For the first time this year, University of Portsmouth students had the opportunity to set foot in East Asia as part of a two week long summer school based in Shanghai. A group of 28 students met their group leader, Laura Knowles, for the first time at Heathrow Airport on a sunny Friday morning.
Once setting foot into Pudong Airport, the party was greeted by students from the Shanghai Maritime University, who welcomed everyone in the group with open arms. Having arrived in a new country, the Chinese students were wonderfully helpful in directing and guiding our group of somewhat helpless students around an unknown country.
After settling into the dorms, the party headed out for its very first taste of authentic Chinese food at the local high street, which was located next to the university’s international dorms. After being fed and watered, the entire group was prepared for a good night’s sleep after a strenuous 24 hours of travelling.
The first couple of days were brilliantly planned, with the group’s very first day beginning in Shanghai. The day began by climbing the second tallest sky scraper, the Shanghai World Financial centre, a visually stunning piece of architecture which was constructed in 1997 and looms over the Shanghai skyline.
A key part of the two-week trip was centred on the exotic food culture. As such, the group were provided with a steady three square meals a day, entirely different to the cuisine in England.
As well as the food being in a league completely of its own, so too was the service provided. Dining at some of China’s most beautiful restaurants, the visitors found themselves catered to hand and foot with an authentic Chinese dining experience.
Vegetarian dining was equally delightful. The veggies on the team enjoyed two weeks of tofu, pak choi and rice. But there were also many sweet surprises found among the university canteens such as bespoke soups made in front of your very eyes, with the choice of ingredients being totally up to the diner.
It became a running joke within the party to see what the most unusual thing to have been eaten that day was. With delicacies such as scorpions, roasted goat barbecue and a very stinky egg it was often a very close call.
Asking each other ‘What is this?’ and ‘Where are we?’ became the most common mode of communication amongst the group. It was in this, though, that the students got the chance to really experience a foreign country.
Going to China definitely led a lot of people out of their comfort zones. The toilet situation, for example, took a lot of people by surprise. The party learned to expect the unexpected when in China, meaning holes in the ground where the toilet is supposed to be and absolutely is zero tissue available. (Brit Tip: a packet of tissues and hand sanitizer at all times.)
The Chinese believe that using the squatter is healthier for your intestines. But having the option for a Western toilet was much preferred by the group.
There were some within the group who found it something of a trial when faced with the reality that their phones were no longer a go-to. After unearthing the fact that China had very little in the way of Wi-Fi, the students were forced to communicate with each other, giving them the chance to really get to know their friends on the trip.
A significant part of the trip was getting the chance to know so many interesting people. It’s not often that such a variety of individuals can travel together and have the chance to get to know peoples and cultures in such a short space of time.
One of the key parts of the trip was receiving lectures on certain parts of Chinese culture and lifestyle; ranging from Chinese economy, to history, to tea making, to rice dumpling making and lessons in kung fu. With such a breadth of new-found hobbies, it’s safe to say that the party managed to find something to entertain them.
After nearly a week in Shanghai the party headed out to Beijing on a bullet train to celebrate the weekend of the Dragon Boat Festival. A very fun and hectic visit started early Friday morning and finished on Sunday, incorporating the main sights of Beijing.
The group ventured out to The Great Wall of China, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City. A bitter sweet feeling, getting to know China’s most beautiful architecture and landscapes never to be found in the West.
Beijing was a tremendous escape from the more modern city of China that is Shanghai. Its historic and contemporary Chinese architecture was a great chance for some of the photographic enthusiasts and architecture students to get up-close and personal with the beautiful buildings of China.
And of course, when in Beijing, there’s no way any traveller can get away with not doing at least a little bit of unethical shopping. Finding big brand names such as Michael Kors, Fendi, Prada, and Rolex was a treat for the shopaholics of the group.
As the party departed from Beijing on the Sunday afternoon and headed back to Shanghai life, it hit the team hard how different the North and South of China really were. The changes in architecture, weather and most importantly how popular we were in Shanghai. It began to feel like an exhibition with the way locals were constantly taking snaps of the team.
“What many found to be their favourite part of the trip was completing The Great Wall. Conquering the mega-structure in 30 degrees of blistering heat is a challenge, both mentally and physically”
Once back in Shanghai the group felt much more comfortable with their surroundings after their Beijing explorations. They then began heading out in their own little groups to explore Shanghai using independent navigational skills.
With public transport being so cheap in China, it was an easy way to get into the city. It took only a small amount of research for the students to begin going out on adventures to tourist attractions in their scheduled free time.
However, the group still got together to enjoy several eye opening circle times. The students were required to sit in a circle and talk about themselves. It may sound peculiarly alike to an AA meeting, but it gave the students something more than their previously acquired geographical fulfilment.
It became something that everyone looked forward to. It was a bonding exercise that gave them a chance to express how they felt about the trip and to be as brutally honest as possible.
Or if they didn’t like it, then it was a chance for the more, shall we say, ‘inquisitive’ members of the group to be as nosy as possible.
What many found to be their favourite part of the trip was completing The Great Wall. Conquering the mega-structure in 30 degrees of blistering heat is a challenge, both mentally and physically.
It was being in the company of friends, though, that made reaching the end of The Great Wall of China that little bit sweeter.
The aspect of the excursion that so many of the students will hold most dear to them was the lifelong friends made on this trip.
These friends, who at the beginning were complete strangers, each became so close. As cheesy as it sounds, the trip has been a real eye opener – memorable until the very last.
The university’s aim for the trip was to trial out exchanges between the Shanghai Maritime University and University of Portsmouth, with the hope of further exchanges in the near future. It is thought that by creating a strong bond between the universities it will give students a cultural experience, as well as encouraging more social and professional career orientated skills.
China Summer School is expected to be running again next year with minor changes to the scheduled plans. It comes with a firm recommendation.