Saturday, 28 February 2009


stripey Saigon streets

Arriving in Saigon was a slightly strange experience because, although it was evidently an Asian city, the European style of the architecture coupled with the way the super skinny buildings are all painted pastel colours reminded me strongly of Lampeter, the Welsh town where I went to university. The laid back traveller hippy-ish vibe added to the whole effect as well. Perhaps this is why I took to Saigon immediately. I know it has officially been called Ho Chi Minh City since 1975, but I never once heard it referred to as anything other than Saigon when I was there. So that’s what I’ll stick with. It’s easier on the spell check too.

shabby chic a la saigon

My favourite way to get to know a city is by walking round it, so I was glad that central Saigon is compact enough to get around on by foot. Although it did mean that on my way from our hostel to the Reunification Palace and the Saigon Notre Dame Basilica I had to decline the offer of a motorbike taxi on every other street corner. The drivers, although naturally vociferous, were also friendly: my ‘No thanks yous’ were met with smiles and ‘Ok’s, and I was never hounded down the street. I even felt a bit guilty for not taking one, but it was so enjoyable wending my way through the back streets, occasionally happening upon wonderful, shabbily elegant buildings that no-one has yet thought to gentrify.

no wonder my passport stamp says 'socialist republic of vietnam'

The road to the Reunification Palace, lined with trees and communist flags, was more attractive than the Palace itself which is a spectacularly ugly concrete box. There is a wooded park between the Palace and the Basilica, which offered a welcome shady place to pause.

A couple came up to me and asked me to take their photo, and then we fell into conversation. They turned out to be cousins, on holiday in Saigon from Malaysia, and we chatted pleasantly about nothing in particular for a while. Then they asked me to come to a party at their friend’s house, and I kept having to politely decline, without actually coming out and saying ‘No-one but a maniac would wander off to the house of two strangers she just met that could be serial killers.’

saigon notre dame basilica

When I got to the Basilica, they were starting a service so I couldn’t go inside. Instead, I peered in through the grate and then started on my way back. This involved crossing what seemed to be the main road in the city by foot, without the aid of pedestrian crossings, via the grandest roundabout I’ve ever seen. I got stranded for five minutes on it, before bolding taking my life in my hands and dodging the buses and scooters to get to the other side.

roundabouts are taken seriously here

I tried my first Vietnamese curry that night, which seemed (unsurprisingly) to be quite similar to Thai, but less spicy. There were shoot type things in it (lemongrass perhaps? I’m a bit fuzzy on south-east Asian cuisine) that I chewed on once and then spat out in horror. The rest of it was delicious though, and it came with a free happy hour starter of garlic bread. Weird combination I know, but garlic bread is one of the Western foods I miss the most in China, and I was going to take every opportunity to stuff my face with it.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Chinglish Signs and Pictionary

I'm not sure what the people of Shijiazhuang have been doing on escalators in supermarkets to make these signs necessary:

I've had a really enjoyable week of teaching, playing pictionary with my classes. Unusually, I've used the same game (but with different vocabulary) for both my Junior Twos (13 year olds) and Senior Twos (16-19 year olds). Even my most problematic Junior Two class, Class 20, who normally make me feel like an ineffectual riot police officer rather than a teacher, got so into the game that they forgot to misbehave, which gave me a warm glow of satisifaction that will hopefully carry me through the next few weeks of chaos.

My troublesome Senior Two class, Class 7, were totally uninterested as per usual, but the rest of my Senior Two classes quickly threw off their apathetic teenage airs and got as involved as the younger classes. Some even volunteered to come to the front and draw, which is such an improvement from when I started this year and had to literally drag students to the front of class to participate in games. It has been so rewarding to watch these students become more confident in speaking out in class, as when I started they were so shy and lacking in confidence (partially due I think to having a teacher last year who seemed to scare them) that I felt like I was teaching a class of trappist monks. Even if I went round and spoke to them individually with no-one else listening, a lot of them would be very reluctant to say anything and I'd find myself straining to hear whispered one word answers. Now the same kids are happy shouting out English in front of the whole class.

