Sunday, 22 January 2012
Time and internet cafes permitting there may be some updating.
See you later.
Friday, 20 January 2012
Apparently some years it snows in Baiyin and some years it doesn't.
It's only a light dusting but it is snow. The fact that it is so cold and the ground has been frozen for weeks probably means that even with such a small amount it will be around for a while.
Don't forget to check out all the latest pictures over at my other blog www.aworldlens.blogspot.com
Wednesday, 18 January 2012
I took a walk to the bookshop the other day, a stroll along the busy streets of Baiyin, dodging the traffic, weaving through the crowds and avoiding the uncovered manholes. There is precious little in the bookshop that I can read but it's an odd thing. Even when I can't understand anything they have for sale I still like being in bookshops, being surrounded by books. And they do have an art section where I can look at the pictures in the books. I may not be able to read Chinese but it doesn't stop me browsing.
The route to the bookshop is along familiar streets. It's one of the alternate routes to the school where I teach. Usually I head through the edge of the park and watch the morning dancers in their synchronised exercise but occasionally I take one of the other paths for a little variety.
It had been a few weeks since I had gone this way though and it had changed.
We are on Spring Break at the moment and on countdown to the Chinese New Year. The rules by which the date of the New Year is calculated are complicated, the Chinese calendar involves, among other things, occasional additional months. This year, when all calculations are done, the result is that New Year is on 23rd January – just a few days away now. This means that every street corner suddenly has stalls selling fireworks, lanterns, wall hangings, brightly coloured decorations in all shapes and sizes.
As I followed the familiar route to the bookshop, it seemed that that street had even more than the others. Every inch of the pavement along the main street, and all of the side streets, was covered. The goods are usually laid out on the carpets on the ground with the bright red lanterns hanging above, ranging from the size of a tennis ball to huge things that two people couldn't put their arms around. The fireworks stalls have rolls of the ubiquitous firecrackers but also huge dangerous looking cylinders, red and yellow cones a foot high, spheres, cubes, pyramids – fireworks in a bewildering array of sizes and shapes.
On the decorations stalls there are red plastic squares with cut-out designs in Chinese letters, or animal shapes. There are elaborate circular displays a yard across; there are streamers and posters; floor, wall and ceiling decorations.
It's quite a display.
Spring festival is in the air.
The supermarkets are also full of similar goods. The ends of every aisle have their own selections of decorative wares for the crowds that now fill them. A week ago I could go and do my shopping in twenty minutes. Now the task is much harder as I need to fight my way through the masses and queue for double that time to get to the checkout.
Everyone is preparing for the holiday and all the students who are normally away at their Universities are back in town. Many of the pavement stalls are being run by students eager to make some money before they return to their studies.
I returned home from my browsing expedition and settled in for a night of DVD watching. It proved to be a more difficult task than anticipated as the firecrackers started. From the window of my fourth floor apartment I watched the block opposite. From each window long strings of firecrackers had been hung, exploding and flashing like fire creeping up the side of the building. As one lot finished another started. The thunderous cacophony rolled around the city for most of the night. The brief interludes of silence were a welcome respite but inevitably were replaced by more explosions. And there was still a week to go to the New Year.
Sadly I won't be here for the actual New Year festivities. That's because I'll be in Xi-An. Like everyone else in China, I'm on holiday and I have my plans.
On the evening of the 22nd I get on a train and sleep through the night journey that sees me arriving in Xi-An early on 23rd. I have a couple of days there visiting friends and then the big part of my journey – twenty eight hours on a train to Guilin followed by forty minutes in a taxi to Yangshuo where it will be midnight when I arrive.
I've already written about Yangshuo and I shall write more when I return – on a thirty eight hour train journey!
There will probably be some shorter posts in the next couple of days and I may manage some from the Yangshuo internet café, but for now this will be my final long post until I get back, around thirteenth February.
I'll wish everybody a happy Chinese New Year.
See you again later.
Tuesday, 17 January 2012
Monday, 16 January 2012
Here are the ones that have been missing.
The Chinese Bookshop
I cannot comprehend their alien symmetries but the pages paint pictures on my eyes and I continue to browse. A new meaning to "just looking"
13th Jan (12th was already posted}
He is selling frozen eels from a box in the market square, smashing them into smaller pieces with a hammer.
