Hello again, CIEE Teach in China readers!
After finishing teaching the Fall semester at your school in China, you will be given one or two months off. During this time, you are free to do anything and everything you wanted to do during the previous working months. Many schools, like mine, encourage you to spend your long break traveling. Schools especially hope that you will visit other places in China during this travel period so that you can see more of the history and culture that Chinese people are so proud to claim. Many schools will give you a bonus to be used on travel expenses during the break. Some schools will even give you a paycheck or two during the break, which can really help relieve some of the stress of budgeting while traveling. Since no two schools are the same or have the same policies, it is always in your best interest to ask your contact person at the school about the benefits they will provide during the long winter break.
During this long break, many of the CIEE teachers I met in Chongqing took the opportunity to travel abroad to countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Taiwan. Some did a mixture of international travel and domestic travel, seeing some of China's major cities here and there. I decided to use the break as an opportunity to see as much of China as possible. Sitting here now, I can proudly say that I have been to 12 different cities in China, each offering different views, different local cultures and dialects, different historical sites and perspectives, different lifestyles and living situations, and, of course - different foods (food is one of if not the most important discussion topic/concern/point of interest for the average Chinese person).
To encourage all of you to make a full China travel itinerary and to use your breaks and weekends in the spirit of adventure, I am sharing my 2016 Winter Break China Travel Itinerary. I hope that you will find it useful in choosing locations to visit in China!
Destination 1: Guilin 桂林, Guangxi Province (January 15 - January 19)
Three years prior to teaching in China, in my Contemporary Chinese Society and Culture class, I was introduced to this breathtaking city. I promised myself at that time that I would visit Guilin and that I would do it as soon as possible! So, naturally, when it came time to crafting an itinerary, I made sure that it included the city of my travel dreams.
This was the first stop on my trip, but it stole my heart right away. Even after completing the trip, I would have to say that Guilin remains at the top of my list of favorite places in China. When you see the green limestone mountains lining the light bluish-green waters of the Li River, you feel like you have walked right into one of the Chinese paintings that they display in art museums. Especially when you stand on the bank of the river and look up at the mountains, you understand why Chinese poets, artists, playwrites, and scholars were so enthralled by the landscape.
Taking a boat or raft on the Li River is an absolute must to get the full natural experience of Guilin. I also highly recommend going to the Dragon's Backbone (Longji) Rice Terraces, especially in the warm months. It is another wonderful experience to walk around the terraces that were built into the side of Guilin's gorgeous mountains. If you are looking for a place to feel at peace and feel conncted to China through nature, Guilin should certainly be first on your list.
The Longji Rice Terraces - a must see, especially in warm weather!
Destination 2: Hangzhou 杭州, Zhejiang Province (January 19 - January 23)
Hangzhou is a city that many Chinese citizens recommend as a place to visit and hope to one day visit themselves. Many Chinese people even claim that Hangzhou is one of the most beautiful cities in all of China. Hangzhou is of high cultural significance, as its varied landscapes served as the inspiration for many famous Chinese paintings and works of poetry throughout Chinese history. Indeed, it is a very large city with abounding natural beauty.
There is much to see and do in Hangzhou, so I definitely recommend giving yourself enough time to get lost and enjoy the beautiful places to be seen. Each season brings a different charm and aesthetic to the city, but Spring is said to be the best time to visit because the flowers are in bloom (Hangzhou is famous for its lotuses in bloom). Hangzhou is interesting in the fact that you can find quiet and secluded places wherein you can feel at one with nature, but you can also find high-end shopping malls and nightlife.
One thing is for certain: you must go see West Lake, Hangzhou's most famous natural tourist attraction. It's a huge lake, so it's hard to miss and able to be experienced from several locations in Hangzhou. I recommend getting on a pleasure boat and going out on the lake as well. Some of the pleasure boats will take you to small islands inside the lake on which you can walk around and explore. It can be a little pricey to do this, but you do get some wonderful views of the lake this way.
3. Shanghai 上海 (January 23 - January 28)
I had one reoccurring thought the whole time I was in Shanghai: this place is another world. People always say that Shanghai is a perfect blend of Western and Chinese cultures, and boy are they right. Sometimes it really did feel like we weren't even in China! But if there is one thing to keep in mind when visiting this city, it's that Shanghainese people are very, very proud of their history and happily claim their identity as Chinese citizens living in THE most global city in China.
Shanghai has a little bit of everything to offer travelers. It was probably the most expensive stop on our travels, but the experience just could not be matched. It was also a strange phenomenon to see so many foreigners in one place, especially for me, coming from a small town in Chongqing where I am one of only four foreigners. But with plenty of restaurants, shopping, and nightlife, you can pack your schedule from morning until night with things to see and do. I also recommend trying some of Shanghai's local foods while you are there, especially if you are a fan of seafood. And of course, try to take part in the shopping culture (even if it's just window shopping) and nightlife that make Shanghai so famous.
4. Qufu 曲阜, Shandong Province (January 28 - January 30)
If you tell any of your Chinese students or friends that you're going to Qufu, chances are they won't know what you're talking about right away. That is because the Chinese characters in the name are not commonly seen or used by the average Chinese person, and also because Qufu is a place that the young generation in China deems "boring." But, the older generations deem it as an important historical and cultural site in China. In fact, Qufu is the hometown of Confucius. His grave is in Qufu along with the graves of his relatives and some of his most famous followers. There are also plenty of Confucian temples as well as the Confucius family mansion. If you are a fan of Chinese history and culture, then Qufu is definitely worth a visit.
