One month to go …in China, at least!

So, it’s June now, and we’re getting to that point where we start thinking about what we’d like to do before we pack our bags and head back to Europe. I thought now would be a good time to tell you what’s in store for me (and this blog) after I bid farewell to Shimen experimental primary school.

I decided, shortly before coming to China, that the ideal way to return to Europe would be aboard the Trans-Siberian Express. My friend Jo Trew (trewisms.wordpress.com) thought this was such a good idea that she decided to join me on the 8000km journey from Beijing to Moscow. I’ve known Jo for a very long time through our local church. We have since become youth-wing members of the prestigious NAAS, which owes its origins to the writing team that produced the newsletters of said church. I didn’t do much writing, but I did get pretty good at Tetris (which ties in neatly with the Russian theme …sort of)! Jo also babysat us for a while, when the three of us weren’t considered quite old enough to fend for ourselves, treating us to countless rounds of card games.

Since returning from the SE Asia trip I have consistently had the thought of Russian visas lingering in the back of my mind. Negotiating Russian bureaucracy is a trial at the best of times, but doing it from China is awkward to say the least! I’ve sent countless e-mails to travel agents, agonising over the best way to obtain a visa and book the trains. In the end I decided it would be possible to do the whole thing independently thanks to the presence of a Russian consulate in Guangzhou. I haven’t yet submitted my application because I found out rather late in the day that the Russian consulate in GZ requires the original copy of my visa invitation (this wasn’t necessary for my Chinese work visa). The agency that I ordered  the invitation from said ‘No problem. Just pay us £50 more to have it sent to your school in China’. I wasn’t best pleased. The almost unbearably dull A4 document arrived by UPS yesterday. On the bright side, I can now apply for my visa and it should be ready some time next week.

I will have about a week to catch some of China’s must-sees before catching the train from Beijing on 10th July. I plan to go to Xian,  China’s ancient capital and home of the terracotta army. From there, I will go to meet Jo in China’s present-day capital, where we can see the Great Wall, The Forbidden City and Tiananmen square.

In order to make the most of our epic train journey, and to avoid a non-stop 6-day onslaught, we decided it was a good idea to leave plenty of time for stopping and absorbing Mongolian and Russian culture. So much time in fact that 6 days has become almost a month of travelling. Along the way we will be stopping at: Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s capital, for a week of Nadaam (a sports festival), horse-trekking and gers; Irkutsk, which is near the world’s deepest freshwater lake, lake Baikal; Tomsk, to enjoy the cultural highlights of one of Siberia’s oldest cities; Perm, for ballet at ‘one of Russia’s best theatres’.

An advantage of this trip is that with it I have managed to lure the rest of the family, bar Jonny, out of their comfort zone and into a week-long exploration of Russia’s two premier cities. I’m looking forward to a memorable reunion in Moscow when we finally arrive there on 31st July. The first week of August will be shared between Moscow and St. Petersburg, where I expect Maddy’s A-level study of Peter the Great to come in handy!

This is my journey home. I think you’ll understand why I’m not yet in any hurry to get back home!

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Some recent school pictures gratuitously included to make the post more interesting…

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A day in the life of a Cantonese village household

A couple of posts ago I received comments intimating that readers would still be happy to read about the most mundane of my experiences in China. With that in mind, you’d better brace yourselves for the following post!

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to have lunch at the house of the mother of one of the grade 6 English teachers at our school, Vivian. My defining memory of Vivian will surely be of her regular, tricky questions about the use of English. The questions are particularly difficult to answer because they derive from the awkwardly phrased exam papers that bear no resemblance to natural spoken English. One example was ‘Is a window in or on the wall’. The real answer is that you wouldn’t ever say either, but that didn’t satisfy the exam question that poor grade 6 students are expected to answer.

Vivian and her husband, like us, live in the school during the week. She goes to her mother’s house most weekends where she tutors local grade 6ers and helps out her mother, who spends most of her time looking after two of her very cute grandchildren – Vivian’s niece and nephew.  Vivian’s own son lives miles away with her in-laws (I can’t remember where) and she only gets to see him once a month, in what is apparently a fairly normal setup in this part of the world.

