Christmas lessons

I have decided that something is missing from my blog. I am pretty happy with what I have been writing, but I feel that by confining the subject matter to the main events that happen, I am missing small but interesting parts of my experience. I also feel that I could and should produce more frequent posts. Therefore, I‘ve decided to introduce the ‘short post’ to my blog-writing repertoire. This is my first attempt:

The past couple of weeks I have been teaching lessons about Christmas. When I was planning these lessons I had originally planned to talk about why Christmas is celebrated. Explain to them the Nativity. But each time I sat down to work out how I should do this. I hit a brick wall. I searched in vain for a good video. In the end, I accepted defeat and settled for lessons based on the Christmas-related things that the children could relate to: tree and santa. In the first lesson I taught them the names of all the Christmas tree decorations followed by a short Disney film called ‘Pluto’s Christmas Tree’. For some reason ‘baubles’ sent the grade 6 classes into hysterics. I think it sounds like something rude in Chinese! I then drew two Christmas trees on the board and the girls and boys battled it out decoration by decoration to produce the best-decorated tree. The last part of the lesson was a quick-thinking moment of inspiration for me. I had originally planned to make them sing a Christmas carol, but the MP3 file wouldn’t play. In moments of desperation we tend to turn to the chalk, and this time it paid off!

In the last week I have barely needed to teach at all. We have been asked to examine our pupils on there speaking and listening. The first I heard about this from an English teacher was when Jacky came up and asked ‘so what have you got prepared for the exams?’ How I was supposed to telepathically understand that I was to prepare an test which allowed me to assess the speaking and listening ability of over 40 children in half an hour?! An equally bewildering thing happened last week when Simon accompanied me to my grade 1 class, anticipating that there might be exams to take. We turned up and there was no teacher there. Five minutes later, a replacement teacher turns up and asks us to keep the children entertained for 40 minutes! She offered the use and went to get it. In the meantime, we engaged the children in a game of ‘Simon says’ – fast becoming a favourite in the school! When the teacher came back with her computer, we sighed with relief in the knowledge we could turn to our trusted selection of videos, that is until we looked up a saw there was no projector there! We managed to wing it for the rest of the time, testing them on the vocabulary we have covered over the past few weeks. Sometimes the teachers expect magic from us. All we can do is our best!

I am writing this post from our hotel in Hong Kong, where we are enjoying a well-earned rest and soak up as much of the festive spirit as we can in this far corner of the globe. You can look forward to my thoughts on Hong Kong in the next post. For the mean time, I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas wherever you may be!


Baiyun Mountain

We decided last Sunday to go to Baiyun Mountain. You may remember that Baiyun was the venue of our theatre excursion. We were sufficiently impressed by the view of the mountains to give them a closer look. Amy and I were accompanied by Yvonne. Yvonne is a new arrival in Shishan whom we had met a few days previously – just about the most exciting thing that’s happened in Shishan since we got here! Hailing from, Toronto, she plies her trade at a nearby kindergarten. Our grade 1 children are excitable enough; I can only wonder at what the younger ones might be like! Yvonne rather adventurously applied for her year-long position only a couple of weeks before actually leaving – she quit her job only the evening before! She was able to avoid the visa hassle that we had to endure by obtaining a tourist visa will be upgraded later.

On the previous day I had disclosed to one of the teachers that we were headed to Baiyun mountain. This particular teacher, who is called Zheng Mei (family name first; neither an English teacher nor able to speak to speak the language particularly well, she understandably hasn’t felt the need to adopt an English name), regularly offers us lifts to various places. We accept at our peril – she is not the most accomplished driver, regularly stalling or jerky with the accelerator/brakes; still, she’s a better driver than me! She has twice taken us into Shishan for a noodle dinner meanwhile constantly repeating her favourite English phrase: ‘my treat’. On this chance encounter it transpired that she was going to Guicheng so was hardly going to pass up the opportunity to treat us to a lift to the metro station there. What happened the next day wasn’t exactly what we had in mind. We hopped into Mei’s car at 9, but we weren’t in the car for long. She just took us to a nearby bus stop from where we could get a bus to Guangzhou. In apparently changing her plans, Mei had done us a great favour: she had shown us a way of bypassing Foshan completely on our way to Guangzhou, thereby dramatically reducing the journey time. The only thing was that we had planned to meet Yvonne in Foshan! This turned out not to be a problem as Yvonne was able to get on the metro before us and anticipate our arrival in GZ (from now on GZ is Guangzhou. I’ve had enough of typing it!). This was yet another example in China of someone not feeling the need to give us any notice! I don’t want to sound ungrateful as Mei has been so kind to us since we have got here.