My class this morning was observed by Helen, who is our Foreign Affairs Assistant, and helps us with everyday life and liases between us and school management. Apparently they want me to do more class discussions, which should be interesting as I tried doing in last term and the students looked at my like I was clinically insane, but hopefully perhaps with their new found confidence it might work a bit better this time.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

The Philppines: Puerta Galera


Sabang, the best diving spot in Puerta Galera, seemed to be from a different world: beautiful clear seas, white sandy beaches and the freshest air any of us had breathed in five months. Within an hour of arriving on the island, I was heading out to sea for my first ever snorkelling experience. Once I’d got used to the snorkelling mouth piece and the sensation that my lifejacket was trying to throttle me, I thoroughly enjoyed myself lazily paddling about observing brightly coloured tropical fish and coral. I was so absorbed that I was late back to the boat, and it’s definitely something I want to do again. It even made me wish I was a proficient swimmer, and has got me vaguely interested in the possibility of learning to dive.

white beach at dusk

That evening we girls invested in a bottle of the native Filipino rum, which we despatched sitting on our ocean view terrace, listening to the sea and trying not to be horrendously distracted from our card game by the fact a lady boy prostitute was visiting the room next door. She was obviously not up to standard as she left the room after only five minutes, yabbering into her mobile and looking most disgruntled.

W and Ken, an American guy teaching in Taiwan that we had met on the boat from Manila, obliging went out to buy themselves take away pizzas, which we then stole. The rest of the night passed in a bar where drinks kept magically appearing in my hand.

beach art, or a sandcastle

Surprisingly, the next day I woke up at 8 am, completely unhungover, and enjoyed a breakfast of coffee and real croissant whilst gazing out at the ocean. When everyone else had hauled themselves from their beds, we rented a private jeepney and headed out for White Beach, the best beach in the area.

It was the quintessential tropical beach, and was the perfect place to spend the next two days. We swam and messed around in the sea, relaxed on the beach, got varying degrees of sunburn and wrote a ‘No Thanks’ sign in the sand that failed to deter the souvenir hawkers. I spent an enjoyable hour or so one afternoon building a sandcastle. On our last night, relaxed and contented, we ate the best barbeque food I’ve ever had at a little restaurant directly on the beach.
view from our white beach hotel

Puerta Galera is filled with lady boys, many of which were frighteningly skinny, and we occasionally whiled away lazy hours on the beach by trying to guess people’s birth gender. The area is very popular with sex tourists, and seeing a middle aged or just plain old man with a very young Filipina girl is a common sight. It could be extraordinarily uncomfortable to watch, sometimes simply because it was simpky gross, and at others because of the degree of manipulation, abuse of power and deception on display.

This is not just limited to the bullying, controlling and often quite disgusting way some of the men would treat the girls they were with, but also the degree of self deception some men displayed. They would act affectionately towards the girls, stroking their arms, holding their arms, whispering sweet nothings into their ears, sometimes looking completely besotted. The girls would submit to caresses and kisses, but when the man they were with couldn’t see their faces, they registered variations on disgust, despair, contempt and avarice. Puerta Galera was a carefree island paradise for us, but the poverty and desperation that made Manila so unpleasant was still evident here, and still blighting lives.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

The Philippines: Manila

a jeepney, manila

As we trundled along Nathan Road, Hong Kong, in the semi-darkness to catch the first airport bus of the day, A was horrified to accidentally run over a homeless man’s foot with her suitcase. Then at the check in desk at the airport we were both asked if we were pregnant, which seemed a bit odd, and made me feel slightly paranoid! It was too early for the food shops to be open, so I was extremely glad when I got my airplane meal, which was amazing. I even asked for (and got) another chocolate muffin.

manila bay promenade

Arriving in Manila, I felt as if I was walking through a viscous substance rather than air, it was so humid. After seeming to spend the entire journey in a traffic jam, our taxi finally reached our hostel, the Manila Bay, where we found that the room we booked didn’t exist. This result in a long wrangle with the management, which after our early start was the last thing we were in the mood for, but eventually they agreed to let us have the room for cheaper as it lacked several of the facilities that we had been promised.

a street in intramuros
We went out to explore, and apart from amusement at the colourful jeepneys that crowd the street were not impressed by what we saw. The place is truly filthy, and bear in mind that the city I live in is one of the most polluted in China and I live in one of the more ‘ghetto’ districts. We were continually pursued by child beggars and aggressive hawkers. We wanted to have a relaxing walk along the promenade, but it was impossible to be left alone for more than a few minutes.

cathedral, intramuros

We had a long, hot walk to the Intramuros area, which is the historic walled area of the city, and seems to be the only thing not razed during the Second World War. We were only there for about twenty minutes before heading back to the hostel: it was not particularly interesting or attractive, we were continually harassed, and the combination of heat and exhaustion were making us feel quite ill.

