Beijing Day Two

I got up late, at about 10. I must have been really tired, since that’s about 11 hours sleep. I meet Kiki, the Swiss guy from the bar last night, and we had breakfast before heading over to the local shopping street that heads south from Qianmen. We had a look in Uni Qlo since he wanted a hat, and then headed up to Tiananmen square again.

We decided to go in the Great Hall of People of China. This is the meeting place for the National People’s Congress, so it acts like the Chinese Parliament. It feels like typically 1950’s communist architecture. You can tell a lot about places by the light fittings, and these looked like they were trying to be grand and simple at the same time. Exactly the effect an all powerful communist party would want to achieve.

Me and Kiki hit it off straight away with inane banter. We sat and looked at a large canvas with Chinese text on it. With our combined Chinese, we worked out it had something to do with three big people, and wondered if it was the instructions for changing the lightbulbs.

From the Great Hall, we headed to the main shopping street in Beijing. The street has air-conditioning units and vaporisers every 50 metres or so blowing out cool air and mist. It was a joy to slow down past these and cool off. We had a McDonalds lunch and then went to Gap. Gap had a sale, all mens shorts were ¥100. I considered it a lot, but decided that my one pair of shorts is actually enough.

After shopping, we headed to the new CCTV headquarters. I find it a little ironic that the state broadcaster in China has the same acronym as closed circuit television. Since Brittany answered the question of “what does it stand for?” a few weeks ago with “China Communist TV”, I can’t remember what it actually stands for and have to look it up every time. Ah, it’s actually China Central TV.

The reason for going to a TV broadcaster’s headquarters is the architecture. The building rises up on two sides, then extends out and joins up in mid air. It’s really quite cool.

After leaving the CCTV headquarters, I went back to the hostel to do some more writing. I was really getting into the writing but this point, knocking out several thousand words a day. A bit later on Kiki turned up and talked the evening away putting the world to rights.

Beijing Day One

I woke up at about 8am, wondering what had happened to the plan to get up at midnight after a power nap. I had a shower and then some breakfast in the hostel bar while I did some writing. At about 10am I headed out to see some of Beijing.
My hostel is on a street just south of the Qianmen, the gate at the southern entrance to Tiananmen Square. There’s a traditional looking shopping street running due south from the Qianmen with trams running up and down and western brands like Uni Qlo and H&M. Apparently the whole area was newly built before the Olympics to provide western tourists with a sanitised version of traditional China.

While major train stations in China have airport style security, every metro station in Beijing and major tourist attractions also have the same level of security. To get onto Tiananmen Square I had to use a metro station as an underpass, so one set of security checks, then to get onto the square itself I had to go through more security. There was a lot of security on the square itself, with police everywhere. I wonder why [cough]wikipedia[/cough].

The square is huge. In the centre is Mao’s mausoleum, which would have been interesting, but it was a Monday and he’s closed on Monday’s. Everyone needs a break from time to time. I wonder what he’s up to. On the east and west side is the National Museum of China and the Great Hall of the People of China. At the north end is the Tiananmen, the gate of heavenly peace (‘tian’ = 天 = heaven, ‘an’ = 安 = peace, ‘men’ = 门 = gate). The square is mainly just a vast expanse of grey stone with very little shade, so I don’t spend too long there.

After the square I headed north through the gate itself and into the Forbidden City. As expected, the tour guide hawkers were out in force. I deliberated paying the ¥60 entrance fee, but decided it was worth it. Inside the Forbidden City are lots of old buildings. There wasn’t much explanation of what was what, so I just followed the crowds heading north and took lots of photos. It’s all very nice and the buildings are beautiful, but it started to feel a bit samey. It was like going to London and seeing five very slightly different versions of Shakespeare’s globe one after the other.

North of the Forbidden City is a beautiful park with a hill in the middle and a pagoda on the hill. It looked nice and shady and not too busy. The entrance fee was ¥2 which seemed like a bargain to get a high up view of central Beijing and the Forbidden City. The view was great, but I did get a sense of scale. I had been planning on walking due north to the Olympic Park, it didn’t look too far on the map and I thought it would give me an insight into a swathe of Beijing, but seeing how far away the Olympic Park was made me reconsider my plans and I went to find a metro station instead.

