Teaching in Japan: Part 1

My first week in Japan

by Rachael Hornsby

After months of saving for flights, researching jobs, and attempting pretty unsuccessfully to learn some basic greetings in Japanese, I was eager to get over to Japan and find out for myself what it was like. I packed up all 25kg of my life in my snazzy new Tesco suitcase, said goodbye to all my friends and family, and left my lovely England once again so see what the homeland of sushi and sumo was to have in store for me.

Having caught the travel bug teaching in Thailand for a year, I had decided to set my sights on a new Asian adventure, and since everyone I’d met who’d been to Japan had loved it, and there are such great TEFL opportunities there, it seemed like an ideal place for the next step of my journey. Rather than choosing one of the many jobs I perused online, I decided to play it safe and follow a friend to a job and location I knew she had loved, and took a position teaching kindergarten in Kurume, a small city on the island of Kyushu in South West Japan.

After a long flight from Heathrow, and a short stopover in Seoul, I finally landed on Kyushu in Fukuoka, a city closer to North Korea than it is Tokyo. It was evening when I arrived, so my first sights of the island were just of big city lights on the drive from the airport with my colleague, with my main impressions being ‘why is everyone driving around in tiny white toy cars?’. My hotel on for the first night was pretty much like any other hotel, apart from the shower that only reached as high as my chest (the first of many ‘tall girl Japan problems’), and of course the infamous Japanese toilet, with its innumerous temperature, direction and pressure settings for your post-business ‘shower’- even more impressive than my beloved ‘bum gun’ in Thailand.

After a little tour of the not-too-exciting Wednesday night down town Kurume, my friend took me for my first Japanese meal to a gorgeous little yakitori restaurant. We sat at the bar eating sticks of meat and fresh salmon sashimi (my first ever!), surrounded by a strong aroma of tasty barbecuing and annoying cigarette smoke (it’s still legal to smoke inside here).

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Salmon sashimi, part of my first meal in Japan

I moved into my adorable little apartment the next day, which made me feel yet more like a giant (I get through my door ways with about an inch to spare above my head). The flat has all traditional Japanese sliding doors separating the rooms. The bedroom floor is all tatami (Japanese straw mats fitted together). The furniture is low to the ground, and the bath is deep, almost cube-shaped (my first few bath times were a bit of a floating somersault act!). It was one of the most stereotypically Japanese buildings I’d see yet, and I half felt as if I was moving into museum exhibit of what a period Japanese house should look like! I was also given a little moving in guide, complete with an ‘earthquake preparedness’ check list, which told you about how to get ready for an earthquake- it sounded just like the stuff we were learnt about in geography at school, so felt weirdly unreal, like I’d jumped into a textbook. Little did I actually know how soon this information would actually become relevant!

Other new essentials handed to me by my school included my inkan, which is a little bamboo stamp with my name on the end that I use instead of a signature for all my important documents (they could only fit the Japanese kana for my first name on- レイチェル, ‘Reicheru’), and my company car (woop!). I got off to a slightly awkward start driving. Having never driven an automatic car before, my foot tried to find the clutch and slammed the break down on my first drive, with a truck behind somehow avoiding crashing into us. But luckily Japan drive on the same side of the road as the UK, so after getting to grips with their road rules I was soon buzzing around town with ease down the city’s tiny roads the width of driveways. (Although I still sometimes set off my wipers instead of the indicators, as they’re on are the opposite side to my car at home. Some habits are hard to shake!)

My little automatic car ❤

The timing of the school year in Japan means that new teachers are lucky enough to experience the infamous ‘sakura’ season (the blooming of the cherry trees) almost as soon as they land. In my first week the blossom seemed to suddenly appear everywhere at once, making, for example the carp-filled canal below our building look even more picturesque. The way the blossom it is anticipated and celebrated in this country, helps you really make the most of it and appreciate the beauty. It’s a great example of the stunning nature of Japan that drew me here, and the people’s special relationship with nature that I think we should all try to emulate. As wishy washy as that is, they still know how to celebrate like any country here- with a good helping of friends and alcohol, specifically, in my experience, day drinking their way through cool boxes full of beer and sake under the blossom!

