Exploring the UK through the eyes of XMU alumni
The U.K. wowed me for many reasons, first and foremost for its humanity and its stunning landscapes. The physical beauty of the U.K. is absolutely an eye opener for new arrivals. And Brits truly know how to utilize their natural resources.
As I hiked amidst its sparsely-populated hinterlands, the sheer scale of the countryside dwarfed me and I marveled at the ability of the greenery to thrive in its natural climate.
I was deeply struck by the fact that British parks and nature reserves are maintained close to their original state. They're markedly different from Chinese scenic spots, which tend to be well-developed tourist attractions criss-crossed by fences and warning signs.
Even the famed White Cliffs of Dover are not highly commercialized, let alone the Scotland highlands, which features the lowest population density in Europe. The mosses, lichens and peatlands that thrive in Scotland's harsh climate form wild carpets over the rolling mountains.
In Glencoe, I noticed a cairn on Black Mountain dedicated to mountaineers who lost their lives climbing the local mountains. The solemn inscription is deeply felt and moving: “They died in a place they loved.”
Outdoor activities are a tradition in the U.K. All day long, enthusiastic cyclists ply London's streets regardless of the weather. In the countryside, tents, caravans and backpackers are everywhere. Exploring nature is indispensable fun for British people.
Indeed, the local residents impressed me just as much as anything geographical. The vitality of the United Kingdom is underscored by the prevailing attitude towards life -- work hard, play hard. During my visit, I came across the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, billed as the world's largest arts festival. The event's 300-plus venues and over 3,000 separate shows are rivaled only by the festival's street artists vying for the eyes and applause of passers-by.
While a stereotype holds that Brits can be uppity and standoffish, I never found that to be true. Whenever I was lost or turned around, local residents were ready to help, sometimes even leading the way to my destination.
Once I missed my bus stop and, knowing the next stop would leave me far from my intended destination, I begged the bus driver to stop in the middle of the street. While he said “Not allowed” without a glance, the bus halted three seconds later. “Pop off,” he kindly told me.
When I encountered hikers on a mountain path, they always said hello. Even in busy London, the bus tour promoters seemed merry and friendly, whether fishing for guests or chatting with their competitors.
Brits also have a reputation for an offbeat sense of humor, a stereotype I found to be at least partially true. In Edinburgh, I joined a walking tour dedicated to hunting ghosts. Our guide, a student majoring in history, took us through historical places and told us ghost stories at each site. More than once, a conspirator jumped out to scare us. When the tour ended in a pitch-black graveyard, it felt genuinely creepy.
As much as I enjoyed my encounters with native residents, the U.K. is also very much a home for people from around the world. I encountered so many interesting people, including a Spanish tattooist, a Romanian ballet dancer now waiting tables and a Czech receptionist working in the U.K. for her gap year.
I also saw many Asian faces and heard the familiar tones of Mandarin. London's Chinese restaurants offer genuine fare and were a feast for the stomach. Local specialty markets have plenty of ingredients for cooking Chinese food.
I've heard people say that Britain and its people can be intimidating. Christopher Hitchens once said: “Life in Britain had seemed like one long antechamber to a room that had too many barriers to entry.” Even so, I found Great Britain to be an open and approachable country full of endless possibilities.
Article and photos by Wu Hui