I consider myself a reasonably street wise person. The last time I was scammed was in Prague around eight years ago. That time, me and my friend Alistair got into a taxi that had a dodgy meter. The driver wanted a ridiculous sum that we didn’t have, and we eventually got away with paying him £20 in cash after convincing him that it was worth more than it actually is.

This time, I left the park by the east exit knowing where I was going. Turn right to the main road, turn left and arrive at the metro. Maybe it would take 15 minutes at most. But I was immediately accosted by a pedicab driver. “Where you go?” he asked. “I know where I’m going” was by now my standard response. “Metro?” he asked and I must have said yeah, because he then offered to take me for ¥3. It was hot, I was tired, but I still had some fight in me and I bartered him down to ¥2. Bargain. I hopped onto the pedicab and we set off. I have a good sense of direction, and even though we went down twisty narrow side streets I still knew we were heading in the right direction. I wasn’t worried at all, he probably just wanted to avoid the busy main road and I’ve never felt threatened in China. My mind did have a slight inkling that ¥2 might be too good to be true, but I was on the way now. I got the ¥2 out of my wallet during the journey so I wouldn’t have to open it in front of him.

A few minutes later we got to the main road and stopped. The driver said the metro station was just around the corner. Cheer’s mate, here’s your two kwai, to which I received a torrent of abuse. “Er kwai! Crazy! No! Fare san bai kwai, tip er kwai! You pay me three hundred!” He wanted ¥300, about £30. Fuck off mate, we agreed er kwai, here’s your ¥2. He mimed drinking and managed to stumble through saying he couldn’t buy a drink of water for ¥2. No, ¥2, you said two kwai, here’s your ¥2. He then said ¥200. I then remembered from the map that there was another main road to cross before the metro station. I also realised that this was a big guy, and we were down a narrow unkempt side street with lots of closed doors. One of the doors opened and a guy looked out to see what was going on. I thought that if I play this wrong it could go very badly indeed. I had to show a willingness to compromise, so said I’d give him ¥10 – 5 times what I thought we’d a greed and a 20th of what he now wanted. I also remembered I had a ¥20 in my pocket – I could give him that without getting my wallet out – so that was my mental limit. He said ¥100, and I said ¥20 and took out my note and gave it to him and walked off, he didn’t say anything after me.

I was simultaneously very pleased to be out of a potentially risky situation and furious at myself for being scammed for the first time since Prague. Still, ¥20 is about £2.

When he said that the metro station is around the corner, what he meant was that he’d taken me about a third of the way and it was still about a ten minute walk. By the metro station I saw a McDonalds and thought it was an ideal time for a spot of lunch, then I caught the metro up to the Olympic Park.

Coming out of the Olympic Park station, I passed some awful looking fake old buildings. Grey concrete bricks built to look like a little old Chinese village. Exactly the kind of fake twee that I hate in the UK. I caught a glimpse of the Birds Nest stadium. It doesn’t look as impressive as it looks on TV, but maybe I was too far away. One of the common themes of studying urban geography is the decay of disused Olympic facilities. Barcelona 1992, Turin 2006. It’s been less than 4 years since Beijing 2008, and already the park is getting a bit shabby. Despite all the talk of legacy, I expect to have to write the same thing about London in a few years.

There’s a tripod shaped building with glass pods and the Olympic rings on top, presumably a building for media organisations. The glass for the lift shafts looked dirty and discoloured, and there was rust coming through the white painted steel. Onwards I walked across the endless expanse of grey stone. The sun was beating down, heating up the stone, and the heat from the stone was rising up. Great bit of urban planning, well done Beijing.

