My Free Time

This blog post was actually written on a train on the way from Harbin back to Dalian. Writing blogs on trains – or buses as I’m more accustomed to – is something I like to do and this one came out very easily. Seeing as it was almost completely finished, I thought it would be a shame for it to languish in the archives for all of time.

The view from that train journey

With the whole point of this year being to learn Chinese, I spent the majority of my time working with that in mind. I’ve spoken already about how we often got given homework for the next day and had vocabulary tests a couple of times a week so my afternoons and evenings were usually filled with that. If homework was light, I had a couple of other ways to work on my Chinese, like trying to read a simple news article or story and learning vocab for the HSK tests.

But what did I do when I wasn’t studying? Everyone needs a break and I think it’s important to balance out the work with some time off.

To start with, I went swimming roughly three times a week. There’s a pool on campus and it only costs 10 yuan (just over £1) per visit. For me, it was an important opportunity to relax, stretch out my body and get some exercise, in that order. At my most stressed, swimming becomes like a form of meditation. The pool is 50m long and I aimed for 24 lengths each time I went. This usually took me 30-40 minutes, depending on how busy it was and how much dodging around people I had to do. It’s not too long but any more and I start to get a bit bored so it worked for me.

Anyone that knows me will be expecting this next one. Reading is obviously another way that I filled my time. While I was in China, I went through periods of reading all the time and then not picking a book up for a few weeks. It’s something I experience at uni in Edinburgh too. In busy times where my workload is heavy, sometimes the last thing I want to do is read more words, even if they’re my choice. Saying that, I did have some great reads while away, the best being ‘Born a Crime’ by Trevor Noah, an insightful memoir about growing up in apartheid era South Africa, and ‘Dracula’ was great too.

A common way to spend time in the evening was catching up with people at home. With the time difference, the evening was the best time to talk to people back in the UK because it was early afternoon there. If I had any more spare time before going to bed I would while it away playing some cards or writing in my journal. My host family was often doing their own thing in the evenings, with Meimei finishing off homework and other stuff, but sometimes we would sit together and practise English or Chinese together.

I also wasted a lot of time watching Netflix, though maybe slightly less than at home because of the hassle of it. Most people will know that China censors a lot of internet access. If I wanted to check Facebook, send some messages, scroll through Instagram, watch Netflix or even update this blog, I had to connect to a VPN. This essentially makes it look like I’m somewhere else so I can access all the things I want to (or that’s my understanding of it at least). Annoyingly, Netflix only worked on certain locations when using a VPN. I found that it worked best when connected to nearby places like Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong, though I am partial to some of the American Netflix choices. Shout out to my favourites that I’ve watched while away, When They See Us, Unbelievable and The Good Wife.

At the weekends I would still spend a lot of time studying, mostly at my favourite coffee shop on campus because I was more productive there than in my room. Apart from studying, I would hang out with friends or go to one of the shopping centres that sit on every corner of the city. Sometimes I would book a badminton court with a group of friends and spend a couple of hours playing together. I also liked going out and exploring new areas of Dalian, though there is a lot that I still want to see after having to leave early. It got very cold during winter so it was much more tempting to go to the cinema or have a movie night than walk around the city, go to a beach or for a hike. I had a lot of plans for the spring when things started to get warmer that I never got to see through.

An evening at the weekend might see me out having a few drinks with friends too. The dorm at DUT had a curfew of 11.30pm so unless you were willing to stick out until 5.30am when it reopened, it was an early night for the people who lived there. Luckily, I had a key to my host family’s apartment and some friends doing masters at the neighbouring university to mine who all lived off campus so I had a bit more freedom.

So that was how I spent my spare time while in Dalian. It was quite different to being a student in Edinburgh but I enjoyed the slower tempo. Even though I missed having things like a job or sports team, especially at the beginning, having less commitments made it felt like my free time was more my own.

Coronavirus – Part 2

Thanks for bearing with me while I got through writing this blog post. There’s been a lot going on for me at the minute, settling back in to Edinburgh and getting back into Chinese classes (more on my current situation below). Anyway, when I left off I was in Zhangjiajie and had made the decision to return to the UK via Shanghai.

With all the necessary flights booked, things didn’t slow down. Not half an hour after I booked my flight back to the UK I was in a taxi to Zhangjiajie airport. I was sort of expecting there to be extra security measures in place after hearing whisperings of the start of travel restrictions so I had headed to the airport about five hours before my flight (though admittedly I had nothing better to be doing so I figured I might as well be waiting at the airport as at my hostel.) However there wasn’t anything so I just had to hang around for a while.

When it eventually came time to board my flight I was one of the few people not wearing a mask. Now, unless you have the right kind of mask, they don’t really do much. The flimsy surgical masks are all but useless but even some of the more robust, complicated looking ones will not actually protect you in the right way. However it does provide a certain level of comfort and I think its perfectly understandable to search for that and grasp on to anything that might provide it. They’re certainly not going to hurt!

I had actually searched for masks in any supermarket I’d gone into in the few days prior but they had all sold out. It was the start of what has turned into a global shortage of masks, partly due to the increased demands not just in China but also in other parts of the world (shops in Edinburgh have even had to advertise that they don’t have any masks for sale because of the amount of people asking for them), but also partly because workers all across China, where a large number of these masks are made, have been self-isolating since the start of the outbreak. Back in the airport, a girl in the boarding queue gave me her spare mask for the flight back to Shanghai after asking why I wasn’t wearing one and telling me the situation was too dangerous not to. I did feel better wearing it, even if that was just because other people stopped looking at me warily for not wearing one.

I got back to Shanghai and the boys’ flat by about 10pm. In our best effort to make light of the situation (because it was all pretty overwhelming), Conlan and I spent the evening having come Coronas while watching the film Contagion – hey, we were there, we’re allowed to enjoy some dark humour at the expense of our own experiences. There was some last minute cleaning and tidying before we went to bed, ready for our flights the next morning.

Both our flights were at a similar time, just from different terminals, so we got a taxi out together. For a city the size of Shanghai, the streets were empty. When I got in to my terminal, the only new procedure was a temperature check as I entered the airport. The airport was busy considering it was the day after Spring Festival but checking in still went smoothly and before long I was on my flight and ready to go. Almost every person on my flight, including some of the flight attendants, were wearing masks for the entirety of the 13 hour flight.

