Happy Marching in the Rain for the Pride of your School Day!

Happy Marching in the Rain for the Pride of your University Day everyone!


A flash of lightning woke me up at 4.30am. Seconds later, the roar of thunder filled the sky. I checked the time, and got up to open the windows to let the crisp breeze in. I climbed back into bed, listening to the rain pouring down and splashing in the puddles far below. I wondered vaguely if there was a wet weather contingency plan for today’s Sports Day ceremony as I dozed back off to sleep.

Each year, every university holds a 2-day sports day, with the second day beginning with a ceremony to mark the occasion. I missed last year’s, having already bought tickets to Shenyang for a trip to IKEA, so I missed out on the pomp and ceremony and whilst my life has been made infinitely better as a result of the Swedish chair in my room, I do feel like it might have come at the cost of something special.

An hour later, the rain had eased and so I got up and washed my hair, early enough to avoid a potential no-water situation. After I’d dried my hair, I looked out at the soggy grey world outside and sent a message on Wechat to my students to find out whether today was still going ahead. I was pulled in two directions; my comfy cosy bed was calling me back, but the urge to binge on all things Chinese in my last few weeks here meant that the costumes, the marching, the patriotism could not be missed. The responses to my simple enquiry mostly adopted a similar tone; “Of course! No-one can stop it”, “It must continue!” and “Who can cancel sports day? Not I!” So there was the answer.


China’s flag painted on one cheek, accidental Italian, French and Russian flags painted on the other (they were just going for stripes apparently)

At 7.10 we made our way to the sports stadium, passing through crowds of students variously adorned in sequinned baseball caps, tinsel halos, costumes and cardboard automobiles, to reach the Chinese teachers from the Foreign Language College. Thousands of perfectly uniform students and co-ordinated teachers, from every college in the university, were gathered outside the stadium gates, and despite the drizzle there was a sense of occasion, the sort of party atmosphere which comes with having a couple of free days off mid-week. For me, the build-up had been a few hours of will-it-won’t-it-stop-raining; for these students, it has been days if not weeks of careful costume preparation, dance rehearsals, plus the longed-for reprieve of a few classes cancelled (although, I am told that classes missed for public holidays and these such occasions are often made up on the evenings or weekends, which does the shine off it somewhat).


These guys won the award for best toe marching

All around us groups of teachers were standing in formation, practising their 4 line departmental mantras and marching on the spot, brollies in the air. The students were pouring into the space behind the stadium, the odd Grecian Goddess or panda-hatted student weaving through the crowds to find their classmates. Our department had hired matching outfits for all the Chinese teachers – macs, waterproof trousers and white trainers. Us foreign teachers were left to our own devices when it came to clothing, either because the department wanted to make it clear to their rivals that that they boasted foreign teachers, or because they forgot about us. Either way, I’m thankful: let’s not even consider how getting into a pair of 1-size-fits-all-tiny-Chinese-girls waterproof pants and trainers would have worked.

I took one of the young American boys, Iain, to have a peek through the fence to see inside the stadium. It was packed with students, all wearing matching clothes, some with plastic clappers, others with those annoying inflatable sticks that you clap together, a few with big red drums. One group of about 200 students were each holding part of long 30ft rows of coloured banners ready to wave over their heads when their classmates marched past. Giant red Chinese lanterns hovered in mid-air, people were excitedly giving the pre-amble over the sound system, the rumbling sound of chatter and music playing filled the place. Drums sounded even louder, and the groups at the head of the march made their way into the stadium.


The tinsel-topped Grecian Goddesses from the Foreign Language department absolutely owning the costume element

The Foreign Language department were near the back, and when our turn came we glided through the gates and began our promenade on the track. Iain generated the loudest cheers and screams of delight from the adoring students, and others with huge cameras hanging around their necks were jogging backwards, darting between rows to take our pictures. Every moment was documented by a small army of students with their giant Canons, as well as two drone cameras flying around the stadium, operated from somewhere within the enclosed huddle of boys holding the remote controls.

Half way around the track, the sound system announced our department’s arrival as we paused in front of the school officials, like we were being introduced by the herald at a high society ball. We waited long enough for the students representing our department to perform their ditty, then on we marched to complete the lap, finishing in long lines on the astro turf in the middle. When every department had made it in, we listened to a speech from the Dean, and then turned West to face the flagpoles and listened to the national anthem as the flags were raised. We were able to disperse fairly quickly after that, and whilst most students would remain to watch the athletics, we made our way to McDonald’s for some well earned McMuffins.


Those few hours were a perfect harmony of Chinese culture – crowds of people, deep rooted patriotism, communal spirit, questionable garments, cutting edge technology, age old traditions and shovel loads of pride.








Running water

Observing my monthly ritual this morning, I prepared my home-made Sun-In in the little bowl I always use. It’s very simple and I feel very mother-earth when making this hair highlighting concoction; a few spoonfuls of baking soda (nature’s bounteous fruit NaHCO3) mixed with a little bit of hydrogen peroxide to make a paste. 200ml of hydrogen peroxide is 5p from the chemist, usually used as a mild cleaning agent or to treat wounds. Baking soda is about 60p for a bag, and this little kit will last about 8 months. Simply mix together and paste on where desired. Leave for about an hour, trying not to move too much lest a flurry of flakey white powder dust your shoulders like a bad dandruff day. Wash off, shampoo and condition as normal. It’s so cheap and the results are really effective, but when I’m wondering why I’m bald in 20 years time someone kindly refer me back to this post.

So, an hour came and an hour went, and a trail of flakey white powder tracked my movements around my room like a set of badger holes in the woods. I went into the kitchen and grabbed the shower head, ready to hose off the crusting concoction to reveal the golden locks beneath. Nothing. I turned the handle again, but not a single drop emerged. I turned the cold water tap at the sink, but it just made a churning noise, and, worried about what it was going to spew up, I quickly turned it off. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence, and so I’ve learned that whatever’s up with the pipes, leaving the tap on generate water will eventually produce a violently brown liquid that stays with you mentally long after you’ve bleached away all trace of it. Usually, normal operations are restored after a few hours so it’s not a problem, but when you’ve been liberal with the raw chemicals you’re somewhat up against the clock.

After the initial frustration comes the faint recollection of the notice on the door that your eyes glided past as you were fumbling for your keys to get out of the rain yesterday. Perhaps one of the most important words to learn when living in China is the word for ‘water’ – (shuǐ). Usually I’ll scan the notice, and if I see , I know I’ll be having a festival wash at some point that week. But yesterday I was too busy juggling keys with bags of shopping and still on a high about it finally being lychee season in the fruit shop that I didn’t pay any attention. So, this morning, deciding it was a better idea to use my precious drinking water to wash my hair than wait and potentially bring forward the inevitable balding process to May 2015, I set about filling a pot with drinking water and putting it on to boil. It’s not a big deal, but the vital differences between tap water and drinking water is so clearly delineated in my mind now that I feel I’m about to wash my hair in some precious elixir of the gods. I’ll use tap water to shower, to wash dishes, and even to cook with providing whatever’s cooking will boil for at least 10 minutes. But the 18L vats of water I order and pay for are the only thing I’ll drink. The triumph of calling the water company and communicating in Chinese that I need them to replace it every week or so only adds to the pedestal on which this precious liquid stands.


Long story short, I poured the heated water in the sink, got a measuring jug involved and washed my hair. I won’t miss the water situation, but actually there’s something novel about doing things old-school. Heating water over fire tickles our basic carnal instinct, and connects us with a time long before 60 second kettles or 30 minute power showers. In the middle of a storm last week, the electricity went out across large parts of the campus. I was looking forward to settling down to an evening away from my desk, no WiFi, making tea on the hob, a good book in hand (they had Kindles in the middle ages…), candles dotted around the room, thrilling quick dives into the fridge to stop the cold from escaping. After an hour, though, the electricity was back, and with a heavy heart I turned on the laptop and resumed my research on late Victorian comedies of manners.

As I’d settled down in my comfy chair though, I’d been transported back to a time when I was about 13 years old. It was a Thursday night, about 9pm. My friend had given me a lift back from Guides, and I darted through the bullets of rain, up the mossy drive and through the side gate to my grandparents’ house. I took off my shoes, water dripping from my coat all over the kitchen floor, and was greeted by Luke the dog. The electricity had gone out in the storm, and I could smell the log fire burning in the living room before I saw it. Grandma had made hot chocolate for my brothers and sister, and I joined them. Grandad was telling the boys some of his army stories, which were possibly too wild for my sister and Grandma, who were sat on the other sofa looking at photographs by the crackling firelight. There was a bit of a party atmosphere, and we were allowed to stay up later than usual. It wasn’t the absence of electricity that made it a special occasion, but more that we were stripped back to basics. We spent the evening altogether as opposed to spread about, our varied preferences of after-dinner TV being what they were. When my electricity went out last week, this memory came back to me as clear as day. It’s funny how the absence of the internet can actually bring us closer to our memories. Sometimes it’s surprising to recall that there was a life before facebook, memories and experiences that are only documented in your mind and measured by how they made you feel, not how many likes it received.

Anyway, this warm fuzzy tangent began with suspended water. My lifestyle has been somewhat adapted to fit the scenery, and I quite like it. I make a big pan of chicken stew every couple of weeks, and without cornflour to thicken it, I strip the chicken off the bones, then throw them back into the pot to thicken it. I buy fruit and vegetables every day off the sellers in the street. I buy eggs freshly laid, covered in poop and feathers (heaven knows what ordeal the poor hens go through). I walk places. I make my own hair dye because the stuff on the shelves here is all designed for black hair. I wash my floor with a cloth on my hands and knees. The other day I bought a Rubix cube, quenching the thirst for some form of procrastination that doesn’t involve make-up tutorial videos. It’s probably easier for me to see the novel side of having no running water than, say, someone who has never had running water. Being raised in one of the richest countries in the world, I live in a bubble of such excess that I resort to cultural appropriation to feel mildly human again, all the while safe in the knowledge I can retreat to my real world of modern conveniences when I start to get dirt under my fingernails.

Anyway, my life of mildly reduced convenience is rapidly coming to an end, a fact that I have severely mixed feelings about. I want to write a post every week from now on, partly to piece together my scattered thoughts but also because I won’t have much to write home about when this is all over, so we’ll see what other nonsense I can find to write about before then.

On being a Chinese student

Last year, I was standing at the front of this room, trying painfully to elicit something more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ from the group of administration staff sitting in quiet rows. I was brand new to teaching, brand new to China, and had no idea about the traditional Chinese teaching style. I’d prepared discussion questions, inspiring images, role-plays, dialogue prompts, pages and pages of material to keep the 2hr conversation lesson flowing. But there they sat, all older than me, notebooks opened to a clean page and pens in had, waiting. The most common teaching format is like a lecture – the teacher will stand or sit at the front and read from a book or Powerpoint, whilst students write down notes. Even with language learning, vocabulary and grammar rules and spelling are dictated from the front of the room. Students hang off your every word, scribbling every syllable frantically in their books, then go home and spend hours after school digesting the information. In the West, this is the stuff of dreams. But it does have its drawbacks. There is no time to practice speaking in class. This means that many Chinese students can read, write and understand English well, but freeze when it comes to forming a sentence out loud. If you’ve ever tried to make painful conversation with somebody for 2 hours, multiply that by 6 and you’ve got my little class of admin staff back in the first semester. I’ve learned a lot since then – namely, no matter how senior in age or rank a person is to me, if they’re put in front of someone who is to teach them, they will sit silently and listen.

