We don’t have the ability to hire a car in China – an international driving license means nothing here – so we are limited with our options for day trips whilst working in Shenzhen.
We’ve explored our temporary “hometown” and wanted to venture a little further afield. I was surprised to hear from one of my students, that the much smaller coastal city of Zhuhai, could be reached within an hour by ferry from our port just 10 minutes from our home.
She said it was a beautiful city with excellent seafood, so we decided to take an overnight visit to find out for ourselves.
After nine months living in one of the most populated cities on earth, Zhuhai was a breath of fresh air – quite literally! If you’d live to find out more about this small city and it’s surrounding islands, take a read of my latest article, written exclusively for Sapore Di Cina
As you move beyond your more productive years, do you find yourself worrying about those momentary memory lapses?
Perhaps you notice an occasional lack of clarity or find it difficult to come up with new and innovative ideas?
Age can certainly affect our cognitive skills but is there a deeper worry that we are slowly losing our minds to something more sinister like dementia?
Like me have you been conditioned to believe that your brain is on a slow downward spiral towards ineffective thinking or worse afflictions?
I certainly believed the science I was taught many years ago, that my brain will slowly deteriorate as I grow older.
That was until the moment I discovered Australian, Todd Sampson and his TV series about neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to redesign itself regardless of age!
It was a revelation and a welcome one at that. I’m semi retired now through choice, although I prefer to describe myself as a “global nomad” – a long term traveller who chooses to work a little, and live a lot – and in that order!
A mental gymnasium for the mind
But, I do sometimes worry that my thought processes aren’t quite as sharp as when I worked in a corporate environment. However, I’ve now realised, that with a little effort I can improve my failing memory, think faster and become more creative. By using some simple brain training exercises, I can sign myself up to a mental gymnasium for the mind that will enhance my brain’s neuroplasticity irreversibly!
I’m not talking about an annual subscription to Lumosity – the popular brain training exercise program. What I learned from Todd, was that through day to day problem solving, real time challenges, visualisation, mental stimulation and other creative exercises, it’s possible to reawaken parts of the brain that have fallen into an ineffective slumber.
OK, in Todd’s case he was highly motivated by challenging activities and timelines. But he demonstrated outstanding determination with incredible results.
Mulling over the implications of this remarkable science, my eyes were opened to how my non-conformist, travelling lifestyle of the past two years, has in fact already had a positive effect on my brain’s design.
Since leaving my mediocre life in London and embarking on a long term house sitting and travel adventure, I’ve begun to stimulate my brain quite naturally.
Through the process of perpetual change and survival in new and different cultures, my brain has redesigned itself without me even noticing.
Travel plays a big part in stretching the brain beyond itself, but adapting to a new culture pushes it into another sphere altogether.
Here are some of the ways travel has redesigned my brain.
When travelling or living in a new culture, adaptability is probably the biggest challenge you’ll face. Becoming mobile and leaving behind the security of your home and community automatically exposes you to a world of unknown probabilities.
I moved to Shenzhen, a city on mainland China, and living and working here is so totally different to any western society. Language, values, thought processes, social interaction, food. Absolutely everything is alien and unknown.
Our thought processes get fixed by our environment, and if you can’t be flexible and embrace everything that’s new, you’ll quickly find yourself frustrated and longing for home. Living here is like being a small child in a strange new life, learning once again how to commune and interact with other human beings. This in itself is refreshing and it puts me back in touch with my innocence and vulnerability.
A simple task like walking to the bus stop quickly triggers a heightened state of awareness. Streets and paths are uneven – I walk (sometimes in heels) without the assurance of smoothly paved roads. I’ve learned to negotiate building sites with towering cranes, swinging their loads precariously overhead. Health and safety has little credibility in China where people still take responsibility for their own well being.
Crossing the road definitely improves peripheral vision. I have to look in every direction at once, and continue to do so to avoid electric bikes, travelling fearlessly on the wrong side of the road.
There are 15 million people to avoid bumping into – most of whom are so glued to their mobile phones and wechat messaging that they don’t see you approaching. Miraculously they have developed an instinctive radar system to avoid collision. Perhaps that’s brain plasticity in action!
Shopping at markets and street sellers requires another level of super awareness. Skilled vendors have an amazing aptitude for slight of hand. How else could I buy two small pieces of fish, but pay for and receive an inedible and weighty fish head? Now I’ve learned to talk, work out payments and watch the weighing scales, all at the same time!