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Blossom at a park on my drive to school

At the Hanami (the picnic held under the cherry blossom trees) I had my first experience of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. This is done at different events throughout the year in Japan, and put simply it is someone serving you a cup of tea, but it involves a precise process carried out by professionally trained tea ‘makers’ (no idea what the term is for that!). Ours took a quarter of an hour or so, and I could write a whole blog post on all the elaborate steps, but basically we knelt beside a lady in a kimono who was preparing the tea with a little traditional stove, were given a sort of swan-shaped sweet to prepare out palette, and after its long preparation, were each served a bowl of bitter green matcha tea, before watching whilst everything was methodically cleaned and put away. (I have since found out there are many different ‘schools’ of tea, with their own unique ceremonies, and this is just one specific style). The whole thing was so slow and delicate it made you feel quite peaceful, giving a nice contrast to the noise and energy of the party, but afterwards I still had a bit too much sake (not wanting to be rude and turn down drinks from my new acquaintances of course!) and ended up cycling home along a slightly wonky line…

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My first week here was crammed with many more episodes, including starting my job at school, taking a trip to a stunning nearby temple town, and trying my first 100 yen sushi. And my first month here was even more eventful when the island was rocked by its strongest earthquake in on record…

#TRAVEL – Taiwan: Taipei 101

#TRAVEL – TAIWAN: TAIPEI 101

In 2004, Taipei 101 (formerly known as Taipei World Financial Centre) was declared the tallest building in the world.  101 floors high, it stands out in the Taipei skyline and is visible for miles (pollution depending).

Taipei 101 lost it’s ‘Tallest building’ title to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, 2009.  As of 2016, Taipei 101 is now the 10th tallest building on earth. However, it is still well worth a visit!

Earlier this year, I was visiting Taipei on a budget (shock). I only had 2 days to explore the city and wanted to hit all the ‘MUST SEE’ places.  After doing some research I found that Taipei 101 made most Top 10 lists and in many cases was the #1 thing to see/do in Taipei.

Taipei has an efficient subway system that covers the main areas of the city.  To get to Taipei 101, simply get off at the conveniently named ‘Taipei 101‘ stop – SIMPLE!

The bottom floors are mostly occupied by food courts, shops, and tourists.  The real spectacle is on the 89th floor: the 360 Observation Deck.

Initially I was put off by the admission price to go up (12/11/2016 – NT$600), However, after seeing that you are taken there in the worlds fastest elevator, I pulled out my wallet.

The view from the observation desk really is incredible.  It gives you a panoramic view of the city and allows you to see so much you couldn’t from the ground.

I always love visiting the tall buildings in cities (e.g. Tokyo Skytree and the KL tower), the birds-eye view you get always leaves me temporarily speechless and can be appreciated at both day and night.

Admittedly, this is a short experience and quite expensive, but it is worth it.

  If you are in Taipei, don’t leave Taipei 101 off your list!

If you’re heading to Taiwan, you can’t go wrong with this travel guide –

#TRAVEL – SOUTH KOREA: THE DMZ

The North Korean way of life is perceived negatively throughout most of the western world, but many of us are equally fascinated by it. North Korea is located north of South Korea (SHOCK); the two countries have been separated since the 1950’s, and now a 150 mile long & 2 1/2 mile wide barrier runs between them. This barrier is known as the DMZ or the Demilitarized Zone.

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Anybody visiting or living in South Korea (it’s highly unlikely you’ll see many South Koreans there though) can visit the DMZ as part of a tour. The majority of the tours depart from Seoul and most companies offer both morning and afternoon options.

When I visited in 2015, I used a company called VIP Tours. They were very helpful and provided a great service. I’d recommend them!

You can check them out here VIP TRAVEL

VIP Tours and most other DMZ Tour operators offer several different options, two of the most popular being:

1) DMZ TOUR

The cheapest and most common option allows you to visit several interesting places –

The Bridge of Freedom – A park full of statues and monuments, built to console the families of both the North and South Korean people.

Dora Observatory – From here you can look into North Korea. On a clear day, it’s very impressive.

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Dorasan Station – A brand new railway station built to connect South Korea and North Korea. However, in 2008 the North Korean government stopped the service accusing South Korean government of a confrontational policy. So now it stands empty.

