The World of Yesterday

I must get down my thoughts on this ‘spectacle’ whilst Stefan Zweig’s words continue to swim around in my head. His is a fascinating first-person account of the cultural circumstances in Europe as its constituent states tore each other apart in brutal warfare. The book has had a very perceptible impact on me in the short term, and time will tell of its influence in the long term. Regularly I find myself recalling Zweig’s extraordinary perception of human development and the sad victory in his time of patriotism and bigotry over internationalism and intellectualism. There are many reasons that current issues in the world call for a thoughtful reflection of this great memoir. The unthinking reactionary spirit with which Zweig characterises the opening skirmishes of the First World War is harrowingly familiar in a time where a single 140-character statement can shatter careers and entrench divisions between millions of people. The heart-warming empathy Zweig fosters in describing all-comers is a quality that was lacking in his time, but desperately so today, when mistrust and resentment prevail over curiosity and cooperation. Too often people seek self-definition in the land on which they or their parents entered the world, the language they speak, or the practices of the society into which they were raised. How much preferable would it be if more people disregarded their passport and looked to how they themselves respond to the world in an effort to discover who they really are, and not just the badge they wear? Such people certainly do exist, and it would be contradictory to divide the world into those who fit these criteria and those who don’t – all are capable of empathy.

Stefan Zweig in 1940. Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist and biographer. 28 November 1881 - 22 February 1942.. Image shot 1940. Exact date unknown.

With the currency of such issues in mind it might strike one as a stroke of visionary genius to stage a performance based on The World of Yesterday. The potential exists for an alarming and visceral piece of contemporary theatre that emerges from the parapet as a monument for our times. Sadly, what Jo and I went to see at Print Room at the Old Coronet Cinema in Notting Hill left that gap in the artistic market untouched. Perhaps we were foolish to expect any more than what we got; the show advertised a performance in French based on The World of Yesterday. And indeed we were treated to extracts in rapid French (of a German book in an English theatre with English surtitles) read out unadorned by a single man on the stage. I feel stunningly hypocritical now for saying this, but only the French could conceive of something so outrageously pretentious! For an hour and twenty minutes this man merely read a book at us and called it art. Granted, there was a touch of lighting and a few snippets of inoffensive music, which (unfortunately) was not enough to divert our attention from the main attraction. Oh, I almost forgot there was a bunch of chairs strewn either side of the stage. Were they left there from the previous show, or was it the closest thing to set that could be mustered? The recurrence of this question in my mind was about the most entertaining aspect of this performance which challenged only the speed of our reading the surtitles (to have followed the French at the speed it was spoken would have been a fool’s errand).

What is so staggering about the brazen egotism required for such a rendering of Zweig’s book is how far removed such an act is from the character of the man himself. The opening words of his memoir’s foreword are almost cringe-inducing in their self-effacing disavowal of the sense of self-importance normally associated with autobiography: “I never considered myself important enough to feel tempted to tell others the story of my life.” Zweig’s modesty is no mere rhetorical brushstroke; time and time again he seems astounded at the success he found in life, despite the prodigious ability he demonstrated with the written word throughout his life. The idea of reading out his life’s memories out loud in front of an audience would have appalled him: “I hate nothing so much as having to show my face on a platform or some other public space.” The spirit of Zweig’s book is lost the instant one decides to present him and his words in this way. It might have been possible to buy into the conceit if the performer had presented a degree of removal between himself and Zweig, but intention was clear: that our actor was acting as Zweig – a pill too big for anyone to swallow!

There’s not much more I really have to say about this show (maybe I’ve forgotten something), but I’d like finally to comment on the venue. This is the first time I have been to the Print Room at the Coronet, and I hope not the last. The bar in particular leaves an impression on a visitor to the theatre. The uneven floors, the clutter of dilapidated furniture and rusty old light fittings, the dim-lit gloom all contribute to the place an enchanting nostalgia. It is entirely conceivable that Zweig himself would have spent time in a cinema so decorated during his later years in London or in Bath. He describes in his book one visit to the cinema that shook him to the core. The French audience with whom he shared an auditorium was whipped into a frenzy on seeing Austria’s Wilhelm II fill the screen. He saw in the reaction of the ordinary, otherwise good-natured people to heroes and villains the torturous divisions rent by nationalist propaganda, and he made it his life’s work to fight hopelessly against these forces.


