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!


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!


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.



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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