Tass Visits Xi’an

I’m hoping my writer’s block is over. Let’s start writing and see what happens. Coming up at school we have the summer sessions. Because it’s a private school, we teach kids mainly in the evening and at weekends, and so in the summer when they have holiday from their regular school, we’re even busier. Because of the extra busyness, we’re not allowed to take leave during July and August.
In late May I realised that if I didn’t have a holiday soon to de-stress, I was probably going to have a nervous breakdown sometime in the busy July and August period. I also found out that my old university lecturer and now friend Tass was going to a conference in Beijing around the 23rd and 24th of June, and as an urban development geographer who had never been to China, he wanted to try to see a representative sample of the country in the short time he had available. A plan started to form for me to take the last week in June off, see Tass for a day or two and then do some travelling on my own.

The eventual plan was for Tass to arrive in Xi’an by train early on Wednesday morning, then we would both fly to Shanghai on Thursday morning so I could guide Tass to the important bits for him to see an urban development perspective in the very little time we had available before he flew back to the UK on Thursday evening. After that I would go off by myself and do some travelling.

Tass’s train from Beijing to Xi’an arrived right on time, and we then had a day to see as much of the city as possible from the perspective of urban development. First we went back to my apartment so Tass could leave his bag and freshen up after the long night train, and we also had some breakfast. Then we went to the south gate to go up on the city walls.

At about 14km, the city walls in Xi’an are apparently the longest intact ancient city walls anywhere in the world. I figured that at 12m high and with the possibility of hiring bikes to cycle around, it would be a good vantage point to see a lot of the city in a short time.

As we left my apartment, the weather was grey and it looked like it might rain later. I made the decision to take my umbrella and leave my sunglasses at home. I didn’t even think to put sun cream on. Of course, by the time we reached the south gate on the metro, the sun had come out and the haze had thinned considerably. I was a little bit concerned about my lack of sun cream, but I justified that we would only be on the wall for an hour or so, and the sun couldn’t do that much damage in that short time so it would all be ok.

Up on the wall we hired bikes and set off. The bike hire allowed 100 minutes, which we thought would be fine. But as the reason for cycling around the wall was to see as much of the city as possible in a short space of time, we kept stopping to look over the edge and take photos. Fifty minutes later we realised we were only a third of the way around, so we had to speed up, but the easterly wind was now in our faces. Half way around, with only 7km of slow cycling, I was out of puff. I was knackered. How have I lost this much fitness in a bit over 7 months!?

By now, the wind was hot, I was hot, from the exertion I was sweating, and the dust was sticking to me. I felt pretty horrible. We had 20 minutes to the do the last third of the wall, so I mustered all my remaining fitness and we stepped on it and raced back with minutes to spare. Walking down off the wall and into the shade, I realised what a mistake not wearing sun cream had been. My arms and hands were bright red. The back of my neck was painful – and is still painful now 72 hours later even with slathering after-sun cream on it several times a day! When will I learn?

Anyway, after the wall we went to the Belgian Bar for lunch, but found that it was closed. I hope it was just closed for lunch as it’s a good bar. Instead we went to the Park Qin cafe, sitting in its calm and shady courtyards. After lunch we ambled up to Starbucks by the bell tower for a coffee, and happened to bump into Dave and Nick so had a good chat. Nick’s been in China for a year and a half, and Dave for around three years, so Tass had a good opportunity to question longer term ex-pats about their experience of China.

After Starbucks we went for a wander around the muslim quarter and through the tourist-tat market. Tass wanted some small mementos of his trip to China, and opted for a fake replica terracotta warrior and a wooden model of the lions found at the entrance to every apartment complex. For the warrior I got the price from ¥10 to ¥4, and the wooden lion from ¥65 to ¥25. I said to Tass I could have gotten them lower, but he didn’t want to push any lower as it was, afterall, the stall holder’s livelihood I would be eating into.

From the muslim quarter we took the metro north back to my apartment so I could apply a load of after-sun cream, and then we went to Bei Ke Zhan – the new north railway station that will eventually have lots of high speed trains but for now is a bit deserted.

From the north railway station we went to Feng Cheng Yi Lu so we could walk north back to my apartment through the newly developed Weiyang economic zone. Finally we went to the Japanese restaurant for dinner. Back at the apartment Tass had a couple of days of emails to catch up with and I needed to pack. By the time that was done it was midnight and time for bed what with needing to get up at 5:30am for a flight to Shanghai the next day.

More to follow of the day in Shanghai and of course the rest of my holiday!

Writer’s Block

I promise I haven’t forgotten about the blog over the past two weeks. I keep trying to write blog posts about interesting things, but I just don’t seems to be able to articulate anything at the moment. Normal service will resume again just as soon as I manage to take the muddle of thoughts in my head and transform them into a coherent piece of writing.
As a teaser of what my writer’s block has forced you to miss out on:

Over the past week I’ve tried twice to write a post about “no why”, the frustrating answer I usually get when I ask a “why” question about life in China. The first attempt was just crap, and on the second attempt I went off on a complete tangent into design theory.

I thought and wrote enough about design that sometime I’ll do a full post on that including, for instance, why I had a USB memory stick sent from the UK instead of just buying one here.

I also have the third and final post about Shanghai to finish, which is becoming more urgent as I’m going on holiday again in a week so will have lots to write about then.

I would upload photos of my trip to the park with my class, but with posting photos online, I’m currently in a weird half-way house between Flickr (which I’m moving away from), SmugMug (which is much better than Flickr and I was moving to, but which I’ve quickly become disenchanted with), and some gallery software on the same server as my blog (currently I’m thinking probably ZenPhoto, but I’ve changed my mind three times in three days). So you’ll just have to wait until I’ve finalised my longer-term online photo strategy.

Anyway, yeah, good things come to those who wait, right?