DMZ Theater & Exhibition Hall – Full of artifacts and information on the Korean war and the DMZ itself.

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The Third Infiltration Tunnel – My favourite part of the tour! In 1978 a tunnel was uncovered. The tunnel was built by North Koreans trying to pass under the border. The tour allows you to travel deep underground and see for yourself.

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2) DMZ & JSA TOUR

The second option allows you to visit all of the above AND the JSA or the Joint Security Area. The JSA is where North and South Koreans discuss diplomatic engagements and negotiate.  This option does cost a bit more and require a but more time, but a good experience for those who are interested.

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If you are interested in the Korean war and/or are curious about mysterious North Korea, or maybe you just have some time to kill in Seoul, I’d definitely recommend checking this tour out!

If you’re going to South Korea, make sure you take your guide to ensure you don’t miss anything –

#TRAVEL – Indonesia: Peace in Ubud

I’ve never read the book Eat, Pray, Love, nor have I watched the movie. But, nonetheless, I heard Ubud, Bali was an interesting place to visit for reasons other than “It’s where that really good book/ film is set”.

I was right.

Ubud is located about an hour north of Bali’s main airport and is easily accessed by bus, van, car, and bike. If you are visiting after spending a few days in Kuta, the tranquil and relaxing atmosphere will be a welcome breath of fresh air. Many visitors go there to practice yoga, meditation and detox. Ubud boasts many health-orientated stores and calming areas, making it the perfect place to unwind and get back in touch with yourself.

That said, despite being a peaceful and chilled setting, there are actually quite a few things to do:

Monkey Forest

The most popular tourist attraction in Ubud is the monkey forest. For a small price, you can enter a reasonably large area of temples, trees and wilderness to observe wild macaque monkeys run around and interact with each other and their paying visitors (hold onto your camera with a strong grip).

Rice Fields

Turn left, turn right, go north, go south…Ubud has no shortage of rice paddies! I would definitely recommend renting a scooter and driving out of the town center to check out some of these beauties. They are oddly fascinating and undeniably beautiful.

Pools

Just because you’re away from the coast, don’t think that you’re going to miss out on some great waters (you are in Bali after all). The majority of hotels and homestays in Ubud boast spectacular swimming pools, many with infinity pools looking out into stunning green scenery.

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The Streets

Ubud’s streets are full of quirky cafes, homestays and old buildings. Hours can be spent walking around marveling at the various types of architecture and having a browse at what interesting products are for sale.

Chill Nights

The nightlife in Ubud is a world apart from Kuta. I love to party, but visiting Ubud allowed me to experience a more relaxed and cultural vibe. Whether you see a puppet show, walk the beautiful streets or have a cold beer at the jazz bar, you’ll always be wearing a smile across your face.

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If you’re in Bali, don’t skip over Ubud.

.. and don’t forget your guide!

Teaching on the road

I’t’s been about 18 months since I made the transition from teaching English in classrooms around the world to teaching English online from airbnb’s around the world.

It has granted me a freedom that I could of only dreamed of a few years ago.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed making different cities my home for a few weeks. I prefer taking the time to explore slowly and not rushing my experiences. From Budapest to Marrakesh, from Bangkok to London, I’ve been lucky enough to travel to multiple parts of the globe.

How? All because I make money from my mobile phone.

But, the lifestyle isn’t all travelling and late starts. It’s hard work that requires planning and discipline.

However, in my opinion, the rewards are well worth it.

If you’re willing to put in the hard work, teaching online doesn’t only provide you with a flexible schedule, but it can help you achieve a healthy bank balance.

I’m going to cover travel and teaching online topics such as: portable classrooms, internet backups , devices and much more in future posts. But for now, I want to help you to get on your own way.

So, firstly, you’ll need a job!

Online education is on the rise. There is no shortage of online companies to choose from. Do your research and find out which one is best for you!

I work for Palfish and I LOVE IT!

Palfish

There are many reasons why working for Palfish is great. Good pay, flexible bookings and a social network of teachers and mentors are just a few.

I’ve helped several teachers get started on Palfish. If you’d like to join the team, download the Palfish app and insert my invitation code – 45012005.

