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.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

China: General Update

I'm a little puzzled.
I'd have thought by now that my posts would indicate that I'm very
happy - very happy indeed - with my current situation but it seems
from various pieces of private correspondence that some of my friends
seem to have taken only the message from my very early Chinese posts
and not noticed the change.
Let's set the record straight. I am very happy with how things have
turned out. I'm having a whale of a time. The only, and I do mean THE
ONLY, downside at all is that there isn't a whole lot to do for
entertainment in Baiyin.
Otherwise it's all good.
Let's tally it up.
On the plus side I have

i) the easiest and most fun job I've had in my life,
ii) students at school who think I can walk on water,
iii) staff at the school who are incredibly friendly, invite me out,
buy me dinner, help me in every conceivable way,
iv) a very nice free apartment with free utilities,
v) a city where I can buy very nearly anything I want for about a
fifth of the UK price,
vi) a salary that is more than I can possibly spend,
vii) plenty of pool halls, great cheap restaurants* and bars nearby
(even one that I discovered this week selling some very nice imported
German beer),
viii) a plentiful supply of cheap, if not precisely legitimate, DVDs,
ix) a stress and worry free lifestyle where every possible problem is
someone else's problem
x) access to my friends, games, books, magazines and so on via the internet

and on the minus side

i) it's sometimes a bit boring

I'd say that's pretty heavily weighted in favour of my having a good
time, wouldn't you.

Take yesterday for example. Some of the senior students (aged 17 and
18) had heard that Mike and I like to play pool so they asked us to
meet them after school and go to play pool so that they could, as we
played, get some extra English practice. My classes finish at five but
theirs go on till seven so, at seven, we met them at the school gate.
About a dozen of them had turned up and they escorted us to a
different pool hall where we took it in turns to play every student
there. They were eager to talk about anything under the sun and I got
the distinct impression that they were letting us win. We were there
for about an hour and a half and then they took us to a nice noodle
restaurant along the street where we all sat around a big table eating
the beef noodle soup that is the local specialty.
Conversation was difficult but they were all eager to try. One of the
girls, who was bizarrely wearing spectacles with no lenses in them,
was particularly good at English but shy of speaking as most of the
other students were boys. She did however explain about the spectacles
with the peculiar remark that "the lenses are in my eyes". It seems
not uncommon here that students wearing contact lenses will then add
lensless spectacles. I have no idea why.

When we left the restaurant, with the students insisting that we let
them pay for the food, and they went their ways while we went ours
they all ran up to us and shook hands or hugged us before running off
down the street to go home
And it's like that all the time. Everyone wants to be our friend.

I would post more but I have to go now because I've been invited to
dinner by a colleague of Erika, who I have never met and who works at
an entirely different school. It's a hard life.

More later.

(*Across the street from me is a barbecue restaurant where I can eat
ten skewers of spicy grilled mutton, a plate of grilled chicken wings,
ten skewers of assorted grilled vegetables and drink five large
bottles of beer and spend about three pounds in total. We go there a

Saturday, 22 October 2011

China: Adventures in Hairdressing

When I look around my class about a third of them - boys and girls -
have the pudding basin haircut that parents here seem to often inflict
on their kids. The others sport styles ranging from relatively normal
to rather outlandish. Whatever their chosen style there is no shortage
of places where they can get it done. Within a couple of minutes walk
of my front door there are at least a dozen barbers. They range from
small rooms opening directly onto the street, with one chair and one
mirror to the rather more elaborate, and strangely named "HoBoy Hair"
salon. If none of those appeal there are also people who, armed with
comm, scissors and a folding chair, will cut your hair at the side of
the road with people passing by and staring at you.

All of which may go some way to explaining why the department store
here has no fewer than six wig shops, presumably to enable you to hide
the more extreme hairstyling disasters.