Staff Outing to the Park and Half-Way

Although I blogged last week, what with filing reports about Shanghai (another one to come!) and missing a week’s blog a few weeks ago, I now have enough for a bit of a bumper update. Just over a week ago, on Tuesday, the school organised an outing to a local park where we had pedalo races on the lake and barbecued a lot of food. The outing had been talked up for about three weeks, and I did wonder if it would go the same way as the ski trip we were told about several times in January but which never happened. It didn’t look hopeful when we were told it would be delayed by a week so the new Director of Studies could come along too, and then the forecast for heavy rain and the rumour that if it was raining on the day it would be cancelled, but along came Tuesday last week, the rain abated, a coach turned up at school and off we went to the park. The park, the Xi’an Weiyang Lake Recreation Garden, was about an hour away by bus, and felt like I imagine Tivoli in Copenhagen would if no maintenance was done for several years. I’m currently in a battle with Dave, another teacher at the school over who has the most interesting life. One of the categories on the survey where we could both collect a few more points is ‘dangerous sports’. The park had a bungee jumping tower, but looking at the rust on the structure and being generally distrustful of Chinese health and safety regulations, we both decided to give it a miss.

For the pedalo race we had two heats. Western and Chinese staff and men and women were paired together, and my partner was Vanessa, the HR person who pays our wages every month. It seemed prudent to try my hardest not to lose, and on the coach on the way to the park Martin and Brittany, who would be judging our heat, were trying to extract wage increases as a bribe for winning. We all donned our bright and bulky orange life vests and clambered aboard our catamaran crafts. As a seasoned cyclist who has cycled across a continent and from London to Paris in around 30 hours, I thought I should have no problem being very competitive in this race.

The whistle was blown and off we went. Me and Vanessa powered away neck and neck with another two teams. As we approached the other end of the lake where we had to turn to go back, another team turned before us and into our path. My side of the catamaran hit their boat and in return I received a torrent of verbal abuse. After the shortest inquiry in pedalo-racing history, the stewards on the shore blamed me and Vanessa for the incident, but with a quick appeal (“we were going straight and didn’t have permission to turn yet, they turned into our path!”) we were exonerated and the crash declared blameless. The return leg was tough. My side of the catamaran had its prow below the waterline which meant constantly steering to starboard. I decided that as I’d only noticed this after the crash, it must have been the crash and nothing to do with me getting a bit fat. But it turns out that not cycling for six months has destroyed my fitness. The lactic acid building up in my legs burned like hell and after limping to the finish line we came in third. Not a bad showing.

I could barely stand up after clambering out of the boat. I seriously thought I was going to faint. So I gulped down a bottle of water and just sat with the world spinning for a few minutes. After that it was time to go and barbecue. Albert had gone to his local butcher’s and bought meat. It was literally a plastic supermarket carrier bag filled with meat. I can’t stress enough the literalness of that that sentence. A plastic carrier bag. Filled with meat. No other packaging. Martin had brought baguettes and cheese and as a complete cheese addict I did get a little bit excited.

Unfortunately I had class later in the afternoon so had to leave early along with Nick and Steven. For ¥1 we caught the bus back to school, and as it was the start of the route we even got seats. In the afternoon I had my kindergarten class and then my class to 4 year olds in the evening. My legs were still pretty wobbly and I wondered if it was possible to teach them entirely sitting down. While it turns out you can’t teach classes to very young children completely sitting down, I did give it a good shot.

In other news, a couple of weeks ago I passed the half-way point of my contract here. It’s been a tough six months and I don’t actually see it getting any easier for the next six months. It’s taken me half a year, but I’ve finally become aware enough of what to expect of things and comfortable enough to ask for them to start making a minor fuss about certain things that are annoying me. Most of these things are to do with my apartment.

When I moved in the school had just signed the lease on the apartment, and it was still filthy from the previous tenants. It took a week for the school to arrange for a cleaner. It took four weeks to get the internet installed. It took six weeks for the school to provide a filtered drinking water dispenser. Rob and Alistair moved in a week after me. After winning the internet and drinking water battle, and losing the battled to have the shower head moved to be head height and the heating fixed, we sort of gave up. We didn’t complain about having a manual washing machine, or the sofas too uncomfortable to sit in for more than a few minutes. We also didn’t complain about the water going off a couple of times a week, sometimes on a Saturday or Sunday morning when all we wanted was a shower before work. I’d forgotten how annoying all this was until Colin moved in on Monday as he felt like a change of apartment. On tuesday, just 18 hours later, he moved moved back. I mentioned to my boss that, while I can’t speak for Rob (who left in January) or Alistair (who handed in his notice in April and left this week), it doesn’t surprise me that of the three new staff members who arrived at the same time and shared that apartment, two have now left and I’m probably the most disgruntled of anyone at the school.

Anyway, the school’s admin assistant is telling the landlord to fix the water, and asking if maybe I can get new sofas, a new washing machine, and the shower head fixed to the wall at head height. My experience of the word ‘maybe’ over the past 27 years has been that it means ‘no’ so we’ll see what happens.

With only six months to go, I’ve started thinking about what to do at the end of my contract, which finishes on the 24th of November – 170 days away. I’m fairly certain that I’ll fly back to the UK soon after that and stay with my dad. With a month to Christmas it seems like an ideal time to eBay most of my possessions that are stored at my dad’s house and that I’ve realised I no longer need or want. Lots of jobs start in January, so I’ll try to find a job somewhere starting then, the only question is where. My thoughts on where are in many cases contradictory:

  • I’ve learnt a bit of Chinese so I’d like to stay in China.
  • There’s a whole world to explore so I’d like to go somewhere that isn’t China.
  • I now have a few friends in Xi’an, and on my good days there are times when I could see myself staying here longer.
  • The prospect of starting again, again, doesn’t seem appealing, but if I’m going to stay in China I’d like to find a job in Shanghai, but I only have a couple of friends there, one of whom may be moving on before next year.
  • I’ve come to the conclusion that I am, at heart, a European, and that European languages are so much easier to learn, so I’d like to work in Europe for a year.
  • But I’ve already explored a lot of Europe, and there’s the rest of the world to explore.
  • South East Asia would be interesting, but to start again with another symbol based and tonal language and building new friendships seems like a lot of effort.
  • I’d like to live in Australia or New Zealand at some point. The easiest way of doing that is the working holiday visa, but to get that I have to be under 30 and have a certain level of savings. So I only have a couple of years to save a significant amount of money.
  • Jobs in the middle east usually pay very well, but also usually require 2-3 years teaching experience and I’m not sure how well I’d survive in such a socially restrictive society.

