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.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Ghost Town

We are not at work this week so my plan is to do nothing. Sit around the apartment. Relax. Play on the computer. The trouble is that my apartment, as I mentioned before, is cold. I was sitting here working when I glanced out of my window and realised that it's actually a beautiful sunny day so I decided to go for a walk to get warm. Seems a peculiar state of affairs when you have to go out to get warm, but there you are. This is China.
Anyway, I decided to go for a walk. Now, I live almost at the northern limit of the city so naturally I decided to go north. In my early days in Baiyin, when I used to go for long walks regularly to familiarise myself with the place, I went for a walk to north, but that was a couple of miles further west , following one of the roads out of the city. Today I went straight north from my apartment, across the railway and along a dusty track. I was startled to find myself in a well-developed, modern town. There were clearly several thousand residential units in the new, clean apartment blocks. There were easily a couple of hundred retail units. There were offices. There was even a small park and a school. Of course somethings weren't there. Roads, for example. The spaces between all the buildings were unfinished sandy dirt tracks. Unfit for walking on, let alone driving.
Oh yes, and people. There were no people. The apartment blocks were clearly unoccupied with uncurtained windows and, where I was close enough to see, no furnishings or other signs of habitation. The retail units were shuttered and closed and obviously unused. The offices were vacant. The park had trees and benches but no signs of human life. The school had obviously never heard the tread of child's foot or the sound of a child's voice.
It was a ghost town. Built but never occupied. It was bizarre and eerie... and only ten minutes walk from my aprtment.
I continued on, out of the other side of this strange non-town and back onto the expected sandy paths. The path turned left, heading further west. I followed it expecting eventually to strike the road that I had walked on months ago. When I took that walk I passed an area of what can only be described as slums. They were visible from the elevated road though there was no obvious way to reach them. They consisted of single story brick buildings, shored up with random pieces of corrugated metal, old scraps of wood, odd pieces of furniture pressed into service as walls. I had seen smoke rising from the chimneys and people moving around. They were clearly inhabited though equally clearly not connected to electricity, gas or water. It looked a grim way to live.
I found today that my road angled down towards them. From this level they were stranger still. They consisted of a large number of walled dwellings separated by dirt paths. The walls surrounded them completely, with a single gate into each. Usually the walls were brick. Occasional they were augmented with random pieces of repurposed metal or wood. I strolled on down between them, sure that it would bring me to the road. What it brought me to eventually was a ten foot high wall between me and the road that stretched off without a break as far as I could see in either direction. I'm not sure why it's there unless it's to prevent people from the prosperous part of the city even seeing this less prosperous are but it was inconvenient for me. I turned around and retraced my steps all the way back to my apartment.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Cold Part 2

And now... a hailstorm.
What is going on with the weather in Baiyin, this year?

Things I never got round to posting.

When I came here to teach - almost three years ago now - I had limited access to a computer, and no access at all to many sites because the Chinese firewall stops them. Of course now, like everyone else, I get round this ridiculous restriction, by using a VPN.

One of the effects of this was that I wrote a lot of stuff on paper that would be better on the computer. But I am notoriously disorganised. I lose things. There used to be a joke around my office that I could work with paper and pen and my desk and blink once and lose the paper and pan. Blink twice and I'd lose the desk. So I lose most of the papers. Yesterday, while going through a large box of papers I found some of them. So I'll post some of those early observations here. 

Some may have appeared before, in the intermittent access that I had back then. Some may be no longer relevant. There may be things I thought that I don't think now. I'll post them anyway.

The originals are written on various scraps and in various books so they are in no particular order.

This one is on a piece of paper and was probably written last year when I had a couple of hours in the office every Tuesday afternoon at school eleven.

* * *

There probably isn't a school or college anywhere in Europe and America that can't tell you on day one of the new school year when every holiday and every exam day will be. Probably for several years to come. Here, in China it's different. The impression is that they make it up as they go along. For example there are a couple of days due for Tomb Sweeping day and I'd quite like to get away to Xi-An for a break but the best information available is that it will be "some  time in early April".
And we may or may not be required to make up time on the weekend. Given that today is MArch 26th this is rather short notice.

This last-minute culture runs through everything from schools to organising a dinner party. No one ever seems to plan ahead by ore than about five minutes. It makes life difficult. I want to make that trip to Xi-An but it's far enough away that's it's only practical if I can go for several days. I am certain there will be periods when I have several days off consecutively but I probably won't know when they are until the day before they happen... far too late to book flights and hotels.

