Cathal McGivern

Getting the Most Out of a Trip to China

Travelling is as good as YOU make it. China can be life changing if you allow yourself to explore. My name is Cathal and I went to China with Gotoco in 2019.

The Gotoco programme gave me a true taste of China, from teaching and living in Chinese culture to a funded paradise getaway to Yangshuo.

The sun sets atop the TV station overlooking the town of Yangshuo, a beautiful place with countless views like this.

However, the true gift Gotoco gives is freedom. The visa is around 90 days and Gotoco at its core is full of travellers and lovers of exploring China. A strict itinerary is good for some, but for me to truly find myself in China, I had to get lost in everything. The visa grants compete freedom around the Gotoco teaching, in my case it was a summer camp in South China in Dongguan. Before Dongguan, I had the flexibility to explore all of Beijing and Shanghai and at any step of my journey I could contact Richard, Gotoco co-founder, and other members of the Gotoco team for advice and help.

A child and her mum captured inside the bubbles she was blowing outside the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium, where many people gather to dance and play games or fly kites .

China is MASSIVE, with deserts, beaches, cities, mountains, ice cities and an overflow of beautiful history. Planning to go to some of its wonders is important but leaving room for spontaneous adventure is key. You never know how people and China will surprise you. Two weeks into my trip I got invited to camp at a weekend electronic music festival on The Great Wall of China, something I never even knew existed. The great Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama, had an exhibition in Shanghai where the outside of the building rotated, and I got to witness otherworldly art and an infinity mirror room. Such a big country has so much to offer, particularly if you love photography, travel and meeting new people.


The rooftops of the Summer Palace in Beijing.


Every party, hike, dinner, karaoke session and city is different and unique. Giving yourself the time to wander and make new connections every day can be the difference between a good trip and an unforgettable experience. For example, one day I hiked to the top of a glowing lantern above the city of Dongguan where I made some Chinese friends, who spoke very little English but they happened to be well-versed in English music. They owned a music shop in the heart a glowing Light District full of artists and bars near a river. Nothing warmed my heart more than drinking some Tsingtao beer beside colourful lights and singing The Cranberries’ ‘Zombie’ alongside new friends.


A music shop in Dongguan light district, where strangers welcomed me in to jam to music and explore the city.


Other Ways to Explore

Taking part in Gotoco was key to a wonderful experience but I chose also to immerse myself through Workaway. Workaway is a site that allows you to work a little for free accommodation and food. Hostels and trains are also really cheap too. With Workaway, I spent a few weeks living in an Artist’s Incubator Community in a rural farming village outside Beijing. I helped with painting murals, upkeep and building a bar. There were lots of other solo travellers doing the same as me. Being a part of a small community in China opened me up to their true kindness. I got to drive tuktuks, ride a skateboard through beautiful countryside, use the art facilities to create, play volleyball tournaments for watermelons, watch movies on a projector at night with villagers and make lifelong friends. Workaway allowed me to save money and be a part of a community. That is also what Gotoco is, a big community of other travellers looking at opportunities for adventure.  Remember there are so many ways you can travel cheap: Couchsurfing, camping and hostels are all things I used to find an authentic experience on a student’s budget.

An electric tuktuk, very fun to drive, in rural Beijing next to the wetlands and farms. China’s not all industry and cities, nature is blooming in the outskirts and all around. It was a great way to wander.

had such an amazing trip from going to a Beijing Burger Festival to riding a bike through the blissful Yangshuo mountains. One girl I met had hitchhiked through China from Vietnam and was going to continue her journey to Mongolia. This speaks to my inner into-the-wild persona and inspired me at the beginning of my trip to take every opportunity to just go out and wander to every corner I could find. It also showed me how safe China really is, there are always dangers anywhere but there was always a greater feeling of security over other countries I had been to.

The Lama temple in Beijing, near the Gotoco offices and an interesting insight into the spirituality, beliefs and worship practices for people for hundreds of years. Incense, colourful buildings and giant statues make these temples feel like another world.


Cutting and making our own bamboo cups in a forest in Guangzhou, a camping trip we made with tonnes of activities in a stunning nature environment.

A butterfly sits on a flower near the iconic mountains of Yangshuo, a place blooming with nature and vast places to see and explore.

The old town of XingPing, cobbled streets and busy markets with rivers and mountains surrounding it makes this small village near Yangshuo feel alive.

Tiananmen Square, a famous attraction in Beijing is a must-see and colourful place, with many iconic red buildings and flags surrounding the main palace.

The magnificent glow of citylife in China, many cities and places light up at night, but this picture across the river in Shanghai shows the Shanghai tower and colors shining off the river.


About the Author:

Cathal McGivern, a university student from Dublin, joined a Gotoco programme in Dongguan in South China, bordering Hong Kong, in July 2019. Since graduating, Cathal has been eager to move to China and has been using his TEFL to teach online before moving to Beijing later this year.

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