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.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012


I've come across some pretty bonkers bureaucracy in my time but this
morning has become the all time unassailable winner.
Now I don't know if this is official Chinese policy or a whim of the
Gansu Police or just some arbitrary bit of annoyance dreamed up by an
individual officer but I swear this is true.

I have to get a new picture for next year's residency permit; a
standard passport-sized photograph. So far, so mundane.

So I went to the photographic shop to get them.

They took pictures. I waited. When I asked I was told that they have
to email them directly to the police department to be checked against
last year's pictures.
Word came back. They were rejected.
We took more pictures with the same result, then more pictures with
the same result.

It seems that the pictures have to be both

a) New pictures, not copies of last year's pictures and
b) EXACTLY IDENTICAL to last year's pictures.

By identical I mean that they must have the same background. I must
have my hair exactly the same, my facial expression exactly the same,
the angle of my head exactly the same. I MUST BE WEARING THE SAME

It's nuts. I don't even know what shirt I was wearing last year. I had
to go because I was due at school and then return after class. In the
meantime the shop had found the file copy of last year when,
apparently I wore a light shirt and a dark jacket. They lent me a dark
jacket (several sizes too small. Posed me in the chair until they were
satisfied that I looked like last year and took more pictures.

Ten minutes later they were accepted.
This is the craziest procedure I have ever come across. Even by
Chinese standards.

Saturday, 23 June 2012


One problem I've had in China is getting stuff to read.
Books in English are available but, even in large bookshops in large
cities, the selection is miniscule. In Xi-An I checked the English
section of a book store that covered five floors of a shopping mall.
There were less than thirty books in total and all of them were the
kind of boring classics that get included in school curriculums.* If
I wanted to read Oliver Twist or Pride and Prejudice or The Importance
of Being Ernest again, I'd have brought them with me. In desperation
for something to pass the time on a forthcoming twenty hour train ride
I ended up buying The Complete Father Brown stories.**

I can of course get downloads of just about anything.
So, I've decided to go against my principles and give in and buy an
e-reader. I have a lot of downloaded books on my computer but it's
just too damned inconvenient to sit at my desk to read them. I know
this is against everything I've ever said but I've just committed to
another year in China and, if I can't get real books, at least an
ereader will let me sit somewhere comfortable to read electronic ones.
Not to mention giving me something to pass the time while I am on the

So this afternoon a Chinese friend is coming with me to explain my
requirements to the store owners and then to bargain the price down to
something sensible.****
With this in mind I've been looking at e-readers on the internet to
get an idea for just what my requirements are. One thing in particular
has struck me about the product descriptions on the official sites for
Kindle and Nook and whatever. The quoted battery life always seems
very odd.

The first one that showed up on my search was the Kindle. It quoted a
battery life of a month. The Nook quoted an even more impressive two
months. These seemed unlikely to me. Closer examination reveals that
these figures are both based on thirty minutes use a day. Surely this
is an absurd way to describe it. Doing that the Kindle could claim two
months based on fifteen minutes a day or more than a year based on two
minutes a day or an infinite battery life based on never using it at
Independent comparison sites all seem to quote the much more sensible
"hours of continuous use" figure.

What do I need? Well I don't need to know how long it will last at
half an hour a day as I read far, far more than that now, just sitting
at my computer screen. All I need is to know that on a full charge it
will last for a day. Then I can recharge it while I sleep. That's it.
I also don't need it to have bells and whistles and other features. I
just want to be able to copy a book from my computer to the e-reader ,
then go sit in the park or in the bar or on the sofa or on the toilet
and read.

(* No, Word's helpful red underlining notwithstanding, I don't think
it should be curricula - I speak English, not Latin.
** The Complete Father Brown stories vary from rather dull and
predictable***** to "I-want-to-throw-it-in-the-fire" religious
preachiness. I don't understand why it has such a good reputation.
*** Unless, of course, it's a Chinese squat toilet where it's all I
can do to maintain balance and keep my trousers clean without adding
the complication of trying to read.
**** In China, in everywhere except supermarkets, prices always start
at more than double the price they will actually take. As an
Englishman I am genetically incapable of the bargaining required to
get the prices that the Chinese locals pay. A Chinese friend is an
essential adjunct to any shopping experience.
*****The atheist did it. You can bet the farm on it.)

