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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Anyone privy to my goings-on in China beyond the words of this blog may well note one conspicuous absence: the town of Gaoming. Gaoming is actually a district of Foshan, just as Nanhai is the district of Foshan that we live in. Though the town of Gaoming is a similarly sized place to Shishan, the difference in character is immeasurable. Set on the river and surrounded by green hills (of which one is Xiqiao shan, from which the huge Guanyin overlooks Gaoming from across the river), Gaoming has been around significantly longer than Shishan. There is little or no evidence of this in the buildings you see, but rather in the greater sense of community among the people, of whom there is a much higher proportion of Cantonese than in Shishan.

My reason for going to this otherwise inconsequential place is that Helen, a grade 1 teacher at our school, recruited me to work there in her English centre that she runs with her Australian husband, Corrie. Corrie was actually in our position in Shimen Experimental primary school some 10 years ago when he met Helen, and has lived in China ever since. Helen and Corrie have an adorable son called Oscar (or Oggie for short). Their centre in Gaoming is called ‘Real English’ and focuses on the encouraging idiomatic use of English which is so lacking in the schools as well as offering music lessons.

My first trip to Gaoming came about all the way back in April, when the foreign teacher that normally teaches there was unable to take a class on a national holiday. Helen gave me a lift there in the morning and when I arrived I was briefed on the content of the lesson I was to teach to a class of around six 5/6-year-olds. I was ably assisted by Becky, who is a stalwart of Real English and to whom I would do a disservice to describe as merely a teacher at the centre. I loved teaching such a small class not least because I knew all their (English) names by the end of the lesson.

Helen had organised for me to go for a stroll up one of the many scenic hills that surround Gaoming. I was guided by Carol, a part-time teacher at the centre, and her friend Albee, both English students and natives of Gaoming. The walk up was very similar to the one up Xiqiao, but instead of a big buddha and a temple at the top there was a waterfall and spring in which we dipped our feet to cool down. I had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon, having my fortune told in the temple at the foot of the hill, eating Tofu, and walking and talking along the way to a very friendly and chatty pair of students.

The day was far from over when we got back to the centre. I found that a parent at the centre had invited the whole ‘Real English’ team to dinner, including me – whom he’d never met. This parent was a dealer in speciality alcohol. As well as bringing a couple of bottles of rice wine as old as I am, he also wowed those present with the fact he had managed to convince someone to part with 30,000RMB (£3000) for a single bottle of red wine. The seafood that we ate was very good and as the evening wore on people gave toast after toast, which meant shot after shot of rice wine. None consumed more than our host, who, completely plastered, drove us to his store where we marvelled at the price tags and he treated us to some tea. The tea was only 10 years old this time. Seeing that I was very drowsy after a long day and a fair bit of rice wine, Helen took me back to the school only to drive back. I was very grateful for her driving the hour-long round trip to take me back.

After my first experience of Gaoming I knew it wouldn’t be long until my next. I can’t remember exactly how long but I doubt it was longer than two weeks before my next visit. One Friday lunchtime in the canteen, I decided to ask Helen if I could come and stay for a weekend, since I didn’t have anything else on. I didn’t realise my bed would be one of the classroom floors, but that certainly wouldn’t have been enough to put me off going. That evening I was allowed to take it easy while the teachers were barely able to fit in dinner between their lessons. I played with Oscar, who was the only one who had as little to do as I did. When lessons finished, Helen, Corrie, Oscar, Becky, Carol, Helen’s niece Linda, and I went for some rice porridge, noodles and snails. I didn’t try any snails, but the porridge is much better than it sounds.

For the next day, Helen had organised someone to take me for lunch – there’s no shortage of names in her phone book, eager to practise their English. This lunch for some reason or other never materialised. Instead, one of the older students, Jimmy, who had accompanied me for a noodle breakfast, agreed to show me around Gaoming. After flatly refusing the offer to eat in KFC or McDonald’s and having a much better meal somewhere else. Jimmy acted tour-guide and walked me around Gaoming, mostly along the river front. Along the way there was a place called century square – a flat square next to the river lined with large Ionic columns that have nothing to support. Further along the river we got to a pagoda that stood slightly off centre called Ninggui ta (if I remember correctly). This pagoda, though heavily restored, was first built hundreds of years ago, testament to the age of the town in contrast to towns like Shishan, which was nothing but fields just 20 years ago. In the same park that contained the pagoda was a museum of Chinese currency, showing relics of the China’s darker days in the hugely inflated currency of the time. Also, next door was a photo expedition displaying black and white photos of Shishan – about as much culture as I’ve seen in all the rest of Foshan!

That evening, I went to the cinema with Carol. We went to see Battleships – the only available American film at a suitable time. For those who haven’t seen it: Don’t! It’s appalling even after you take into consideration the fact it’s a film based on a computer game about a seventy-year-old battleship saving the world from alien invasion! For those who have: commiserations. I could go on about the gaping plot holes, the shameless Republican propaganda, the repulsive acting, and the gratuitous effects, but I fear I would be deviating if I did. Oh, and the script! That was worst of all. But I digress! The cinema experience in China differs very little from that of home. They use the original sound with subtitles rather than dubbing. You would get Chinese subtitles even in a Chinese film, as the writing is intelligible to everyone whether they speak Cantonese or Mandarin.

