Where the Pandas Are: Travelling to China for Work

This might come as a surprise to some people, but I’m an ESL teacher. It says so right there in my ‘Meet the Author’ widget on the sidebar, but I wouldn’t want to presume anything – not when it comes to the transient nature of The Internet (yes, capital letters and all).

I first caught the teaching bug when I did some Actual Classroom Work at a high school in rural Spain. Turns out I’m a natural and I’m really good at the teaching that I do, so once school ended and summer started up again, I thought to myself ‘why not’ and applied to teach in China.

The entire process leading up to my boarding a flight at Heathrow was an adventure and a half (and I’ll definitely type up a post about it soon enough), but today I’ll focus on my journey from Kent to Chengdu. It was certainly different from my previous intercontinental experiences travelling back and forth between the UK and the Philippines. But where to begin?

Let’s start with the disaster of leaving my hometown in Kent and see where that leads us.

LiberaTarts Goes to China

Leaving Kent

To quote John Denver whose song ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ somehow became the background music of my childhood years, all my bags were packed and I was ready to go. And it would have felt like Mother Nature was sending me off in good spirit, what with a rainbow showing up and all that, if not for the fact that the reason I was able to see the rainbow in the first place was because I forgot my wallet back home and didn’t realise until I was already at the train station.

a rainbow in a small town in Kent

So anyway, my plans to leave for China didn’t go off to an auspicious start. I ran back and forth between the train station and home, sweating up a storm despite my intentions of being chill and relaxed AF as I buckle myself in for a 10 hour flight east. I was wearing joggers and an oversized hoodie and everything! If I learned anything from the multiple long-haul flights in the past, it’s to forgo skinny jeans and embrace the athleisure style.

Arriving in London

Despite the rushing back and forth, I was able to make it to London with plenty of time to spare. I checked two of my large suitcases into a Left Luggage facility and spent one last dinner (in a long, long while) with my brother, who was kind and gracious and filial enough to accompany me to the airport.

We went to Nando’s, as it’s our usual haunt, and afterwards we reluctantly dragged our feet towards the underground. We picked up my two suitcases from the lockers, and somehow managed to navigate through London-in-rush-hour with two frankly overweight suitcases and a small carry-on. The lifts were also out of service at the St Pancras / King’s Cross station, usually known for having step-free access, so we had to ask a very helpful station attendant to help transfer my suitcases from the train station level down to the underground level. (It was a nightmare, but lowkey fun.)

taken from the ‘Travel for London’ website

This can all have been avoided, of course, if I checked the TfL website beforehand for any issues. Silly me!

At Heathrow Airport

Once we were through the underground barriers and free to roam Heathrow, my brother and I didn’t have to walk far before we found the Air China check-in counter. I used the self-service machines to print out my boarding pass (because I’m anti-social like that), but had to talk to an Actual Human as I dropped off my luggage. They were overweight, which wasn’t a surprise. For the life of me, I can never pack light and I’m slightly proud to say that one large suitcase was filled with British snacks.

I’ve lived the expat life before, people! I know myself enough that a few months into a new country, I’d be missing my favourite snacks like a, well, a missing limb. When I was in Japan for my year abroad, I somehow convinced my family to send me three giant 200g blocks of Galaxy chocolate and a handful of Walkers Thai Sweet Chilli crisps.

I live to this day with no regrets. Regarding snacks, at least. I paid a hefty amount for my overweight luggage, but that’s a problem for past and future me to consider. Present-me is having a blast in a hotel room that her new work has paid for.

Boarding My Flight

The plane I was due to take arrived late at the airport, which meant it was late in boarding my fellow flight passengers on; it wasn’t late for long, but it was enough for me to grumble about things needing to be on time. A funny thing that happened, though: an airline employee announced that my flight was delayed, and just as as she uttered “The flight XXXXX is…” a bunch of overeager passengers jumped to their feet and began queueing. It was like watching meerkats pop out from the ground.

has anyone seen this movie? the songs are Actual Bops

The other airline staff checking passports at the waiting area exchanged looks and were like “that was funny”, but only in a more professional manner than my retelling makes them out to be.

Flying from England to China

Now this. This was s o m e t h i n g.

10 hours of recycled air, no WiFi, and oversalted food to compensate with the high altitude.