The invite came about when I asked what there was to do nearby over the weekend. She suggested a garden and a mountain (hill) not far from her mother’s house. As it turns out, I never made it to either. Her husband, on whom we were dependent for travelling, had to go off to do something. He was due back at about midday but didn’t return until about 5!

I was picked up at around 8:30 in the morning and we picked up some cheong fun for breakfast. Cheong fun, so named because of its resemblance to a pig’s intestine (mmmm!), is a filled roll of very thin rice noodle and doused in sweet soy sauce. It’s pretty good but notoriously difficult to eat with chopsticks!

When we got there I met Vivian’s mother, holding one grandchild with another wrapped around her back, and Vivian quickly got to work setting work for the four newly arrived primary school children there. I was left to my own devices, trying my best to tear away strips of stretchy rice noodle with a couple of splinters of wood! The house was dingy and basic to say the least. It seemed all homeliness had been compromised in favour of practicality. There was laundry everywhere – I wondered if the clothes all belonged to their family or if Vivian’s mother earned a little extra washing other people’s clothes. I spent the rest of the morning trying to help with the English teaching. I wasn’t much use as they were busy with practice exam papers.

As lunchtime approached, Vivian told me it was time to make some dumplings, and without further ado plates of dumpling dough circles and a big bowl of dumpling mix were brought onto the outside table. Vivian, the children and I proceeded to fold the mix into the dough ready to chuck into a soup. I think my first attempt at making dumplings turned out to be a success.

After lunch all but one of the school children left and I spent the afternoon keeping myself entertained with basketball, mahjong and cards. Next door they had a few ‘automatic’ mahjong tables. The tables were clearly specifically designed to facilitate rapid transition from game to game, allowing the four competitors, gambling their spare change, to play again and again almost obsessively. The tables each had two sets of tiles, which were shovelled into a hole in the middle of the table at the end of each game. And, with the touch of a button, the other set would magically arise from within the table fully set up in front of the four players ready for the next game. As the next game ensued the table is clattering away within setting up the next game. I was well impressed!

   

When Vivian’s husband and brother finally returned from their day’s duties, they immediately insisted that I join them for a game of basketball. Before, I was just ‘shooting hoops’ with the one remaining school child, but now I found myself involved in an intense three-a-side game in my crappy, old sandals! Unsurprisingly, Vivian’s P.E. teacher husband was very good and her brother was if anything better. I was way out of my depth!

I haven’t really mentioned in my blog that I have become quite taken with playing basketball since living in China, not ever having played it before (if you discount St. Mary’s junior school). We (Simon and I) rarely do more than shooting during our lunchtime break. But occasionally we have played games with the teachers. I’ve been meaning to show off for a while now that I have now hit 4 half-court shots. Unfortunately, Simon can only vouch for one of them, but a keen basketball-playing teacher witnessed my first! I’ve improved a lot in a year, but not quite enough to hold my own with the company on that afternoon in sandals.

We played until dinnertime. It was so nice to see the whole family converge on the table in the evening having spent the day out and about pursuing their own agendas. The family included Vivian, her mother, father, husband, two brothers and their wives, niece and nephew, and the schoolboy who had spent the whole day at his teacher’s mum’s house. We ate very traditional Cantonese food: peppers stuffed with fish, egg and tomatoes, green beans, soup and rice and I can’t remember what else. After dinner I was taken back to school by the mother of the boy I had played cards, mahjong and basketball. The day wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I probably wouldn’t have said that if the day’s activities were normal day to day occurrences for me, but this was the first time I have been welcomed into a Cantonese family home and I’m glad to have experienced it however mundane.