Alternatively, you can drop me a message and I can answer any questions you have.

Palfish only hires native English speakers with a degree. There is no leeway.

Airbnb

When you teach and travel, it is important to ensure you have a quiet space and some privacy.

I’ve found using airbnbs not only the cheapest option, but the least risky. You can message the host in advance to enquire about the wifi and ask any other questions that may effect your teaching experience.

Chances are you already have an airbnb account, but if you don’t, sign up here and help a brother out –

https://www.airbnb.com/c/lhaddock4?currency=GBP

If you have any questions about teaching online or teaching and travelling, please get in touch!

Have a fantastic day!

Don’t teach in Thailand if…

Don’t teach in Thailand if…

Every year hundreds of people fly to the “Land of Smiles” to teach English. The list of benefits this choice offers is so large that instead of focusing on them, I have compiled a list of reasons it may not be the best option for everyone. You may want to reconsider if…

You Want to Make A Lot of Money

If you’re reading this, then you probably already know the teaching salary in Thailand isn’t the best. In comparison to the cost of living, you can live very well—but when it comes to making those international bank transfers every month, it can be a bit painful. That said, jobs at international schools tend to offer more money and there is no shortage of private tutoring opportunities throughout the country. Many teachers, myself included, survive from their tutoring money and transfer their salaries home each month. You can save, but it definitely takes commitment.

You Want to Party 24/7

The Full Moon Party, Khaosan Road – YES, Thailand is a fun place to party. Alcohol is cheap and there is never a shortage of events to attend. However, if this is your primary reason for visiting Thailand, I think backpacking or a holiday would be a better option. Don’t get me wrong, over the course of my 18 months there I had an endless amount of raging weekends all over the country, but the focus during the week should be the job.

You Aren’t Willing to Embrace a New Culture

This is similar to the previous. Many people assume life in Thailand is like the travel brochures and the backpacking blogs. Of course, it can be, but the reality is that the majority of schools are positioned away from the ‘tourist hot spots’ of the country and in my opinion allow for a more authentic cultural experience. I think it’s important to note that in many locations you could be the only English speaker for miles and find it impossible to buy those branded goods you love so much back home. Personally, I see this one as a positive, a chance to challenge myself and grow—but many are not prepared for the cultural shift and start to feel isolated.

You Don’t Like Kids/Want to Teach

The heading of this may make you think ‘OBVIOUSLY DUR’ but unfortunately there are a few too many teachers in Thailand who not only hate teaching but dislike children. I understand a lot of people choose to teach in Thailand to see the country or for a gap year etc., but I think a little interest in teaching and not a dislike of the age group you’re going to teach should be a minimal requirement. You’re going to be in the classroom the majority of the week—taking a job you don’t care about just so you can party and see the sites will only make the kids miserable and the workweek seem like a chore. Care about what you do.

You Don’t Like Spicy Food

Ok, this one is a bit of a joke. Of course, you don’t need to like spicy food to teach in Thailand, but be warned – it’s everywhere. The words ‘mai pet’ (Thai for not spicy) can save your life!

This list is basically a compilation of the various complaints I would hear from fellow teachers around the country. Maybe if people knew what they were getting themselves in for before going, there would be a lot less critical and negative stuff written about teaching in Thailand online. Do your research, and try to find a place that is not only suited to your interests and strengths, but also consider your weaknesses.

Village Life in China – Brain Scans & Bamboo Weevils

Traveling Tales: Village Life in China—Brain Scans & Bamboo Weevils

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I first met Ting selling fruit along a busy highway in Leshan. Streetwise with a slight build and dark eyes, she’s a jack-of-all trades: a receptionist by day, fruit stall worker by night who also sells plants online, educates on winemaking and collects lamps from around the world. At this point I’ve been in Leshan a few days and quickly found myself running out of things to do, so when Ting invites me to spend the day with her family I jump at the opportunity.

The next morning I meet with Ting, her aunt, her cousins, and her grandfather—a gaunt man with paper-like skin, who seemed so fragile even the wind could make him crumble. In his quaking hands he carries recent scans of his brain to deliver at our first stop, a village hospital an hour away. We somehow manage to squeeze 8 adults into a car meant for 5 and we take off. Once past the highways of Leshan we find ourselves on narrow winding dirt roads which had been previously closed and blocked off by concrete barriers, many of which had been crudely deconstructed by locals leaving behind piles of rubble and broken hammers. Expertly navigating the maze of roads she’d grown up on, Ting gets us to our destination with relative ease.