13 long hours later and I arrived in Paris where I would transfer to Edinburgh. There were lots of people wearing masks waiting for us when we got off the plane but all they did was give us a leaflet. A piece of paper was the extent of the extra safety precautions. I made it through all the security and transfer procedures to get to my terminal for my next flight, all while wearing my mask, and then took it off once I was through.

I felt so relived and I let out a breath I hadn’t known I had been holding. I started to cry. It was like I hadn’t realised that I wasn’t feeling safe until all of a sudden I was released from the masked prison and finally did again. It was also probably the stress of the past few days catching up with me, as in the moment I didn’t have have the time or the energy to deal with it.

I waited in Paris for around five hours but from there everything was smooth sailing. I had a tearful reunion with my mum in the airport but it was different from previous ones. While it was of course lovely to see her again, there is usually at least a little bit of me that is glad or ready to come home but in this case there was none. Every bit of me still wanted to be in China. This was more than just on the selfish level of wanting to be able to continue with my year abroad. Still being in China would mean that the coronavirus wasn’t a thing, or at least wasn’t a big issue. It would mean all my new friends still in Dalian, Chinese or international, would be safe as well as the 1.4 billion others at risk.

I felt like I was torn away from this experience without any kind of closure. Coming home at the end of the year would have undoubtedly also been very difficult but the advantage would have been that I would have been prepared for it. When I started, I always had that end date. But within a matter of hours I went from travelling around a country that was really growing on me and looking forward to another semester in a city I love with amazing friends and the prospect of continuing to get better at such a fascinating language to being on a plane back to the UK.

I am obviously devastated to have had to leave China but being able to leave, to return home to another country where I feel safe, is such a privilege. Yes, it’s a shame my year abroad has been cut short. Yes, it’s a shame my language and therefore degree will suffer. Yes, I would love to still be there. But not in the current situation. I have spoken to friends who are only able to leave their apartments every two days to get food. Most international students have returned home and those that haven’t, some because they can’t afford it, are stuck inside like everyone else. This is what I was scared of more than anything else, more than actually catching the virus.

On returning home, everyone was very happy to have me back but also very understanding as to why I might not be so pleased. I had so many conflicting emotions. I was so excited to see my family and catch up with all my friends but I was also dealing with fact that this was only possible because of the unsafe situation that I has left behind in China, that my friends were still in in China, and I had a lot of guilt around that.

Being at home again also made my time in China feel so distant. In Dalian, I had created a life for myself – I had friends, I had routines, a favourite coffee shop, my usual lunch spot. That was my life. But returning home, slotting back in to what had been there for the 21 years before China and is still there now, it made me feel so distant from that experience. It was like I had come back to my ‘real life’ – but did that mean that China hadn’t been real?

I arrived home on Sunday 26th January and four days later the University of Edinburgh officially recalled all students studying in mainland China. I spent a lot of the time in between getting home and receiving the official recall notice in tears. I found being home very overwhelming. I was battling excitement, guilt, relief, uncertainty, fear. In the few days between me arriving home and the recall notice everything changed so quickly that I was in tears at least once a day from some new development in the situation. There were travel restrictions, cancelled flights, the WHO declaring it a global emergency and the number of people infected started to jump by more than 1,000 a day. I was constantly having to readjust to the new reality of the situation which was hard, as it conflicted with my hope that I would be able to go back soon. I started to come to terms with the fact that it might not be this year that I make it back to China.

Right after being home, my plan was to go take some time to rest after a long semester, at least until the end of February which is when I would have been starting classes again in Dalian, before going to France to get in my compulsory time there. I figured that if I was able to go back, at least then I would have that over and done with and would be able to stay in China until the start of the next academic year. However, the University of Edinburgh got in touch to tell us that they would be putting on an intensive language course for all the students that had to be recalled and I decided to stay and make the most of that option while it was available.

I am now at the end of the second week of courses and they are going well. I decided to push myself and go for the higher class seeing as I don’t have the constant stimulus of being surrounded by Chinese now and that was the right decision for me. I am also working at trying to organise a work placement of some kind in France, probably from sometime in April, after this course ends, until August.

I am not done with China, not even with Dalian. I still had so many plans, things I wanted to do, places I wanted to see – I haven’t even been to the Great Wall of China yet! I found my first semester to be a slow burner but by the end I was having such a great time, I felt like I had found my people, I was in a groove with the language, and was just feeling settled and at home in general. Before I had to leave I was already considering coming back to Dalian to study more once I graduate, to really cement my language.

I know leaving was the right decision but I also know I’ll be back.

Coronavirus – Part 1

I’ve been putting off writing this blog post. The last anyone heard from me on here, I was in the midst of travelling in the south of China and having a great, if slightly wet, time. However at the time of writing my last two blog posts, the opposite was true.

I’m sure most people can imagine what I’m about to say. Just over two weeks ago, I flew home from China as a result of the escalating situation surrounding the novel coronavirus. Despite the speed with which the decision to leave was made, it was a very difficult one to make.

I don’t want to write this post to scare or reassure anyone or educate/share information. I am not any kind of expert and there’s enough going on in the media. This is only my experience, my feelings, my thought process.

The coronavirus has been around since December and most people have been aware of it but not concerned. I can pinpoint the day this all changed, at least from my point of view. On Thursday 23rd January I was in Huangshan, wasting time until my overnight train to Zhangjiajie (张家界) that evening.

With Spring Festival (春节, or Chinese New Year) only a few days away, many people had been or were about to travel home. 385 million people leave the urban centres where they live and work to return to their more rural familial homes. This counts as the largest mass migration in the world, to the point that it has it’s own term in Chinese – 春运, chunyun.

Lanterns in Shanghai to welcome the Year of the Rat

On the day that I was travelling to my next destination, I noticed a difference. There had been a change in atmosphere, a slight increase in tension that manifested itself in a few different ways. While people wearing masks is a fairly common place sight in China, there were more people than usual. This was combined with the fact that there were barely any people at the train station, not what I would have expected a few days before the biggest holiday of the year.

