WHEN a group of 14 Griffith High School students set off on an excursion to China they didn't know what to expect.
What they found was a magnificent cultural eye-opener.
The students from years 10 to 12 and their teachers Justine MacCormick, Jyotika Maharaj, with Lal Maharaj and three parents, visited Griffith's sister city, Harbin from June 27 to July 13.
They were warmly welcomed by Robert Song and Alex Meng from the Harbin Foreign affairs office.
The students were privileged to attend a speech contest organised by the Home Affairs in Harbin, with Mrs MacCormick invited to be one of the chief judges.
Not only did the trip offer the group a wide range of educational experiences, they were also featured on the front page of the Harbin Daily Newspaper and made a television appearance.
Emma Dreyer, 17, said the highlight for her was a visit to a school with 1500 students.
"I liked Harbin the best and going to the school and seeing how different it was to ours," she said. They have 40 kids in a class compared to our 23. We are really lucky.
"Their day starts at six in the morning and goes until seven at night and they don't have many free days."
Mrs MacCormick, who spent several months planning and organising the excursion, with help from principal Charlie Cochrane and his management team, said a high point of the trip was the visit to Harbin Number Nine Senior School, where the Griffith students attended a sand painting and Chinese dance class followed by a social afternoon.
"The students also went out with host families and their peers for dinner and they came away feeling proud of their experience," she said.
"They presented themselves as great ambassadors of Griffith High School and helped strengthen our relationship with our Chinese friends from our sister city. Harbin is now talking about a return visit and possible teacher exchange."
While in China the group visited the Siberian national tiger park and a museum in Harbin. The remaining time was spent in Beijing, Xi'an and Shanghai.
Among the long list of other sights were Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, a panda zoo and wild goose pagoda, the army of the terracotta warriors and the Ming and Qing dynasties in Shanghai.
Briarna Taylor, 16, described China as "an amazing culture shock".
"I liked doing all the big things like walking the wall, Tiananmen Square and seeing the terracotta soldiers.
"I expected China to be more traditional. I didn't expect it to be as modern."