Nine Nights, Six Cities

It seems so strange now to think that just over a week ago I spent a restless last night in my bed before saying my farewells to Shimen Experimental Primary School and Shishan. Just like that, the teachers, the children, my apartment, Tick’s bar, English King, Aloft Hotel, moto taxis, the family who ran our noodle restaurant, who were affectionately known to us as ‘the noodles’, in the blink of an eye have all ceased to be a part of my daily life after 8 months. I’ll try to keep in touch with some of the teachers but, apart from that, it’s all history.

It’s been an exhausting few days since then! My first night away was a stopover in a GZ hostel. I won’t quickly forget lugging my extremely cumbersome, 28kg suitcase on the metro to the hostel. That night was an opportunity for Simon and I to see a couple of good friends for a farewell dinner together. Amy, pressed for time on account of her summer job back in Cambridge, alighted her train to Beijing that very evening for some eleventh-hour sightseeing. That last evening, among the best I’ve had in GZ, put the question of a future visit beyond any doubt.

Our flight to Shanghai was early next morning, the people at the hostel incredulous at our decision to shell out £10 between us for a taxi rather than negotiate the metro, burdened as we were. My first experience of a Chinese domestic flight was completely painless, and made all the better by the fact Simon’s parents’ driver, ‘Mazdaman’ (I was rather disappointed to find that he was driving a Volkswagen!), was waiting for us at the other end. I had two nights in Jiaxing, a pleasant city not too far from Shanghai, where Simon’s parents live. There I was was spoilt rotten and it was great! The first evening we had a roast lamb dinner complete with roast potatoes and mint sauce – a million miles away from what I have . Simon’s parents were infinitely hospitable, doing their best to provide the creature comforts I’d been missing in Guangdong.

No time for hanging around, our next stop was Shanghai in anticipation of Simon’s flight back to England. This was an opportunity to get a perspective of Shanghai ten years on from my first visit with the Haringey Young Musicians’ Big Band. The city is virtually unrecognisable from its former self, but for the extremely distinctive Pearl T.V. Tower. There, were a couple of moments where a flash of the past came back to me. The next day, I waved goodbye to Simon and my back-breaking case. It’s funny to think I will next see Simon in the UK, having no real association with him outside China. He’s loved his year in China, and will be returning to teach English in GZ.

Now left to my own devices I whizzed round the Shanghai museum before catching my 20-hour endurance test from Shanghai station to Xi’an. Not anticipating such a rush for intercity tickets on a working day, I was unable to obtain a sleeper for this train. I wouldn’t be surprised if I were the only foreigner in that train, packed to the rafters. Not only were all the seats and beds taken, but the aisles too! Not even managing to get a seat reservation, I was lucky to have somehow found myself in a seat that was rightfully someone else’s.

My time in Xi’an was brief, but fun. In two days I saw the Terracotta Army, I sampled the culinary delights of Xi’an’s vibrant Muslim quarter, I witnessed a huge and tacky water fountain/light display at the ‘Big Wild Goose Pagoda’, and along the way met many interesting people from around the globe. The obvious highlight was the Terracotta Army, which I did on a tour with twenty other hostellers. We were ably guided by Zha Zha (not sure about pinyin spelling) who provided not altogether intentional humour with her eccentric mannerisms and her direct delivery. The presentation of the army hardly did justice to such an extraordinary recovery from China’s distant past. Visitors were provided almost nothing in the way of background information and the three pits were set among some of the least remarkable buildings you will ever see. Despite this, the awe-inspiring wonder instilled by the grandeur of this frankly barmy undertaking was plenty enough to satisfy me.

My journey to Beijing, from where I am now writing this blog, was a small improvement on the train to Xi’an. And that has a lot to do with the fact it took half the time. The other redeeming feature of this train journey was that it was a high-speed train, allowing a reasonable amount of space for those few of us who weren’t able to get a seat reservation. Just like the first train I found myself trying to communicate in a mixture of English and Chinese with fellow passengers. In the past few days I’ve used far more Chinese than I ever did back in Shishan. This has mostly to do with the fact I have been travelling alone and I have left Guangdong far behind. The latter hours on that train were blighted by a few rowdy men in our carriage. They were quaffing cups of rice wine to the extent that the smell of it drifted through to our hovel at the end of the carriage.

