How to get a flight over Everest for 1/10 of the price of a charter plane

After our first trip to Xi’an, we headed to Kathmandu, Nepal. We completely didn’t expect to see Everest until we arrived in Nepal.

We boarded our flight, and I was feeling a little better after having quite a bad fall in Xi’an. To help with the travel sickness I often get, I’d asked for a window seat at check-in and we were near the front of the queue so I got my wish.

Our plane took off and on the ascent, we went straight through a thick, white cloud that stayed with us throughout our journey. We were travelling in early July 2018. Summertime in Nepal is the height of the rainy season. There are few tourists at this time of year, since most go to Nepal in the (northern hemisphere’s) winter months in order to capitalize on the dry, cooler temperatures for mountain expeditions to Everest and Annapurna.

FYI, rainy season = cloud cover. All the time. The skies are SUPER grey in Nepal at this time of year and it rains pretty much every afternoon, you can almost set your watch by it.

We hadn’t gone to Nepal with any intention of doing the infamous Everest Base Camp trek. We just wanted to see Kathmandu, for itself, as a destination in its own right, so there was no real plan to see Everest at all on this trip. Some people will be outraged by that or see it as a waste of an opportunity.

What can I say? As I said in my article on 17 things to do in Xi’an, I’m not a fan of box-ticking travel, to go somewhere just to do one thing then to leave again without taking in the culture. I had to go to Xi’an twice before I saw the Terracotta Warriors, haha.

I had hoped to see Tibet from the air, as we hadn’t been able to organise travel there, due to needing time to apply for the travel permits (even with a China residence visa, you still need a permit to visit Tibet as it is a conservation area).

The whole flight was cloud cover. But as we got to the border between China and Nepal (which is exactly at Mount Everest), the pilot made a surprising announcement.

“This is your captain speaking. We are about to fly past Mount Everest on your right,” he said.

There was great excitement. And by some incredible stroke of luck, we were sitting on the side of the plane that passed Mount Everest.

At first, little cones of mountaintops poked through the clouds like puppy noses. Then, into view came this huge behemoth, surrounded by the little puppy noses but dwarfing them.

The mountain was almost as high as the plane, and we got so close, I felt like we could have stepped out of the plane and glided over there if we’d only had a hang glider. The distance was probably an illusion caused by the sheer size of Mount Everest.

People say it’s the highest mountain in the world, but from the ground, every mountain looks huge. It’s difficult to explain how different they looked from the air, especially since the clouds were so thick.

But if the clouds hadn’t been covering the ground so much, we wouldn’t have been able to see Mount Everest projecting so clearly and majestically out of the biosphere, with a background of delicious blue sky.

Fun fact: Mount Everest is the only part of the Earth in the whole world that occupies the troposphere, the layer of sky above the biosphere, where no mammals can actually survive.

The total cost for two plane tickets from Xi’an to Kathmandu was about 3300RMB (about £350) one way for two people. When we arrived in Kathmandu, we saw several “travel agency” places advertising a chartered flight over Everest for the equivalent of £1000 (8000RMB) for ONE person, so our flight over Everest was about 1/10 of the cost of the chartered planes.

It was one of the greatest travel experiences of my life. Here are some of the incredible photos I took:

How to access your Gmail emails from China without a VPN and 7 other solutions

This article will cover how to read your emails without a VPN, even if you use Gmail, and 7 other solutions to internet access problems caused by the Great Firewall of China.

What is the Great Firewall?

Basically, China has some concerns about the data security of specific western companies and they have blanket banned their services. This includes all Google services, not just Google search, so Maps, Gmail, Google Drive, Scholar and Google Books are all affected.

You might be forgiven for thinking that no one in China uses the internet, or that it’s a bleak, pared-down service with no real value to anyone. Google is EVERYTHING, right? Uh… no.

People in China use the internet like 24/7, and they do pretty much everything on there. More things than you. I’m pretty sure they’d use the internet to sleep if there was an app for it. The internet in China is thriving, and you can use it, too, you just have to know what to do instead of what you’re accustomed to.

If you have an iPhone, you can use Apple’s in-house programs instead of Google services.