My first train was a one hour journey from Huangshan (黄山) to Shangrao (上饶). For the first time ever, I was asked why I wasn’t wearing a mask. Then on to my second train, from Shangrao (上饶) to Zhangjiajie (张家界), 12 hours in total. On this train, only a handful of people weren’t wearing masks.

I arrived in Zhangjiajie on the morning of Friday 24th and after a long night of travelling I just spent the day resting and recovering. After what I had noticed on the way over I started to look in to the situation around the virus and how it had started to spread beyond its starting point in Wuhan. I had also been told some rather extreme rumours by a friend in Shanghai that really spooked me. This combined with what seemed like more solid evidence, the 1000 bed hospital to be built in 5 days in Wuhan for example, added up to something to be more concerned about.

Now, I’m not one for conspiracy theories or someone who will get wrapped up in mass hysteria or a media storm but for whatever reason, this one got to me. Maybe it was the feeling that, as with any official news in China, what I was hearing couldn’t necessarily be totally trusted. If something like this was happening in the UK, it would be fairly easy to tell what is fact and what is most likely just a rumour. But in China, there was always doubt in my mind that maybe this rumour was just fact that had been forced to get out to the public in a different way.

The little bit of Zhangjiajie that I got to see

I woke up early the next day (Saturday 25th, Chinese New Year!) in order to catch my dad before he went to bed and talk things through. Overnight I had been considering whether I felt comfortable with the idea of continuing to travel, especially considering I was doing it by myself and that things were probably only going to get worse. It seemed like there were three options:

  1. Continue travelling but taking all the sensible precautions, for example wearing a mask, making hand sanitiser my new best friend. However this choice was made more difficult by the fact that masks were beginning to sell out across the country.
  2. Return to Shanghai and hide out in my friends’ flat for a while, even until the end of the holidays, and see how things progressed. One of the other Edinburgh students that I had stayed with while previously in Shanghai, Conlan, was still there so I wouldn’t be alone on this one.
  3. Go back to the UK, once again at least for the rest of the holidays to see how things progress.

I was surprisingly open to not travelling anymore. I thought it would be the last thing I’d want to do, considering how long I had been planning it and looking forward to it but it had very quickly become an uncomfortable experience. At the same time however, I wasn’t ready to ‘give up’ and go home. That wasn’t something I felt like I could do, give up on the year and on China.

So that only left one option – retreat back to Shanghai. Now that I had decided, I wasn’t wasting any time. I booked a flight back to Shanghai for that evening. It had only been 12 hours or so since I had started to freak out a little but I felt good in my decision. I had a while until I needed to leave for the airport because I had been up early to talk to my dad.

But then (because what this story needs is another unexpected twist) I got a message from Conlan in Shanghai saying that he had decided to go home. Home as in England. It made me rethink because he had some very good points. Already being in Shanghai, he could see what it was really like and that was empty. Shanghai empties out for Spring Festival anyway but banks were shut, restaurants were closed, the streets were empty. Conlan was of the opinion that if we were going to be sat inside watching Netflix for the next month it might as well be at home, right?

I had to agree with him and so four hours after booking my flight back to Shanghai, I was booking one back to the UK for the next morning. I know I’d said I wasn’t ready to let go of China yet but stopping to think about it and taking it step by step made it easier to make that decision.

Originally this was going to be one big blog to explain how and why I came home and how it felt but I think this might be getting a bit long, even for me. It has taken me a while to start writing this blog because there’s been a lot to process (as well as a lot of people to catch up with!) but now that I have it’s acting as a nice moment to reflect and sort through what was, at the time, a real whirlwind. I hope you’ll stick around to see part two, getting home and what it’s like to be back. If you thought this has been a rollercoaster, just you wait!


In comparison to my last blog this one will be much shorter, I promise! From Shanghai , I headed to Huangshan (黄山), the Yellow Mountain. It is thought to have been named by Huangdi (黄帝), the Yellow Emperor. According to legend, Huangdi ascended to Heaven from this mountain. Huangshan is one of China’s many sacred mountains and it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From Shanghai it takes about three hours on the high speed train to get to the city of Huangshan. I wasn’t staying there but in a little town closer to the entrance of the mountain park called Tangkou (汤口). The whole place, including my hostel, was pretty quiet seeing as it’s winter and therefore the off season.

The hostel I was staying in was nice, especially the Chinese girl who checked me in. Over my time there we ended up chatting a bit for me to practise my Chinese and her to practise her English. There was only one other foreigner in the hostel, an Irish girl called Ruth, who was in the same dorm room as me. We were both planning on climbing the mountain the next day so we decided to go together.

Unfortunately there’s a reason the off season is the off season. The weather wasn’t exactly ideal for climbing a mountain. It was very overcast and damp when we set off and it didn’t get better during the day.

Just getting to the mountain involved a lift to the bus station and then an hour long bus journey to the cable car that takes you up the first part of the path. You can walk up but it more the doubles the time it takes to get to the peak and as I said, we didn’t exactly have optimum weather conditions. The cable car at least provided us with the best (and only) views of the day before we entered the clouds.

Just above the cable car is one of the most famous things to see in the mountain – the guest welcoming pine (迎客松) and is thought to be more the 1500 years old.

We continued up to the top at Bright Summit Peak (光明顶), getting slowly more sodden as we went. A couple of people wanted to take pictures with us which meant I got talking to them in Chinese but all in all it was just too wet and cold to hang around.

Once we got to the top we started going down the other side. There was another cable car going down but because we’d gotten started early it wasn’t even midday so we decided to walk down. By this point my hastily purchased rain poncho was futile and even my jacket was soaked through so what difference would another couple of hours going down make? A lot apparently. My knees were not happy by the end of it and my calf muscles are still protesting.

Huangshan is definitely somewhere I need to go back to when I might actually get to see some of it. What I did manage to glance was spectacular so I can only imagine what it’s like in the sunshine!

From Huangshan I braved a 12 hour overnight train to head to my next destination – Zhangjiajie (张家界), home of the ‘Avatar Mountains’!

Shanghai (& Hangzhou & Suzhou)

It’s taken me a little while but finally a blog on the next part of my travels, a fabulous five days spent in and around Shanghai (上海). After my wee trip up to Harbin I had one full day back in Dalian to fully pack up my stuff and then I was off to the airport, destination – China’s largest city.