So, having met up with Yvonne without any trouble, we made the all too familiar journey along the GZ metro. Apart from the huge numbers travelling and their refusal to waste a Joule of energy walking up exceptionally slow escalators (the resultant crowds are no fun at all!), the GZ metro is a surprisingly pleasant experience (all the more so if you manage to bag a seat!) and probably utterly vital to the functioning of the city. The trains are very regular, you get reception everywhere even though you are underground, and it is extremely cheap – the London underground is inferior to GZ’s metro in all three respects, making a mockery of the upcoming strikes. We arrived at ‘Baiyun park’ expecting to be within the vicinity of the foot of the mountain. On surfacing, we were dismayed to see how far we still had to go. We barely walked 100m before we were accosted by men on motorbikes offering to take us the rest of the way – apparently we weren’t the first to be fooled by Baiyun mountain and the corresponding name of its metro station. We hopped on the motorbikes for want of a better way of getting there. The journey was not without incident. Amy and Yvonne shared one bike and I got on another. My bike was involved in a head on collision. Before you get worried, we were travelling at about walking pace at the time! My driver and another driver travelling in the opposite direction (it is perfectly normal for bikes/motorbikes to be seen heading the wrong way down busy roads) got into one of those interactions that is all too common on the pavements of London, where two people simultaneously move in the same direction to avoid each other with awkward consequences! We arrived at the entrance to Baiyun mountain and were immediately convinced that our journey had been worthwhile. Just like with Xiqiao mountain, the green, leafy surroundings were just what we craved constantly being surrounded by concrete most of the time. On the way up we saw a choir open to all, of the kind we have seen elsewhere in GZ. The walk up was unrelenting in its steepness and the number of steps, so we made sure to stop each time a clear view of the city was not obstructed by trees or bamboo. At one such point there was a couple of Chinese men who insisting on taking several photos of us with them. We obliged, but we would rather have sat down and rested undisturbed. The view from the mountain was a case of ‘if only’. You had awesome panoramic viewpoints of the city, but most of what you would have been able to see clearly was faint because of the smoggy air. The iconic Canton tower was just about visible if you strained your eyes – apparently, it was, only last year, the world’s tallest completed tower (it’s now second only to the ‘Tokyo Sky Tree’, which isn’t nearly as pretty).


We (or, at least, I!) spent most of the walk in search of the elusive restaurant  for which we saw signs. We never found it so I had to settle for corn on the cob, which is especially good and widely available here. At the top of the mountain there was a Buddha, which seems to be a necessary requirement on all mountain peaks, and a point where we could pay to get to the very top and soak in the misty view. From there we plotted a route down the other side of the mountain past pleasantly-named places like ‘Peach blossom Brooklet’ and ‘Plum blossom Valley’. The Brooklet was just as pleasant as the name suggests and we were left to imagine what it would be like if there was blossom about, not being the right time of year for it. I don’t think we ever found Plum blossom valley. If we did find it, then it passed us by. Nonetheless the remainder of the walk was delightful and, just occasionally, the leafy greenery was matched with a calm and almost eery tranquility. Silence here is so infrequent and so hard to come by, I think it can be best described as ‘loud’ just because we are so aware of it. The silence was soon broken with a vengeance when we rejoined the beaten path walking amongst Chinese tourists who have yet to learn about the benefits of headphones! All in all, our Baiyun mountain walk was well worth the journey and the aching calf muscles, and just the sort of thing we needed.

