Chengdu!

This will be a shorter-than-usual travelling post since it actually happened over 2 months ago at the start of April! Once I landed back in China and started teaching back in Shijiazhuang, I got itchy feet and started planning my next trip away. I knew it would probably be my last for a while, both because there were very few holidays left, and because I was once again skint, and trying to save money. I decided that Chengdu would be the place of my next adventure – the main draw being the pandas of course! So I caught a flight late on Friday and after arguing with a taxi driver, arrived at my hostel and started chatting with the people there.

I had a long weekend in Chengdu but had made no concrete plans before getting there. I decided to spend Saturday just exploring the city – doing the classic getting lost on purpose which is so much fun. I ended up shopping, exploring the monastery near my hostel and spent most of the morning at the Jinsha archaeological site. Whilst it’s probably not to everyone’s tastes I had a fantastic time exploring the grounds in the sunshine, looking at the deer and of course seeing the artifacts on display. Home to some of the most delicate gold work I’ve ever seen, it was a great place to spend a few hours. They had a temporary Roman exhibition there too which was very strange! I couldn’t tell whether or not what was on display was real or a replica. It was also interestingly organised – thematically not chronologically. Because I had got there early, I managed to spend the majority of my visit with very few people around me.

The next day I decided to do a day trip to the mountains on the outskirts of Chengdu. As is typical with mountains in China, it was a lot of walking surrounded by a lot of people. I had to queue for ages to get my ticket inside but once I was through it was really nice to get back to nature, breathe clean air and imagine how China looked before it was modernised. There was a huge lake where I took a breather and had an ice cream before taking the shuttle up to the rest of the mountain. After exploring a temple at the top and enjoying the view down, I decided against walking to the absolute top as it was still quite a way away. Instead I ventured back down and headed back into the city and Jinli Street. Jinli Street is a great place to explore at night, full of little shops selling things and food shacks and bars. I sent a postcard home from there and got a henna tattoo on my hand before heading back to the hostel to get a good nights rest before seeing the pandas the next day!!

 

I woke up early to see the pandas – I was going on a national holiday and expected the crowds to be huge (I was right). Because I was up early, I got to see the pandas being fed – indeed I spent an hour at one of the enclosures watching the workers clean up and put down fresh bamboo before the panda ambled out and enjoyed a second breakfast. Each of the enclosures had information on the pandas inside. The one I’d spent longest watching had the same birthday as me! The adult pandas were kept alone but the younger ones were together. Once I’d forced my way to the front of the crowds it was genuinely amazing to watch the incredible creatures interact with each other and play fight like real children.

The research base I visited was absolutely huge! I spent just under 6 hours exploring the different enclosures and seeing the pandas of different ages. I ended up leaving mainly because I was hungry – the hostel provided me with free breakfast but it wasn’t much and I couldn’t find food inside. Plus my feet were absolutely killing me after so much walking! Since my flight wasn’t until late, I made my way back to the airport and chilled there with my book and homemade food given to me by the staff before catching the shuttle bus to the airport and heading back to the Shiz.

Chengdu captured my heart and I can’t wait to visit again!

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我是外国人 – Being a foreigner in Shijiazhuang

Just to make one thing clear from the start:  in general the Chinese people are lovely and welcoming towards people. However China has a very different culture than the UK, and inevitably there are cultural differences. This post will go through 5 of the main cultural differences and challenges I face as a foreigner in Shijiazhuang.

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1. The staring 

This is easily one of the most frustrating things about living in China. Many people in Shijiazhuang have never seen a non-Asian person before, or they have seen so few that we’re a novelty to them. Add in the fact that they are much more conservative in their dress than in the West and you’ve got a recipe for constant stares. It’s been explained to us that they’re not staring out of hostility but because they are curious. While that is probably true in the majority of cases, it does get annoying to be stared at so much. I think it affects me most when I’m sick (or hungover). I don’t want to leave my flat to get food when I feel horrible anyway, but add in the fact that I’ll be stared at and its just not happening. The staring affects what I wear too; no shorts unless I’m willing to be looked at. Again it’s not in a leery way – they’ve just never seen so much pale white flesh! The staring is most noticeable when there’s a big group of us. It almost feels like being on a catwalk sometimes.
2. The photos