I reached the landscaped area around the Birds Nest stadium itself. The grass and trees made a nice change, the area felt noticeably cooler. The stadium is impressive, no doubt about it, but it did feel a bit smaller than I was expecting. I wasn’t going to pay the ¥50 to go inside, but glimpsing the inside from some open passageways I realised that the athletic field is quite a bit lower down – it’s dug out into the ground, requiring less super structure for the stadium itself. I didn’t see any of the Beijing Olympics – I was cycling across Europe at the time – so I was interested to see a wall with a lot of the medal winners carved in. I walked along to rowing, and saw that Team GB won a few things. Nice.

Across the vast expanse of stone was the aquatics centre with its plastic bubbles. The plastic looked old and discoloured. Now the world’s media isn’t watching, there’s no incentive to keep them nice.

Leaving the Olympic Park, I took the metro back to the hostel. I had a table to myself in the bar and got on with some writing. Later on, a Swiss guy motioned to ask if he could sit with me so I said yes. He was cool. He’s teaching German at a university somewhere else in China, and we agreed to meet up the next day to do some sightseeing together.

Qingdao to Beijing

I planned to have another chilled out relaxing day, taking the train up from Qingdao to Beijing and checking into the hostel.
A lot of the travelling I’ve done in the past few years has been rushing around trying to see as many deprived parts of a town as possible (urban geography fieldtrips) or rushing around trying to see as many ‘must see’ tourist attractions as possible (holidays with friends). I was having none of that on this vacation. This time, if friends ask “what did you do on holiday?” and I can honestly answer “not much, just chilled out and relaxed a bit” then I’ll consider it a success.

My train to Beijing departed at 12:08, so I had lots of time to amble around packing and having some breakfast at the hostel. Excellent. I like train stations, watching the world go by, wondering where people are coming from and going to. As I mentioned in my post about the day in Qingdao, I also really like train station architecture. St Pancras station in London is perhaps one of my favourite places in the world. I find the juxtaposition of grand old architecture and grand modern architecture really exciting, and I’d read that Qingdao’s train station was old and had been re-developed so I was eager to have a good nose around.

I went in the east entrance of the station, through the security that seems to be obligatory in major Chinese train stations, to see a gleaming marble hall. I went up the stairs to the overpass and to look across the concourse and tracks. The roof is a modern glass and white painted steel structure, sitting on top of the old Germanic buildings. It was quite tastefully done. As I was looking up at the building, I realised I was standing above a sleeper train with hundreds of people boarding. My Chinese is now at a point where I can recognise about 20 or 30 characters, and I noticed that the departure board said 西安, Xi’an.

As I waited in the departure lounge, I realised that my ticket for this journey was in the middle of the three seats across on the Chinese trains. I hoped I could do the same trick of playing the ignorant westerner and sitting by the window again, but when I boarded the train I found that the window seat was already taken by a fat sleeping man spilling over onto my seat. He had a single very long beard hair. How had he managed to miss shaving that one hair his entire life, surely he knew it was there? Anyway, close to departure I thought I might be in luck and the other seat of the three might be unoccupied, but just before we pulled out of the station, another fat man arrived, carrying a supersized bucket of KFC.

The train journey was very similar to the one from Shanghai to Qingdao. The train was modern and smooth, and had a little display announcing the speed. The fastest I noticed was 308km/h, although you wouldn’t know it unless you look out of the window. Squashed between two fat men, one of whom stank of KFC, I decided to bury myself in some TV on my laptop, and then do some writing. I watched the first episode of the new Armando Iannucci comedy, Veep (didn’t think much of it), another episode of Modern Family (excellent), and watched the new Tron movie again (excellent).

Arriving in Beijing, I had to buy a metro ticket to get to the hostel. Knowing the metro ticket machines in Xi’an, and how fickle they can be about accepting notes of different values and ages, I’d managed to keep a small selection when receiving change. But the machine didn’t accept any of my ¥10, ¥20 or ¥50 notes. I tried each a couple of times but to no joy. The person behind me in the queue was probably getting a bit frustrated at waiting, although he didn’t show it, and eventually offered the ¥2 I needed in coins. China sometimes feels like the friendliest country in the world.

