Ethereal Chemist's Adventures

This is the story of my three months in China, and now my year abroad studying at the University of Helsinki!

Pre-departure Journal

My university makes me write journal entries on my year out, and here’s the one I wrote before I go ;) You will get much more frequent updates, I think I only have to write four for them!

I’ve always been determined to go abroad as part of my university experience. Even before I knew precisely where I wanted to go, or what I wanted to do, I knew that I wanted to take advantage of the unparalleled opportunities to explore the world. It’s true that when you have a job and you’re earning money, you can take the chance to explore then, but there’s nothing quite like living, studying or working somewhere to really get a feel for what it’s like.

Yes, I know this sounds a little bit like a sales pitch, I’m sorry, that’s just how I write!

When I started looking around universities in year 10 or so (yes, I know I was precocious. I wanted to look at courses that sounded interesting so I could be sure to pick the right a-levels to follow the path I wanted to in life. I like planning ahead, especially for things that matter.) I had a look at York, not least because I had fond memories of a physics summer school I attended when I was 14, living in Goodricke Cell Block C (James N block as it is now). Discovering it had one of the top chemistry departments in the country only made me more sure of my choice, and finding out about the study abroad opportunities I could incorporate into my degree, and the fantastic languages programs available only made me more determined to come. To be honest, I’m glad Oxford rejected me - they made my choice for me. Yes, I know it’s a little (or a lot) cliche to be an Oxbridge reject at York, but when I say I would have struggled to make the decision, I do sincerely mean it, and I haven’t looked back since.

I looked at all the destinations listed on the chemistry year abroad page, and I decided, even before I’d got to York, that I wanted to spend my fourth year in Helsinki. One of my favourite bands was Finnish, I’d never seen any of the Nordic countries, though I’d been to some of the more popular destinations like France, Spain and Germany. I already spoke French and Spanish, I didn’t learn German at school… and though I was a fairly proficient speaker, the idea of trying to do a chemistry degree in a foreign language didn’t appeal, and everything I could find about Finland said they taught in English and there was no language requirement.

I grew up in America, and in my mind it was expensive and a long way, as was Australia (though a sincere dislike of spiders, particularly deadly ones, had pretty much ruled that one out for me already). So, Finland it was to be.

When I finally got to the end of second year, and decisions started to be made, it was all very exciting and a little disconcerting to realise that this thing I had been planning for so long (with a little diversion into European industrial placements, which I won’t talk about) was finally coming to pass. Despite spending three months of last summer in China, it was very daunting to suddenly be making all these arrangements and plans and applications. Mainly because of the amount of paperwork. Don’t let anyone pull the wool over your eyes, there is a /lot/ of paperwork.

I was so determined to study abroad because… another cliche, I hope you’ll forgive me, I have always had a passion for learning. A hunger to learn and understand about anything and everything. There were quite a few things I could have studied at university, so I decided to pick the one you needed to be properly qualified to do (they don’t let you near the fun chemicals without a degree, unfortunately). I wanted to learn a(nother) new language and experience a different culture and the challenge of Finnish appealed to me, especially after Japanese and Mandarin (my last two… conquests is too strong a word. I might be able to get by.) Learning about the University of Helsinki and its place on the world stage just made me more certain that this was the place to go, and I’m just looking forward to another chance to be independent and experience so many new things.

I may regret saying this now but I’m not too worried about homesickness. That hasn’t been too much of a problem before, not even in my three months in China, which is both further away and even more of an alien culture than Finland. I’m more worried at the moment about the practical things, like whether or not my accomodation is going to be sorted out in time for me to move in, what will I and won’t I be able to buy in Finland, what the food is going to be like out there… but I’m far more excited than I am fearful, certainly at this stage.

And so now, after what is probably four or five years of this being a distant dream (maybe a few more if you count from the first yearnings of “I want to go abroad…”), it’s finally about to become a reality (conditional upon my exam results, because at this stage in life, everything is conditional on exam results). I’ve done all the paperwork (almost, and what I haven’t done I don’t have yet), I’ve made contact with the host institution, I know what area my project is going to be in (The Chemistry of Nucleotides and Nucleosides, by the way… it’s stuff to do with genetic material, so if anyone tries to tell me when I’ve finished that it’s not ‘biological’ enough for a Master’s in Biological and Medicinal Chemistry I might throw a crying fit). Now it’s just a countdown till the end of week 10 when I find out if I did well enough to go.

New Adventure!