For some reason Chinese graffiti looks decorative         

On the way back we dropped by China plaza. GZ and Foshan have a few of these plazas dotted around. They are best described as shopping malls, full of two things: clothes shops (usually western in style) and restaurants (not so western apart from the ubiquitous McDonald’s, KFC and Starbucks). Within China plaza there is a wonderful shop called ‘Taste’. Taste is a haven of food imported from every corner of the globe with just about anything you can think of, including bread and cheese! An aversion to ovens in China means you can’t easily find decent bread, and dairy products are, if anything, worse. As you would expect, the food here is mighty expensive, but it somehow means a lot to us that it’s there if we want it! It took us far longer than it should have done to work out that the restaurant quarter was at the top of China plaza. Fresh and exhausted from our mountain walk, I think we were reluctant to climb any more floors than absolutely necessary! For the first time we sampled the food that the Bruce Lee fast-food restaurant has to offer. As with the Kung Fu master that lent his name to this chain of restaurants, ‘fast’ is the operative word! I barely had time to pay for our meals before a tray with separate bowls of rice, pork and tofu was sat there ready to be taken away.

The journey back from GZ was largely uneventful, but for having to navigate our way back from our new found bus stop,  practically blinded all the way by cars with full headlamps on – I don’t think they understand here why you are given the dimmer option! Also, the roads are lined with defunct street lights. There are few times I have appreciated my hard mattress more than that evening!

Thanks for reading! This may or may not be the last post before Christmas. If it is, I wish you all a very happy Christmas. It doesn’t at all feel like Christmas here. Perhaps that will change when we get to Hong Kong!

KTV (Karaoke)

Last Friday (9th Dec) we joined the English teachers on a karaoke jolly. Karaoke is known as KTV in China. I suspect the powers that be deemed a Japanese name ‘unsuitable’ for an activity so popular in China as this one. The history between the two countries has ensured an enmity that I’m sure is mutual. The evening, which included dinner and a private room to eat and sing in, was courtesy of our school.

That day we also had to go into Guangzhou to deal with Vietnamese visas. Amy, to pick up her completed visa, and me, to drop off my passport and pay for the visa. I was a week behind in the process because I required my passport to stay at the hot springs the week before. This was not the first time in China I have wished that my passport could be in two places at once! Now we’re on the subject of visas, I might as well tell you also that we have booked our flights back from Southeast Asia! We’re flying back from Bangkok on 8th Feb – significantly earlier than the ‘end of February’ we had been quoted. We have no cause for complaint, as this trip still promises to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We were just disappointed because it put paid to the nascent idea we had of extending the planned trip to include Malaysia. We killed two birds with one stone by buying our train tickets for Hong Kong too. We will be in Hong Kong for four nights to celebrate Christmas. It’s no ‘Christmas at home’, but not a bad substitute! Being so westernised, Hong is bound to provide a good Christmas meal and, most exciting of all, a good fry-up – something I miss terribly!

Anyway, this detour meant that we had to find our way to the Karaoke place ourselves, armed with a text from one of the teachers including the address of the place in Chinese. We met Simon at the Starbuck’s  in Nanhai plaza – one of the larger shopping centres in Foshan, located in Guicheng (the area where the karaoke was supposed to be). Coffee is surprisingly expensive in China – obviously not the vital commodity it is in other parts of the world, though that doesn’t deter the stupendous queues of people you see at most Starbuck’s outlets in Guangzhou! The table in the following link entitled ‘Starbuck’s tall latte index’ shows that (at least in 2004 – the figures will certainly be higher for China now) while China is listed as the cheapest place in the world for a Big Mac, it ranks on a par with USA in the Starbuck’s index From there we caught a taxi, keen to shift the responsibility for finding our destination on someone else. We were anticipating a very short journey, but after a while we began to wonder if our driver wasn’t ‘taking us for a ride’! Eventually, feeling a curious combination of relief and trepidation, we were dropped off outside a large building that could have been anything for all we knew. It resembled a cheap neon-clad hotel rather than a Karaoke bar. The inside of the building did nothing to rule out such a conclusion. We hopped in the lift in search of the floor 7 that surely corresponded with the room number we had been quoted, ‘701’. The lift only went up to the fifth floor… Not until a member of staff recognised our text, did we think we had come to the right place!

