Adventure in China 2011

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Every year hundreds of students travel from China to Ireland to study at Universities in Ireland to experience our language and culture. In 2011 a group of Irish students from Griffith College Dublin got the chance to visit China and learn about the country where so many of their fellow students call home.

A group of six, myself included departed from Dublin to fly halfway around the world.. We flew to the City of Changsha, which is the capital city of Hunan province located in south-central China. We arrived to an incredible welcome from the students of Hunan University of Commerce who we first spotted thanks to the large green sign with “Griffith College – Graham Butler & Irish friends” emblazoned across it. They were an incredibly friendly group and made us feel most welcome to their country.

The city of Changsha does not get many westerners as other Chinese cities might, like Beijing or Hong Kong, so we were frequently getting stared at and photographed by people in the street, with some of the more adventurous locals asking if they could take their picture with us. It was a strange sensation to be looked at in that fashion, but there was a clear sense of an open curiosity.

Over the next few days we had the chance to explore the city and become acquainted with daily life in Changsha. The students who accompanied us showed us all the best places to eat and I think we were able to settle in to the city and experience more of the culture than had we been by ourselves. We also got an extensive tour of Hunan University’s campus, their library alone could easily hold our entire campus.

We attended several classes where we learnt about college life in Changsha, some basic Chinese, and we were shown presentations prepared by the students teaching us about Chinese history and customs as well as showing us traditional crafts such as Origami, Paper cutting, and cross stitch. We also gave presentations on Irish life & culture, however we let the side down a little when we were requested to demonstrate traditional Irish dancing, despite the enthusiasm of some members of our group.

After our morning classes we travelled to Yuelu Mountain which overlooks the city, while there we got to visit the Yuelu Academy which was the predecessor to Hunan University, it was founded in 976 A.D. and was one of the four most prestigious academies over the last 1000 years in China.

The next night we travelled to Orange island to see the famous fireworks display. The downside of seeing the fireworks display in Changsha is that every fireworks display I have seen since has been somewhat disappointing. After the fireworks we drank beer on the rooftop of our friends apartment building which gave us amazing views of the city.

One of the biggest surprises of the trip was the three day ‘home stay’ where we had the chance to live with a Chinese family. The family I stayed with were amazing, I gained a great insight into Chinese life and they also introduced me to their collection of home-brew wine, which was very tasty indeed.

In the evenings we went shopping which is different to Ireland as you haggle over everything, to the extent that if you offer to pay the marked price some of the retailers seem disappointed that you don’t want to play the “name your price” game.

After shopping we would go to amazing restaurants, the food was incredible and I don’t think I have ever been so well fed in all my life. I was lucky that I have been using chopsticks from a young age but some of our group had a steep learning curve in order to prevent starvation, however after the initial realization that chopsticks work very differently to a knife and fork they were able to get stuck in.

After the home stay we regrouped in Changsha before hitting the road to visit Shaoshan, the birthplace of Mao Zedong. It was quite a surreal experience as it was a major Chinese tourist attraction but with us being the only westerners to be seen many in the crowd were as curious about us as the birthplace of their former chairman.

Our adventure in Changsha was drawing to an end but before we left the university hosted an amazing closing ceremony were we had a big party and the students sang and performed traditional dances, yours truly was even asked to give an address to the group, fortunately I could speak in English but thanks to some excellent translation work by my new friends I was able to say a few words in mandarin.

Our next stop was Hebei University. When we arrived at the University we were warmly greeted and brought to dinner in the campus restaurant where they had prepared a most impressive selection of food. After dinner the students had prepared an evening of entertainments featuring everything from poetry, traditional calligraphy, pop music and even Kung-fu.

The next morning we were treated to a breakfast where we sampled some of the local delicacies, it was quite an experience to sit down to breakfast at 6am and be confronted with a bowl of porridge and a tray of donkey burgers. The vegetarians among us found this a particularly unique way to start the day. Truth be told the burgers were rather tasty but I think it will be a while before the option of a Mcdonkey and fries becomes a regular feature in Ireland.

After breakfast we travelled by bus to the famous great wall which was an amazing experience, it is one of the worlds most famous landmarks and to actually walk along it was incredible.

On our second last day we visited Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. In order to enter the Square you have to go through a security checkpoint like at an airport, however what we found most surprising was the walls along the checkpoint were plastered with Westlife posters for their upcoming tour. It was surprising to see how popular Westlife was in Asia although somewhat less popular after friends and I decimated their back catalogue in a karaoke bar a few nights previous (incidentally Westlife announced that they would be breaking up shortly after our return, coincidence?) .

As with the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City were incredible sights and I had to stop and pinch myself so I knew I was really there. Having only seen pictures of the Forbidden City I never realized the scale of it, we were there for a few hours and we saw a lot but I reckon you could spend a week exploring it and see new sights everyday.

We spent our last day in Beijing, shopping like it was going out of fashion and in the evening we discovered an Irish Bar called ‘Danger Doyles’ which became significantly more Irish after we walked in, however they did do a fine pint of Guinness. We sat at the rooftop bar looking out over the city and reminisced about our adventures. Our adventure in China was truly a once in a lifetime experience and we are extremely grateful to the people involved in making it possible and for the people of China for making us feel right at home.

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