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Ballet

I hadn’t mentioned before, but a few weeks ago I bought a ticket for Cuban National Ballet production of Swan Lake in GZ. I bought it at the hugely impressive GZ Opera House just across the river from the Canton tower while on my way to Hong Kong. I was heading to Hong Kong to pick up my Easter ‘care package’. I’m still making my way through the sugary delights that it contained! I actually ended up spending two nights at Eleanor’s flat, thinking I was in no hurry to get back for lessons on Monday (because I now rarely teach on a Monday). It was not until I got an unrelated call concerning a question about English grammar that I found that that Monday was to be a Tuesday! While in Hong Kong I met an old school friend of my mother’s and went to the beach where I received significantly more sun exposure than is probably healthy! That weekend was just about the time summer was starting to kick in, so Hong Kong’s coast was baking in 30* heat. Once again I was wonderfully looked after despite the pressures of keeping children who have been off school for three weeks entertained!

So that was the weekend I bought that ballet ticket. Last Wednesday (9th) was the day that I went to the ballet. I had chosen to go on a Wednesday because I knew that, without any afternoon lessons, I would have plenty of time to get to GZ and I could avoid the rush hour. With the performance not until 8, I left the school at two. On the way to the opera house I took a stroll around Liwanhu park, one of many scenic parks dotted around GZ, before grabbing a dish of egg and tomatoes and hopping back on the metro across the city. I still had a fair amount of time to spare so, rather than making a complicated series of changes to get to the right stop I decided to get off a walk from the nearby Tianhe stadium through Zhujiang New Town. Zhujiang (Pearl river) New Town is the trendy new business district that owes much of its impressive recent development to the Asian games that took place here two years ago (hence the stadium). It is densely packed with lofty skyscrapers, none loftier than the eye-catching Canton tower that overlooks the area from across the river. Each night the Canton tower is brightly lit with rainbow colours, constantly taking on new patterns. The walk towards the river is deliberately arranged to allow constant sight of the tower, so my walk that night was a veritable feast for the eyes. The sheer volume of flashing lights in all directions might have appeared tacky were it not so gosh darn impressive! I arrived in good time, though later than I expected because the height of the tower in the distance created the illusion I was much closer to my destination than I really was.

As I entered the threshold of the Guangzhou Opera House I was hit by a wave of cool air. I quickly found my seat in the middle and just a few rows from the very back of the auditorium. As I looked around me I noticed most people were flicking through their programs. I regretted not picking one up on the way in. I regretted it even more so when I found that they were sold out by the first interval. The usherettes were kind enough to offer to look for a copy during the second act for me, but to no avail. Going to a classical ballet performance, I was looking forward to the music as much as anything else, so I was disappointed to find that there was not an orchestra in sight, but just loudspeakers. I’m hardly a seasoned attendee of ballet performances, but it struck me odd that every solo performance was followed by applause and bowing. It might just be my musical sensibility, but I felt this compromised the performance’s artistic integrity. Perhaps this was to appease an audience that seemed ill at ease with silence. I mentioned in my earlier posts on going to the theatre and Baiyun mountain the ubiquity of noise in China. Apparently it’s no different with the ballet-going upper-echelons of Guangzhou society. There were members of the audience who just couldn’t keep it to themselves if they were particularly impressed by a fancy pirouette or a daring leap. At one point, one person seemed to decide that a solo had gone on quite long enough and proceeded to applaud without inhibition, this set off a chain reaction amongst those whose concentration was wavering. Shining brightly through all this irritation was, to an untrained eye, a beautifully portrayed and choreographed display of athleticism. It was clear enough to me why Cuba’s National Ballet company is so highly regarded.

I talked again with the usherettes at the end of the performance and found that they were also heading towards the GZ metro. In typically Chinese concern for my well-being, they made sure to see me off on the correct train for my destination as if I had never been to GZ before. It was the cherry on top of a thoroughly satisfying expedition into GZ. Reading back, I realise I didn’t do Liwanhu park justice. Hopefully the pictures will amend that. Please note the link below. All will become clear when you click on it.

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*insert innuendo here*

Since my last post (crouching tigre) the heat has hit southern China, and will be here to stay until around October. And with the heat have come the storms. In the past few weeks we have regularly experienced booming thunderstorms that exceed anything I have experienced at home. In this heat, sweating has also reached unprecedented levels. At midday I need do no more than sit down and I’ll be dripping! Three showers a day has become standard. It’s not pretty, but you should know how underrated Britain’s mild weather is!