At the hostel in Beijing I checked in and went to my bunk in the shared dorm. It’s a really nice hostel, with messages written on the walls from pervious backpackers. All the more amazing is that no one seems to have abused the privilege of writing on the walls – all the messages are nice. The dorm had 10 beds and was wonderfully air-conditioned.

It was already 5pm and I didn’t feel like doing anything in Beijing yet, so I headed to the hostel bar to do some more writing. I was definitely over my writer’s block by now. I also promised I’d call my best friend Jaine back in England, so found a spot with free wifi and tried to use Skype, but I couldn’t get through.

In the hostel bar a bit later I met some cool people that had spontaneously formed a group. About four of them lived in Beijing and the other four were passing through. None of us could remember each other’s names, but since we were all from different places and had different accents we called each other by places. I became ‘posh London’ since there was another Londoner, and we also had New Zealand, Ohio, South Carolina, Canada, Ireland, Iceland and Sheffield. We were all getting on really well, and it was turning into an interesting evening, but I was really tired. At about 10 I asked if they’d all still be there at midnight before heading out somewhere else and they said probably yeah and that they’d wait for me, so I went for a power nap. Clearly the power nap turned into a deep sleep, as I woke up the next morning at 8am.

Back to Reality

Apologies for the delayed service recently. I got back from my holiday in the evening on a Wednesday and went straight to work on Thursday. Today, Wednesday, is my first day off since my holiday almost two weeks ago. I’ve been working for 13 days straight.
Everyone gets the post holiday blues and needs a holiday to get over their holiday, but I crashed hard this time. My first weekend back, I was reminded that the air-conditioning in the school is rubbish, but is especially bad in my classroom which feels like a sauna. We’ve been told that it’s an old building and the air-conditioning struggles, but the building looks modern and is located in the newly developed north of the city so can’t be more than ten years old, the school has only been open for four years, and every other floor in the building is lovely and cool.

Having a slight tendency to indulge in conspiracy theories, I would blame it on the company spending only just enough on air-conditioning to keep us just happy enough to not complain too much. But, I’m reminded of the saying “never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by incompetence”. The three other branches of the school In Xi’an are so well cooled that apparently teachers complain it’s too cold, so I think someone from the company that owns the building needs to get a good kicking.

The annoyance at the air-conditioning was made worse by the water situation at my apartment. I’ve been having problems with the water going off several times a week, and perhaps once a week when I want to have a shower in the morning. After Saturday’s classes I was hot and sweaty, but I’m a morning shower person so I planned to have a shower on Sunday morning. Except I woke up to find the water was off again so couldn’t have a shower. I was in such a foul mood that I spent most of the day hiding in my classroom instead of being around colleagues in the staffroom. In the week and a half since then it’s happened a couple more times and I’m now at the point where I’m going to insist I move to a new apartment.

The old part time Director of Studies at my school moved to work full time at the other school he worked at, and since then he’s gone from being my boss to being a mate. I met him a week ago for brunch, and inevitably had a moan about all the things that annoy me about work. I pointed out that of the eight foreign teachers, only one is planning on signing up for another year contract, and several of us are counting down to end of our contracts (128 days!). He said at his school every teacher who’s contract is ending soon has signed for another year.

One of my complaints is the lack of Chinese lessons provided by the school. The job advert and interview, and even my contract, says that I’m entitled to one free Chinese lesson a week. In almost eight months I’ve managed to have three, and those were only after much badgering. I eventually lost the will to fight those kinds of battles so haven’t had any more. My DoS friend says at his branch of the school they have Chinese lessons timetabled on a Friday morning and they happen every week. At my school, the new DoS has made some progress, but it’s been around two months since he arrived and I still haven’t had another lesson.

In the weekly meeting when he told us about organising the lessons, he gave a stern warning of “three strikes and you’re out”: If we miss three lessons, then we don’t get any more. I wanted to say “what about the same policy for the school, if you miss providing us with three lessons you have to pay for them to be provided privately?” but managed to hold my tongue. I’d quite happily sign a “one strike and I’m out” letter stating that if I miss one lesson then I’ll waive my right entirely to Chinese lessons. I just want the Chinese lessons that I’m contractually entitled to.

