Sunday, 31 May 2009

Qingdao: Best City in China?

We certainly had a fantastic time: a great beach, wonderful shops, the nicest people I've met in China, delicious food. And we weren't the only people enjoying ourselves!

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Roses after rain

I took these photos at the waterpark after last Thursday's thunderstorm.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

TB in the afternoon

As I lay awake on Sunday night hacking up a lung, I realised that I was in need of a prescription of antibiotics. The combination of asthma and an immune system that struggles to fight off infections means that I normally get about two chest infections a year so the symptoms are a familiar, if unwelcome, friend.


When I've been ill previously a quick visit to the school doctor, accompanied by someone from the foreign affairs office, has had me sorted out in no time. But not on this occasion.


For some reason, the doctor refused to believe that the problem was my chest. She wouldn't even listen to it, but instead insisted on peering down my throat. After nearly blinding me by making me sit in front of a 5000 watt light to facilitate said peering, she declared that I had a throat problem, but she wasn't going to treat it and I should go to another doctor.


I really didn't fancy a trek to another medical clinic when all I needed was a cheap prescription of antibiotics, so I said I'd just go a local pharmacy and buy it myself. Someone wrote down my symptoms for me, and I toddled off to the chemist.


As I stepped through the door of the pharmacy I was assailed by a heady, woody smell, which came from sacks of dried barks, fungi and other unidentifiable substances that were piled on the floor. My lightning powers of deduction suggested that the pharmacist provided Chinese and well as Western remedies. In one corner of the room stood what can only be described as cauldron, filled with an almost black sludge.


The pharmacist dutifully listened to my chest, and whilst she was doing so her assistant lit up a cigarette. I then had to sit there with a thermometer under my armpit for five minutes, which I struggled to keep in place during a coughing fit, eliciting a 'good lord can this laowai not even manage to keep a thermometer in place for five minutes' pitying type of look.


I came away with three lots of pills and some instructions in Chinese, which I needed to be translated, so I headed back to the foreign affairs office. It turned out that the chest infection that had been called non-existent half an hour earlier was now being described as potential tuberculosis.


I think there was concern that I'd also gone mad, as I laughed so hard I nearly fell off my chair, before hastily assuring the very worried looking foreign affairs assistants that I had been inoculated against TB and that this episode of chesty mankiness was nothing out of the ordinary for me.


Note: Ms Toastburner, I can't comment on your blog, so I wanted to let you know that your book has arrived safely and to thank you for sending it. I know exactly which student I'm going to give it to! 


Monday, 25 May 2009

What the well dressed bride is wearing?

Although lucky red is the traditional colour for a wedding gown in China, western style white dresses have become de rigeur for fashionable weddings. Many brides will wear both white and red dresses during the festivities.
But why go with something so dull and monochrome as just red or white, when you choose one of these delightful designs?

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Scenes from outside the museum

There will be no scenes from inside Hebei Provincial Museum, as I was refused entrance because I didn't have my passport on me. Although exceptionally bizarre and infuriating, given the attitude towards foreigners often manifested in this city, I wasn't terribly surprised. And before anyone tells me off for not carrying my passport with me, I was told not to by the policeman that issued my residency permit, owing to the prevalence of pickpockets in the city.


Having spent forty minutes on a bus, followed by a fifteen minute walk, to get to the museum, my kind readers are probably able to take a guess at the particular phrases that I muttered to myself as I walked away from the ticket booth.


So I decided to pretend that the square outside was an open air exhibition. The main portion of the square had been turned into an open air car showroom. Eager and stylish young sales assistants, wearing ever-so-fashionable sunglasses, snuck off to take phone calls in between showing cars to clients.


The cars themselves were divided into two categories: the cheaper Chinese brands and more expensive Western branded but still made in China cars. The people looking over the expensive cars had a self conscious swagger in their step, telling me why such a public place would be chosen to sell cars.


The Chinese cars were being browsed mainly by couples in their thirties or early forties, who tended to look both slightly intimidated and nervous and proud all at the same time.


If so moved, you could commission a variety of rather tacky and vulgar photo portraits, the epitome of which was the eighteenth century lord and lady of the manor one above.


The square also had a thriving pigeon population that provided a wonderful source of entertainment for children passing through the square: I watched as one toddler started to chase the birds, before getting frightened and running away, making it look like the birds were chasing her!

Friday, 22 May 2009

Dog's Dinner

It's not just the people that eat noodles here!

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Bbq: bite by bite 2

The main dish. Fresh manto, and juicy, spicy mutton skewers. Working through this lot made quietened our conversation for a bit.