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The awesomeness of me

I really don't deserve the reputation I have here in Baiyin.
It's not that it's a bad thing to have everyone thing I am the best
foreign teacher to ever drive up through the desert and arrive on
their doorstep. On the contrary it's really very flattering and it
would be even nicer if it were actually true. I'm OK. Pretty good
even. But I am by no stretch of the imagination one of those teachers
from American movies who turn round the class of under-achieving
malcontents and get them to win a national music/ science/ spelling/
dancing/ debating/ whatever competition.
I'd love to be, but I'm not. I don't have to be. For the most part
Chinese students aren't under-achieving malcontents. For the most part
they are polite, hard-working and studious. I've only once confiscated
a knife - a small craft knife from a student who was using it to cut
out stars from coloured cardboard to stick to the front of his English

But I have this reputation. The kids think I am some kind of rock
superstar (I'd like to think Jim Morrison, but I doubt that any of
them have ever heard of him.). The teachers think I am a one-man OED
usage panel. Students chase me across the park to get my opinion on
language questions. My administrator thinks that I am one of the only
two good teachers that have been assigned to the city.
The better one.

And the truth is that it does have its downside. I take on the
occasional bit of tutoring to increase my salary - not that it needs
much in the way of increasing, I'm quite comfortable, thank you. I
tutor a doctor one night a week in preparation for his forthcoming
trip to Europe. I tutor three girls on Sunday afternoon to help them
get through their exams. I had a group who came for conversation
practice for a couple of months. Every hour is another tenner in a
city where I can live for a week on twenty quid.
Next year however there is rather more on offer. Erika, the other
teacher that the administrator likes, has been tutoring a seven year
old girl five nights a week but Erika is leaving. The girl's parents
have asked me to take over. The doctor still wants his lesson. The
Sunday students still want theirs and today I was asked to take on
another one night a week student for additional English practice. That
would be 800 Yuan right there - 600 more than I actually need , and
that's before I get my salary.

It's all very flattering but I don't think I can do it. It would kill
me. I'd have no time to do all the little things like eating or
showering. I'm going to have to disappoint somebody. I just hope that
the additional teachers, allegedly joining us in Baiyin next year,
have some among them that the schools, the students and the
administrator like, because I'm going to need someone to share both
the tutoring load and the burden of this awesome wonderfulness.

Sometimes it's hard to be me.

Monday, 18 June 2012


Eye-catching title for a very boring observation. It occurred to me
today to wonder why, if the ratio of male to female in China is 1.06 :
1 *, is the ratio of female to male clothes shops in Baiyin about 30 :
1 **?

*Source CIA World Factbook
** Source: my own eyes and the ability to count

Incidentally, also from that second source, there are also no fewer
than 26 barber's and hairdresser's shops within three minutes walk of
my front door. There may be more. I could have missed a few in side

Saturday, 16 June 2012

How to Fail as a Foreign Teacher In China

How to Fail As A Foreign Teacher In China

It's very easy to be a success as a foreign teacher in China. Look at
me. My school loves me. My administrator literally begged me to stay
on for another year. My pupils mob me to ask for my phone number, my
email, my autograph. Chinese families ring me up to go for dinner. I'm
a success.

But you don't have to make my mistakes. It's just as easy to be a
failure. It takes a little effort but it's not difficult at all.
Here are some top tips for "How To Fail As A Foreign Teacher In China".

10 Turn up, Do Your Job, Go Home

By itself this won't make you a failure but it's a good foundation to
build on. The trick is to spend as little time in the school as
possible. On a good day you will be able to turn up, go straight to
your classroom, teach your lesson and be out of the building before
anyone notices that you are there. Don't get involved in conversations
with teachers in the corridors and always be in and out of the office
as quickly as possible. You'll probably have to go in from time to
time which will inevitably lead to having contact with other teachers.
Try to minimise this. Reply to greetings with grunts. When anyone asks
you a grammar question, a curt, "I don't know" is the best response.
Try to cultivate an exasperated "why ask me" expression.