If you have Google’s Maps app on your phone or tablet, the app will still work (ish) but it will be horribly inaccurate because it doesn’t know where anything in China is, streetview doesn’t work, and half the addresses are written in Chinese characters instead of English, so don’t use Google Maps in China anyway.

So anyway, there’s this firewall, and you’ve heard the answer is a VPN (virtual private network… you basically lie to the internet and tell it you’re somewhere else). You’re about to go to China and you are wondering about buying a VPN? STOP! Ask if you really need it. If you’re only going for a short trip, you likely will be about to waste £100!

Lots of rich-kid travel bloggers will tell you that you need a VPN to use the internet in China but it’s just not true. And actually, it can cause more problems than it solves.

Here’s the main reasons people think they need a VPN to visit China:

  • Gmail
  • Google Search
  • Google Maps
  • Google Drive and Dropbox
  • Google Translate
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • To access news sites and anything using AdSense or Analytics
  • YouTube

This article is going to cover how to set up your stuff so you won’t need a VPN for most purposes. It’s for people who are only going to be in China for a week or two.

If you’re going as an expat, a VPN makes more sense because these workarounds are not long-term solutions, but as a tourist, why waste £100 on a year’s subscription to something you’ll never use after you get back from China?

How to get at your Gmail emails in China (do this before you go):

The biggest reason you might seriously need to use non-Chinese internet is to access important messages in your email inbox. Many things in the West are done via email these days so not being able to communicate with people is an abject nuisance, especially if you’re a digital nomad running a business.

Here’s how to read your emails and and stay in touch with your contacts while you’re on holiday in China:

  1. Go to Mail.com (that’s a different website to Gmail.com – note there’s no G at the start because it’s not a Google site). Set up a free account. It’s fairly basic and their popups are really annoying but they have one huge advantage for tourists in China trying to read their email, which is that mail.com is not banned in China.

    You could also use Yahoo Mail (the search engine is banned but not the email, so bookmark a direct link), or if you have a self-hosted website or a work email, you could set up Outlook, Mac Mail or Thunderbird (but these are complicated for getting at web-based mail).
  2. Go to your Gmail account and go to “settings” (the cog). Click “go to all settings” near the top of the menu. In the tabs across the top (grey and hard to spot, see my screenshot), go to “forwarding and POP/IMAP” and check “forward a copy of incoming mail to:”
  3. Click “add a forwarding address.” Type your new mail.com email address into the box here and check “keep Gmail’s copy in the inbox” so you have a record of all your emails in case you need them later. Ignore all the rest and click “save changes”.
  4. Go back to your Mail.com account and confirm the forwarding request. If you don’t do this, the whole thing doesn’t work.
  5. Go to China and read your emails. It’s that simple!

What to use instead of Google Search in China?

http://bing.com

http://baidu.com

These work fine. Bing throws up more results in English. Take your pick.

What to use instead of Google Maps in China?

A mapping app is something we’ve all come to rely on to help us find our way around. Sure, you could buy a paper map, but it won’t tell you shop opening times or give you a company website when you click on it.

However, there are LOADS of alternatives to Google maps which work in China. Here I’ll review all of them along with the problem all of them share:

1. Bing Maps.

This is basically the best mapping app for China.
Pros: The road names are all in English so you can read them. It shows the public transport lines really clearly, like WAY better than Google which absolutely isn’t geared up to showing you public transport very well. It gives you details about things on the map such as their website and opening hours, where these have been added to Bing. It works in your browser so even on a Mac you can use this Microsoft app. There’s also a downloadable Bing Maps app for your phone!
Cons: None. I am not a fan of Bing search engine but their mapping app is really good.
Find it: https://www.bing.com/maps

2. Apple Maps.

Misses out on the top spot because it only works on Apple products and there’s no browser option.
Pros: Works on your iphone, ipad or Mac. You don’t need to remember a URL to get a map. Has more up-to-date China maps than Google.
Cons: Doesn’t work on non-Apple products and you can’t use it in a browser.
Find it: On your Apple products.