So now, as I started mapping out my last few months in Harbin, I thought about how I should be spending my time. What, when I get home, will I regret not having done? It’s a long way back here if I have regrets. I knew straight away that not making more of an effort with Chinese will be one. It’s an easy cop-out; I’ve been so busy with classes, extra classes, private tuition, lesson planning, having a life, adding sleeves and adjusting hems on H&M sale items etc, that I’ve not had time to organise regular Chinese lessons. Plus, native English speakers are in short supply, and students want to practice their English. My survival Chinese is pretty good, in that I’ve survived thus far, but only when it comes to speaking. I haven’t been able to break into the world of Chinese characters. Although my new ‘content’ classes – teaching British Drama, and British Society and Culture – keep me very busy with conducting enough research to write a thesis for each class every week, I decided that I have to make time to learn Chinese properly, and I was willing to pay for a private tutor for a few hours each week. But after chatting with one of the foreign students here, I chanced my luck by asking if I can join the foreign students class. Success! Although they’re having classes all day every day, I can only fit in 3 a week, but already I’m reading and writing a handful of characters and starting to feel more Mulan-like than ever before (assuming she was literate and British).

IMG-20150406-WA0006So for three classes a week, I’m back in my first classroom, this time at one of the desks, notepad turned to a clean page and pen in hand. The classes move very quickly, magnified by the fact that I miss two thirds of them, but three weeks in I’m going strong. The precious space between lesson prep and bedtime is spent filling pages and pages of handwriting books with strokes and characters. I’ll usually write the character about 40 times before moving onto the next one. Writing is an art form; each character is made from a series of strokes which should be made in the correct sequence. If you jump ahead and draw the bottom squiggle before the little dash in the top left, the whole composition is ruined. Apparently. Mine look rather slapdash no matter how much concentration I put in, but it’ll get there.

IMG-20150406-WA0007The beauty of learning Chinese in China is that you can see your development immediately. I was on a bus last week, for example, and as we were stopped at some traffic lights a big wagon pulled up besides us. On the side were about 6 characters, and two of them I’d learned; and 火 – chē (vehicle), huǒ (fire). You’d think this would indicate a fire brigade truck, but this grubby commercial wagon with its billowing PVC sides and leaking exhaust looked more like a fire hazard, so reading those characters didn’t give me a great insight into what it was for. Nonetheless I felt a pitiful sense of excitement at now being a part of this exclusive group who could understand the meaning of those strange shapes.

I’m not sure what the long-term aim is. I don’t know enough to be an asset to any major corporations looking for someone to liaise with their Chinese clientele, and I can’t correctly identify the purpose of random vehicles based on their sign-age. I’m leaving in a couple of months to a country where Chinese doesn’t exactly crop up in daily life, so am I wasting my time? I don’t think so. The world is made up primarily of sights we’ll never see, foods we’ll never taste, people we’ll never speak to, details we’ll never realise we don’t know. The simple pleasure of learning something you didn’t know before is timeless (the simple pleasure-ness of which, in my case, is heightened because they a) are lessons I don’t need to plan, and b) culminate in very difficult exams I don’t need to sit. Still, you get my point). I’ve spent the last two years in a world where I can’t read the signs, read the menus, read what’s in the jar, read which part of the form I’m supposed to sign, so inroads into this seemingly impenetrable world, however small, are worth the time invested and the money spent (one ream of squared paper costs 10p – the same price as a bus anywhere in the city).


Winter wanderings pt. 3 – Lions and tigers and bears in Yunnan Province

yunnan_mapOff the airport shuttle bus in Kunming, I asked a girl at the bus stop if this was the correct bus to get to my stop. She said it was, and then proceeded to pay my bus far as we got on. That it was only 10p didn’t matter. I fell in love with the city. Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province, in the south west of China. It’s home to 25 of China’s 56 ethnic minority groups, and is nicknamed The City of Eternal Spring, for its year-round pleasant climate. It felt like a British summertime but without the rain. I was staying in Kunming for just two nights, with a vague plan to head northwest and eventually to walk the Tiger Leaping Gorge outside Lijiang, before coming back to the city to catch my flight 2 weeks later.

I was torn between spending my one day visiting the Yunnan Minorities Museum, to set myself up and get some background information on some of the different cultures I’d be experiencing, or to go to the zoo. I wasn’t feeling like another museum, and anyway I’d set myself a little mission to find some endangered Yunnan Snub Nosed Monkeys whilst I was here, Yunnan presumably being a good place to find them. There are two zoos in Kunming; one, according to online reviews, is a series of dank dirty cages in the middle of the city, with sad animals chained up inside. The other was a safari park. I took the subway to the end of the line and then walked 30 minutes in what was becoming baking heat, and by the time I reached the safari park, half way up a mountain, I was feeling quite toasty. I had mis-read ‘eternal spring’ as ‘eternal British spring’ and worn waterproof boots, a coat and tights under my jeans. Soon I was shedding layers and my first stop was to the little shop to find a hat – at a high altitude, the sun was much stronger up here than in the city. The best of the bunch was a straw hat with a canvas UV protecting rim. I was a bit unsure at first, but with a little rearranging on my head I was able to convince myself I was working a sort of Meryl Streep Out of Africa look. I spent the day wandering around, encountering all sorts of animals wandering freely, including a gangly, sharp eyed ostrich that was definitely following me. The look in its eyes told me that we weren’t to be friends, and I backed away, not wanting to turn my back and give it opportunity to attack. A little further down the road I was feeding some deer and I looked up to find it’s face right next to me.

IMG-20150301-WA0005You had the option to pay 40¥ to take a golf buggy all the way round, which I chose not to do, preferring to enjoy the walk around the green mountaintop, the fresh air and the beautiful views. This does mean, though, that I was passed by buggies flying past me every few minutes. In a jovial, touristy mood, it wasn’t rare for zoo-goers to notice me, point me out to their friends, shout “HELLOOO!!”, and get their camera out for a quick snap. I could imagine the Chinese tour guide over the tannoy, “…and to your left we have the female caucasian, rarely seen in these parts. You can see she’s eating a tangerine!” It’s interesting how when you visit tourist sights, the tourists are in tourist mode, taking pictures indiscriminately at anything that looks slightly novelty. I automatically become a part of that. At a visit to the Nationalities Village later in my trip, a random man would ask my friend if he could have a picture with me, as though I were an exhibit. Seeing people get excited over a foreigner is quite amusing really, and much easier to handle when you’re a tourist yourself. When I’m at home in Harbin though, going about my daily business feeling like a local, being treated as an object of fascination quickly becomes irritating.

I spent hours in the park, saw the panda which looked like a bloke in a panda suit, sitting on some decking half way up a tree in the sun wondering how it all came to this. Camels, peacocks, deer, tigers, lions, reptiles, primates, elephants, the usual suspects, but sadly no Snub Nosed Monkeys. Finally at closing time it was time make my way back to the hostel and nurse the little blister on my baby toe, which was to become my constant companion on the rest of my trip.


Breakfast stop for spicy egg bread

The next day, I got on an 8hr bus up to Lijiang, north-west of Kunming. Long-distance bus is by far the most reliable method of transportation within Yunnan, and in such a beautiful province it’s not a great hardship. I took my place at the front of the luxury double decker, getting comfy and marvelling at whatever divine providence had led me to be sitting with a 270 degree view through the wide windows. Then, in true China style, about 30 seconds before we departed, on piled the rest of the passengers. Plane, train or automobile, no-one takes their seat a second before they have to, and seeing passengers casually walking through the terminal browsing at Harbin Sausage 10 minutes before their flight is scheduled to take off would not be a rare thing. In the seat next to me wedged a woman and, on her lap, her 3 year old toddler, squeezing me up into the window. I was having second thoughts. Thankfully my entertainment system didn’t work, which gave me an excuse to move to a vacant seat further back.

When we arrived in Lijiang, it turned out the address for my hostel wasn’t understood by any of the taxi drivers waiting outside the bus station. This was a bit problematic because I had no telephone number for them, and no plan B. There were several nice bus-users outside who tried to help me, and eventually the man I had been sitting next to got his English speaking friend on the phone. She told me to get in a car with the man and meet her, and they’d help me to figure it out. As reluctant as I was to get into a car with a complete stranger in a town where apparently no-one knew where anything was, my options were looking limited. Eventually my little cherub of a sister came to the rescue; she’d been keeping an eye on my emails because Gmail is now blocked in China so I couldn’t access it on my phone. She was awake, and she found the reservation email and phone number. I called them and problem solved.


Laundry day

It turned out that the hostel was in a place called Shuhe Old Town, outside the main Lijiang town. Way back when, it was a small village, but now it’s been rebuilt to sell Old World China to tourists. Despite getting lost several times during my stay, and having to be returned to my hostel in a golf buggy by a man from a rival hostel, it was a relaxing place, full of quirky coffee shops, restaurants, souvenir shops selling locally produced textiles and yummy rose cakes. Streams ran alongside the pathways, so clear that, in the outskirts of the village, you could see locals crouching over the water and washing their smalls. The hostel had the comfiest mattresses I’ve ever experienced in China (with the exception of the ones in IKEA, where one can happily while away half a day staring at the ceiling), and was filled with Chinese youngsters – very different to most Chinese hostels, which seemed to contain a mix of foreign tourists, business people and single students. I was the only foreigner throughout my stay here. The layout of the hostel was in a courtyard, with two floors of wooden huts around the outside, with the toilets and showers across the courtyard. The first night I got there, the hostel was hosting a 60¥ per head BBQ in the courtyard. I was torn between not wanting to be a social recluse, and not wanting to stand eating meat on sticks and nuzzling in with groups of people pretending to understand their conversation. I decided to wander around the village and find my own dinner, thinking I’d just make friends tomorrow under less contrived circumstances. I darted between diners as I made my way through the courtyard and wandered around, finding some delicious noodles. That’s when the sun dropped and I got lost and had to be ferried home.

The view from my front door

The view from my front door

The spent the next day doing nothing but wandering around the village, feeling a bit guilty for idling away an entire day but also justifying the benefits of acquainting myself with my surroundings so as to avoid getting lost again. I used such girlguide methods as checking the position of the mountains that surrounded the village, thinking I could just keep walking until the mountains looked the same as when I’d left. There was plenty to see and do in the village so I had a nice day.

The next day I went to a beautiful area called Heilongtan (Black dragon pool), a little lake at the foot of a big hill, and a Naxi museum. Most of China’s Naxi minorities live in Yunnan, and largely concentrated around the Lijiang area. I knew more about this minority group than others because I have a friend who is Naxi, so I was interested to learn more about the rituals, customs and language of this ancient ethnicity. They follow a sort of Dongba spiritual religion, placing heavy emphasis on the lives of animals, and also ceremonies to connect with spirits in the afterlife. My friend’s grandfather was actually a Donga priest, one of very few men in this small group who would perform ceremonies and be sought out to offer counsel. The museum had his picture on the wall, which is cool. I also learned more about the pictographic language, the last in use in the world. Sadly, during the Cultural Revolution, the use of this was stamped out, and so most Naxi people can’t read or write it. But there have been great efforts in recent years to breathe life into this ancient script, and scholars are working furiously to preserve, translate and teach this language to others.