After another adequate (nothing more) sleep, I had little idea of what Helen had in store for me that day. She told me that a man who used to come to Real English called Gary would pick me up to take me to a place where I could watch some ping pong. Naturally, I was rather intrigued. ‘Am I going to some regional event displaying the newest local sporting talent?’ Not so! Gary picked me up from the centre and took me to what can best be described as a community centre. Within, upstairs there was one room barely big enough for a game of ping pong, let alone spectators. Several locals had gathered to sign up for a go on the table. While I was waiting around, wondering how long I could go watching game after game from outside the room through the doorway, a girl whose mother and father were both queuing for their turn seized the opportunity to practise her impressive English. Her name was Win – not a brazen display of immodesty, but rather a shortening of Winbow (which google tells me is a genuine surname, but how Win came across this name I have no idea!) – and she has now just finished her final school exams. At one point she asked me if I had ever tried sweet dumplings. I said ‘no’ and a few minutes later I found myself sampling a couple that had been promptly been fetched from her nearby home with typically Chinese eagerness to help. Clearly no more enthralled by the ping pong watching than I was she invited me to play a bit of basketball. After Gary had had his fill of ping pong, he invited me and Win to lunch. It proved to be a delightful meal, with free-flowing conversation. Especially considering the three of us had never met each other before that day. That afternoon, Gary invited me to his home, clearly wishing to get in as much English practice as possible. I didn’t begrudge him that one bit because he had been so friendly and generous to that point. When the time came Gary took me back to the centre in time to be taken back to school.

Helen was busy at the centre and didn’t need to be back in school until the next morning, so she arranged for me to be given a lift to the place in Gaoming where each week two coachfuls of children are taken back to our school. It just so happens that two of my grade 3 students attend Real English every weekend (Nancy and Tracy have subsequently become my only students whom I know by name, since most don’t have English names), and it was the mother of one of them that was kind enough to give me a lift. She was just about the only parent with whom I had anything approaching what you might call a conversation for the entire 8 months I have been here. Unfortunately she didn’t really speak any English at all. We managed to muster the most basic of conversations in Chinese. I’m afraid my student wasn’t much help, for which I have only myself to blame! It was a lot of fun on the school bus back. The time flew by as the students asked me innocuous questions straight from the classroom, such as ‘What is your favourite season?’ To which I answered ‘Autumn’, forgetting that this was one of the words for which the students tend to learn the American version (‘Fall’). Learning either word is purely academic for children who have only ever experienced two seasons.

The initial reason for my third visit to Gaoming was to attend a wedding party. Before you get too excited, this was simply a lunch hosted by the newly-weds. The many parts that make up one’s ‘special day’ at home tend to be split up over a much longer period in China. The marriage itself takes place without ceremony in a registry office. After that come the wedding photos. I mentioned in the blog on Hanoi the numerous couples having their photos taken by the lake in Hanoi. GZ’s equivalent place is Shamian Island, known andrevered for its British and French 19th century colonial buildings. The couple, once they have sorted out getting married, put on a wedding in each of their hometowns. The happy couple we had come to toast was Austin and his new wife. Austin, you may remember, is our football friend who showed us around on our first visit to GZ. This match had all taken place in the time that we (or at least Simon) have been in China. They first met on a sort of double date, on which Austin was accompanied by Simon (it’s common practice on a first date to bring other people) and Austin’s prospective partner was accompanied by his future wife! This date took place shortly before Amy and I arrived in China. The next thing we knew, Austin was engaged.

By sheer coincidence, Austin’s wedding in Gaoming took place in the very same restaurant I had been in exactly two weeks (I think) before with Gary and Win. A number of teachers from our school attended the lunch, including Helen with Corrie. Just the day before, when I was at Vivian’s mother’s house, Helen opportunistically seized upon our (Simon and I) presence in Gaoming to recruit us as stand-in teachers at the centre once again. We left Austin a little worse for wear, having to stomach countless toasts to his (rapidly deteriorating!) health from his guests, and headed to the centre. I was delighted to be put with the same class as a few weeks earlier, while Simon took the slightly older class. The hour and a half of fun and games rather made a mockery of the paymentthat Helen insisted we took. We repeated the routine of two weeks before in order to get back to the school, even the same parent picking us up from the centre.

My final visit to Gaoming was a fitting way to spend my last weekend here. The past few weekends I have thought that I would be required to teach in Gaoming only for Helen to tell me that their regular foreign teacher can teach after all. The disappointment I felt probably suggests that I should have gone anyway. My previous visits have shown that I wouldn’t have had to come up with a plan for myself. I would have insisted on one final visit to Gaoming anyway, but Helen called me to ask for my assistance with a ‘school fair’ that Friday. We got no lift from Helen this time round because I wanted to go to Gaoming a little earlier to meet up with Win (and her friend) before meeting Helen and co. at the fair, which meant we instead had to take a two hour bus journey. I expected to see Win for longer, but our journey there was delayed by rain and no sooner had we all got to the fair than Win had to go back to work at a hotel. Nonetheless, it was good to see her once more after our first meeting several weeks earlier.