One good thing the school has done after I complained is to run the Teacher Knowledge Test course over the summer. The TKT is offered in the job advert and interview, and it is one of the reasons I chose this job over the two other job offers I had at the time. But the school only ran it from September through to March, and if your year contract started and ended during that time then you couldn’t complete it. My contract starts and ends at the end of November, and I eventually persuaded the school to run a second course over the summer. It’s clearly wanted as 12 teachers over the four schools have signed up. We’re only doing modules two and three though, so I’m preparing for another battle at the end of August to do module one before the end of my contract.

Enough moaning about work, now for something good. I have a new class, to elementary level students aged 16 to 20. It makes a really nice change all of my classes with young students, and as it’s a condensed summer course over three weeks we do activities outside school on Friday afternoons. Last week we went to Pizza Hut, this week we’re going to Starbucks, and next week we’re going to Laser Quest.

A note to my bosses and colleagues who I know read this: everything I’ve complained about in this blog post are things that I’ve complained about openly at work. Note also that I haven’t ever said on my blog which English school I work at in Xi’an.

Since my holiday I haven’t really had any time for socialising, but I have had a couple of bike tourists staying with me. Lots of people know about CouchSurfing, which is a really cool project linking people backpacking with people who have spare rooms. There’s another website with a similar goal, but aimed at bike tourers, called WarmShowers. Mateu and Martina are cycling from Barcelona to Beijing, and they stayed with me for a few nights a week ago. They’re really nice and we had a great time talking about Barcelona, about bike touring, and about life in general. I hope we can meet up again when I’m next in Barcelona!

My work schedule over the past two weeks has also meant I haven’t finished my updates from my holiday. I’m spending the day writing in Starbucks to catch up, so I’ll be posting all the updates over the next few hours (I hope!).

Qingdao

My day in Qingdao was very lazy, just as I’d planned it to be.
I had breakfast at the hostel then went for a walk. Qingdao used to be a German concession, and the architecture of the old city still shows this. The older buildings look very Germanic and the streets are consistently built to a human scale.

First I headed to the Laoshe Park, and wandered down the hill to the sea. In the park there was an old man writing traditional Chinese calligraphy on the empty base of a fountain. He had a big stick and a pot of black paint. He took time with each character, looking like he was putting a lot of thought into what character to write and exactly how to write it to express the correct message.

At the base of the park I came to the sea. The sea front was heaving with people, and there was very little beach, just a few rocks sticking out above the water line. I took a random decision and decided to turn left, heading north east along the shore, with the sea to my right. Along the sea front I walked, a lot of the time unable to see the sea due to the rampant commercialism along the shore. I went up a hill and found Luxun Park, so went in to relax and watch the world go by. The park is high on a rocky outcrop with good views of the rest of the shoreline. I sat on a rock with the sea lapping the rocks far below. The scent of the pine trees gave the setting a very Mediterranean feeling. As ever in China, sitting down for that long, I became an attraction myself, with people taking photos surreptitiously.

Tired of the attention, I left the park to go to Xiao Qingdao, a scenic island with a causeway leading to it. By the start of the causeway was a Naval Museum, with four decommissioned war ships and a submarine. Scattered seemingly randomly on the shore was a weird collection of helicopters, missiles, gun turrets and other military paraphernalia. On the island I found a tourist-tat shop, so bought little gifts for everyone back in the office. Further around the island I found a coffee shop, so stopped for about an hour while I drank a coffee and got my Kindle out to read another chapter of the book I’m reading.

Leaving the island, I wandered back to the old city centre, with the goal of finding the train station to see how much of the original German station has been retained and repurposed in the modern station. Expecting the station to be like a Chinese St Pancras, I didn’t have the opportunity to see it – the station was across five lanes of busy road, with no obvious way across. I tried to go around, but found myself half way back to the hostel in the process. The Chinese town planners “won” that one, and I headed back to the hostel to do some more relaxing and writing.

