Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Thursday, 29 September 2011


Just a quick reminder that I have no started posting again onto my other blog over at "The World Through A Lens". There has been a brief hiatus but I'll be putting daily photographs of China there, or as near to daily as I can manage anyway.

You can follow the link on the right.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011


They do keep on treating us extraordinarily well.
On Sunday Jane, who you may recall is our Foreign Affairs Officer, had offered to take the three of us - me, Mike and Erika, out to the Yellow River for a day in the country. Her official duties are just to make sure that we have no bureaucratic problems and she has no obligation to do this sort of thing, it's just the kind of person she is.
I'd envisioned a bus ride out somewhere, with the four of us going to look at the river and the three of us agreeing that it was very pretty and a nice place for a walk. The reality was somewhat more elaborate.
We met near the supermarket at 8:30 and found that Jane was accompanied by her son, Richard, who is proabably somewhere in his twenties and speaks very good English. We strolled down towards the bus station where we met several other people, all apparently coming with us. There was the English teacher, Aaron and his daughter who is in one of my classes. There were two of here friends from Erika's school. There was Mister Zhou, the computer guy who had set up my internet access. And his wife. And their infant son. So, all together, we had a party of twelve.
We weren't, apparently, going by bus. Instead they negotiated for taxis.
One of the peculiarities of listening to people speak Chinese is that it's very hard to tell if they are having a friendly conversation or an intimate conversation or an angry exchange of words. The negotions that went on were, to my ear at least, spirited to say the least, but ended with us in three taxis.
I was with Aaron and his daughter and passed the time discussing the intricacies of Chinese Chess versus Internationa Chess. Given that I am an indifferent player of the latter and have played exactly one game of the former, it was a conversation based on vague theoretical generalities rather than actual knowledge.
After about twenty minutes he announced that we were approaching the new bridge that has recently been completed. It was, he said, very beautiful. Well it was certainly a bridge - one end resting on one side of the river and the other end on the other side - and it was certainly new - they were still building sections of the approach road. As for beautiful... well aesthetics are, I suppose, in the eye of the beholder. It was flat, grey and constructed entirely from reinforced concrete. It did the job but it didn't look all that beautiful to me.
We stopped on the bridge and took some photographs of the river and of the end of an island in the river.
The island is important. Don't forget about it.

Over the bridge we drove through a grim and grey small town, perhaps fifty assorted buildings, and then turned onto a lesser road. This took us into agricultural territory, though here and there were villages of a dozen houses or clusters of ramshackle farm buildings. After a couple of minutes the road improved and above it red lanterns were hung for perhaps half a mile. We turned in through a gate and found ourselves at a reasonably sized orchard - though vineyard might be an equally appropriate word. The three main crops on offer were grapes, plums and pears. It was clearly a show farm for visitors. Several buildings had been fitted out as rooms for hire and there was a large outdoor eating area.

We looked around the operation, tasted the fruit - the pears were especially good: crisp, white and juicy - and took photographs. Away in a corner of the orchard there was a row of adult sized exercise equipment. You see this all over the place in the cities. It looks like kids' playground equipment but in grown up sizes and there are about half a dozen different types. In the city I'm too embarrassed by the crowd I'd attract to play, but here we all had a go and great fun it was too.

When we had had sufficient exercise we went down to the river. The walk was a bit muddy and there was quite a lot of rubbish but down by the river was grassy and pleasant. At this point it runs through a flood plain and there were high walls on our side but the opposite side had no protection. A flood would wipe out all the crops on that bank in minutes.

We strolled back, pausing only to take a picture of a snake sunbathing on the steps, and found that lunch was served. And it was another typical Chinese lunch. DIsha after delicious dish - rice noodles, steamed fish, fried pork, a thick chicken and vegetable soup, potato noodles, fried potatoes. It just kept on coming.
When we were all full it would, normally in China, be time for a nap. Today it was time for a post-prandial route march.
It began easily enough with a walk down to the ferry. Ten minutes ambling. We passed a school and it crossed my mind that I wouldn't have wanted to be working stuck out here. The ferry was a flat bottomed boat powered by a tractor engine and it took us across. I assumed that the taxis waiting were for us but I was wrong.
We were, led by Aaron, about to go to find the island.
He set off confidently along the road. Some of the confidence vanished as we reached a junction. More vanished when, twenty yards down our chosen route he realised it was wrong and led us back and down the other direction. It dead-ended at a swamp. There was a bridge a little further down but a large metal fence blocked it from the far bank. There was a pipeline that could at a pinch have been tightrope-walked (though the international sign told us it would be breaking the law.) We followed a scrubby path along the edge of the marsh to a road.
Ah, I thought, a road!
It was not to be. Twenty feet along it we went back onto another scrubby path that we hoped was on the other side of the marsh. It wasn't. It led through a rubbish dump right into the middle of the marsh. We stopped, bewildered.