So when I looked in the mirror and realised I needed a haircut I felt
distinctly nervous at the prospect. All I needed was to have it left
substantially as it is but cut a little shorter and a little tidier.
The problem was how to communicate that to a barber without risking
any of the more ridiculous possibilities. Fortunately one of the other
teachers overheard me mention it and offered to take me to his barber
and stay and translate for me. Seeing the state of his hair I was
still a little dubious about the idea but on the whole it seemed
better than trying to go unassisted.
So this morning he came and showed me how to get to his barber. It was
quite a long walk and he kept up a running commentary on the town,
pointing out all sorts of things that I'd missed - the best noodle
shops and dumpling restaurants, various internet cafes (that by
Chinese law cannot be sited within 500 metres of a school) and of
course the dozens of barber shops that I wasn't going to.
Eventually we turned into a street and he stopped and said, "Oh!"
The barber shop (which I wouldn't have been able to identify as such)
was closed and shuttered.
"Don't worry." he said, "I will call the owner."
And he did. He actually telephoned the barber and asked her to come
out and cut my hair. After a brief exchange she apparently agreed.
"She will be twenty minutes." he told me.
Twenty minutes later, after a walk in the small nearby park, he called
her again.
"She is just cooking her husband's lunch." he told me.
Finally, after almost an hour she arrived and opened up.
Inside she set about cutting my hair. I was still doubtful because
without my glasses I am far too short sighted to be able to watch the
progress in the mirror. It was really quite surreal. She chatted away
in Chinese with the equivalent of "Been on your holidays yet this
year, sir?" My colleague translated into English. I replied just as if
I were in a barber shop in England. He translated back and she asked
another question. If she asked, "Something for the weekend, sir." he
neglected to translate it.
When she had finished and I had retrieved my glasses I was relieved to
find it looking as I'd intended but she hadn't finished. She then
insisted on washing it and when I said that, as it was a bright sunny
day, I didn't need to have it dried, they were both horrified. I would
certainly become ill if I went out with wet hair, I was informed, and
I might die. I let her dry it.

Then I asked the price. It was five yuan - fifty pence. As we walked
back down the road I was told that had I gone to one of the other
barbers it night well have been double that. Given that the cheapest
barber I know in the UK charges six pounds and most are much more
expensive than that, I couldn't help thinking I'd had a bargain.

I wonder what the roadside barbers charge.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

China: An unplanned day

Sometimes days don't take the route you'd planned for them.
Take yesterday for example.
My plan had been to spend a couple of hours on the computer, go out
and try to buy a printer, come back and connect it up, spend an hour
or so on lesson preparation for the next couple of weeks, watch some
TV, log in to the chat room and talk to some friends, and finally go
to bed.
Well the origin and the final destination were the same but in between
things took a number of different turns.

