How to Survive Exam Season

The last few months have been very busy and we’ve gotten up to quite a lot! As exam season started at school, we found ourselves looking up from the grindstone to realize that we needed to capitalize on any extra time we had. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of wake up, go to work, work hard, come home, sleep, repeat. We had a few honest conversations with each other about what we wanted to get out of this experience here in China. While our lists differed professionally, we both wanted to experience more. More adventures, more exploring, more time with one another (awww). 

We have some amazing plans for the summer gallivanting around Europe, but before we fill our packs and get more passport stamps, there was a good 3 months ahead of us. We decided to use our time a bit more wisely and utilize our weekends and other other free time to adventure around. A particular quote that I picked up sometime ago was stuck with me during this period. “No one looks back on their life and remembers the nights they got plenty of sleep.” That was the fuel my adventure fire needed to burn a bit more brightly and see us through the darkness of exam season.

In April, we ended up taking separate trips. Alison’s mother Cindy just finished her 6 month teaching contract in Thailand and made her way to Qingdao for a visit. Alison and Cindy completed the “Tour de Qingdao,” and made their way to Beijing to see the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and eat Peking duck (among other things). I made my way to Los Angeles to indulge in the California culture and Mexican food I was missing so much. I also picked up some supplies we can’t see to find in China such as spices for our kitchen, our favorite face wash, and a solid pair of running shoes for Alison.

After being reunited from a week apart and missing one other terribly 😉 we were off traveling to Liuzhou, a smaller city in southern China. By this time, Alison had been training for months to compete in her first half Ironman triathlon along with our friend and colleague Sam. The two of them logged countless miles of swimming, biking, and running. The race was great! Both finished with times they were happy with and although we were soaked to the bone, Cindy and I had a great time cheering them on! So proud of you, love! #ironwomanalison

Our next little adventure was a weekend getaway with some of our friends during the 3 day Memorial Day weekend. Looking back on it now, it’s incredible how much we managed to cram into 3 days. It started off with an early flight Saturday morning to Xi’an, a smaller city in the geographic center of China. The now-city was formally a tranquil farming village until, in 1973, a farmer accidentally discovered the now-famous terracotta warriors buried beneath his field. After a few decades, much excavation, and a National Geographic cover story, Xi’an now has a thriving tourist economy with some 40,000 people visiting the warriors daily. Okay, history lesson over. We landed in Xi’an around mid-morning and, after refueling on coffee, made our way to the Small Goose Pagoda. This beautiful site was home to many temples, traditional architecture, craft vendors, and even a tree that is over 1,500 years old! 

After some lunch and ice cream we made our way to the old city wall, which long ago served as the barrier between the city of Xi’an and the outside world. This location was the starting point of the ancient Silk Road that connected the Eastern world to the Western one. We all decided the best way to explore was to rent bikes and traverse the entire loop atop the city wall, some 15k. It was quite an awesome experience! Afterwards we made our way to our AirBnB, got all cleaned up and found a great spot to enjoy a delicious dinner, good beer/wine, and share many stories and laughter with our friends.

Biking atop the old city wall

The next day it was time to meet the warriors! We were met outside of AirBnB by our lovely tour guide, Lily, who was amazing. Since we were the only ones in the group, we were able to make some changes to our day’s schedule. We started off by traveling about 40 minutes to see the excavation site of the terracotta warriors. For anyone reading this and thinking of planning a trip, here is a little piece of advice, there are 3 excavation sites or “pits” to see at the warriors. We recommend the following order: Pit 2, Pit 3, then Pit 1. Everyone seems to rush right for Pit 1, the largest and grandest of the site where most of the intact warriors are kept. However, the order we suggest really builds the suspense and the story of the how and why the warriors came to be. Pit 2 was mostly destroyed by the emperor’s enemies shortly after the warriors were buried away. Pit 3 is smaller but has some intact warriors, horses, and carriages. Finally, Pit 1 is the most famous with many of the warriors still standing at attention; ready to protect the emperor in the afterlife. If you find yourself in China, it is worth seeing for yourself. 

Following another fantastic meal, we made our way to the Winter Place. This is a gorgeous location that has been recently updated to show visitors what it would have looked like to walk the grounds shortly after its completion centuries ago. If you make it to Xi’an, put the Winter Place on your list of things to see. It was quite an unexpected beauty of the trip with many buildings, beautiful gardens, and history to explore.

Next, we found ourselves in the Bunga village site. A 6,000 year old excavated village where the remains of some of China’s earliest tribal peoples lay. Found again, by accident, the now museum is dedicated to putting the pieces together to try to understand how these people lived a life much different than our own. A small location but impressive nonetheless. It left us asking many questions and pondering how different our lives might be if we had been born centuries earlier. 

Our last stop of the day was the famous Muslim Street; chalk-full of street food vendors, sweets, ice cream, and all manner of souvenirs and trinkets one could possible pack into a carry-on. It was a bright and lively area of the city that left us quite stimulated after a few hours of wandering and haggling. 

The last day of our trip was spent wandering around Big Goose Pagoda and its surrounding area of Xi’an, which had more traditional architecture than our home in Qingdao. It was really great to see and we had a lot of fun and laughs exploring this city. After some time we slowly made our way to the airport to catch our flight back to Qingdao. Exhausted, but with smiles on our faces, it was fantastic to get out of our normal routine, spend some quality time with friends, and explore a new part of China.

At the Big Goose Pagoda

More recently, we had our end of the year staff party for our school. It was nice to get out and mingle with folks who we don’t see much of when we’re going full tilt at school. It was also time to reflect and, as a school, say goodbye to some friends we’ve made over the course of this past year who are leaving to teach elsewhere. We will miss seeing them everyday but we don’t personally believe in “goodbyes,” so we said “see you later.” Our good friend Dermot is off to teach in Seoul, South Korea and my former HOD Andries is teaching in Chengdu, China next year. We are planning trips to each of those places for a visit next year. Best of luck gentlemen!

The following day we left early for Mount Tai; one of the famous peaks in China. Known to many as a spiritual journey and utilized by ancient emperors as a place for sacrifice and annual praying, this place is not for the weak of heart. Over 9,000 granite steps are carved into the mountain from bottom to top. It took us just under four hours. At the top, we booked a hotel (thank goodness!) and were able to relax and shower once we arrived.

The morning came early – the hotel keepers knock on each day at 3:00am for people to rise and walk to the east-most point to catch the sunrise. The sunrise wasn’t officially until 4:52am, but, after the long walk in the dark, it was clear why we had to leave so early. Every inch of the mountain, including a famous stone with a clearly defined gate around it, had spectators anxiously waiting to see the sunrise. Watch the Mount Tai video to see the full story behind our journey there and the sunrise!

The week before school ended we threw a birthday party on the beach for Alison. We invited all our friends from school to relax, swim, play frisbee, and bbq with us as we celebrated Alison and the end of our first year in China. It was a very special time and place to be a part of. “No mixture of words or music or memories could touch that sense of knowing that we were there and alive in that corner of time and the world” (with the friends we’ve made along the way).

I had expected this adventure in China to be an eye-opening experience, and this past year did not disappoint. We’ve found ourselves in the face of trials and tribulations that we were not expecting. We’ve been challenged both professionally at school and personally while we try to make a life as strangers in this strange land. We’ve managed to navigate the ebb and flow of our time here and have come out whole on the other side; stronger, hopefully wiser, and more full of hope for the months and years to come.


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