It turned out we were among the first to arrive, so we helped ourselves to the beautifully presented, but essentially meagre buffet on  offer. I don’t know how typical this is of karaoke venues, but this place had, branching off from the buffet ‘hall’, corridors which led you to the private karaoke rooms. In 701, Nikki, one of the grade three teachers, was especially eager to kick off the evening. She had clearly done this many times before! We spent most of the evening playing the dice game that I had learnt from the players from Crocodilian Castle FC. It’s an extremely simple and enjoyable game. You just secretively cast 5 dice and, in turn, you declare how many of a certain number you reckon there are on the table based on what you know from your own dice. Just like the bidding in bridge, the number (the suits in this bridge analogy) and number of dice have to increase with each bid. The bidding increases until someone refuses to believe there will be so many and reveals their dice.

We could only get away with hiding away playing dice for so long. After a while, I was persuaded to join one of the teachers in a rendition of ‘Yesterday’. The moments at which I was able to hold the tune I actually enjoyed myself. I scanned the predominantly Chinese selection for another song to sing and for one that I could get Amy to sing. I settled on ‘A crazy little thing called love’ by Queen for myself. It’s moments like these you realise you don’t know a song as well as you thought you did! Still, the choruses were alright! I sang ‘Last Christmas’ by Wham with Amy, seeing as it was December. The thing about choruses was all the more pertinent here! We left the place in high spirits, but feeling exhausted, only to find that it was about half past nine – there was school the next morning for the teachers (except us) to make up for a morning missed earlier that week to exams! We weren’t privy to this fact until we woke the next morning to the all too familiar tunes blasting from the speakers all over the school!

I thought I’d mention that great excitement hit Shishan yesterday when Sophie received a phone call from a westerner newly arrived in the town! Amy and I met said arrival that same evening at the English school where I was teaching Sean. She is a Canadian called Yvonne, and is teaching at a Kindergarten not far from our school. To put this excitement into perspective: this was, including ourselves, the fifth western person we have come across in Shishan (this is excluding a couple of people we’ve seen in hotel ‘Aloft’).

Sorry about the lack of photos. I’ll make up for it in the next post on Baiyun mountain, where we’re going on Sunday. Comments, as usual, are more than welcome. And if you haven’t already, you can receive e-mail updates by clicking ‘follow’ in the bottom right hand corner and entering your e-mail.

A teachers’ outing to the hot springs

Just last Thursday I was told that the headteacher had invited us to the ‘hot springs’. This was a token of appreciation offered to all the teachers involved in the school shows that finished the week before. This invitation presented a dilemma as Jimmy (the guy from the English school) had already invited us to dinner that weekend. Back in England I wouldn’t have thought twice about which invitation I should accept. Jimmy asked first, so I would have declined the invitation to the hot springs. But this wasn’t the sort of offer that would come around again, and it was a perfect opportunity to get more involved with the staff. Simon and Amy decided not to go. But I just felt unable to say no being the one who was asked directly (I was actually asked by Beryl, as she was entrusted with forwarding the invitation). I had also declined an offer from Beryl to attend a KTV (karaoke) evening with the teachers. This, admittedly, was easier to turn down – I was hardly likely to wriggle out of having to sing something! – though I turned it down because of work. The fact my lesson was cancelled is academic, as is the fact this evening has now been moved to next week. The point is I thought that saying ‘no’ twice would probably be perceived as a reluctance to join in with the teachers. This lengthy explanation is evidence of the turmoil I undergo each and every time I find myself double-booked!