The hospital itself is a depressing site—the entrance is devoid of doors and visitors ride their motorbikes and scooters directly into the dark, somber hallways. It’s here that the family works to settle their patriarch into a stained bed to receive an intense-looking cocktail of IV drugs. It all seems so routine to them, as it turns out they make this trip fairly often for treatment. Though he lives in the city now, he is only insured at the hospital nearest the company he worked for years before.

After ensuring he’s fully prepared for his hospital stay, the family meander through the nearby market greeting old friends and doing some light shopping. Resting along a curb with bowls of sweetened douhua, the cousins are getting a bit giddy recalling their childhoods while watching the local kids run through the streets. A few feet away a pair of toddlers in kaidangku chase a rooster among the food stalls while their mothers have their nails painted. Behind them, a man works to jerry-rig an outdoor kitchen with a few car batteries. At first glance it seems like we’ve stepped back in time a ways, an illusion quickly shattered by the persistent ringing of message tones and snapping of phone cameras. Our douhua quickly turning soupy in the summer heat, the group decides it’s time to head out to the countryside and so we pile back into Ting’s car for another trip through the serpentine roads.

In a matter of minutes we’re deep into the surrounding farmland, arriving at the farm that supplies their fruit stall in the city. The farmers greet them like family before immediately entering negotiations for bushels of limes. The business side of things concludes almost as quickly as it began and the women of the house begin to prepare dinner while the guests pitch in on the field work. The afternoon is spent harvesting jujubes and grapes. Our baskets full and the sun sinking lower in the sky, the cousins decide enough work has been done and that we’ve earned ourselves some playtime.

The whole group—aging aunt included—take off for the dense trees and bamboo surrounding the area. As I’m unsure of what we’re doing, Ting hands me an empty water bottle and informs me we’re going to make fans with giant bugs (none of which made any sense to me). Following them through woods filled with massive spiders and occasional snakes, I watch in awe as they spot bamboo weevils from 10 yards away. We spend nearly an hour tearing the beetles from their hideouts and slipping them into the bottles.

Back near the farmhouse, we plop down in the middle of the road next to a pile of sticks and proceed to make strange, bug-powered hand fans often constructed by children as a summer pastime. In the simplest terms, this involves:

  • Connecting two very thin, light sticks into a cross
  • Removing the bottom half of the legs on two bamboo weevils
  • Inserting one arm of the cross into the front right leg of one, and the other into the front left leg of the other.
  • Placing the long end of the cross into a hollow piece of bamboo

As the panicked insects fly in opposite directions, the cross spins like a helicopter creating a fairly strong breeze. If you can get big enough bugs and light enough sticks, they can sometimes lift out of the bamboo like a chopper. I realize many people will find this practice cruel, and while I’m apt to agree I’ll admit I did learn a great deal from the experience and that the overall vibe was light-hearted and playful. Still, there’s something surreal about seeing a little old lady in a pristine dress, hair done up just so, squatting in the middle of a dirt road ripping the legs off bugs.

The sun setting and our fans beginning to slow down, we headed into the house for dinner. The homes, while spacious and clean, are essentially bare. Often one finds a large open room with a table for eating, and unfurnished bedrooms with sleeping cots and a pile of clothing. If not for the food in the kitchen, were someone to stumble upon such a house they would assume it unoccupied. The lack of belongings and creature comforts is a strong testament to the hardworking nature of the countryside—they have little need to furnish their homes because they are rarely inside, spending their days in the fields.

Following a hearty meal of duck and eggplant, they load the trunk with limes they intend to sell and we head back to the city. A day of nostalgia for them was rife with new experiences for me. Seeing one day in the life of a single fruit-stall worker from a city of millions reminds me that the world is filled with an unfathomable number of stories and experiences, each rich & complex in its own way.

-Ashley

#TRAVEL Cambodia: The Killing Fields

Disclaimer: In case the title didn’t tip you off, this article is going to be a real bummer.

