When I told friends and family that my next trip would be to see the pandas in China, they thought I had lost the plot. It’s not everybody’s idea of a relaxing holiday, but if you want an adventure like no other, in a country that’s so different from home it will feel like you’ve stepped into an alternate universe… then China might just be the place!
I turned up with a rucksack on my back, knowing that I was a seasoned traveller who could manoeuvre herself around a major city. This knowledge, however, proved to be rather irrelevant.
In comparison to the craziness of Shanghai, London is about as hectic as a rural village; I had simply never encountered so many people in one place.
The food is unique, filled with things I had not heard of. As a vegetarian my options were limited - not only does the best cuisine involve a lot of meat, but you also get to say hello to your meal on the way in. With live animals on display, it is customary to pick what you want to eat and watch it being prepared (not always in the most benign way).
I did however indulge myself in Chinese snacks, largely panda shaped biscuits, during late night trips to local supermarkets.
Spending the night in a Chinese city is an adventure in itself. Queuing for a ferry resulted in hundreds of lines moving sideways instead of forwards. I still can’t comprehend the logic, but the sheer mass of people walking sideways was enough to keep me entertained until we boarded the boat. The view of the bund at night, with the Shanghai city skyline lit up like a Christmas tree, was enough to justify the hour spent waiting in the dark.
Seeing the city from the water was unbeatable, and I think the same applies throughout this country. The Li River and the Grand Canal offered some of the most picturesque views you could ask for.
I did more in three weeks on the road than I ever thought was possible, with each day as varied as the last. I sat in the audience for the most gut-wrenching acrobatic show imaginable, drank green tea on the plantation that it was grown, joined a group of locals for an afternoon exercise in the park and saw a baby panda push another baby panda off a bed.
I also became a national celebrity, which I imagine is the same for many western tourists when they land on Chinese soil. One evening, whilst walking down a busy high street, I politely agreed to take a photo with a young guy, only to see a small queue forming behind him. Being a westerner here is what I imagine it’s like to be Hugh Grant in London.
The crowds in China take some getting used to. Kneeling in my seat on the plane, backpack in hand, waiting for one of the many locals walking past to let me slip out in front of them, it quickly dawned on me I was waiting for hell to freeze over.
Living in Britain, I became accustomed to apologise when somebody walked straight into me and it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking people you meet are impolite. I learnt that their country is too overpopulated to wait in line. If you want to get from one side of the road to another, you push your way through.
I think what surprised me the most, was how by the end of the trip I was unapologetically joining in.
I can imagine the language being a huge barrier and we were very lucky that we had a local tour guide to manage any translations needed. Despite often feeling like a child on a school trip, having to stay together like 'sticky rice', we got a spare adapter in the hotel and meat-free meals with relative ease.
Our guide also provided much-needed context for every stop, filling us with his perspective on everything from the protests in Tiananmen Square to the personality of Chinese girls from Chengdu. Every inch of China is an experience and I learnt something new about the country every day.
If you step in with an open mind and say yes to every opportunity, you won’t be disappointed by where the day (or your Wendy Wu tour guide) takes you.
So climb the steps up the Great Wall of China until your legs ache, burn incense at the Buddhist Temple of Inspired Seclusion and tuck into a brightly coloured meal of who knows what, because you’ll be surprised by how much you like it.