The three-wheeled rubbish cart rattles along the street playing ice-cream-van Jingle Bells.
Overnight every street corner has become a fireworks stall. Red lanterns hang above the carpeted pavement and the laughing traders.
Fire crackers hang in long streamers from the apartment windows on every floor. A rolling explosion of a million momentary cracks fills the city with constant celebration.
Wednesday, 11 January 2012
Tuesday, 10 January 2012
At the artificial-flower market stall giant, red, heart-shaped leaves have been painted with gold characters. Xièxie.
In the park an old woman dressed all in purple - coat, trousers, hat - walks backwards along the path, slapping her hands at her body as he goes. And I have been in China for long enough for this not to seem strange.
I just received an email from my publisher with details of an offer that you can, should you be inclined to do so, use to get 25% off the cost of any of my books.
If by any chance you didn't know that I had written any books this is your chance to find out about them.
They can be found by going to the publishing web site's author spotlight which is at
Details of how to get the discount are as follows.
1. Order the books.
2. When you get to the checkout use coupon code LULUBOOKUK305
The following terms and conditions apply
"Disclaimer: Use coupon code LULUBOOKUK305 at checkout and receive 25% off your order. The maximum savings with this promotion is £50. You can only use the code once per account, and you can't use this coupon in combination with other coupon codes. This great offer ends on 31 January 2012 at 11:59 PM PST. While very unlikely Lulu.com reserves the right to change or revoke this offer at anytime, and of course we cannot offer this coupon where it is against the law to do so. Finally, Lulu.com incurs the cost of this discount, so it does not impact the Author's proceeds of the book. This coupon does not work with self-purchases, i.e., if you are the author of the book you are trying to purchase, you cannot use this coupon. This coupon will work for multiple titles but savings cannot go past the maximum of £50."
And I said "Damn" at the start because only a week ago a friend of mine purchased nine of my books to be distributed among various other friends as presents. Could have saved some money there. Oh well, c'est la vie.
Please feel free to tell all your friends and relations about the offer or, if you don't want to inflict my writing on friends and relations please feel free to tell all your enemies about it.
Monday, 9 January 2012
Saturday, 7 January 2012
Back in Baiyin I lay down for a nap.
Jane, the Foreign Administrator not Jane Li the Primary school teacher, had said that she wanted to take me, Mike and Erika out for a meal. I could happily not have eaten anything else but she insisted and I guessed that it would be a noodle bar or a dumpling restaurant where I could just pick at it politely. She had said she would call for us at six. So I lay down for a nap intending to take a quick shower at five thirty and get changed.
The apartment bell rang at five twenty-five. I was still in bed. No time for a shower, just time for a splash of cold water in the face and the clothes from the wedding thrown back on and then out.
In the taxi Jane Li met us, a surprise as I'd been expecting the other one. She directed the taxi driver and we appeared at first to be heading into one of the mazes of streets that are threaded between the residential tower blocks. It didn't look as if there would be a restaurant there but then we turned a corner and in front of us was a very impressive hotel. A broad sweep of steps, wide enough to have a multi-tier fountain in the centre led up to a large entrance. The hotel looked modern and expensive. The inside lived up to the outside's promise. A wide wood panelled reception was sparsely but very tasteful decorated with oriental pottery and silk screens. We were led into a private dining room where a table was set for ten.
It was, I realised, another banquet.
Soon the others arrived. In addition to the three of us and the two Janes, there were five of the senior teachers from our school, only one of whom I knew.
The meal progressed but by now I was struggling to eat. It was all the highest quality. The fish was absolutely delicious, the mutton fell off the bone at the merest touch of a chopstick, the vegetables were steamed to perfection, the duck was crispy and wonderful.
And my ability with chopsticks had finally deserted me completely. It comes and goes at the best of times but this time I couldn't manage them at all. I was suffering from chopstick-fatigue after three days of constant eating I seemed to have lost the use of my fingers. Reluctantly, I asked for a fork.
The meal went on and the company was great. When the food was finished the drinking started with bottles of wine and baijo and crates of beer arriving in great quantity. It was a relaxed evening – perhaps too relaxed as I heard Erika explaining the relative severity of American swearwords to the fascinated teachers. The called me over as the British expert to explain "bollocks".