9 Insist on sticking to the timetable

Chinese schools rarely let the teachers know about timetable changes
more than a day in advance. Even holidays might be announced as you
are leaving the day before they happen. I have been rung up at eight
O'clock on a day when I don't teach and asked to be in for nine. Don't
put up with this. Inflexibility is the key. Work like you would at
home. The timetable is the timetable carved in stone and handed down
on the mountain top. Turn up at the scheduled times whether or not
your class is taking place. Don't let them get away with changing

8 Mumble, Mutter and Speak Quickly

Classroom technique is vital and it all starts with your voice.
Talking in a clear, loud, slow voice with lots of repetition and
paraphrasing is the way to success. If you want to fail these are
habits you must get out of. There are various techniques you can use.
Mumbling is good. You'll know you've got it right if the first few
rows are leaning forward to try to hear you and the rest are playing
cards. Muttering is similar but trickier to manage. Muttering must be
just audible but, and this is the important point, on any subject NOT
related to the lesson. If you have ever listened to an old woman with
dirty clothes and a shopping bag that clinks as she moves then you'll
know how to do it. Nothing throws the students as much as trying to
work out why their teacher just said "Lemon Cheesecake*" in the
middle of a lesson about the passive voice.
If these techniques aren't for you then try speaking really fast and
never repeating anything. Like this –
Adopting a monotonous drone and never varying the volume or pace of
your voice will also work.

7 Teach From The Front

Chinese classes are big. Fifty students is a small class. Eighty is
not unusual and there might in some places be as many as a hundred
students. The classrooms are big and crowded so you should stand at
the front and use a lecturing style. Never get out in the class to
talk directly to the kids at the back. You will just be interrupting
their attempts to do their geography homework, read their comics or
carve their names into the desks. If you teach from the front and
avoid eye contact with everyone then you won't need to deal with any
of these things.

6 Let the kids do what they want

In such large classes the students are often inattentive. They will
read, do homework, play games and talk. Boy, will they talk. You
should completely ignore all of this behaviour. After all you don't
like being bothered when you are chatting with your friends. Just
carry on teaching your lesson as if nothing is happening. It doesn't
matter if no one is listening to you. Ideally the noise level will get
so high that teachers from another class will come to complain. They
probably won't speak English but you will know that it's working when
they scream at the class in Chinese and everyone falls silent for the
next five minutes.
Always do your best to let the noise level build back up as quickly as
possible after this happens.

5 Write small. Don't use pictures.

Visual aids? Who needs them. Some teachers prepare interesting and
coplex visuals for their classes. Pictures, posters, games, song
sheets. Why bother? If you really want to fail this is an area where
it literally needs no effort. Don't make anything in advance. They
won't thank you for your elaborate resources and they will probably
fall apart before the end of the week anyway. It's wasted effort.
Much better is to just use the board wisely. And by wisely I mean
without any organisation. Write things in random places - and you must
write small. There are a lot of kids who have quite poor eyesight and
you should aim to get your text at a size that is just too small for
them to see. Once again it's easy to know when you get this right
because they will start borrowing each other's glasses and squinting
through the lenses at odd angles as they try to work out what you have

4 Go To School Functions

You will be invited out to dine with the teachers from time to time.
You should go. This may sound like it's a strategy for success and
it's true that refusing to go will win you no friends but going can be
even better. To really fail you need to do a couple of things. First
of all turn up in your oldest T-shirt and jeans. If you have any
canvass trousers that are old and thin and patched in various colours,
that's even better. Shorts are another good option, especially if the
meal is in a hotel with a dress code. Then at the meal you should
instruct people loudly about your multiple allergies and digestive
problems. Descriptions of the symptoms, particularly the ones
involving bodily functions are always good. Complain about everything
you are served. Tell everyone that Chinese food is giving you
irritable bowel syndrome and you want hamburgers.
Then leave early and in a bad mood.
They will talk about your behaviour for days.

3 Under-prepare or Over-prepare?

There are two strategies you can use when preparing your lessons. The
easier one is to under-prepare. At its extreme this can mean not
preparing at all. You can, if you wish, think of a topic or a name for
the lesson, but you don't need to do more than that. Go in and make it
up as you go along. Over-thinking it will simply mean that all those
little hesitancies, awkward silences and spelling mistakes on the
board are eliminated and that will create the wrong impression. If you
are observed, and you often will be, you want it to be obvious that
you have given no thought to your lesson before entering the
A trickier, but ultimately even surer, strategy for failure is to
obsessively over-prepare. For example, spend days, weeks even, drawing
a detailed but inaccurate map of the world, tape it to the board at
the start of every lesson AND THEN NEVER MENTION IT. If the students
ask what it's for just glare at them and say "Isn't it obvious?"
If an observer sees this they will certainly be impressed by your
attention to detail.