Bamboo salad. Despite being laced with the dreaded cilantro (which I pick out) this is probably my favourite cold salad dish. The bamboo shoots are tender and refreshing, not at all like the gruesome canned things that you get in British supermarkets.


Last but not least, the essential companion to any decent bbq session: the beer. Jiahe beer is brewed in our city, and is much stronger than my normal tipple, Lao Shan. We drank 'Chinese style': that is ganbei-ing (yeah I know that is a terrible mish mash of Chinglish, but it's what we all call it) each other. 'Ganbei' is the Chinese equivalent of 'cheers' and 'down in one' rolled together, and unless specified otherwise during the toast, you have to drain your glass. It often results in getting extremely plastered extremely quickly, especially at more formal dinners where each person must take turns to ganbei with everyone else there: no mean feat with twenty or so people. However, this was a casual dinner between two friends on a school night, so we just had a couple of bottles!

Bbq: bite by bite 1

Apparently I can only send a limited amount of photos in an email submitted post. So this post is going to have to be in two parts. (I can't upload photos directly using proxy servers.) Joy!

I confess, I am completely addicted to Chinese bbq. And, like all addicts, I want companionship in my obsession. So here is a bite by bite description of the delicious bbq feast I enjoyed with one of my good friends earlier in the week. We sat outside, enjoying a beautiful balmy evening and devoured the following treats.


Soy beans. I wasn't very keen on this cold snack, an essential for any self respecting bbq eater, at first but now I'm quite the fan. Bland but strangely satisfying, they are great for pecking at before and after the rest of the food, and are the perfect companion for beer. Not to mention the bubblewrap-popping-ish pleasure of podding the beans.


Cold fungus, onion and chilli salad: don't be put off by the name it's absolutely toothsome. The fungus, which literally translates into English as 'wood ear', has a subtle, earthy flavour that is released as you chew the springy morsels. I can't believe how many times I rejected dishes in Chinese restaurants at home because 'eww, yuck, what the hell is fungus and why would anyone eat it?'


Tendon skewers. I admit, I'd rather have a regular mutton skewer, my main complaint being that they are too chewy and bland, but are still more edible than I would have credited

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

R is for Roses

Roses at the water park have suddenly come into full bloom, and are already becoming crumpled and decayed, Miss Havisham-style. They are evidently a popular photographic backdrop for fashionable young things, who pose and giggle in the flower beds, trying for the perfect picture. I wandered up to the flower bed, sniffing the roses furthest from the ground, glad that small dogs are popular here. I was sure, for some reason, that they wouldn't smell, but they did: a deep, luxurious scent.


The park was full of the denizens of Shijiazhuang, taking their evening constitutional, and strangely people only seemed to be walking around the park anti-clockwise. I was walking clockwise and stopping to sniff roses. Which made me the odd one in their eyes. I heard one woman say to her friend, 'foreigner', in a tone that suggested that I should be pitied rather than judged for my peculiar behaviour.


Rambling slightly, I always find it hilarious when people see me and then turn to their friends, telling them that I'm a foreigner. Even more hilariously sometime they say it to my face, not in an unfriendly way, just stating the fact. Like perhaps, this white skinned, fair haired, blue eyed woman could possibly pass for Chinese, or become terribly confused about her nationality.


Abc Wednesday is at R.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Spice of Life

A cursory investigation of the world wide web has assured me that China doesn't want me blogging from blogger, or indeed any other half decent free blog hosting websites. Everyone has been telling me 'just use a proxy server', with any other explanation being deemed superfluous. I was left thinking, 'am I the only person in China who deesn't know what a proxy server is?' A few hours of dedicated surfing has sorted me out, although I still can't work out how to actually comment on the blogs I enjoy reading, which kind of sucks as I enjoy commenting as much as reading. (Being obviously completly egocentric.) On the plus side, I am so used to my school network being painfully slow that the proxy servers seem quite nippy by comparison.
I have NO idea what this post will look like on the virtual printed page...but I thought it might be timely to celebrate variety being the spice of life. A message that the net nanny in Beijing might do well to heed, seeing as this blocking of websites (imho anyway) makes China look far worse than anything written on the (generally positive) blogs that it has blocked.

