory that will stick with me forever.
A year later, my ex-girlfriend Heather and I decided to spend the May vacation someplace a little less ‘wild west’ than Xinjiang, and headed to Sichuan province instead.
Our few days in Chengdu included visiting the very crappy Happy Valley Chengdu and a visit to some pandas that I’ll describe later. The highlight of the trip, and perhaps of my time in China, was a visit to the Jiuzhaigou National Park and its contrast of impossibly blue water and vibrant greenery.
The day long bus ride was every bit as bouncy and unpleasant as the Karakorum Highway, but the pay-off at the end was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, and I’m not just talking about China.
My two May holidays both saw me visiting truly beautiful corners of China, but the two couldn’t have been more different in their composition.
The cold, fresh air reinvigorated the both of us after so much time in Nanjing’s oppressive smog, and there was just so much colour to take in. Jiuzhaigou is said to be at its best in the Fall when the leaves set the trees afire, but there was plenty of beauty to be found in the lush verdancy of the place and the tempting look of its cool and blue waters.
Teaching in Rural Jiangsu
I have enjoyed teaching high school graduates preparing to head abroad and study in the United States, Canada, or Australia; but there’s not so much joy in teaching the (often spoiled) kids of privileged families who – regardless of their results – are going to go to school abroad anyway.
My favourite teaching memories from China, as a result, have come in my times away from the city and among people who don’t take English education as their birthright. My month living in Lianyungang and my few days visiting Shuanggou showed me what passion for learning and genuine enthusiasm are – and it’s no surprise that I had to travel to places of considerably less wealth to find it.
This past month, one of my students from my time in Lianyungang arrived at my school, and I now have the pleasure of teaching her each day. When she arrived, she told me that the entire class still remembered me and spoke of me fondly. With the kids at my Nanjing school so privileged and so busy enjoying the benefits of privilege, I doubt that such claims will be true of my students here when I’m gone.
Christmas in China
I’ve spent two Christmases in China, and while both of them were united in being difficult because I was away from (most of) my family, they’re both similar in the fact that they surprised me in just how wonderful they were.
My first in China, spent on the beaches of Sanya with my ex-girlfriend, was wonderful in that it was so unlike Christmas. It was easy to forget that I was away from my family or that we didn’t have gifts to unwrap, because instead we were sucking down ice cold beers on the beach while, inexplicably, the Easter Bunny strolled up and down the white sand posing for photos. Christmas in Hainan was certainly an experience.
While others back home were pulling apart Christmas crackers or tucking into a hearty lunch of cold meat, we were eating meat off the bone at a beach-side Russian restaurant and posing with coconuts. It was a wonderful distraction from Christmas.
Conversely, my second Christmas in China was very much like Christmas at home. With my brother and his girlfriend here to celebrate with, we set about recreating some of the things we loved most about Christmas at home. We used Fields to order a full Christmas dinner (delivered from Shanghai!), unwrapped presents at the crack of dawn, ate our favourite snacks while watching Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and reveled in the warmth of one another’s company.
The only downside to the day was saying goodbye at its end. We’ve all confessed to being a tad teary eyed as the spell of our day together was broken and we returned to the humdrum of our regular lives.
The Nanjing Rural Sixes
I’ve harped on about cricket in China elsewhere, but our own tournament will always hold a special place in my heart. The very concept of me sipping an ice cold beer, reclining in grass (itself a rarity in Nanjing), and watching a game of cricket played by two teams under the influence might not be so strange – but it’s as far removed from Chinese life as it gets.
I’ve attended two Rural Sixes (2012 and 2014) and both have been days more about the social aspect than the cricket itself. Oh, I’ve swung the willow and polished a six-stitcher ‘gainst my thigh; but it’s been more about the sledging veiled as commentary, the laughing at those who get falling down drunk, and the well earned night’s sleep when I inevitably collapse into bed exhausted well before my usual bed-time.
I’ve got to admit, watching the Nanjing Nongmin win it in epic fashion back in 2012 was pretty special too; even if I had been relegated to our B team and the ignominy of last place.
When I visit Shanghai in two weeks, it will be the first time I’ve been there (outside of the airport) since St. Patrick’s Day of 2013; but for a time, Shanghai escapes were the bread and butter of my ex-girlfriend and I maintaining our sanity in China. When the rotation of Taj Mahal Indian, Korean, McDonalds delivery, and pizza became all too much for us – we’d jump on a train to cosmopolitan Shanghai and gorge ourselves on the abundance of food options available to us.