The attempts to buy a printer proved fruitless. I found one printer in
one shop but it was a huge model at an insane price. As I was leaving
the shop I received a text message that Erika had sent to me and Mike
asking if we were at home. I texted back saying no and continued on
down to the DVD shop to see what he'd had in new this week.
About half an hour later, as I was putting my key in the outside lock
of our apartment block I got a call from Mike asking how long I'd be.
By the time I'd answered him the answer was "I'm here already."
In the apartment Erika was sitting with her friend. Now I don't want
anything here to sound judgmental, but it probably will so I'll
preface it by saying it isn't meant to. It's factual and the fact is
that her friend was one of her students, aged about seventeen. And
there you see that we have already crossed the line of what in the UK
would be considered acceptable professional behaviour. Teachers simply
don't make friends with their students. It's so deeply ingrained that
it feels wrong.
We were, apparently, all invited to dinner at her parents apartment,
which is a little better as now appropriate adults are involved.
Before that though there were a couple of hours to kill so we went out
and went to the pool hall and when we left the pool hall we bumped
into another group of Erika's students, two boys and a girl - all
sixteen or seventeen years old - and went to a bar where we drank beer
and played counting games with cards.
All of this was over my protests at the advisability of it. It's
perfectly legal, China has a legal age for the purchase of alcohol but
none for drinking it or going into bars. Maybe it's because there is a
relatively small age gap between Mike and Erika, and the students -
about eight years - compared to the gap between me and the students -
more like thirty six years - but I was decidedly uncomfortable with
the whole situation.
Things improved when the other students went home and we went back the
first students house. Her family were delighted to have us, giving us
an excellent meal and insisting that we drink quite a lot of beer with
The apartment was about the same size as ours but very differently
laid out and as we sat in their small living room more and more family
members arrived - brothers, uncles, aunts, friends of the family -
until it was really very crowded. Her mother piled the table high with
food and, though it contained some things that were very odd to us - a
large bowl of chicken's feet for example - it was all delicious. Only
the student spoke English, and fortunately rather good English -so
everything was conducted in translation. We were made to feel like a
combination of long lost relatives and revered guests. Everybody had
their photograph taken with us, individually and collectively.
After several hours one of the uncles suggested KTV.
I may have mentioned KTV before but for those who missed it, I need to
describe it now. It is a Chinese institution, here in Baiyin I know of
six KTVs and I haven't been looking for them. What it is, is a kind of
private Karaoke. Each room in a building will be separately equipped
for Karaoke and you rent a room by the hour. You and your friends pile
in, eat, drink and sing. The rooms vary. Last nights was a small room
with comfortable chairs and things rapidly got underway, were rapidly
after the Karaoke controls had been explained to us at least three
times by the patient employee.
Drink continued to flow, though I had by now reduced my own rate of
consumption to merely politely joining in whenever toasted by one of
the family.
Others were less wise and were considerably the worse for wear when we
finally left at about 10:45 but we did make it back in time for me to
try to connect in the chatroom but there was nobody there so I gave up
and went to bed.

Sometimes days don't follow the route you had planned for them but,
vague concerns aside, it had nevertheless been a pretty good day.

Friday, 14 October 2011

To Put Away Childish Things #30

I received an email recently from a friend who asked in passing if I
remember Coterill's. Now if you were brought up in the same,
relatively small town, that I was brought up in and if you are of a
similar age to me, then you certainly do remember this small toy shop
that was on the left as you head up the high street.
Nostalgia always colours our memories and when it's nostalgia for such
a long time ago the memories are likely to be almost completely wrong
but this is how I recall the shop. To begin with it was small and
anything that you remember from your childhood as being small probably
was, because most things look bigger when you are six. It was also
filled with toys which included all the ones that I have mentioned
before in this series. Football games, Mechano, Lego, Airfix kits –
everything. I recall particularly that when I started making Airfix
models I would build them, then study the colour chart and hurry off
to Coterill's to check if he had the required enamels in those tiny
metal pots (it was never as much fun when they started to replace them
with larger plastic pots). Then I would go home and paint the airplane
or tank or car – or, more likely, as I mentioned in an earlier piece
– historical figure. There was a vast range of colours to choose from
and at one time or another I probably went through most of them.

None of which is what really gave me a sense of dewy-eyed
reminiscence. No, what I really remember is balsa wood. In addition to
making Airfix models, where all the hard work is done before you get
your hands on them and all you do is glue and paint, I also went
through a phase of making balsa wood models. Mostly they were
buildings for my model railway but there were other things – vehicles,
spaceships : that kind of thing. Of course the thing about making that
kind of model is that you do all the work yourself with craft knives
(balsa is very soft and easy to cut), miniature saws and so on and to
do that you need the raw material, the wood. Coterill's sold packs of
balsa. They were assorted packs in random sizes. There were flat
sheets, lumpy blocks, pieces a foot long and a quarter inch square in
cross section, dowelling rods: a full range of mixed off-cuts and you
never knew what you would get. Of course you could pay the extra and
get exactly what you were looking for but I always went for the packs.
Then I cut them up and made them into models which were probably
terrible. The same paint used for the Airfix was used for these more
hand-crafted models.