Three Naxi grandmas gossiping in the sun

Three Naxi grandmas gossiping in the sun

After a wander around the lake, I walked along a stream until it came to Lijiang Old Town. Like Shuhe, it has largely been refurbished to accommodate tourists. But this town was much bigger, and if you walk away from the main square and up some alleys, you can see the thousands of sloping roofs across the town, nestled below the mountains. The sun was beaming down, the steady sound of drums coming from ethnic music shops that dotted the streets was beating through the air, and it was a perfect day. I even bought a book, breaking my rule about not buying books when travelling. Called Forgotten Kingdom, it’s the travelogue of Peter Goullard, a Russian diplomat and linguist who lived in Lijiang during the 1940’s and and 50’s, at a time when it was untouched by the outside world. Fascinating read for anyone interested in traditional Naxi culture, and life before the revolution in this part of the world.

Rooftops of Lijiang Old Town

Rooftops of Lijiang Old Town

Soon it was time to leave Lijiang. My dorm-mate had entertained me with beautiful pictures and wild stories of the places she’d been to in Yunnan, and I was eager to get going and discover them for myself. Early the next morning, I packed my bag and walked down to the taxi rank in the village. It was less organised than the label ‘taxi rank’ might suggest; three men huddled around a fire, their mianbaochi vans parked up on the side of the dirt track since the night before. If I felt guilty for tearing one of them away from the warmth and companionship of the fire, this was lessened by the fact that he wouldn’t shave even 10Y off his price to the bus station in the other town, even though I was sure I was being ripped off.

The further north you get, the smaller and more rickety the buses become. My next destination was Qiaotou, the small village at one end of the Tiger Leaping Gorge. This bus was an 18 seater, and I piled in and got comfy for the 3 hour journey. The mountains that rose from behind every bend were breathtaking, and I was becoming more and more excited about the prospect of my climb. It would take about 8 hours in total, and as I wouldn’t be starting until after lunch, I planned to stop at one of the sparse hamlets halfway along the route for the night. I filled my smaller rucksac with the essentials I’d need – water, fruit, layers, make-up for the next day. First mistake. I left my big rucksac at a hostel at the beginning of the trek, and ate a lunch of fried rice. Second mistake.

Looking back at the view after the first stretch

Looking back at the view after the first stretch

I set off after lunch, walking along the road at the opening of the deep gorge, water rushing below me and mountains rising up above me, a little daunted at the height of the mountain I was about to scale, but feeling optimistic none the less. I followed the little red and blue bunting that had been tied to rocks many moons ago to direct walkers, as the path cut off the road and up a track. A local caught up with me, asking if I was alone and did I want a horse. No, I’m not alone, I have two friends waiting for me further up. I didn’t want him to know I was wandering about a mountain on my own, and I wasn’t totally lying as I’d exchanged numbers with a Danish pair on the bus just in case I got kidnapped or trapped under falling rock or something. He disappeared, and onwards and upwards I hiked. Suddenly, he reappeared leading a packhorse. I insisted I didn’t want the horse, but he wouldn’t leave. After a short while of being followed, I came across a French couple stopping for water. I asked if I could join them and pretend they were my friends, hoping the horse man would leave us alone. They welcomed me along, but it didn’t work; he decided to follow us for over an hour. After a while the boy was grumbling that he’d been charged to come up the mountain, and the girl was grumbing about the horse man. We paused several times up the first climb, which was a steep ascent. My lunch was sitting heavy on my stomach, and I was cursing myself for being such an idiot, weighing my bag down with foundation and mascara. The horse man kept up behind us, cruelly imitating us being breathless and insisting we take the horse, making us feel inadequate and as though he could see we were destined to fail. He was going to a hostel further up on the trail, and we insisted that he go ahead of us; he refused, and continued to walk within 2m of us the whole ascent, making us feel stressed and racing up faster than we would have liked.

After over an hour of climbing we came to a flat walk, so I kept going as the couple stopped for lunch. The flat walk lasted about an hour, and finally I’d shaken off the horse man. I walked past a group of young Chinese walkers, and a few of the girls were struggling in floppy hats and trainer-heels (but not as much as their boyfriends, who were carrying their own and their girlfriends’ bags). Feeling exhilarated, I wandered on through the serene mountain woodlands, catching a peek of the Jade Dragon Mountain through the pine trees as it came closer and closer. The Jade Dragon Mountain has an alluring history, and is the place where many Lijiang lovers used to go to commit suicide. The Naxi culture was a fun, carefree and liberal society, but their marriage traditions were steadfast – unions were arranged at birth, and there was no escaping them. With such a strong connection to spirits and the afterlife, dying wasn’t seen as the end, but as a way for forbidden lovers to escape the cruelty of this world and to be together eternally.

Heading towards Jade Dragon Mountain

Heading towards Jade Dragon Mountain

Under the baking sun, with my Meryl Streep hat on my head, I found myself singing Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem out loud. When I realised, I would start singing something else, but that tune was stuck in my head kept coming out of my mouth. It became my kind of anthem. Around another bend, and a little hut selling refreshments had plastered on the side in red paint, “Gain energy for the 28 bends!”. I’d come across the fabled 28 bends in my research into the gorge, and I was pretty sure the horrific first hour winding up the face of the mountain had been the said bends. I was wondering whether someone had daubed this taunting message on the wrong side of the hut, but didn’t stop to ask. One look upwards told me that 28 hairpin bends were indeed waiting for me. No time like the present. Refuelled from the flat walk, I had a sip of water, adjusted my bonnet and made a start. The terrain had morphed from dry mountainside to spongy forest floor, and now the path was made of footholes and steps arranged from boulders and cut into the side of rock faces. Again, I had attracted a passing horseman, but this one was much nicer. He must have been over 60, his skin so dark from the endless days climbing the mountain. He led two horses, and one was already saddled up with rucksacs from two Chinese women ahead of me. He didn’t need to bully me into giving him business, so he amiably plodded along the path below me. My bag was really weighing me down and soon the horse didn’t seem like such a bad idea. For a generous fee he took my bag and tied it to the horses back, and suddenly I was flying up the hillside.

Liberated of my luggage ahead of the vertical bends

Liberated of my luggage ahead of the vertical bends

I can confidently say that I couldn’t have made it up those bends without that horse carrying my ridiculously overpacked bag. It was still tough, but I was free to go at my own pace and to actually enjoy it. By the time I made it to the top, I’d passed a few people who had succumbed to the temptation and were on horseback, so I felt proud to have made it up by myself. The horseman untied my bag and gave me a big thumbs up, which restored the faith in myself that the first guy had shaken. I took my sunglasses off to wipe my face, and he was amazed to see I was a foreigner. I told him I was British and he gave me another two thumbs up and a big toothless grin as I went on my way. I was happy. At this point I was pretty high up, and I followed the path along the side of the mountain, walking towards the sharp grey peaks of the Jade Dragon Mountain on the other side of the gorge. You couldn’t ask for a grander point of reference. I was getting closer and closer to it, and could see in detail the swirls of cloud that seemed to always shroud the top. Below, every now and then I could see glimpses of the the green river racing along the foot of the gorge. Even from high up I could feel the power of it coursing through the creek, crashing against the rocks. Behind me, the path bent and disappeared around the mountain, showing all I’d achieved. In front, the long mountainside was waiting.


After 5 hours, I made it to a small Naxi hamlet, where a hostel was waiting to give walkers respite. I was ravenous, and ordered a delicious Naxi sandwich, like a round flatbread, with yak’s cheese, tomato and onion, and potato and pumpkin soup (potato and pumpkin floating in water). It was nourishing and filled me up. I sat on the terrace deck to watch the sun set between the mountains, and saw the stars begin to fill the sky. Exhausted but utterly content, I eventually prised myself out of my chair and went to bed.

The hamlet in the hills

The hamlet in the hills

DSCF3922The next day was much more relaxing. I had breakfast and set off down the path, only to realise 10 minutes later that I hadn’t paid for my breakfast. Back up the path to pay, and I was off again. There were no annoying horse men this time, in fact no other walkers at all. Much of the path was flat, following a narrow ledge that travelled around the side of the mountain. Soon, Jade Dragon Mountain was well and truly behind me, and I came across a goat herder wandering about, and then a beautiful waterfall cascading down the side of the cliff. Negotiating the moss-covered stones through the water without falling to my death was fun, and as I looked back, impressed with my agility, a beautiful rainbow floated over the rocks, flickering in the sun.

Down we go

Down we go

The path took a steep incline as I headed down towards the road, and the end of the hike. I was feeling so full of energy and enthusiasm that, 3 hours in, when I reached the road, and Tina’s Hostel where most people wait for a bus, I wasn’t ready for it to be over. Instead, I decided to walk over the bridge and head down to the river – the road is still set high above. You can walk down the side of the cliff to reach the Tiger Leaping Stone in the middle of the river, where a tiger used to leap onto when crossing between Jade Dragon Mountain and the Haba Mountains which I’d walked (according to myth; I have my doubts). Down I went, further and further down at such a steep incline my legs started to feel like jelly. Over the rocks and between the trees I could see the river getting closer and closer, and eventually I could hear it too. Then came the ladders. The first set, although spindly and a little rusty, weren’t too big. The next set, though, must have been at least 3 storeys long, and they creaked and groaned. I sat at the top for a while, wondering if I really needed to go down them, if it was really that beautiful at the bottom. There was no-one about to ask, and I saw no alternative route. After a few minutes taking in the scene I went for it, cocooned in that familiar feeling of ‘if I die then I die’ which hadn’t done me wrong thus far. I didn’t die, and finally, after 40 minutes climbing down the face of the cliff, I’d reached the river. The scale was enormous; the river so wide and so green, the rocks so vast, the roaring water echoing into every inch of space. The scene was filled with energy and still so tranquil.


Note the humans on the rock for scale

Note the humans on the rock for scale

I sat for a while, before thinking that I should start the climb back up, and wondering if there wasn’t a quick lift I could take. Ninety minutes saw me climb back to the top. Never in my 5 years of no-chocolate have I been so close to giving in, but the sight of those cold Snickers bars sitting in the shade under the hut lady’s umbrella tested me. I resisted, and instead bought an orange, putting it in my bag for later. The route had been been dotted with local people in these small huts, selling water and Snickers and stones. Not youngsters either, but grannies and toothless men who, in another world, would be spending their days making retirement plans. Their agility is beyond me.

Hard earned lunch

Hard earned lunch

I stopped at a roadside cafe at the top, finally time for some lunch at 3pm before heading back. Having been focussing on my footing for most of the hike, I wanted to experience the Gorge from the ground, so I decided to walk along the road back to the hostel at the start. The man in the cafe said it was 2 hours of flat-ish road back to the village. Feeling refreshed, I set off, singing out loud and drinking water and taking in the mountains. After a while, I heard an alarming crashing noise behind me. I spun around to see rocks falling from above, down onto the road. I hadn’t thought about the fallen rocks that lay in piles all along the roads, or the cracked tarmac that opened up to a sheer drop below. Soon after, I came to a sign that advised me of falling rocks. If one landed on my head, I would 100% be dead. This took the shine off my pleasant stroll, and I picked up pace a little. Two hours came and went. So did three, and on the road went, winding round and around the crevices of the mountain. The sun was starting to set, which meant that I’d probably be run over by one of the few passing cars that came past, and I was thinking about flagging one down when, as if by magic, a young couple in a van pulled over and told me to get in. I was so thankful that I didn’t even mind if they planned to kidnap me, as long as I could sit down first. The wife took selfies of us, me on the seats behind. I looked a mess but happily obliged, and gave them my orange as a token of thanks when I got out at Jane’s Hostel 10 minutes later.