Looks like this old blog will be starting up again with a new adventure! Come August/September, I am heading to Helsinki, the capital of Finland, for the Master’s year of my degree.

For those of you unfamiliar with the British education system, I am doing a four year university course with an integrated Master’s year, so I do four years, I come out with a Master’s in Chemistry, with Medicinal and Biological Chemistry. I hope.

I’m looking forward to starting a new journey and sharing it with you!

Xi’an and Dengfeng

The first night in Xi’an was actually spent at a farm in the Qingling mountains. We drove out, walked up the mountain, drank local beer, played cards, ate delicious food, lit fires and roasted pineapple marshmallows, and played charades.

"We gave it to him and we don’t know what he’s doing."

"YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS, YOU’RE SCOTTISH!"

"How the hell do we do onomatopoeia?!"

There were no mattresses on the farm, so it was’nt a great night’s sleep, but the food was truly amazing. On the way back we went swimming in a little pool in a mountain stream. It was freezing cold but really fun.

Our guide in Xi’an was amazing, and had a great taste in restaurants. It got to the point where we were happy to go somewhere, let her order, and just eat what turned up. The first night a small group of us went with her to her favourite restaurant which was small and slightly dirty and didn’t look inspiring, but… the food was /amazing/, especially the sweet and sour, so we were happy to be there! The next night in the Muslim quarter we went to a famous dumpling restaurant where we had soup dumplings. They were delicious.

The terracotta warriors were amazing, they really were. It’s a fantastic feeling to be at a site like that, seeing something so spectacular, so famous… it was amazing. It really was. They all have different spaces, and there were some areas where they’d been broken and knocked down, and that was quite an eerie sight in a way because of how lifelike the figures were.

The detail was truly amazing, and I got all the pictures I could.

There were no mattresses or wester toilets in Xi’an. And I read Morse.

Then we got up early in the morning and left on a 6 hour coach trip to Dengfeng, the home of Shaolin Kung-fu.

We went to an orphanage and watched the Kung-fu show, and then had a lesson. That was fun, it was a challenge, but fun, I could keep up with the kung fu, but not the swords. Then we practised a party trick that resulted in bruised hands but was still fun.

The second day in Dengfeng we went to the Shaolin temple and watched the kung fu show there which was very impressive, but not as good as the orphans had been in some cases. Which is a testament to their skill, I think. And we watched Regina make an idiot of herself in the competition thing they ran. Which was hilarious.

Then everyone else climbed a mountain, up some stairs, in heat. I stopped halfway up and had an icecream because I felt very unwell and it seemed stupid to force myself onwards. I talked to Aziza instead and had a nice afternoon. All I missed was a small cave where you can’t take pictures, and a chalky Buddha statue erected in 1995.

That night we all had McDonalds and got on a night train to Beijing. I was in a compartment of loud Chinese people who decided that five to one in the morning was a good time to  start talking loudly and slurping noodles. Did I mention we got off the train at 6:30 in the morning? Not a great night’s sleep.

photosofmyfairytale-deactivated asked: Hey :) I read your post about your stay at Yangshuo, because I'm gonna be there in Octobre to study Chinese. Is there anything you could recommend me to do? I dn't know anything about this place and I'm so exited to go there. The pictures look sooo fantastic. Thanks for answering me! ;) Have a nice weekend!

Of course! The main thing we did in Yangshuo was to go bamboo rafting on the river there. It’s a fantastic experience, really peaceful and a great way to see the amazing scenery there. I know some other people went Deep Water Soloing which is rock climbing without ropes over water and then jumping off. I think they had a really good time, and I also heard very good things about the mud baths in the moon cave - if you do that, though, make sure you use swimming gear you aren’t too fond of! The mud does not come out again. That’s the best advice I can give for the moment, but anything else you want to ask, feel free and I hope you have a great time!

Chengdu

After another 24 hour train ride (on which I finally had to capitulate and use the train squat toilets which weren’t as bad as I had feared, to be fair) we arrived in Chengdu and got a minibus to our hostel. That afternoon was just wandering around and gentle explorations, so we went to see the Mao statue and People’s Square.

Dinner was Sichuan hotpot, which I have to say I wasn’t inspired by. But the beef was nice, and I had my oil well flavoured so pretty much everything tasted mainly of garlic which is perfectly fine. I think we overpaid though.

That night I stayed up late talking to Cass and Jenni, and then got up at half six in the morning to go and see the pandas.

