When I decided to spend a few months in China to build and refine my language skill re-learning to ride a horse was one of the last things I’d anticipated it end up doing. I expected to practice Chinese, both on my own and with my host family, and repay them by tutoring their children – nothing more and nothing less.
As I’ve found all to common on this trip though, I’ve been pleasantly surprised – there is so much more culture and personality to this city than foreigners (myself included) would expect. Shanghai is an unparalleled amalgamation of China’s history; its European and American influences (a consequence of the Opium and Arrow wars in the 19th century) can be seen in the neoclassical architecture of the French Concession and the Bund, its world-class university system and its antiquated, but simultaneously modern skyline. Yet the city remains distinctly Chinese, which breeds frequent opportunities for unique and unexpected experiences for those foreigners who go looking.
For now, I’ll just write about my experience horse riding at Bay Forest Park, a little south of Pudong.
At 8:30 A.M we all met at Shanghai Jiao Tong University to board a shuttle bus to the park. Honestly, I wasn’t too hopeful for the day; growing up in Australia, the prospect of horse riding in Shanghai didn’t really excite me, especially when I considered the two hour bus trip on each end of the day. But, as I’ve already said, Shanghai is full of surprises.
I reckon there were about ten different languages spoken on that bus trip, ranging from Swedish to Moroccan to Chinese and English. It’s always interesting meeting people from different cultures; their stories, perspectives and skills are always intriguing (It’s not uncommon to come into contact with more cultures in a single day in Shanghai than you’d find over a year in Sydney). Before the day had really began I’d made a handful of new friends and learnt a bit about the similarities between Italian and Spanish as well as Moroccan and Arabic languages.
At 10:45 A.M we arrived at the pristine parklands, where the only indication we were still in Shanghai were the statues of Gru’s minions that flanked either side of the park’s entrance (I’m really not sure why, but Despicable Me seems to be immensely popular in China). From there we hopped in a buggy drove towards the stables and stockyards.
The program, being free of charge, relied on us trading a bit of our time to run games and activities for young Chinese kids, with the ultimate goal of them developing skills in English, co-operation and leadership.
We did scavenger hunts, fire building and a variety of quick yet enjoyable games. Around 1 P.M we separated for lunch and feasted on the typical Chinese banquet.
Following lunch we had a couple rounds of games and a tour of the stables before moving down to the stockyard for the part of the day we were all the most excited for – the riding lessons! I’d expected to see big and slow mountain horses, the type depicted in traditional Chinese and Mongolian artwork. But we were greeted by lean thoroughbred steeds, the same ones you’d expect to see stockmen riding deep in rural America or Australia.
I hadn’t ridden a horse in a very long time, so I was incredibly wobbly at first. The instructors however, were accommodating for my utter lack of talent coupled with my supreme confidence (or perhaps arrogance). They started us off slow before handing over the reigns for us to trot a couple laps.
After a quick break I hopped back on for round two with a more genuine confidence – a confidence that quickly faded once I sped up to a canter. That essentially concluded our day, we rushed back to the bus eager to get home after an enjoyable, but tiring day.
All in all, the day was brilliant. I really enjoyed myself and so did the others. I made new friends, refined an old skill, and learnt a few new vocabulary words that I’d never expected to need.
The day was a refreshing break from my Chinese study and the atmosphere of big city Shanghai, especially when I consider my expenses for the day – 20 RMB (£2) for my train fare.