And it occurs to me now that, cynical though this may sound, it's a hell of an effective way to control the movements of your population without being seen to do so.


Back in England I probably went out to dinner three or four times a year. This may be atypically low but there are many people who go out less. There were no places to eat out in th immediate vicinity of my home but a bus ride into town would put me instriking distance of twenty or thirty - if we include pubs that do food.
Here in Baiyin there are probably more than that within a hundred yards of my front door. Thre are three in my building*. Most of these are tiny places seating a dozen or less but they are almost always full. Eating out here is considerably more common than at home.


My apartment* building occupies only a little more ground space than my house and garden back home did. When we moved into that house, way back in1963, there were five of us. My parents, my grandfather, my brother and me. At the end, when I moved out in 2011 there was just me. That same ground are here has an apartment block containing six floors of four apartments with an average occupancy of about three. That's 72 people. That's the pattern for the whole city.


People in China don't drink cold water. You can get it if you try hard enough but it's an uphill struggle to convince the waiters in a restaurant that you really mean cold water. Even when you convince them it's likely to be lukewarm rather than actually cold. Iced-water is flat out impossible to get.
Instead they like to drink hot, even boiling, water, What caught my eye in the office today was that when one of the teachers wanted a drink she poured half a cup of hot water from the large flask in the corner, washed it around to clean the cup and threw it onto the floor. In school eight, where i also teach, this wouldn't be a problem. The floors there are of untreated concrete and would soon soak it up. The school eleven floors a re all tiled and polished. the water just sat there in a puddle that gradually dispersed over the next thirty minutes as people walked through it. It seemed an odd practice.

* * *

And that's all that there is on that piece of paper. It was probably time to head off and teach at that point and so it would have been stuffed into a pocket and forgotten until I found it yesterday. Next up we will have some slightly edited posts from way back when I arrived in China.


Some Chinese cities have a system where the domestic heating is controlled by the authorities and comes on for the whole on a fixed date, stays on for three months and then goes off for the whole city on a fixed date. Right now I am sitting in my apartment in an overcoat and have taken my gloves off to type this. A month ago I was sitting in an apartment in T-shirt and shorts with the windows open to let out some of the excessive heat. Great system isn't it?
(In case you were wondering, my apartment has no other heating system and if I plug electric heaters in they blow the fuses!)

Saturday, 19 April 2014

You think America's weird? Try China!

I saw on a friends FB page this link; and felt that I had to post a reply. Here it is.

Since I moved to China from the UK I have got used to all sorts of things. The writer of the article about the US doesn't know how normal and straightforward living in the US is compared to living in China. And I once described visiting the US as so weird that it was like having your attention distracted from the two-headed dog by a singing giraffe.

Comparing those "weird American things" to China…

1. Portions? We don't really have portion sizes over here. Sometimes meals are served banquet style with the dishes coming on serving plates for you to help yourself. Chinese hotpot has a boiling soup and raw meat and veg for you to drop in, cook and fish out. More food keeps coming whenever you finish what's on the table. The only way to stop people bringing more food is to leave some of the food on the table uneaten. This is a bizarre concept for Brits who are brought up to finish everything on the plate.

2. Flags? They might not be on every home here but they are in every classroom and on every public building. Perhaps not the ubiquitous patriotism of the US but strange enough to Brits who might see a flag occasionally on a town hall but might just as easily go their whole lives without seeing one at all.

3. Price tags? Pshaw, I say, pshaw. Prices mean nothing here. You bargain for everything except food (and even for food it's usual to ask for money off a large restaurant bill.) A friend once helped me bargain for some sweaters in a shop. They started at 300 Yuan each and she got me two for a total of 190. Price tags are an opening bargaining position. You don't know the price you'll pay until you run out of steam in the negotiations.

4. Tipping? Americans tip a lot. Brits tip only for good service, and then not much. In China tipping is almost unheard of. It used to be illegal.

5. Advertising. Hard for me to comment as I can't speak or read Chinese. When it's done in English it can be incomprehensible. You may have seen the attached photo before. It's floating around on the internet (usually uncredited) . I took it. In Baiyin a couple of years ago.

6. Cars? Ah, cars. Everything here isn't designed for cars. And that's odd because there are so many of them. The road quality is usually poor. Drivers make up the driving rules as they go along and crossing the road can be a perilous and nerve-wracking adventure.