Monday, 18 May 2009

China has blocked blogger

Yes, China has definitely blocked blogger. The only possible reason why that I can think of is that there is the Tiananmen Square anniversary coming up, although I was completly unaware of this until I started searching for reasons why it would be blocked. Like with youtube's blockage, on the grounds of inflammatory footage of Tibetan riots in 2008, I feel that it's really more because they can than for ideological reasons.
This might sound strange to people in the West, but I've collected a long list of gripes from Chinese people about their country and Tibet features nowhere. My feeling is that, excepting those actually in Tibet, no-one in China gives a damn about the 'Tibetan Issue' apart from wishing that they'd drag their superstitious behinds into at least the twentieth century.
Anyway, ramblings aside, watch this space. I don't think that I can access any proxy servers from my school based network, so expect a link to a 'fill in' blog to appear tomorrow or Wednesday.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Different Faces

First of all, I have a feeling that either China or my school network has blocked all blogger websites. I'm hoping this will resolve itself in the next few days, but if it doesn't I've set up a wordpress account. I really hope it isn't permanent though, as I love visiting so many blogger blogs and would be quite upset at not being able to do so.


Today has been a day when I have very much seen two different faces of China. I sporadically teach at an IELTS preparation school 'on the side', and, as per the timetable I received earlier this week, woke up at 6.30 on a Saturday to go downtown and teach there. Once I got there, I found out that actually, the class was meant to be tomorrow not today. Obviously I had an old timetable and China standard communication has struck again. My face fell. And then I was incredibly surprised.


Instead of telling me it was all my fault for not being psychic, as seems to be the norm here, a senior member of staff apologised, and as by luck the oral class I was due to teach was there for their listening class said that they would swap the oral and listening classes. They also promised to make sure I had the new timetable. This took less than five minutes to sort out.


Then I had the class, which consisted of four new students. It was fantastic: eager, intelligent, interesting, the students are a teacher's dream. It barely even felt like work.


This afternoon I was meant to cover my colleagues at another school. I got there, went into the office smiling 'Hello' and was greeted with the 'Why are you here?' delivered in remarkably vicious and aggressive fashion. I quickly explained the situation, and I was told that the classes no longer existed. It was all delivered in a very spiteful, malicious tone that clearly told me where I could go, whilst all three women in the office were grinning broadly and looking extremely self satisfied.


Out of tiredness from lack of sleep, menstrual hormones, frustration at the waste of my time and the loss of earnings, and their meanness, I nearly cried. I feel that probably they've decided to cancel the classes themselves, knowing that the owner won't care about a sub teacher, as they get paid more money when they teach a class themselves rather than 'assist' (i.e., sit at the back of the room playing on their mobile phones or picking their noses) a foreign teacher.


On a more positive note, I did have a very friendly taxi driver on the way back, and I taught him some English and he taught me a little Chinese.


Now, the humid and close day has given way to the first thunderstorm I've witnessed in China. The sound of torrential rain is strangely comforting, taking me back to my Lampeter bedroom, listening to rain at night, or staring over the blurred, drenched green Welsh landscape, and reminding me of a friendlier land.


I do miss rain, even that incredible Welsh rain, that could come down in torrents, day after day, for a week or more, to the point where the shallow brook through campus would become a feisty torrent, rising three or four feet up its rocky banks and then another foot over, bringing about stories of the time that it lapped the doors of the riverside union building. After the first year, you became strangely impervious to rain, valued a thick winter coat and a pair of Wellingtons, and realised what useless contraptions umbrellas often are. And now, strangely, I find myself here in China, nostalgic for a week when we were cut off from the rest of the country and stocks of fresh food in the supermarket started to dwindle more than they usually did, and there was only one footbridge over the river, mounted on steps to make it a foot higher than the others, that was usable. 

Friday, 15 May 2009

Blue Sky Thinking

The spring has brought with the remarkable sight of clear skies in Shijiazhuang. It has actually been a little disorienting. I've been so used to peering at the city through a thick covering of smog that the clear skies have made everything seem hyperreal. The closest thing I can compare it to is when I have got a new glasses prescription and the world suddenly jolts into an almost overexposed clarity.

So I thought I would treat you to a 20/20 view of the Shiz while it lasts.

Expensive apartment blocks overlooking the water park.

A small pond at the water park: I'm quite intrigued by the building in the background, as its neo-classical design is highly unusual for this city.

The ferris wheel. I keep meaning to go up in while the clear skies last to get some photos of the neighbourhood. Although that would obviously also depend on the cleanliness of the windows.

A random shot of the street I live off, for anyone curious.

