Teaching and Travelling in China: Kamran Tajbakhsh

Wing Yip Travel Grant Report 2014

Beijing

My Beijing adventure consisted of teaching English at Camford Royal School and exploring the many cultural and culinary experiences Beijing had to offer. 

I will begin with a brief summary of my teaching experiences. Over the weeks of teaching, I was fortunate to see a significant improvement in the English speaking ability of my classes. What made me most grateful, however, was the way in which my students have responded to me and my vocal, high-energy teaching style. I sincerely enjoyed teaching these students, and it brought me huge satisfaction when they told me that they enjoyed my lessons and found them useful as well as fun. I am intrigued to see where these driven, talented children will end up in the future; combining their ambitious dreams with their diligence, the sky is the limit!

Besides teaching, there was plenty to see and experience in Beijing.

First of all, we explored the rich history of Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City.  It was quite sobering to experience these landmarks in the flesh – most definitely worth a visit if you’re in Beijing! The sheer size of the courtyards and buildings, the immaculate architectural detail and the stunningly beautiful gardens all contribute to an amazing experience.

Nearby Camford Royal School was Xiangshan (Fragrant Hills Mountain), a 600m mountain covered in Buddhist temples and shrines. With steps and paths carved out, we decided to challenge ourselves to get to the top. We would return to Xiangshan on more than one occasion to explore different paths at different times of the day. Without a doubt my favourite experience in Beijing.

We visited the Summer Palace, which was originally created for the Emperor as a summer home where he could relax, whilst still available to manage the affairs of the country, it encased some beautiful Chinese architecture scattered around a large lake, as well as being home to the largest corridor in the world!

Having come all this way, we had to visit the Great Wall of China! We visited the Badaling site, the closest section of the wall to Beijing, which was predictably packed with tourists. A note to anyone looking to conquer the wall: you don’t walk along the wall, you climb up it! The views are surreal, even on a smoggy/foggy day, where the surrounding valleys are encased in mist, creating an ethereal atmosphere.

Great Wall

Another place to visit is the Art District in Beijing. Known as the Art Factory (an interesting oxymoron), the area was packed with shops selling anything ranging from art portraits to ocarinas to specialist teas, located alongside large exhibits by famous artists, both in painting and sculpture.

I was fortunate enough to visit Beijing Temple of Confucius, the second largest Confucian temple in China. I would highly recommend a visit to anyone who appreciates philosophy and religious architecture. The exhibits on Confucianism were interesting and insightful, and the temples and shrines were imposing and beautifully designed.

A visit to the Temple of Heaven was one of my favourite excursions. It’s basically a huge park which was built to allow the Emperor to intercede with the gods on behalf of his people and pray for a good harvest. The main temple itself is absolutely stunning, especially on a sunny day with clear skies. However, the highlight for me was the Temple of Heaven Park, which spans a huge area and houses many smaller shrines/pagodas hidden in forests of trees. I happily got lost and found a secluded area in which I could meditate bathed in sunshine.

We also visited the Lama Temple, the most famous Buddhist temple outside of Tibet. There are several halls to pass through and statues of worship to admire, with the final pavilion home to a 26-metre high Buddha carved from a single piece of sandalwood! The atmosphere is heavy with prayer and incense, and as every member of our group found, it affected us all in different ways. Several found the experience to be quite spiritual and mindful, whilst others found it intimidating and uncomfortable.

Beijing Confucian and Lama Temples

Left: Beijing Temple of Confucias; Right: Beijing Lama Temple

Finally, I explored the Taoist White Cloud Temple. Whilst architecturally similar in the shape of the halls, the atmosphere was entirely different to the Lama Temple. Different incense smells, different energy, and not a single tourist! I felt a much stronger affinity with the Taoist temple than I did with Buddhist or Confucian temples.

The trip to Beijing was finished with a visit to a high-end restaurant near Beihai Lake, where we were given the opportunity to sample authentic Peking duck. Culinary perfection is the only way to describe it, with the combination of crispy skin, rich fat and tender meat simply melting in one’s mouth in a pool of incredible flavour.


Shijiazhuang

We stayedin a suburb of Shijiazhuang called Zhengding, in orderto begin our final term of teaching at another branch of Camford Royal School. Shijiazhuang (SJZ as we call it) is known as the most polluted city in China. We can verify that this is likely to be true. Funilly enough, Zhengding is famous for being the favourite vacation spot of a Chinese ex-president.

The school was a lovely surprise. Beautiful gardens, basketball courts, calisthenics bars, a running track  and a modern building almost makes you forget you’re located right next to a couple of factories. The rooms are nice, though communal squat toilets and showers were an unpleasant surprise for us foreign teachers – though, as always, we adapted! I was fortunate enough to be invited to partake in tai-chi practice, and also learn to perform with nunchucks!


The Craziest Travel Plan Ever

The end of the week of teaching marked the end of my teaching journey, and so we move on to the travelling adventures. I undertook these with only one of the friends I had made while teaching at the schools; we wanted to climb lots of mountains and eat lots of food, whereas others weren’t as inclined to the former...