Two of my Edinburgh friends live together there so I was lucky enough to be able to crash with them – thanks again to Jack and Conlan for putting up with me. The day I arrived Conlan was actually still travelling himself but got back the day after. Jack and I hung around for a few hours, catching up on what has been an eventful few months for both of us and then we headed out into the Shanghai night.

Our first stop was a bookshop that is what dreams are made of. Tucked away in a corner of Fudan university (复旦大学), it was crammed to bursting point with second hand books. Obviously the majority were in Chinese which is still a bit more aspirational than practical for me but we did find a little corner of foreign language. I succumbed to temptation and bought a bilingual English-Chinese book called ‘About Women’ (关于女人) about Bing Xin, a Chinese writer from last century who covered topics like social injustice, family conflicts and feminism.

We went just across the road for dinner to a sushi restaurant. It was something different and delicious, but let me tell you the wasabi is made of a completely different stuff to at home, it almost blew my top off!

We ended our evening in Tianzifang (田子坊) on a little bar hop. Tianzifang is a network of traditional alleyways housing charming bars, cafes and boutique shops. We started at a bar in the street where we had some very tense games of Connect-4 and mini Jenga. Next up was a Tibetan bar and finally a bar that gave me the largest mojito I’ve ever seen. I ordered a large and it was no joke as big as my head! Safe to say that was not what I was expecting, not that I wasn’t happy about it.

For day 2, I actually headed out of Shanghai to visit Hangzhou (杭州) for the day. I met up with a friend from Dalian who was visiting his sister who lives there. We spent most of the day wandering around the West Lake, Hangzhou’s main attraction. It was first created by the governor of the city in the 8th century and has been developed and cultivated over the years. The beauty of the lake has been inspiring Chinese poets for generations. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t amazing so I think I missed out on some of the beauty of the place.

When I got back in to Shanghai that evening I went out for some drinks with Jack and Conlan to a bar with one of the best views possible across to the the Pudong area of Shanghai, including the famous Oriental Pearl Tower, on the left of the photo.

On day 3 I met up with another friend from Edinburgh who happens to be working in Shanghai this year. Kim and I were both part of the water polo club but she graduated in the summer and has been teaching French here. We met up in Tianzifang and had lunch and then wondered around some more of the French concession area.

To finish the day, I met up worth Conlan and we went to Yuyuan Gardens (豫园). Originally built in the Ming dynasty, the gardens have been restored after sustaining damage in several 20th century conflicts. It was absolutely packed to bursting point and was the first time that I’d seen the Spring Festival crowds I’d been warned about. The year of the rat is fast approaching so there were a lot of lantern around featuring next years zodiac animals. The whole place was lit up beautifully and worth braving the crowds to see.

The following day was another day trip, this time out to Suzhou (苏州). Suzhou is is known as the ‘Venice of the East because of its many canals and is also famous for its harmonious gardens. Definitely one of the most beautiful places I’ve been so far in China, Suzhou somehow managed to be serene and tranquil even while filled with tourists. We spent the whole day visiting gardens and just walking around the old town.

My last day in Shanghai was just about filling in some gaps of things I wanted to see. I met up with Kim again at the Bund. Dominated by art deco and neoclassical buildings, the Bund housed the cities banks during the concession era. From there we walked down Nanjing Road (南京路) to People’s Park (人民公园). Finally we went for coffee in a cafe housed in a very inconspicuous office building which (if it weren’t for the fog/pollution haze) gives incredible views across Shanghai.

For my last meal Jack, Conlan and I went for hot pot which is a sensational Chinese speciality. There is no photo because I hadn’t eaten all day so fell on the food as soon as it came. For hot pot you get a big bowl of broth, usually spicy, in the middle of the table on a heater to keep it warm and then you order all the sides of meat, veggies, tofu, noodles as you want to cook in the broth. It’s both a meal and an activity and great fun.

My overall thoughts on Shanghai are overwhelmingly positive. It’s one of those cities that I wasn’t sure if I was going to like, much like New York, but then ended up loving! I had so much fun exploring and it was nice to be in a city that has a very different feel to it than Dalian, which is obviously much smaller, but also from Beijing. Where Beijing has all of its history behind it, Shanghai very much leans on its modernity. A big part of why I loved Shanghai so much was getting to meet up with and hang out with some great friends that I haven’t seen in a while. I loved my visit but it has also been great in once again reaffirming my choice of Dalian for this year – I would struggle to see myself living in Shanghai, at least while trying to study Chinese. Overall a great city, a great visit, a great time.


I am finally, finally, finally finished with exams! That can mean only one thing – it’s time to travel! I have been waiting for this ever since I got back from Beijing in October and been planning for weeks (though admittedly not as long as I probably should have).

My first stop has been Harbin (哈尔滨). It is about 850km north of Dalian in Heilongjiang (黑龙江) province and has a strong Russian influence in its history, architecture and culture. The Russian presence first appeared towards the end of the 19th century when Russian workers arrived to build a railway line to Dalian(!). They were followed by Russian Jews and then White Russians fleeing the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Jewish community in Harbin was the largest in the Far East, numbering 20,000 in 1920. Now synagogues, temples, churches and even a mosque stand together in the city. These days Harbin is probably most famous for its Ice and Snow Festival (冰雪节 – hang around to here more about that).

I went with Wilson, one of my friends from Dalian and we met up with another friend Yerin and her friend once we were there. We got the fast train from Dalian in the morning which takes about 4.5 hours so arrived around lunchtime. We had some lunch and settled into our hostel before heading into the centre of town.

The tourism in Harbin is centred around the Daoli district (道里区), especially Zhongyang Street (中央大街), a pedestrian road with lots of shops and restaurants housed in old Russian style buildings. Our first stop was the Church of St Sofia (索菲亚教堂), a beautiful red brick Russian Orthodox Church. It is one of the main sights in Harbin and was beautifully lit up against the evening.

From there we strolled down Zhongyang Street doing our best against the cold. We knew Harbin was going to be colder than anything we’ve had in Dalian but even so it took me by surprise. For the few days we were there, the temperature hovered a couple of degrees above or below -20°, a.k.a. the coldest I’ve ever experienced! Taking in too deep a breath made me cough and walking around for too long would lead to my legs burning from the cold, despite wearing multiple layers!