2 Teach the ones who want to learn

You may have eighty kids in your class of whom fewer than ten actually
want to be there. You will be able to pick them out in your first
lesson because they will be near the front, looking at you and
prepared to answer questions. If you ask a question in that first week
and are met with a blank look, write off that kid and never interact
with them again. Once you have established which kids want to
participate, teach only them. Ignore everybody else. Let them do
whatever they want. Ask questions only when you know you will get an
answer. It's just not worth your effort if they don't want to
participate. You get paid either way and why make life difficult for

1 Never show enthusiasm

The number one tip is to never show enthusiasm. Never let anyone think
that the job is anything more than an unpleasant chore that has to be
done. Shuffle around the room. Try to slouch. If you can't fake
tiredness then go for the real thing by staying up until three a.m.
watching movies. Keep reminding yourself that your course is not
important. You set no homework. There is no exam. Nobody cares. Why
should you try to look interested when nobody else is?
The number one thing that the school will be looking for in a teacher
is a lively, enthusiastic attitude – the kind of inspirational
approach that communicates itself to the kids. What you want to
communicate to the kids is lethargy, apathy, listlessness. If you can
do that you will have it made.


(* "Millennium hand and shrimp" is even more puzzling but remember to
credit Sir Terry Pratchett who coined the phrase.)

Wednesday, 13 June 2012


Hey, I hit the big time. People have started scraping my blog.

Remember the image I posted a couple of weeks ago of an advertising
poster in Baiyin? An image for which the original (timed and dated) is
sitting on my digital camera.
You know, the one about royalty and breasts?
The one that I also sent off to Language Log* where there is an
interesting discussion of the Chinese on the sign as well as the
Remember it?

Imagine my surprise to find the same image hosted completely
uncredited on another site that posts (allegedly) humourous stuff. I'm
on my way to the top. People have started nicking my stuff.
I won't post the name of the site as the last thing I want to do is
drive traffic that way but a quick look shows it to be almost all
scraped material rather than original content.

Actually it's far more likely to have been scraped from the excellent
Language Log site which has gazillions more visitors than I ever do
but a man can dream. The Language Log discussion, which along with
everything else on the site I heartily recommend, can be found at
(* Can't link properly as I have to post via email and I don't know
how. Make do with the address.)

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Ray Bradbury

When I was a teenager almost all of my reading was science fiction. I eagerly devoured work by everyone from Brian Aldiss to Roger Zelazny. I knew the history, geography and social customs from Trantor to Terminus via Arakis and Pern.


One of the greatest of all the authors that I read was Ray Bradbury and I was saddened to learn of his recent death. I think I probably first came across his books on a rainy holiday in Wales. The local Woolworths had some cheap paperbacks where I picked up one with an especially garish cover. It was The Illustrated Man. (in the same basket I also found and read Walter Tevis's The Man Who Fell To Earth years before anyone thought of making it into a film).

I took my small collection of novels home to the caravan on the holiday camp and read them while it rained. The Illustrated Man was an instant hit.  I especially remember the framing device of the man whose tattoos come to life to tell the stories,  the creepy "The Veldt" and the atmospheric The Long Rain which seemed to mirror my own holiday that year.

I can't claim that at the time I picked Ray Bradbury out for any special treatment. I read any and every science fiction that I could get. and Ray Bradbury was one of thousands but at this distance he's one of the handful that I still remember well. The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, and all those glorious collections of short stories – I read them all and remember them to this day.

And that is the mark of a great author.