Hard to notice the falling rocks when you're staring at this

Hard to notice the falling rocks when you’re staring at this

I ate some pasta and had a glass of well-earned Yunnan red wine and slept at Jane’s that night. At some point, a group of Brits came into the dorm, getting ready to walk the next day. I was awoken early by their excited packing. I shared my wisdom, advising them to pack light, and wished them well. Later that morning, I told Jane’s husband that I wanted to head south-west, to Dali, and he called the bus driver coming from Shangri La in the north, and asked him to stop and pick me up on his way to Dali So simple; no bus station, no endless queues, no tickets. I walked to the crossroads in the village and waited for a bus to come and pick me up. I watched scooters, bicycles, cars and luxury buses sail past on the dusty road, and I made eye contact with the drivers of the buses hoping one of them was on the lookout for a white girl with a rucksac. Eventually, a loud grey 18 seater rocked up and the driver helped me to wedge my bag between the gearstick and the passengers beside him. I checked he was going to Dali, and climbed in. I sat at the front next to a quiet lady in a head dress, and settled down for the 4 hour journey. Behind me, the seats were mostly filled with men, smoking and coughing and chatting away in dialects I’d never heard before.

Through mountains and hills and past villages and lakes, I felt like I was passing through a book. Every now and then, mopeds paused on the side of the road, figures working in the flat fields, wide brimmed hats tied by scarves to protect from the sun. Bus drivers will drop you off anywhere you like, and after showing him the address of my next hostel, the driver dropped me off right outside the gates of the village. This was another ‘old town’, full of shops, cafes and bars, and a mecca for the foreign backpacker. More established than the other places I’d been to, Dali had a relaxed, warm and eclectic vibe, attracting the type of people who find their haven in this type of place. I’d never seen so many Chinese men with long hair, or wearing floaty bohemian garbs. On the first night, I went with a couple of the Chinese people in my dorm to a bar close by. Bad Monkey was set up by a couple of British men, and felt like anything you could find at home. It was packed; a band were playing on one side, and we sat on the other playing a Chinese drinking game I didn’t fully understand involving dice and pure luck. Here I met a few Bai locals, who vehemently rejected capitalism and told me that they hated all the tourists here who just want to take photographs and not understand the ancient cultures that were slowly being turfed over. This was my window. I told them I was genuinely interested in minority cultures; that’s why I was here. It was settled; we were to hire mopeds and go down to the lake the next day, passing through some traditional Bai minority villages. Since my dorm-mates were exactly the type of culture-tramplers they had been raging against, the invite didn’t extend to them.

The next day, we met bright and early. I pretended I had experience riding mopeds, recalling fondly the time my brother let me ride his scooter on the path up the street and back 10 years ago. The traffic on Chinese roads is a bit menacing, but I took a helmet and we cut through to some back roads, and soon we were riding alongside the lake. Erhai lake is huge and stunning. People come to Dali just to visit the lake. Dali is nestled between the lake and (surprise surprise) a row of mountains, and scooting along this winding road was perfection. We passed through a series of villages, dusty but clean, with white walls that join to the narrow road. Children played on the street, locals milled about and got on with their daily business, and we passed scooters, farm wagons and bikes along the roads, but no cars. We stopped for lunch in one of the villages, and I was shown the local delicacy – cold rice noodles. Of course, it was delicious. Next we had Suzhou cakes (Suzhou is the name of the village), which were like dense flatbreads, one filled with meat and the other with melted brown sugar tea.

Traditional courtyard with reflecting wall

Traditional courtyard with reflecting wall

Some of the houses of historically noteworthy people are, by government order, open to the public, and their living relatives inside have to let visitors look round if they ask. We found an open house and poked our heads round, asking if we could come in. This place was now home to several really old Chinese folks, related somehow in the complex maze of Chinese families. One sat in a chair tapping his walking stick in time to some distant music. Another felt his way around the side of the walls to reach a doorway, his eyesight long gone. A younger woman, maybe in her 60’s, welcomed us in and left us to wander. We couldn’t go inside their private rooms of course, so we were left to looking around the courtyard,ducking under their washing line, and peeking through windows of the rooms adjacent. Bai houses feature similar architecture; a large reflecting wall on one side of the courtyard to reflect the sunlight, and two-storey building structures on the other three sides, with decking-style seating area in the shade. Later, we popped to the locally renowned Linden Centre, famed for its preservation of an ancient Bai house as well as actively promoting Bai culture. The house was bought by two Americans, who preserved it and turned it into a hotel, as well as a sort of visitor centre for tourists. All of the interesting parts were reserved for hotel guests though, so it was just a less interesting version of the older, still functioning house we’d already been to.


Back on our bikes, and we headed for a part called the ‘tongue of the lake’; a narrow strip of land that protrudes into the middle of the lake. We parked up the mopeds and walked along the tongue for the most serene sights I had encountered throughout my whole trip. The Chinese say that men are like mountains and women are like the water. As awe-inspiring as the majestic mountains had been, as imposing and intimidating and amazing as they were, it’s the water that soothes me, and that day I felt like, with a few tweaks on the company, I could happily set up camp and live the rest of my life by Erhai.


Another few days in Dali were spent on a rowing boat looking at ospreys, which then lead to us pulling up beside a bigger boat to watch a show of some locals in traditional Bai dress, singing a song and plodding around in a circle clapping and dancing in a half-arsed way that was awkward for everyone involved. I also spent some time wandering around the town and drinking tea, trying to at least read a bit of Shakespeare and Marlowe in preparation for my courses this semester. Still, there are worse places to be doing work than a cafe next to a stream in Dali.

That evening, one of the guys from my hostel had met a group of hippies whilst he was singing on the street, and he invited me to join them for hotpot. Hotpot is one of my favourite types of Chinese food, but it’s always so spicy and the room so humid that your blood thins considerably, and none of us were much of a match for the home-made plum wine that the laoban passed round to us. Two of said hippies owned a hostel around the corner, and we headed there, where more plum wine and a packet of sparklers appeared. We crammed into a little attic space, where their tiny puppy had been waiting. He sat on my lap for a while, and when he shuffled off it emerged that he’d left me a little doggy souvenir to mark our time together. It was a teeny tiny little poop, which would have been cute if it wasn’t poop. I was told in earnest by everyone present that it was good luck, but I decided I was lucky enough and went for a tissue.

The next day I took another bus back to Kunming. I still had a few days until my flight back to Harbin, but with Chinese New Year around the corner, things were starting to close down and buses were getting busier. I took a bus back to Kunming and chatted to a French woman, who talked for 4 hours about the corrupt system, the corrupt state of government and the corrupt media in Europe, and how China was much more straight forward. We had an interesting conversation at first but eventually I put one earphone in and let her carry on. I made it back to Kunming and, feeling like a local, planned to get a public bus straight to my hostel. However, I couldn’t find the bus I needed, and so a taxi was the next option.

Getting a taxi outside a bus station is always a mission; there are no shortages of taxis, they’re just unlicensed. Men gather around you as you come out of the station, asking where you’re going and shouting prices at you. Eventually I bartered one guy down a little and he led me to his car. He looked like a respectable young chap in glasses and a shiny silver suit. He put my bag in the boot, then asked me if I was hungry. I said I wasn’t; I wanted to get to my hostel. He then told me he was just going to get some dinner and then he’d take me back. I looked at him blankly, told him I wanted to go now. He was harmless, but it’s important to remember that getting in between a man and his stomach, you’re never going to be the victor. He couldn’t quite understand what my problem was, and eventually he opened the boot and gave me my back back. A metered taxi pulled up and he flagged it down, put my bag inside and held the door open for me. A true gent, just a hungry one. I got back to the hostel I’d originally stayed at, and by weird coincidence ended up in the same bed. I saw from the airing smalls hanging on the bed opposite that Raqaz, one of Indian salesmen who I’d met when I first arrived, was still in residence. I chatted to him on the terrace and started making my plans.

About 2 hours outside of Kunming is a huge, natural phenomenon called Shi Lin (Stone forest). A UNESCO heritage site, it literally looks like a forest made of stone. The next day, I hopped on a moped, with breaks that squealed like a little girl’s bike and which, embarrassingly for the driver and me, failed at the top of the hill just before the bus station. I walked the last 20m, queued for my ticket and took the bus, wedged for two hours next to a man with a massive cuddly teddy sat on his lap, presumably a New Year’s gift for his lucky beau. It took a while to build up my excitement; as soon as I arrived, the heavens opened and for as far as the eye could see, rain poured. Lightning tore through the sky and thunder clapped in our ears. My brolly was lying untouched in the bottom of my rucksac, blissfully unaware of what was kicking off down in Shi Lin, and I was quickly getting a little damp. I could see tour groups waddling along like ducks in big waterproof overcoats, so I ran to the nearest refreshment stall and found one. At 25¥ I was being absolutely fleeced but at least I got to choose a fetching candyfloss pink colour. I sloshed around and was thinking about heading back to the buses when the clouds parted and out came the sun. The transformation was instant. The air was filled with that special birdsong that you only notice just after a rainfall, and the smell of trees and vegetation rose from the ground. Alone, I wandered between the huge rocks, up to the highest point of the park, where I could see a full panoramic view. It was so much bigger than I thought, and that’s when I realised how mad it was, thousands of limestone rocks emerging from the ground from no-where. I took in the view and breathed in the air, which felt must have been the freshest air in all China.

Pink coat, orange hair and blue skies

Pink coat, orange hair and blue skies

Two rock formations, completely natural, take on astonishingly human forms when seen from the right angle. The first looks like a determined mother walking forwards, trailing her reluctant young child behind. The second is called Lonely Wanderer, and looks like a man walking away, shoulders hunched, hands behind his back. I also spotted a rock which looks like one of those optical illusions where you don’t know which side the face is on, but strangely this didn’t have a plaque.

Mother and child

Mother and child


The Lonely Wanderer


That evening was Chinese New Year. I was exhausted because a group of backpackers had turned up at 3am, turning the lights on and making a nice little racket, and as they fell into their snoring slumber I hadn’t been able to get back to sleep. I fell asleep on the bus on the way back from Shi Lin, and was feeling refreshed by the time I got back to the hostel in the middle of the city. I was going to meet my friend for celebrations, but logistically after 7pm we wouldn’t be able to get taxis so we decided to meet the next day. I spent New Years eve on the terrace of my hostel, sipping plum wine with Raqaz and his colleagues, overlooking the city and the fireworks all around, before slipping off to my bed long before midnight.

I spent another day visiting the Yunnan Nationalities Village. This is an outdoor area showcasing the architecture, clothes and culture of each of Yunnan’s minority groups. It was very quiet because of the New Year, which was perfect for me. It was a large area with clusters of houses in the style of each group, with a few people employed to represent each group hanging around inside the houses. Sadly, they looked a bit like charicatures of their minorities, in made-in-china shiny costumes based on their traditional dress. Some would encourage you to buy from their shops, others were taking selfies on their phones with their colleagues, and some were just sitting in groups drinking beer in the shade (it was a slow day, and who’s to say that’s not showcasing their minority culture anyway, I don’t know any better). Some were doing woodcraft, which was more interesting, but still felt like I had paid to gawk at a human zoo.