It was a brief phase, I'm not an especially practical adult and I
wasn't a very practical child, and, until I was reminded of it by the
mention of Coterill's, I had forgotten it completely. Even now that
it's all come flooding back I can't accurately recall what the models
were of, or what they were like but I remember going into the shop and
buying that balsa. I remember the feel of it and the smell of it. I
remember cutting into it with a very sharp craft knife. I remember
prising the lids from those tiny paint tins – and how much harder it
was once they had been opened and resealed, stuck together with dried
enamel. I remember the white wood glue that dried into lumpy runs
around the joins and had to be scraped away with a blade. I remember
the smell of the paint and how I would keep on touching it to find out
if it was dry yet, leaving sticky fingerprints that needed to be
painted over.

If I don't remember the actual models then it really doesn't matter.
Nostalgia isn't about truth or even about normal memory. It's about
sense memory and I have remembered all of the sensations of doing it.
That's more than enough.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

China: School Life redux

And this you probably won't believe.

The school is, as I've said before, brand new. Some of the classrooms
are still being equipped. Today one was being equipped as a dance
Remember there are 3000 students in the school which means 3000
students in the halls at break. The large mirrors for the dance studio
walls were being carried through the very, very crowded halls by two
students aged about thirteen. The crowd of students was jostling and
pushing and several times they were almost knocked over as they
carried a piece of glass that was about four square metres which,
because they were kids, they could only hold horizontally.

In the UK there would be, and probably rightly in this case, a public
outcry. There would be investigations into who had authorised this.
Senior management heads would roll.

I couldn't believe what I was seeing and I'm truly amazed that no one
was injured.

As I say. Things can be very different in Chinese schools.

Monday, 10 October 2011

China: School Life

This weekend I worked on Sunday and it was because of an oddity of
Chinese scheduling. Last week was a holiday. Only four weeks into the
term and it was a holiday. Specifically October 1st was the National
Day Holiday but people had the whole week off.
At least some people did. Some people had part of the week off, two or
three days.
This is where it gets a bit complicated for schools.
The Middle schools basically have four grades - Junior 1 and 2 and
Senior 1 and 2. The junior classes had off the whole week but the
senior classes had off only Monday and Tuesday.
Even though we teach a mixture of junior and senior we were told to
take the whole week. When I asked what would happen in the lessons I
usually teach I was told that they would be taken by Chinese teachers.
Fair enough. I'm not going to complain about being given time off.

I was, however, also told that my holiday was from 1st to 7th of
October and that I would have to go in on Saturday 8th and Sunday 9th.
As I have no classes on those days it seemed odd. I questioned it and
found out that when the schools have holidays for one or two days the
days get shuffled forward to compensate so that last week, for seniors
only, Wednesday became a logical Monday with a Monday schedule,
Thursday became Tuesday, Friday became Wednesday and, of course,
Saturday and Sunday became Thursday and Friday. To confuse matters
even more although the juniors didn't have to come in on any of the
weekdays, the juniors who would have had classes on Thursday and
Friday did have to come in on the weekend. Every single one of them
showed up as normal.
Apparently this kind of thing is perfectly commonplace here.

There is another difference worthy of note. It's not in the scheduling
but in the attitude that is drilled into students right from the start
of their school lives. It's best illustrated by something that happens
at the end of every lesson. Before I am even out of the room one
student - presumably previously chosen by his class teacher - will be
at the board cleaning it with wet rags and a bucket of water. Another
will have a broom sweeping the floor clean. A third will be tidying
the teacher's desk.
Out in the corridors groups of students will be similarly employed,
sweeping and cleaning. I saw today a very rare instance of a piece of
chewing gum on the floor. A student was cleaning it up with a razor
blade. In every break the chrome on the hand rails will be polished
back to a shine, the halls returned to a perfect new condition. And
all of it is done by the students. I don't know if the school ever
uses professional cleaners but if they do there can't be much work for
Students are even used to clean out the toilets!

I can't imagine any school in the UK or the US even being allowed to
use students this way and, even if they were, it would most likely be
as a punishment and done grudgingly, if at all. Here the students seem
to compete for the privilege of doing it all.