We met up with Yerin and her friend to head out to the star of the show – Harbin Ice and Snow Festival. It is the largest festival of its kind in the world. It has been going since 1963 and while it mostly attracted Chinese tourists to start with it is now very much an international event that saw 18 million visitors in 2018.

It was truly spectacular and had me marvelling at the size of the structures and wondering how long it took to build them. There was lots to see but because of the cold we probably didn’t see all of it. We did our best, ducking into a cafe and a restaurant at various points seeking some warmth.

Day two brought the same bitter cold, but thankfully Harbin’s temperature doesn’t seem to come with a wind which I think would have made it unbearable. The four of us met up again for lunch and then headed to the cable car that traverses the Songhua river (松花江) which freezes over completely from November to April. The beautiful vistas and Wilson’s very nervous face were definitely worth it.

Wilson, Yerin, her friend and I on the cable car

We wandered back towards the Main Street via an old abandoned mosque and Harbin Main Synagogue (now a concert hall). Last up, once it got dark, was Zhaolin Park (兆麟公园), where there were some more ice lanterns on display.

We finished the day with a great big meal of various North-Eastern dishes (东北菜), including di san xian (地三鲜, fried potato, aubergine and green pepper), lazi ji (辣子鸡, crispy fried chicken pieces and dried chillies), and a pork, Chinese cabbage and vermicelli noodle stew that is very representative of Harbin style food, thick and hearty. Some other food that I enjoyed while here was lunch on day one which was spring pancakes (春饼) with scrambled egg, bean sprouts and a few types of meat to fill it with. The main tourist street is also filled with stalls touting sausages on a stick as well as all types of other meats, seafood and even insects! Those with a sweet tooth can enjoy the selection of fruits covered in hardened sugar or the yoghurt popsicles that are popular there, despite the temperature!

Two nights in Harbin was probably just the right amount of time for me. There were a few more things we could have done if we were around for a few more days including seeing the Siberian tiger breeding centre or the Japanese Germ Warfare Experimental Base Museum but honestly, I think I’m good on both of those fronts. Plus the cold, while an interesting thing to experience, meant that the idea of just wandering around to see the city was less than appealing.

Another Update

We’re back again with part 2 of what I’ve been up to this semester! Sometimes it feels like the days and weeks here are very monotonous, wake up, go to class, have lunch, study in a coffee shop, go swimming and repeat. Because of this, I’ve been putting off doing another update post for a while but what that means is that I now actually have quite a lot to fill you in on!

First up, way back in the middle of November, both 初三 classes went on a class trip to Dalian Modern History Museum (大连现代博物馆). It covers the last 100 years of Dalian’s history and I’m sure would have been very interesting if I could have understood a bit more! The main reason for the trip is that we then had to write a composition about the trip that will contribute to our final grade.

That same week my classmates and I went out for dinner together which was a great chance to hang out and get to know each other better outside of the classroom. We took over the private side room of a restaurant and got a great spread of dishes and drinks.

In November, the entire Chinese language programme took part in the Chinese Speech Competition (汉语演讲比赛). Three or four people from each class volunteered (or were volunteered) to take part, fortunately I was not one of the (un)lucky ones. We all went to support those from our class that did take part and it was a really interesting opportunity to see the speaking fluency of the top level students. Something to aim for!

Throughout this semester I have been taking a calligraphy class as an elective and this finished at the start of December. We finished off the class by making our own 福 (fu, good fortune) plaques. These are popular things to hang on front doors to bring luck to your home. These are often turned upside down at Chinese New Year (春节) as a sort of play on words. 福到了 (fu dao le) means ‘fortune has arrived’ but you can change ‘到’ for ‘倒’, the latter meaning ‘to turn upside down’. In the photo you can see a few of the different styles that the one character can be written in.

As well as these electives, we were also given the opportunities to take part in some cultural seminars. I chose to take part in Chinese Knotting. The most recognisable is the red one on the left of the photo below but we were very quickly told that that was too advanced for us and we would be making 玉米 (yumi, corn), seen on the left of the photo below. Even that, deemed the easiest option was pretty complicated and took a while to get the hang of but I eventually did. It reminded me a lot of the Scoobies that I spent many years of my childhood making. Glad to see those skills being useful at last!

I’ve continued to attend the language salons. Some have been better than others in terms of the activities – the calligraphy one was great, I got to stretch my newly acquired calligraphy skills – but the more people I’ve met and become friends with, the more I enjoy it. The host Arya, who has become one of my closest friends here, even asked me if I’ll co-host with her next semester!

Even though it has been freezing for months, with temperatures often hovering around 0* and even getting down to -10*, we hadn’t had any snow. Until we got it all at once! I say that, but we have had a few sprinklings though none that stuck around. In this case, we had a huge dump of snow a few days before Christmas, on the exact same day that my classmates and I had our Christmas gift exchange!

After we finished class, most of my classmates and I went to a Korean barbecue restaurant. Lucky for us there were enough Koreans in attendance to man the grill for the less experienced among us. It was my first time eating Korean barbecue and it will definitely not be the last. We did a sort of not-so-Secret Santa, we had all bought presents in advance and took it in turns pulling a name from a bowl to receive a gift from and so on. Thank you to Stasia for the delicious Russian chocolate!

Obviously we’ve just come out the other side of the festive period. I won’t talk to much more about Christmas because I’ve already written a whole blog post about it, taking you through my whole day.

New Year obviously follows swiftly on Christmas’ heels. I’ve had a lot of people ask me if China actually celebrates this New Year, as Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival (春节), is the larger celebration. It follows the lunar calendar so the date changes but this year it falls on the 25th of January. The solar new year is acknowledged and celebrated but definitely not to the extent that it is at home. I was in class on the 31st but had the day off on the 1st so the festivities could be big!

Last but not least, at the start of this week and on the eve of our exams my classmates and I went out for dinner again, this time with some of our teachers. We went to a self service hot pot place and had a great last meal together, as some people are going home as soon as Saturday.

And there we have it! Apparently the past two months have actually been much busier than I thought! With one more exam tomorrow and then just a few more days left in Dalian before I head off travelling I’m definitely looking forward to the next few months!