At one point a loud drum sounded and a group of young people in various costumes came together. Over the microphone, one of them was describing the dances of the youths, which are an important part of social life in many minority groups. That was interesting to watch, especially the courting dances which involved a boy chasing a girl around trying to steal her headdress, whilst the others tried to trip them up with large bamboo sticks.


Courting dance

Another day involved a trip to the Nationalities Museum, which was a more educational version of the Nationalities Village. It was an interesting collection of clothes, artwork and script, starting with the oldest forms of communication where someone would leave an arrangement of leaves or twigs on a stone to pass a particular message on to the next village. The highlight of the museum though, as is often the case, was the gift shop. Instead of the rows and rows of cheapo ‘ethnic’ toys and bracelets and keyrings, this was more like an antique shop. A lady sat in the corner working on her loom, and we wandered around looking at dusty shelves of books and figurines, authentic bags and textiles and articles of clothing for sale. As it was all authentic it was a bit pricey so I didn’t buy anything, and with some strength managed to resist trying it all on.

The evening was spent exploring the local city, which had an interesting Bird and Flower market. In reality you could buy birds and flowers but also jewellery, jade stones, fossils, wooden beaded jewellery and large smoking pipes. More snacks. More souvenirs. Puppies and birds and lizards in cages. I stumbled across a man with a massive dog, beetles and boxes full of tortoises, ranging from 4-10¥ each, that I found it very hard to resist.


A man and his massive dog

And then, all of a sudden, it was time to leave. At 7am the next day I left the hostel and went out into the dark Kunming morning. I stood in the middle of the usually busy road, waving helplessly at the occasional passing taxi, who shook their head at me. So close to New Year, still many taxis were on holiday hours. I was starting to worry that my flight would go without me, even here in China, when a man pulled up asking where I was going. We settled on a price quickly and I hopped in. My sense of risk when it comes to getting in/on vehicles with complete strangers seems to have been dulled slightly, but I arrived at the airport safe and sound and with time to spare. As the plane rose up into the air I was feeling sad about leaving it all behind. A few hours of staring out of the window, trying to trace the mountain peaks far below, a cute little boy ran down the aisle and mischievously started flicking the man next to me’s head. The man didn’t seem to mind. He seemed friendly but didn’t speak any English, but the boy, his nephew, spoke it well. He told me they were from Kunming and his family was visiting friends in Harbin for a week. His innocence and joy as he chatted away was a tonic, and as told him all about how wonderful Harbin was, I didn’t mind coming home as much.


Typical Bai reflective wall at the Linden Centre, Suzhou village

Typical Bai reflective wall at the Linden Centre, Suzhou village

Winter wanderings pt. 2 – A homestay in Fujian

Fujian province

Fujian province

One of my good friends, a 4th year student, invited me to come and visit her hometown. It sounded like fun and a good chance to experience some authentic Chinese family life. I asked her if there were any hostels close by that she could recommend, but this was met with horror. “No, you must stay at my home! We live in a village and my father owns a factory, we have a large home. My family are waiting for you!” After much attempted backing out on my part (mostly to make sure the offer was genuine and not just a polite show of Chinese hospitality that was never intended to be taken up), I felt happy that she meant it.

When I got off the plane from Shanghai, Cindy, along with her brother and sister, were waiting for me in arrivals. They’re biological siblings, not cousins or family friends who are labelled as brother and sister, as usually happens in China. Her brother, who wanted an English name, was christened Charlie. He’s 10 years old and cute as a button. He could tell me his name and his age, but after that he was paralysed by fear or lack of vocabulary, and that’s all I heard from him. Cindy’s sister, Sally, is 12 but looks older than some of my university students. Her English was a little better, as was her Mandarin, so I was able to communicate with her a bit more. They advised me that I had arrived on the perfect day, as it was their mum’s birthday! Feeling embarrassed, I whipped out my phrasebook for a speed lesson in how to express birthday greetings in Chinese before I got in the car, which seemed to go down well.

DSCF3684Cindy lives just outside a small city called Jinjiang, in Fujian province. We stopped along the way for some noodles (traditional ‘welcome’ food), then made our way to her village. The village wasn’t quite the Emmerdale hamlet I was expecting. Once upon a time it had been a farming community, just like most places before the opening up in the ’80’s. Not a large industrial farmland, but rather a small community with communal fields where people would grow their own fruit and vegetables to sell at market or prepare for the family. Today, the villages have grown and merged together so an untrained eye can’t tell where one ends and another begins, although in the minds of the locals there are clear borders. Along the dusty roads are houses, small factories and shops, and every now and again you could see the inside of someone’s half torn-down home, compulsory purchases to make way for factories. Wedged between buildings are open fields where children pick from the rows of strawberries and sugar canes. Mopeds, cars and bicycles whip along the narrow, elevated roads, careful to avoid the edge and thus a drop into the irrigation ditches either side.

We made it along the narrow winding roads, between high walls and fences, to Cindy’s house. At 3 storeys, by Chinese standards it was huge. The ground floor consisted of a wide, dark central lobby area, with a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and office coming off it. Against one wall in the lobby was a huge Buddhist shrine, with a table full of offerings of fruits, sweets and incense. Just like traditional Chinese houses with a central outdoor courtyard area, this central room wasn’t the heart of the home, not a place to congregate, but rather a perfunctory connecting space that you have to pass through to go from one room to another. Her grandparents live in the downstairs bedroom, and cook for the family in their kitchen. Cindy’s father is the oldest son, so it’s custom that his parents live with him. Up the sweeping marble staircase we came to the first floor. This opened up into a lobby which looked more liveable – it had a 3 piece suite (rock solid of course) and a TV, with a smaller Buddhist shrine on one wall. However, no-one ever sat in here. Cindy showed me to her bedroom, with a double bed and double mattress on the floor, which she usually shares with her brother and sister when she’s at home from university. She told me to put my bag down anywhere I liked – Charlie had been sent to sleep with the grandparents during my visit, so I could choose the big bed or the small one. I must confess I was a bit surprised that we would all be in such close proximity during my stay, but this was the ultimate sign of hospitality and I didn’t want to be rude so I plonked my bag down. We went up to the second floor, which featured a Buddhist shrine, a Mahjong table, and empty guest bedrooms and bathrooms. This floor was barely used but we went up to play Mahjong a few times. I hinted at having one of the guest rooms, admiring how comfortable they looked, and won’t I be getting in the way in your room? But to no avail. I was to be a full member of the family during my stay


Telling them that it looked like the prized English delicacy Yorkshire Pudding helped

That evening, after an unsuccessful cake making attempt that brought great shame upon my cooking skills (I’m definitely blaming the lack of scales for the flat buttery mess that everyone politely ate), we went out for a meal for Cindy’s mum’s birthday. We stopped along the way to pick up various cousins, aunts, uncles and family friends, until the 7 seater was carrying at least double its legal capacity, and made our way to the seafood restaurant. We ate crab, octopus, and sea snails, all so fresh they had been swimming in tanks at the front of the restaurant when we walked in, as well as many other local delicacies. My main take away from Fujian is the amazing food, as you will see. Key features of Fujian cuisine are the sweet taste, fresh seafood and animal innards, all cooked simply but really well. If you’re a bit squeamish about your food then you’re going to go hungry in Fujian. The banquet involved much communal toasting, drinking and urges to “eat more!” The local dialect is Minnanhua, as opposed to Putonghua (Mandarin), so I didn’t have a clue what was going on most of the time. They would speak to me in Mandarin, and I would reply, but even then I struggled as their accents were so strong and the pronunciation of many sounds is very different to in the north. Mostly I chatted to Cindy and her cousins, and drank the wine whenever anyone raised a glass.

DSCF3593Our days mostly revolved around eating. In the morning, we’d go downstairs and sit on footstools around the small table in the kitchen. Cindy’s grandma cooked for the family every morning; a big pan of rice with sweet potato as the staple. We’d fill a bowl each and take it to the table, where, in the middle, were several freshly prepared dishes – fish, eggs, pork, dough balls, broccoli and veg. We’d eat from our bowl, adding a bit of this and a bit of that with every mouthful until our bowls were empty. When we finished, we covered the dishes with a big fly-cover and left it for the next round of breakfasters. We’d then head out. The first day, we went into Quanzhou, a neighbouring city. Here, we walked around a Buddhist temple, with walls of interesting stonework depicting the evils of humans unto nature, and seemingly urging us all to be vegetarian. Outside the temple, we walked down the busy central street – a road of traditional buildings with shops spilling out onto the road, mostly selling shoes and children’s clothes. The factories in Cindy’s village all make shoes, and those in the neighbouring area make children’s clothes. Pedestrians, mopeds and buses fought for space on the narrow, busy road. We stopped at a cafe and I was treated to a local delicacy of some type of worm in a clear, salty jelly. They were very chewy and didn’t have much flavour, and luckily no face, so I added a bit of soy sauce and garlic and got stuck in.


After, we wanted to get to a mosque, and so we piled into two bicycle rickshaws at the corner of a busy intersection. It’s one thing watching the honking, squeaking and swerving of Chinese traffic from the sidelines, but it’s another to be perched on a rickety bench being whipped right through the middle of it. Like most road users, our driver had scant regard for anyone else as he ducked and darted between traffic at a million miles an hour. I relaxed into it after a while, thinking that if I die then I die, no point worrying about it. We made it to the mosque unscathed and without reappearance of the worms. This mosque has been around since 1009AD, and according to the plaque, is the #1 temple in China. In a country of about a trillion temples, that’s not a bad accolade. Once upon a time Quanzhou was the maritime start of the Silk Road, with ships arriving in the port from around the world. Many of the traders were Muslims from the middle east, and so the religion quickly spread in the area. Today, most of the old mosque is worn down walls, but through a gap in one wall you come to the newly built mosque that’s used today. As we were leaving, we noticed a few Muslim men arriving. At the front of the mosque, a man put his hands to his mouth and began the call to prayer; a hypnotising song that didn’t reach much beyond the borders of the temple, but was an important part of the routine. Usually the one asking the questions, it was nice for me to be able to explain this to the group, who thought he was just clearing his throat.


Delicious black rice zhongzi

Later that evening we wandered down through a fish market, stopping for snacks like salty zhongzi, triangles of rice wrapped in banana leaf, meatball soup and sugarcane juice. Every place we went to, every shop and cafe and restaurant, had a Buddhist shrine. There was a converted public toilet, locked up, with a Buddha in the window and rows of incense burning on the ledge outside. Even the flashy Toyota dealership, when we went to collect her cousin’s new car, had a shrine. It was becoming apparent that Buddhism was alive and well in Fujian. Every village has numerous temples, some to worship Buddha, but many of them were ancestral temples. During key festivals, family members come to their ancestral temple, make offerings of food, and pray. When a person is dying, they should be brought to the temple so that their final breathe is taken within its walls, so that they can be with their ancestors in the afterlife.

