And the adventure begins...
I'd never have believed two years could go by so quickly. Since September 2010 my boyfriend Luke and I have been living and teaching in Jinhua, a small (by Chinese standards) city in Eastern China. We came here almost by accident, with no teaching experience and no idea what to expect - a daunting prospect when you consider how widely foreign teachers' experiences vary in China, swinging on the enjoyment scale from mind-blowingly fabulous to downright hellish.
Luckily, things couldn't have turned out better. Within weeks we were loving our jobs at the local university, had already gained countless pounds of delicious, greasy, wonderful Chinese grub, and had been effortlessly absorbed into the friendly little foreign community which exists here. Two years later, it's time to move on - time to bid our cosy little existence goodbye, face reality and catapult ourselves into the real world (with the one saving grace being, thankfully, it's anybody's guess where on the globe we'll end up).
With possibly our last ever deliciously long summer holiday stretching out before us, we decided to soften the blow by taking a detour on the way back to reality; via Xi'an, Nepal and India. Xi'an will be our first port of call, home to the world famous Terracotta Warriors and one of the few major Chinese attractions we've yet to cross off our list. Keep your Great Wall, your Forbidden City, your peaks of Guilin and Tiger Leaping Gorge - what could be more exciting than over 8,000 manmade ceramic soldiers, complete with chariots and horses staring up at you from their enormous excavated pit? We've seen an impressive amount of China's tourist hubs over the past two years, but I have a sneaking suspicion that we may have saved the best for last.
We had hoped to travel by train from Xi'an into Tibet where a friend's company would organise a ten-day tour (Tibet can only be visited by foreigners on a licensed tour where they are chaperoned by a guide), travelling across the plateau and eventually depositing us at the Nepalese border. Our plans were scuppered, however, when the Chinese government decided to close Tibet's borders - as they occasionally do due to unrest in the area, etc - first to all foreign tourists and then, as luck would have it, only to visitors hailing from the UK. Typical.
Understandably disheartened, we quickly revised our plans and booked a flight to take us from Xi'an, via the gigantic industrial city of Guangzhou, to Nepal's buzzing capital Kathmandu. Once there, we're hoping to make the most of our now Tibet-less extra week by spending it getting to grips with Nepalese culture (which, for us, means a heavy emphasis on sampling its culinary delights) and soaking up the bohemian backpacker ambience of Thamel, Kathmandu's answer to Bangkok's Khao San Road where narrow streets, rooftop cafes and outdoor markets abound. From there it's out into the wilds of Nepal for a couple of weeks of overnight buses, stunning scenery and real exploring. If the weather is kind (July and August are part of Nepal and India's monsoon season, meaning we can expect a nice hefty amount of torrential rain complemented by temperatures of 35-45 ?C), we'll pay a visit to south-central Nepal's Chitwan National Park - otherwise it's straight on to Pokhara, Nepal's second-largest city, for jaw-dropping Himalayan views and medieval temples.
By the end of July, it'll be time to bid Nepal goodbye and hop (we can only hope it turns out to be as easy as hopping) over the southern border into India. I have wanted to travel through India for as long as I can remember - from the first time I saw black and white photos of bejewelled maharajas swaying lazily on elephants' backs, the first time I tasted curry, the first time I saw a Bollywood movie or heard the folk music of the Punjab, I knew that India was a place I needed to see. As a result, I am naturally almost wetting myself with excitement at the thought of finally setting foot in this colourful, wonderful, magical country.
All being well, we'll be in India for just over a month, starting our travels in the north with Varanasi, an ancient holy city clustered around the hectic banks of the Ganges. From Varanasi we'll head north-west to Agra, Hindustan's old capital and home to the Taj Mahal, then on to Delhi in the north - from what I've heard, an utterly frenetic metropolis which offers a front row seat to the ongoing drama of old India meets new.
Next we'll explore Rajasthan's four major cities; Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Udaipur. Rajasthan is supposedly India's must-see state - a huge territory famous for its ancient glamour and vibrant culture, where you can camp in the Great Indian Desert, ride camels, see tigers and gawp in wonder at the Amber Fort and the Pink City - if you're not too busy wolfing down Rajasthan's famed street food.
Last but not least, we'll head for Amritsar, Sikhism's spiritual home (most famous for the Golden Temple), then Rishikesh, the ‘Yoga Capital of the World' nestled amongst the forest-covered foothills of the Himalayas. And finally, the pièce de résistance - arguably India's most chaotic, poetic, eclectic city; Mumbai.
India is a notoriously challenging place to visit, facing each visitor with an unimaginable range of human and cultural extremes - but it is also widely thought of as an unavoidably life-changing experience that leaves you literally whirling in its wake. And, after all, what traveller worth their salt would pass up and opportunity to be well and truly whirled?