On with the show… I was instructed to meet at the front of the school a five to nine, in time to leave on the hour. I duly rocked up to the waiting coaches at nine dead, having stuffed what I couldn’t fit into my rucksack into a plastic bag – I had at the last minute decided to pack my laptop (and all the gubbins that goes with it) in vain hope of getting a couple of hours for lesson planning. As I approached the coaches I was struck by the number of teachers that had shown up for this trip. There were two full coach loads’ worth. I hadn’t expected these sorts of numbers having come across a few teachers the day before,who said that they weren’t going. This was also the first time I had seen the teachers in the same place without swarms of children around them (but for a couple of children of teachers)! Beryl informed me as I settled into my coach seat that the journey would be about three hours. What was less clear was that these three hours didn’t include the time we were to spend at tourist spots along the way. The first of these stops was a fetching row of river-front buildings in a place called Kaiping. A whistle-stop tour of the place (which, in fairness, didn’t demand a great deal of time to be spent on it) included an authentic, cluttered apothecary. There was calligraphy all over the place, an assortment of jars containing heaven-knows-what, and one of those machines used for practising Kung Fu. There was also just enough time to sample a local dish. I’m afraid I can’t remember its name, but I can tell you it was some manifestation of tofu. This was not tofu as you know it; it was liquid and served as a sweet, much like Greek yoghurt in consistency but not at all in taste. A couple of obligatory ‘tourist’ snaps taken from the bridge across the river and we were hopping back on the coach to get to our lunch venue. As I watched the teachers taking their photos, I was vividly reminded of the countless Chinese tourists you see all over Britain with their own inimitable style!


At the lunch I wowed the teachers at my table with my left-handedness and the deft chopstick skills I had acquired in my first six weeks here! I don’t think I’ve mentioned so far that being left-handed is a definite novelty in China. The vast majority of the naturally left-handed people in China learn to use their right hands for everything. In my first lessons, each and every class reacted, as I raised my left hand to the blackboard, with a long and drawn-out ‘WHOOOAAA!’. It was at this lunch I discovered one possible reason for the quelling of left-handedness in China: In our typically Chinese arrangement around a circular table, equipped with a turntable from which we grab at whatever happens to be in front of us at the time, I repeatedly found myself clicking chopsticks with the person to my left. This was the first of three excellent, but very similar meals we had during the trip. My favourite dish was a sort of fatty pork in a peanutty marinade – I take a childish pleasure in the challenge of picking up peanuts with a pair of chopsticks; it’s less of a challenge than it used to be! Another aspect of Chinese dining I haven’t yet covered is the hygienic pre-meal ritual with the tea. At each meal you are usually equipped with one or two small bowls for rice and broth, a small glass, and a flat bottomed china spoon familiar to anyone who has ordered a soup at their local Chinese, and a small plate (which is not to be eaten off, but to be used as a depository for bones so abundant in the food here). You pour hot tea into each of the bowls and the glass, swilling it around with the ends of your chopsticks thereby sterilising everything that will touch the food before it touches your mouth.

The next tourist stop was the old estate of a very rich man who died in 1970. This man had four wives and spent much of his life in the states. I was surprised that bigamy had been practised in China so recently. This man had built separate buildings for his wives, in an arrangement in tune with the beliefs of ‘Feng shui’. There were also some undoubtedly beautiful gardens surrounding this tourist attraction. I found it difficult to grasp the significance of this place. As far as I could tell, this man was only exceptional for his wealth, the number of wives he had, and the grandeur of his residence. Maybe that’s all you need to excuse the setting up of a tourist location. The first stop on the trip, though pretty, was equally unexceptional. We had passed buildings that looked just the same on the way, although they didn’t have the bridge to provide a vantage point for photos. Though these buildings in Kaiping were aesthetically pleasing, they were also all filthy, probably as a result of the high pollution levels here. From the tourist experiences I have had so far it is clear that the Chinese people don’t tent to revel in their past. Places like Xi’an, where the terracotta army is, and the Great Wall seem to be exceptions that  prove the rule. In my time in China so far, I haven’t been able to form any impression of China’s past for lack of evidence. The only exceptions I can think of are that flawed museum we saw on our first trip to Guangzhou, and a temple we visited in Zumiao (Zumiao is in fact the name of the Temple. This temple is also a museum about kung fu, in particular the life of Yip Man, the man who trained Bruce Lee. The details of his life are given but they are devoid of any historical context). I fear I have once again digressed. This is going to be a long post!