Charlie at the Toyota garage

Charlie at the Toyota garage

Cindy has a part time job in a local English school, so on the second day we went into the city. There are no buses in her village, and the most common method of public transport is to hop on the back of someone’s moped. I clung on for dear life for the 15 minute journey, kicking myself for not having googled which way to lean when going round corners and worrying that my ignorance was going to end in our deaths, or at least scraped knees. No such malady occurred though, and we arrived safely but with my breakfast threatening to reappear. Cindy said that my driver had gone a little fast, something I had suspected by the fact that I arrived at the school a good 3 minutes before she did. Whilst she was teaching, I met up with Emerald, the girl who showed me around Xi’an, and we went to a building site in the middle of the city. They had knocked down most of the traditional houses in this site, but kept a few of the prettier or more robust ones. In the rubble of the old houses they were rebuilding old-looking houses, with the plan to make the area an ‘old town’ tourist trap – something which I came to experience again later in my trip. We were able to wander around and have a poke around inside some of the old houses, overgrown with shrubs and grass, the furnishings removed and empty bottles lying around. It was interesting to see the layout of a traditional village, the one-storey houses with the detailed wooden beams under the guttering of all the houses. Most were painted panels, but the wealthier houses had scenes created from 3-dimensional wooden sculptures, like a puppet show running around the top of the house. One end of the old town was already open to the public, and were filled with sweet shops and tea shops.


Later, we met Cindy for lunch. We walked through the hot, busy city, past markets and restaurants, past a table with a severed goat’s head and three limbs chained to it (I was too horrified to take a picture), to a restaurant on one corner, with apparently the best noodles in Fujian. Like all the best restaurants in China, it was open front, cheap and dimly lit, with scant regard for hygiene reguations. In the front was a table with all of the various ingredients bowled up, half protected from the beating sun by an umbrella, and we selected three or four things to go into our noodles. Cindy wanted to show me the local flavour, and so I ended up with fried chicken, pig’s intestines and chicken’s heart. The intestines were a little grim, tasting pretty much as you’d expect. I was hesitant but saw that my friends clearly weren’t dying, so I ate it. Taken as a whole, the noodles were delicious, and by the end of my stay I was eating pig’s intestines left, right and centre, so often was it served.

On the third day, in the morning as we were eating breakfast, Cindy’s grandma showed us what she was cooking – Jinjiang sausage. We had eaten this on the first night and it was delicious, so I wanted to watch how to make it. She was making it to take as an offering to the ancestral shrine the next day. Cindy’s mum had bought some sausage from the shop, and grandma had decided she could go one better and make it from scratch. With a mischevious glint in her eye she showed us evidence of her mum’s lack of domesticity – the shop-bought offerings, still in their plastic bag. I was amused, but thought how difficult it must be for so many wives to have to live with and compete with their mother-in-laws, on everything from cooking to raising their children.

Cindy and I, on the rare occasion we rode in a car

Cindy and I, on the rare occasion we rode in a car

Later that day, we went with Cindy’s cousins (to this day I have no idea how they’re actually related, or even if they are) to Xiamen. Xiamen is right on the sea, and is the go-to place in Fujian for the laid-back atmosphere. Again, our day revolved around food, making pit stops at various restaurants and cafes to sample local delicacies. In the afternoon, we took a boat ride over to one of the Kinmen Islands, across the bay from Xiamen. As we were waiting for the boat, we read on the news about the flight from Taiwan that morning, heading for the Kinmen Islands, that had crashed into the river. Being so close to the incident was a bit sobering, but we didn’t meet anyone who had been personally affected. The island we went to attracted mainly tourists, and was a nest of hotels, cafes and souvenir shops. The sky was overcast but we had a nice day eating food and smelling the sea air.

This day happened to be a festival in Jinjiang. Particularly in the south of China, where traditional ways of life are still preserved, there is a festival somewhere pretty much every day of the calendar. The festival today was for employers to thank their employees. We piled into the downstairs room of Cindy’s father’s factory (his partner was the father of one of the cousins, which explained the link). We arrived mid-way through the celebrations, and so the employees had already eaten and were onto the cigarettes and toasting. We tucked into the food that was left for us, and sipped on the wine. People kept dropping in; leaders of local organisations, the local governor, high-ranking people that showed that Cindy’s dad was an important man. The drink was flowing and the volume got louder and louder. The employees would come up to me, one after another, and raise their glass to drink with me, welcoming me to Jinjiang and imploring me to drain my glass with them. This I did once or twice, but after a while Cindy’s chivalrous cousin told them that I’m just a girl and can’t be expected to drink so much… Everyone was rather merry by this point, and one employee who we’d consider to be the weird uncle at a party, kept slurring nonsense at the kids and cousins, slowly chasing Charlie around the room for a deep and meaningful as this poor 10 year old backed away, hands behind his back feeling for an escape route between chairs and drunk men. Eventually we piled into the cousin’s car and slammed the door in his face in fits of laughter and went home to play Mahjong.

Cindy's family ancestral temple

Cindy’s family ancestral temple

My flight was at midday the next day, and Cindy wanted to showcase some of the local cuisine. So we skipped grandma’s breakfast and headed out around the village. We passed old rickety barn style houses, a 1960’s mansion that belonged to her late uncle, and every type of house in between as we walked through alleys and footpaths between the buildings. We soon came across an old lady selling fried rice cakes on the street. It turned out to be Cindy’s great-aunt, and we were plied with free rice cakes and sent on our way. We passed through 4 villages in total, stopping for zhongzi, dough sticks, and finally rice noodles at the best place in town. The shop was just a street corner with a corrugated metal roof balancing on a wall, but the food was delicious. The owner asked me if I’d help him to spread his business to the UK, and I said I’d be delighted to.

We got back to Cindy’s house, stuffed, at 11am, where Cindy’s mum had taken over grandma’s kitchen to prepare me a special leaving lunch. This might have had something to do with the sausage incident the day before, and despite being absolutely stuffed, refusing was not an option. We sat down to salted fish, pig intestines stuffed with rice and sprinkled with sugar (not as bad as it sounds), king prawns, Jinjiang sausage, pork, scrambled balut (fertilised, half-grown eggs – these weren’t too far gone so just tasted like meaty scrambled egg), and three types of vegetable dishes. Time was pushing onwards and I was vaguely think that I had a flight to catch, but I was told not to worry and to keep eating. No-one else seemed to be in a rush and I guessed they knew more about the efficiency of Quanzhou International Airport than I did, so I ate a bit more. Finally, cousin arrived to take me to the airport, and so I grabbed my bag which was waiting at the bottom of the stairs. It felt much heavier but I put that down to the 5kg of food in my stomach. Grandma pressed a red carrier bag into my hand filled with Ferrero Rocher, two jars of meat floss, and three packets of local speciality beef jerky. I tried and tried to refuse but again, to actually refuse would be rude, and so I hooked the bag on my arm, saddled up and made for the door. As I was leaving, Cindy’s mum took my hand and put a beautiful bracelet on my wrist, one that matches Cindy’s and Sally’s. This just sums up the warmth and hospitality they showed me throughout; even though we could barely understand each other, they had been so welcoming and I knew that my gift of Swedish biscuits and English tea would never match the kindness they’d shown me. I was more choked still when I arrived in my hostel in Kunming later that day, unpacking my rucksack to reveal that grandma had surreptitiously stuffed it with rice cakes, two foot-long sugar canes, biscuits, more beef jerky and aloe vera drinks when I wasn’t looking.


Winter wanderings pt. 1 – Nanjing & Shanghai (featuring the best wedding photograph ever taken)


A week on and the novelty of catching out of the corner of my eye the pearly white flash of natural skin where my watch graced my wrist in the baking south China sun still hasn’t worn off. Once upon a time this would have been an object of shame; now, a relic of a month of exotic climes, of exploration, food and fresh air.

map.china-nanjingIt all began many months ago, when two of my best friends announced they were leaving Harbin. Without going into detail the mild to moderate gutwrenching devastation that ensued, we agreed that our final goodbye would be a little jaunt to a couple of cities in the south. We settled on Nanjing and Shanghai, for their various attractions and also because we have friends from Harbin in both places, so it was a good chance to meet up with old faces. Thomas, Katie, Rachel and I met with a Chinese friend first in Nanjing. The hostel mostly had senior school students who had come to Nanjing to take university entrance exams. There’s a good chance this was their maiden voyage away from the clutches of their parents or grandparents, and let me tell you they were making the most of it. You’ve never seen such fierce card gaming. One evening we were sat around a table and one of them asked if we could show him how to play Uno. We were in. Feeling a bit like teachers on a school trip whilst trying to fend off puppy dog eyes from the one who’d had too much beer, trying to wordlessly convince the 18 year old European student that no, we didn’t all fancy him, and generally trying to find the energy of our youth to stay awake past 10pm after busy days sightseeing, we spent our evenings playing cards.

One evening, Rachel, Katie and I decided to go and find a massage parlour. Paying for a massage in China is entirely normal and there are parlours on every street offering a range of services. Some are sketchy, most are legit, and then there are the ones where you just have no idea what’s going on. We ended up at the latter. It was an impulse decision, born from the aches of a long day of walking, and it was about 8pm when we ventured forth into the night. The place our hostel recommended was closed. We asked at a hotel; they pointed us to another down the road. Trying to match the neon characters on shop fronts to the google translated word for ‘massage’, on we trudged. We asked at another hostel. Kept walking. Eventually we found a tiny nail salon wedged between rows of mysterious shops. The owner (laoban) wedged us down into stained red recliner chairs and her assistant brandished beakers of hot water at us. There was no back room; straight off the street you walk into walls lined with shelves of neon nail varnish, UV lights, posters advertising the mathematical calculations to determine the best eyebrows for your face shape. Judging by the posters they also offered minor cosmetic procedures. After a conversation that largely relied on us miming the giving and receiving of back massages, she understood what we wanted, and conceded that although she offered nearly every service taught on a Hair and Beauty BTEC, she simply didn’t have the room to whack out a trestle table and start massaging us. Luckily, she knew of a massage parlour just across the road. She called the laoban, had a good old chat and then told us to wait.

Shortly after, along came a little man, fag hanging out of his mouth, telling us to follow him. The lady waved us goodbye and off we went into the night. Having already been on a wild goose chase this evening, us three girls wondered if the final chapter of the night would see us being sold into some sort of ring. The risk was low and we really were wanting that massage, so we agreed to stick together. Up the street he whisked us and into another shop. As well as the runner, he turned out to be the chief masseuse as well as a chiropractor. His style of massage was brisk and not relaxing but definitely rooted in Chinese medicine. As we left, with the frankness of a doctor but in the close atmosphere where we were both aware he’d spent the last hour with his hands all over my entire frame, he indicated that I needed to shrink certain key areas (my Chinese isn’t great but you can’t miss the meaning of a man who’s pointing directly at your thighs and buttocks). So that was fun.

DSCF3373Other points of interest in Nanjing were the usual historical Chinese pit stops; temples and rivers and museums. But these were particularly interesting. If you’re thinking that Nanjing sounds a bit like Nanking, you’re right. And you know anything about China-Japan relations, you might be wondering if this is the place where the Nanking Massacre of 1937-38 (otherwise known as the Rape of Nanking). During this time, Japanese military invaded Nanking, the then-capital, and spent six weeks indiscriminately raping, looting and murdering. The death toll during these 6 weeks ranges from 40,000 to 300,000, depending on who you ask, in one city. It’s impossible to gain an objective idea of what happened, and the openly anti-Japanese, victim rhetoric is at times overwhelming, but even so, the museum was really interesting and very saddening. It was beautifully constructed, reverent and respectful and yet it packed an almighty punch. Its purpose is at once to memorialise the victims and also to ensure no-one forgets how evil took root for those few weeks. The dark rooms that we moved through had a quietening quality, and there was so much information, so many facts and so many horrifying images that, hours later, as we emerged into the fading sun, we were all a bit unsure of what to say.