And just in case you thought I might be exaggerating, this a photo of the same bridge, taken in September 2008:

Visit skies galore at Skywatch Friday.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

A Day in the Life

As insomnia has decided to become my companion yet again, my day started with me watching The Wire on dvd and pottering online until the 2am or so, and then lying in bed exhausted but still wide awake. When my alarm goes off I'm so tired that I hit the snooze button and unfortunately someone texts me in those 8 minutes which somehow disables my alarm. I woke up with half an hour to go before I had to be in class. Luckily I live next door to the school!

I made a cup of instant coffee for my breakfast (black, as you can’t get decent milk here) and attempt to eat one of those cups with biscuit sticks with a pot of chocolate spread. I was looking forward to chocolatey goodness, but it’s disgusting. I checked out the best before date: the 4th of April. Yummy. I don’t know why this surprised me, as the freshest bread in our supermarket is always a day out of date, and I once got food poisoning from eating an out of date yoghurt I bought from there.

On Fridays I teach my Senior 2 students, who are aged 16-20. I was doing a game with them called ‘Steal, Switch or Bust.’ It’s a spelling and sentence making game, and points are decided by drawing a card from a box. Right until the last go there’s the possibility of the winner changing, and it’s proved incredibly popular with my students with games getting very heated! I’ve even had kids volunteering to come up, which has never happened before. I think it’s the ever satisfying possibility of getting to completely screw one of the other team’s over that they find so enjoyable. Still, it’s very gratifying when I remember how timid they were at the start of the year, afraid to say anything in front of me, let alone the whole class.

My morning classes went well, and afterwards I walked to the gym, taking a shady detour through the market. People were eager to look over my shoulder and see what I was taking photos of! I’m hoping that the gym turns on some air conditioning or fans soon, as there only source of cool air otherwise are a few small windows on one wall, far from the workout machines. In 29° (roughly 90 f) weather, I feel like I’m simultaneously melting and suffocating with the heat coming off my body. But I managed to get my 8k done without turning into a gooey mass on the floor.
On the way to get pork and cucumber wonton for lunch I stop by my favourite hardware store to get a tea flask, which I’m going to attempt to use as a cafétière. (Long story!) As I’m paying, I keep hearing these little mewing sounds and realise that they’ve acquired a kitten. The little fellow is quite the crowd puller, as I practically had to elbow another customer out of the way in order to take the photo.
I did the same activity with my afternoon classes. I teach 12 classes the same thing every week, which means I have to try and choose something that I find vaguely interesting and/or entertaining, and that has scope for a little variety, as otherwise by Friday I’m so bored that I struggle not to zone out.

After class, I flaked out for a while, enjoying the Friday feeling, before going and getting some di san xian at a neighbourhood Sichuan restaurant. It’s one of my favourite Chinese dishes, a delicious mixture of potatoes, aubergines and green peppers in a tangy, sweetish sauce.
I spent the early evening writing, cleaning my apartment and getting ready to go out, before going to a downtown bbq with the other foreign teachers at my school. The food was delicious, and I probably ate more than I needed to. We were periodically accosted by some drunken Chinese men wanting to gambe (down in one) beer with us, which was ok at first but quickly got tiresome. Apart from that, it was wonderful to be sitting outside downtown again, just chilling out and chatting with a beer or two.

One of our friends turned up and told us about a new club that had opened up, and where, as is customary in the Shiz, exotic foreigners get free entry and drinks. That was more than enough to tempt us away from the bbq! Free vodka – there are some perks to living in the provinces! A great night was had by all...

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Q is for Qing Dynasty

The Qing was China's last dynasty (1644-1911). Its last years were marred by widespread corruption, reluctance to modernise, questionable use of funds and land concessions granted to foreign countries. The marble boat at the Summer Palace is a reminder of how things went wrong - it was built under the direction of Empress Cixi, when she restored the Summer Palace using money that had been earmarked for the Navy.

Visit abc wednesday and see what other people have come up with for Q.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Beijing: Summer Palace

I've visited the Summer Palace twice, once during the National Day holiday, where, as you can see, I appeared to be joined by a sizable proportion of China's population! This is the seventeen arch bridge leading to the Jade island. On National Day, I ended up spending half an hour waiting in a queue for a boat across Kunming Lake, surprising Chinese people by refusing to allow them to cut in front of me, before giving up and finding the queue on the other side of the bridge only had a five minute wait. Bizarre.
This is the superbly photogenic Buddhist Fragrance Pavilion. To be able to get up close and personal with it, you have to walk up the steps marked out by the brown diamond on the base, by which point you may be feeling less than fragrant yourself.
The Pavilion in all its glory; sadly visitors aren't allowed to climb up inside. Although on busy days perhaps it's a blessing - I can imagine people getting shoved off the balconies by the crowds!
I love the intricately decorated traditional Chinese ceilings.
A brief history of the Summer Palace will tell you that it was built by the Emperor Qianlong in the eighteenth century as a summer retreat for the royal family. A lot of the buildings were destroyed by the British and French during the Second Opium War, and it was later lavished with funds by Empress Cixi, soaking up funds that could've been used to strengthen and improve the country.