When we got back to the hostel we both ended up curled up on the bed (we were having to share a double), sleeping like a pair of cats. That evening I squashed a giant bug on the mirror with my flip flop. We were both glad to be heading to Puera Galera, an island a few hours away, in the morning.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Food and frustration

the boat restaurant

My most exciting news is that I have booked my ticket home, and will be arriving in the UK on the 8th of August after spending a month in Laos, Cambodia, Singapore and Malaysia. So I have more travel planning to do before I’ve even finished telling you about my last trip – lucky me! I feel so fortunate to have the chance to work and travel so widely, especially in comparison to many of my students, some of which are 17 or 18 and haven’t been to Beijing, two hours away by train.

My weekend started frustratingly. I had been scheduled to tutor five year old triplets in English every Tuesday and Friday evening, outside of my work for the school, and had my first class with them last Tuesday. It went well, and I was looking forward to meeting them again. However, on Friday the time of the class was changed but my employer forgot to tell me, meaning I arrived half an hour late for class through no fault of my own. My employer blamed me, meaning that the parents decided they no longer wanted me to teach the girls, which was annoying to say the least!
shepherd's pie? well, kinda........
The rest of the weekend was pretty low key. I went to the Boat Restaurant, one of my favourite restaurants in Shijiazhuang, with my friends on Saturday night. As you can tell from the photo, if you get here early enough you can eat in a boat. The dish above is normally shepherd’s pie, but for some reason when we ordered it on Saturday they first brought us this vile looking tomato and beef strew. We spent about five minutes wrangling with a waitress in our very limited Chinese before they took that away and brought this, which still wasn’t what we really wanted but it seemed close enough. It was pretty tasty, and we also had excellent sweet and sour pork with pineapple and dry fried green beans.

We spent the rest of the evening chilling out in a nearby pool hall, people watching and marvelling at some of the Chinese fashion on display.

the pool hall, one of the cleanest places to hang out in the city

On Sunday evening one of the Chinese English teachers, Mr Liu, took me and another Chinese English out to dinner. Mr Liu speaks completely fluent English, and is fantastic company, full of interesting anecdotes. I would like to have taken photos of the food we ate, as it was beautifully presented as well as delicious but I refrained as I was afraid they might think I’d gone insane. We ate vinegar peanuts, di san xian, a traditional Chinese dish made with aubergine (egg plant), potatoes and green peppers, a barbeque pork type thing, turnip balls, which do not sound appetizing but were very moreish and succulent, and pork and cabbage dumplings. A lot for three people! I probably ate more than by fair share, as the food was so good it was hard to stop.

Throughout the meal we were ‘gambe-ing’ beer, which is when you must down your (thankfully relatively small) glass in one, so by the end I was just about ready to explode. The restaurant is quite near to my apartment, and I’m grateful for Mr Liu for introducing me to it. Because of our somewhat non existent Mandarin, it’s very difficult for us to find new places to eat, so I’m looking forward to going back with my friends and trying more of their food. A project for
this weekend perhaps?

Monday, 23 February 2009

Lantau and Lamma Islands, Hong Kong

Tian Tan Budhha Statue

A woke up early to take her parents to the airport, and I amazingly managed to sleep through everyone else getting up, packing and leaving. After swapping rooms, I headed out to Lantau Island to meet A at an underground station and then visit the Tian Tan Buddha Statue, the world’s largest outdoor seated Buddha statue.