Pandas are not as big as you would expect for something with ‘giant’ in the name. They’re also incredibly human in behaviour, which is hilarious to watch, and seem to enjoy falling on their heads. Though to be fair there is little in there to damage. I’m very glad we went, they were adorable, and it was fantastic to be up close to them like that.

The afternoon was free, so we got a taxi to see Wang’s tomb which is a mausoleum of an old emperor which is over 1000 years old and an important archaeological site. Which is unfortunately still in the process of being redeveloped. But we had a nice walk round nonethless and got back to the hostel in time for me to locate and read Unnatural Death by Dorothy L Sayers, because I have very little of Niccolo left and am therefore desperately trying to fill in the gaps with good, reliable writing (for example here in Xi’an, I’ve located a Morse omnibus).

After another night train, we arrived here in Xi’an.

Yangshuo

Yangshuo is the most time we spend in any one place on the trip. Unfortunately due to certain bad senses of timing I wasn’t able to make the most of it, but it was still a great place.

The scenery is unique and fantastically beautiful, it’s a little backpacking town with a lot of culinary options from Western to Chinese and a wide selection of hostels and exciting activities.

We stayed in a not particularly inspiring hostel with a great rooftop bar. Our room was damp and the toilet leaked. I shared with Lauren and Ewell, so that was at least a nice choice of companions. I have to say that, although expensive, the hostel did have a good laundry service for which we were very grateful.

On the first day we went for a bike ride (I have not ridden a bike in many years, and found that a combination of resting due to illness and lack of exercise on night trains means that my fitness level has dropped considerably) to go bamboo rafting. The bike ride was not easy going and I did struggle a bit to keep up, but getting there was alright despite Chinese traffic, uneven road surfaces, and hills.

Bamboo rafting was a magical experience - I didn’t take my camera because none of us were sure how dry it was likely to be. Lauren and I went a different route from everyone else though, we’re about 90% sure. We didn’t see anyone else going round and thought they’d be waiting for us when we got back due to being last to leave but in fact we were the second to get back.

It was very peaceful and the guy who was punting us along was nice enough. We also appreciate the occasional excitement of going down the little weirs. It got our feet wet and was enough to keep you from getting overly complacent. On the way back, though, nobody realised that several people were left behind, including myself and Ewell, so they turned off and we got lost. I burst into tears because I was tired and sore and embarrassed and I had known it would be inevitable in a way, and then we took the bikes back to the hostel where the guide met us, apologised a lot and took the bikes back to the place we’d got them from.

The prices in the rooftop bar for happy hour were good too, so I made the most of that. I also ate there for a few nights though the food wasn’t inspiring.

After the previous biking experience I elected not to do the bike ride/hike and mud baths on the second day, and I had been expressly informed not to go deep water soloing (rock climbing above water without ropes) so instead I had an easy day and wandered around Yangshuo a bit. It was a nice place. Not cheap, or not too cheap, but pleasant nonetheless. That Wednesday was also my one year anniversary with Cassandra, so although we were on opposite sides of the world, we spent what we could together.

Which ended up being precious little because the cocktail straws were drippy and half my keyboard stopped working. It has since dried out enough to be more or less functional though I’ve lost the use of the down key. I’m considering replacing it when I get back home. Paranoid as I am about doing things to my computer, I think even I could manage that.

On the Thursday morning, Lauren and I went to cooking school. That began with a trip to the market, where they were indeed selling dog and cat meat. I think it was a shock to a lot of Western sensibilities but, although grim, it was still… interesting to see?

Either way, we then made kungpao chicken, pork and vegetable dumplings, and fried eggplant, all of which were delicious but which I sadly couldn’t finish. I do have the recipes though. Cooking was quite scary with large gas flames, one handed measuring and spitting oil, but we managed! And the outcome was delicious, if not something I’ll necessarily be replicating.

After another wander round, in the rain (the weather in Yangshuo was not inspiring), I eventually treated myself to a very nice dinner of chicken schnitzel, chips and salad, with chocolate milk, and a banana and chocolate crepe to follow. And it was wonderful, if expensive, and I have no regrets. Food is about the one thing I am occasionally treating myself with on this trip.

That about covers Yangshuo and we’re almost caught up, ladies and gentlemen!

Shanghai

We didn’t have much time in Shanghai, and I didn’t see much of the city. Due to still being ill after Moganshan I took the advice of a school nurse I had met there and went to the hospital where I was prescribed a brief course of antibiotics.