So having made a pleasant stop at this rich man’s house, we embarked on the last leg of our ‘three-hour’ journey. On the coach they were playing DVDs. It just so happened that the first was ‘Kung Fu Hustle’ with English subtitles. This was enough to distract me from my book ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay’ by Michael Chabon, which, incidentally, is well worth the read. A bustling, stop-start coach journey is distracting enough without a film too! And so we arrived at the hotel with a couple of hours to spare before dinner. Just enough time to sample the delights that this hot springs resort had to offer! I got into my trunks, donned the dressing-gown provided by the hotel and made my way on foot to the springs themselves with a few of the teachers. This weekend was particularly cold so I was glad to find that these springs lived up to their name! The springs weren’t all that different from a water park you get at home, just far fewer children. In our group we toured the different pools on offer, steering clear of anything below 30*C. The different pools were hinted with different flavours without any discernible difference, for example there was a ginger pool and a lemon pool. I also saw a sign for a fish therapy pool but, unfortunately, we never found that pool. The location for dinner was right next to the springs and not the hotel. When the male teacher, (he didn’t have an English name and I find it very hard to remember Chinese names) who helped me negotiate the changing rooms, and I realised we were cutting it fine for dinner we decided to go straight there in our dressing-gowns. It escaped the notice of few that we were two of the four people in the whole hall who had opted to attend dinner so dressed. The walk back to the hotel was extremely cold, especially given I hadn’t dried off properly. The evening was spent writing the previous post (just about enough to justify bringing the laptop!) and watching premiership football with my room mate for the night, Mr. Jiang – The ‘Steven’ who met us on our very first evening in China. The match was Chelsea’s three-nil win against Newcastle. It’s ironic how much easier it gets to watch English football the further you get away from England! I remember watching Arsenal beat Newcastle by the same scoreline in Nigeria almost four years ago. Then, just as now, I reflected with amusement on the lengths I go to avoid hearing the results on a Saturday in order to make the most of my evening with MOTD – terrestrial tv’s only exponent of premier league action. I also got in an episode of ‘Have I Got News for You’ on i-Player and chatted to a friend on Skype. Am I really 6,000 miles away or is this some hoax?!

The next morning I obediently attended breakfast at 7:30 to find that I was the first of the teachers there. I picked out the few things that looked edible at that time in the morning – a few boiled eggs and a plateful of noodles. The return journey started at nine in the morning. We never got another go at the springs. It would hardly have been worth the effort had the trip been solely for the purpose of visiting the hot springs (as was advertised to me). But, as I have already described, there was more to it than that. There was time for one stop (besides lunch) on the way back at a fruit farm. This was a short stop but a real treat. We got off the coaches and were immediately flanked on either side by star fruit trees. I had not idea of this until I saw the fruits close up. In the farm there were two ladies feverishly chopping away at papayas for us to taste. The pieces of papaya I ate were potentially the best fruit I have ever tasted – a lofty claim from someone who has sampled the fresh fruit in Jamaica and Nigeria! The star fruit, which we ate with a few grains of salt spread across the top of each star-shaped slice, was also delicious. I slept or read for most of the journey back, which went much quicker than the journey there. On our arrival back at the school we were each presented with a box of oranges, presumably picked up from the fruit farm on the way back. It was a fitting gesture for a trip on which I was treated wonderfully well by all the teachers. It was not the relaxing weekend of recuperation I had been anticipating but it was nonetheless a very enjoyable trip that helped me to feel much more involved with the teachers in the school – the next step is the KTV (karaoke) evening with all the English teachers tomorrow!

I have uploaded a few photos, but I reckon there will be more to come on the school website. I’ll post them if/when I see them.