I was pleasantly surprised by the underground: it was spotlessly clean, incredibly easy to navigate and buy tickets, quick, contained bakeries, where I was able to buy delicious sausage rolls, and devoid of the unseemly, violent scrummaging to get on first that makes travelling by public transport in mainland China so stressful.

giving gods

When we got to the statue, we were faced with a slog up a huge flight of steps, which we broke by taking photos. Once at the Buddha, we gazed, got into trouble for accidentally wandering into the area you have to have a ticket for, and took some photos, including some quite funny ones of A possibly slightly sacrilegiously posing next to the statues of the minor gods (well that’s what I thought they were anyway) bringing gifts, offering the gift of Pringles. Sour cream and chive flavour too. Not a gift to be sniffed at by anyone, in my opinion.

ferry to Lamma Island

We wanted to know which was the best route to take to get to Lamma Island from the Lantau Buddha, as we wanted to have time to have a walk on the island before sunset. The ladies at the ticketing desk were very helpful, showing us two different ways to get there. We had to make our way to Hong Kong Island’s Central Pier, and then take a ferry from there to Lamma, which we duly did. Unlike the catamaran ferries we took to and from Macau, the Lamma ferry had a half open top deck. I entertained myself during the trip by staggering about taking various photos, trying not to fall overboard in the process, and enjoying the wonderful tang of sea air.

Lamma Island

We sailed into the picturesque little port of Sok Kwu Wan, where fisherman docked their boats and sorted their catch at tiny little floating harbours. Unsurprisingly, the seafood restaurants on shore stank of fish, so I hurried through them, pausing only to stock up on one essential: ice cream. The trail to Yung Shue Wan, at the other end of the island is very easy going, and takes you along the coast and through several small villages. It was hard to believe that this quiet, quaint, laid back, car free island was only half an hour away from the seething polyglot metropolis. We watched the sun setting over the sea, a stunning view somewhat marred by the coal refinery on an opposite island, and caught the ferry back to Hong Kong Island.

Yung Shue Wan, Lamma Island

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Hong Kong

Statues outside the Art Museum

I spent much of the ferry trip from Macau to Hong Kong feeling slightly apprehensive about what our accommodation would be like, as we were staying in Chungking Mansions. This is a chaotic and (in)famous building in Kowloon, full of cheap hotels, Indian restaurants, money changers and tailors. K and W had moved out of their Chungking Mansions hostel in horror at the squalor, and I was hoping we would not have to do the same.

We didn’t: there was a very good reason that the Guangdong Hostel has one of the best ratings on Our room, although tiny, was immaculate. The floor was probably cleaner than most of the tables I eat from in Shijiazhuang. We were provided with all sorts of creature comforts, including a fridge, tv and dvd player. The proprietor, Simon, gave us with tourist maps, let us borrow his laptop for free to use the internet, helped us find our way about and, as A’s parents had to go home a day earlier than they had planned, let us change to a cheaper, smaller room for the second night.
Peace bears, Avenue of the Stars

On the way out to explore the Kowloon peninsula I purchased on of the best garlic naans I had ever had in my life. Soft, fluffy yet slightly chewy and fantastically garlicky – let’s just say I was a repeat customer for the duration of my stay.

It is free to visit museums in Hong Kong on Wednesdays, so we took the opportunity to look around the Art and Space Museums. The Art Museum had a variety of very interesting and well curated exhibitions. My favourite was ‘The Art of Ding Yangyong’. I especially liked his cat pictures, which were playful, captured the cat-ness of cats very well, and never lapsed into sentimentality. I also enjoyed ‘Looking for Antonio Mak’, which had a thought provoking section of contemporary artists on this theme, and ‘The Story of the Horse’, which contained some beautiful antique scroll paintings.

Painting in painting, Ding Yangyong

The Space Museum was disappointing: it was shabby, many of the interactive exhibits were broken and there were huge queues to use any of the apparatus, so we didn’t spend very long there before walking down the Avenue of Stars. This affords stunning views over to Hong Kong Island, and I particularly liked watching the intriguing array of boats that went past. It is also home to a statue of Bruce Lee. There was a large crowd seething around the statue, most of them in the process of snapping pictures of themselves with Brucie.

Bruce Lee statue

I found Maltesers, which are totally unavailable in mainland China, and joyously bought two bags. The first one I devoured as if I hadn’t eaten for several hours, the second I had for breakfast the next day.

On our way down to the waterfront we had spotted an Irish bar, and we decided to pay a visit at happy hour. It was probably the strangest Irish bar I’ve ever been in. The Oirish memorabilia was overwhelming – I have never seen so many Guinness toucans in one place, although I did manage to find my surname on a map of Irish names. The traditional wooden bar divisions were decorated with Chinese New Year decorations, and the remarkably sullen staff waited on tables. We met a crazy Pakistani businessman, who was a complete bs merchant, but who very obliging bought us a drinks whilst he spun his yarns.