A third oddity is one that may well account for this attitude though
it's one I can't bring myself to approve of. Coming from the west it
is very disturbing to now be working in a culture where physical
punishment is not just allowed but commonplace.A Chinese teacher
recently said to me, "I only beat them when they need it or when I get
angry." and all three of us teaching here in Baiyin have been told
that we should beat them if we need to. Naturally none us is ever
likely to do that. I'm only familiar with British law on the subject
not US law but in the UK we are only allowed to even touch a child to
prevent immediate physical danger: if he's about to fall out of a
third floor window, for example. We are not even allowed to be alone
in a room with a student. And now people are telling me that it's OK
to "beat them".

Sometimes school life here can be very different!

Friday, 7 October 2011

China: Day Trip to Lanzhou Part 3

Crossing the bridge was an interesting experience. To begin with,
although it is actually a road bridge with traffic crossing in both
directions, it was solidly packed with people crossing on foot. Here
and there there were also people crossing on bicycles and at intervals
part of the carriageway was blocked by salesmen with hand carts
offering various hot foods - chestnuts, corn on the cob, sweet
None of this stopped the flow of traffic which by driving slowly at
pedestrians until they got out of the way and sounding the horn when
they didn't, managed to continue flowing in both directions.

Foreigners are unusual in this part of China and though Lanzhou does
attract some western tourists, so that the stares are less blatant and
less frequent than in Baiyin, there are still stares. Occasionally we
even get asked by random Chinese if they can take their picture with
us. On the bridge a teenage couple insisted on the girl taking the
boy's photograph next to Mike who dwarfed the young man.

Once across we were at the foot of the hill where the park and its
beautiful buildings stretched up ahead of us. We inadvertently entered
through the exit gate but no one seemed bothered and we quickly set
out up the hill. A white marble terrace led past a waterfall and to
the first of a series of zigzag paths and stone steps that climbed
fairly steeply up. As we climbed we paused frequently to look back at
the ever-expanding view of the city which was simply amazing. On our
side of the river we could look down on the grey roofs of the older
buildings, or along the shore at various pagodas, but across the river
there was a gleaming modern city that looked brand new, as if it had
been set up there only minutes ago. The higher we climbed the more
magnificent it got.

There were occasional pergolas and follies beneath which tourists took
their rest in the shade. There were many tourists there, young
couples, older men and women, families on a day out. Here and there,
there were also western tourists, drawing the stares of the curious.
Half way up the hill, under one such ornate structure an old man was
playing an er-hu - the Chinese one stringed fiddle - and singing in
tones that I am sure were more to local tastes than mine.

We went onward and upward, past the pagoda which had looked like the
highest point when we were down on the road. Sadly it also looked
better from the road as at closer quarters it was covered in
scaffolding and undergoing renovation. The path wound round behind it
and we went on. Finally we reached a small tea garden where we decided
to sit for a while before starting down. Although we asked for beer,
and the waiter - who spoke good English - understood us, he chose not
to bring what we had ordered. Instead he brought two large plastic
cups and a very large flask of hot water. Into each cup he emptied the
contents of two plastic pouches. One contained a mixture of dried
leaves, fruits and twigs while the other contained several varieties
of rock sugar. He poured water on and informed us that this was a
Lanzhou specialty tea.
I sipped cautiously. It was cloyingly sweet. The addition of more and
more hot water failed to dilute the taste at all. The main effect of
the water was to further dissolve the sugar, making it sweeter still
and to soak into the dried vegetation causing it to expand and fill
the whole cup. I drank a couple of cups of it, adding more water
constantly but didn't really enjoy it. I don't have a very sweet
palate at the best of times.
When we had finished we retraced our steps to the road and hailed a
taxi to take us back to the bus station.
Our adventures were not quite ended yet though. Halfway along a very
busy dual carriageway the cab took a puncture. Refusing our offer to
pay the fare to that point the cabbie set about changing the wheel and
we set about finding another ride.
It was easier conceived than done. At the part of town all the passing
cabs already had fares. We still had the map but had no idea where we
were in relation to it. At a main junction we tried to relate the map
to the street signs but with little success. Fortunately at that
moment a cab stopped to let out a fare and we jumped in. In just a few
minutes we were at the bus station and after another short walk around
bought our tickets to return to Baiyin. Ten minutes later we were on
our way and five minutes after that the bus broke down. At least I
surmise that it broke down. All I can say with certainty is that the
driver came along saying something in Chinese and everyone got off. We
simply followed. Another bus pulled in behind and everyone got on. We
followed again.
An hour later we were back in the now familiar streets of Baiyin which
felt like coming home. We payed a visit to KFC, mainly to use their
toilets, and then looked in at a tiny music shop where we bought a few
DVDs and then rounded off a very satisfying day with a visit to the
pool hall.