As I ordered dinner in the hostel lounge, the waitress accused me of coming to China and spending all my time on my computer. I countered by saying that I’ve lived in China for the past seven months, that I’m on holiday now so I’ll do what I want and that isn’t necessarily experiencing more of China, and (quarter truth) I’m a writer so have been doing lots of writing, not just surfing the internet. She seemed very impressed at my claim to be a writer and let me off the hook.

After publishing a few blog posts and receiving the same cold shoulders from other self-absorbed backpackers as I had on the previous nights, I headed to bed.

Shanghai to Qingdao

Another early morning. That makes three in a row. I’m knackered.
At 7am I slip out of my hostel room as quietly as possible, trying not to wake anybody. I sleepily head downstairs and through the hostel’s tranquil central courtyard filled with patterned shadows from the dawn light filtering through the lovingly tended trees. The night receptionist, not fully awake herself, pays me my deposit. The peace and calm is serene, and I almost whisper xièxiè so as not to interrupt the quiet.

Then I head out into central Shanghai. Bam.

The hostel may be asleep, but the rest of Shanghai is certainly awake. Along the couple of streets from the hostel to People’s Square I dodge delivery vans, children cycling to school, fat cats in big black cars, hundreds of commuters on electric bikes, workmen pushing wheelbarrows. The square itself is no better, thousands of commuters all more important than everyone else power walking to work.

Down into the metro and I already have the ¥4 in coins I need for the ticket to Shanghai Hongqiao railway station. Despite the masses of people, the ticket machines are deserted. Everyone using the metro at this time in the morning are commuters with pre-paid cards, the tourists normally clogging up the ticket machines are still sleeping. Somehow, as I’m almost carried along by the sea of bodies, I manage to help a pretty girl carry her ridiculously large suitcase down the stairs. Perhaps she’s the only other tourist at this time in the morning.

I reminisce living in London, commuting daily on an overcrowded metro system, getting annoyed at the pettiest things like backpackers or tourists with wheely suitcases slowing me down. “Damn it, I’m going to be late” I’d curse as if the 5 seconds lost were really going to make a difference when the train wasn’t due for another 2 minutes anyway. Being a part of the commuter rush, but somehow also on the outside looking in, puts things in perspective. I’d like to say I’ll never glare at another slow tourist again, but in reality, at some time in the future, living in the moment, I’ll no doubt get as caught up in the commuter rush as everyone else does.

At Hongqiao station, like at every major station in China, I have to pass through security. The queues are long but moving fast. There are 12 distinct lines, with people moving back and forth trying to choose the fastest. As a relatively tall person compared to most of the Chinese, I can see that there are only actually four security check points but somehow each has three lines that merge into one.

Inside the station I’m in awe of the scale of the building. I look at the departure board. My train will leave from platform 3, at the other end of the concourse. I start walking and what seems like a long time later look back to gauge my progress. I’m a third of the way. I reach my platform and realise I have an hour to spare. I look around for some options for breakfast. I see a KFC high up and think, sod it, I eat Chinese all the time, now I’m on holiday I’ll eat whatever I want.

The population of KFC is a 50-50 split between Chinese and westerners, with most of the westerners looking a little hypocritically disdainful at the others for indulging in KFC. With my KFC to go I head to the little supermarket to buy snacks for the journey – Orion Pies (like Wagon Wheels in the UK), some chewy sweets, and a couple of bottles of water.

Downstairs again I wait for the gate to the platform to open. Twenty minutes before departure people start queueing, and I decide to join them. I reach the gate and put my ticket in. It doesn’t fit. In fact, it looks different to everyone else’s ticket. Oh boy, this is going to be a problem, what if my ticket isn’t valid, then I’m stuck in Shanghai. I force my way through to the assistant, and she clips a hole in my ticket and lets me through. Boarding the train, I find that my seat is the middle of five across, next to the aisle and with no view at all. I decide to sit by the window anyway and hope I don’t have any seat neighbours. Of course, another passenger turns up and looks perplexed at finding a westerner in their seat. I point at the window and mime looking out of it, then look back at them and shrug in a way that I hope conveys that I’d like to sit by the window to look at the view, if that’s ok by them. Seven months of improving my non-verbal communication must have worked wonders and they reply “hao de”, meaning ok.