Fortunately a local came by and after a brief chat with Jane showed us a safe stepping stone path onto the opposite side where we found another road. And ignored another road, plunging into a path through a corn field. The same happened at the next road but then we came to the river and there was the island, joined to the bank by a pontoon bridge of oil drums, planks and steel cables. We crossed.

By now there wasn't a lot of time left to explore. Erika in particular needed to get back to Baiyin for five, having accepted a dinner invitation. We had some time though. There is a lot of building going on on the island where several new Buddhist temples are under construction. Only one is close to completion. We went and looked at it and it was an odd combination of modern grey concrete with typical traditional Buddhist design. It was clearly a working temple and we were invites in to look around. It was interesting to see that Buddhism is now, apparently, being actively encouraged in China. It wasn't the case when I first came here more than twenty years ago.

We spent a few minutes down on the stony beach then headed back to the bridge and the main road where pre-booked taxis were waiting to take us back to Baiyin.

It had been an excellent day out, even if it had been rather different to the way I had imagined it.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

China: Teachers' Day Photos

As well as deciding to post some photos of the Teachers' Day Celebrations at our school, I've been experimenting with the on-line photo editor, i-piccy, as I may want to use it for class materials (if and when I get a printer!).

So the pictures in this post have, rather obviously, been submitted to various efects and alterations. I hope you enjoy them.

They are, in order

1) Some of the students in one of my Senior classes.
2) People at their morning exercises in the park.
3) A panorama of the 3000 kids in the school - you simply must click on this and look at the larger image!
4) The school, in all it's brand spanking new radiant glory.
5) Performers at the Festival.
6) An old boy does his impression of a Chinese Liberace.
7) My flat mate gets roped in to perform with the kids in a rendition of "Doe, a deer"
8) Dancing, traditional...
9)    ...and modern
10) Some of my colleagues at the second gigantic banquet in one day.
11) And the KTV (That's Chinese karaoke) experience that followed.

Bilston Voices

Well I can't be there for the fairly obvious reason that I'm thousands of miles away in China. That shouldn't stop anyone else going though and it certainly shouldn't prevent anyone reading a review. Gary Longden has kindly provided one for you at

I rcommend both that you read it and that you attend the next one if you didn't manage to get to this one.

(assuming of course that you aren't just as far away as I am.)

Some pictures of Baiyin

This is an experiment to see if pictures will post properly.

If it works the pictures will be of

1) My luxury apartment block.
2) A sleeping market trader (life is probably slow when you are a dealer in edible seeds)
3) A kid playing on one of the statues near the park.
4) A rather alarming sign.
5) Some statues
6) Some flowers
7) The Saturday afternoon geriatric rock festival in the park.

Can someone let me know the result please?

Friday, 16 September 2011

Sucker Punch

I have a list of my favourite weird movies. Last night I watched Sucker Punch, which has just made the top five.
I have absolutely no idea what it was all about. All the same I did enjoy it. Though probably not as much as the director must have enjoyed the very serious drugs he'd have needed to be on to create something so downright odd.

China: Trust

Here's the situation.
Before I left the UK I tried to buy medical insurance. The first quote I got for a full year was for over seven grand. The lowest I got was for five and a half. I decided that it would be insane to spend more than my full year's pay on insurance when I could, should the need arise, pay less than a thousand pounds and fly home. So I don't have medical insurance. 
In China I discovered than I can by medical insurance for around a hundred pounds. 
And that's what I've been trying to do this morning.