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One of the most amazing things about traveling is how much you learn along the way—about people, about culture, and about the world itself. Reading about something in a book is a far cry from seeing the remnants of history with your own eyes, and as we explore we uncover parts of the past that are often fascinating, sometimes amusing, sometimes confusing, and occasionally downright horrifying.

However, knowing the misdeeds of the past teaches us what to avoid in the future and so there is no history that should be forgotten. No place is this more true than in the Killing Fields of Cambodia.

A Bit of History

The Killing Fields are a dark vestige of the Khmer Rouge Regime, which took power in Cambodia under the leadership of Pol Pot from 1975 – 1979. During that time, nearly 3 million people were executed in a country of only 8 million total. The cities were emptied and those who weren’t arrested were sent to agricultural projects as the government sought to both “purify” the population and bring the country back to a simpler time. Much of this was accomplished through the use of crude prisons and mass graves, which still exist today as a haunting reminder.

Choeung Ek

Choeung Ek was originally an orchard that was turned into arguably the most notorious extermination camp in Cambodia, containing thousands upon thousands of bodies. Located outside Phnom Penh, there is an entrance fee of $6 and includes an audio tour which guides you through the site providing the grim details of the events that took place—many patrons are moved to tears while listening as they solemnly walk the grounds.

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You’re continually reminded to watch your step, as teeth and bone fragments still regularly make their way to the surface. Upon arrival your eye is immediately drawn to the memorial stupa, a Buddhist monument with towering windows displaying more than 5,000 human skulls that have been recovered from the site.

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Those carrying out the executions were not well-equipped with weapons or ammunition, so executions were to be done quickly and cheaply often through barbaric means. For this reason, you will immediately notice how many of the skulls on display are cracked or smashed in.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking element of the site is known as the “Children’s Tree,” against which the youngest victims were beaten. Today the tree continues to grow and is covered in bracelets and ribbons visitors have left in memoriam to those lost.

Tuol Sleng

Within the city limits sits the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school that was converted into a prison by the Khmer Rouge. The classrooms were divided into crude, tiny cells; the windows were barred and the grounds surrounded by electric fences & barbed wire. Inmates here were each photographed and ordered to provide the details of their life, only to be tortured into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit. Wall upon wall of prisoner photos line parts of the museum, with gaunt faces of men, women, and children staring back at you. This prison was a true house of horrors, the site of everything from waterboarding to medical experimentation. Many of those not executed at the prison itself were eventually marched 15 kilometers to Choeung Ek, where they ultimately met their demise.

It’s baffling to think something so horrific had taken place in such recent history, but a truly eye-opening experience for those visiting Cambodia.

-Ashley

If you’re going to Cambodia, don’t forget your Lonely Planet travel guide –

#TRAVEL China: The Best of Beijing

As the capital of China, Beijing seems to have it all—history, art, culture, entertainment, innovation. While I’ve been a few times, I was always just passing through or filing paperwork somewhere.

At long last, my most recent trip through the city gave me a few days to actually experience the wonders it has to offer and I was determined to fit into 3 days as much as humanly possible:

Day One: The Great Wall

After arriving late at night on a long-haul train, I snagged a few hours sleep and immediately took off for the Great Wall. Having been to the tourist hotspots of Badaling and Mutianyu in the past and battling the crowds of locals, I finally had the time for a proper Great Wall experience. Many hostels and tour groups offer transport to more remote sections of the wall that are totally worth it. This was by far my favorite Great Wall visit to an unnamed section roughly 2 hours from the city.

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No Guides, No Guards, Not a Soul in Sight

In a group of 9 people, we were dropped off at an access point and given 3 hours to hike 7 towers to the edge of Mongolia and back. Being mid-August, we were lugging jugs of water in temperatures of 102°. The hike itself was beyond difficult—the wall is steep, the steps countless, the towers deceptively far apart. The thing is, it’s not supposed to be easy. There is a saying in China that “One isn’t a true man or a hero until he has climbed the Great Wall.” Truly experiencing the Great Wall means putting your heart and soul into it, and in this case pushing your body as well. By the time we were making our way back, whenever anyone stood still you could see their legs involuntarily quaking—a sensation that lets you know you’re giving it your all.