Being a chemistry student specialising in medicinal chemistry, of course I looked up what I had been given and I wish I hadn’t because it terrified me. The antibiotic I was prescribed had a 30% risk of potential tendonitis or spontaneous tendon rupture for the duration of the course and for several months afterwards. For the moment, I’m still alright, but funnily enough that worried me. There were some other pills too - live bacteria cultures to replace lost flora, and some others which were as far as I could tell a foul tasting version of paracetamol. While on the course, contraceptives aside, I was taking 27 pills a day minimum. So that wasn’t fun.

The second day in Shanghai we had different guides who weren’t very good. They took us to the Yuyuan gardens where I did the last of my souvenir shopping and was surrounded by delicious food while being on an official diet of steamed bread and porridge, and nothing else. I hate steamed bread.

Unfortunately due to circumstances beyond the guides’ control we missed entry to the Shanghai museum by a matter of minutes, and the nearby water show wasn’t for an hour after the time we were there so we went back to Nanjing road and the hostel before everyone else went out to the Bund and Vue bar. I did want to see the Bund, but I didn’t fancy paying 100RMB for Vue bar without being able to make the most of it. I would literally have just got the view.

After Shanghai we were met by two more guides from head office (including the head of the company) because of complaints about the Shanghai guides and the guides the Shanghai interns had in Nanjing. They are staying for the remainder of the trip. From Shanghai we caught the night train to Guilin to go to Yangshuo.

An apology

Due to various factors including a large number of night trains, unreliable internet, tiredness, laptop issues, and illness I have been very remiss in keeping this up to date, and so now I will do the best I can to catch you up on the intervening time. Due to the number of posts that would entail and my inability to remember what happened on which day, I’m going to condense it into places instead. I do hope you find the news interesting/entertaining and continue to enjoy the blog!

Day 64 (I think)

I could have posted on the last two days if I’d tried, to be honest. I could have posted in the morning before I got on the train, I could have posted last night when we got here and there was internet, but I didn’t.

The train journey went well. It was nice actually, I knew three of the other people in the 6 bed compartment and although I was on the top bunk which was like 7 feet off the floor and then ended up staying up for the whole journey because I wasn’t entirely sure I would be able to get back up if I got down. I wrapped up in my duvet and made a nest and it was fantastic. It was very relaxing and I had a chance to have some private time which was great.

The group of people is large but seems quite nice on the whole, though there is a whiner, like there is in every group like this, the girls seem lovely which is really nice. Everyone’s sharing things and being very supportive.

We got off the train in Hangzhou and I was literally covered in sweat the second we got off because it was so hot and humid. The West Lake was nice, and lunch was okay, the real highlight was the opera performance we were treated to during it where the guy changed his masks and breathed fire. That was really spectacular. In the evening, after we dropped our stuff at the hostel and showered, we walked to a mountain lagoon and went swimming which was a nice experience.

I decided not to go for the set dinner of 50RMB since I knew I wouldn’t eat much because my stomach is still acting up. And it is still acting up. I thought it might be better but it isn’t which is frustrating. I think I’m going to go get some antibiotics in Shanghai because I’m tired of this and it’s hampering my enjoyment of the whole trip (this bit at the end of it trip not the whole three months, I’m not that bitter).

Today people mostly chilled, and then in the afternoon everyone else (I wasn’t feeling well and the heat/humidity was a real dissuader) went hiking up a mountain to see Chairman Mao’s summer house. It was three hours, and they went the wrong way for the first ten minutes, downa  hill they then had to climb again to get on the route they were meant to be on. I’m quite glad I didn’t go. Then I spent 87 RMB on food I didn’t really end up eating, so that didn’t help much either.

We check out at 6:30 tomorrow morning, so I’m not looking forward to that. I think it’ll be a fairly early night. Here’s to feeling better, hopefully.

Love from Moganshan

Day 61

On the whole I’ve been better today for the most part; my temperature has been down and my appetite has been better. I was feeling not great but okay, as one does when recovering, for most of the day. Unfortunately I was then sick, but on the plus side, after that I feel much better so hopefully that’s the end of the matter just in time to go travelling.

In the morning I’ll need to get up and finish off the last little bit of packing in terms of transferring stuff from bag to bag etc and making sure that is all sorted and all right. Fortunately I can leave my suitcase here and Sophia’s dad will drop it off to me at the end of the trip (When I should also be able to go to the Forbidden City fingers crossed) which saves me a bit of money. They really have been incredibly kind and supportive to me while I’ve been here, especially while I’ve been ill. Dealing with an ill guest is never fun. But on the plus side I managed to navigate the language barrier a bit? I still wish I knew what to get them as a present…

Love from Beijing