Being involved with BEG certainly gives most a taste for travel. What further exciting places have former Leaders and Venturers visited? Thank you to Ruth Longmuir for this account of one of her big adventures.
“When I auditioned for the SFO back in 2007 I never imagined that on New Year’s Eve 2012 I’d be playing a concert in the Chinese city of Hangzhou. But here I was, 2 concerts into a 2 week tour, sat on a stage with 63 other people including my friend and co-chief leader of last summer’s Cuba expedition, Christine Anderson. We’ve both played the fiddle since primary school and it has brought us many opportunities over the years but none as great as this.
We visited 10 cities, played 9 concerts, took 4 internal flights, 1 high speed train and travelled a total of 16,145 miles in 17 days. We saw the spectacular Great Wall, went to the top of China’s tallest building, saw the famous Pudong skyline at night from the Bund in Shanghai, visited the epic Forbidden City in Beijing, drank cocktails 80 floors up and took the Maglev train to Shanghai airport – top speed 430km/hour. We became expert chopstick users and grew accustomed to the chicken heads and strange seafood that featured at meal times. We looked forward to seeing what exciting food there would be to try next and were disappointed when Chinese Pizza Hut was ordered for everyone “as a treat”!
Before we went, I feared our lack of Chinese language skills would cause us problems despite the very attentive translators that travelled with us but I needn’t have worried. The stall holders in markets had all learned basic haggling English: “Too low – you break my heart! Best price?!”. Our ranks of adoring fans all knew the word “photo” and grinning, grabbed your arm, while their friends snapped away. Taxi drivers, on the whole, knew very little English and on a number of occasions we found ourselves in groups of 3 or 4 clambering into taxis clutching a small piece of paper with a string of characters on it that we were assured was the name of a bar. We’d set off at a great rate of knots, dodging buses, cars and scooters with no lights until the taxi stopped somewhere and the driver indicated we should get out. Then we’d wait until the others appeared and we’d swap stories of near misses on the road. On the whole this system worked surprisingly well, however, on one occasion it didn’t go so smoothly. One taxi didn’t arrive so we decided to wait inside the building labelled “Club” that we had been dropped off outside. Let’s just say that it wasn’t the type of club we were expecting and the row of beautiful women who were lined up at the door giggled and quickly ushered us out when we acted out our desire to have a drink and find somewhere to dance!
We also discovered that many taxi drivers can’t see particularly well, certainly in Shanghai. Having handed the driver the room key with the address on it and naively nodded when he pointed down the street, we ended up attempting to hail another taxi 10 minutes later when the driver admitted he couldn’t see the address and had hoped we knew where we were going. Our second attempt looked doomed to fail too when the driver took the key card to the headlight to see the address but with increased determination on both sides, we made it to our hotel.
Hand gestures, facial expressions and general hilarity when neither side had a clue, got us through most language difficulties. And who’d have thought that an orchestra member dressed in a chicken suit and kilt, doing “Gangnam style” across the front of the stage during the tune “The Hen’s Mairch Ower the Midden” would have bridged the language gap better than any translator?
In an effort to make the concerts easily accessible to the Chinese, the conductor started a piece by counting, “Yi, Er, San” (1, 2, 3) and he encouraged the audience to participate by clapping along and joining in ceilidh dancing with orchestra members. The Chinese loved it. Traditionally known for being reserved, they were queuing up to dance, clapping and cheering by the end and afterwards they were keen to buy CDs, get autographs and have photos taken with the orchestra.
Touring was exhausting but a great way to see a country. We were often in a city for less than 24 hours and slept when we could – sometimes at the expense of seeing a place. Despite that, we still came away with a feeling for a city and often had experiences that the average traveller wouldn’t. As anyone that has been on a BEG expedition will know, travelling in a large group can be limiting at times but the fun, the jokes and the new friendships that are made are definite benefits.
China is a rapidly changing country and one that is definitely worth visiting. The level of construction of high rise buildings and roads is like nothing I’ve ever seen. With its rapidly expanding economy it will be interesting to see how it evolves over the coming years. The people we met were friendly and interested in us. Being stared at and pestered for photographs is the norm, just for being white, after all this is a country where you can buy skin whitening products in the pharmacy. No need for fake tan here! Shanghai is a modern, bustling city that grows skyscrapers at an incredible rate – a fascinating place to visit. And in Beijing you could spend weeks seeing all the historical sites it has to offer. Liuzhou and Nanning, the cities we visited in the south, had a less developed, more Chinese, feel to them and were surrounded by some beautiful landscapes. I’d like to return some day.”