Closely linked to the not-so-subtle staring, another thing the locals like to do is take pictures of us. Sometimes brave people will ask for a selfie; one memorable encounter with two Chinese schoolgirls resulted in me missing my stop on the bus. This usually happens with drunk Chinese men in restaurants too. More often people will shove a phone in our faces or try and take a picture without getting too close. Similar to the staring, they have no shame about taking photos of us when we clearly don’t want them. Some of the 42 crew react by trying to make them embarrassed so wave hello or take a photo of them in return. It doesn’t really work though, and I have no idea how many random people have photos of me on their phone. With the photos and the staring, we’re practically celebrities!


Staring in Beijing
3. The pollution

Okay granted, the pollution doesn’t only affect foreigners in Shijiazhuang, but especially in winter it was a huge part of life here. When people ask me where I teach, they’ve never heard of Shijiazhuang. Like Leeds United being how I describe when Leeds is famous for, the pollution is how I describe Shijiazhuang. It’s bad. There’s no denying that. In winter there were several months where I legitimately saw no blue sky. Because the city isn’t known like Beijing,no one really cares if the air is off the charts. I invested in some disposable masks recommended on a blog written by a doctor, but rarely wore them since they fogged up my glasses and hurt my ears. For next year I’m ordering a reusable one online which hopefully I’ll like more!


Nice clean air on New Years! Sadly in the winter it wasn’t that uncommon.
4. The travel

Shijiazhuang doesn’t currently have a subway system. They are building one, but this just means there is a heap of construction on the roads. When you’re reliant on the bus system, this gets tiresome quickly. Being a foreigner using public transport in the Shiz has its own problems. By now I know how to get to my regular places to shop or eat and meet friends, but if I get on the wrong bus or get lost if have to get a taxi back home since I can’t ask the bus drivers where they are going. Alright fair play I should try harder with Chinese and then maybe this problem will vanish. What will not vanish however is the sheer number of cars, people, and bikes on the road. Crossing the road often feels like I’m taking my life into my hands. Bikes seem to ignore every one and every thing around them, buses have a life of their own and everyone likes to honk their horn at all times! Plus a few times people have failed to stop because they’ve been staring at the foreigner which doesn’t help!

5. The manners

Many many times this year I’ve had to remind myself that the Chinese way of doing things isn’t wrong, it’s just different. So, when someone is spitting on the floor of a restaurant or standing in my personal space their not being rude, it’s just a different. This can get frustrating sometimes however. This week the 42 crew went to a water park in Beijing and experienced the Chinese system of queuing for an extended period of time. I say ‘system of queuing’, but from what I could tell there was none. People pushed in front of us and didn’t seem to understand that if they waited in an orderly fashion at the top of the ride they’d all get their turn. After putting up with this all day by the end we were fed up and took a stand at the top of the stairs. Using Julian’s arm and body we forced everyone behind us to wait until the 20 or so people in front of us had gone before moving ahead. Even then they tried to break his grip and push past us. Eventually the backlog cleared and Julian took a step forward. His space was immediately filled with roughly 15 people crammed together. As a British person, the Chinese ‘system’ of queuing is intensely frustrating.

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Excellent pollution comparison photo’s from Izzie. We use the tower blocks as reference points for how bad the air is.
As legendary TEFL teacher Michael Knapp once said: China is a polychronic society, and there will be things we find odd simply because we’re not from the same culture. It’s not wrong, it’s just different.

42 Crew in Beijing!

Soon the original 42 crew will be no more; only myself, Izzie and Sam will be staying another year. Before that sad day, we all journeyed to Beijing when we were given a few days off for the gaokao and Dragon Boat Festival. On the agenda for this trip was a water park, real western pizza, and a comic convention.

