Glacial mountain ranges, arid deserts, tropical forests or blooming metropolises – no matter how stressful or challenging the lifestyle in China can become there is normally a remedy close at hand for those willing to seek it.
Making the most of your time off in China is a valuable skill, and one that you will want to indulge as intelligently and efficiently as possible. See some of the points below for some ideas on how to get the best from your free time.
From a central location like Beijing, you’re within shouting distance of the famous terracotta warriors in Xi’an, the Harbin Ice festival (in January/February) and just a four hour bullet-train ride from cosmopolitan Shanghai.
Do take into account your travel time. While the bullet trains from Beijing to Tibet and South towards the Pearl River Delta have made movement much more convenient, it is still cheaper to travel on the slower local trains. If you only try this experience once, it is worth it for the truly ‘Chinese’ experience that can be had on a hard-sleeper train cross-country – shared card games, lively debate, enforced meal sharing and the mixed scents of livestock, inter-carriage smokers and instant pot noodles combine to create a sense-memory that will make your travel unforgettable.
Yangshuo – the set for many of the documentaries and films about China that you may have seen. The twisty, bendy peaks of the karst mountain range invoke the fantastical while closer to the village bamboo rafts with the traditional fisherman and their trained cormorants are only too happy to perform for tourists who follow on motorboats.
Harbin – the famous Russian settlement on the border between China and its like-minded neighbour is famous mainly for the ice festival that happens in January and February.
Sichuan – spicy food and Buddhism are Sichuan’s claim to fame. Many travel in pilgrimage to Emei mountain with its temples and co-habitant monkeys and visit the neighbouring giant Buddha of Leshan. The surrounding areas also play home to some of the few remaining Tibetans on the plateau outside of Tibet.
Xinjiang – check the foreign office before visiting, as the region has been home to some ‘unrest’ in recent years, but the desert region and its sprawling Kashgar market still draws keen visitors to China’s largest Muslim area.
Dates to avoid
The legal (and average) requirement for working holiday in China is just five days. However, the country loves a good public holiday and some 2 billion journeys take place at the peak of these seasons. Train prices double or even triple, hotels sell out and business comes to a complete standstill. Many expats in China aim to vacate the country just before the chaos hits, but there are still some wonders that can be had if you’re staying at home.
Chinese New Year (or Spring Festival, Chun Jie), – changes each year according to the lunar calendar, but normally occurs around the end of January beginning of February. Even in urban areas every family hosts its own fireworks display and a feast with friends and relatives is held, always including the necessary plate of jiaozi (dumplings).
National Day – The birthday of the People’s Republic of China. Celebrations are sometimes limited to museums and the private halls of China’s elite, but on major anniversaries military parades take place through the street, and the locals gather in parks to sing patriotic songs.
In China’s larger cities, it is entirely possible to live life much as you would at home. Irish theme pubs have become a staple of both expat and middle-class Chinese lives, as have nightclubs and many of the sporting activities that you can enjoy during the day. Football teams are normally the easiest to find, with local expat publications providing the contact details of clubs from basketball to Aussie rules football.
But, if you’re abroad, you may not wish to stick to the routine, so out with the old and in with the new (but still old for China).
The after work club
In spite of the season, many of the smaller squares and plazas in China come alive in the evening. As the country’s modernity has encroached on public space – parks, car parks, shopping centre forecourts and street corners have become a refuge for all aspects of traditional Chinese culture. In the mornings you’ll find Tai Chi practitioners and martial arts groups working in formation and rhythm to start the day, while at night portable stereo speakers appear from nowhere for dance classes, rollerbladers and acrobats. On different nights of the week you may also find water calligraphers, singers, kite flyers and jugglers taking to the pavement to showcase their art.
Turning up at one of these gatherings will rarely turn heads and though you may be subject to some curious attention if you join in, it’s a great way to relieve the stress of the day. After a few nights, you’ll be welcomed with open arms. Many of these areas will have a daytime equivalent too, normally in the form of retired kite flyers, fisherman, musicians and tea drinkers.
Learn a language
There are a number of ways to learn the language while living abroad. Local universities are increasingly opening programmes for foreign students to attend, but many smaller joint ventures between expats and Chinese partners have also begun to offer learning programmes at all levels.
There are also a number of coffee mornings in the city – once the domain solely of the wives of wealthy expats – that have begun to change with the times and allow members to join and learn or discuss at leisure.
By far China’s favourite pastime, eating falls someway between an art form and an Olympic endurance event. This is a useful way to build rapport with Chinese colleagues and friends. Find a particular dish that takes several hours to consume, such as hotpot or dim sum, and expose yourself to some of the wonders of the orient (perhaps make sure you know what meat you’re eating first). This is a fair way to kill the majority of the afternoon in good company.