The FAO, my Chinese liaison, came over to help me. She's incredibly helpful but her English, especially when listening, isn't really that great. So she took me off to the insurance offices where here friend works. She had already, with a great deal of difficulty, told me that I would need to pay for my insurance with a bank card. I have one. At the moment the account contains 1 yuan, the amount I used to open it. For those that don't know that's about ten pence. No problem. If someone shows me how to do it I'll put money in. 
In the insurance offices I was presented with two documents listing the different levels of cover for buying one share (about a hundred pounds) or two shares (about two hundred pounds). Naturally both documents were in Chinese. She scanned them carefully and then told me that they were "complicated". I could have worked that out. Insurance companies, wherever they are, never write simple documents. After a lot of discussion between her and the insurance rep we managed to write down some numbers for how much each would pay in the event of illness accident or death. I said I'd take the one share and if anything more serious was wrong with me I'd just go home. I'm not sure anyone understood but we agreed on one share. 
At this point the FAO had to go to a meeting, leaving me with someone who spoke no English at all. She called in another manager from another office who spoke a little. I signed my name in a lot of places on a lot of forms whose content was entirely meaningless to me. It's perfectly possible that I no longer own my kidneys. I have no idea what I signed. I'll just have to trust them.
I showed them my bank card. The lack of funds isn't a problem as they won't accept that card anyway. Apparently my Bank of Guilin card can't be used, they need a card on a Baiyin bank. I can, we established after much confusion, open an account with just the amount they need to take out.
Or at least I could if my passport were not still at the police station. Without it I can't do anything, change money,deposit money OR open a bank account. 
So that's where we are at the moment. A lot of forms I don't understand signed and no way to pay for the insurance unless they can be persuaded to take cash. I wonder sometimes if I may be a little too trusting.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011


In my last post on China I mentioned that we were given gifts of mooncake and quilts. I thought you might like to share, and marvel at, the guarantee that accompanied the quilt.

"Department of the cards have no time to ensure that the product quality of the full responsibility. And since the date of purchase within ten days, if a product is found to be material or production process by virtue of defective cards, please buy to the original location, free of charge, the replacement of new products, due to man-made damage to the product, not the scope of the commitment."

Looks like a machine translation to me.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Fwd: China

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Bob Hale <>
Date: 11 September 2011 14:24
Subject: China
To: SFTR <>

I've been teaching in China for less than a week and we already have a holiday. Monday is the Mid-Autumn Festival but Friday was also Teachers' Day which they celebrate. In the case of our school, Baiyin Middle School 10, there was a very big celebration because it was also the dedication ceremony for the school's new building. My flatmate and I were asked to be there at 8 in the morning so that's when we turned up. The students were already there - all 3000 of them - sitting in their allotted places in the schoolyard in their track-suit style blue and white uniforms. They were all well-behaved in a way that would be utterly impossible with the same number of British kids. 
We had been given the option of sitting with the dignitaries on stage but had opted to sit with the teachers in the audience. Even so we were given the place of honour, the two front row centre seats where we sat as other teachers gradually filled up the space around us. At eight forty the event began. For the dedication ceremony there were speeches from the school principal, various former headmasters and various local big-wigs. All, of course in Chinese. Occasionally one of the Chinese teachers would whisper an explanation of what was going on but largely it was meaningless to me. That phase of the day lasted about an hour and then, with incredible speed and efficiency the people from the stage were moved to a row of chairs (rather more comfortable than our stools) to watch the Teachers' Day show. And what a show it was. I had expected something akin to British school performances. I could hardly have been more wrong. Group after group of children came onto the stage - 21 acts altogether - and performed. There were musical groups, traditional and modern dance troupes (and a flamenco troupe), orchestral displays, acoustic guitarists, a fashion show (including a dress made out of celery!) martial arts displays, and even a performance of "Doe a deer" that featured my flatmate as well as a fully choreographed class and their teacher.
Even the changeovers were slick and professional without a single wasted moment.
Mike and I were presented with gifts from the school - large presentation boxes of the traditional mooncake (think of it as like a large fig biscuit) and silk quilts. Afterwards we were invited to join the school principal, various important officials and heads of department for lunch. It was at the best hotel in the city and the restaurant was fabulous. It was a very high class affair with dish after dish of amazing food. Our glasses were kept topped up with tea, wine and bai-jo. Bai-jo is the local evil hard liquor. I took a single sip and felt it stripping the lining from my throat and burning a hole in my stomach. After that I stuck to the wine. Toast after toast was drunk. Literally everyone in the room came to greet us and welcome us to the school. 
There was only one small problem.
We had also been invited that evening to the teachers meal. It was at the same hotel and it seemed very likely that there would be similar gargantuan feasts to be devoured. At about two thirty we left to take a rest before round two.
Round two was in another restaurant on another floor of the hotel and while it was a little less fancy than lunch had been it was still a very impressive place. Every teacher in the school was there and the room was filled to capacity. I sat on a table with people from the English department as, once more, the table was loaded with dishes until it seemed certain to collapse. Some were the same as lunch but there were others - frogs legs which were too small to reward the effort of picking the meat from the bones, a giant bowl of snake soup (which I tried but couldn't force down - it looked so bad with lumps of blackened snake skin floating in the bowl), more mooncake.
That's actually the most difficult thing about Chinese meals - the insistence on including all the dishes - sweet, salty, sour - right there together at the table rather than our way of having separate courses.
As before our glasses were kept well filled and we were introduced to what felt like hundreds of people. It was all far less formal and far more friendly and intimate (if such an event can be called intimate) than lunch had been. 
And then it was over. 
Or was it?
A large group of teachers were going on to KTV. Now for anyone who hasn't been to China KTV is a very odd concept. You hire a room which comes complete with tables and comfortable chairs and a crate of beer - and a karaoke! Then you all pile in drink, make friends and sing badly. We were roped in - there was no way that they would take no for an answer and spent the next four hours or so drinking, making friends and occasionally singing one of the very small selection of English songs. I was dragged to it four times for two Beatles, Hotel California and Streets of London. My voice was pretty bad but some of therirs were worse and nobody seemed to mind.
At around midnight we left to go home and accompanied by two Chinese teachers - Valerie who lives in an nearby apartment and Burton who I think had gone considerably out of his way to stay with us.