Murder on the Orient Impressed

My mate Kenny has dazzled with his latest effort, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s most stirring novel. A starrier cast you’ll never see, with each given their chance to twinkle in the limelight. Centre stage was the man himself, the sharp-eyed, moustachioed wonder that is Hercule Poirot – who was often amusingly called Hercules instead of Hercule (“I do not slay lions”)!! Branagh cunningly employed all sorts of witty motifs to remind us, and his co-passengers, of his meticulous attention to detail. He’d always compare the sizes of his eggs – heaven help the chicken who laid for him uneven eggs! He’d hold other men’s dress sense to his own impeccably high standards, often asking them to straighten their tie. This is the man blighted with the double-edged virtue of being able to see the imperfections of life ‘like the nose on one’s face’. It is such an imperfection that allows him to deduce in the opening scene in Jerusalem that ‘the one about the rabbi, the imam and the priest’ turned out to be the case of the dodgy copper! Luckily the lout, having somehow evaded the grips of an entire angry mob, was floored because Poirot had shrewdly anticipated the exact path of his flight and jammed into the Wailing Wall his trusty walking stick – the genius detective’s equivalent of the sonic screwdriver.


After a quick hop, skip and a jump to ‘Stamboul’ (I loved the authentic way everyone dropped the ‘i’ from Istanbul), Poirot was finally ready for his holiday. The gorgeous array of Turkish food (well, actually just bread really) enticed the little Belgian to a period of well-earned repose, but unfortunately not for long!! Ever in demand he found himself called to attend to a case back in London. A consummate master of his trade, he could easily divine this merely from the presence of his dumbfounded messenger. A creature of comforts, Hercule was naturally able talk his way onto a first-class compartment on the Orient Express, courtesy of the rakish heir to the Orient Express trainline Bouc (Tom Bateman). This rogue has little interest in the well-behaved and virtuous, as evidenced by his short-lived interaction with Penelope Cruz as the born-again Catholic missionary with a past. We will soon find, as the train wends its way through the Balkan states, that every one of the occupants aboard the Express has something to hide…

When Poirot first sets foot on the famous train we are treated to a lavish single-shot scene as he first makes acquaintance with his co-passengers for the three-day journey; first of all he engages in conversation with Michelle Pfeiffer as the aging seductress Caroline Hubbard (if that is her real name!). As the camera pans along the outside of the train tracking Poirot’s progress towards his lodgings, we are introduced to the hubbub that fills the luxury locomotive. I will take this opportunity to comment of the fabulous medley of characters that grace this film. The phenomenal Judi Dench is the Countess Dragomiroff with her entourage of pampered pooches …and Olivia Coleman (as her devoted German handmaiden)! Josh Gad is the shifty right-hand man to Johnny Depp’s dodgy-dealing Ratchett. Daisy Ridley is charming as the geographer-Governess whom Poirot meets on the boat to Stamboul, a boat they shared with Leslie Odom Jr. as the enigmatic doctor Arbuthnot. Willem Dafoe is the vile, racist kraut Professor Gerhard Hardman, who refuses to sit opposite the Doctor on account of the colour of his skin. There were others and they were also excellent, darling!

After unsuccessfully soliciting Poirot for his assistance as a personal bodyguard, Ratchett is killed in mysterious circumstances. He is stabbed 12 times and the crime scene is littered with pertinent, yet puzzling clues: the watch stopped at 1.15, the pipe-cleaner, the open window, and a burnt message. Why didn’t the murdered man protect himself? Where’s the sign of struggle? This fascinating conundrum was way beyond us lowly audience, so we left it to the wily wizard to deduce the answer through logical reasoning and perceptive questioning. As the investigation progresses it becomes clear that the details of this murder case are intimately intertwined with another famous murder case involving the abduction of Daisy Armstrong. It transpires that Ratchett was not Ratchett at all, but Cassetti, the man guilty of this dastardly deed.

Of course Branagh/Hercule(s) works this all out, by his guile and gumption. He deduces that he has been sharing a train with twelve remorseless killers! What my mate Kenny was so clever in doing was to make this moment a moralistic crisis for the Belgian, famed for his unwavering commitment to the rule of law. What does he do? Condemn all twelve to the hangman’s rope? Or invent an alternative explanation which leaves an invented murderer at large for good? Of course he makes the right decision. Poirot’s human integrity outweighs that of his profession in the enforcement of law. Amor omnia vincit!