Last weekend we (Amy, Emma, Cari and I) went to visit Danxia Shan. Danxia Shan is a UNESCO world heritage site a couple of hours north of GZ. We were taking advantage of three day’s holiday for May Day. I say three days but, given we had to work a Saturday and that one of the days was a Sunday, it was effectively one day’s holiday. We met Cari and Emma in GZ. A night in GZ was ample excuse for revisiting that Turkish restaurant! Another reason to choose the Turkish place is that Chinese restaurants weren’t likely to be open after 10. It was my third time at ‘Bosphorus’ having been very kindly treated by Simon’s visiting parents a few weeks ago. Before you go chastising my parents for not visiting, Simon’s parents live in Shanghai. Before dinner we had to find a place to buy tickets to Shaoguan, the nearest city to Danxia Shan. Inevitably, GZ was packed with people trying, like us, to make the most of the short holiday. Having tried two GZ stations (the first only had standing tickets at the wrong time; the second, the ticket office was closed), we settled for the more expensive coach.

We spent the night at the same hostel we had before. I had to settle for a pullout sofa because they had run out of space in the dorm. This meant I couldn’t get to bed until everyone else in the hostel decided to go to bed. On the plus side, this meant that I met some friendly people. I met a Turkish guy who spoke very good Mandarin, a Chinese girl called Eva, and a French guy who was working in Shanghai called Victor. That night I was mutilated by mosquitos! I think I just about managed 3 hours’ sleep. Fortunately, there was plenty of time to catch up on sleep on the 3 1/2 hour coach journey to Shaoguan. We spent the rest of our day walking around Shaoguan, attracting many a fascinated look from the locals (significantly more than usual). Shaoguan was a  pleasant city, built along the river with an attractive park, ample shopping, flower stalls, and of course the ubiquitous KFC and McDonald’s!

Monday was set aside for seeing Danxia shan. The mountain was an hour from Shaoguan by bus. We arrived and joined the swarms of people queuing in the stifling heat for a ticket. The crowds continued as we attempted to board the shuttle bus that took us from the entrance to the feet of the mountains. It was every man for himself each time we got on a bus. To wait for the next bus in a couple of minutes was absolutely unthinkable! Our first port of call was probably Danxia’s best known attraction. From the chock-a-block paths we could see a very suggestively shaped rock that, for obvious reasons, goes by the name ‘Male rock’. There was a variety of anatomically themed rocks as well as a few other strange interpretations of the rock formations. Having negotiated the giggling tourists, vying for the best vantage point to take a photo of Danxia’s defining image, we gladly moved onto the main walking paths of Danxia Shan. On the way we caught sight of the ‘Elephants shuffling out of the mountain’ range. There was certainly a resemblance once it had been pointed out to us! It was a relief to get to the long, demanding, winding paths that are a true reflection of what Danxia has to offer. Not least because the claustrophobic number of tourists was stretched more thinly. It was by this time around midday and the heat was beginning to take its toll. After climbing a particularly daunting flight of steps to see ‘Candlestick mountain’ my shirt was wet through and so it remained for the remainder of the walk. By the time we had completed a circuit of the lake encompassed by the mountains, it was already time to head back to Shaoguan to get the train. I thought it was a shame we didn’t spend more time in Danxia because I was thoroughly enjoying the physical exertion of the undulating walk and could have gone on hours longer. Having said that, we did rather cleverly avoid a short but very sharp burst of rainfall (though that would hardly have made me any wetter!).