It’s not so much that any of those options have negatives, just that I want to maximise the number of concurrent positives while leaving as many options open for the future. Still, I’ve got six months to work it out!

Taking Students to the Park

Children’s day is celebrated on the first of June in China, and all primary schools have a one day holiday when students get the opportunity to take part in extra curricular activities such as camping and free movies. I teach at a private English school so the one-day holiday doesn’t apply to us, but in honour of children’s day, Kitty, the Chinese teaching assistant for my class of four year olds decided that we should take them to the park for a lesson instead of being cooped up in a hot stuffy classroom for an hour. As she said that I wouldn’t have to organise anything I said it sounded like a great idea!
Normally I teach the class on Monday evening and Kitty teaches it on a Saturday afternoon, but going to the park in the dark on a Monday evening didn’t sound as fun, so we managed to find time in my teaching schedule for me to go on Saturday. It helped that the only class I have on a Saturday afternoon is a 1-to-1, to the older brother of a student in my class going to the park, so he cancelled his class and came along as well.

I was a little bit apprehensive. Normally in the class it’s me, Kitty, and 12 students. If I mess up Kitty doesn’t care and the kids, who are four, probably won’t even realise. Every couple of months we do a demo class where the parents watch for half an hour and that’s fine. But it was going to be a whole new experience to have 12 students in the park and more excitable than usual, loads of parents watching for the full hour (and the time at each end getting to and from the park), two new teaching assistants along to watch, and anyone in the park who happened to come along and watch.

Kitty had arranged for the mum of one of the students to give us a lift, which itself was hard work. Typically the doting parent who has paid lots of money to send her child to an English school now expects her child and the western teacher to talk fluently during the 15 minute car journey. Stretching out “How are you, I’m happy, what’s this, it’s a pen, how many pens are there, there are three pens.” for so long is pretty difficult.

Eventually we arrived at the park and our entourage grew even more. There were three guys with quite a bit of luggage. One of them had a television-camera sized box and a large professional looking tripod, and when I asked who they were Kitty said “the news people”. “The what!” No one told me about this. It turns out they were from the school’s marketing department, it wasn’t a TV camera, and I still don’t know why they had a tripod. They were just there to set up a stand to try and sell some classes.

Our group, now of at least 30 people, took two electric buses to a nice part of the park. It was a nice spot, on a deck jutting out onto the lake, and fortunately quite secluded from too many people passing by. The marketing guys looked a bit miffed but I was quite happy!

Kitty had prepared all the materials, including two loudspeaker systems that tour guides usually wear around their waists. I took one look at them and decided that no way was I wearing one of those, I was going to shout instead. We started the lesson and instantly about 15 camera phones and various massive SLR cameras started recording my every move. Well, perhaps not my every move, but the every move of the parent’s darling little children.

The lesson went well though, the kids didn’t have too much energy: it was hot and mostly they just wanted to sit down quietly and drink water. We tried to involve the parents in some of the activities to make it fun for everyone, but sometimes it didn’t go according to plan. In one activity we spread loads of mini flashcards out and had plastic rings to throw over the cards. Two at a time, the parents had to throw the rings and their child say the word and pick up the card. The student with the most cards at the end of each round was the winner and got some sweets. The problem came from the tantrums of losing children whose parents weren’t very good shots and missed the cards with the rings. Oh well.

Getting to the park, setting up, teaching the lesson, packing up and then waiting for the electric buses to take us back to the park entrance all took longer than we expected. I had another class at school at 7pm and by the time we were getting on the buses it was 6:15pm. I said to Kitty that I needed to get back to the school ASAP, and she asked all the parents if someone could help me out. One of them said they’d give me a lift straight away so off we went in the awkward silence of two people who don’t have a common language. We got to the car park and walked towards a shiny black Mercedes S-Class. I was instructed to sit in the back, and so I was effectively chauffeur driven back to school. Sweet.

While Kitty put a lot of effort into arranging to class, I dread to think how much more effort would be required to do a similar thing in the UK. I guess we’d have needed about three different risk assessments, legally binding parental consent forms, permission from the local education authority and the park authorities and a part of the park actually cordoned off, not to mention some kind of insurance package “just in case”. In China, an authoritarian one-party state, you just get on and do things.

I didn’t take my camera, but, as I mentioned, everyone else was documenting the day so I’ll see if I can get some photos for the blog.

Photos from Shanghai

It’s been far too long, but I’ve finally edited and uploaded all my photos from Shanghai. Click the photo to view the rest of them. Edit: Something weird is going on and the photo will only link to a bigger version. Click here to see the rest of the photos.

Sleeping Trains, Metro Trains and a Tuk Tuk

It’s a little later than I expected, but I’m finally writing the second instalment of my Shanghai trip. This one’s all about getting to and from and around Shanghai.
I’ve said before that I really dislike flying, and much prefer to take trains whenever possible. By the time I confirmed my days off work and that I’d be able to stay with my friends in Shanghai my preferred trains were fully booked, so instead I booked train T166 to Shanghai for Thursday evening, arriving in the early afternoon on Friday, and train T138 back to Xi’an for Wednesday afternoon, arriving on Thursday morning.