Good Morning II 1993, Antonio Mak

We wanted to sample some Cantonese food, and asked Simon about where would be good to eat. He offered to guide us to his favourite restaurant. We exited the back of Chungking Mansions, and in a trice had gone from the Westernised, modern clamour of Nathan Road to dank, dark back alleys, running with water whose origin I preferred not to speculate upon, filled with Indian and African men chatting and smoking, and men of various ethnicities pushing huge carts through the narrow passageways.

At the restaurant Simon procured us some English language menus. As we perused them I experienced a terrible fear that Simon would stay to eat with us, obliging us from politeness to try and force down the restaurant’s fare. It seemed to specialise in serving tendons of various different animals: in soup, braised, fried, and the place itself had a less than savoury air. Fortunately Simon had to go back to check in another guest, so we waiting for a few minutes and made our way to a Spaghetti House, where we happily chowed down on some delicious pasta.

Victoria Peak tram

After dinner we took the subway over to Hong Kong Island, rode the Victoria Peak Tram and observed the city at night, whilst trying not to get elbowed by some of the obnoxious mainland Chinese tourists. Very annoyingly my camera is rubbish at night shots, so I have a series of gloomy and blurry snaps to show for my diligence in fighting my way to the best photography spots.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

The second day in Macau: from the sacred to the profane

largo do senado

The next morning I took some time to meander around Largo do Senado, and popped into the pretty but not particularly remarkable baroque 17th century church of St Dominic.

The previous day we had seen a lighthouse from the vatage point of Monte Fort, discovered that it was on the Guia fort and thought it would be interesting to visit it the next day. After our taxi debacle the day before, we decided to take a bus there. Bus stops in Macau have a list of the stops made in both English and Cantonese, so by photographing the Cantonese sign of where we wanted to go we were able to ask the bus driver if we were going to right way. It’s a good thing we did this, as the first bus we tried to get on would’ve taken us in the wrong direction.

Lighthouse and Chapel of Our Lady of Guia, Guia Fort

We rode a very sedate cable car to the top of Guia Fort, and then had a pleasant walk through the park. The park includes a children’s play area with some swings: I couldn’t resist. I love going on swings, it had been absolutely ages since I’d done so, and I spent a very satisfying fifteen minutes seeing how high I could go, possibly much to the amusement of a pair of teenage girls.

I would not have thought that the top of the highest point in the city would’ve been a very sensible place to build an air raid shelter, but there was one there nonetheless, peopled with a selection of shabby and somewhat bilious looking mannequins.

Outside the rather appealing lighthouse and Chapel of our Lady of Guia, was this interesting display of what at first I thought was modern art, but turned out to be an old fashioned way of communicating weather conditions. Each one means a different sort of weather, although I’ve forgotten what exactly they symbolise, and would be hung outside the lighthouse to alert sailors.

weather warning signs, Guia Fort

The Chapel was decorated inside with a series of simple and seemingly completely non religious frescoes, although I suppose the lion in this one could be the symbol of St Mark the Evangelist.

fresco, Chapel of Our Lady of Guia

A short walk from Guia Fort is the charming and labyrinthine Kun Iam Temple. There is more than a hint of Mediterranean Catholic kitschness in the way the shrines are decorated with flower fairy lights, and the statues themselves are fierce looking red faced deities. The doorway lintels are decorated with fascinating and detailed carvings of gods doing their god thing. If you walk through the shrine rooms there is a quiet walled courtyard garden filled with various potted plants, although going back I got a bit lost and accidentally wandered into a private room where a monk was taking a nap!

shrine, Kun Iam Temple

That evening we took advantage of the cool night air coming through a hole in the wall at the end of the corridor our ‘rooms’ were on to sit out by the hole, play cribbage and having a few glasses of vodka. The reason that there was a hole in the wall is that they are currently renovating half of the guesthouse. The reason they are renovating it is because it fell down.