The train that we had booked the night before just so happened to be one of the new bullet trains. The super fast was to take about a quarter the time of the bus and was actually 5 yuan cheaper. It was a pain trying to get to the station to book the trains because every time we tried to ask a taxi driver to take us to the main station, he would assume we were talking about Shaoguan East. It later became obvious why when the bullet train station turned out to be about 20 minutes’ drive from Shaoguan and completely brand spanking new, only recently having superseded Shaoguan East as the main city station. This enormous and modern station was eerily empty and anomalously quiet. We arrived at the ‘departure lounge’ to discover that our train, a feat of engineering that stands at the very forefront of worldwide technological achievement, was delayed  by more than the amount of time our journey was to take. It was no real concern as I was in no great rush and I met a nice Chinese lady who taught Chinese in a GZ middle school. Once we boarded the bullet train we enjoyed an immensely satisfying travelling experience: Air-con, comfy seats, smooth ride, and an led display proudly advertising speeds of up to 305 km/h.

That’s all for this week’s post. Comments are welcome as always, and I’m going to make a special effort to respond to everyone because it’s thanks to your feedback that this blog is still going. So now’s the time ask any burning questions!

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What’s going on here?

I think I have established why blogging has suddenly become more of a chore than it was before. Since returning from our SE Asia trip life here has ceased to be newsworthy to me and has become routine. I realise my new experiences here are hardly less newsworthy for you, but it’s difficult to see it that way. It’s a sign that I am more settled and content with our situation here. Good for me, but not so much the readers of this blog! Rather than letting it defeat me I’m going to (yet again!) make a concerted effort to write up a weekly post.

I have about 20 minutes until I need to leave for GZ before heading to a place called Dan Xia Shan tomorrow with Amy, Cari and Emma, so today won’t be the day that I get my act together. But when I get back, I’ll have a good subject for the post that is to get me back on track!

Sorry for such a non-post. I can assure you the next will be more substantial. I guess this post is to show you that, despite appearances, I haven’t forgotten my blogging responsibilities. Please bear with me!

Hanoi: Sapa

The trip to Sapa began with the night train from Hanoi. The train journey was 8 hours long – not long enough for a decent night’s sleep when you factor in settling into your bunk bed and being awoken at 5am by ear splitting Vietnamese opera! Half an hour before our train was due to leave we were hurried into a minivan with the one other person from our hostel on the trip, Maria from Argentina, a guide to help us onto the train, and the driver. It was just as well we had a guide because the train station was just about as chaotic as Hanoi’s streets. There were no mopeds, but hustling and bustling in all directions with their luggage trying to find the right platform in the dark. I say platform, but there really wasn’t anything of the sort. I merely refer to the stony ground from which you board your train. There was no designated area for crossing the tracks; people just stepped over them as they pleased. It was truly amazing that Vietnam’s train service could function at all, this being its capital.

After double and triple checking we had found our way on to the correct train and compartment we decamped in our compartment, which was shared with two quiet and unassuming Vietnamese women. As the train trundled on time out of Hanoi, we settled into our top bunks for the night. It was on this trip I realised the appeal of long distance. I was filled with a childish joy as I watched the barely lit towns and countryside pass by from under my blanket. I was to experience the worst of train travel before the rip was through, but at that moment I wouldn’t have wished to be anywhere else. Our sleep was rudely interrupted by the voices of wailing opera singers at around 5am. We drew up the station still almost an hour before dawn. We had to find our guide waiting for us at the station. Trust was a real issue because, just as with any station in SE Asia, we weren’t short of offers for taxi rides! It was obvious we had eventually found the right person because he was able to reel off our names. We yet again hopped into a mini van only vaguely aware of the tightly winding roads as we made the ascent towards Sapa. In between sleep I noticed the light of the new sun was reflecting off the barely visible hills below us. As it got lighter, it became clear that the light was reflecting off the rice paddies that striped the hills all the way up.