3. Here We Go.

This works in your browser or as an app, across a range of products. I saw reviews which said it only worked on Windows, Android or iOS but I tested it on my MacBook Pro and I can safely say it also works on Macs.
Pros: Works on all platforms and there’s a browser mode. Great for getting from A to B when you know where you are and where you are going.
Cons: No business listings, destinations or places of interest, it only works with addresses you already know, so it’s not great for getting travel inspiration or mapping to somewhere by place name rather than street address. Very simple in terms of features shown, e.g. there’s no green to show parks.
Find it: https://wego.here.com/

4. Maps.Me

This is a mapping app that claims to work offline and be a great friend to travellers.
Pros: Works offline (if you downloaded the map)
Cons: Doesn’t work on laptops, you can only run it on iOS or Android. No good for late-night laptop research for tomorrow’s itinerary (am I the only one who does this?).

The one problem all mapping apps share when you’re in China:

Street names are shown in Chinese characters or Western translations, both of which are, of course, useless for people who aren’t bilingual. Pinyin of the Mandarin street names written out in full would have been a better choice for readability and would also help with conveying addresses to taxi drivers (many of whom can’t read Chinese characters either).

If app developers are looking to update their maps with a major improvement, things like the screenshot below (from the English-language version of Apple maps) are basically useless when trying to get around in China. Instead of Fengcheng 1 Rd, it would be 1000% more useful to see “Fengcheng Yi Luo” written out in Pinyin, so travellers to China can read this out loud to taxi drivers, and those Chinese characters are hopeless, too.

Maps Conclusion:

Bing maps, y’all. It’s the best of the lot for getting around in China.

How to access Google Drive or Dropbox in China without a VPN:

You basically can’t. Sorry. The best workaround is to back up your files onto an external hard drive and use that, instead. Large-scale file sharing is a non-starter in China.

How to translate things in realtime in China:

Google Translate is very useful when you want to paste some text into a box and see some English. However, it is banned in China, which is a country where few people speak English.

Instead of using Google Translate in China, locals use a phone app called WeChat, which includes a translation option. You can either translate text, if someone sends you a message in Chinese, or you can use the phone’s picture scanner to translate Chinese into English.

Go to “options” “QR code scanner” then on the QR code scanner, press the “translate” button to toggle between QR scanner and translation. This will take a picture of the thing you want to understand, and it will translate it for you. Be sure to snap a screenshot if you need to keep the translation, as WeChat doesn’t save the translations for you.

You can also use a translation app but I have tried about 6 and none of them (even the expensive ones) were useful for China if I’m honest so I have nothing else to recommend.

If you want an app to actually learn Chinese, get Duolingo.

How to use Facebook in China (and Twitter) without a VPN

The only way to use Facebook in China is by using a VPN. And you can’t use a VPN on mobile data. BUT you can stay on top of your notifications by being clever.

Go to Facebook and look at your email settings. Get it to email you notifications for everything that happens on your Facebook. If you set your email up (first section, above), these notifications will be forwarded to your Mail.com and you can see who has liked your cat photo. This also works for Twitter. Who knew those crazy emails every 2 seconds, like “Bob Smith liked your post!” were actually useful for something?

How to read western news in China without a VPN

A lot of western news sites are blocked in China. Without saying too much, this is usually because they’ve been identified as having an anti-China bias. To make it even more annoying, paranoid webmasters in western countries block Chinese IP addresses for no good reason.

You can still get western news however. Your local hometown newspaper is very unlikely to be affected by this, because when was the last time the Springfield Gazette ran an article on China?

Bookmark your local hometown news site. If you’re from a big city like LA, Washington DC or New York, you might be better finding a smaller gazette or chronicle.

Additionally, certain western news sites are not blocked. This list is ever changing but if you bookmark the main sites, you have a good chance of finding one that can keep you abreast. When I last checked, the Independent and the Guardian weren’t blocked, and both cover US news as well as European news, although I suspect it’s only a matter of time before they get banned.

How to get YouTube in China without a VPN

Sorry, YouTube is a Google company, so you basically can’t access YouTube at all without a VPN. If you’re a Youtuber without a VPN in China, stay up to date on your channel notifications by getting them all via email, and save your videos of China to share when you get home.

For non-Youtubers, if you download your favourite videos with a YouTube downloader (my go-to one has just stopped doing free downloads so I no longer have a recommendation for this), you can watch them offline. Otherwise, buy a DVD and external DVD drive to take with you.