The Trains

Our first Trans-Siberian train from Beijing was luxury, unmatched for the remainder of the transport we took to Moscow. Not that the other trains were bad. It’s just that on this train we had the whole compartment to ourselves, the mattresses were a bit more comfortable, and we were given an insulated jug thing, which saved us repeated journeys to the end of train for hot water.

The miniscule differences that made our first train ‘luxury’ serve to show that it was hardly the differences between the trains themselves that made a journey good/bad/interesting/dull but the people that filled it.

Every carriage we lived on from Beijing to Moscow consisted of a narrow corridor with nine compartments on one side and windows on the other side, letting in a much-needed breeze. There was a loo at each end of the carriage and at one end you had the compartments where the conductors hung out and the big hot water tank for our tea.

Our compartments each had four beds, the bottom bunks doubling as the seating on the rare occasion we felt like staying up for any sustained period. Shortly into each journey a conductor would fling some sheets our way so we could make our beds. This became a well-oiled routine by the time we had got onto our train to Moscow.

You may well have guessed that the fact our train was slightly cushier than the others was not the most interesting thing about this journey. The highlight of the border crossing between China and Mongolia was the changing of the wheels on our train due to the difference in track gauges. Our carriage was lifted from its wheels (with us on it!) while a new set of wheels was trundled beneath us. This whole operation took place after midnight. By the time the border control people were kind enough to return our passports, we were drifting in and out of sleep. We awoke to swathes of nothingness outside our windows. Occasionally we might catch sight of a horse or a ger or even the odd camel. Apart from this we saw not a thing until we were pulling into Ulan Bator.

We took the next train after a magical week on the Mongolian Steppe. This train covered less than half the distance of the first train but took just as long. The main reason we averaged roughly 10 miles an hour for this journey was the length of time it took to get through the border. Having got on the train in the evening from UB and attempted a faltering conversation with the Russian and the Mongolian with whom we shared our compartment, we were woken much too early the next day by the border police on the Mongolian side of the border. It took them around 5 hours to check our passports and, while they were at it, they ejected us, sleepy eyed and pyjama-clad, from our compartments so they could rummage through our possessions. All the way along the Trans-Siberian the toilets were locked from a half hour before every stop to half an hour after. This was annoying at the best of times, but for the first five hours of that day it was inhumane! And it didn’t even stop there. Roughly ten minutes further along, on the Russian side of the border, we were subjected to a similarly excruciating length of time stationary. As you would expect, hours into the day not having used the facilities, we were bursting by the time we moved into Russia! Fortunately, the Russian in our compartment informed us that we could sneak into the luxury carriage and go there, provided we ignored the attendant telling you to shove off! Unfortunately, a irate Taiwanese tour group in our carriage wasn’t so informed. Picking up the odd word of Mandarin, we heard a hour-long tirade of angry shouting from mostly middle-aged women demanding to be let into a toilet. They eventually discovered there was a toilet on the platform, only to discover that none of them had the Roubles required to get in it.

By the time we had finally been allowed into Russia, most of the day had passed. As the evening drew on, we were entertained by a gorgeous little Mongolian girl. Probably bored out her skin, she started running back and forth past our door pulling a different face each time. I got speaking to the others in her compartment – a Russian guy who had been studying in China and a Vietnamese guy studying in Irkutsk (our next stop) both about my age. They informed me that the father of this girl, who didn’t speak any English, used to be a Mongolian wrestler. I decided I wanted to get a picture of these people, who to me represented a significant part of this stage of our journey. I made no secret of the fact I was doing this, and I thought my candidness served as a request for permission given the father didn’t try and stop me. But when I had taken a few pics and the girl had taken one of me, her father mutely walked up to me and prodded at Jo’s (I’ll explain later why I wasn’t using my own) camera indicating that he wanted the pictures deleted. I was upset but proceeded to do as he asked under his intimidating glare. Just then the battery ran out. I was terrified! To my relief he just let it slide and I managed to keep hold of a couple of photos. I think it would be disrespectful to him to show the pictures of his daughter, so I’ll just post the one she took of me. The next morning, we arrived in Irkutsk and soaked in our first views of the sparse, colourful, and strikingly western houses of Siberia.