On our arrival at a hotel in Sapa, a French colonial town in the northwest reaches of Vietnam, we were allowed a shower in their rooms and a buffet breakfast that included coffee – utterly essential on this particular morning. The breakfast table was our first real opportunity to get to know the other people joining us on our ‘trek’ (I’m using inverted commas because it wasn’t all that demanding). There was Maria, whom we had briefly met already before getting on the train, and Jenny and her brother Robin from Sweden. Robin was visiting his sister who lived in Singapore and Maria was in the middle of three months in SE Asia having lived and worked in New Zealand for six months. During our breakfast we noticed that some members (all female) of the local H’mong tribe, armed with bags full of locally made merchandise, were well aware of our arrival and were spying us from the perimeter of the hotel’s property. We prepared ourselves for an onslaught of aggressive selling when we left the hotel, but it never came. What we didn’t realise was that they were playing the long game! Instead of taking the first opportunity to sell their goods they simply accompanied us on the walk. They were actually delightful company and earned the right to make a bit of money off us when we got to our lunchtime stop. They spoke remarkably good English – obviously having done this walk hundreds of times. We thought about how much the children at our school struggle when a girl, who couldn’t have been much older than 8 and had probably never been to school, was able to hold a conversation with us, They were eager to help if we reached any difficult terrain and they also made us toy animals out of the grass.

Also delightful company was our guide Muon (I’m only guessing at the spelling). He was also a member of a minority tribe but had ditched the traditional attire to be a guide. He seemed to always have a smile on his face and was always more than happy to answer questions. The real highlight, though, was the scenery. The terraced rice paddies that lined the valley all the way down were very pleasing to the eye, and further in the distance we could see the Fansipan, the highest peak in all of SE Asia. This was all complimented perfectly by the emergence of the sun during the morning. The sky was clear for the rest of our time in Sapa valley. We were told in no uncertain terms that we should be prepared for cold weather, as the average temperature there is significantly lower than that of Hanoi because of its altitude. It turned out that I needn’t have heeded this advice because, even without the sun shining for most of the day, the effort that went into lugging around everything I had with me on my back was easily enough to keep me far too warm.

The novelty of eating fresh bread hadn’t worn off by the time we had lunch that day after three months of living in China. Even more gratifying were the laughing cow cheese and the ham that came with this lunch. In normal circumstances I couldn’t imagine a less remarkable lunch, but that day it was a revelation! After lunch, a different group of women accompanied us for the shorter remaining stretch to our homestay location. These women were from the Red Dao tribe. They were far more obvious in their motives than their predecessors, which made them altogether less redeeming. Also, by that time the game had been given away. Each one of them had specifically chosen one of us as a ‘friend’ hoping that that friend would buy something from them at the end of the walk. It would have been easier to fold and buy something small from them but for the fact they just as the H’mong women did before, were charging real money for their, albeit high quality, textile bags and silver bracelets. All the same things were available in Hanoi for a lower price.

Our afternoon walk was pretty flat and took us through a Red Dao village. We were able to see the machines and tools that they used to make their clothes and their food. Having escaped the relentless hassling of our companions we reached our homestay village, which seemed to be a sort of ‘no go’ area for the minorities who wanted to sell their goods. There were still a few hours of daylight left and we took this opportunity to relax on the large rocks that provided a river crossing at the bottom of our village. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so at peace as I did lying on that rock with a combination of sun and a cool breeze keeping me at just the right temperature. I could have stayed there for hours longer had the sun not dipped behind Vietnam’s tallest mountain range.

That evening our hosts treated us to a wonderful meal. The woman who prepared the meal for us had clearly been doing this sort of thing for a while and she was very adept at keeping us at ease. Her main tool in helping her achieve this was rice wine. I had only once before encountered this foul spirit that the Vietnamese call ‘happy water’ in China. I guess I couldn’t argue with this name given that the evening was certainly a happy one. After we had eaten and sat and talked for a while by the fire, our hosts took us do somewhere in the village where there was music and dancing. I call it dancing, but it was really just jumping over sticks. The people jumping over sticks were actually students from a Vietnamese international school. It wasn’t really as great as it sounds. The music came from a sound system and it was really only put on to keep the school teens entertained for an evening. Far more impressive was the dazzling night sky as we walked back to our homestay to go to sleep.