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The Turning Point, Peering into Mongolia

It really was the perfect day, too. The views were stellar, the people were amazing, and we ended the trip exhausted feeling as if we’d truly achieved something in our time there.

Day Two: Forbidden City/Tiananmen Square/Night Markets

The next day I woke up so sore that climbing out of my bunk made me audibly groan in pain but I was determined to beat the lines at the Forbidden City, so an early start was a must. Popping a few aspirin, I headed out only to find lines already forming at security. Not security at the Forbidden City, mind you, but on the sidewalks leading to the area, because just entering different parts of the city means bag checks and body scans in Beijing. Following the crowds of thousands, I eventually found my way. The City has a cap of 80,000 tickets a day and they do occasionally sell out in the summer (it is, after all, the most visited museum in the world), but once beyond the gates it’s easy to break away from the sea of people. The city itself is truly massive covering 180 acres with 980 buildings. The courtyards are huge and the architecture breathtaking, though I’ll admit that after an hour or so it just seems like more of the same at every turn.

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A Guardian at the Forbidden City

Leaving around noon, I headed back through Tiananmen Square to take in the monuments, then spent the evening wandering through some local walking streets. Like everything in Beijing, they looked small on the map but turned out to be enormous and had so much to take in!

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Follow the crowd in; Follow the crowd out.

Day Three: Summer Palace/Lama Temple

The next morning I hopped on the subway and took the hour-long trip out to the Summer Palace, nearly 750 acres of gardens, lakes, and temples. Dating back to the Jin Dynasty, winding trails snake their way through the trees leading to distinct temples hidden in the valleys while towering pagodas sit atop the highest hills. Truly the most serene place I’ve been in China, each turn reveals rippling koi ponds, footbridges rising over lotus leaves, or pebble-strewn paths to nowhere.

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There are worse places to get lost, for sure.

The Buddhist Incense Tower, the most distinct pagoda of the complex, formerly offered awe-inspiring views of Kunming Lake & Nanhu Island, but the air quality in and around Beijing has all but made that a thing of the past. Still, the Summer Palace holds treasures like the Garden of Harmonious Pleasures, which is just as relaxing as it sounds.

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Finally–a shady spot to relax.

After a good three hours of exploring, I headed back into the city for a late lunch before exploring the Lama Temple. While one would expect me to be templed-out by now, I can’t resist a temple that’s actually active rather than a simple relic of the past. Hearing the drums & the calls to prayer, breezing through drifting clouds of incense—it’s a whole different experience. My visit was unfortunately quite short, as I was soon headed off for another long-haul train.

The train itself was a welcome relief, because after 3 days of non-stop walking, my legs had turned to jelly and needed the entirety of the 22-hour journey to even begin recuperating. If you have a chance to visit Beijing, try and give yourself at least 5 days so you can pace yourself and see a bit more of the city, but know that you can certainly power through it on a tight schedule as well!

-Ashley

Check out this Bejing Travel Guide –

Top 5 Struggles of Long-Term Backpacking (and how to beat them!)

5 Struggles of Long-Term Backpacking (and how to beat them!)

Any backpacker will tell you that their life isn’t just one never-ending vacation. Yeah, you’ll have some amazing experiences, meet fascinating people, and gain a deeper understanding of foreign cultures one could never garner from books and movies. But backpacking isn’t easy—it takes dedication, flexibility, and resilience. However, knowing what struggles to expect and understanding that every traveler has highs and lows can be a great way to prepare yourself when hard times crop up.

loneliness_subheading

When traveling solo, loneliness can be a real struggle. There will be times when you’re completely alone, sometimes for a day or sometimes for a week. The people you do meet come in & out of your life rapid-fire and these friendships, no matter how short-lived, can be very intense. You spend a week hitchhiking with someone and doing everything together, and suddenly you know everything about one another—the quirks and habits only a roommate would ever pick up on, the vulnerabilities you may drunkenly spew at 4am, and all while sharing an experience full of “you-had-to-be-there” moments no one else will ever really relate to. Then a day later they’re gone and chances are you’ll never hear from them again.

how to beat it:

You’ll eventually get used to all the hello’s and goodbye’s, but these realizations often hit rookie backpackers pretty hard. Many think they’ve made friends for life only to find that they’re feeling forgotten only a few weeks later. Enjoy your time with the people you meet and make the best memories you can. Don’t let missing people deter you from getting to know others. You’ll learn so much from the great discussions you’re bound to have and these fleeting relationships will be full of eye-opening experiences.