(Christmas) Day in the Life

My Christmas was a little different this year. It’s not my first Christmas away from home but it was was my first Christmas where it wasn’t really Christmas. Christians only compose up to 3% of China’s population so the majority of the country does not celebrate the 25th December. This meant that Christmas day was just like any other day, no holiday, no big dinner, no presents.

The last time I wasn’t at home for Christmas was when I was in Honduras but as it is a largely Christian country it was still celebrated. I was travelling at the time and all of my fellow volunteers spent the day together, exchanged gifts and had a big Christmas dinner. It was a lovely way to spend the festive period but I still got quite homesick. Considering we were on the beach in 30* heat we did our best but I think trying to replicate our holiday traditions and habits but not quite getting there meant that the difference was more noticeable.

However, the idea of Christmas just being another day here appealed to me. As horrified as some my friends have been at the idea of me being in class on Christmas – you’re welcome for that pub anecdote – I thought having something to distract me from missing out on everything going on would be a good thing.

I’ve been wanting to do a ‘Day in the Life’ blog for a while and I though Christmas Day would be an interesting one! It will let you all see what a normal day is like for me but also the little ways that I made Christmas special.

6am. Here we go. My first alarm goes off. I ignore it.

6.05. Second alarm. Also ignored.

6.10. Last alarm. Snooooooze.

6.34. Time to actually start the day. I spend 10 minutes doing a preliminary surf of all my notifications. Because of the 8 hour time difference, a lot goes on while I’m asleep. I text my mum to say ‘Merry Christmas’ while she is getting ready for bed. I also check the weather forecast so I can figure out how many layers I need to wear.

6.43. Finally I get out of bed, take a trip to the bathroom and start getting ready – get dressed, pack by bag, fill up my water bottle, pop some instant coffee granules into my flask.

7.00. Breakfast time. It’s not always as on the dot as this but anytime between 6.50 and 7.10. Usually I eat at the same time as my host sister but she unfortunately hasn’t been well this week. Today I had some fresh baked bread (a new appearance this week), some fried eggs, mushrooms and my favourite kind of mince.

7.28. Brush my teeth. I take a long time to eat breakfast so my last few minutes are always a bit of a rush to get out on time.

7.32. I leave the house, more or less on time. Time to see if I won the game of roulette that is getting dressed in the morning. Today I did. It wasn’t too cold today, 2* or 3*, but the weather was pretty disappointing, very overcast and grey.

7.44. Every morning I meet Joe, the other Edinburgh student, on a corner between out two apartments. He gave me an apple from his host mum (I later learnt from my mum that this is a tradition among Chinese Christians because her school has been studying China as a topic).

7.53. I arrive at class and one of my classmates gives me a lollipop as a wee present. I unpack the books I need for my first class, Listening, and go to fill up my coffee flask at the hot water machine upstairs.

7.57. When I come back another classmate gives me a pen and a lovely note wishing me a merry Christams. In the few minutes before the start of class I go over the words for the test we are about to have.

8.00. Time to get going. Most of the first half of the class is taken up by a revision test, as we have exams coming up in a few weeks. I also get a text during class from a Chinese friend I haven’t seen in a while, asking if I want to go to the cinema that afternoon with a group to see the new Star Wars film. I don’t have a great interest in Star Wars but welcomed the invite.

8.45. Five minute break. It’s not long so I just sit back, drink some coffee, have a little scroll on my phone. Because it’s Christmas, the teacher and some of my classmates wanted to take some class photos together.

8.50. Back to work. We work through another chapter in our textbook in the next half of class.

9.35. Now we have a break for half an hour. After sitting for so long it can be nice to stretch my legs so I head down to the corner shop nearby with Joe and another friend, Wilson, to get a wee walk and buy some mentos.

9.52. Back in class and its time to start looking over the words for the NEXT test in my comprehensive class.

10.05. Once more into the breach dear friends, once more.

10.50. Five minute break again, just enough time for a bathroom break.

11.30. Usually class finishes at 11.40 but our teacher let us out of class early so we could queue to get tickets for the international school’s New Years party which is on Friday.

11.37. We started to queue, waiting for the tickets to be released at 12. There were only about 200 for the whole school which is much bigger than that.

12.01. We should have started to get the tickets but there was some kind of delay…

12.26. Still queuing. The line is out the door now.

12.53. We’re on the move! Just kidding, we’re only moving to queue in a different place.

13.15. People are starting to get restless. It’s me, I’m people.

13.24. Finally got our tickets, only an hour and a half late. I was near the front so good luck to all those behind me. After getting out I started walking towards North Gate for lunch with Wilson and two Thai friends.

13.50. Lunch! This is a delicious spicy chicken dish with added mushrooms for me. Not a turkey but not a bad substitute.

2.24. After we finish eating I get the bus home. I usually walk home but I was running late for my cinema trip. Luckily the cinema is right next to where I live but I wanted time to drop my bag off first.

15.03. I had to wait a while for a bus to arrive but eventually get there. I have a bit of time so I sit down and connect to my VPN for the first time since the morning, as it had been a bit spotty.

15.15. I walk round the corner to the cinema.

15.30. The group I am going with are already there. It’s a nice mix of people, two Chinese friends, two Koreans, one Cambodian guy and and a Russian girl. I know most of them already but there are a few new faces. We are seeing Star Wars, and here I have to admit that I’ve only ever seen Episode IV so there was a lot I probably missed out on.

18.05. Even after going in pretty blind, I really enjoyed the film! The rest of the group wants to go and get sushi for dinner but I had already arranged to meet Joe for our own Christmas dinner of sorts.

18.25. I meet up with Joe and we start heading towards Pizza Hut, where we had decided to eat as a little treat to ourselves.

18.40. THIRTY MINUTE WAIT? No thank you, not even for Pizza Hut. I text my friend Hiba who lives around there to ask for another restaurant recommendation. She says she knows one that is ‘healthy but still really good!’

19.11. We decide to go to a bar for a few drinks as it’s still early and we feel like celebrating Christmas a bit more. I just so happened to know one nearby that has mulled wine, perfect for the Christmas spirit!

19.19. Just after we arrive, I get a Facetime from my dad and sisters who are at my Grandad’s for a bit. I take it outside away from the noise so it’s a brief chat because it was pretty cold but it’s lovely to speak to them.