At 9:39am the train departs right on time and is wonderfully smooth. It’s a six and half hour journey so there’s lots of time for window gazing. Watching China go past the window, and having just spent a couple of days effectively on an urban geography fieldtrip, I’m in a reflective mood about China and where it’s going. While my thoughts appear in my mind randomly from every which direction, eventually they start to form a bigger picture. Before I forget them I get my laptop out to write an email to Tass, even though we just spent two days talking about China, there’s still more to the story.

While I have my laptop out I also write a dull blog post about maglev train technology. I apologise if you managed to read that one to the end!

Even though I’m peering through the window in the direction of the sea all the way to Qingdao, my first glimpse of it doesn’t come until the train has arrived and I’m walking to the hostel. There’s too much industry on the coastline to see the sea from the train.

The hostel, Kaiyue International Hostel, is alright. It’s in an old church and the building has lots of potential for creating a great hostel. But there’s something missing; it just doesn’t have any soul. The lounge is too big and there are too few people that you’re not forced into sitting near anyone. I take my laptop out to do some writing, and ask a fellow brit if he knows the wifi code. “It’s three ten times” he says curtly. I ask if he knows the football result. “Italy won”. Does he know the score? “Two-one”. Well, he’s a friendly fellow. I try to initiate conversations with a few other backpackers and get similarly curt responses.

Clearly this isn’t the place for socialising, so I bury my head in my laptop and find that my writer’s block seems to be over.

I have so much writing to catch up on that I don’t notice the hours flowing past. By 9pm I’m simultaneously knackered and hungry. I decided earlier that I’m on holiday from China, so I have no qualms ordering western food. A pepperoni pizza later and I’m ready for bed. Three early mornings and two days of Tass fieldtrip have done me in.

By 10pm I’m asleep in bed.

A Day in Shanghai with Tass

The day certainly started early enough with a 5:30am alarm.
We had a flight booked at 8am from Xi’an to Shanghai. As ever with a flight, we worked out our schedule backwards. Even though we only had hand luggage we figured an hour at the airport to be safe, half an hour in a taxi getting there, and half an hour to find a taxi at that time in the morning. That meant leaving the apartment at 6am. So I set my alarm for 5:30am, allowing just enough time for a shower and turning off all the electrical stuff in the apartment. But before 6am is not the most wakeful time of day for me, and as I write this in my hostel in Qingdao I wonder if I remembered to close all the windows.

We found a taxi and I negotiated a price to the airport. Actually, while I say I negotiated a price, there was no negotiation involved. Nick had said he managed to haggle a taxi down to ¥120 to go the airport. That was my benchmark. I had to try and get it for ¥120 or less. The driver’s opening price was ¥100. I was so astonished at the low price I just said yeah, ok, hao de!

We arrived at the airport at 6:50am and proceeded to the electronic check-in. It was as painless as it should be, but isn’t, everywhere else. Enter your passport number, choose a seat, print your boarding pass. Done. We headed to go through security and were directed towards the VIP security lane with a red carpet. Me and Tass certainly didn’t look like VIP passengers, but maybe they put the English speaking staff on the VIP line and when it’s quiet in the morning it’s less hassle to have English speaking travellers use the VIP line. Who knows. Anyway, UK airport security could learn a thing or two from Xi’an airport’s VIP security check. Efficient, prompt, no hassle, no nitpicking over bags 5cm too big.