My arrival in Beijing was miserable. After saying goodbye to my travel companion I headed to the taxi rank. The queue was so appallingly long that I didn’t even get to the end before I decided I’d be better off braving the thunderstorm outside the station in search of a taxi. I asked a number of taxi drivers, who didn’t even pretend to disguise their attempts to extort me. Eventually I found a decent taxi driver who put on the meter without me even asking. The map in my guide wasn’t completely clear so I decided not to trouble the taxi driver to find the door when neither of us had a clue. Armed with at least a vague map and the address of my hostel in Pinyin I thought it would be simple enough to find my way from the main street where the taxi dropped me off. This turned out to be a rash assumption. Already around 9:30 by the time our train arrived, I didn’t find our well hidden hostel until around midnight! I expected to find Jo, my travel companion until Moscow in three weeks, at the hostel. But with no Jo in sight and an empty stomach I went in search of food. My Chinese was again put to the test as I was able to acquire a delicious slap-dash meal just around the corner. Jo finally arrived at around 3am, heavily delayed by her flight. Drowsy, but in good spirits, we were finally united and ready to undertake our transsiberian adventure together.

Great North Run

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11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Dad
    Jul 07, 2012 @ 20:11:40

    Brilliant Chris.
    Have a great time with Jo and we look forward to seeing you later this month!
    Dad xxxxx


  2. Conor & Jean Murphy
    Jul 07, 2012 @ 21:40:25

    What an amazing year you have had Chris. We feel quite envious. We enjoyed your blogs although we had to nominate time to read them as they were so long!!!
    Particularly enjoyed the farewell pics of our pupils. Bet they were sad to lose you.

    Am having problems with Just Giving. Logged in but they do not show The Great
    North Run. Help !!!
    Jean & Conor


  3. chaileaves
    Jul 07, 2012 @ 22:20:02

    Thank you, Jean and Conor for your comment. I wouldn’t have noticed that I put the wrong link had you not pointed it out. All fixed now! Apparently you found your way to the page anyway. So thank you also very much for your generous support with my run!


  4. Catherine
    Jul 08, 2012 @ 01:21:52

    Dear Chris, I loved seeing all the pictures of your children in their classes. Must be so sad to leave them all behind. Terracotta army looks fantastic, and much looking forward to hearing from you when you get to Mongolia. Thanks for keeping me posted! x


  5. Catherine
    Jul 08, 2012 @ 01:22:32

    PS Very relieved and delighted that you are now with Jo. Enjoy your trip back together x


  6. stephen
    Jul 08, 2012 @ 05:52:36

    After enjoying a virtual trip to China with your blogs, when you get back to England it will be a bit dull for all of us blogwatchers. Hope you enjoy the journey back.


  7. schay
    Jul 08, 2012 @ 18:20:25

    I loved reading this blog, you are a fantastic writer!

    Hope leaving your school wasn’t too sad.



  8. Kerree Ahern
    Jul 09, 2012 @ 00:28:40

    What a year you have had! And such a fantastic record of it too. Onto Mongolia now. That too will wirthy of many words. We look forward to seeing you back in London. xx


  9. Simon Webb
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 20:32:58

    I find that even in black & white there is still little closure on our time spent at the school. Enjoy the rest of your trip pal. See you soon.


  10. Judith Ross
    Jul 18, 2012 @ 03:22:10

    Enjoy the rest of your trip. Glad you met up with Jo ok. I have really enjoyed reading your blog, and will be showing some of your photos to Purple class, Judithx


  11. Hannah
    Jul 18, 2012 @ 05:24:42

    Fantastic blog Chris, wishing you well for your travels across Mongolia and on to your reunion with the folks. What a lovely looking happy bunch of kids – they must have been sad to see you go….
    Hannah xx


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