Cribbage is a north Mid-Western card game that A and her parent’s taught me on our trip, which is surprisingly addictive. Although it has probably taken me well over a month to remember most of the rules and even now I forget some of them, especially after a few glasses. The main gist of the game to collect 15s, pairs or more of the same card and runs of consecutive numbers. It’d be a great game to play in schools, as I’ve seen a real improvement in my mental maths skills since I started playing, but it would probably be inappropriate as the children would enjoy it.

After playing for a while we all got an attack of the munchies, so went out to forage. We found a little local restaurant, and using the ever useful skill of pointing at pictures on the wall, conveyed to the waiter that we wanted four plates of spring rolls. They arrived with a fluorescent pink sauce for dipping, which tasted like it might have been a version on sweet and sour. After scoffing them down, we retired, ready for an early start for Hong Kong in the morning.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Chinglish signs

Amusing Chinglish signs have me breaking into what must seem like totally inexplicable fits of giggles in the oddest of places in China. Here are a few of my favourites from my trip.

shop, Yangshuo, China

pharmacy, Macau, China

hound toilet, Macau, China

Ok, so this was in Sabang, the Philippines, so it's not strictly speaking Chinglish, but still worthy of inclusion

Thursday, 19 February 2009

The first day in Macau

I have a slight history in China of getting into cabs driven by complete maniacs. It seems that this extends all the way to Macau. Getting from Macau’s the ferry port to our guesthouse, the taxi driver obviously saw an opportunity to milk a foreigner, as he drove us round in circles pretending not to know where our guesthouse was, and then was surprised when we refuse to pay the whole fare.

I was still feeling stressed from that encounter when I went to check us in the Sanva Guesthouse. Even though I could clearly see my reservation written down in their book, it took ten or fifteen minutes of arguing until the owner, who spoke no English at all, agreed to connect the name written in the passport I was showing her with the same name written down in her book.

Then we saw the rooms. We had chosen Sanva mainly on the recommendation of Lonely Planet, which describes it as “the most charismatic lodging in town”. A piece of advice, if LP uses the term “charismatic” about a play to stay, go somewhere else. The ‘rooms’ were in fact cubicles, portioned by thin plywood ‘walls’ that stopped a good few feet shy of the ceiling: meaning that you could hear everything, no matter how intimate, that might be going on in the other ‘rooms’. The couple that owned the place weren’t very friendly either, and there was a bit of a scene when someone took an orange from a bowl in reception, that was apparently part of a shrine. This was an honest mistake: none of us had seen the whole bowl of oranges as religious offering thing before and thought they were for guests.

Our friends, K and W, came from Hong Kong to spend a day in Macau and met us at the guesthouse. They work in the same school as me and A, but had been travelling separately for a couple of weeks, so it was fun to catch up and swap stories. After a well deserved relaxing lunch, we went out to explore Macau. We started with the ruins of the church of St Paul, a seventh century church that, except for the frontage, was razed by fire in 1835. You can climb up to an observation deck behind the windows, and, like others, I threw a coin onto the lintel of the main window and made a wish.

Sunset climbing up Monte Fort
Then we strolled up to Monte Fort, enjoying the views of the sunset on the way. Owing to pollution and tower blocks, we’re rather starved of sunsets in Shijiazhuang, and getting to see them again was one of the highlights of the holiday. After an amble around the fort, we wandered around the many little side streets in the area, mainly trying out different types of beef jerky and biscuits that were on sale. Quite by accident we stumbled across a small shop down an alley selling absolutely delicious spring rolls and other snacks.

A typical Macanese side street

All this meandering gave me ample time to appreciate what makes Macau unique: the quite exceptional blend of East and West. In some places, like at the church ruins, it would be easy to think that you were in southern Europe, yet just a few metres away will be a quintessentially Chinese alley. Perhaps the best example of this was the main square, Largo de Senado, with its typical European architecture and surprisingly funky striped square, which was dominated by very Chinese New Year decorations.
largo do senado
Macau, is of course, known as China’s Las Vegas, so that evening we visited a random casino. First of all though, we celebrated the Year of the Ox by taking a clambering over the decorative Ox they had outside and getting shouted at by a security guard.

I’m not a massive fan of gambling, so I spent 10 Hong Kong dollars (just under one pound) on a slot machine game that I couldn’t understand to be able to say I’ve gambled in a casino in Macau. We all spent the majority of our time there sitting at the bar, making friends with/terrorising the bar staff, throwing large amounts of complimentary peanuts down our neck and watching the hilarious and terrible dancing of three rather unfit and unhealthy looking scantily clad Caucasian girls that was the sum of the casino’s entertainment.