After a stunning stay on Baikal’s largest island, we hopped on the train to Taiga – the closest Trans-Siberian station to our next destination, Tomsk. At a mere 22 hours, this train was by far our shortest, but perhaps our most eventful. There was one other guy in our compartment, who was apparently a doctor from Irkutsk. He didn’t speak a word of English, but Jo managed to speak an impressive amount with him after just a term of Russian at uni. This man was on the beer from the moment the train left, and consequently he got more and more obnoxious as the evening wore on. Later on, the last berth in our compartment was filled by a fit-looking man named Victor. We all soon prepared for bed. Having gone to brush my teeth, I came back to an unnerving sight:

Victor and the very drunk guy were grappling furiously and Jo was trying her best to calm the situation from her bunk. Victor, by far the stronger soon had his opponent pinned to the ground with hands behind his back. The conquered upstart was unfortunate enough to slam his head on the radiator on the way to the floor. This disturbance attracted the attention of the other passengers and they came to our aid.

This wasn’t the end of the matter. Soon afterwards, a dispute over whose bunk was whose again broke out into a fight. Punches were thrown and Victor, who really actually seemed quite reasonable, again got the better of the fight. This was all way too much for the attendant in our carriage and the other passengers. In a collaborative effort, the two were prized apart and given a severe telling off as if they were children. The drunk guy was ordered to pack his stuff and get off at the next stop. A Russian police officer (with one of those intimidatingly large hats) got on the train and took Victor’s statement before carrying off our compartment’s troublemaker. Victor, without being able to speak any English, clearly expressed his embarrassment at the episode with the apologetic look on his face. As I drifted off to sleep, Jo spoke with Victor in Russian in what she describes as her most successful stab at a conversation in the language while we were in the country.

Our compensation for the previous night’s excitements was that we were left with a compartment to ourselves for the next morning, as Victor had got off early. We returned to the normal regimen of life on a train – insofar as living on a train is normal! Later in the day we were joined in our 4-berth compartment by a mother and her two young children. In such company it might have felt cramped, but the children quietly got on with their colouring. Towards the end of the journey we taught the girl and her younger brother slap games. They loved it, especially the boy who didn’t really get it and simply delighted in whacking my hands as hard as he could!

This was the only train we got in Russia that wasn’t completely on time. It was also the only train where it really mattered. We had allowed plenty of time in Taiga to buy our tickets for the last train to Tomsk …or so we thought. We were left stranded in Taiga station with the sun just about touching the horizon. The solution to our predicament is almost worth a blog post on its own. I’ll leave it to later – if I ever get that far in writing up our Trans-Siberian trip.

So much experienced already we still had two train journeys left. The next took us from Tomsk to Perm (with a stop in Taiga). This journey was far more subdued than the violence of the previous one, whether from a drunken Russian man throwing punches or a small boy swinging free rein at my hands. It allowed me plenty of time to get on with my Kindle copy of War and Peace. We also fit in countless games of backgammon. It was on this section of the Trans-Siberian that we reached the other end of Siberia and I finally returned to Europe 10 months after I got on that plane to Guangzhou.

The final train (besides the high-speed one to St. Petersburg) was defined by the anticipation of the reunion with my family in Moscow. I also remember a little Russian girl with the cutest voice you could imagine. She was quite unsteady on her feet in the rocky train, so constantly had an adult in tow as she tirelessly zipped up and down the carriage. It kept us, and the nice lady in our compartment, amused for a good couple of hours! But the best moment was when we drew into Kursky station in Moscow and I saw my family standing expectantly on the platform. It was the moment I looked forward to most after I leaving my school in China over a month before.

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Home, At Last!

Yesterday marked my return home after 291 days abroad. Ever since leaving my other home in Guangdong I have often reflected on my time there with fondness. But even still, the fact I have left hasn’t really sunk in. My time in China has affected me profoundly and, I hope, for the better. I think when looking back I will divide my life into ‘pre-‘ and ‘post-‘ China. Though that’s assuming I don’t return!