I shall certainly be visiting Lanzhou again but, after a busy session
today comparing my map to one I found in English on the internet and
marking in a few places of interest, I shall hope to be better
prepared. It seems to be a city with much to offer.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

China: Day Trip To Lanzhou Part 2

As we walked it rapidly became apparent that China has embraced its own communist version of capitalism not just with open arms but with a warm friendly hug. The hotels are as big and impressive as any in the world and the streets are lined with shops selling every kind of consumer goods that anyone could possibly want. The thing that surprises the most is the number of banks. Just walking along one street, from a major junction down towards the train station, I stopped counting when I reached twenty - about half a mile in.
We were heading towards the station because that was where the cheaper hotels that I knew of were to be found. I went into one to inquire. It was difficult but we eventually established that, although it was a nice hotel with reasonably priced rooms, they didn't in fact have any free and that - this being a national holiday week - I would be unlikely to find any rooms anywhere.
Outside I consulted with Mike. The only reason for staying in Lanzhou had been that the last bus back to Baiyin is at seven O'clock and that seemed rather early to be returning.
On the other hand we didn't actually have any plan for anything to do in the evening so we abandoned the idea and decided to get the six-thirty bus back. (We are, apparently, equally paranoid about catching last buses and trains).
With that decision taken we were free to look for lunch. We soon found it.
One of the things that definitely makes life easier for travellers in China is the fact that many restaurants, even quite small ones, have picture menus. Combine that with the little card I carry that says in Chinese that I am allergic to mushrooms and buying meals becomes easy - providing you don't mind what actually comes on your plate. In the restaurant we found there was also a young waiter who had some English. We ordered a plate of shredded vegetables and some fried chicken. The chicken, unlike the same dish back home, was prepared in the usual way of chopping it up bone included, battering it and frying it. Once you get used to picking bones from your teeth and NEVER swallowing without chewing, it's actually delicious - all the better for not having "secret recipe" combinations of herbs and spices added to the batter. The vegetables were not readily identifiable beyond the shredded carrot, and were coated in a thin caramelly sauce which was initially odd but became quite compelling after a the surprise had worn off.
I really find it difficult to get used to the prices though. A meal for two, including two large bottles of beer and more  food than it was possible to eat came in at under three pounds. My salary here is peanuts but it's going to be very hard to spend it.
We strolled on the extra hundred yards to the splendid railway station, which has a very interesting architectural feature. As you approach you can see the tall columns that line the frontage and you can also see that there is something odd about them though your eye can't quite make out what exactly it is. At first I thought that perhaps they weren't columns at all but were, instead, painted onto the front of the building. It was only when I got really close that I realised that they are half columns with the illusion being caused by their shape which was two concave columns joined back to back rather than a convex column. The effect was that whichever direction the sunlight came from the columns look, from a distance, like flat, painted features.

I took some photographs, which will appear in a separate entry, while we decided on our next move.