I had nothing to do on Thursday before catching the train, so took the opportunity to head into central Xi’an, get coffee and watch the world go by before walking to the train station through some neighbourhoods I haven’t explored yet. There’s a really cool Starbucks by the Bell Tower, so I went there. It was quite busy, but not too bad. As I waited for my coffee I scoped out the different seats available, and of course when I finally received my coffee all of the available seats had been taken. I thought ‘sod it’ and went outside and sat opposite a pretty woman who didn’t even have a Starbucks mug. She summoned all the English she could and managed to ask if I spoke Chinese. I thought for a moment before replying ‘no’, and she then made a phone call. I only understood one word of her conversation – waiguoren – so I guess she was phoning her friend to say that some foreigner had taken her seat. I got my Kindle out and started reading a book. About fifteen minutes later her friend turned up and they went off together.

My train was due to leave at 9pm, and at 4pm I set off to walk to the train station. I was heading through some parts of the city I hadn’t been to before, so was quite curious. I discovered the Revolutionary Park, and again sat and watched the world go by while I read my Kindle. Eventually I tired of the park and continued towards the train station. I got there at about 6pm, so only three hours to wait. The scene inside the station building reminded me of news clips covering refugee crises. There were people strewn everywhere, sleeping on newspapers or sitting on tatty old suitcases. The light in the station didn’t help, filtered through small dirty windows in the roof leading to a dingy yellow light.

I found a plush waiting room that was empty, wondered why no one else was in there, and bought some snacks for the 16 hour train journey ahead. At 8:30pm I went to the gate to go down to the platform. My train was due at 8:58pm. At 8:53pm, as hundreds of people were still waiting, an announcement was made over the tannoy. I didn’t understand any of it besides picking out my train number ‘T Yi Liu Liu’, but from the reaction of everyone around I understood perfectly well what was going on. The dejected sighing and slumping of passengers despairing at their late train is the same all over the world. The electronic sign changed from 2058 to 2105, but I didn’t have a clue how they were going to get a couple of hundred people down from the waiting area to the platform and onto the train in four minutes. Eventually at 9:03pm the gates were opened and the stampede started.

The stairs to the platform level were by coach 2. I was in coach 15. I had a long walk ahead of me. At coach 13 I heard a whistle blowing somewhere behind me, so looked around and some doors were starting to close. I tried to board coach 13 but wasn’t allowed aboard. I legged it to coach 15 and hopped on board, panting for breath a little bit. I found my bunk, put my bag onto it, said a cheery “good evening” to my fellow passengers, and waited another 15 minutes for the train to depart.

The ‘hard sleeper’ on the train was surprisingly comfortable. The carriages are divided into 10 open compartments, each with 6 beds. I was on the top bunk, which I knew because I showed my ticket to a fellow passenger who pointed at the top bunk. There isn’t much space up there, but since I’d just be sleeping, it didn’t really matter. There was a feature I’d never seen before on a train – oxygen outlets by each bunk so people could plug in over the high mountain passes to prevent getting altitude sickness.

The journey was interesting. The train had started its journey in Lhasa, which explains the oxygen outlets, a day and half earlier, and there were quite a few characters on board. While no one spoke much English, there was one girl called Jing who spoke enough English for me to communicate. I think people watching is more interesting when you can’t understand what is being said; you have to rely solely on observing actions and movements and body language. As the train slowly chugged its way through the night towards Shanghai it quickly became apparent who had established themselves as ‘leader’ of the two last compartments; a big smily guy who was here there and everywhere and seemed to know everyone even if they didn’t know him, and who tried to talk to waiguoren even if the waiguoren didn’t understand anything he was saying. At 11pm the lights were turned out and everyone retired to bed.

I slept really well, there were no snorers and no smelly feet, and the gentle rocking back and forth of the train lulled me into a lovely soothing sleep. As station stops came and went the train gradually emptied out. A lot of people left at Nanjing, and then it was just me and a few others in the carriage. We were due in to Shanghai at 11:17, but we eventually arrived at 12:45. An hour and a half delay on a train that departed 48 hours earlier doesn’t seem so bad.

In Shanghai I found the metro and went to meet Andy.

Getting around Shanghai was really easy. The metro in Shanghai, unlike in Xi’an, is finished, but just like Xi’an, is really cheap. A single ticket is ¥2. By all accounts it’s a pretty nice metro system, the trains are big enough to stand up in and air conditioned (cough-London-cough), it’s clean, it’s punctual, it’s cheap, it’s goes everywhere it needs to.

Apart from the metro and the odd taxi, the only other interesting transport I used was a tuk tuk. My friend Neil lives in Songjiang, and it’s either a half hour walk to the metro or a few minutes in an electric tuk tuk. I hadn’t been in a tuk tuk yet, even in Xi’an, and they strike me as a very good idea. Electric so completely non polluting, small and nippy so they don’t cause congestion, and perfect for journeys that are a bit too long to walk but not far enough to bother with other public transport.

The journey back to Xi’an was much the same as going to Shanghai. Shanghai’s main railway station is really quite nice, it feels much more like a modern airport than a railway station, with light and airy waiting areas and loads of places to buy snacks. On this journey no one spoke English, but I didn’t mind as I was content reading my Kindle and writing my diary from the past few days. The train wasn’t quite as nice as on the way to Shanghai, the toilets were foul and there was nowhere to plug in my phone, but the bed was comfy and my fellow passengers cordial and once again I slept much better than I was expecting to.

Next up I’ll write a short post about a weird place in Songjiang called Thames Town, which is like a replica Milton Keynes in the middle of a Shanghai suburb.

