Travel Writing: “Study China” – Shanghai, China

“Just wait until we turn this corner and you see it, it’ll blow you away,” my friend said as we wandered through the bustling streets of central Shanghai. The road wound on for block after block, neon signs danced above us as shoppers, cars and street sellers all shared the same cramped environment. Then finally, in the distant haze, they became clear: the towering skyscrapers of the Bund. As someone who grew up fascinated by all things sci-fi and cyberpunk, it took me a moment to process it all. The lights, the crowds, the sheer scale of it all, I could be walking through the set of Blade Runner for all I knew but no, this wasn’t a dream, this was real. I had finally arrived.  

It was hard to believe that only a few weeks beforehand I had been sitting in my room in Glasgow, having just learned that I was soon to embark on a trip to the other side of the world. I had applied to the British Council’s ‘Study China’ programme, a month-long intensive course for UK students at one of the country’s leading universities. For someone who was more acquainted with foreign excursions involving swimming pools, beaches and Easyjet, it all seemed a bit overwhelming. However, these fears quickly dissipated as my time in Shanghai became one of my life’s most exciting and eye-opening experiences.

Upon arriving in Shanghai after a rather eventful journey, including lost baggage and a ten-minute stopover in Dubai, I was taken by bus with several others to East China Normal University, our home for the next month. We were quickly given our itinerary as we made our way to our rooms, all clearly exhausted.

Our course would involve a variety of academic and cultural events, including regular Mandarin classes and trips to numerous places of interest. As a complete beginner with regards to Chinese, the whole thing seemed a bit daunting. This was largely due to the language’s rich tone system, where one slip of the tongue could result in your mother becoming a horse. However, our class volunteers and teachers made the journey incredibly rewarding, with even basic phrases proving highly useful in interacting with locals. Other events such as calligraphy exposed us to traditional forms of Chinese culture, and whilst my attempts with the brush were more primary school than Picasso, it was great to get a true insight into a society oftentimes misunderstood by foreigners.

The course culminated with a visit to a local family, where we were able to experience everyday Chinese life whilst also practicing our Mandarin. This was perhaps my most treasured memory from the trip, as it was amazing how quickly you became acquainted, even with people from thousands of miles away. We visited a traditional market, made dumplings for dinner and talked about everything from their son’s hopes for university to how hairy and wolf-like my arms supposedly are. The day ended as quickly as it began and with a heavy heart I returned home.

Travelling back, it really struck me just how powerful a small grasp of a language can be in getting the most out of travel. Just a few words can transform complete strangers into new-found friends and, if only for one day, maybe even something like family.  

All these events didn’t mean that there wasn’t any time to explore Shanghai on our own though. From monolithic shopping centres to ancient shrines, the sheer contrast of the city’s environment was a marvel in itself. This clash of the old and new truly made itself known in the district surrounding the famous Jing’An Temple. I found myself there with one of my friends on a relatively quiet afternoon, and spent the rest of it wandering its many chambers and hallways. Despite the sheer beauty of the place, the thing that I really took from it was the presence of an incredible, all-permeating silence. Shanghai is considered by some to be the world’s biggest city and yet, standing in that main chamber under the calming gaze of Buddha, it was as if the sprawling metropolis outside had simply disappeared, leaving behind a dream-like world of sheer tranquillity.

This all stood in great contrast however to the many nights out we had throughout the city. More often than not involving clubs at the top of skyscrapers, impromptu performances and free drinks, it really put all those claustrophobic nights back home in Viper into perspective! It must be said however that what truly made the trip special was all the incredible people I was able to meet. Coming from all over Britain, their friendliness, great chat and overall lovely personalities made sure that there was never a dull moment. I would urge anyone interested in travel to do so if only for this, as some of the best mates you never knew you had could be waiting for you all over the world.     

Overall my trip to Shanghai was one I will never forget. Involving both work and play, the visit was a highly rewarding experience where I took home much more than just pictures. I delved into an incredibly rich culture, gained useful skills and made great friendships with people from both China and Britain. I look forward to one day returning to this amazing city to do it all over again!

[Niall Gray]

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