Our next move was to take a cab to the Yellow River Bridge, a destination that our FAO had not only recommended but written down for us so that we could show the cab driver. We weren't expecting much. The last time someone had told me about a beautiful bridge it had turned out to be the very plain concrete one across the river on our day-trip to the country.
The ride turned out to be longer than we had anticipated and rather more nerve-wracking. Chinese taxi drivers are clearly trained in the same techniques as Cairo ones. They do not believe in the use of brakes and they change lanes with a randomness that is dizzying. They aim the vehicle at gaps that are clearly too narrow but which magically become just wide enough at the last possible moment. We passed the front of a moving bus so closely that I could have reached my hand from the window and wiped the dust from its bumper. We dodged and weaved in and out of fast-moving traffic until I was forced to shut my eyes to preserve my sanity.
Finally we were let out from our wild ride at one end of the bridge. When we had recovered we looked at it.
It's a decent piece of engineering with its steel arches but nonetheless remains a rather ordinary bridge and were that all there was to see we would have been powerfully disappointed. Fortunately it isn't. Across the river we could see a park with a lot of very lovely buildings.
We started out across the bridge.

(To be concluded in Part 3)

China: Ornamental

I was told before I came to China that it would be impossible to buy official CDs and DVDs here and it proves to be the case. Even large department stores and nationwide chains, sell what are, when examined, pirate copies of DVDs and, because they are all that is available, people buy them. It is quite interesting though to look at the language used on the sleeves.
I know some people like to laugh at the language used, and some oddities can raise a smile, but I find it more interesting to wonder how these bizarre translations come about and, indeed, to wonder what was actually meant.

Sometimes the source of the confusion is clear. For example on the sleeve of a DVD of "Warehouse 13" we find this sentence.

"...there is a teapot, if you make a wish it, and then the friction of its outer wall, it will be randomly generated inside the same thing."

The phrase "an then the friction of its outer wall" is a noun-verb confusion joined to an idiomatic problem and when those things are corrected we get the obvious "and then rub the outside".

Some though baffle utterly. I have struggled in the same paragraph to derive the meaning of

"A football, you throw it out later, it will circle the Earth's rotation about itself a few days before returning to throwing hands (of course you have been a different matter it Zayun)."
Most of that is perfectly clear but what on Earth does the parenthetical addition mean?

Another, that almost certainly has a simple explanation for those who speak Chinese, occurs on the notes to the movie "Super". Most of the notes fall into the strange but comprehensible category. Some fall into the utterly baffling category. The one that I am sure has an explanation shows up whenever we get the common formula "character name (actor name)" in the notes, and the thing I don't understand is the addition, every single time, of the word "ornaments".
So we get
...his wife, Sarah (Liv Tyler ornaments)
...a man named Jaques (Kevin Bacon ornaments)
...a local comic shop mentally ill cute girl, LIbby (Allen Peggy ornaments)

My best guess is that it's meant to be something like "acted by" or "played by" but I can't see how to get from one to the other.

One final oddity is that the entire sleeve - including the copyright warning - has been directly copied from the US release except for this text which has clearly been translated into Chinese and then translated back. It makes me wonder why they didn't just copy the original for this as well.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

China: Day Trip To Lanzhou Part 1

The bus ride from Baiyin to Lanzhou is through some rather bleak landscape. Predominantly grey and brown there is much evidence that the people are trying to do something with it, in the form of ruler straight rows of young trees planted across the otherwise barren hillsides. Sandy roads weave between the peaks and ridges and tiered stone walls protect the main road from land slippage. Everywhere there are holes and caves. I speculated on what they might be - dwellings, evidence of old mine workings, evidence of planned levelling of the ground. It was all speculation though and I'm no wiser now than I was before.
There are frequent concrete drainage culverts and a great spiders web of power and telegraph lines running near the road.

After some confusion with prices when buying the tickets we had boarded the bus for Lanzhou at the Baiyin station and started down the forty-five minute route. The demarcation between the city and the surrounding desert was sharp and now, as we approached Lanzhou the demarcation was equally prominent. One minute we were driving on a straight highway through that landscape and the next we were passing a series of advertisements for mooncake and then into the city.