Shanghai – 上海

I’m just back in Xi’an after a wonderfully recuperating few days in Shanghai. For once I’m not starting a blog wondering what I’ll find to write about, but instead wondering how to fit a  great six days into one trip report. I think I’ll split the six days across three blog posts, each with a different theme. I guess you could call this blog the first of the trilogy, and it’s about Shanghai itself.
I arrived on Friday in the early afternoon and met my friend Andy who I did the CELTA with in Barcelona. He’s in Shanghai for a month of training before moving on to a teaching position in Ningbo. The first thing I did was head back to Andy’s apartment for a shower after the long train journey. Andy’s apartment is nice, certainly nicer than mine in Xi’an, and only a few minutes walk from People’s Square, the centre of downtown Shanghai.

My first impressions of Shanghai are inevitably in comparison to Xi’an where I’ve spent the past five months. Shanghai feels a lot more ‘liveable’ than Xi’an, but while I can see lots of obvious differences, at first it’s difficult to put my finger on how those differences all work together to create a more ‘liveable’ city.

Five minutes after I arrive at Andy’s, his new flatmates arrive. It felt a bit strange saying, in effect, “hi, welcome to your apartment, I’m just visiting as a mate of Andy’s, I hope you don’t mind if I stay the night!”. Anyway, they’re all very nice. After my shower me and Andy headed out for lunch and to see the sights along the Bund. For lunch we popped into a random corner restaurant. The speed with which we were presented with an English menu and served in English led me to suspect the restaurant was frequented by tourists, but I do enjoy saying bits of Chinese I’m confident with when ordering. The bill came to ¥57, and the waitress told us in English, so I asked “wǔ shí qī?”

The Bund is really lovely to walk along. On the west side it’s the old buildings from the time of the British concession and the broad raised walkway looks out at Pudong across the river. Pudong is a new development of skyscrapers creating a dramatic skyline. The area has a similar history and development goal as Canary Wharf in London – from poor run-down area to centre of a new financial industry – except Pudong is on a much grander scale than Canary Wharf. Andy is pretty new to Shanghai and China, and I was trying to explain some differences to Xi’an. As there were plenty of other westerners around I wasn’t being stared at anywhere near as much, and just as I said to Andy that I suspect fewer Chinese people are interested in having photos with westerners a couple of Chinese people came up to us and asked for their photos with us. After admiring the view from ground level on the Bund for a while we took the ferry across the river to Pudong to check out the view from a tall building.

The ferry dropped us seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and we had to walk quite a way to get back to the north of the peninsula. We checked out the price for the viewing deck in the Oriental Pearl TV tower, but it was ¥150; the Rough Guide from 2011 had said it was ¥60. We didn’t dare find out how much the viewing gallery in the Shanghai World Financial Centre was; the Rough Guide said ¥150, but the guide was out by almost three times for the Oriental Pearl. Instead we decided to try our luck going to the lobby of the Hyatt on the 56th floor of the Jin Mao tower. Andy was a bit concerned two scruffy young tourists wouldn’t be allowed in, but after watching too many episodes of Hustle I was pretty confident we could pull it off. “Just walk in like you belong here, look non-plussed like you come here every day”. In we went to the elevators and up we went to the 56th floor, and for five minutes the view was excellent, then we started to feel a bit self conscious so left before we were given no choice but to leave.

Also in Pudong is the spectacular new conical glass Apple store. We went in for a look and for Andy to consider buying an iPhone, but something to do with the warranty not being valid outside China put him off.

On Friday evening we went to Hengshan Road to eat western food for dinner and have some drinks. We found a nice Italian restaurant and the food was excellent, but we did have a bit of confusion with the waitress. Both me and Andy speak enough Italian to get by ordering food in a restaurant, I now speak enough Chinese to do the same, and in a western restaurant in Shanghai it was almost guaranteed the server would speak English. It turns out our waitress was Italian, and with three common languages between us our waitress at one point declared “too many languages!”

In a bar I tried to teach Andy the Chinese dice game that everyone plays. I don’t quite know the rules myself, so some of them I skipped over or made up to fill gaps. One of the bar staff came to our table and started playing with us. “Cool”, I though, “nice friendly communal dice game.” Except after a few rounds she announced that we’d lost and we owed her a drink. “Not a chance!” I exclaimed, “we don’t even know how to play!”. But Andy bought her a drink, so to make sure we were even I said “gānbēi!”, which is the closest Chinese has to “cheers!”, but also means “down it!”. She duly downed her drink and then walked off sulking. On reflection I think we all lost!

Saturday was a gloriously sunny day, so I went for a walk around downtown Shanghai and also to Century Park on the other side of Pudong. Walking through People’s Square –  which is actually a park – I was struck by how many pretty young women with excellent English were approaching me asking me to take their photo with something in the background and then inviting me to go to a tea festival. There were a number of possible scenarios running through my mind. I discounted the first scenario – “I’m really handsome and all these women really like me” – pretty quickly. That left two possibilities: there really is a tea festival and people in Shanghai are really friendly; or there’s no tea festival and there’s some scam going on.

I thought there’s no harm in humouring them and agreeing to go to the tea festival and walking with them at least as far as the edge of the park. If they’re scammers of some kind I’m delaying their next victim by half an hour, if they’re genuine, well I got to practise my Chinese and them their English. It’s funny, this tea festival seemed to be in many directions outside People’s Square. The first pair of girls took me south east, the next, a group of three girls, north, and the final pair west. Each time I faked noticing the time and remembering that I had to go meet my friend for lunch back in the park. Later on I double checked with my friend Neil who has lived in Shanghai for two years. He said there’s definitely no tea festival. I later read in the Rough Guide of a scam in central Shanghai where pretty young women approach western men and invite them for tea. In the cafe the tea arrives, the women disappear and in their place some very large men and an astronomical bill turn up.