Are there any other apps or sites you’re struggling to use in China? Let me know in the comments and I’ll do some looking and update this article for you. 🙂

20 random facts about China

Today I wanted to share 20 random facts about China with you.

  1. China is the second largest country in the world by landmass
  2. China’s full name is the People’s Republic of China which is sometimes shortened to PRC.
  3. There are about 1.4 billion people living in China; 18% of the world’s population.
  4. China has the world’s largest bullet train network.
  5. China has the fastest growing economy in the world
  6. China is losing 4000 square kilometers of land each year to desertification
  7. The largest producer in the world of rice, wheat, tomatoes, aubergine, grapes, watermelon and spinach is China
  8. China is the third most biodiverse country in the world (after Brazil and Colombia), with over 34,687 species of plants and animals.
  9. China is the second largest country in the world by land mass, after Russia, and the third-largest by total area.
  10. There are 658 billionaires in China — the highest number in the world.
  11. China’s currency is called the “renminbi” or “RMB”, and it’s the eighth most traded currency in the world.
  12. Mainland China is home to over 600,000 expats, most of them live in the Shenzhen area.
  13. China is a major investor in scientific innovation and research, spending $279 billion on this in 2017.
  14. The road network in China is the longest highway system in the world, at 142,500km (and they’re still building more of it)
  15. Most people live within 1000 miles of the coast, with far inland areas such as Inner Mongolia being sparsely-populated farmland.
  16. In 2010, there were 118.06 boys per 100 girls. Most countries have about 105 boys per 100 girls.
  17. The main ethnic group in China are the Han-Chinese, who are the world’s largest single-ethnic group.
  18. 70% of the population speak Mandarin, and although we think of Cantonese as a second language of China, only 80 million people speak it, amongst over 200 other living languages being spoken in China! Standard Mandarin is used as a bridging language between people in China who cannot speak the same dialect as one another, so many people speaking Standard Mandarin don’t have it as their native language, which means many people e.g. taxi drivers can’t actually read it.
  19. China is committed to improving the education of its residents, and invests $250 billion annually in compulsory-level education.
  20. China follows traditional Chinese medicine still in many hospitals but there are some more modern-thinking ones, called “western” hospitals.

Teaching in China: My experience at an international school

Guest post by Dr. Jason Szulc from Scientificanow.com

Jason worked in China as a physics teacher at an international school in Jiangsu Province for two years. Here, he gives his experiences on what it’s like as an expat living and working in China.

The recruitment process

I didn’t really apply for a job in China, I got headhunted by a recruitment agency, so I don’t know about application forms or the best place to find a job if you’re looking to work in China.

The recruitment agency provided an introduction and got my CV in front of the headteacher of an international school with a good reputation. I did my research on the school (as much as was possible; I found their website and read about their curriculum, the structure of the school week etc). The school organized a Skype interview with the headteacher who told me everything I needed to know about the school then asked if I was still interested. We negotiated salary via email and I accepted the job.

At this point, an administrator at the school became my point of contact and walked me through the process of sending my certificates in for my degrees and PGCE, applying for a visa etc.

Getting there

Once I had my visa, which involved a visit to a visa office in England, actually going to China was fairly straightforward. I booked flights, packed two suitcases and they checked my China visa at check-in.

When I arrived, immigration took a long time because I came in on a very big flight and flew into Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG), one of the busiest airports in China. Once I was through immigration, a representative from my school met me in the arrivals foyer, we met up with some other people who had flown in, and went to get some food before driving an hour and a half to the school in a minibus.

Starting work

There were induction days and a safeguarding workshop, and a barbecue to welcome new staff members. Everyone was really friendly and there was a sense from day 1 that we were all working on the same team.

What were the living facilities like?

We had a 1-bedroom apartment but it was enormous! I live in a 2-bedroomed house now in the UK that’s smaller than the apartment in China. There was a kitchenette with a microwave, kettle, hotplate, sink and fridge-freezer; I bought an oven while I was there. The bathroom had a sink, toilet, shower and bath. The bedroom had a lot of storage, a huge window, an air conditioner and a bed. There was one set of bedding with it so I bought some more at a supermarket. The living room had a sofa, desk, dining table and chairs, TV on a TV table, and a coffee table, as well as a second air conditioner and an air purifier. 