Looking up, Lanzhou was impressively modern. Skyscrapers in all sorts of designs towered above us and around us. At street level it was more typically Chinese. Rows of smaller shops with open fronts plied their trade. We disembarked and set about the tasks that we wanted to achieve. Lacking a map we set off in a random direction. We were planning to stay two days and needed to find rooms at a hotel. The first problem, of course, was how to find a hotel. We had Chinese to enable us to ask and didn't even know the written down symbols to recognise on the fronts of buildings.
Across the street I saw the word "Bookshop" in English.
We crossed and went in. After a lot of picking up and pointing, we left with a map of the city (all in Chinese), our current location marked on it, the location of a street with hotels also marked on it and a pocket sized Chinese-English dictionary: the latter to facilitate the "point and look hopeful" school of communication.

We went on our way but were distracted by a department store. The store occupies the first six floors of a very high tower and promised us cafes and bars on the sixth floor. Sadly all access to said floor was blocked as it was, we gathered being renovated. WHat was interesting was the electronics and electrical goods floor, at least half of which was devoted to 3D TV. There were, as far as I could tell, four rival systems on offer and huge demonstrations of each. It was impressive stuff and shows just how far China's revolution in consumerism has advanced.
What space wasn't taken up with 3D TV was largely kitchen electricals but also included a decent sized display of massage chairs retailing at around 3000 pounds.
We, of course, left the store without buying anything.

Not so the next, far tinier store, selling music and DVDs where we purchased a selection of DVD TV series. The packaging gives it away. None of this stuff is officially licensed. Inside an impressively put together box a smaller cardboard sleeve contains a plastic bag with a DVD in it. Boxed sets of TV series are in the kind of sleeve you buy in packs of fifty but then put inside a printed copy of a sleeve where the words Season 1 have the addendum " to 5" added in a different typeface. Most telling of all the two Hulk movies are packaged on a single disc and I can't see anyone involved in the second movie allowing the abomination that is the first movie to be packaged that way.

On we went, still looking for a hotel but now also looking for food. According to my map reading we would soon reach a junction where a right turn would put us on the road to the railway station, and into a district where I knew from the internet that there were some decent cheaper hotels to be found.

Parts 2 and 3 will follow later.

Monday, 3 October 2011


Just a brief post today. I have the week off and I'm heading down into the provincial capital for a few days. In fact I have to leave to catch the bus in about thirty minutes. All of which explains my brevity but has nothing to do with the post.

The post is about packaging. I have come to the conclusion that if there is ever an "International Secure Packaging" competition China will win it hands down. I first noticed it when I bought a packet of toffees in Yangshou. They were in a cardboard tube which appeared to have been sealed with something not unlike superglue.  A sharp knife was required to dispose of it. Inside the toffees were wrapped in a foil tube. This defeated even the knife, eventually yielding to repeated stabbing with scissors. Inside each individual toffee was wrapped in a paper wrapper which could, with effort, be dealt with using fingernails.

Since then I've noticed it everywhere. Loaf of bread? Knife required. Packet of crackers? Scissors. Jar of jam? Careful application of boiling water to the metal lid followed by ten minutes struggle - no torque wrench being available.*  Large pot of noodles? Stab through the lid with a knife, use scissors to cut a hole in it. Everything is so securely packaged that it is a challenge to open. Even a box of six eggs had to be opened on the "hinge" side of the lid with a pair of scissors. The best example was when my flatmate washed a pair of jeans with an unopened packet of tissues accidentally left in the pocket. They went through a vigourous wash cycle, an equally vigourous rinse cycle, a positively pounding spin cycle and emerged unscathed. The packaging was undamaged, the shape ws still there and inside, pristine, folded and dry the tissues were still as new.

Chinese packaging is probably the toughest in the world.

(* Actually, as I was writing this post my flatmate inadvertently found a new way to open jam. Unfortunately dropping it on the floor to let it shatter seems to leave rather too much glass mixed in for it to be considered very practical.)

I will do a full report when I return from Lanzhou.