I won’t say it was fun because I actually have a semblance of sanity left, but the seat next to me wasn’t taken and I was free to stretch out my legs as I catnapped in the air.

I made the executive decision not to sleep during the flight, because I wanted to conquer jet lag as quickly as possible given how I’ll be set to work within a week and my relationship with a regular sleeping pattern is something teenagers laugh at. Anyway, I was grateful to have thought ahead and have downloaded Series 9 of ‘Doctor Who’ on my phone using BBC iPlayer – I’ve never seen it before even though it’s 2019 it was released in 2015.

I’ve also downloaded some library ebooks on my phone (can’t figure out to sending loaned books to my Kindle), and I had plenty of non-fiction reads to tide me over on said Kindle, so it wasn’t like I was bored to tears as I flew from Europe to Asia. Still, I would loved some access to the Internet. Maybe if I flew business or first class in the future…

…one can only hope.

Landing in China

My heart was racing and, for once, it wasn’t due to the pre- or post-flight jitters. There’s something about a plane revving up or preparing to land that scares me. Anyway, I was super nervous to land in China. It’s not because I’ve never been before – I’m a traveller at heart and I like experiencing new cultures – but because I know I’ll be spending at least a year in this place and I do not speak a word of Mandarin. At least with Japan, during my year abroad, I spent the previous two years studying Japanese as part of my university degree.

Working in China was a relatively spur of of the moment decision. Aside from 你好 (ni hao, hello) and 谢谢 (xie xie, thank you), I know next to nothing. Everyone, even those who have no intention of living semi-permanently in any Chinese speaking countries, know how to say hello and thank you. It’s just basic courtesy. My fears that I will somehow insult somebody or break the rules somehow is entirely founded in something real.

I gotta learn how to speak Mandarin. I will learn even if it kills me.

Anyway, I land in China and was greeted by a large placard bearing my full name, which was held by representatives from my new company. It was both mortifying (because it was bright pink) and endearing (no one has even made an airport placard for me before!). I see myself keeping that placard for the time being. I’m a huge packrat, afterall…

Settling In

Less than 24 hours later, I wake up in my hotel room and visited the Head Office to sign my contract. I leave with a welcome bag filled with well-meaning gifts and two work uniforms. But I suppose that’s a story for another time. Keep an eye out for the second part of the ‘Where the Pandas Are’ series! The plan is to document my time here in China, from the ups and downs, the enjoyable and the downright absurd.

Feel free to join me in this adventure. Let’s have some fun!

BELFAST Travel Guide

Travelling to Belfast

Belfast is the capital city of Northern Ireland and has a population of approximately 340,200 people. The city is well-known for building the famously tragic boat Ship of Dreams, the Titanic. Belfast is not to be confused with Dublin, which is the capital city of the Republic of Ireland. See the map below for further clarification.

map of ireland, differentiating northern ireland and the republic of ireland

The easiest way to get to Northern Ireland – or Belfast, more specifically – is by flying. Personally, I flew from London Stansted to Belfast International Airport, although there are two other airports within Northern Ireland: George Best Belfast City Airport and City of Derry Airport.

You can also take the train if you’re travelling from England, Wales, or Scotland. The trip, however, will be split partway to include the ferry trip to Ireland. There are also direct coaches to Dublin serviced by the National Express if you wish to have a cheaper alternative to planes and trains.

Where to stay in Belfast

As a solo traveller, I cannot recommend hotels unless you are travelling with two other people.

Belfast has a lot of hostels on offer, all within walking distance to the main city centre. Prices can range between £10-£15 per night at a hostel; I stayed at Lagan Backpackers for 2 nights and didn’t pay more than £26 total, and the place had a TV with a Netflix subscription, newly refurbished bathrooms, and they even offered a free breakfast to those who opt-in!

If you’re willing to spend a little more for privacy, then I would suggest Airbnb as an alternative.

Getting around Belfast

  • walking – the farthest I walked from one tourist destination to another was 20 minutes
  • by bike – Belfast bikes cost £1 per half hour
  • by bus – Belfast has THREE different bus services and I highly suggest using the Translink journey planner to navigate
  • by train – the main train stations in Belfast are Great Victoria Street Station and Belfast Central Station
  • by taxi / uber / car rental

Things to do in Belfast

I highly recommend just typing in “things to do” on Google Maps and see if any of the options offered are compatible with your interests. Getting into the habit of making bookmarks and lists on Google Maps is helpful in planning daily itineraries and, sometimes, choosing a hostel or Airbnb that is most convenient for you, the traveller.