220px-1927_Chiang_Soong_wedding_photo1We spent another day wandering around a hill called Purple Mountain (anything bigger than Wepre hill is a mountain, and anything that once displayed pretty coloured cloud formations after a storm is immediately christened as such). We walked alongside the road for a bit before coming to the palace of Soong May-Ling, the wife of Chiang Kai-Shek (disgraced president of China 1928-31). Soong was an intelligent, beautiful, artistic, articulate woman who was publicly very passionate about Chinese politics. Her palace, a comfortable 20 minute ride from the city centre (and her husband) is stylish, in a classy combination of 1920’s deco and modern Chinese style. In a similar vein, she and her husband had possibly the best wedding photograph ever taken.

On the other side of the hill was the mausoleum of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, first emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD). It is a beautiful tomb, grand and vast, guarded by pairs of 10ft stone animals. Unlike many tombs and historical sights, this was different. The paintwork wasn’t freshly touched up last week. Grass had grown between the flags on the ground, crumbled walls had been respectfully removed rather than repaired with obvious cheap imitation stone, blossom orchards lined the sweeping pathways and the scent perfumed the air. Slowly this place is being reclaimed by the land, and it felt refreshing, that this tomb might one day fade away with its occupant.

IMG-20150227-WA0004  DSCF3417

After several other attractions, including in-city temples and palaces, a boat ride along the canal, and a visit to the largest subway station in Asia (it took about an hour to get out, by which time the novelty had somewhat worn off) our time in this lovely city had come to an end. After 5 days in Nanjing, we hopped on a snazzy fast train to Shanghai, and were there in 90 minutes.

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The first night in Shanghai was like something out of a parental preparation course, where they purposely immerse you in conditions that make you sleep deprived and thoroughly pissed off. After the luxury of a 3 person room in Nanjing, the hiked up rates of Shanghai meant we had to go for the budget 8 bed dorm. Of course it’s true that when you pay budget, you expect to be sharing with other people who are paying budget. No problem. And travellers are usually good at following the unwritten code of the traveller I.e. do onto others as you would have done onto you. All was well at bedtime. We cleaned our teeth and got into bed and said our goodnights. Happy campers. But, at some time in the deepest darkest depths of night, somewhere between the time that witches roam the streets for children to eat and bats start fluttering from trees, we were awoken by the most almighty snoring you have ever heard. The man below me slept like a newborn babe through the choking, gasping and spluttering that his tracheal organs echoed around the room. He sounded like he had sleep apnoea mixed with a general subconscious hatred of mankind. In the darkness I was wide awake running through my St John’s Ambulance training just in case that in breathe never came. After a good 20 minutes, Rachel tried an assortment of methods to disturb him, in the hope he’d roll over and end the madness, but nothing worked. Eventually the sun rose. We bought cotton balls which we twisted up and stuffed in our ears the following night.

DSCF3556When in Shanghai, you have to visit the Bund. I didn’t really have any idea of what the Bund was before I went to Shanghai, and now I’m still not entirely sure. As the city is close to the coast, there is a big river running through the city. The Bund seems to be a stretch of road and pedestrian pathway alongside the river. We could have been strolling along the Thames in London. Running along the old side are a string of grand old British style buildings, relics from the foreign influence of when Shanghai was a world trading port. Across the river is a cluster of sci-fi looking buildings, emerging from the earth. Shanghai’s financial district. Amongst them is the Shanghai World Financial Centre, one of the world’s tallest skyscrapers at 101 floors. That night, up an amusingly sci-fi lift which had the feel of a 1960’s Doctor Who time machine, with flashing lights and electro music, we arrived at the observation deck on the 100th floor. We had tried to visit the night before, but a freakish turn in the weather resulting in unexpected snow and rain meant that the top of the building was shrouded in clouds. The second night, the visibility, in the city where according to some sources they have to project a video of the setting sun onto a big screen because you can’t DSCF3552actually see the real thing through the smog, was perfect. Shanghai was as smoggy as any other city, but really nothing like they’d have you believe. The view from the 100th floor – the buildings and neon lights and rows of lights and roads and shops and apartments and suburbs – went on and on and dropped off into the distance. You had the exciting opportunity to look down through the glass floor if you chose to. I loved looking but walking on it feels a bit weird. Think Blackpool Tower and add a bit. It was spectacular. I had one of those Wow I’m in Shanghai. What’s going on with my life? moments.

IMG-20150227-WA0001Another night we met up with a friend who used to live in Harbin, and went to Mr. X’s Puzzle House. We were locked in a room and given an hour to solve the clues to make our escape. The premise of our room was that we were prisoners, divided into two cells. We divided into girls and boys. By torchlight we had to shout to eachother, describing our room, the paintings on the walls, objects dotted about, anything that might lead to cracking the code. By the end of the hour we’d opened the secret door and cracked our way into the ‘security guard’ watchroom, but didn’t make it out completely and had to do the walk of shame the way we came in, a young assistant from the front desk entering the code into the electric keypad to liberate us.

There is an old French quarter close to the hostel we stayed at. It’s mostly old apartment blocks and shops, but a small section has been renovated to resemble a maze of traditional hutongs filled with souvenirs, tea shops, bars and snacks. The heavens opened on the day we visited, so we ran up and down the alleys, taking refuge every now and again. We found a really nice tea shop in one corner, filled with Chinese minority paintings and crafts. The lady gave us some tea, and helped us to choose from a selection of overpriced mini teas. She put them in little silky drawstring bags though, so on balance we were happy. Other highlights include eating perhaps the most delicious meal in China up until that point, at a restaurant called Shanghai Grandmother. It’s mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook, which is quite an accolade considering there are restaurants literally every way you turn on every street in China, and it was worthy. Braised pork, steamed spring rolls, plus other dishes that I can’t remember exactly through the haze of blissful contentment that has just shrouded me in my memories. It was divine. Also, they had cans of Diet Coke, which was just the cherry on the cake.DSCF3507

Finally, we were keen for a positive massage experience, so we found a massage place of slightly higher standing than our previous destination. This one is staffed by visually impaired masseuses. I went for a foot massage, one of the best hours of my life. I knew my guy was blind because he immersed a spare stool directly into my herbal foot bath thinking it was the storage rack, and then as he massaged my feet he didn’t even blink at the big fat buddha tattoed on the front. This has been something of an inconvenience because a) I’m not 18 any more, b) China is a very Buddhist country, and c) tattoos, especially in the eyes of a school of its teachers, are still considered taboo. So it was nice to air my feet in public for the first time in this country.

Both Nanjing and Shanghai left a me with a really good impression. Shanghai especially, rather than the flashy commercial tackiness I was expecting, it just felt really impressive. It was classy. Looking up at the skyline was grand and imposing and ambitious. But on the ground it was classy, friendly and felt local. People slate it for feeling like a Western city, but maybe that’s why I liked it so much. If you only visit Shanghai you’ve definitely not been to China, but if you go to China and don’t visit Shanghai, you’ve not really been to China either.

There ends the tale of the first part of my trip. After 5 days in Nanjing and 4 in Shanghai, we went our separate ways and I waved goodbye to Rachel and Katie for the foreseeable future.

Xi’an: The Song of Everlasting Sorrow

10882176_10154935904655405_3960091212494479929_nChristmas was wonderful. Eve began with some ferocious mince-pie making, which turned into a bit of a pastry disaster but everyone was very polite about it. In the evening I joined the American teachers from across the city for a Mexican feast and an evening time midnight mass. The next day, I opened the presents that had been patiently waiting under the tree from my mum, and was overjoyed with the Christmas jumper inside. I wore it all day and after explaining what Christmas crackers, and thus Christmas paper hats, are, everyone could join in the delight of my festive knitwear as we went for burgers the size of human faces. It was a lovely day, and I felt super lucky to be sharing it with two of my best friends in China, who in a few weeks will be leaving me forever 😦 I know that this is the nature of the beast, but I don’t know why we can’t just live in a world of unicorns and candyfloss.

Quickly after Christmas I took flight and landed in Xi’an, most famous in the West as the home of the Terracotta Warriors. A small tea spillage on my return rendered my keyboard useless for a few days, and I was devastated not only to have to shell out for another one (with keys in the wrong place) but also because half a cup of my prized nectar Yorkshire Tea had gone to waste.

I’ve travelled far but not wide. I came here because I wanted to see things. But even on the other side of the planet we have to work for our keep and it’s easy to be drawn into the mundane details of routine and daily life. Travelling necessitates earning some money, and it’s in my nature to make an effort when someone is paying me money, and so even though teaching truthfully wasn’t the main pull for me, I still like to work hard and give all I can to what is actually a very demanding job. The demands of the job coupled with government-scheduled holiday times sadly mean that I’ve not actually seen much of China. I can boast Wuhan – a rapidly developing city; Beijing; Shenyang – good for a day trip to IKEA amongst I’m sure a wealth of other attractions; Shanghai domestic terminal – a depressing rest stop at the back end of a 3 leg journey mostly spent weeping at the thought of leaving home all over again. This winter, my last in China for now, I want to spend seeing some more of this fascinating country.

China is undergoing the biggest migration in human history, as countryfolk leave their families to find factory and construction work in the cities. Add to this the fact that Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) is the most important and most family orientated holiday in the calendar, and the fact that vacation times are government-scheduled, and what we’re left with is a miasma of planes, trains and automobiles packed to the brim with tens of millions of students, workers and families trying to cross thousands of miles to get home for the same precious few days. It’s estimated that around 3.6 billions trips are made by Chinese migrants during this time. As my holiday coincides with that of every other person in China, it’s difficult to avoid this entirely unless you’re happy to live in Harbin, cold and alone, and cold, and quite alone, for the entire winter. But with a spare week between Christmas and my exams, I decided to jet off to Xi’an (pronounced She-an) for a few days. One of my students here in Harbin has an old classmate who studies in Xi’an who’s keen to improve her English. A more perfect combination you couldn’t imagine. I suggested we meet in Starbucks, have a chat and maybe I can pick up some insider tips for how to navigate this ancient city. She went 10 better and created a detailed itinerary and came with me almost everywhere! When I was alone I wandered around the maze of alleys and stalls in the Muslim Quarter, an old section of the city tucked away behind shopping malls, the walls adorned with Chinese architecture and Arabic script. This area is famed for its food – Muslim food can always be relied upon to be a safe choice in China, and here is was also the tastiest.

I arrived at my hostel at about midnight, thinking nothing of the empty hallways and deserted common rooms. Two of the 8 beds in my dorm were clearly occupied by boys, judging by the hastily abandoned quilts and the pairs of boxing shorts airing out on hangers around the room. They weren’t in, which made me think that a) they were party animals, or b) they’d been kidnapped. I didn’t dwell though, and went to bed thinking I’d meet them in the morning. I’m aware that I talk in my sleep, and I always seem to to the falling-off-a-cliff hypnagogig sleep jolt whenever there are other people in the room, and if I stop and think about it, it’s a bit weird. But I’m over it now – whilst my temporary cohabitors are getting freaked out, I’m having a nice dream about sailboats or characters from Wind in the Willows. The next morning I awoke and left early, walking the couple of miles to the centre of the city. Xi’an is a multi-ethnic city, with tourists from abroad and all around China flocking to drink up its history and take selfies infront of warriors. It was home to ten of China’s ancient dynasties from the Qin dynasty in 221BC up to the end of the Tang dynasty in 690AD. It was home to China’s only female Emperess, Wu Ze Tian, the Terracotta Warriors and the largest in-tact city-walls in the world. It’s a city that lends itself to tourists well in that the entire thing is made of perpendicular lines. When locals give directions, they’ll tell you to go “north for 20m, then west, west again, north, then east.” It makes for a legible tourist map if nothing else, and as most things including my hostel were within the city walls, a nice feeling that one can’t walk too far in the wrong direction without hitting a brick wall.

