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The Great Voice of China: A musical journey I

My journey all started with a GCSE in Mandarin and a study
trip to China. I don't remember ever meeting any Chinese people in my home city of Gloucester when I was growing up, but I've long had a fascination with the country and its languages.

When I was 12, my state secondary school offered me the chance to start studying in my spare time for Mandarin. I jumped at the opportunity.?

I did it for several reasons. First of all, the language was different and interesting. And secondly, even though I've always wanted to be a recording artist, with a dream as unrealistic as that I knew that I needed a good back-up plan in case it didn't happen. I hoped that studying foreign languages would hold me in good stead one day.

After my GCSEs, I couldn't take Chinese at A-level because there wasn't a school near enough to home that offered the course. But I wanted to study it at university, so I applied to do music and Chinese studies at Sheffield, the only place in the country that combined the two subjects.

The music course allowed me to study classical harmony, string quartets and jazz harmony, and four months of my second year were spent in China. This was quite an adventure as, until then, I hadn't done much travelling.

My family never had the money to spend on exotic foreign trips – when I was ten we went to France, which was the furthest we ever got. Otherwise, summer holidays consisted of a few day trips, reaching our various destinations by train. I guess that's why the prospect of travelling to China was so intriguing: it was very different from anything I had experienced, and so far away.

I didn't do much reading to prepare for my popular China tours. Instead, I relied for advice on fellow students who had already been to China, but mainly I was just looking forward to sampling it all for myself.

Large illuminated buildings made of ice in Harbin

My destination was Nanjing. I flew to Beijing and got a connecting flight to the city, which lies on the Yangtze river on which I have my Yantze River tour, 750 miles south-east of the capital. Travelling with me were three other girls, and we found ourselves in difficulties as soon as we arrived at our hotel in a taxi.

When we tried to pay the driver, he started making the most amazing fuss. We couldn't understand what he was saying, and the commotion soon attracted a huge crowd. We were exhausted after our flights and he was shouting, which made it hard to understand him.

Fortunately, a Chinese woman came up and, in impeccable English, said: 'He's trying to tell you that the notes you're giving him are fake. If you use them in China, you will be arrested – do not use them again!'

Since the notes were new and supplied by a UK travel agency, it seemed very unlikely that they were fakes. Anyway, we managed to hand over some other money that the taxi driver decided was OK, and so survived our first crisis without being arrested.

After checking into our hotel, we immediately went out to explore the city for wonderful China vacation deals. One thing we noticed was that the parks were full of elaborate exercise facilities to encourage people to keep fit – we could do with that in Britain.

We were soon travelling a little further afield. One day, we took a 30-minute bus ride from the university in Nanjing to a lovely place called Purple Mountain, which got its name because at dawn and dusk its peaks often become enveloped in mysterious purple and golden clouds. Entranced by its pagodas and amazing huge stone animals, we could easily have spent a couple of days there.

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