Xiqiao mountain

Last Sunday – the day after the theatre trip – we went to Xiquao mountain in Foshan. Its biggest attraction is a huge female Buddha (Guan Yin) literally sat atop the mountain. ‘Mountain’ flatters what is essentially a big hill (shan is usually translated from Chinese as mountain but can just as easily mean ‘hill’), but you’d do well to flatter the Buddha in terms of size. The structure is utterly extraordinary from a distance. The statue stands, or rather sits, at 62m, all the more impressive when you add that it is on a 15m pedestal and towers over a huge flight flight of stairs that separates it from the temple complex below. You can see on wikipedia that it figures pretty highly, especially when you consider most of the statues on the following list that are taller are standing:


Before we could gawp at this structure we had to get there first. The journey to Xiquao was an event in itself, as I shall describe. We had arranged to meet with Emma and Cari. Two people also on the TEIC programme whom we had met the week before. They (and we) weren’t at all confident about getting to Xiqiao and so we agreed to meet in Zumiao and go from there. Amy had gathered from her guidebook that there was a ‘tourist bus’ that went from there straight to Xiqiao. I was when we were waiting for the bus to Zumiao  that we realised what a nonsensical route we were taking – there was a bus from that very bus stop that went straight to Xiqiao. We didn’t feel any better about this discovery when we were forced into ordering a taxi from the ‘Aloft’ hotel across the road because the bus twicemissed our stop, too full of passengers. This particular bus, the K5, has been the bane of our lives since we got here. In our experience, you have about 20-30% chance of getting on any given K5, and if you do manage to get on, the experience gets no more pleasant. There is clearly a frightening over-demand for this service, but no one seems too concerned. Once we finally got to Zumiao we managed to ask in Chinese where we would go to get the number 1 tourist bus. After meeting up with Cari and Emma, we hopped on this bus which was hardly as busy as we were have become used to, though none of the others on the bus could be described as tourists. We were reassured by Amy’s guidebook that this part of the journey would be easy, as Xiqiao was the destination of this bus. We were already beginning to have serious doubts when, on asking us where we were headed, a concerned fellow passenger told us that we had gone way past Xiqiao and would have to get off and take the same bus back the way we came. And so we got off with no idea where to go to catch the returning bus. A woman came to our aid in so unconvincing a manner I was keeping half an eye open for a wild goose. But it turned out we had no reason to doubt her, and she even gave instructions to the driver to tell us when to get off. And so concluded what could have been the simplest of journeys.


Once in Xiqiao, we followed the road to which the driver pointed and were at once set upon by motorcyclists offering to take us up the mountain/hill. Naturally, we declined – no way were we going to pass up the opportunity of a walk through a national park away from the traffic and pollution we’ve been exposed to from day one. And after the journey we’d had, we were going to make the most of the £7 entry fee! As we walked up the hill towards the entrance, I noticed something strange. At first I couldn’t put my finger on it, but then I realised: it was quiet! There are times here when I just long for complete silence – the rarest of commodities in this over populated country. The very first part of the walk up the mountain was idilic. Ponds, waterfalls and pretty bridges. As well as relief from noise and at getting to our destination, the flowing water provided welcome relief from the humidity on a warm day. The perfection of the first part of the walk was short-lived – the normal walking path was blocked off and so we were forced to make our way along the road. The problem with being on the road was that we were exposed to the sun. Doubled with the fact we were headed uphill, it was hard work. But worth it. Especially when we got to the temple complex. The whole place looked as if it couldn’t have been more than about twenty years ol) id. This certainly detracted from the impressiveness of the site, but there remained a faint memory of the tradition that had inspired this building project (these are merely impressions, and I can’t back up my feeling with fact, as information on Xiqiao mountain is none too easy to come by). The impressiveness of the Buddha was in its size alone. When we had climbed the steps we found that there was a cheap-looking restaurant underneath the Buddha, and nearby there was a big bell that you could chime (gong seems a more appropriate onomatopoeia) for good luck – or so said the person charging you for the opportunity! If you think that sounds like an unnecessary disturbance of peace, then the fire crackers being set off near the summit will make you think again!


For me the Xiqiao mountain experience never got better than those first few steps just after the entrance. But to be fair, it was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon that provided views, and (relatively) fresh air aplenty. We said goodbye to Cari and Emma and this time hopped on the bus direct to Shishan (which was inevitably packedn time for my one-to-one English lesson in the evening. This particular lesson started almost an hour late because there was no one at the school to open up. Sean (the name that I have given to my pupil) said this was typical of China…


Before I start, I must give credit where it’s due: It was Simon that answered the call for a Hunchback of Notre Dame/China pun!