Now I must go and track down all the things he published after I broadened my reading and lost touch with many authors I had read before.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Tianshui trip

For the last three days school has been out, for us foreign teachers at least. National Exams have been taking place and, while the services of local teachers are required to invigilate, the services of foreign teachers are not. So, rather than twiddle our thumbs here in Baiyin we decided to take a trip to Tianshui - the second largest city in the province. I am reasonably familiar with Lanzhou - the largest city - and I don't like it very much, so I wasn't sure what to expect of Tianshui.
I needn't have worried. From the moment I got there I liked it.
It's like the difference in how I feel about New York and Chicago. New York is too big, too busy, too noisy, too impersonal. Everything about it is too something or other. Chicago is like all the nice bits of New York without the things I don't like.  It's the same when comparing the noisy, dirty busy-ness of Lanzhou with the friendlier, cleaner, all-round nicer Tianshui.
On Wednesday afternoon we tried to book a day out with the travel agent based in our hotel (the rather nice Peace Hotel.) They spoke no English and Erika's repeated "San ge ren. Xing qi wu. Hen hao." (Three people. Friday.  Very good.) was understood about as well as might me expected. Nil desperandum. The girl in the agency phoned a friend and so we were introduced to Lu Yong Xiang who owns his own travel agency business and speaks excellent English. We were quickly fixed up with the required tour for Friday and under any other circumstances, in any other country that would be that.
Not China though.
On Thursday, after a day sightseeing on our own we were going out to dinner when we bumped into Lu and two of his employees in the street. After exchanging pleasantries we started to walk on but were called back and invited to their annual staff party. It was a boisterous affair in a very nice hot-pot restaurant and we were treated as guests of honour, wined and dined, photographed repeatedly with everybody present, taken on to a really nice bar with live music and bought beer all night.
When does ANYONE ever book a day trip and get invited to the staff party?

It's typical of China though.

Also typical of China is the rockstar adulation that you get from children as you are just walking down the street. I left the hotel to walk across the road to the store to buy a bottle of water. My timing was impeccable. As I exited the doors an entire school of primary children were* just passing by. There were lots of cries of "hello", some shy, some confident; a few tentative queries of "how are you"; and one very brave child who came up and said, "May I ask you a question?"
I agreed that he could. "Where are you from?" he asked. "I'm from England." I said. He ran back to his friends and the whole class gave him a round of applause for being bold enough to speak to the foreigner.

Actually if you need directions it's always best to ask a kid. They all learn English in school and they all want to try it out. The adults have usually forgotten all their English and are shyer of practicing. So that's what we did when we wanted to find the Fu Xi temple. We asked a kid and he told us to take the bus that was just arriving. We jumped on, paid our one yuan fare and looked out of the windows for road signs. Soon enough we saw signs that said Fu Xi and when they indicated that we were almost there we jumped off.
There was a slight delay to our sightseeing as, at Erika's urging we went into a coffee shop. It didn't look like much from the outside but it was wonderful inside: beautifully decorated, cool and shady, a menu in English. We looked at the menu. There were dozens of coffees and teas and a page full of elaborate ice-cream confections. There was also an extensive collection of full meals that included both western and Chinese dishes. We drank our coffee and tucked into a "rainbow ice-cream" (ice cream, cream, cherries, dragon fruit, melon, oranges, two flavours of jelly, chocolate sauce). We decided to come back later for dinner.

Outside a short walk across the square and along the road brought us to the Fu Xi temple which is a large complex of buildings and statues. The temple itself is delightful and the surroundings are a pleasure to wander around taking in the heady mix of locals enjoying a sunny day and Chinese tourists visiting what must surely be the nicest city in the whole of Gansu.
The only person we met of who was less than completely courteous to us was a German tourist who met our cheery greetings with a surly grunt and continued taking pictures. This would normally go without comment but in Tianshui it was quite a shock. Everyone else seemed to want to be our friends.

As an example, on the way back to the restaurant after our wanderings we bumped into a complete stranger on the street who engaged us in conversation. After a few minutes of polite chit-chat we invited him to come to dinner with us one evening. He deciined but immediately said that he would like to invite us to dinner at his home to meet his wife who was an English teacher. Sadly we couldn't find a day to go but he gave us his phone number with instructions to call next time we are in the city.

Back at the restaurant we examined the menu in detail. While we were tempted by such dishes as "Lotus sweet Japanese mountain thief godmother sauce" in the end we all opted for more familiar items - pizza and steak.