I met my guide and we hit the Muslim Quarter first. Through the maze of streets, the sounds sizzling onions, hawkers bargaining, food vendors squeezing pomegranates and the repetitive thwack of mallet on barrel as they go about some traditional process that requires dough and a manly show of strength thrum through the air. This is street food at its best; not just overpriced weird stuff on sticks for the benefit of tourists, but authentic Northwestern cuisine that’s actually eaten by the locals every day. One Shaanxi (the province that Xi’an is in) delicacy that has to be tried is Yang Rou Pao Mo (steamed bread soaked in lamb stew). The process begins when you pay and are handed a bowl with two dense, undercooked naan breads. You should use your fingertips to finely tear apart the bread, until you have a bowl of breadcrumbs, each no bigger a rice crispie. You then return this to the kitchen, where it’s filled with lamb broth, rice noodles and lamb. Once I overcame my initial feeling that it looked like something scraped up from the street after the night before, it was actually delicious. Although many people use a machine to tear the bread these days, some will still sit for hours gossiping with friends as they tear bread for their families’ dinners. After half of the bowl I was stuffed (hao chi), but this didn’t stop us from sampling half a dozen other bits and pieces. I came back here a few times during the week, just to wander the streets and take in the atmosphere.

On New Years Eve during wander around the Muslim Quarter I came across a little folk house, tucked away between an unassuming little gap between two little restaurants. It opened up into a big courtyard, and turns out it was the city home of someone famous. I wasn’t very interested in the house, but in a small shabby building at the back (a traditional Chinese house/palace was always a series of outhouses that you’d have to run between, presumably hoping not to drop the towel in between) an old man with no teeth was perched on a spindly chair drinking from a thermos flask. He beckoned me in, calling a few others inside too. He was a shadow puppet master, and he looked delighted to have a small audience. After demonstrating his skills with some traditional instruments, he darted behind a white screen and flicked a light. Suddenly we were in darkness, and the battle cries of Journey to the West echo around the room and his puppets danced with perfect precision. I don’t know the story and I couldn’t understand the heavily accented Chinese, but the music and the craft and the old man’s warm passion in this cold little building made it an unforgettable little surprise.

Shadow puppet theatre started up over 2000 years ago, when Emperor Wu’s favourite concubine died. So heartbroken was the Emperor that he locked himself away in his room and wallowed, letting his empire fall to ruins. The top minister (a eunuch, standard) saw his master’s sorrow. He saw some children making shadows from the light of the sun, and this gave him an idea. From paper thin cow’s skin he created the moving silhouette of the Emperor’s beloved, painting in every details to form the beauty his master so longed for. He invited Emperor Wu to sit before the setting sun and as he watched his beloved come to life once more, the life came back into his eyes. He restored his country, and since then shadow puppets have been an important part of entertainment, oral tradition and culture of the Northwest.

New Years Eve was nice. I sat in one of the common rooms half reading my book and waiting to hear signs of life that I could ambush, and at around 11, I heard voices coming from the dimly lit restaurant. I went in, bought a Bailey’s, leaned against the bar breathing smoke circles from between rouged lips (it seemed right to add an element of 1940’s hardboiled noir to the scene) and surveyed the room. Four distinctly traveller looking people awkwardly sat around a laminated top table, all on their phones but one who was eagerly felt-tipping away on a piece of paper. On the other side was a middle aged woman with a younger man and woman. Running the risk of interrupting an introductory menage-et-trois, I sidled over and asked if I could join them. Happily it was no such arrangement, but rather mother, daughter and daughter’s boyfriend. The mum had decided to do something out of her comfort zone for her 60th birthday, and the other two looked a bit bohemian so they’d come for the ride. They welcomed me and told me their stories, everything lubricated with gin and merriment as the clock inched towards midnight. The others moved over to our table and at 12.00am we linked up and sang Auld Lang Syne (mostly me, the mother & daughter). Turns out they don’t sing it in Spain, Germany or Australia. In Spain they have another important tradition. At 11.55pm, a Spanish guy practically fell into the room clutching three small punnets, exclaiming “Encontrado uvas!!” (I found grapes!!). The Spanish were graceful and allowed us to sing first at midnight, but as soon we unlinked they were youtubing a video of a clock striking twelve. They sat on the edge of their seats, staring at the screen. At every chime, in popped a grape. Chime. Grape in. Chew. Swallow. Chime. Grape in. Chew Swallow. Chime. Grape in. Chew. Swallow. This goes on for 12 seconds, and by the end, eyes were popping, faces turning blue, I was trying hard to unfog the instructions I’d received back in my Emergency First Aid course about how to stop a Spaniard from choking at midnight. But all was fine; this is an annual tradition and so they were well practiced and recovered quickly. I was happy to have found some good company to see in the New Year, and happier still that for the first time in at least a decade, I’d been able to do so in the same building as my bed.

The next and final day was a trip to see the Terracotta Warriors. I was supposed to meet Emerald at the bus stop near one set of City Wall gates, but with it being quite a large wall, and me not being able to read much Chinese, I walked to the wrong gate. To head to a more southern gate, I took a path that ran alongside the Wall, with a small river running between the two. Getting the gate wrong was a stroke of fortune, because I spent 20 minutes walking through the prettiest, most serene Chinese gardens I’ve ever seen. The dawn was crisp and fresh, and I weaved my way along the footpath, between rockeries and flower beds and tall bamboo hedges and the river. On a raised path, some old men were practicing their Tai Chi to the sounds of traditional Chinese music. Further along, a woman was slowly pacing up and down, her small lungs belting out an indecipherable song that trickled down into my ears. Further still, groups of old people pruning their gardens, meeting with friends and getting in their morning exercise. The effect of the Shaanxi government’s paying to enhance the Wall’s surrounding area into a traditional bite of China has worked; instead of the often garish and indulgent replicas installed to attract tourists, this is an authentic, working little oasis in the shadow of the imposing wall. Sorry, no pictures, it felt too obtrusive and touristy and my hands were chilly.

There isn’t much to say about the Terracotta Warriors that you don’t already know. I’m pleased I went, in that I can say I went, but if you’ve seen a few pictures of the warriors on the internet you’ve pretty much seen them. We got to the huge bus station and I swear I’ve never been in such a huge crowd of people. We found one of the many queues for the Warriors, and got to the back. At this point I noticed that the girl with her hood up had been stood by me for over 15 minutes, keeping within a metre of me at all times, brazenly holding my eye contact when I looked at her. Halfway up the long three-deep queue, with her standing to my left, I was feeling really uncomfortable and a bit worried I was about to be mugged or stabbed. I clutched my bag to my chest, hoping to prevent both mugging and stabbing, and I moved over to the other side of the queue, away from her. Two minutes later, she’d shuffled all the way round the back and was right beside me again. It was like something out of a horror film. If I should have been flattered that I must have looked to be the best option for lifting gold and jewels that she’d stuck by me for so long, I didn’t feel it. Eventually she gave up and was replaced by the more loveable jade sellers, crooked old ladies who grab you and try to force bracelets over your hands that you then have to buy.

We got on the bus after a while and decided to hop off at Hua Qin, an ancient palace at the foot of Lishan mountain built during the Western Zhou (pronounced Joe) dynasty of 1100-600BC. Today it’s most famous as the setting of the love between Emperor Xuanzong (685-762 AD) and his beloved concubine Yang Gui Fei. During the Tang dynasty, China became incredibly open, trading with countries around the world, art and literature flourishing, and with this shift in mental attitude came the opening up of women’s rights. To this day it was the first and only period that has allowed a female leader. Women came out from behind their men, and it was acknowledged that women have the ability to wield great power. Amongst this comes the rise of the romantic legend, and the love between Emperor Xuanzong and his concubine Yang Gui Fei. So mythologised is she, she’s now one of the iconic ‘Four Beauties of Chinese Legend’. Of his hundreds of wives, Yang Gui Fei was Xuanzong’s greatest love. She was intelligent, witty, feisty, beautiful. One day her sister was brought to the court to become another of the Emperor’s wives. Burning with jealousy, Yang fled the palace and ran back to her father’s house in the country. The Emperor was heartbroken. He sent his men every day to convince her to return, and eventually she cut off her hair and sent it to him – an ancient symbol of marriage – to show she had forgiven him. She returned to the palace, and was treated like a goddess of the heavens. She had a particular penchant for lychees, and so the Emperor commanded a continuous conveyor belt of horses to trek to the south of the country, to the demise of several horses and men, to satisfy his love’s desires. One day, Yang’s brother, who was against the Emperor, planned an act of treason. The Emperor’s army hunted him down and killed him, and demanded that Yang be next. The Emperor was devastated, and the pair fled to the hills. It wasn’t long, however, before the marching of the soldiers was heard through the trees, and Yang knew she had no choice. If the Emperor refused to let the soldiers kill her, he would be seen as weakened, choosing his heart over his country, and worse, he’d lose face (an important concept to Chinese people even today). Yang knew this was no fate for her beloved, and so she tied a rope to a tree and let herself hang. This all happened in and around Xi’an, and the Hua Qin springs are now devoted to telling the the story of The Song of Everlasting Sorrow.

Back onto the bus and we reached the Warriors by mid-afternoon. We took a tour guide who sold herself on her impeccable English, and for a good price she detailed every inch of the place in English to me, and then again in Chinese to Emerald. However, through the cattle gate and it’s clear that she’s rattled off the same speech with little variation three times a day for the last 17 years she’s been a guide here. She goes into robot mode, her English so quick and so many syllables shaved off and in such a thick accent that I haven’t got a clue what she’s saying at least 70% of the time. I nod intently and laugh when her expectant pause tells me I should, then I read the signs when she’s not looking. We were shepherded around the 3 pits, ongoing excavation sites that tickled the Tony Robinson within me a little. None of the warriors were found intact, and so the ones you see have been glued back together and arranged in orderly rows. The magnitude of the project is enormous – it took 40 years to create the warriors part of the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, and there are at least 6000 soldiers (all men – the women were buried closer to hand, inside the tomb with him, many of them still alive) and horses. Over subsequent decades, rival Emperors looted the pits and trashed the place like the naughty punk rockers they were. At some point in time, they ended up buried under mounds of earth and all trace of them vanished until a farmer in 1974 who was just getting on with his day digging a well when his shovel hit down on the greatest treasure chest in the world. The unlikely hero of this story now receives a healthy monthly stipend from the government and spends his day making appearances at the Warrior museum, where huge crowds flock around him to have their photo taken with him and an autograph. The tour guide took us to see him in the feeble hope we’d pay £20 for a signed book and DVD. He looked disinterested, so we left him to his adoring fans.

So that was my trip to Xi’an. I learned at the beginning of the week that I had to give an exam for two of my classes, a bit awkward given I was 2000km away. This has now been done though, and I’m spending my free time beavering away at the new courses for next semester. My next trip will begin on 22nd Jan, where a few of us will head off to Nanjing, which is famous for something but I haven’t had chance to google what that is yet.

I’m sorry no pictures right now. This is in no way related to my raging technophibia, just a red error message in an upload box that I’ll never understand