On Tuesday, 22nd October, with the excitement of Nations Day still in the air, twenty-six MCM pupils and three beaks set off for the much anticipated History trip to Beijing and Xi’an. The journey to reach our first destination, Beijing, was a long and tiring one, but we arrived in great spirits on the Wednesday morning, to be met by our two tour guides. The group was delighted to be presented with a sumptuous welcome lunch at a local restaurant, washed down with jasmine tea, which gave us a taste of many delicious traditional Chinese dishes and reinvigorated us before our visit to the Summer Palace. On the following day, after a restorative sleep and a fabulous Peking Duck dinner at which we all learned of the benefits and risks of using a ‘lazy Susan’, we managed to pack in visits to Tiananmen Square, the National Museum and the Panjiayuan Antiques Market, before a chilly tour around the imposing Forbidden City. The pupils and beaks purchased some interesting souvenirs at the market, including weird and wonderful musical instruments and trinkets from the Maoist period, some of which now adorn the walls of SA11! Somewhat surprisingly, this was also the only day on which we had to battle with the notorious Beijing pollution, which coloured the skies a murky grey and without which I feel we would not have had such an authentic experience. The hotpot feast we enjoyed that evening, dunking our own ingredients into a bubbling cauldron before diving in with our chopsticks, certainly made up for the smog.
For the next two days in Beijing we enjoyed perfect blue skies, which made for a really enjoyable tour of the traditional hutong area of the city, not to mention a breathtaking walk along the Great Wall of China. Along the way, pupils were invited into the homes of local families to make traditional Chinese dumplings, and to learn time-honoured crafts like paper-cutting and calligraphy. We even experienced the death-defying tricks of performers at the Chaoyang Theater. We were struck by how genuinely welcome we were made to feel, and amazed at the seemingly never-ending supply of delicious dishes that were brought to our tables at every lunch and dinner. Many of the pupils had, by this time, also formed quite an attachment to Shao Ming, our soft toy dog mascot impaled on a tall stick, who was used by our local guide to keep the group together as we manoeuvred the busy streets of this fascinating city. For many, the Great Wall was inevitably the highlight of our time in Beijing and the perfect site for the pupils to try out their photography skills.
To reach Xi’an, 1,200km southwest of Beijing, our group was lucky to experience the uniqueness of a sleeper train journey. Although the facilities onboard were basic and necessarily rather cramped, this proved to be all part of the fun, and we arrived on Sunday 27th October in bright and beautiful Xi’an, home to the world-famous Terracotta Warriors. Our first day enabled us to get our bearings via a bike ride around the ancient city walls, before we tucked into another plentiful lunch, this time sampling the thick noodles that are a speciality in Shaanxi Province. During the three days we spent in Xi’an, the pupils enjoyed exploring the Muslim Quarter, bartering at the markets for souvenirs, clothing and gifts for friends and family, and practising their blossoming Mandarin skills. For many pupils, the highlight of our time in Xi’an proved to be our day at Mount Hua (Hua Shan), where we were able to climb the stunning peaks and marvel at the landscape beyond. For one pupil, this also made her sixteenth birthday particularly memorable, and meant that our eleventh successive banquet of the trip was suitably topped off with an enormous celebratory cake.
Our final full day in China epitomised the spirit of the whole trip, perfectly combining history, culture, craft and cuisine. After a full morning visiting the Terracotta Warriors, the astonishing underground army built by Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the 3rd century BC that consists of over 8,000 terracotta soldiers, horses, chariots and generals, we visited a local tea house for lunch. Thereafter, we returned to the city where we were taught how to operate a potters’ wheel and make mini terracotta warriors from clay at a small pottery workshop; suffice to say some pupils’ natural artistry shone through while others simply enjoyed getting messy, but regardless, all enjoyed channelling their creative sides. We completed our trip with a celebratory farewell dinner, at which we gave heartfelt thanks to our tour guide Abraham, whose patience, flexibility and good-humour undoubtedly made the trip the success that it was. For most of our group, this was the first time we had visited China, and it proved to be a genuine revelation, dispelling some of the preconceptions we held about the country and its culture and, most importantly, giving us a glimpse into the incredible history of this diverse and astonishing place. That the pupils have continued to talk excitedly about the trip even now that we are back in MCM, illustrates what a rewarding and enjoyable tour it proved to be for all involved.