Welcome to this week’s Postcard From – the feature where I chat to some lucky explorer about their recent travels.
This week, I’ve been chatting to Helen about her experiences working TEFL jobs overseas. Helen is from Bristol in the UK and is a lover of travelling and writing. A trip to Vietnam and Cambodia a couple of years ago kick started her travelling adventure. After spending some time travelling around Europe last year, she then moved to Hangzhou in China, teaching English as a foreign language. She has recently started up her travel blog Bristolian Backpacker, offering stories and advice.
Hi Helen! Where in the world are you right now?
Greetings from Hangzhou, China! This city is home to about 8 million people, just west of Shanghai. It’s a city which is very economically developed, with many sky scraping buildings in the downtown area, but there is also natural beauty as Hangzhou is home to the beautiful West Lake. This year, Hangzhou is hosting the G20 summit, which means lots of development and an exciting buzz in the city.
What’s the weather like there at the moment?
Spring has finally arrived which is great because we had a really cold winter, with snow and temperatures of about -7! It can also get pretty hot in the summer, so the months in-between, such as April/May and October, are ideal times to visit. Although if you visit in late September or early October, during the Mid-Autumn Festival, be prepared for lots of Chinese tourists visiting too!
Ouch, -7 sounds painful! Which neighbourhood of Hangzhou do you live in?
I live in the north of the city, an area called Gongshu. While it is a little while out of the city centre, I feel like I get a real sense of what it’s like to live in China. Nobody speaks English where I live and there is a genuine sense of community. Near my flat is the famous Gongchen Bridge, which runs over the Grand Canal (linking Hangzhou with Beijing), so it’s a great place to visit.
How are you finding teaching English in China?
You’ll find that everyone in China has a different experience of teaching here. I teach grade 1 and 2 so lots of games and fun activities are needed, but the class is so large (maximum is 38 in one of my classes), so it’s difficult to give the children all the attention they need. In that sense, it is challenging, but also lots of fun, and the children are very sweet and excited to see me.
The classes start early at 8am and often the children are in school until 4.30pm so it’s a long day for them. Each day is different depending on the classes and topics I’m teaching which makes it interesting. At Christmas I even got asked to appear in ‘Snow White’ as the Evil Queen which was great, I’m experiencing so many new things!
What are your favourite things to do in Hangzhou?
On a nice day (when the pollution is low!), taking a stroll around the West Lake is great. On your own or with some friends, there is plenty to see, or just to sit and read a book is lovely, away from the hustle and bustle of the roads.
I love trying out some good local food as well, and there is a plethora of food places to try out. Just below where we live there is a Muslim run restaurant. It’s refreshing to eat some beef instead of pork (which you find a lot of here). The noodle and rice dishes are both delicious.
In the evenings, one of the most popular things for young Chinese people to do is head to KTV. This is a must if you visit! KTV is a karaoke bar, but it works differently to how we know bars. You rent out a room with your friends for a certain amount of time, and can spend the whole night singing away. It’s sound proofed and you can order both food and drinks to the room. It’s lots of fun and definitely worth a visit.
As a local – tell us what things people absolutely shouldn’t miss when they visit…
Although the West Lake is Hangzhou’s highlight, further out the city there are also some great things to see. Head West and you’ll come to the Xixi Wetlands, head north and you’ll visit Gongchen Bridge. And not far from the West Lake is Linguin Temple, also worth visiting. The temple is great but the surrounding area also has a lot to see. You can take a cable car to get a view of the city, plus look at the Buddha’s carved into the rocks around the temple.
Where will people find the best food in town?
If you want the best food in Hangzhou, you need to go to Grandma’s Home! This chain of restaurants started in Hangzhou and you can now find them in other bigger cities too. You’ll also see the mass of people waiting outside! Popular with locals and tourists alike, Grandma’s serves up a variety of dishes to suit everyone. It’s best to go with a group and order a bit of everything. You won’t be disappointed, and it’s worth the queue!
Do you have any tips or advice for anyone planning a trip to Hangzhou?
Try and learn some basic mandarin before you come (Thank you, various foods, yes, no etc). Unlike Shanghai (and I imagine Beijing although I haven’t been yet), English isn’t widely spoken as most of the tourists here are native Chinese. A little Chinese can get you a long way. Have destinations written in mandarin for taxi drivers as this will help them a lot.
The West Lake is often busy on weekends so try and visit during the week. Even on weekends though, you’ll be able to see it’s vast beauty.
Try and visit for a few days as the pollution can get very bad in the city. Some days you can hardly see across the lake. If you come for a few days, with any luck you should have at least one less polluted day to enjoy Hangzhou in all it’s glory.
Finally, what do you love most about travelling?
Seeing places that are totally different to my culture and meeting people with a totally different lifestyle. China is so different to the UK in so many ways, so it’s been exciting living here. Through travelling you realise how big the world is and I feel it really opens my eyes to reality and the things around me. I love seeing new places and marvelling at the world around me.
NB – all images are owned by Helen.