It’s wonderful to finally be back home although, as I feared in such familiar surroundings, it has very quickly come to feel as though I never left. On the plus side, there is much to look forward to with a new teaching job starting in September. Before that time comes I must bring you up to date with the rest of my journey back from China.

The remainder of my Trans-Siberian adventure was a treat, but flew by much too quickly. Jo and I enjoyed a fabulous week on horseback, trekking and camping across the Mongolian Steppe; an idyllic stay on Olkhon Island, surrounded by the crystal-blue waters of Lake Baikal; a lovely couple of days in the eccentric city of Tomsk; and a restorative few days in Europe’s Easternmost city, Perm.

The reunion with my family in Moscow did not disappoint. We all enjoyed two perfect days in Russia’s wondrous capital seeing the Kremlin and the famous onion domes of St. Basil’s. At this point, Jo continued on her way, determined to complete the journey home by train (only China’s stance on Tibet thwarted her original intention to do the whole journey from Kathmandu by train [see her blog here]). Jo was brilliant company all the way along and I would never have gained so much from this experience without her.

While she was spending one or day in Moscow before progressing to Kiev, we took the fast train to St. Petersburg, the Venice of the North. I was treated to 5 nights of relative luxury, soaking in the city’s undoubted beauty and also fitting in a 9-hour stint at the Hermitage.

Obviously there is far more to say about this journey than I could possibly write down in this blog, but in the next few weeks I will do my best to give you a flavour of my Trans-Siberian experience. The next blog I write will be about the trains themselves. They certainly deserve a post to themselves having cumulatively taken as much time as any of our stops.

Below are miscellaneous photos in Mongolia courtesy of Richard and Margaret, an Australian couple with whom we shared the horse-trekking experience. There would be more, but I am waiting on Jo for her photos thanks to a camera malfunction whilst in Mongolia.

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My first 24 hours in Beijing seemed more like days. Without really having begun our Beijing experience, I felt as if I already knew the city intimately – and I was none too fond of it so far! Having applied for my visa, Jo called me from the hostel and we decided to meet at Tiananmen Square, neither of us wishing to exert ourselves on that first day; the heavy police presence there stood as a reminder of the terrible associations attached to this place. We weren’t able to see Mao’s embalmed corpse, which lies in a large, garish mausoleum slap bang in the middle of the square, because it only opens in the morning – we weren’t too bothered if truth be told. The rest of the day was mostly spent eating and getting used to the area around our hostel.

Our first (proper) full day in Beijing was mostly spent at the summer palace. Rather than an intriguing exploration of the Chinese emperors’ pastime pursuits, the palace was rather an extremely pleasant stroll around the exceedingly well-kept paths that circumnavigate the palace’s lakes, which were littered with pedalos. I have learnt from my time in Guangzhou that China does lake-based parks particularly well. There were largely uninspiring, but perfectly restored temples and palace buildings towards the end of our walk. But they were so overcrowded it was it wouldn’t have been practical to shed any light on their significance, thereby incurring horrendous congestion. We had got to the palace by boat through the zoo (we saw no animals) and various nice-looking parks. We were unfortunate to miss the return boat by a matter of minutes, but it probably saved us time having taken so long in the morning,

On our return to the hostel, taking advantage of the free Wifi, I wrote up my journey to Beijing and at the same time got in a good dose of Test Match Special. That evening we ate at the same street stall at which I had eaten, beleaguered after my hostel-hunt on my first night in Beijing. The woman recognised me instantly, addressing me as ‘teacher’ and a rigorous trial of my Chinese ability was resumed where it had left off that first night. I was glad to have witness this time! The fact I was able to enter into a real conversation in Mandarin showed to me what I had been missing out on from living in a Cantonese-speaking region. If I continue to work at my Chinese, a lot of credit will go to the owners of that food stall who convinced me that I had actually learnt something during my time in China.

The following day on which we visited the great wall was, to my mind, the highlight of our stay in Beijing. Even China’s insistent preference for immaculate restoration over painstaking preservation couldn’t inhibit one’s enjoyment of one of the world’s greatest wonders. We set off early from our hostel in a full mini-van so as to avoid the ever-increasing deluge of traffic. The 1 1/2 hour drive took us to the site, carefully arranged in order to allow maximum exposure to the state-owned souvenir shops – the unofficial drinks sellers dotted all the way along the wall told us that there must also have been an unofficial entrance. Already having paid our entrance to the hostel, we decided we might as well pay full whack for the cable car up and the toboggan ride down. This decision wasn’t really the thrill seekers in us coming to the fore, but a desire to get in as much time as possible on the wall.