Thursday we were off on our own. Enquiries told us that the number 6 bus outside the hotel would take us to Mount Maiji and the famous Buddhist grottos. As it turned out the number 6 took us to the station where further enquiries led us to the number 34. It was about an hours ride but through such pleasing countryside that it seemed much shorter. Baiyin and its surroundings, even at this time of year, can be a little dry and brown but Tianshui is further south and the trip out to Maiji was through lush and verdant hills. In places the patchwork fields almost reminded me of home.
At the grottoes we decided first to visit the botanical gardens, pausing only to eat a lunch of the remains of last night's pizza in a shady stand of trees. The path to the gardens was long and fairly steep but with steps all the way. The gardens, when we reached them, had no flowers to speak of but had extensive acres of trees in enough varieties to satisfy the most dedicated arborialist. We walked around for ages and then made our way to the grotto entrance.
On the face of the cliff there are hundreds of small niches in which there are carvings of the Buddha. An elaborate network of steps and platforms allows you to climb and view them - though we couldn't work out how at least two thirds of the structure was reached. It must have been reachable because we could see people on it but we could find no entrance or path to it. We explored the section that we could enter and it was interesting but personally I enjoyed the gardens better.

The next morning, the morning after our unexpected dinner party, Lu and one of his staff were outside the hotel promptly at eight and we headed off for our first attraction of the day - Daxiangshan - the Giant Image Mountain. The main attraction, and the reason for the name, is the twenty-three metre carving of the Buddha and its unusual blue moustache but there is much more to it than that. You ascend through a series of active Buddhist and Taoist temples that are all breathtakingly beautiful until you reach the foot of the carving itself. By far the most interesting is the first temple which has a number of rooms with carvings. They are all interesting but the final one is amazing. A circular path leads through a cave and floor to roof an both sides is carved with representations of people and animals. They range from the beautiful to the grotesque but all have been done with a stunning attention to detail. The tiger near the entrance looks as if it might bite.
Towards the end was a statue of what looked like a monk and a baby. Erika asked why there was a baby and Lu translated. The monk who had accompanied us laughed. The answer, translated back by a laughing Lu, was that it wasn't a baby. It was just a very small monk.

After lunch we went on to what was supposed to be our other visit of the day - Lashao Si where there is a monastery and some spectacular cliff paintings. I say "supposed to" because we didn't actually make it. Oh, we reached the gate OK, paid our money and took the cart up the twisting path to the actual site entrance. And that's as far as we got. While we had been eating lunch there had been some heavy rain. The path we were supposed to walk across from the car park to the temple was gone. In it's place, about twenty feet across and several feet deep was a fierce torrent of water - brown and fast and destroying riverbed and bank even as we watched. There was no way to cross it and the suggestion that we should attempt a steep and muddy path that led, we were told, through waist high soaking vegetation to the bridge further up the hill met the answer it deserved.
We headed back down only to find that where the water had outrun us it had already destroyed part of the road. We made it across before it crumbled completely and soon passed the headwaters as the torrent raced down the hill. It was, in its way, as amazing a site as the actual temple would have been as we watched it tumble viciously over the sandstone bed, visibly destroying it as it went.

We headed back to town having not had quite the day that we expected but happy with everything nonetheless.

So all in all it was an excellent way to spend our time off but there is so much more there to see and do that I shall definitely return next year when I get a short break.

(*Note for grammar mavens. You may think this should be "was" not "were". I disagree. YMMV)

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

To Put Away Childish Things

My first visit to China was over twenty years ago but I remember it clearly and was reminded of an incident from that visit recently when I bought an ice cream from the small shop on the corner of the square. Lacking any appreciable skills in Chinese, I ordered by pointing at what looked like strawberry ice-cream on the poster. It was scooped into a cup and handed over and I tucked in. It was red bean flavour. I managed to eat it but beans are not, to the western palate, a suitable ingredient for ice-cream.

It reminded me of a similar incident on that first trip when an ice-lolly that looked from the wrapper to be lime flavour turned out to be chopped up green beans boiled in sugar water and then frozen. It was disgusting, though the child I gave it to after spitting out one bite seemed to like it well enough.

Over recent months though I've become fairly adept at not picking out the peculiar ones and the red-bean ice-cream was an exception. As I walked along the road through yesterday's glorious sunshine, sucking on what had turned out to be an unlikely, though not unpleasant, melon flavoured ice-lolly I noticed that as I sucked out the juice I was being left with ice.