Compared to other cities in China, Qufu is considered very small with a population of around 100,000. After living or staying in a large city filled with millions of people, going to a small city like Qufu can be a much needed break. The lifestyle is definitely more simple there, but if you look around, you can find hidden gems and charms. As a word of caution, there are not many English speakers in Qufu, so I would recommend going there with someone who can speak at least basic survival Chinese.
Qufu is also close to one of China's famous mountains, Mount Tai (泰山). The mountain is only a 30 minute bullet train ride away, so I would highly recommend going there as part of your stay in Qufu. The mountain is a bear to climb because it is so tall; its peaks penetrate the clouds, so once you're at the top, you are standing inside the clouds. But standing at the top and looking out at the mountains covered in a cloudy haze is an unmatchable sight.
The clouds at the peaks of Mount Tai
5. Qingdao 青岛, Shandong Province (January 30 - February 1) I studied abroad in Qingdao in the summer of 2013, so I was not sure what to expect going there in the winter. Because Qingdao is right on the ocean, the winter breezes were bone-chilling. I share the opinion of the locals that the best time to visit Qingdao is in the warm months, especially the summer months. While the rest of China is boiling hot in summer (especially in the middle of China where I am located), Qingdao stays cooler than most places because of its seaside location, making for a very pleasant experience.
Qingdao is not a particularly touristy place, but it does have some places of interest for tourists, such as the Qingdao Beer Museum. In some places, it also retains buildings constructed by the Germans when they occupied Qingdao. Many Germans visit Qingdao because of Germany's past influence in the area. Qingdao is a lovely place to visit for a few days, but an even lovelier place to live or stay for a long period of time. It is a large city with millions of residents, but everything is spread out, which makes it seem far less populous. It is also cleaner than most Chinese cities and has plenty of Western amenities. If you are a student of Chinese or learning Chinese, Qingdao people speak Mandarin well, so you should not have much trouble communicating with them.
In short, if you're debating taking a teaching position/job in Qingdao, just know that you would be living in a beautiful area with beaches and sea views, kind people, good public transportation, and all the trappings of big-city life with a more laid-back feel.
Inside the Qingdao Beer Museum
6. Beijing 北京 (February 1 - February 5) Of course, no one can resist a trip to China's capital city. It is a must see for all visitors to China. You could spend a long time in Beijing trying to see and do everything the city offers, or you could spend less than a week and pack your schedule full each day. To save some extra money, we opted for the second option.
Must sees in Beijing include: The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, the Lama Temple, and the Great Wall (I recommend the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall). When in Beijing, try to stray away from Western food and embrace all of the delicious Chinese food options around. Eating Beijing duck (Beijing kaoya 北京烤鸭 in Chinese) is a must for one meal as well - it really deserves all the hype and all the fame it receives! Beijing duck can get very pricey depending on where you eat it, so do some research or ask beforehand for recommendations on duck restaurants that won't break the bank.
Souvenir shopping and haggling are also famous in Beijing. You will find all sorts of cute and crazy China souvenirs when you're there! Just know that if you look like a foreigner, you are at an immediate disadvantage because the Chinese vendors will always give you a higher price for things (they have a tendency to assume that all foreigners are wealthy). That is why haggling is so important when it comes to buying anything on the streets, and especially at the infamous Pearl Market. I think that everyone should do a little shopping and use it as an opportunity to practice their Chinese and improve their haggling skills (which are very useful for anyone looking to save money anywhere in China).
The Summer Palace in winter
The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall
7. Harbin 哈尔滨，Heilongjiang Province (February 5 - February 8)
Harbin is known as the "Ice City" in China and attracts many tourists in the wintertime for its famous Ice Festival. During the Ice Festival, one can find ice sculptures on the streets of the city as well as in certain parks. The ice sculptures are all lit up at night with colored lights, making for a beautiful wintery scene. But the most famous place to see the ice sculptures lit up is Harbin's Ice and Snow World (bing xue da shijie 冰雪大世界 in Chinese). It is located on an island and it contains the largest ice sculptures in all of Harbin. Seriously, the ice sculptures there are massive! They craft everything from castles to pyramids to pagodas out of ice and include fun winter games and activities in most places too. The entrance fee is a little steep at 330 yuan, but it is well worth the price in my opinion. The experience was so unique and one that I will certainly cherish.
Another famous tourist destination in Harbin is the Siberian Tiger Reserve. The reserve claims to have over 1,000 tigers living in it, and when you go there, you believe it! Harbin is also very interesting to roam around in during the daytime because there is evidence of Russian influence everywhere. Most of the signs are in Chinese and Russian before they are in Chinese and English. While in Harbin, trying Russian food on the streets is also quite a fun experience. My favorite food of all was the sausage, which is sold on the street for 10 yuan. The flavor is smokey and delicious! And of course, if you're looking for a unique souvenir from your time in China, Russian dolls are sold just about everywhere in Harbin.
All photos are images of Harbin's Ice and Snow World