The three hours we spent on the wall were shared between panting with exhaustion because of the relentless steps, gawping at the stupendous views, and pinching ourselves at the thought we were standing on the Great Wall of China. On returning to our starting point from trekking up in the shorter portion of the restored wall (having gone a little further beyond the sign saying ‘do not pass’, we saw from a distance a decrepit, but far more beautiful, section of the wall), we parted ways as I kicked on, setting myself the ambitious target of reaching the other end within the allotted time. Getting there within the time wasn’t a problem, getting there and back was another matter. Having reached my target at a brisk pace, I found myself having to run to stand a chance of making it back for lunch in time. I failed miserably, but I did see yet more staggering defiance of nature in the form of masonry.

With much of the day left we decided to hurry to Beijing’s Lama temple (Yonghegong) before closing time only to find that they weren’t admitting any more visitors so close to closing time. Disappointed to have only just missed out, we settled for second prize – the Confucian temple down the road. Like much of what we saw in Beijing there was little in the way of enlightening information for the casual tourist (the Buddhist place wouldn’t let us in!), only a few wives’ tales desperately eking out significance from trees and rocks within the complex. More interesting was the adjoining university. The whole place bore a strong resemblance to the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, most probably because they were both based on the original Confucian temple whose name and location escape me.

Famished after a long day, we stumbled upon one of Beijing’s more trendy areas on which we selected a restaurant named ‘Veggie Table’ – I think you know by now what a bug fan I am of good punnery! The food, ambience and service were exquisite, despite the lack of meat.

That evening coincided with Andy Murray’s big moment at Wimbledon. I was delighted to find that Beijing Sport was showing the match. I had read a quote from Greg Rusetski claiming that the winner of the first set would go on to win the match, so I feared the worst when Murray made it through a close opening set. My lack of optimism and desire to sleep forced me to bed just as The Fed levelled things.

There was much to do on our final day in Beijing. Unfortunately, most of it involved tasks that were dull but necessary for the continuation of our journey back from Asia (i.e. picking up visa and tickets, changing money, finding chargers/plug adaptors, etc.). But first on the agenda was far from dull. We decided that early on a weekday was our best chance of seeing the Forbidden City unperturbed by heaving crowds – it turned out there was no such thing. Tour buses pouring out droves of Chinese tour groups had anticipated our arrival at the entrance opposite Tiananmen Square. We were surprised to find that there was practically no queue for buying tickets – an indication of the high proportion of visitors who were with a tour group. Also an indication was the number of people wanting to get a picture of the foreigners, because tour groups to Beijing are more likely to come from areas of China where foreigners are a novelty.

Jo, having been to the Forbidden City once before, remembered well that the English audio tour had been spoken by none other than Sir Roger Moore. So it was to our dismay to find that the audio guide had been replaced by a tacky piece of machinery specifically designed to hurry through tourists as quickly as possible. The audio guide over which we had no control excepting the volume had on it a simple map with LEDs to represent each point at which there was an explanation for us. Each sound bite was triggered merely by our vicinity to its corresponding location within the City. Most often our guide would jump the gun and describe things out of sight, and other times it wouldn’t play at all. The guide’s worst moment was when it starting telling me that I was standing in the Emperor’s personal theatre as I entered the toilet! The Forbidden City was on the while a bit disappointing. I suppose that’s mostly because the expectations were so high. The place was very crowded and the main buildings all had a throng of tourists outside madly waving their cameras and jostling for a view into the dimly lit and almost empty rooms.

For lunch we went to a rather touristy looking place in Beihai Park in the absence of anything else in Beijing’s main tourist area. The staff were only too eager to sit us down on a table overlooking the lake, slapping down an English menu in front of us. The whole thing reeked of ‘rip-off’ and I was almost ready to get up again, but I asked for a Chinese menu with the suspicion they would not be exactly the same. True enough, the menu new menu contained dishes more familiar to me in content and price. Even then one of the waitress did not give up her cause, insisting that the rice dishes we had ordered would not be sufficient. As it turned out they were delicious and just what we needed. If only we didn’t have to go through so many hoops to get what we wanted.