This was one of the few non-blurry photos that I managed to get when watching the acrobatic show in the Garden on Virtue and Harmony.

Despite the huge crowds over National Day, I found that as soon as I wandered away from the most famous sights, I could easily find a tranquil spot.

I came across this building, which was slightly shabby and covered in creepers. It housed a collection of Qing dynasty furniture that I can remember little about, but the galleries were divinely cool and peaceful.

A gave Suzhou Street a miss as it seemed to be a tourist trap within a tourist trap, although I did enjoy leaning against the parapet of a bridge and watching the hordes of tourists mingling amongst vendors dressed up in traditional Chinese costume.

Take a day trip somewhere new with My World Tuesday.

Monday, 11 May 2009

What's missing?

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Duck Head Delight

Monday night I went for dinner with one of the teachers from my school. Unfortunately, we went to hotpot, which people are crazy about in northern China, but I’m not. Annoyingly, I forgot my camera, although when I tell you what we were served some of you might be quite glad.

At hotpot you get a big bowl of spicy or bland broth, which is kept hot throughout the meal by a gas ring built into the table. You then order a selection of meats, vegetables, tofu and noodles which are delivered to your table uncooked. You then pop them all in, wait for them to cook and then fish out the morsels you fancy. I’ve eaten hot pot in a large group and it can get quite viciously competitive.

Even more unfortunately what I at first took to be delicious juicy ribs lining the bottom of the hot pot dish, turned out to be duck heads. Neatly halved, they were like anatomical specimens showing beak, tongue and brain.

I looked to my companion for some idea as to how I could eat it without doing like the people around us who were gleefully biting at the heads, sucking off the brain and flesh. Her duck head however was sitting untouched on her plate so I decided to use my own initiative. As I teased a bit of skin from around the eye socket, wherein still lurked a braised gelatinous mass, my stomach lurched. I had finally met my match.

Thankfully she didn’t seem too put out about it, although this being China I feel that I could probably have mortally offended her and she would still have smiled at me all night before going home to stick needles in my effigy. She claimed that she didn’t like duck heads either, and that she didn’t realise that it was duck head as it just said on the ordering sheet that it was the ‘house speciality’, but really, who knows?

The more edible portion of the meal consisted of mutton strips, mushrooms, some sort of turnip like tuber, weird gelatinous potato starch noodles and hand stretched noodles.

You also get a bowl of pale brown goop to dip your food it, but as with the slimy, eating-a-jelly-fish-like potato starch noodles, this is not a favourite of mine so I ate my hotpot picks naked. Because I’m a perverse foreigner, my favourite part of the meal was the cheap filler at the end, the hand stretched noodles. It seems that the more expensive Chinese food gets, the more vile it becomes.

During our conversation, I found out that my companion had wanted to be an accountant after she left university, but at that time in China you weren’t allowed to choose your own job, instead the state assigned you one. Luckily for her, she enjoys teaching!

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Destiny and Cockroaches

Decisions of
Eternal beings
Stalk us,
Trapped by
Nemesis, we

Cancer of the
Ambitions of
Sickens us.

Why not visit acrostic only and try it yourself?

O cat, where art thou?

I used to see this naughty ginger feline in the the yard of my apartment block all the time. He was normally very elusive, but went through a brief phase of refusing to leave me alone. On one occasion he even managed to sneak into my apartment, and I had to chase him out.

I haven't seen him since February now, so I suppose that either his family has moved out of the building, he got squished on the road or he's now a housecat.

Camera Critters

Friday, 8 May 2009

Toytown Sunset

Does this scene make anyone else feel like they are in a Lego town?

Watch the world's skies with Skywatch Friday.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

P is for Pagoda

Well what else could I do for a China-based 'P' - pagodas are one of the most traditional images of China. These pagodas are in Zhengding, and with the restored historical street and it's low rise skyline this is one of the few places in China you can get a photo like this!

This is the unusual Indian-style pagoda at Guanghui Temple.

Meanwhile this is the aptly named Lofty Pagoda at Tianning Temple.

See what other people have come up with for 'P' at abc wednesday.