7th: Xi’an

Arrived at 6:30am after a 14 hour overnight journey involving significant stomach illnesses. Recovered in the afternoon after a nap at the hostel to visit the 8 Immortals Taoist Temple, the Bell and Drum Towers, the Muslim Quarter and the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.

8th: Xi’an

Took a 2-hour coach to the Sacred Taoist Mountain, Huashan. After a treacherous climb amongst the clouds involving steep ladders and stunning views, we made it to North Peak.  God bless Imodium.

9th: Xi’an

We visited the stunning Terracotta Warriors in the morning and cycled around the City Wall on bikes in the afternoon. We caught a 16 hour train to Chengdu at 10:15pm.

10th: Chengdu

Arrive at 14:30, drop bags off at the hostel and ate as much Sichuan food as possible, such as moon cakes, dumplings, buns, spicy pork stew.

11th: Chengdu

Exploration day. Visited Shengxian Lake, Wenshu Monastery (played table tennis with a monk!) and the People’s Park (played badminton with locals). Ate a ton of local food. Life is still good.

12th: Chengdu

Took a 2-hour coach to the Sacred Buddhist Mountain, Emeishan. What we anticipated to be a 5-hour climb to the peak of the 3000m mountain turned out to be 42km of paths. We ascended 20km in 6 hours, reaching the Huayan Peak monastery, where a kind old lady gave us food and shelter…

13th: Chengdu

Woke up at 2:30am to keep climbing Emeishan! Surreal experience climbing in the night. We felt energised and managed to climb the remaining 21km in 3.5 hours. Exhausted physically and mentally, we were blessed with a glorious sunrise at the peak, the absolute highlight of the trip. Took a car back to Chengdu from near the peak (a 42km walk down?!); all we did was eat for the rest of the day.

Chengdu

14th: Chengdu

Eating and relaxing day. Visited the Daci Monastery which was being refurbished (interesting contrast of the old temple and modern machinery), then onto Wangjianglou Park, where we proceeded to become pandas and waste away in the vegetation. A delicious Sichuan grilled fresh fish dinner to mark the end of the day.

15th: Chengdu

Spontaneous visit to Pingle Ancient City and Pingle Bamboo Forest with 2 other Chinese travellers from the hostel. Interesting ancient city, amazing bamboo forest. We climbed a hill/mountain and got hopelessly lost before old locals guided us back down to the entrance. An amazing experience.

16th: Chengdu

Final day in Chengdu. Went to Qingcheng Taoist Mountain. Took a detour along the path to visit the Ladder to Heaven (awesome name!) and the Subjugating Demon's Rock (you can’t make these up!), then proceeded to the peak. Beautiful mountain.

17th: Chengdu to Shanghai

16-hour train at 8am from Chengdu East Station to Shanghai Hongqiao. Ate food, read books and checked into our hostel on arrival.

18th: Shanghai

Played basketball with locals in the famous Nanjing area, both my travelling partner and I fell ill in the evening from exhaustion.

19th: Shanghai

Ill and exhausted. Moved hostels as my friend insisted he had seen rats in this one. Nice.

20th: Shanghai

Enough energy to take a brief visit to People’s Park and see the phenomenal Bund and Pudong skyscrapers in the evening!

21st: Shanghai

Visit to the Yuyuan Gardens (beautiful, though tourist packed) and Qibao Water town.

22nd: Jing’An Temple

My travelling partner left to explore parts of China by himself. I went on a solitary temple run, visiting the Jing’An Temple (nestled between skyscrapers, but stands out due to its golden exterior), the Jade Buddha Temple (tourist attraction, not very spiritual) and the Longhua Monastery (beautiful, open grounds and a modest feel). Got in touch with a cousin living in Shanghai and had a pleasant dinner.

23rd: Xintiandi

Explored Xintiandi, an affluent area of Shanghai, with my cousin. Played football with some locals and had a lovely dinner at a local restaurant.

24th: Hangzhou

Met with a Cambridge student course-friend in Hangzhou. She took me to visit the famous West Lake and kindly invited me to dinner with her family – their hospitality and amazing food (duck soup, lotus, okra, pork) will not be forgotten. 

25th: Hangzhou

Explored the famous Linyin Temple (largest temple I’ve ever seen) and ate a wonderful lunch in an ‘inn’ located besides green tea fields. Finally, my friend took me to Geling Hill, where a hidden path leads to one of the (very rare!) sparsely vegetated areas atop the hill, allowing one to view West Lake in its entirety! A stunning view to conclude this amazing adventure in Hangzhou!

Hangzhou Great Lake

26th: Shanghai to Beijing

Caught the high-speed express from Shanghai to Beijing at around 11am, arriving at 5pm. Picked up by one of my students and invited to dinner at their tea house. Very kind family – they even booked me a room in the Hilton Doubletree for an unbelievably cheap price! Spending my last night in China in luxury!

27th: Beijing

Picked up by my student and his family to be taken to the airport. Caught my flight at 11am! Got back to London. Ate food. Slept.

This was an amazing journey – I will never forget the culinary delights, spiritual experiences, mountains conquered and the kindness and hospitality of the people I met.

Wing Yip Travel Grants