We discussed all sorts of more normal things too – the Chinese and British education systems, how China has changed over the twenty years that I have been visiting (not everyone there considered the changes to be progress), the death of Kim Jong Il and how it might affect China or the West, Chinese and western literary traditions, different forms of poetry.
It was after eleven when we finally left and took taxis back to out apartment.
So at 7:20 dressed up for a wedding in suits and ties (and overcoats because it was very cold) we waited outside our apartment. Jill arrived on time in a taxi and we took a short ride to the bride's apartment. By 7:40 we were being served bowls of steaming hot pork noodles. The tradition is that the groom comes to the bride's apartment with his friends and bearing gifts but that the bride's family and friends will not let him in until he has shown that he is sufficiently eager. It was quite funny to watch as they barricaded the door to the apartment. The women were shouting and only allowing to open a crack while the men outside tossed in handfuls of sweets as a distraction. It went on for at least fifteen minutes and then there was the second obstacle of the bedroom door to be overcome. Inside the bride was waiting with yet more people preventing him entering. Another ten minute struggle ensued after which he still had to persuade the bride to leave with him to go to the wedding.
Eventually that was all dome and we followed them down to the street where a convoy of black limousines was waiting to take us on the forty-five minute trip to the grooms home.
Unlike the venue on Saturday, the groom's home was in relatively prosperous farming country and his family seemed to have a substantial size farm with both open fields and a number of poly-tunnels. The fields were barren at this time of year but his father showed us around the tunnels. These had a construction that I have seen much of in the province. A long wall, maybe thirty metres is constructed of earth to a height of about six feet. Two smaller walls are constructed at the ends. A framework of canes is then erected to support the polythene that acts as a greenhouse. These were full of winter vegetables all merrily growing in spite of the cold conditions outside.
And, of course, back outside people were merrily enjoying the wedding in spite of those selfsame cold conditions. We were seated at a table and given more bowls of noodles while in a kitchen in the corner half a dozen women were busy preparing the main feast. I ate a bowl and pretended to eat a second bowl that was poured in to refill it and as soon as I could I stood up and poked my head briefly into the room where most of the men were sitting but the smoky haze was like a thick fog and two seconds were enough to drive me back out.
For a while I wandered around taking pictures. The people in the kitchen happily posed for me and no one seemed to object to the intrusion of my camera, though some guests seemed completely bemused by my presence there at all.
As I walked about they were busy clearing away some tables while a man with a microphone was getting set up. They rolled out a carpet and the bride and groom came out. They stood on the carpet and the ceremony proceeded. I, of course, understood almost nothing. The man with the microphone said a lot of things in Chinese. From time to time the happy couple answered him, sometimes with words and sometimes with bows. Rings were exchanged. Certificates were presented. Someone that I took to be the best man kept running out and trying to force the groom to bow lower by jumping on his back. (Best man seems to be the traditional post for acting the fool the world over.)
At the end the bride and groom retreated to hold court in separate rooms. Knowing that there would be less smoke there I chose to visit the bride.
The room was crowded with people offering best wishes but as soon as we entered Mike and I were seated – the present occupiers of the chairs being incredible eager to see us comfortable. I had been told by Jane that we would be honoured guests but hadn't really realised just how true that would be. The bride took a full half an hour talking to just us. We were in comfortable armchairs while a few other guests sat elsewhere and others filled the room standing. The bride sat on the edge of a large bed on which another world-wide wedding icon – "the drunk uncle" had passed out.
In a moment when she was talking to Michael I looked around the room. It was that curious Chinese mixture of living room and bedroom – furnished with a bed, a lot of armchairs and a heating stove. The walls were decorated with posters that seemed to be advertising baby shampoo and the ceiling with an elaborate pattern of Dr Pepper wrappers.
Soon it was time to eat again. By now it was becoming routine. An hour passes and then there's another meal. And another. They had set the tables back up and started loading them with the usual random pile of two dozen different dishes. I keep trying to explain that in the UK any one of those dishes, perhaps accompanied by a few vegetables, would be a complete meal but I always get the impression that no one actually believes me. They think that such a system would be too crazy to be true.
When we had ploughed our way through enough food to keep a small army going for a month (including the pause for the double cup baijo toast with our hosts) it was almost time for us to leave.