I had an I.E. (cleaner) who came to the apartment daily to empty bins, clean the bathroom, hoover and wash the dishes. Mine was provided free by the school but people who lived independently of the school found it easy to hire their own I.E.s.

What was the food like?

It was school food, because I lived at the school and ate at the school canteen. We sat with the pupils to eat and we weren’t allowed to use our phones in the dining room, to encourage conversation between staff and pupils. Generally the food wasn’t bad; there were some days better than others.

It was a fairly good school canteen, with the occasional really odd thing like the prawn pizza. It was split into three main areas, the “western” bit, the “Chinese” bit and the “Asian fusion” area, along with a salad bar and a hatch that just served noodles and dumplings, all of which served different types of cuisine. One good thing about the school I worked at was the food was plentiful. On the western side, it was a little bit weird, like someone had told them about western food and they’d made something approximating it.

The vegetarian option left a lot to be desired and usually had a lot of butter on it and no protein. People with dietary considerations did struggle at times, particularly vegans or those who couldn’t eat pork. They tended to buy their own food and cook in their apartments instead of eating at the canteen. There was meat in things that you wouldn’t expect, such as the buns in the dessert area which had sausages inside them, which we dubbed the “secret sausages”. There were very few times when I got to the canteen and went “there’s nothing I want to eat here”, although it did get repetitive sometimes; there was a lot of Katsu curry!

What were the pupils like?

They were happy to sit down and get on with work. Very little in the way of bad behaviour, although sometimes they would sit there not doing anything, occasionally falling asleep in the class. They almost always did their homework, and they expected it to be marked the day it was handed in.

The pupils were expecting a teacher-led experience rather than student-led, and I had to put in a lot of effort to teach them to try answering something they hadn’t already memorized the answer to. If you didn’t turn up to a class in the UK, the kids would be running riot everywhere. When another teacher did that once in my school in China, the pupils just stood and waited quietly outside the classroom. They waited to be told what to do. I never had any incidents of pupils acting out they were always very respectful towards the teachers.

SEN isn’t recognized in China so as a teacher you have to find ways to make learning accessible without any real support or even acceptance that any given pupil might have SEN. Even then, you don’t get the same behavioural challenges as in western schools.

What was the working week like?

The working week was heavy. I was teaching thirty 40-minute lessons a week on my basic timetable and sometimes more from covering other staff absences or timetable. That was on top of boarding duties, planning lessons and marking work, and leading extracurricular activities at the weekend such as golf, horse riding, rugby, science-related activities such as robot wars club and STEM club, where we did things like designing paper airplanes and seeing how far they could fly. There was a science fair, exam support, ECA, form tutoring… 

I was working about 16 hours a day plus at least half of a Saturday and sometimes all of Sunday, too. It was basically work continuously with little in the way of sleep for about 4 weeks then a week or more of school holidays, but there was basically no work to do during those holidays, which is completely different to teaching in England, where you spend a lot of the holidays working.

The working environment

Classroom: Class sizes were fairly small. The classroom was the size of a UK one and had lots of new tech in it, such as digital projector, electrical workstations that came down from the ceiling, a chemical shower for health and safety, mobile fume cupboards, as well as all the usual stuff you’d find in a UK science lab. My classroom had plenty of light. It was all very modern; the school had been built very recently.

Office: I had a desk in an open-plan office, which was very spacious. We had a coffee machine and a mini-kitchen as well as our own printers so we could work more efficiently. My office chair was very comfy! Wi-fi connectivity was sometimes poor, which made it difficult to access resources to teach the English curriculum, particularly because the access to some websites was limited. 

What were the best things about moving to China?

The money was good. The kids’ behaviour and attitude were fantastic. Online shopping and delivery was amazing. Anything you wanted was a few clicks and two days away, and usually very well-priced. It was very easy to visit the rest of China and all the surrounding countries, and we had a lot of great holidays. The expat community and the people I worked with were all great and very easygoing. The working environment was nicer than in England so people didn’t have the same stresses, and the people you meet out there are people who are willing to try new things or they wouldn’t have moved to China! I also made some fantastic friends and contacts, from whom other opportunities have come up since I left China.