A fitting conclusion to our stay in Beijing and indeed my time in China was a good Peking duck, which we gobbled up greedily under the curious gaze of the restaurant staff who had already put their feet up after a hard day’s work. For those who are curious as to how an authentic Peking differs from a good old Chinese takeaway, it doesn’t. Only in that you have more of it and that your duck is sliced in front of you rather than shredded in a foil contain. The next day we packed our bags and headed to the station to catch our first Trans-Siberian train…

Hasta la visa!

If my arrival in Beijing was troublesome, the next morning was a train wreck of self-loathing, despair and mental torture – normal service resumed at the visa application office! The visa in question was the one for Mongolia, which I needed in time for our train from Beijing only two working days later. I was forced into this tight time schedule by the scarcity of Mongolian consulates in the Guangdong area. There was in fact an embassy in Hong Kong, but I discovered that it only served Hong Kong residents. The Internet, that ever-wavering fount of information, assured me there was a same-day Mongolian visa service in Beijing …not so. I called the embassy the day before to find that the fastest they could manage was a one working day service, which meant entrusting my passport to the embassy over the weekend. It also meant that my decision to allow myself one day to spare proved most prudent!

I decided that I should aim to get to the Mongolian embassy for the start of its opening hours (9-11am). This afforded me little sleep given the night before. I checked and double-checked that I had packed absolutely everything I could possibly need for my visa application. Just before leaving I decided to take advantage of our hostel’s included breakfast. I was slightly delayed because I had to check us in before they’d let me have any breakfast. At last I left for the metro station, whose location I knew well given the previous night’s wanderings. I experienced the horror show that is Beijing’s rush hour. I reached Beijing’s diplomatic quarter, almost a city in its own right, shortly after nine. As I approached the embassy I once again checked by bag for everything I needed. When rummaging for it, it took me a few seconds to realise, to my dismay, that my passport was sitting on the reception desk in our hostel.

Trying not to panic, I immediately reached for my phone and the number of our hostel with the intention of asking Jo to bring my passport to the embassy, allowing me to maintain a place in the queue. Another problem struck: my phone credit had dipped below 10 yuan, forbidding me from making any calls (I had tried to top it up the night before to no avail). Having reached the embassy, I asked in stuttering Mandarin if I could use the phone of the person in front of me in the queue. She obliged, responding to me in English …no reply. Not wanting to ask too much of the helpful person, I left the queue in search of someone else whose phone I could use or a place that sold credit. I found another person with a phone I could use …I was told I got the wrong number and I needed to call a different number. Starting to panic now at the time that I was needlessly losing, I eventually managed to top up my phone …I finally got through and explained my predicament. They told me that Jo wasn’t in her room, which I thought strange considering her firm intention to lie in that morning (I later found this to be false).

With no other option left to me, I made my own way back to the hostel (which I could have done immediately), calculating that I had just about enough time if the metro took the same amount of time as before. On the way back to the station I saw a couple of taxis and, in a moment of insanity, I supposed it might save time to catch a taxi to take me to the door of the hostel, wait for me and bring me straight back. I explained to the driver in Mandarin what I wanted and that I was in a hurry. As the appalling Beijing traffic thickened, it dawned on me how grievously I had underestimated the efficiency of Beijing’s metro system as compared to its roads. With me sitting in the passenger seat, the driver witnessed almost total breakdown as more and more precious time slipped away. Biting my nails and repeatedly checking the time, I realistically contemplated the total disintegration of our meticulously planned trans-Siberian trip. In a fit of desperation I called the embassy to see if there were any hope of getting a visa in time. The Mongolian officer at the other end of the phone was reluctant to speak English, so I did my best to find out what the situation was speaking in Mandarin. To my surprise, he told me that the visa department, contrary to all available information, did not close until 12. Suddenly, the trans-Siberian trip was back on. But the taxi ride took so long that even an additional hour was only just enough. I was the last, or perhaps last but one, person to hand in their visa application, by which time I was emotionally spent.

I picked up the visa the next Monday having gone to a nearby bank to pay for it – straightforwardness is an elusive quality in visa departments the world over, The matter-of-fact nature of the hand-over belied the turmoil that I went through to get to that stage.

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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