Here is a list of places I visited within the Belfast city:

  • Ulster Museum
  • Belfast Botanic Gardens
  • The Palm House
  • The Tropical Ravine
  • Belfast Peace Wall
  • The Big Fish, Salmon of Knowledge
  • Belfast City Hall
  • Belfast Castle
  • Cavehill (I climbed to the very top!)

I also went on day trips, where I visited:

  • Strangford, where I spent the morning at Winterfell Castle and had lunch at The Cuan (where Sean Bean and all the other Game of Thrones actors stayed during their shoots!)
  • Bushmills, where I ate my lunch on the Giant’s Causeway steps and spent the afternoon walking the trail around the Shepherd’s Steps
reading a book, Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari, on the giant's causeway
from September’s reading challenge

What to expect from Belfast

Expect the unexpected.

an ancient proverb, probably

Belfast – and Northern Ireland, in general – is a super friendly place. The bus drivers are really easy to speak with and they are more than happy to help a lost little tourist. I honestly believe the locals are psychic because they always know where you want to go and will just gently nudge you towards the right direction. Everyone I spoke with, from the waitresses to the random man I befriended as I walked the Cavehill nature trail, was softspoken and kindhearted. Belfast is brilliant!

Lastly, expect to receive some Northern Ireland banknotes. They are different to the ones in circulation around England, but they are still Sterling notes and can be exchanged for Bank of England notes at any bank in the UK.

And in conclusion…

I spent an approximate total of £270, including travel, accommodation, and food. Belfast is an amazing place with a lot of history and great architecture. The food is good, the people even good-er, and the only downside was the confusing bus network. 10/10 will recommend for other solo travellers to visit!

Getting to the Airport

I’m no stranger to going to Heathrow Airport.

Last time I was there, I was dropping my mother off for and early morning flight. We thought travelling late at night and arriving after midnight was some kind of genius idea… which it definitely was not. We missed the last Piccadilly Line service to Terminal 4, somehow ended up in Terminal 3, and we had to take the National Express coach because we needed to be in Terminal 4 how come Heathrow was so spread apart??

(Of course, it is spread apart because it is an airport.)

Cafe Nero at Heathrow Airport

Anyway, I know how to get to the airport. That isn’t the problem. The problem is: what is the best way to get from home to the airport, considering that the flight I booked in a panic (there’s a funny story behind this!) is scheduled to leave before noon. Also, I need to consider…

  • that perhaps I’ll be travelling by myself
  • I’ll be lugging around my suitcase, my carry on, and my handbag
  • that London is a hellish place to navigate on a normal day

And so, I am currently considering several options. Most of which take into account that I am university student and so I am broke as hell need to be as economical as possible.

LiberaTarts Plans a Trip to the Airport

Option 1

Take the high speed train to St Pancras, and then the Piccadilly line to Heathrow Airport Terminal 4.

Pros: St Pancras national rail station and Underground have lift facilities

Cons: the Piccadilly Line, during the day that I’ll be needing it, won’t be servicing the airport (tough luck!) which means I’ll have to take the bus

Option 2

Take the train to London Victoria, and then a National Express coach from the nearby coach station to Heathrow Airport Terminal 4.

Pros: this is the much cheaper option, especially with advanced ticket fairs

Cons: advanced ticket fares are only valid after 10am, which means I will miss my flight if I leave on the same day… which means I need to leave the night before… which means it’s another all-nighter at the Terminal 4 Cafe Nero’s.

Option 3

Book a cab.

Pros: I can sleep on the drive to the airport.

Cons: it costs ~£120 for a single trip; who has that kind of money to spend on a cab? Definitely not me.

My verdict

Unless I can find someone who is willing to share the cab fare with me, my best bet for a stress-free journey to the airport will be Option 2. The question now remains… when do I buy the train tickets?


Over to you guys: What’s your preferred way of getting to the airport? Tell me in the comments!

(Note: this post was made in 2016.)