What I wish I’d known before I moved there

I knew about shoes beforehand, that shoes in my size would be difficult to get. I wish I’d known how dependent everything is on mobile phone technology. You need WeChat for absolutely everything. I hadn’t properly understood how absolutely huge everything is.

I was in a city that was the equivalent of Leamington Spa in terms of importance to the overall country, but it was a city of over eight million, which is about the same population as London. It took well over an hour (in no traffic) to get across the city to the second train station (and yet there were only two train stations) due to the sheer distances involved.

All the shops etc were in the very centre of the city and you couldn’t walk anywhere because of the distances involved, so I got a lot of taxis. Taxis were incredibly cheap. 45 minutes in a taxi into the city centre was about 80RMB (about £10).

Would you go again if you knew everything you now know about China?

Oh, absolutely.

Jason now works as a freelance science education consultant. He runs a science education website and a physics revision app which he designed. You can find him at www.scientificanow.com

You might like these other articles about China:

How to get a China visa if you’ve changed your name

10 things to do in Xi’an, China (and 7 more I wish I’d done)

Infographic about expats in China: Where they’re from will surprise you

In pictures: Shanghai, China

20 best things to do in Beijing

20 best things to see and do in Beijing

In this article I am going to share the 20 best things to see and do in Beijing. If you’re in Beijing and you find some time on your hands, any of these are good options. Some, like Tiananmen Square, are essential must-do sights, where others, such as the museum of natural history, are perfect for a rainy afternoon or for expats looking for something to do at the weekend in Beijing. You don’t need to leave the city limits to have a great Beijing day out or an afternoon walk to see something interesting!

1. Tiananmen Square – 1 full afternoon along with the Palace Museum and Imperial Ancestral Temple which are part of the same area.

2. Mausoleum of Mao Zedong – Pay your respects to Chairman Mao, next to Tiananmen Square.

3. Zheng yang men City Walls Gatehouse Museum – A gatehouse dating to 1419, with a museum, all situated beside Qianmen underground station, near Mao’s Mausoleum.

4. Beihai Park – behind Tiananmen Square is a 1000-year-old park which has only been open to the public for the last 95 years.

5. Temple of Heaven – The world-famous Temple of Heaven will take 1 very full afternoon to see!

6. Summer palace – The summer palace rivals the Temple of Heaven for beautiful remains of a bygone era. It takes 1 full afternoon to see.

7. China Science and technology museum – A hands-on museum with lots of practical things to touch and explore. 1 full afternoon. Great for kids!

8. Beijing zoo – A zoo with pandas. 1 full afternoon. Great for kids!

9. Beijing Aquarium – Behind the zoo! Great for kids!

10. Palaeozoological Museum of China – A dinosaur museum behind the zoo! Great for kids!

11. CCTV (China’s state TV) building – A unique building for fans of MC Escher!

12. Chaoyang theatre – If you love live arts, you can see a stunning live performance by China’s acrobats or hear the beautiful opera here!

National Centre for the Performing arts – another venue where you can find singers, ballet, theatre and more!

13. Beijing Lama Temple – a beautiful Buddhist temple.

14. Capital museum – A good general museum giving you a sense for China’s history with ancient Chinese statues, porcelain, paintings and artefacts.

15. Central Radio and TV tower – A sky-high tower tourist attraction with revolving restaurant and stunning views of the city.

16. Beijing World Art Museum – A free art museum where you can explore Chinese art and worldwide art. Across the lake from Central Radio and TV tower.

17. Nine Dragon Screen, Wulongting, Kuaixuetang and Qianhai lake – all beside Beihai North Station, beautifully intricate and interesting historic Chinese architecture to look at.

18. National Art Museum of China – an enormous art gallery with work showcasing China’s culture. Free entry.

19. Beijing Museum of Natural history – a natural history museum covering plants, fossils, animals and biology. Free entry (some exhibitions charge).

20. The military museum of the Chinese people’s revolution – if you want to see how China threw off the reins of feudalism and got to where it is today over the past century, this museum is the place to go. You need to book in advance either over the phone or via WeChat.

Where do you love going in Beijing? Let me know in the comments!