It wouldn’t just be eating, obviously. We’d visit local landmarks, get out to local bars, and daydream about Nanjing one day being even a tenth as cool as Shanghai.
Nanjing, of course, has come to feel like home to me – but back when it was just me, my ex, and a few scattered friends in the city; Shanghai was a nice escape from reality.
Being in a Chinese Sitcom
It never panned out quite as we’d hoped, but for a while there it looked as if a few of my friends and I might actually get to be TV stars in China.
What had started out as a simple ‘Help Wanted’ ad on an internet message board turned into us writing a half dozen episodes of a sitcom about expat life in China. I was to be William, a thinly veiled (but slightly more rotund) Barney Stinson clone. That wasn’t my idea: we just wrote plots around the characters we were given.
We rehearsed it, we held casting sessions to find the perfect/most acceptable Chinese actors to join our motley crew, and we even went so far as filming a pilot (although by this stage, I’d chosen a month in SE Asia over a week dealing with our borderline sociopath director/producer).
Ultimately, though, it amounted to naught. Still, we had a lot of fun fantasizing about someday being able to quit our day jobs and live off TV earnings.
Boys Weekends in Hangzhou and Qingdao
In the embryonic days of my return to singularity, I was lucky enough to have two good mates in Nanjing who were only too happy to have their wingman back. To celebrate, we made grand plans to take a trip to a new place every two weeks.
Summer was upon us, and it had melted away the lethargy of a long and unpleasant Chinese winter. We spent that first weekend away biking in the 40C heat around Hangzhou’s West Lake, and the second weekend was spent drinking watery beer at the Qingdao International Beer Festival.
We’d had such grand plans for further trips. We would conquer Yangzhou and Changzhou; Shanghai and Anhwe and beyond… And then work decided to ship Byron off to the middle of nowhere, and put paid to our dreams of a summer of weekends away.
Showing my Family Nanjing
More recently, I had the pleasure of getting to show my family (well, most of my family) my own patch of China. While my plans to take them to the ever-crowded Nanjing Massacre Memorial never did pan out, it was still surreal to have my siblings stretched out on my couch while my parents took a nap in my bed. It was odd to share a beer with Leigh at my favourite Japanese restaurant, or here Izaak talk about high school life as we dodged pedestrians on our walk to the Hilton for lunch.
It wasn’t quite as much fun as I’d had traveling to Seoul and Mokpo with my family back in 2008, but it was as pleasant as a drink of water after some time in the desert to have them here.
The Worst Hangover Ever
I guess this wouldn’t go down as a pleasant memory, but spare a thought for the single roughest day I’ve ever had.
In a hostel in Chengdu, Sichuan; we decided to stumble downstairs for the free dumpling night. As I am wont to do when presented with the opportunity to interact with people, I went about telling jokes and making friends. Before too long ‘free dumplings’ had become ‘lots of beer and baiju’.
All thoughts of an early night were soon forgotten as we ended up at a nightclub and continued drinking into the wee hours. I drunkenly changed the code on my phone and then locked it (forcing me to do a lengthy manual reset on it the next day) and (much to my shame) vaguely recall being sick in a McDonalds urinal.
It was hardly my finest hour, and it only grew worst when we woke up two hours after falling into bed to go on our tour to the panda sanctuary.
I don’t remember getting there, but I do remember fighting the urge to be sick all over again as I snapped photos of giant pandas and red pandas and wished I could join them in lying in the green, cool bamboo for a few hours.
With that not being an option, I opted to pay for another night in the hostel just so I could curl up in the fetal position for a few hours and make that oft broken promise to never drink again. Yuck!
These don’t strictly count as memories of China, but I had to take a moment to highlight the equally awesome trips I’ve taken away from China while I was here. After all, China funded them and China afforded me the opportunity to take them.
My romantic trip to the United States to sweep a girl off her feet in 2012.
Three weeks in Thailand and Cambodia drinking smoothies while soaking in plenty of sun (and a little culture too).
Two weeks back in Australia to recharge my batteries and meet my niece.
A week revisiting South Korea and my old stomping grounds in Busan and Gwangju.
Three fantastic weeks traveling in the Philippines with my brothers and friends.
Two weeks in the United Kingdom to attend a friend’s wedding and check off some bucket list items.
They’ve all been covered elsewhere and this post is already powerful long, but they warrant a mention all the same.
A (Mostly) Wonderful 2.5 Years
While I am happy to be leaving and heading off on a new adventure, it’s been a wonderful two years. I did make a list of the things I’ll miss about life in China, but I think this one touches more on what I’ve loved most about my time here and those memories I’ll look back on.
I’ll shut-up now.
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