The party would clearly continue on without us but we had something else.
You've guessed it.
There was another meal to go to.
Thursday, 5 January 2012
It's very simple.
On my last day of teaching I was given a crate of oranges - 96 in total - as a Christmas gift from the school. I have no idea why they do this or why they think it's a good idea but every teacher in the school had a crate - including Mike who doesn't like oranges so I have ended up with 192. I decided that I'd give some away as there is no possibility that I can eat them before they start going bad.
I had agreed to teach a primary school class on Sunday morning at nine forty. The building that it was in is, Jane Li told me, probably the oldest still standing in Baiyin. It looks it. Inside the corridors were dirty and the plaster peeling. The classroom was cleaner but very basic. About twenty kids were sitting waiting for the lesson. For these I had to teach only twenty minutes before another group would replace them for a forty minute session. We ran through some animal vocabulary games, sang Old Macdonald had a farm and I gave everyone an orange*. I was a great hit. The second group were weaker but we did the same thing again and then for the last ten minutes I let everyone demonstrate their individual party pieces that they had learned in class and once again I was a great hit.
It was only as we were leaving that Jane Li said that we would now go to another wedding meal. This was a different wedding, another of her friends named Wendy. Or more precisely this was a different pre-wedding feast. This time it was in a hotel and was the standard Chinese feast where dozens of different dishes – sweet, salt, sour – arrive one after another at the table.
Before it began there was a ceremony – which , I was told, was not the wedding – on the small stage. The bride- and groom-to=be stood looking rather nervous while the bride's father and mother sat on chairs. Initially the groom addressed them, in Chinese, as "uncle" and "aunt" but after much bowing and exchanging of gifts changed his address to "father" and "mother".
There was more bowing – to the parents, to each other, to the guests – and then the meal began.
It was delicious but I was starting by now to wonder how I could possibly eat more. I seemed to have spent almost every waking hour recently either teaching or eating. The cold dishes came first – bean shoots, cucumber, assorted vegetables, cold rice noodles, cold meats, gelatinised pork fat cubes – the usual selection.
The hot dishes followed in a bewildering array. One arrived, containing what looked like a joint of pork. Jane Li moved it around with her chopsticks and I realised that it had a snout. What we were looking at was a pigs head, boiled and sliced but easily reassembled. Eventually the meal was done and we left the restaurant. Surely now we were done.
Not a bit of it.
Jane Li had spent the meal arranging for us to go to the actual wedding ceremony and another meal. She couldn't come but had roped in another teacher – Jill – to escort us. And more, she and her husband wanted to invite us for a meal at their favourite dumpling restaurant tonight.
The meal at the dumpling restaurant had been fine though I was filled near to bursting by the end of it having been fed half a dozen vegetable dishes, a similar number of plates of assorted dumplings and a large bowl of spicy french fries. Fortunately it was still early when we finished because the wedding tomorrow involved being picked up at 7:20.
I'm not sure what I had been expecting of the New Year's Eve party but it certainly wasn't what I got. I had realised that it would be more elaborate than previously expected when I was called during the wedding to ask if I wanted to perform in the show. I agreed to read some of my poetry to an audience who would almost certainly not understand a single word.
The teacher with the cab arrived on the dot at four O'clock and we drove the short distance to the Baiyin Hotel. This is the best hotel in the city and I had eaten there twice before at teachers' events. This time we were in the large banqueting hall in the building to the rear of the hotel. It was filled with tables set for ten and there was a stage on which sound and lighting technicians were busy setting up. I had contemplated changing from the formal clothes I'd worn to the wedding meal into something a bit more comfortable but looking around at the suits that everyone was wearing I was certainly glad that I had not.
We sat chatting for a while – our table being one of three that contained the English department – and then the entertainment began.
It kicked off with the senior staff of the school all in matching suits standing in a row on the stage reading a long poem in Chinese. A very long poem. It went on for at least twenty minutes and while you might expect me to be bored, it was evident that everyone in the room was bored. As department heads, administrators and senior staff all took their turns at reading a few lines, the room was filled with a buzz of inattentive conversation and no one at all was looking towards the stage. When they had finished though things became more interesting. Department staff performed dances and songs and humourous skits and generally hammed it up shamelessly. The women from my department did a traditional Tibetan dance, the mans department in brightly-coloured fright wigs started with a "chicken dance" and moved on to several other bizarrely choreographed pieces. The history department did a weird marionette show. Another department did a fashion show that featured the men in a James Bond style catwalk routine.
