Seeing China looming large in his future—and the world's—Brit Richard Frost made his move halfway around the globe to discover its culture and its people. Four years on and it's clear that he liked what he found. Here he talks to China Travel about life in Xi'an as a blogger and sometime volunteer, offers some indispensable sightseeing tips and shares some of his own travel experiences and Notes from Xi'an.>>>China Travel: First up, tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be in China?
Richard: I have lived in Xi'an for about four years. I am English, grew up all over Britain, spent quite a bit of time traveling when I was younger, ended up studying politics and philosophy at university and lived in London for a couple of years, before traveling through Sri Lanka and India to get to China. I had realized back in Britain when looking around at things that it was time to decide what I really wanted to do with my life. The answer was that I wanted to travel in India and spend a good chunk of that life in China. The basic reasons being that I had nearly visited India ten years earlier and it felt somewhat like going home to finally go there.
Second, after looking around at the world, through my studies and from wider experiences, it became obvious that in my lifetime China was going to have a significant, if not the most significant influence over many of the issues that will shape our societies. It seemed to me that if I wanted to get a sense of how our world was to go forward I needed to get a sense of this country and its people.
My simple plan before arriving was if I liked it, I would stay. Since being here, I have only traveled a little, visiting a few quiet spots in Gansu, Sichuan, Yunnan and Xinjiang, as well as a few trips to Beijing and Shanghai. I have a Chinese fiancée who comes from the South of Shaanxi, I teach a little, study a little, do a little voluntary work and generally enjoy a simple and pleasant life here in Xi'an.
China Travel: Have you always had a blog or it something you started here?
Richard: It is certainly something I started here, though I had no plan to, it probably came about due to a combination of factors. I remember before I went traveling I read a small article about what blogs actually were and cut it out and stuffed it in my pack. Then when visiting home after my second year away I was chatting with my cousins, both journalists, who suggested I start a blog. They also talked about the news media increasingly going in that direction, with journalists themselves being wise to get their own blog/ websites. The idea being that people will increasingly source information from individuals whose voices they trust and enjoy reading, rather than take a general sweep of an institution's or corporation's output, something the Internet is obviously contributing to.
[pullquote]I like the Internet for two main reasons, one of course to get information, two, that people do things they like doing and do it simply for that, without being motivated by money. [/pullquote]
I have also always liked to write. When I was at university studying politics and about to draft my last paper, I decided, with a few good grades already in the bag and the research done, to write the essay in the style of a Platonic dialogue. I wasn't expecting much reward for it but I enjoyed doing it. As it turned out I had a pretty cool professor and he gave me a great grade, but maybe more importantly he also noted that I had found my "voice". Those words probably gave me the confidence to back up the growing need I felt here in China to find a bit of space for some creativity. So, one morning sitting in a local coffee shop, with a couple of random notes I had written about the Sichuan earthquake on my computer, I started these Notes From Xi'an.
I have added other bits and pieces, so it is a bit more of a website now, but I go on the basis, first and foremost, that I like doing it, which is supported by the idea that if one person takes anything at all from it, then it is OK and worth it. This idea is itself based on an experience many years ago of sitting in a great local theater café. That day, I was the only one there and it has subsequently closed, but I always remember thinking then that that place was worth it just to have given me the chance to have been there that day.
I like the Internet for two main reasons, one of course to get information, two, that people do things they like doing and do it simply for that, without being motivated by money. They may end earning money from it, they may not, but they do it anyway. That is of course changing as it's not representative of our world, and not enough people have the time, but it is truly a great part of the Internet.
China Travel: You do quite a lot of voluntary work in Xi'an—how did you get involved and can you tell us a bit about some of the projects or your experiences?
Richard: It is not actually true that I do a lot of voluntary work and I am a little embarrassed about that, but yes I am involved as a Volunteer Manager with the Yellow River Soup Kitchen. I had for many years in Britain always done some voluntary work but on arriving in China I decided that if I was ever going to learn Chinese, as I always was and am a hopeless student of languages, I needed to not get involved with different activities, as I usually then want to do more. There is though an English chap in Xi'an who I have known for a few years and who started the first ever soup kitchen in China. I had a couple of other good mates who were helping out with it but with only so much that needed doing I left them to it. However, as they at different times left, and as my Chinese got a bit better, I started getting involved.
What the charity does is hold a soup kitchen every Monday, Wednesday and Friday evening where anybody who is homeless can come and eat. The Kitchen offers baozi and soup. We also get quite a lot of clothing donations and so we aim to give out clothing to those homeless who need it. We do also have a store of medicine and a couple of volunteer doctors that are around from time to time or who can be called upon to deal with more serious cases. The quantity of clothing donated has also allowed us to make weekend trips to some of the poorer villages in the mountains outside Xi'an, where we offer clothes and often toys to the local children. Last year, there was also a more comprehensive visit, where we were able to help renovate a school; repairs were done, walls, windows and blackboards were painted, windows were also added and a couple of heaters bought. There was a sports day also organized for the kids. We are actually off out this weekend to do the annual giving out of blankets. A team of volunteers goes out each year to locate the homeless in their sleeping spots and give them blankets and/or those big green army coats for the winter months.
The Yellow River Soup Kitchen is a good and simple project with many volunteers over the years making it work, but there are some characters on both sides and sometimes it is not clear who is more uplifted after a night at the Kitchen, the homeless or the volunteers themselves. Xi'an is also the home of the Library Project, which is also worth checking out. They donate books, or what is more like a mini-library, to rural schools, with volunteers also required, particularly at the weekends. There is still not a great deal of volunteer opportunities in Xi'an but for a few other places you could check my Xi'an Links Page.