After frustrating the scammers for a bit I went to the Yu Yuan garden, an area in the old part of Shanghai with quaint narrow streets. It was reminiscent of a Chinese York, pedestrianised with old buildings overhanging the streets and thousands of tourists milling around. It has obviously been cleaned up a lot in recent years to appeal to tourists, but it felt a lot like the proper old China I picture in my mind from time to time. At the centre was a very pretty stone bridge over a pool with fish and turtles and it was nice just watching the world go by for a little bit. I was pretty hungry by now and I saw a nice place to get steamed dumplings, but the queue looked to be about an hour long. There was a pretty young woman near the front of the queue who smiled at me a couple of times, and I thought about giving her ¥10 to order on my behalf, but my mind was still half cynical from the scammers earlier on and half shy about approaching her.

Instead I went to Century park to look at the outside of the Science and Technology Museum (it’s a pretty nice piece of architecture) and also the Oriental Arts Centre, which is in the shape of a flower. Outside the Science Museum there was a wedding couple having photos taken and I sat and watched for a while as they struck weird poses. The strangest was the bride standing looking lost with the groom and all his male friends hiding around a corner ready to pounce. After the museum and arts centre I went to Century park and had a nice rest in the shade.

On Saturday evening I headed down to Song Jiang, a commuter town at the end of a metro line, where my friend Neil lives.

On Sunday me and Neil headed intro central Shanghai. He wanted to buy a Chinese textbook and I wanted to go to the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall. My major at university was human geography, focussing a lot on urban development, and I continue to cultivate my interest when I can. The Exhibition Hall is impressive, over five floors it details the history of urban Shanghai and the visions for its future. The level of detail was surprising. For instance, in one section are maps of the utilities serving Shanghai, from the water and electricity network, to internet and telephone routing points. A similar museum in a major western capital would probably shy away from displaying such information publicly on security grounds. The Exhibition also includes a tennis court sized model of the vision for Shanghai in the future. I was also intrigued by the lack of variety of visitors the Exhibition attracted. For the entire time I was in there I never heard anyone else speaking English. In fact, all of the other westerners were speaking German. Perhaps Germans (and the Austrians and Swiss) are more in-tune with and take a greater interest in how an urban environment can make a real difference to the happiness of the people who live there. That reminds me, I must read Alain de Botton’s book The Architecture of Happiness.

From the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall me and Neil went to the Shanghai Museum, described by the Rough Guide as perhaps the best museum in China, and in my estimation on about the same scale as the Urban Planning Exhibition. Neither me nor Neil were in the mood for antiquities and were cracking jokes whenever the opportunity arose. In the antique furniture section we mused about whether the Stockholm Museum will one day have an Ikea section.

Instead we went to the Blue Frog restaurant and bar for some very delicious burgers, and to the City Shop to buy cheese, and wine (for my leaving party in seven months), and HP Sauce, and Patak’s Curry Sauce, and Haribo, and various other western delicacies. The whole shop catered to the western ex-pat living in Shanghai, and after five months in Xi’an where the only readily available cheese comes as plastic slices for burgers my eyes were wide with wonder.

After the three days wandering around Shanghai I finally realised why it feels more liveable than Xi’an. It feels finished and there’s a sense that the urban planners and architects care. Xi’an feels like the builders completed about 90 per cent of the job then stopped and said “eh, it’ll do”. Shanghai feels complete and finished. In Xi’an the roads are for driving on and pavements for parking on; pedestrians have to battle their way through randomly parked cars and annoying sections of plastic chain delineating different car parks. In Shanghai the pavements are for pedestrians. In Xi’an most buildings completed (to 90 per cent) since the invention of concrete look like they came from the ‘big new book of slightly spruced up default communist concrete architecture’. In Shanghai almost every building is individually designed and has some aesthetic merit. Finally, in Xi’an the sky is grey and the sunlight dulled by the pollution. In Shanghai I exclaimed that I could see puffy white clouds in a bright blue sky, and I could breath the clean air in deeply.

So, that’ll do for Shanghai itself. I took lots and lots of photos that I’ll upload soon, but I’m still going through and organising them.

Off to Shanghai

Last week I mentioned I was thinking of going to Shanghai during our upcoming holiday. Well, I’ve booked my train tickets and I’m off tomorrow. I can’t tell you how much I need a holiday and to get away from Xi’an for a bit. I realised the other day that since November when I arrived in Xi’an, the furthest away I’ve been was in January when I went the 50km to the Terracotta Warriors. Since then I haven’t been more than about 10km from the spot I’m sitting in now, in Starbucks. I think part of my getting down about petty annoyances is to do with the pressure cooker environment of having a small circle of friends in a small geographic environment.
I’m actually quite excited to be taking the train to Shanghai. Everyone said I should fly since “it’s only two hours”, but I’ve booked the train as it’s cheaper and far more interesting even though it does take 16 hours. I absolutely abhor flying. The whole process is tedious, and in today’s world of heightened security the constant harassment by personnel playing their roles in the theatre of security dehumanises the experience and adds a load of irritation to the proceedings, but there’s still something appealing about taking a train. And a two hour flight doesn’t take anything like two hours. When flying you spend ages getting to the airport, ages waiting while you check in, ages waiting to go through security, ages waiting to board the plane, then ages waiting for your bags once you “arrive”, then ages trying to get from the airport to the place you’re actually going. “But it only takes two hours to fly” people say. No. A “two hour” flight is actually closer to five hours of harassment by airport staff, security personnel and airline staff.

When travelling by train you go to the station, which is almost always in the centre of the city, get on the train, and then arrive in the centre of the city you’re travelling to. On the journey you see the world go by the window and feel it go by underneath. You see the landscape change and different people getting on and off the train at each stop. There’s something a lot more human about taking the train; travelling huge distances but still on a human scale and interacting with different passengers. In fact, when I went from London to Barcelona and back to do my CELTA I took the train instead of flying. It’s just so much more pleasant. I’m still a little excited to think that the train I’m taking left Lhasa at 11am CST this morning and I’ll pick it up in Xi’an tomorrow evening before it arrives in Shanghai on Friday morning.