And I read my poems.
The show was great but there was a downside. It was put on before the meal was served so that by the time dishes started arriving most people had already drunk bottles of beer, red wine or baijo and were feeling very hungry. Having eaten so much at lunch time I wasn't especially in need of food but at a banquet not eating isn't an option. For over an hour food kept on coming with all the usual varieties of fare represented in a more elaborate version of the wedding feast from earlier.
By the time we had finished I was feeling very full but as we had started so early and as it was New Year's Eve I hadn't quite finished.
It was about eight when the party ended and people started going home but Mike and I and Erika had other plans. Instead of going home we went off in search of a bar. We knew where we wanted to end up but called briefly into another bar. It was a nice place, decorated with several Christmas Trees and lots of coloured lights but after one beer we moved on. The bar we were going to is imaginatively called "Bar" and is located in a sleazy back street that has lots of flashing neon, dark corners and piles of rubbish. Bar is a different proposition. Inside it's comfortable and well decorated and looks like a reasonably up market western bar. It was very busy. We sat in one of the downstairs booths drinking slowly and chatting and waiting for midnight. Mike and Erika, noticing that the bar had hookah water pipes shared one. The fumes from it were nowhere near as objectionable as the general smoky atmosphere. Living in a country that has sensibly banned smoking in bars, I have found this aspect of Chinese life very difficult.
At various times people came to try to talk to us and Erika, who has spent a lot more effort than either Mike or me, in trying to learn some Chinese, tried to talk to them. The truth is that in the circumstances communication didn't really matter.
At abou eleven thirty a couple of more-than-usually persistent guys brought over bottles of beer and insisted that we drank with them, toasting in the Chinese fashion by drinking beer down in single goes from shot glasses.
And then it was midnight.
Outside we could hear firecrackers. The light from them flickered across the coloured blinds on the windows. We toasted the new year and continued toasting it with our new friends until about eleven twenty when we finally gave up and left to go home.
As I walked down the street I thought that my New Year excesses were no complete.
I was wrong.
Well, as I said in the last post, last week was a very busy Christmas weekend. It was a late lie-in and a gentle stroll compared to this weeks round of hectic socialising. One thing that is clear about living in China is that Chinese hospitality is very hard to refuse. People invite you to things, expect the answer to always be "yes" and insist on paying for virtually everything.
Let's start at the beginning and take the New Year weekend in order.
I had to teach on Friday but it was my normal Friday schedule of two lessons of forty five minutes each in the afternoon so it wasn't exactly an onerous task. The classes were a bit of a nightmare. It was their final lesson before two weeks of exams followed by the long spring break and they were not in the mood for learning. They were uncooperative, misbehaved and noisy. Nevertheless it was only for ninety minutes so I got through it, albeit in a frustrated fashion.
It was in the evening when the social whirl started.
Jane, our administrator is responsible for schools in the city of Baiyin itself. She has a counterpart – Jane Li – who is responsible for other schools in the district of Baiyin. We have recently met her and taught some demonstration lessons for her and helped set up some primary school exams and she had asked Mike and I to dinner with her and her teenaged niece to say thank you. She took us off to a very nice restaurant and we had an excellent meal (even if the rendered gelatinous pork fat was pretty horrible.) and a couple of beers. She was a good hostess, quizzing us – me in particular because of my greater teaching experience – about western teaching methods and how we thought they could improve the Chinese teaching methods and exam regimes. Her niece, though understandably shy in the presence of three teachers (one of whom was her aunt) tried valiantly to practice her English and the meal was a great success.
As we were about to leave Jane Li reminded us that tomorrow we were going to a wedding. She would pick us up at about ten for a long drive into the countryside to the village where the wedding was happening.
She was as good as her word and at ten O'clock we were heading off to a village somewhere in the hills that surround the city. At this time of year the drive is fairly bleak – through a dry and barren-looking series of hills along a twisting highway. We passed through a number of villages but anyone who has in mind a quaint English village or perhaps a small rural American community will be thinking along the wrong lines.