China Travel: There's a lot to see in Xi'an, and having lived there for four years you must have done more than your fair share of tourist attractions. Can you give us a Top 5 recommendations for a first-time visitor?
Richard: Well, Xi'an does really speak for itself on this one, as you have got to do the Warriors. I would though make sure if you are doing them you check the pits out in reverse order, simply a psychological trick of making sure you are overwhelmed rather than underwhelmed. Check out the museum first and then go backwards, ending up at Pit 1. Bizarrely this could be the make or break of a round-the-world trip.
There are plenty of other historical attractions, although I am yet to visit the newly built Da Ming Palace that opened at the beginning of October, but out of the others I would simply plump for the City Wall and Small Goose Pagoda, renting a bike to do both. If you have a specific Chinese historical interest or you have mastered the art of Chinese Calligraphy then the Shaanxi National History Museum and/or Beilin, with its Forest of the Steles, should be on your agenda, but they are not going to make the Top 5.
The City Wall just gives you a good sense of the city while riding or strolling along a remarkably well-preserved piece of Chinese history. You rent the bikes on the wall itself. The Small Goose Pagoda is worth the visit for the pagoda but also for the landscaped gardens, scattered steles and good museum. It is also worth it, ironically, for the high, in local terms, entrance fee as it keeps the place quiet and a major reason why it comes recommended. This is a great place to chill out and feel a more ancient China all around you. A book and a picnic would also do the trick here. After the Warriors, the City Wall and the Small Goose Pagoda I am going to recommend the Shaanxi Normal University Campus.
This is one of the best great green spots in Xi'an but it is also full of local life, from the abundance of friendly students to the older members of the campus community who live there or near by, and who partake in various public communal activities. Early mornings and evenings are best but anytime is good. It is a good place just to stroll and has a number of sheltered seating spots. It also has Shi Da Lu close by, which has two or three of Xi'an's better coffee shops that are worth retreating to.
Finally, I have to go for an evening in the night markets and streets around the Muslim quarter, beneath the Drum Tower in the center of the city, where you can also take in the Mosque. It is touristy but for the newly initiated you have got to go really. These five will get you a bit of history, they will also get you out and about around the real city, where people are living, which is actually the best part of Xi'an life. You will also get the mixed cultural intrigue of wandering and feasting in the Muslim quarter. You would get a good sense of Xi'an, present and past, this way.
China Travel: Have you had the chance to travel very much elsewhere in China? Tell us about your best experience so far.
Richard: I haven't traveled that much but I have been lucky enough to get to Langmusi in Sichuan, run by the guy who managed the upkeep of the local mosque, with a bunch of young Beijing artists, was good. I also enjoyed Lugu Hu, on the Sichuan/Yunnan border, and the journey through the fields and hills from it to Lijiang. The monastery town of Xiahe and its monks offered a peaceful retreat and good photo opportunities. While pitching a tent high up on the increasingly touristy Lake Kanas, in Xinjiang, was amazing, because as soon as the boats stop running, the tourists disappear, which left us alone in what is a pretty epic lake valley. Drinking tea in a tea-house garden looking out over the river to the Giant Buddha in Leshan was fun; we didn't even make it across in the end. Finding our tent in a field next to the Tibetan horse festival in Litang, Sichuan, surrounded by a herd of yak was interesting. While wandering around and taking pictures of the quickly disappearing Old Town of Kashgar was actually quite moving. We were also lucky enough to spend a few days living in a tent right next to Lake Karakul, with its backdrop of snowy peaks, that was pretty amazing. The journey there wasn't bad either. Also, seeing the huge number of wind farms on the road from Urumqi to Turpan was quite something.
China Travel: And your worst?
Richard: I can't really do worst experiences, there is always that traveling aspect, after the fact, of what didn't break you makes you stronger. You've always got to look at it a bit like that. Though I gotta say run-ins with Chinese authority figures can often be exceptionally frustrating, to say the least. I have a few tales but they are not worth wasting any more time on. The important factor I suppose I always take from these incidents is the reminder they give you that staying calm is the best way to go, even when that is absolutely, most definitely not what you want to do.
China Travel: What part of China would you most like to visit and why?
Richard: It had been for a while Xinjiang but we have just been so I would have to say the Hakka settlements in Yong Ding, Fujian. Although, having just read David's piece below I'd like to check out those rice field castles of Kaiping, Guangdong. But also, inspired by the legendary Bill Murray film Groundhog Day, I would have to say I'd still like to go and see the ice sculptures in Harbin.
China Travel: What is the one thing you wish you'd known about China before arriving?
Richard: I really don't think there is anything, as it really is all a learning curve and I didn't know anything before I arrived. But, it is not to be forgotten that the women here are a feisty bunch, so may be a heads-up on that one would have been useful. I am now though engaged to a Chinese lady so may be it was just as good to go in blind. On a more serious note, some deeper level knowledge of cultural differences and intercultural theories/practices of communication would have been interesting, but as I say it is all about learning as you go.
China Travel: What do you miss most from home?
Richard: Family, bakeries and supermarket cheese sections (though they are getting better), European streets (for architecture), fish and chips and live (in the stadium) football matches where Newcastle United are playing.
China Travel: What would you miss most in China if you were to leave tomorrow?
Richard: That is a difficult one as it has become home, so I would be missing a lot. But, in a simple sense I would miss the everyday street nature of life here: the friendly exuberance, the basic trust, and the feeling of safety and security. I would also miss the rough edges that give the place its freedom and character, the epic overnight changes and the sense of future, with its hope and excitement but one that is tempered by the peoples' realism. It is that combination, and more, that I would miss.
China Travel: What three words sum up your China experience?
Richard: Straight off the top of my head: Home, Peace, Change
All images by Richard Frost.
Read more from Richard at his blog Notes from Xi'an.