I woke up early the next day having slept beautifully. No one else was awake so I followed the sound of the rushing river and dipped my feet in the cool water and watched occasional villager slowly making their way across the river. Our breakfast consisted of pancakes, bananas, honey and coffee. We soon set off and made our way further down the valley. The walking on this day was a little more challenging, with steep climbs and descents and tiptoeing to avoid mud as we walked through bamboo forests. The walk brought us to the top of a waterfall with breathtaking views. In fact, the whole morning brought more views that a camera couldn’t really do justice.

Lunchtime and the end of our ‘trek’ came all too soon. It was a shame we didn’t really get a full two days of walking in the valley. But the time that we did get was very special. We had time in the afternoon to see the market in Sapa and to get a drink and a French-style meal. We were just killing time before we had to get the minivan back to the station. In the van we again met a Canadian couple that had been in the minivan on the way to Sapa. We chatted about our respective experiences in Sapa and it seemed utterly bizarre that it was only the day before we had been drowsily driving at dawn to the hotel in Sapa town, The chaos that ensued at the station was hardly any different from Hanoi two nights before, but it was a whole lot easier to take a second time around. The snorer we got in our compartment highlighted how lucky we had been with our first experience of travel by train in SE Asia.

We again alighted our train at around 5am. Hanoi at 5am is a million miles from Hanoi at 5pm. The streets and the pavements were empty – as you would expect. People were just beginning to emerge to set up their stalls for the day. This walk back to our hostel was a perfect illustration of how much Hanoi is defined by the chaos of its streets. Finally arriving at the hostel far too early for breakfast, we slumped into a vegetative state. And so our Sapa trip ended very much how it began: hanging around the communal area of our hostel waiting for a minivan to pick us up and take us on the next trip.

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Another show

Contrary to popular belief, today (April fools’ day) was Friday. We have the next three days off because it is the national ‘tomb cleaning’ holiday. In Chinese schools it is standard practice to make up for days lost to holiday at the weekend, therefore completely defeating the point of a holiday. Still, overall we’ve managed one day off. Had it not been for my depleted schedule, I would now be a wreck having completed seven school days on the trot.

I might have mentioned before that on Fridays the school puts on a show to keep the parents, who have come to pick up their children, amused. It just so happened that today’s show took an English theme. It was basically a compressed version of the school shows we did last term involving grades 1 to 5. It was also another opportunity for us to make complete fools out of ourselves (which was appropriate given the date!). It was presented by four grade 5 students who were presented with a script containing highly suspect English.

After a few dance routines from grades 1 to 3, we all had to take part in a ‘fashion show’ which involved many of the English teachers. I took this opportunity to debut the new tailor-made suit I had acquired in Thailand. I was paired with Beryl and we and the other two grade 3 teachers (Nicky and Francine) had to present a series of poses that we had hastily run through the day before. The next piece was a game that I had to play with grade 3 and Nicky’s assistance. The game was ‘Simon says’ but the words ‘Simon says were replaced with ‘uh-oh’. Don’t ask me why! My explanation of the rules in English fell on deaf ears. The children are brilliant at quickly picking up and sticking to a set of rules, so it was almost impossible to catch them out when they had been well drilled and were especially keen not to falter in front of an audience.

The next game was with grade 2, and involved us three. The game this time was ‘duck, duck, goose’. Again gifted the pointless task of explaining ourselves in English, I was happy to pass over the mike to one of the children to start off the game. She needed a little help when it got to the point where she wanted to say ‘goose’, but the game went smoothly enough. The only thing was that the stage wasn’t nearly deep enough for our purposes so the chase spilled onto the steps above.

I wasn’t able to witness Simon’s involvement in the final grade 1 piece, but I wish I had. In April the children were singing ‘we wish you a merry Christmas’. And you’ll never guess the part Simon had to play…! The grade 3 teachers wanted to get photos of us in our fashion show get-ups. I’m hoping there’ll be photos of the show on the website but, for now, I just have a selection of the photos we took just after the show. For some reason Beryl omitted the pictures omitted the pictures including herself. I have only uploaded 4 photos because our internet is spectacularly slow at the moment (it has been for at least a week). One picture takes about 5 minutes!

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