Last Saturday Amy and I went to see a multi-national (mostly western) production of the Hunchback of Notre Dame in Guangzhou. It was one of those ‘isn’t the world so small’ moments that gave rise to this outing. Just a couple of weeks before leaving for China, an actor by the name of Nigel Richards was round at our house to go through some songs with my Dad on the piano. On discovering that I was waiting around for a visa to go to China, he asked me where I was going and I said a place near Gaungzhou. Casual as you like,  he tells me that he’s going to be acting as Quasimodo in that very city – the first of many stops on an east Asian tour of the Hunchback of Notre Dame – and that I should come along. Two months on we met up with Nigel in his hotel in Zumiao, Foshan – the stop on the metro we get the bus to in order to get to Guangzhou. We asked him to get us tickets for us despite his damning appraisal of the show in which he was playing the lead role.

We left in the morning on Saturday to get to the matinee performance at the Baiyun international conference centre. Not an obvious venue for a theatre. The choice of venue became no clearer when we arrived there. We got out of the metro and wondered if we had made a terrible mistake. It looked like there was no reason for the station to be there. As if they hadn’t to round to building this part of the city for which there was already a metro station. Between the station and the foot of the Baiyun mountain there was one gigantic building, or building complex, that couldn’t have looked more out of place. We went through the main entrance expecting it all to become clear. Maybe there would be a poster for the show, a gathering of theatre-goers or, heaven forbid, a box office. If only it were that simple! We tentatively made our way to the second floor as instructed by Nigel feeling very much as if we weren’t supposed to be there. Luckily, a French member of the cast emerged from a gathering of Chinese with our tickets, averting any potential language difficulties and reassuring us once and  for all that we had found the right place.

We had just enough time for an excuse for coffee and cakes before we made our way the auditorium. This place was equipped to seat 4,000 bored conference-goers grateful for a few days off work. The particularly comfortable seats provided far more leg room than any West End theatre and a desk complete with a safe – for all the note-taking we’d be doing! Nigel’s influence got us prime seats for the show which, incidentally, was about an eighth full for the matinee (despite my joking, we were very grateful for the gesture). The experience was spoilt slightly by a steady stream of late-comers and a totally disinterested girl behind us who spent every available moment on her gameboy at top volume. Even worse, before the show, one man was twice shooed off the stage apparently just wanting to have a look around whil he waited for it to start!

But for one couple and a few members of the cast who weren’t in this performance, we were the only non-Chinese in the audience. The show was entirely sung in English with Chinese subtitles to the side – I spent some of the show trying to decipher as much as I could of the characters. I can recognise simple ones like he, I, you, up, down, not, numbers and important ones like guang zhou, fo shan and shi shan! The show was originally written in French and it seemed clear to us that the translator knew full well that this was not for an audience of English speakers. One line that I remember went something like: “I am a priest.” “I am a poet.” “I have my religion” “And I have my poetry.” – Inspired!

The production was quintessentially French, and I’m afraid I don’t mean that in a good way! All else was sacrificed for the arty, pretentious look. The show was full of technically impressive and rigourous dancing that wasn’t all too pleasing on the eye. For those interested, the topless male acrobats offered more interest for the eye! Though the production had splashed out on the best in singing, dancers, lighting, choreography and sound. The show fell down on the things that really matter in the theatre: the telling of the story, the emotional involvement of the audience, the quality of the music and song-writing. There was one singer that seemed to be struggling to make sense of the directionless tune he was made to sing time and time again. Although I’ve pretty much slated the show, it was well worth the trip and probably by far the best Guangzhou had to offer in singing and dancing theatre spectacular!

We saw Nigel after the show and after he had beaten off the gathering crowd of autograph hunters and showered out the plaster that held his spikey hairdo in place he treated us to more coffee and cake then dinner. We left the Baiyun international conference wholly satisfied with what was surely one of the more surreal days we’ll have here in China!