And if someone is important to you, make the effort—believe me, some travelers make great pen pals because we’re used to communication taking a little elbow grease.

disenchantment_subheading

I’m hesitant to use the word “jaded”, but there definitely comes a time when your experience begins to work against you on the road. When you first start out, everything is new; you want to see everything and there never seem to be enough hours in the day. But down the road, you’ll find thoughts rife with apathy beginning to creep into your mind: “Another temple? I barely remember the last 30 anyway…” “There’s a waterfall? Eh, I’ve seen bigger.”

how to beat it:

This can be hard to overcome, but it’s all about living in the moment (cliché, I know). Think about it this way: Just because one time you had really fantastic pizza, does that mean you’ll never eat pizza again ’cause no other pie could compare? Hell no—pizza’s still awesome.

Treat each experience as its own and do your best not to compare. Why deprive yourself on the assumption that yesterday was better than the possibilities of today?

Any traveler knows that some of the best memories and experiences are the ones that were complete surprises—areas stumbled upon after a wrong turn or last minute excursions taken on a whim. You never know what’s around the corner, so don’t assume you do.

discomfort_subheading

Being on top of a mountain overlooking the valleys below or drifting down a river at sunset is one thing—getting there is another. It amazes me how often I hear people complain of the conditions they find themselves in, as they clearly didn’t expect their journey to be anything other than smooth-sailing.

There will be 18-hour bus rides with no pit-stops. You may travel in cramped quarters with both humans and livestock. You will stay in hostels with bedbugs. You may occasionally find yourself sleeping on the street. Air-conditioning is often a luxury you can’t afford and carrying that 60-liter rucksack will take its toll from time to time.

how to beat it:

Time for some tough love, kids: Get over it. This isn’t luxury travel and backpacking isn’t a glamorous lifestyle. While discomfort may range from slightly annoying to genuinely painful, these journeys will reward you in so many ways. You’ll find yourself growing in terms of patience, understanding, courage, independence, & trust, among others. The experiences you’ll have and the things you’ll see will make it all worth it.

homesickness_subheading

Homesickness hits different people different ways…for some it grows and builds over time, while for others it suddenly hits them at all once like a semi coming head-on. Some miss creature comforts while others long for their loved ones or for the familiarity of their old stomping grounds. There are times when you’ll fixate on what you’re missing out on—you’ll hear of old friends getting married, having kids, getting houses or accepting promotions and wind up thinking, “Whoa, am I falling behind somehow?”

how to beat it:

Remember that you can’t have it both ways: you may be missing out on things back home, but those back home are missing the journey you’re on. You need to figure out what’s important to you. If you settled into the 9-to-5, would you resent it down the line? Or are you yearning for the contentment that comes with setting down roots? Determine what your goals truly are and set your path toward what you want to achieve. For some that path will lead them home again while for others it will just keep going.

burnout_subheading

There’s definitely a myth out there that backpackers are lazy. Many short-term travelers will note how they’ve seen so many backpackers just sleep all day, rarely leave the hostel, or seem to have a perpetual hangover. But ya know what? Traveling is exhausting. You get tired…like, really really tired. Between stressing over the logistics of getting from point A to point B, constantly adapting to new cultures & climates, and trying to fit in as many new experiences as possible on a non-existent budget there are times when it can become overwhelming. Some days the idea of getting out of bed and dragging your rucksack onto another 18-hour bus seems like a gargantuan task that you physically and mentally just can’t handle.

how to beat it:

This may seriously be a “no duh” solution, but honestly: just take a break. Whether that means spending 5 straight days wallowing in your bunk at the hostel in a nest of soda bottles & Pringles cans, or it means taking a month off back home, it’s important to recharge both mentally and physically.

Remember that every journey has it’s highs & lows, so try not to let the hard times defeat your adventurous side!

-Ashley