Scottish Charity Number: SCO36069

2nd February 2011

Xmas Travelling by Natalie Smyth

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Im six months into my gap year now, so thats halfway through. To answer the question I get asked a lot by my family and friends, Im still having a great time. Its more difficult to try and get the most out of this year now that every day life seems exactly that- ordinary. Jane and I are really settled into life here now, with a regular routine, teaching, seeing our friends at lunch, meeting people after school, washing clothes in a bucket and so on.

The weather has been incredibly cold these last few months, with lows of minus 20 degrees. This has probably been one of the hardest things for me to deal with so far this year, I really dislike getting cold and its so uncomfortable to go outside had have your face and ears in serious pain within seconds.

Christmas this year was very, very different to a Christmas back at home. For a start, we ate our Christmas dinner with chopsticks! On Christmas Eve, Jane and I travelled down to Tianshui to meet all the other volunteers in Gansu there. Travelling through the mountains and valleys of rural China in the snow in a little corridor on a train on Christmas Eve is an event I will never forget. When we arrived in Tianshui we were told that we had to meet the other at a party at the volunteers school. We were pulled up on a stage in front of maybe 200 Chinese students and their parents, given a Santa hat and a microphone and made to speak Chinese so that they could laugh at us! It was so funny, and a really random way to spend Christmas Eve.

On Christmas day, we all joined together to try and make a Christmas dinner out of Chinese chickens, instant gravy and stuffing powders sent from home and various vegetables. It worked really well, apart from the apple crumble we tried to make exploded in the grill!

After coming back to Dingxi to teach for a few more weeks, including very funny Christmas lessons where we had prizes for games such as pin the star on the Christmas tree, we had nearly 6 weeks off for the Chinese New Year festival. One of my main goals this year was to make an effort when travelling and to see as many new places and to do as possible. I think China is brilliant for this, just because its so huge and diverse. We started our journey in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, headed to Pingyao, Tianjin, Harbin, Beijing, Qingdao, Shanghai and Chengdu. Our aim was see as much of the east coastal cities in the winter so we can travel to other places in the summer. I enjoyed Harbin the most, its in the North east, close to Russia, and ever winter they hold the Ice Festival, building sculptures and buildings out of ice. With temperatures such as -30 degrees, I had to wear at least 5 layers at all times. The Russian influence was cool to see there too, with restaurants, Russian people, buildings and shops too. I just couldnt get over how cold it was though, I will never complain about winter in Britain again after that.

Shanghai was crazy; the size of the buildings and the western influence was massive. It is literally a jungle of skyscrapers, with an amazing park in the middle. The difference between staying there and living in Dingxi really highlighted how completely different the wealth gap is between countryside and the big cities. However, thats not to say that everyone in the cities is rich at all, the amount of beggars and homeless people is sadly paramount in the cities.

Arriving back in Dingxi after travelling for so long was a bit of a shock, for nearly two months wed been constantly on the move, we worked out wed spend nearly 120 hours on trains over the 6 week period, and there was always something new to see or exciting things to do. Getting home and having nothing new to do and as lessons hadnt started yet, me and Jane were at a bit of a loss. This was the point where we both felt the most homesick and as we were back to being just the two of us it felt a little lonely. However, once teaching started again, we started doing more and making an effort to see people, get out, go travelling at the weekends and the weathers getting warmer too! So were back to normal now, looking forward to the rest of our year here and ready to make the most of it.

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