In the west I had stopped taking responsibility for my own safety – here it’s a necessity and it’s reignited my innate sense of fear, ensuring I survive in a world without legal reassurances should an accident occur. I’ve learned once again how to survive and it’s actually a good feeling!
Using public transport certainly draws on and improves your problem solving skills. When everything is in an illegible language that can’t easily be translated, you have to come up with a different approach to extracting information.
Working out bus routes was like a huge reality puzzle. We walked the streets, photographed bus stops and listed bus numbers. These were cross referenced to different points around the city. Gradually we uncovered the routes that would take us to work by the quickest most efficient journey.
But, there was so much more than this. We still have to work out ways to resolve simple problems like buying products online, booking tickets, using a washing machine, and all sorts of other day to day situations.
We are teaching here for a year to top up our funds. Working out ways to impart language to students with a totally different alphabet also stretches the brain to think more creatively. Someone told me that the Asian mind works in a spiral and the western mind is more linear. It takes some unique thinking to find the middle ground on which to share language and ideas. However, by persevering, I’ve had some of the most open and amazing conversations here in China.
When you lose the ability to communicate verbally, it becomes necessary to find another way to express yourself. Of course, you’ll try to learn the language, or at least enough to get you by – but that’s no easy feat in China.
Learning Mandarin is tough. At best you might learn three or four words or phrases in a one hour lesson. That doesn’t guarantee either that you’ll be able to read, recognise or write the characters.
In what can sometimes feel akin to a “life and death” situation, creativity quickly kicks in. I’ve developed sign language, the ability to sketch, and ingenious ways of using technology to get me by day to day.
This creativity has developed do the degree that, in the absence of speech, I seem to have acquired the ability to “know” intuitively what’s being said to me. My brain now interprets facial expressions, body language, sounds and environmental indicators.
I can have a “conversation” on the bus in which I do nothing more than nod, smile and make verbal acknowledgments. All of these appear to be acceptable but even more astonishingly, acceptable as the “correct answers”.
For my part I also know instinctively what I’ve been asked or told. And, because my brain can make no sense whatsoever of what is being said, it seems content to communicate in this simple way. When I observed this phenomenon, it really struck home to me how unbelievably skilled the brain is at adapting itself for survival.
More vital, more awake and more fulfilled
Since starting out on my great life adventure, I have felt more vital, more awake and more fulfilled then ever before in my life. Any form of long term travel will expose you to some or all of the challenges I’ve mentioned.
These situations have a positive effect – they keep you on your toes, reawaken your mind and allow you to fully appreciate the amazing opportunities in your new environment.
Dealing with change and constant adaptation along with reshaping your thoughts and views on life, will no doubt help you stay smarter, brighter and more able to enjoy and fully experience all the wonders that our world has to offer. You’ll not only redesign your brain, you’ll also redesign your limits!
Have you noticed any ways that your brain has redesigned itself through travel experiences?
If you’d like to read more about Todd Sampson and the program “Redesign your brain”, click here:
Hong Kong is one of the world’s top travel destinations. So you might be surprised to discover that nearby mainland Shenzhen, offers as much if not more in the way of culture, extensive shopping and vacation activities.
I’ve lived here now for nearly a year and am enjoying what the city has to offer, and it’s more than you may have expected!
Here’s my latest article for Sapore di Cina, where I highlight 20 of the top attractions in Shenzhen.
A visit to Shenzhen can leave you wondering if there’s any culture or history that hasn’t been miniaturised and replicated in a city theme park. So, we were very excited to discover the existence of an “ancient palace museum”, just two metro stops from our home at Sea World.
It was easy to find on Google Maps (with a VPN) and we could hop onto a local bus which, if our understanding was correct, would stop right outside our intended destination. The bus drove past Shekou Port and into new territory. Towering docks and an industrial landscape left us wondering if this palace was still in existence, however, our spirits rose when the bus dropped us outside an old building with traditional Chinese decoration and a couple of large stone lions in attendance.
As we approached the gate we realised happily that this was not in fact a palace – it was a temple! For the first time since arriving in Shenzhen seven months earlier, we were finally getting a fix of Chinese history and culture! We eagerly handed over our 15 Yuan entry fees and entered, keen to explore our new discovery.