20.24. I convince my friend Hiba to leave her studying for the evening and come have a drink with us.

21.45. We start to head home. It’s already past my China bedtime (9.30 most days) and I still have a few bits of homework for the next day that I have to look over and I also need to phone my mum.

22.15. Last call of duty, I Facetime my mum and speak to her, my gran and sisters. It’s lovely hearing about their day (so far at least) and is a nice way to end mine.

22.55. Bedtime. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

Overall I would say I had a very enjoyable Christmas day. Obviously it was very different from what I would have been doing at home but I didn’t feel homesick which I had expected to. I think the fact that it really did just feel like another day helped but at the same time the fact that I did some things that aren’t everyday activities for me, like going to the cinema or out for some drinks, helped make it more special.

I am not a religious person. I never have been, no one in my family particularly is, yet we still celebrate Christmas along with most of the UK every year. It is something I have wondered about over the years, especially the first time that I spent it away from home. When Christmas primarily comes from a religious belief, one that I don’t hold, why do I celebrate it? I think it’s fair to say that Christmas has transcended being a purely religious celebration, in the UK at least, and is part of our cultural patchwork. It is about spending time with family and bringing the year to a close with family, friends and food. These things being the most important part of the celebrations for me, but also being the things lacking from my Christmas day this year, had me considering whether its even worth observing if I don’t get to spend it with my loved ones. I don’t have any plans to be away from home for Christmas in the next few years but it will be interesting to see what form next time takes (because I’m sure there will be a next time).

Differences between studying in Scotland and China

Hellooo! It’s been a little while. The only real reason that I haven’t posted a blog in a while is because I’ve been caught up in uni. It has for whatever reason felt very busy over the last few weeks. In just three weeks or so I have my final exams of the semester and, contrary to what I said in my last blog post, I’ve decided to take my HSK 4 exam in January instead of March. I was also trying to write a post about some aspects of the language, the characters or the learning process but it turned out to be quite a complicated and I think needs more time devoted to it than I have right now. 

SO! Instead I’m going to write about some of the differences between studying in Scotland and China. Some of these are things that I wrote down right as I arrived in China and was still settling in to DUT and some are things that I’ve discovered over the past four months. 


I will admit, this is why the blog is specifically using Scotland. I don’t have to pay tuition fees while studying at the University of Edinburgh, though that is obviously not the case for most people there. In China, university is also not free. I spoke to one of my Chinese friends about how much it costs for them to study at university (or at least at DUT) and she said that it depends on each course but is roughly 6,000-7,000 RMB a year (£650-760). When I was registering at the start of the year I almost had to pay 16,000 RMB (about £1,750) but the way it works for me as an exchange student is that Edinburgh pays any tuition fees to our host institution. (So this is kind of a half difference, I have fees, but I don’t have to pay them myself).

School rules

In our initiation talk there was a laundry list of rules and regulations, many very different from life in Edinburgh and with a few very surprising ones thrown in. No drugs and no excessive drinking were emphasised strongly from the beginning but for some reason I am inclined to take that a bit more seriously than most UK university students would at home. Part of that is because there isn’t as much of a drinking culture in China as in the UK to start with but also because of the general lack of leniency when it comes to breaking the rules. No missionary work outside of religious areas was a new one but not entirely unwelcome – it will be a nice break from dodging the infamous Mormons that roam the streets around George Square, looking for unruly students to convert. A similar notice that had me frowning slightly was the repeated affirmation that international students can enjoy religious freedoms. The specification of ‘international students’ was revealing, I thought, as it’s not necessarily a right that everyone in China is afforded. As international students, we are also required to register our presence with the police and let them know any time we move address. 

Miss too much class = DEPORTED 

By far the biggest threat to be thrown at us in that initiation talk. In comparison to the much more laid back approach that British universities have towards attendance, we have to have at least 80% attendance OR ELSE. I’m not entirely sure what the ‘or else’ starts with but it ends with deportation and I haven’t gotten anywhere close to finding out. There is also the added incentive of 1000 RMB (£100) prize for over 90% attendance which helps me get out of bed in the morning!

Class at 8am

Sometimes I need that incentive because class starts at 8am! I take back every complaint I ever had about my daily 9ams last year and will never again listen to any more complaints from anyone ever about a lecture. I drag myself out of bed at 6.30am and leave the house at 7.30am, arriving at class not quite bright eyed and bushy tailed but with just enough time to fill up my flask of instant coffee before we get going. 

One classroom, teachers move around 

The way my timetable works is two 90 minute classes every morning and both of the classes in my level are next to each other. This helps the teachers as it’s them that move around the different rooms and classes, not us. 

Classes are definitely not in English! 

Even my Chinese language classes back in Edinburgh were at least 50/50 Chinese and English but here it has been non-stop Chinese from the get go. It wasn’t a surprise seeing as I came to China to learn Chinese and the fact that there isn’t necessarily another common language among my diverse class. It still took some getting used to as my comprehension skills weren’t up to scratch when I arrived, though they have rapidly improved since. Some teachers do occasionally throw in some English words here and there to help explain what a word means or a certain grammar point. 

My name is not Sara

Following on, while I’m in class I’m not known as Sara, everyone is called by their Chinese name. Mine is 莫莎, pronounced Mo Sha and I got accustomed to it surprisingly quickly. A lot of people ask me how I got my Chinese name, both people at home and Chinese friends here. In my last semester in Edinburgh I had a Chinese language partner and she helped me pick it. Most Chinese names are two or three characters and I decided I just wanted two because why make things more complicated than they need to be! In Chinese the surname comes first so 莫 Mo is to represent Morrison and then 莎 Sha is the closest sound to Sara that there is. 

Very textbook based 

A lot of our learning comes straight from the textbooks we have. This is something I noticed in Honduras as well, though that was to even more of an extreme. It makes me realise how lucky we are to have a system at home that fosters independence, creativity and teamwork as much as it does. 


It comes thick and fast. Any homework we get given is to be done for the next day. A lot of this homework takes the form of a 听写 (ting xie, literally listen-write), like a dictation, where we are tested on the words we learnt in class the day before. As well as this, we have exercises from our textbook, writing assignments and dialogues for speaking class.