I have no idea what I’ll get up to in Shanghai. My friend Neil lives there and I just found out that a friend from my CELTA, Andy, is also there at the moment, so no doubt I’ll catch up with them. As usual when I visit a place I’m less interested in having an itinerary of specific locations to visit then just soaking up the atmosphere and getting a feel for the place. I know I want to eat some good western food as I’ve heard it’s pretty good in Shanghai and I haven’t had a roast dinner in almost half a year. I also want to see the famous skyline from the Bund across to Pudong, and I’d like to go to the viewing gallery in a tall building to take in the view.

As I’ll be back from Shanghai this time next week this is just a short blog update but I’m sure there’ll be a double-bumper blog next week!

Petty Annoyances and Retail Therapy

I started last week’s post saying how I’d been a bit down lately having gone through two of the worst “China days” I’ve had so far. As I’ve still been pretty down over the past week I tried to work out what the cause is. I realised that I don’t so much have “China days” as “school days.”
I’m a very organised person and I’m always looking for the most efficient way of accomplishing tasks. While in my previous job in London for a UK Government Department a new role opened handling only complaint letters from members of the public. No one wanted the job and my boss at the time had to choose between four people. We all had to give reasons why we shouldn’t have to do the job and as I’d been wanting to find a new job for some time my reason was that I’d leave if I was given the role. My boss decided to give me the role anyway in the hope that with my organisational skills and meticulous attention to detail I would at least put into place all the required procedures in the time before I left. I did, and as an added bonus the new job gave me the impetus I needed to quit and go off and do my CELTA and become an English teacher.

Anyway, I find it very frustrating when things don’t work or are done inefficiently with no apparent proper procedure. My current gloom seems to stem from how the administration and IT systems at school work, or rather, just doesn’t work. Every contact I have with admin or IT seems to be unnecessary tiresome hassle, and everything I do takes about twice as long and requires twice as much effort as it really should.

On Monday I nearly reached breaking point. I’ll leave the details, but even though it was just a minor annoyance, with all the other minor annoyances it felt like the second to last straw before the proverbial camel’s back broke. So on Monday evening I went for a chat with my boss and he reassured me that everything that annoys me annoys him too, but that this is China and that none of the foreign staff are in a position to influence the Chinese run side of the school. Knowing that made me feel much better until the next day when I had to battle against the next bit of unnecessary tiresome hassle.

One thing that did cheer me up slightly on Monday was having a meaningful conversation with a five year old student for the first time. I noticed that one of my Sunday students was at the school and that she has a family resemblance to one of my students from Monday evening. I realised that in class we’ve now done names, family members, ages, and importantly, third person forms of all of those. I asked her “do you have a sister?” and she replied yes. So I asked “what’s her name?” and she said Ella. I then asked “how old is she?” and she said she’s nine. I said that “I teach your sister” and she looked so happy. As well as cheering me up it must have done wonders for her motivation to learn English, to finally put together all that language into a conversation with someone instead of learning it in isolation.

Anyway, on to yesterday. I needed a day without any thought at all of school or work, just hanging out with a friend having a good chat and some retail therapy. So that’s exactly what I did. As the weather has now got much warmer I needed to buy some shorts and my friend Canny took me to H&M. We took a taxi so I have no idea where in Xi’an it is, but it’s just like H&M everywhere in the world. Even the prices are the same. I found the shorts I wanted and paid the, by Chinese standards, exorbitant price. ¥250 sounds like a big number, but actually it’s about £25, which actually is a lot in China for a pair of shorts. Canny said another day we’ll go to the clothes market where we could buy loads of clothes for the price I paid for a pair of shorts.

After H&M we went to Sa Ga, a huge electronics market. I’d heard it described like a department store for electronics and it kind of is. It’s the same kind of physical space as a Department store, with polished stone floors and lots of windows making it light and airy, and all the stalls are arranged like the cosmetics section in a typical Department store with individual branding, except that every stall is an individual retailer so there’s no central cash desk, and most stalls sell more than one brand of products. I wanted to check out the price of external hard drives as my backup disk is filling up. In Sa Ga the components and accessories are on the third floor, so we went up there and found dozens of stalls all selling exactly the same collection of products including external hard drives. All the stall holders want your business and promise the best price, but as they all buy their merchandise from the same wholesalers for the same price and have the same fixed costs for running the stall, the lowest price you can bargain down to is exactly the same at every stall. In the end I didn’t buy anything – I don’t need a new external hard disk just yet.

From Sa Ga we went to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. I hadn’t been there yet and actually as we didn’t go in to the pagoda itself I still haven’t been – Canny just wanted to find a touristy stall that does caricature portraits. But the area around the pagoda is nicely landscaped with fountains and trees making nice shady areas on the grass and it felt like a nice calm oasis to escape to from the frenetic activity of the city. We found the caricature stand and all the passers by, upon seeing a foreigner sitting at the stand, had to stop to take a look. They all seemed a bit disappointed to see that it was Canny being drawn and not me, but I was having fun trying to get Canny to laugh when she was supposed to be posing for a portrait.

After the portrait I was standing around waiting for Canny to go to the bathroom when a tour guide came up to me and asked “photo?”. Thinking that she wanted to take my photo and sell it back to me I said no thanks, but she was actually asking on behalf of her two Chinese clients who wanted their photo taken with me. Quite why I’m not sure, but feeling like a celebrity I – just a random foreigner – posed for photos with two random Chinese people. Canny had a good laugh at my bemusement of the whole situation, then suggested I go for a haircut in case the same thing happens again.

My hair had been getting pretty long and messy again, so Canny took me to her family friends who are hair dressers. They did both mine and her’s for ¥20, and going with someone who speaks Chinese meant that I had the opportunity to tell them what I wanted. Not that it mattered of course as Canny decided what hairstyle I should have. Fortunately it’s turned out pretty good!