With an hour to the flight we decided to get a coffee. We headed into Segafredo. The Chinese waitress greeted us in Italian. “Buongiorno!” she said with a pretty good Italian accent. “Buongiorno, come stai?” I responded, but that seemed to flummox her. “Uno cafe latte per favore” I followed with. Nothing. It seemed I was going to have to do this in Chinese. “Wo xiang yao yi bei cafe latte huh yi bei cafe americano”. Progress! The coffee’s were ¥40 apiece, so Tass paid to even out me paying for the taxi. Drinking our coffee we discussed how much longer Chinese society can continue so economically unequal. With our taxi driver’s fare for a 40km journey he could just about buy two coffees.

After the coffee we headed to the gate and found we’d be sharing our plane with a load of stereotypical Americans. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I just hoped I wouldn’t be squashed in next to one of them. Apologies to all of my normal-sized American friends, but this group, every one of them, were clinically obese.

Arriving in Shanghai I immediately noticed the humidity. When I last visited at the end of April, Shanghai had been lovely and warm and I don’t remember noticing any humidity. This time, it felt like stepping into a hot rain shower, just without the rain. It was oppressively hot and humid. I could probably have survived without drinking if I could swallow the air.

In the terminal we searched for the left luggage deposit so Tass could leave his bag to collect for his flight that evening instead of lugging it around all day. I had no such benefit. I planned on staying in a hostel for the night before taking the train to Qingdao the next day, so had to lug my backpack around Shanghai for half a day, with the added annoyance of the straps irritating the sunburn on my neck and shoulders.

With everything sorted, we bought our tickets for the MagLev train that goes part way into Shanghai. We were a few seats away from the Americans we shared the flight with, who whooped and hollered as the train reached its maximum speed on that run of 300km/h. Me and Tass sighed in disdain, commenting that we’d both been faster on the Eurostar, TGV, ICE, AVE and various other high speed trains in Europe that were both quieter and smoother.

Continuing our journey to Pudong, we once again did the trick of going to the hotel lobby on the 56th floor of the JinMao tower to look at the view for free instead of paying the exorbitant price to go to the official viewing gallery. The viewing gallery, at the top of the building, would have been pointless anyway in the cloud. Exiting the wonderfully air-conditioned JinMao tower, Tass commented that going outside was like entering the tropical glasshouses at Kew Gardens. That’s exactly how it felt. Going outside in Shanghai in the summer feels like going inside an artificially hot and humid environment in London. With the dull dank sky and the close air it feels like a you’re in a dome. Any minute you expect to see the Chinese Truman Burbank come around the corner.

After Pudong we headed to People’s Square so Tass could go to the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall and I could go and check in to my hostel and drop off my bag. The hostel, the Mingtown Etour International Youth Hostel, was fantastic, with friendly staff, a lovely courtyard, nice rooms and clean bathrooms. I can’t recommend it highly enough and I’m disappointed I only got to spend one night there!

I met Tass an hour or so later and we went to the Bund. As Tass said that a section of the urban planning exhibition had talked about the Bund and it recently being done up with a bit of waterfront redevelopment, he was anxious to see it in person. As we seemed to spend a lot of time during my degree talking about waterfront developments as the initial step in wider urban redevelopment, me and Tass were looking at it from a completely different perspective to everyone else.

From the Bund we headed to the Old Town area, with Disney-fied old buildings. When I was in Shanghai last time I also found a really run down area near the old town, so I took Tass through that on our way back to a Starbucks for a coffee. Again we talked about the inequality in Chinese society. In sight of people living in shacks are the gleaming towers of Pudong. At 7pm we met my friend Neil to go to Blue Frog for a nice burger, and at 8 Tass had to leave for the airport, so me and Neil stayed for another drink to catch up properly ourselves. Finally, it was time for me to head to my hostel and Neil to head home.

At the hostel I met some lovely Dutch girls on holiday, and some French guys who have been studying in Beijing for a few months. I forgot how much I enjoy the fleeting friendships made for a day or two in hostels when travelling. But with a 9:30am train the next morning, and needing to leave the hostel at 8am at the latest to make it, I reluctantly retired to bed much earlier than most other backpackers.

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!

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.