I was instantly transported back to the nineteen seventies and memories of a "Jubbly". For those who don't remember this particular confection it was an oddity. It was a tetrahedron of thick paper inside which was a frozen, tetrahedral lump of slightly flavoured ice. The usual way to eat it was to tear off a corner and suck at the ice. The juice would come straight out leaving a slightly smaller block of unflavoured ice. You could, of course, also let them thaw and tear off a corner as a drink, or let them partially thaw and turn into an iced drink for a hot day. They came in various flavours  though all of them were pretty weak.

In my memory I was eating them all the time, though that obviously can't be true. I must have taken time off to eat something rather more nutritious than frozen, coloured water.

I see from the internet that something very similar is still available today but I can't believe it's the same thing. I can't believe that we were prepared to pay money for them and in these more economically savvy times it would be a miracle if anyone would buy them. I expect that nowadays they are made with more concentrated flavour, probably a lot more chemicals too, but in my mind they are an inseparable part of the summers of my childhood.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Er... what?

Some random ramblings

Two months ago some workmen came and dug a fifty-yard trench outside my apartment. Yesterday they came and filled it in again. Apart from providing a distinct safety hazard when I've been arriving home drunk and attracting a random collection of litter, it appears to have had no purpose.

I expect they'll come and dig it out again soon.


I once spent a week watching someone outside my apartment working on a water pipe. Every day he spent several hours digging out the hole in the morning, a couple of hours working on the pipe in the afternoon and an hour filling the hole in again in the evening. It seemed a terribly inefficient way of going about it to me.

Actually holes in the roads and paths are the major safety hazard. It doesn't seem to occur to anyone to cone them off or indicate their presence in any way. As many of them are in the dark, unlit passageways between buildings it's better at night to stick to the lighted main roads where there are just as many holes but at least you can see them.


The holes and trenches in the road don't seemed to have disturbed the group of old ladies who sit there everyday on the raised step that surrounds the building. They sit watching the world go by and chattering in Chinese. I say a cheery "ni hao" to them everyday and they respond with torrents of things I can't understand. It doesn't worry them that I can't understand though, they nod and smile at me as I pass and seem to approve of having a foreigner who speaks to them – even if it is just "hello". My roommate, on the other hand, doesn't even nod or smile and is consequently met with frowns which he doesn't even notice. It really is easy to make people like you in China, and just as easy to make them dislike you. I know which I prefer.


The old women sit just around the corner from our apartment's exercise equipment. I may have mentioned it before but most cities in the country have bright yellow, adult-sized exercise equipment in every square and on every corner. The specifics of the equipment vary but what doesn't vary is that it's in more or less constant use. People clearly well into their retirements pause as they pass to do a few pull-ups or use the treadmills or walking-exercisers. It probably accounts for why you so rarely see anyone overweight on the streets. And certainly helps given that most of us here live in apartment blocks that are seven stories or more high and have only stairs. Lifts are only installed in public buildings. I suppose I'm lucky that I only live on the fourth floor.


Actually people here do pick up on the attitudes and friendliness of foreigners very quickly. Last night we went for a meal with a local family who have, to me and Erika at least, become great friends and almost a surrogate family for us. My flatmate declined to come. His reasons were unclear but my guess is that he didn't like that Erika and I were treating the family. We were going to pay for the whole meal as they have done for us on numerous occasions. I don't think he cared for the idea of paying for other people's food though his stated reason was that he "didn't want another hot-pot". The point is that, as I expected, they instantly asked where he was and I said he wasn't coming. Of course they wanted to know why. I said that he was just feeling a little unsociable. Erin, the teenage daughter and the only one who speaks good English, looked puzzled. I asked if she understood the word "unsociable". She pondered for a moment and said, :Does it mean 'very strange?'"



An interesting thing about going out with Chinese friends is that quite often complete strangers (to me at least) will turn up and eat with us. I assume people in the family know them but I can't be certain. Last night was no exception. Someone new joined us and Erin explained that he was a geography teacher. Not HER geography teacher, just A geography teacher. I think the family want him to tutor Erin as she's doing badly in the subject but I don't know for sure.