We had Friday off because that day was the Dragon Boat National Holiday. National holidays are anything but a holiday for Real English, and the Dragon Boat Festival was no exception. The ‘school fair’ that we were to help at was an opportunity for Real English to showcase what it has to offer to local residents. It is the 4th such fair that Corrie and Helen have put on. Children bring their old toys and books and things to the fair in exchange for fake money. The students can use this money to buy the items that have been brought along. This year, they could also use their fake money to take part in one of the games that Simon and I were running. I think Simon’s fishing game looked more fun than mine, but I made the best of what I had: ‘throw the block’.  This simply involved attempting to throw building blocks into a shoebox, each block on target earning the child a sweet. Helen and Corrie wanted the game to involve some English so I made sure each ‘contestant’ had to answer a simple question in English before they could throw their three blocks. Simon and I sat at our posts for a full two hours that evening, but it hardly seemed more than 10 minutes thanks to the relentless stream of beaming children in the hunt for sweeties. It was so much fun and it allowed me to interact with children who would otherwise be too shy to say anything to me. When everyone had gone home and we had packed away all the tables and chairs we went out for a late dinner, much like my previous Friday evening in Gaoming.

Simon and I were lucky enough to be offered a hotel room for that night. The next morning we had to teach the adult class, which included my tour guide, Jimmy. With little time to plan, we made the lesson about superheroes, and the four students had to write a story about themselves as superheroes and how they gained their superpowers. Apart from that lesson, my last day at Real English was a quiet one. I played on the piano and tried to get a few photos of this 2nd floor English centre that I will always remember fondly. My visits to Gaoming, although few, have made a significant impression on me and my experience of China. Everything that I have loved about living in China can be found in this little corner of Foshan.

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Great North Run

Middle school musical

The evening in question took place last week at the middle school where we, Simon and I, had been asked along to judge a series of English-themed acts prepared by classes from grades 1 and 2. I have recently found that there are three middle schools in Shishan. I already knew about Shimen Experimental and non-experimental middle schools (easily confused, especially considering they are right next to each other!) because of the other foreign teachers we have met who teach there. The other school is probably the public (not as in ‘Eton’, ‘Harrow’, etc.) option. I’ve heard from the teachers that we know that the other Shimen schools each hold around 3000 students, so there’s probably close on 10,000 middle-schoolers in Shishan. Thankfully we had only been asked to judge the English proficiency a very small proportion of Shishan’s school population.

Naturally, we were given only a few hours’ notice, but it’s very easy to say ‘yes’ to Jojo (head of English in our school), who’s always a delight when we see her. We made our own way to Shimen Experimental middle school, getting some food along the way. We easily knew our way to the school, having been there only a week before to play a football match between the teachers of our respective schools (we won, of course!). But this wasn’t enough to convince Jojo, who called me multiple times to ensure we had found the right place. When we arrived at the ‘venue’ (way before Jojo and co.), we were ushered to the front row of a chaotic lecture auditorium which was filled with excited early teens, many complete with props and dress. A few parents had come to watch too. Sat alongside us were four more foreign teachers who had similarly been roped in for judging duty. We never really got an opportunity to find out their story – by the time the 20+ acts were over we couldn’t get out quick enough! It seemed strange that we had lived here for 8 months without ever seeing any of them.

The spectacle went off with a bang when one boy took to the stage with a rendition of a Michael Jackson. His dancing, complete with moonwalk, was incredible; his English inaudible. I’m afraid I didn’t give him a very high score. The whole evening was ably hosted by a boy and girl who struggled manfully against an audience completely disinterested in what they had to say because it was all in English. Most of the acts were groups singing (sort of) and dancing along to horrible pop songs and two renditions of ‘My Heart Will Go On’, following the recent release of Titanic in 3D. The best acts to watch were the short plays. We had The Ugly Duckling with very amusing costumes, Cinderella, and, best of all, Romeo and Juliet. All stories presented a deviation from the traditional story, which I’m not sure was always deliberate. The Romeo and Juliet short, as well as presenting the best English, was the funniest, with Juliet’s father putting in a star performance. The worst act was also a short play entitled ‘Captain China’, which was an unrehearsed, uncoordinated, incomprehensible shambles, fronted by a maverick child whose unwavering self-confidence was unnerving.

The evening, just like most school shows at home, drew on way too long and produced a slightly disappointing standard (apart from the moment that one’s child takes to the stage, of course!). None was more restless and fidgety than Jojo, who was sat behind us. I felt the level of English on display was particularly disappointing. The trend in Chinese schools is that  the children’s reading and writing far exceeds their oral English. I’m sure this was true of these children, who probably weren’t given the time to do themselves justice. I was called on to judge in similar, scaled-down circumstances for grade 3 in our school, and I walked away from the Experimental middle school convinced that my children could do much better in a few years’ time!


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