Chen Guochao is busy plaiting strings from bundles of dried weed when someone shouts for help talking to some local builders. 'Okay, I am coming over,' replies the 20-year-old university student, who switches between English and Putonghua with ease. Mr Chen strolls to the tent where a group of foreigners and local builders await him. 'Can you explain to them what we want and ask them how much it costs?' says his colleague, holding up a piece of construction material. Mr Chen, accustomed to such requests after seven weeks, repeats the query to the builders. Mr Chen and his colleagues are working on the Project Hope primary school, in the Shandong village of Panpo. They are part of a group of 120 young volunteers from 12 countries and territories who are spending their summer on nine community, environmental and other projects in rural areas of Shandong and Jiangsu provinces. 'I enjoy the experience because it gives me the opportunity to learn more about the cultures of young people from other countries,' says Mr Chen, an English student from Nanjing. However, he admits some of his Western friends behave in ways which are considered unusual by Chinese standards. 'At the beginning of the trip, some suggested that male and female venturers can share the same tent to save space, a proposition which the Chinese members, including myself, strongly opposed because this is not our way of living,' he says. Wang Ziyuan, a second-year student at the foreign language faculty of the Shandong University of Industry, says: 'It has raised my self-esteem as well as improved my spoken English.' The mosquito bites covering her leg serve as a painful reminder of her exposure to nature during the expedition. The villagers generally welcome the presence of strangers from abroad. 'We appreciate them for coming here to help build the school for our children,' says Li Bin, the village confectioner. Women and children make regular visits to the construction site to watch the newcomers work. Although the volunteers can only mutter a few Putonghua phases such as 'hello' and 'thank you', they have been very friendly, one villager says. The expedition is organised by the British organisation Raleigh International in conjunction with the China Youth Development Foundation, and partly funded by British conglomerate Inchcape. Known as Operation Raleigh when it was set up in 1984, the organisation annually takes about 1,000 young people on expeditions to less developed areas of the globe. So far, about 15,000 people have undertaken 125 trips to 35 countries. 'It is a massive cultural experience because China is unique in that sense,' says expedition leader Malcolm Sutherland. Through these trips, the organisation aims to help young people, aged between 18 and 25, to develop leadership, teamwork, communications and other skills in challenging conditions, as well as foster international ties. 'It has been a pleasure seeing the group of youngsters being able to work together side by side,' says Alec Leung Chun-hung, one of the 39 volunteer staff and a former venturer. For the past seven weeks, the 29-year-old Legal Aid Department clerk from Hong Kong has been working as an assistant project manager in Jiangsu province. 'The part I most enjoyed during my stay there is being able to practise my long-lost cooking skills,' quips Mr Leung. 'My special dish, spicy chicken wings, wins an army of admirers.' But the expedition is not free of hurdles, one of which being China's bureaucracy. 'It has been a massive learning curve just to appreciate how the Chinese system works and what makes it tick,' says Mr Sutherland. While the support by the local officials towards the expedition is welcome, their understanding of what a Raleigh expedition is about remains questionable, he suggests. 'There are things which we may want to achieve, or do in a certain way, which is not appropriate or acceptable to them.' An example of the problems encountered can be found at one of the expedition projects in the remote hilly village of Gaotanya. Here, the venturers are given the task of building three small dams for the village to increase water storage to help improve the cultivation of crops. But the local officials became annoyed when the venturers were allowed to try out various unsuccessful plans to divert the flow of the stream during the construction of the first dam. 'Their intentions are well appreciated but they ought to have stuck to the original plan and paid more attention to the villagers' advice,' says Li Peiguo, Xiakang district Communist Youth League secretary. But the minor differences do not prevent both sides from acknowledging that the expedition has been a ground-breaking initiative. 'The expedition has shown that China is prepared to open itself up for the rest of the world and accept people with different cultures and ways of thinking to come and live among the ordinary Chinese citizens,' says Mr Sutherland.