I have been tutoring a doctor from the hospital in English preparing him for a trip abroad – to Germany! I offered to tutor him in German but he wasn't interested.It seems that the doctors at the hospital he is visiting all speak English with him and he wants to get better English rather than better German. It's a great gig. I go once a week to his very luxurious apartment where his wife, who is the best cook I've come across in China, prepares an excellent meal for me and I spend a couple of hours doing little more than eating and chatting and I get paid for it! Couldn't be much better.


I won't be able to go this week though. We have yet more holiday. From Wednesday to Friday the school has exams and so I don't have to go in. It gives me time to visit Tian Shui, the second largest city in the province which has a number of interesting attractions which I shall report on later.


It will be nice to get away from Baiyin for a few days.

Really Rather Wonderful

Baiyin is a city that is full of rather nice parks. The nearest one to my apartment, Golden Carp park,  is a large pleasant place full of intricate paths and, at this time of year, leafy green glades. It has a long curved lake and is a joy to walk around on a hot afternoon.

In the other direction is a tiny oval park where I can join the crowds watching people playing chess or mahjong  or watch the kids playing hide-and-seek among the bushes.

A two minute bus ride or twenty minute stroll out to the west is another park that has winding paths and denser trees than Golden Carp and lacks the communal areas for the games players. It has been kept well-watered and is greener and lusher. Golden Carp park has trees but little grass, the smaller park has both.

There is however another park that, until yesterday, I hadn't looked at. It's a little further out to the west and hard to spot from the road.

I entered through the low iron gate and started off up the path. I had my walkman on, listening to the joyful sounds of a nineteen forties recording of the All American Jazz Band and I ambled around in a ridiculously good mood. The landscaping of the park is not as interesting as the others but it is a huge place with trees dense enough to constitute forest, though the paths are dull, wide and concrete which detracts somewhat from the experience. As I walked around I became aware of something peculiar, something unique to this park.

It wasn't busy. Perhaps because it is located a little away from either of the main residential centres people choose nearer places to walk, but I had been walking for ten minutes before I saw anyone else in there. Only once did anyone actually try to talk to me and that was simply to wish me a good day and exchange introductions. When I saw other people we always smiled and nodded greetings but didn't speak. And, truthfully, even seeing people was a rare enough occurrence.

I wandered aimlessly, just walking for it's own sake and came upon the reservoir where my flatmate has sometimes gone swimming. He has said that he wasn't sure if it was allowed. I can answer the question for him. It isn't. The fact that the whole reservoir is surrounded by an eight foot tall barbed wire fence might be a clue and even though I don't read any Chinese frequent signs with big red writing usually mean only one thing – DON'T!

There was a place where some kids had dug under the fence and crawled in to go fishing with sticks and string but personally I  wouldn't be inclined to take that as meaning it's OK.

At the far end o the lake I considered continuing north and exiting  at the far gate from the one I had entered by but I know that part of town and its grimy and industrial and the walk back to the city would have been tedious so I continued to circle the water.


The park has a number of stand pipes that trickle water into a complicated series of irrigation channels and at one of them I sat down on a low wall and took off my walkman to listen to the quiet. There was a drone of insects and in the distance I could hear cuckoos in the trees. Above me the leaves were whispering softly in the breeze.

There were bright butterflies grabbing the eye with their random fluttering, tiny spiders racing across the dirt, the smell of yesterday's rain on the leaves. It was wonderful. I had turned my back to the path so that it felt as if I were truly in the middle of a forest.

I sat there for around fifteen minutes. Doing nothing. Saying nothing. Simply sitting, looking and listening.

Silence is a rare commodity in China and I was surprised that I could hear no traffic, no loud music, no fireworks. Once I heard the distant sound of a train away to the north but apart from that the only sounds were those of nature.

When I was ready to leave it seemed appropriate to change the music to something more pastoral. In my bag I had a disc of classical music so I selected a collection of Vaughan Williams and to the sounds of Greensleeves and The Lark Ascending walked back through the park and ultimately rejoined normal life out on the streets.


I've said it before but it occurred to me again as I sat in the park. I don't remember ever being as content with my life as I am here in China. I have no worries and no responsibilities and most of the time nowhere I need to be and no reason to rush and race about. I can sit in the park for five minutes or five hours. I spend a few hours a week preparing lessons and then about thirteen hours a week teaching them and the rest of my time is my own.

It's really rather wonderful.