These rural Chinese village serve the same function in that they are agricultural centres for the province but they bear no physical resemblance. They are clusters of brick and concrete buildings, squat low and ugly. When I think of a village I think of quaint thatched roofs, black and white exterior walls, perhaps a pleasant village pub, a green with a pond and ducks. These "villages" were none of that. They looked very unpleasant places to live.
The village that we eventually arrived at was a little larger – small town sized – with a school and shops and businesses as well as the agricultural trappings. We turned off the dusty main street into a narrow side road where the bride's house was and it was pretty obvious which one we heading to as, at our approach, a stream of loud bangs and bright flashes from a roll of firecrackers, went off.
The house was a series of single storey buildings. In front of it was a large stack of bamboo poles leaning against one of the walls and a yard full of scaffolding. In between them the party was going on. There were dozens of people standing around or sitting at the round tables that had been set up. Children, in clothes considerably brighter than the warm overcoats most adults wore, dodged between their legs, running around and playing. The cooks, a group of women under a tent that looked as if it should have come out of an episode of M*A*S*H shooed them repeatedly away from the cauldrons of bubbling liquid.
We were greeted by Amanda, the bride-to-be and her brother James and ushered into a room where a dozen or so men sat around smoking and drinking baijo. The bride was an English teacher and so there were other English teachers among the guests for us to speak to. None of them spoke English as well as James who sat talking with us. I couldn't really stand the smoky atmosphere so I went back outside.
James and Mike followed and we were quickly asked to sit down at one of the tables with other guests where we were served bowls of pork noodles. Before either of us had finished we were being asked to take a second bowl. Apparently it is not uncommon to finish off four bowls at a sitting. James picked up one of the many extra bowls from the table and poured it into my half empty one. It was, he explained, bad luck to change your bowl as it means a change in your fortunes and specifically, at a wedding, means a change of wife.
When I had eaten to the hosts satisfaction I was allowed to leave the table with another of the guests taking my place immediately.
Today wasn't, in fact, the wedding. It was a pre-wedding feast for the villagers and the brides friends. Looking around I went into another room. This was where most of the brides friends, the other female English teachers, were gathered. Being an all female gathering no one was smoking so I decided to stay and chat there. Chinese apartments often do not distinguish between living room and bedroom and this was no exception. The small room was furnished as both. I sat on the edge of the bed and looked through the wedding album. This was also typical of what many couples in China do. They have very elaborate wedding albums created with photography in many different places before the wedding takes place. Here there were two albums with posed photographs in impressive buildings, walking in the woods or on the beach, or in the photographer's studio. It would be damning with faint praise to say that they were professional standard. They were easily of gallery standard.
The teachers were all eager to practice their English with us and it was almost an hour later when Jane Li announced unexpectedly that we could have a trip out to the island. The three of us, along with another teacher and James, drove off to take a look.
It was the island that we visited once before but now there was no building work going on and no people around and it was extremely peaceful.
The river between the island and the shore was frozen and the oil-drum bridge caused the ice to creak and crack as we crossed.
We walked across to the other shore where the edge of the water was frozen in among the pebbles and stones of the beach. It was a beautiful sunny day, cold and crisp but perfect for a walk. Even here in the country the pollution haze was visible though, turning the opposite shore into a blurred shimmer instead of a crisp line.
We walked around, rested in the tranquility and then went back to the wedding where we arrived just in time for the main meal – the noodles having served merely as a traditional appetiser.
This time there were many different dishes, steamed and boiled vegetables, fish, noodles, duck, mutton. The table was soon covered and everyone was tucking in, reaching across with chopsticks to grab whatever food appealed and taking it straight from the dishes to their mouths without an intervening plate. A boiled chicken was brought out in a tureen full of thin chicken soup. A plate piled high with a mound of sweet sticky rice and fruit came next.
Conversation was lively and animated. Beer and baijo flowed in mind boggling quantities. The bride and groom made a circuit of all the guests with a tray on which two small cups stood. At each guest they were filled with baijo and the guest drank both to symbolise the union.
The party was clearly set to continue for much longer but we had to go. We had another event to attend in the evening (and by the evening I mean starting at four O'clock) the teachers' end of term/New Year's Eve party. Reluctantly we climbed back into the car and headed back to the city.