Not allowed to work

Due to certain restrictions around our visas we’re not allowed to work while here to study. When we were told this at that initiation talk, there was a whisper than ran around the room, that the stern police officer delivering the rules picked up on. He reiterated it and told us that every year there are up to 5 people that get deported for this. They really aren’t kidding. 

Chinese and international students are kept separate

This isn’t necessarily done on purpose but it’s frustrating all the same. Obviously it’s only international students on the Chinese language course but the international students are all put into their own dorms on the opposite side of campus from most of the Chinese student dorms. I found this FRUSTRATING to begin with but have since found other ways to make Chinese friends. There are of course some international students who study in Chiense language Bachelors or Masters so are mixed in with mostly Chinese students.

Lack of club culture

I’ve mentioned this in a previous blog but unlike British universities where many people’s social lives include or even revolve around their sports clubs or societies, there isn’t as much of that here. There are sports teams around but there are definitely more options for the male students. I really missed that as a way to socialise when I first arrived but I found other ways to do so, either playing sports with classmates or through the language exchange that I found and really enjoy going to!

3 Months In China

Somehow two more months have gone by in the blink of an eye and I’ve been in China for 3 months! The past two months have involved a trip to Beijing, midterms, hanging out with friends and starting to think about the approaching winter holidays. There certainly is a lot to reflect on recently…

I feel like I’ve really settled into using Chinese in the past two months. I feel a lot more comfortable in using it in both my day to day interactions and also when talking to friends, teachers or my host family. I’ve been pushing myself to go beyond the bare minimum level of language that I could easily get by with, to go past that and use full sentences, put what I learn in class into action and to just go for it, without worrying about it being perfect.

As you can imagine, my general comprehension has continued to improve. Another thing that has improved a lot recently has been my language ‘reflexes’. I don’t know what else to call it but by that I mean the speed and ease with which I am able to respond when someone speaks to me. This is especially useful when someone speaks to you randomly or without context. It’s one of the little things that makes it feel like I’m actually making progress. Real life progress, not just ‘I just memorised 50 new characters for a test’ kind of progress.

My classmates!

Now, a struggle recently has been the weather! It has gotten so much colder in the past few months but it never stays that way for long. Apparently it’s a feature of Dalian weather that it will be cold for a while and then warm again. I don’t if that’s because of its position on the coast at the end of a peninsula? I don’t know, geography has never been my thing. What I do know is that getting dressed every morning is a struggle and I often get it wrong. But it’s hard when its 15° one day and 3° the next!

Another thing that I have found difficult over the last few weeks is keeping up with the outside world. I’m sure everybody is aware by now that we have an election coming up (and I’m sure everyone is registered to vote too…). I have been doing my best to stay informed with what’s been going on at home and the rest of the world in the time that I’ve been here, even though it can be difficult at times. I think it is important to be politically engaged and it’s something that I enjoy too but it’s been very frustrating being so far away from everything that is going on but still feeling so invested. I have registered to vote by proxy in the election so if I’m able to do it from China, please everyone make sure you go out on 12th December and VOTE!!!

I feel like recently I have really gotten into more of a routine in my life. Balancing getting all my work done, seeing friends, studying, actually getting out and seeing Dalian, and normal activities like going to the gym or seeing a film in the cinema. I don’t ever like feeling like my whole life is consumed by university and studying, whether that’s here or back in Edinburgh, so I like how I’ve managed to find that work-life balance, even though this year is literally all about learning Chinese.

High points from the past two months have to include week I spent in Beijing – you can read all about that in these two blog posts but within that my favourite part was the day that I spent exploring the grounds of the summer palace. Other high points were spending time with the other Edinburgh students that are in Beijing, visiting the Temple of Heaven and also catching up with a friend from school who is studying in nearby Tianjin!

I also have to give a shout out to my midterm exam grades which I was thrilled with! I worked hard for them but even so I was still pleasantly surprised with how good they were. Bring on the next set!

I was going to follow up my high points with any low points but once again, I haven’t really had any in the past few months. Just like last time, there are always days when I might be in a bad mood or missing home a bit more than usual but they never last more than a day. I know all I need to do is go for a swim, wrap myself up in my dressing gown (yes, I got my mum to post my dressing gown to me and it was hands down the best decision I’ve made this year!) and get a good night’s sleep.

The biggest thing I’m looking forward to is the massive winter holidays that follow our end of term exams in January. Basically exams finish 10th January and registration for next semester isn’t until the end of February, which leaves a whole lot of time for exploring more of China! My plan is to head to the south as there are lots of amazing places down there that would be hard to cover in a weekend trip from Dalian. However, before all that, I’m going to start by going north, up to the city of Harbin where there is a fantastic snow and ice festival.

Following up on my goals from my 1 month in blog, I think I achieved them. I’ve already written about how I feel like I’ve settled in to the language more and improved my oral Chinese which was a big thing.

My other goal was to find some clubs to join. I would say I both have and haven’t achieved that goal. I’ve written in a previous blog that I found a badminton club and a language society and went to a session each. I’ve really enjoyed them both but have actually yet to go back, for various reasons. With the badminton, the 9am start time on a Saturday morning just doesn’t really agree with me – after getting up at 6am every weekday I don’t think a lie in on Saturday is too much to ask! I do play badminton with friends about once a week though. As far as the language society goes, the sessions are once every two week and I have unfortunately not been able to make to the two most recent ones though I promised the host, who has become one of my really good friends, that I’ll definitely be at the next one!

The next three months will include the time that I am travelling and I have taken that into account with my goals for the next three months. I want to put a big focus on tones for the foreseeable future. It is something the lecturers at Edinburgh have been stressing since day one and something that my teachers here have cracked down on a lot in the last few weeks. Tones are by far the hardest part of learning Chinese because there is absolutely nothing comparable to it in English, or any of the other languages I know.

To make sure I keep my hand in at all aspects of Chinese while I’m travelling, I also want aim to take the HSK 4 exam (the official Chinese proficiency test) at the start of next semester. One of my elective classes this semester was an HSK 4 exam skills class so I can put that to good use. It will also force me to continue learning the 1200(!) words that could come up! Something to keep me busy, its not like holidays are for relaxing, right?

And there you have it! The past two months in China, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Somehow I’ve been here for three months and somehow its almost December!