Finally, we went to Xiao Zhai to look for cheap DVDs and shoes. I think we quite annoyed the shoe shop assistant though. We waltzed in, tried on a load of shoes and decided on what to buy. For the shop assistant to go to the effort of going to get the boxed shoes in the right size we had to pay in advance. So we paid for our choice, had them delivered, then both changed our minds and demanded our money back. I think they were quite pleased to see us leave.

Later on in the evening I went out to a bar called Vice Versa where my friend George was playing a gig. He plays guitar in a heavy metal band, so not exactly my kind of music, but it was a good evening all the same.

Finally, as we have a six day holiday from school coming up I think I’m going to take the train to Shanghai and see my friend Neil. Hopefully then I’ll have a load of photos to put on flickr and some travel things to write about instead of the tedium of my posts at the moment.

Free Nights Out

Last week I wrote a great blog post, but I decided not to post it as it is far too personal. By the time I wrote the post on Wednesday I’d been feeling pretty low for a week anyway and then I’d just come out of the two worst ‘China days’ I’ve had so far. Maybe if or when I write a book at the end of my year contract and I’m able to look back on all the experiences I’m having in a more reflective light I’ll include more details. For now though, last week’s blog post is between me and my computer.
But a lot has happened over the past two weeks. A couple of weekends ago it was ‘tomb sweeping holiday’. I’m not sure about the history and reasons for the holiday or what it entails, just that our schedule at school was moved around a little bit making for a very quiet and then a very busy week. The reason for swapping days around is that although it’s a national holiday and therefore school children have Monday and Tuesday off, they have to go to school on Saturday and Sunday instead, and so we moved our Saturday and Sunday classes to Monday and Tuesday. I sometimes feel quite sorry for Chinese children. Most of them are only children in a very competitive society and the pressure to succeed is huge. A colleague was chatting to his higher level class asking about their hobbies and daily routine. For those students, from Monday to Saturday getting up at 6am and to going to bed at 10pm they are either at school or doing homework. On Sundays they come to our school to learn English.

A week ago Alistair, my flatmate, returned from a trip back to England and it’s been nice having someone around the apartment again. He landed back in Xi’an on Tuesday evening and when he arrived at the apartment he discovered that, true to form, he’d managed to lose his key somewhere in England. If you find a key in England with Chinese writing on it then there’s a chance it could be Alistair’s. Anyway, I was in Park Qin with a few friends at the time, and as I was getting on quite well with the Chinese girls at the next table there was no way I was going home just to let Alistair in. Instead he came all the way down to Park Qin to borrow my key. As I then didn’t have a key we agreed that Alistair would leave it under the mat by our front door so I could get back in. There was a very real risk that after 12 hours of flights, seven hours of jet lag, a pint of beer and, well, Alistair being Alistair, he would forget to leave the key, so I phoned him half an hour after he left to remind him. When I eventually got home I found the front door wide open, which was a slightly more extreme approach to letting me back into the apartment than I’d expected.

A friend back in London, also called Alistair, is probably now shouting at the internet wishing I’d hurry up and fill in the rest of the story about the girls. Well, one of them was very nice, and apparently single, and she gave me her phone number, and then stopped replying to my messages after a couple of days.

Also over the past couple of weeks I’ve been playing a bit of basketball. In my apartment complex there’s a pretty decent basketball court open to everyone, and as Nick has a basketball me him and Andy have occasionally played a few games. They’re much better than I am – I realised that the last time I’d even bounced a basketball was when I was studying at the University of Miami for a semester, which was six years ago – but they patiently put up with my lack of skill and effort. They ended up playing with some Chinese guys who were on the court as me and Tina, Andy’s girlfriend, watched and supplied the ice cream.

My athletic pursuits haven’t been limited to basketball though, on Wednesday last week I played frisbee with Colin, Dave and Phoebe. I’m much more suited to frisbee: it’s slower and requires less running around and a lot less skill. We played in the courtyard of my apartment complex, and our aim was to keep a constant chain of throws going as we progressed from the inner to the outer circle in the pattern on the ground. Unfortunately there was a bit of a week link between Phoebe and Colin and over our many failed attempts we attracted quite an audience.

On Sunday evening the weather was so nice that me, Brittany, Andy, Dave and Phoebe decided to de-stress from our ridiculously busy work week by going to Bar Street and sitting outside while watching the Arsenal – Manchester City game and having a few drinks. We found a bar that had sports showing on the huge screen in the window and we persuaded them to put the game on. They put it on, but we didn’t like the seating so we went across the road to sit and drink at a rival bar instead. About half way through the second half a huge Toyota Landcruiser turned up and parked right in our view of the screen. By the time it had gone Arsenal had scored. How’s that for karma.

Later on at about 1am after Dave and Phoebe had left and Brittany and Andy were pretty drunk, we decided to go to Salsa, a big club near the Bell Tower. In Salsa I was tutored in the art of having a night out in a Chinese club without spending any money. There are still few enough foreigners in Xi’an that most local Chinese people are curious about us and want to talk to us and practice their English. It started with a dare. Brittany dared Andy to get an empty glass, dance up to a table with lots of people, pour himself some of their drink and then dance away. He completed the dare in fine style and we all ended up chatting to the people at the table. The only problem is that in China it’s very rude to refuse a drink when offered. That was fine for Brittany and Andy (“wahay, free drinks!”) but it presents a challenge for me as I’ve sworn myself off alcohol for the duration of my stay in China (yep, that’s still going). I worked out that the Mandarin for “I don’t drink alcohol” is 我不喝酒, pronounced “wŏ bù hē jiŭ”. But that uses three of the four tones and saying it correctly when shouting over the music in a club is pretty tricky!