7. TV? I don't really watch. Not much point. There is an English channel but it's filled with political programs that I have no interest in. What little I've seen of Chinese TV seems to be full of soap operas set during the war showing a stereotyped view of the evils of the Japanese in a way that says far more about China than about Japan.

8. Aerosol cheese? Lucky old Americans. Any kind of cheese would be welcome here. Chinese rarely eat it and on the very rare occasions that it appears in the supermarkets it's in the form of those cheese (and I use the word loosely) slices that are really a kind of solidified fat and are (to steal from the Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy) almost, but not quite, entirely unlike cheese.

9. Oh really? The problems of living in a country that speaks another variation of your own language are insignificant compared to the problems where they don't speak your language but would like to. I hear "Hello" about a thousand times a day. Total strangers engage me in conversations which are nominally in English but which I cannot understand a word of. Also they find it weird how much I say "thank you". At the check out in the supermarket I say it when I am handed a bag, when I am told the price, when I get my change. I hadn't realized just how much we say "thank you" in Britain until people here started giving me strange looks.

10. Toilets? All you can find to complain about is toilets that are too low? Try a country where the typical toilet is a bowl recessed into the floor, then come back and tell me about American toilets.

11. Pickles? I had lunch yesterday which included a fruit salad. A delicious bowl of banana, apple, pear, melon, kiwi fruit and mango. All drenched in a sour vinegary salad cream That's right. Over here they put salad cream on fruit salad.

12. Sport. One I can't comment on. I have no interest in sport, no way to watch it and nothing to see. They do a lot in school but I only see that from my classroom window.

13. Jaywalking. I don't know if it's a crime here or not but it seems to be a national pastime. Watching people cross the road fills you with amazement that there are any pedestrians left alive. I have literally NEVER seen any Chinese person check for traffic before stepping out into the road.

14. Sweet Bread? Where to begin? You can get unsweetened bread here sometimes but you need to search. Bread sold in the shops and supermarkets is so sweet that I find it inedible. It's like trying to make an egg sandwich on a slice of cake.

15. Soft drinks? You don't get refills here which may be just as well. The soft drinks are sometimes flavours you might like but just as likely to bean juice or corn juice. I couldn't manage to empty one cup so the lack of refills is a blessing in disguise.

16. Volume? Chinese people aren't loud as such but listening in to their conversations they often sound very angry. Only when you look at them and realize they are smiling and friendly do you realize that this is a feature of YOUR expectations about tone being different to theirs.

17. Water in toilet bowls? See 10 above.

18. Credit Cards? I tried to use mine exactly once. The Chinese machines wouldn't read the metallic strip on the back. Since then it's been in a wallet in my drawer.

19. Pledge of Allegiance? The patriotic levels of the US fade into nothing compared to the patriotic levels of China. There isn't a pledge as such but loyalty to the state is built into every activity and every breath.

20. Lawyers? I've never seen a lawyer advert here but Chinese bureaucracy is arcane and mysterious. Achieving anything that involves officials might take minutes or months and you won't know which until you try. You will never know why.

There are many other things that foreigners will find strange in China. I may comment on them. Or I may not. I've been around the world enough to know that it's the differences that make it fun. It would be really boring if everything was just the same as it is at home.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Wow! Lucky me.

Just got this email.
What I love about this kind of con-trick spam is the staggering levels of incomprehensibility they achieve. Apart from being mostly gibberish this one is especially fond of randomly using capital letters.

Dear Esteemed Beneficiary,

Inline with the United Nations Millennium Development Goal to eradicate
Poverty and hunger by the year 2015 i am directed to INFORM you that  your
payment is completed Verification and Confirmations, 'Therefore we are
happy to INFORM you that ARRANGEMENTS have been Concluded to Effect  as
Soon as Possible your payment in Our BID for transparency.

You have been Granted the SUM of $ 500,000.00 USD in the United Nation
Development Program UNDP world Aid / Support Promo, for your Personal,
community and Education Development and do Note that at least 40%
(Percent) of Total Fund These must be use for Such Purpose.

COLLECTS The United Nations of all the Email Addresses Online persons that
are active among the Millions that subscribed to the Internet and  only
five persons every Year as Our Beneficiaries are selected through
Electronic System without the winner Applying BALLOTING.

On that Note we congratulate you for being One of the Beneficiaries.

To File for your claim, you are requested to contact the events Manager /
Claims Department, send your winning Identification Numbers and  the
following Information.

These are your identification Numbers: 

Only five a year, eh? I feel so special. I wonder if anyone ever really falls for this kind of nonsense.