This isn’t a Buddhist temple – it’s dedicated to Tianhou, goddess of the sea, and was built originally during the Song Dynasty in 1410. It’s been destroyed and rebuilt several times since and even now is undergoing another revival. The museum areas are being renovated and many of the exhibits had been removed for safe keeping.
The temple overlooks the massive shipyard at Chiwan Port and you can instantly appreciate its importance, offering the promise of protection to sailors venturing out on long journeys across the South China Sea.
The legend of the Tianhou temple
It is said that a famous Ming admiral, Zheng He, was commissioned by emperor Zhu Di to sail west. When he approached the Pearl River Delta near to Chiwan, the fleet was halted in the wake of a ferocious storm. Goddess Tianhou appeared to the emperor, saying that she had saved his fleet and that he should build a temple close by as an expression of his thanks. It seems Zheng He was in agreement and so he and his men built the temple, and he personally planted the original “wish giving tree” in the courtyard.
The legend of the goddess Tianhou
Tianhou (or Matsu as she is commonly known to the coastal people of South Asia), protects fishermen, sailors and others whose lives are dependent on the ocean. She’s worshipped in Guangdong, Fujian, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau.
In the main hall at the back of the inner courtyard, you’ll find the goddess herself. A large, golden, ornately decorated statue that dominates the (presumably) lesser deities of Caishen (Chinese god of wealth), and Guanyin (bodhisattva of compassion). In the corner is Tianhou’s bed and furniture, used in the annual celebration of her birthday.
She was apparently born in 960AD on an island off the coast of China, into a family of fishermen. She gained her “goddess” status in part after saving her brother from drowning in a typhoon. An excellent swimmer, she lifted him effortlessly from the sea. Legend has it that she either died while then searching for her father, who died in the same storm, or that she flew from a mountain top to be with the gods. In any case her fame spread and you can now visit more than 1500 temples dedicated to her in 26 different countries.
The temple is still a popular place of worship. During the two weeks before Tianhou’s birthday (23rd day of the 3rd month of Chinese Lunar calendar), the temple celebrates, and visitors get a chance to witness tradition and history in action.
The temple courtyards
To the right of the temple, Zheng Hi’s “Celestial Tree” (possibly its second or third reincarnation), is weighed down with lucky red cards and ribbons, requiring the support of modern day scaffolding.
You can ease your troubled mind by inscribing your prayers and wishes, before tying them to the branches of this ancient tree.
In front of the main hall, incense burns in huge containers and walkways lead to further courtyard areas.
A decorative portal is guarded by two loyal generals, Chien Li Yen and Shun Feng Er. Their postures demonstrate protective abilities – they can “see” and “hear” from a distance anyone that might prove troublesome for their goddess, Tianhou.
In the main courtyard you are able to explore the two storey drum tower, but the bell tower is closed, as are the museums until the renovations are complete.
There’s been some remodelling here too of the original moon and sun, yin and yang shaped pools. They’ve sadly been replaced by a single, more modern carp fish pond. Similarly, the original statue of Tianhou is also missing – hopefully not lost at sea!
Behind this pool the original sea wall towered, protecting the temple from the backlash of the ocean. Now a newer wall simply blocks the view of the shipyard. Alongside the pool you’ll find a small well, allegedly home to the spirit of a young boy who drowned in it.
Chiwan is still an important port on the Pearl River Delta. Close to Tian Hou temple you can also visit two other historically significant sites, the Left Fort and the tomb of the last emperor of the Southern Song Dynasty. All three sites can easily be visited in a morning or afternoon. We really enjoyed our visit and will return when the museum renovation is completed.
Address: 9 Chiwan 6th Road, Nanshan District. Chiwan 6th Road runs along the north side and back of the temple. The bus stops outside this entrance where you’ll find the ticket office.
Take the orange metro line to Chiwan and walk right along the road until you reach the temple. Alternatively you can take bus numbers 226, 355 or B819. A taxi from Sea World should cost you no more than 15 Yuan.
The temple is open from 8:00am to 17:30pm each day.
I’d heard a lot about spas here in Shenzhen and how different they were to western versions, and I was keen to see how they compared. One of my students offered to take us to D-Club, a luxury spa in the Futian district and it really was an experience unlike any other!