And then I collapsed into bed and slept through for twelve hours. 

Friday, 2 September 2011

China 4

Well, I'm in Baiyin which is as unlovely a city as I've ever encountered. If the sight of the mountains in Guilin lifted my spirits the bleak drive through the greyish brown mountains from Langshou airport to Baiyin depressed them. The apartment isn't too bad, though lacking quite a few necessities (cups and knives would be nice for example) and Mike, who I'm sharing with seems OK (he's letting me use his computer at the moment as that's something else the apartment doesn't have.
Emails and blogposts may be thin on the ground as gmail doesn't seem to want to work here and I'm having to use his proxy server to get in at all.
I only arrived today and haven't seen the school yet but he says its OK though basic - the only facilities are blackboards!
I will post more later when I can but don't hold your breaths. It may be some time.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

China 3

Well. I have my placement and I can't say I'm completely happy about it.
I'll add more afterwards but for now here is a verse I dashed off a few minutes ago while eating what will be my last western meal for some time. (Pizza, chips and a bottle of Guinness.)
Baiyin Part 1
Well, they told me where I have to go
and I admit I'm not impressed.
They tried to woo with flattery,
said, "This school wants the best."
But from what I've read of Baiyin,
there is nothing there to do.
When I put this to the agent,
she said, "It simply isn't true.
There are several good pool tables
and ping-pong clubs galore."
I confessed my disappointment,
said I'd hoped for something more.
The bad news kept on coming
when I asked about the school.
From the lack of information
they took me for a fool.
Class sizes? Didn't know!
Facilities? Shook her head.
Perhaps you have some photographs?
"There's nothing!" so she said.
The only information
they could find to relate
was that my class were 12-year-olds:
an age group that I hate!
And as for an apartment
it was small and I must share
with a teacher from the last group
who's already exiled there.
So all in all the prospect
is looking rather bleak.
Maybe it will look better
when I write part 2 - next week.
And that's about it. They have subsequently said they "will try to find another apartment" but that it will be "a few weeks" which in Chines time could mean six months. It also means that anyone planning to visit me might as well not bother. The journey from the UK would be something like Heathrow-Amsterdam, Amsterdam-Guangzhou, GUanzhou-XiAn, XiAn-Lanzhou followed by a two hour bus ride through the desert and all to get to a place that isn't worth visiting anyway. There is still hope though because I have the end of January and most of February off and could fly down to meet elsewhere - say Guilin or Lijiang. I'll see what the transport situation for me is like and let people know by email.
I don't know yet what my computer access will be out in the middle of nowhere so it might be a while before I post again.