Macanese biscuits. These were a bit too dry for my taste.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Shizzy Snow

The view from my kitchen window
So it snowed! Perhaps the only good thing about still being awake at 2am when I have to be in class and teaching at 7.45am, is that I got out and took some pictures before it all turns into disgusting slush.
snowy veggies
Snowy streets

snow and leaf buds

various footprints in the snow


Blogging twice in one day, particularly when my last post was so long, is probably overenthusiastic. The clement weather of last week has disappeared, and winter is back, bringing with it the first snow of the year. Luckily, it has been tiny little flakes that don't settle, as in a city this dirty and polluted I dread to think how unpleasant a heavy snowfall would be. Hopefully this is just winter's last hurrah before spring...

From Yangshuo to Macau

This was definitely my least favourite part of the trip! We had arranged through our hostel to book sleeper bus tickets to Shenzhen, where we could take a ferry to Macau. The bus in the pictures was fitted out with bunk beds, and was described as ‘a luxury sleeper bus’. However, we were told that, as it was around the Chinese New Year, instead of catching the bus directly in Yangshuo, we would have to take a coach for 40 minutes to meet up with sleeper bus somewhere else.

What they didn’t tell us that the coach would be so full that when we went to get on, the only seats left would be tiny plastic buckets in the aisle. And when they said 40 minutes, they actually meant three hours. By dint of leaning on someone’s arm rest and stretching my legs out at odd angles, I managed to make myself tolerably comfortable, but after an hour or so I blatantly stole someone else’s seat when they got up at a rest stop.

So by the time we arrived at the sleeper bus, after an inexplicable break in the journey where we spent an hour in the middle of nowhere, I was more than ready to stretch out on my bed and go to sleep. And then I got on the bus.

I can assure you that this was nothing like the photo on the leaflet. It was filthy, and smelled decidedly unpleasant. I also got shouted out in Chinese for wearing my shoes onto the bus. The beds were incredibly short: at five foot four, I fitted in quite comfortably, but the taller members of our party had to lie with their feet in the aisle. Thankfully, I had my earplugs and eyemask with me, so I was able to sleep on and off for most of the journey. I was woken up periodically by honking or people getting off, and once for our toilet stop, in which no toilet actually featured. At one point I woke up and stretched, and then realised I was accidentally caressing the feet of the person behind me (fortunately it was someone I was travelling with).

I have probably never enjoyed getting off a bus so much, although this enjoyment was tempered by my realisation that instead of getting dropped off at the main bus station in Shenzhen, as I thought we were going to be, we had actually got dropped off near the entrance point to the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (SEZ) border point. A SEZ is an area of China that is allowed to operate under somewhat more liberal laws than the rest of China, and ordinary Chinese citizens need to have a special pass to be able to enter the Shenzhen SEZ, explaining why we got dropped off across the border, although this doesn’t stop Shenzhen being stuffed with illegal internal immigrants.

Disconcertingly though, this meant we had no idea how to get to the ferry port. We were also in Cantonese speaking territory, meaning our limited Mandarin and our phrasebooks were totally useless. My Lonely Planet China guide contains a small Cantonese vocabulary section, and by pointing at the word for boat and making arm gestures that looked like waves we managed to convey to a very helpful member of staff at the border point where we wanted to go. He escorted us through the border, and showed us to the bus we needed to take.

Whilst we were waiting for the bus, a man approached my friend’s father. I’m not sure if bus stations at ten in the morning are normally the best places to ask foreign strangers who are clearly travelling with their family if they are interested in a little prostitute action, but this guy obviously thought so, as he whipped out his mobile and scrolled through his photo menu of naked girls. It took a good five minutes of ‘Nos’ and general remonstration to get rid of him.

Fortunately the rest of our trip across Shenzhen passed without incident. At the ferry port, I was so happy to see the sea again, that I nearly cried. I have spent most of my life living on the coast, and missed the sea during my university terms, when it was a half hour bus ride away. Living in Shijiazhuang, which is hundreds of miles away from the sea, I miss it terribly. It just feels like something is wrong, and I’ve decided that I’m never going to live this far inland again.