The fun began when we got off the subway line and prepared to walk to the hostel. As we’d been separated on the subway, we were in 2 groups, so Izzie and Sam were behind us. It wasn’t a bad wait, it was very hot but a few drops of rain were nice and refreshing. However, the second the others’ heads appeared coming up the escalator, the heavens opened. I genuinely have not seen rain like that since Mentougou at the start of my China adventure. However then I only had to venture out for a short dash to the bus – this time I had to walk a bit further. We set out sharing umbrellas and trying to choose the path with the least puddles, but it  became clear that there was no hiding from this rain. Oh we tried to, jumping over deep puddles and sheltering under slight roofs when we had the option, but the minute we turned onto the hutong where the hostel was located, hope was lost. By this point it had been chucking it down for about 5 minutes but the hutong was completely flooded. The water went up to our ankles, and I realised that there was no point trying to stay under Julian’s umbrella so I waded to the hostel. Once inside and checked in we went to our room, decanted everything wet from our backpacks and dried off before having a few beers and being relieved to be dry!

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The next day I was up early to see Mao. His body has been embalmed and put on display and you can visit it most mornings. To limit our waiting time, Sam, Chris and I went first thing in the morning and the crowds had already begun. After going through security screening twice we joined the line full of smartly dressed Chinese people carrying flowers and made faces at the alien-looking baby in front of us. We didn’t have to wait long, it was more of a constant slow shuffle forwards. Soon we were inside the (very 1970’s style) building and shuffling towards a glass cage with a coffin in it. After we visited we googled the mausoleum and read the rumours that it was a fake on display and not the true leader. Personally, I’m not fully convinced it was him – he looked very plastic like. The main thing we took away from our visit with Mao was how orange he was!

After being cultural for a while, us girls explored Beijing’s shopping districts before returning to the hostel for a nap. Nobody was sleeping very well because the air in the room was damp because of the drying cloths and the lack of aircon. I was lucky enough to be on the bottom bunk and managed to drift off. In the evening we explored the hutongs – one of my favourite things to do in Beijing. The sunset over the river was breathtaking and we all took the same picture of it pretty much! We went in the evening so we could have dinner at a pizza restaurant in the area. Although it is out of the way, it was full of people who had clearly heard that it was delicious. For the first time since arriving in China, we were able to have pizza which tasted like real pizza and was crispy and delicious with melty cheese!

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The next day was the water park!! Obviously there are no photos from inside since my phone was locked away but trust me – it was fun! Like most attractions in Chine, it could do with a lick of paint and sprucing up a bit, but structurally everything was fine. Most of the rides used rubber rings, being a wuss I didn’t go on the ones which didn’t. Being a Chinese water park, there were lots and lots of people staring at us (pretty much the only foreigners there). The Chinese people also wear very different swimming costumes which probably increased their staring! Generally the men wear very small, tight trunks and the girls cover up as much as they can. We saw girls in denim, some in full wetsuits and most in pretty dresses. It’s certainly different to back home! It was really nice to spend the day in the sun with friends having a laugh. As is typical for me though, I did get injured. On one of the rides we were in a 4 person rubber ring and after we were pushed up the side of the wall, my bum came fully out of the hole. Because my feet were on top of everyone elses, the only thing keeping me in was my grip on the handles. This killed my wrist so I sat out the next rides and sunbathed instead! Not a bad day at all!! In the evening we met up with Thandie and Jonathan, failed to find good burgers so settled for bad ones and had a few beers in the Sanlitun district.

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We were all excited for the comic convention the next day. Though it was much smaller than we had expected it was a great experience. I got to see a tiny TARDIS, a Chinese superman and lots of different cosplayers. I really wanted a Game of Throne tote that I saw everyone carrying but couldn’t figure out how to get one!! Ultimately it would probably have been better if I went to some of the panels or if the comics had English translations, but it was another day full of laughter with the 42 Crew.

All in all it was another great trip to Beijing.

A night out in Shijiazhuang..

So last weekend the 42 crew experienced one of the most random and hilarious nights out yet! It all began on another night out where Thandie left her jacket in the back of the car…

Skipping forward we arranged to go for a barbecue dinner with the men whose car it was in order to get it back. At 8.00 we were ready and waiting to be whisked away to a fancier barbecue place than the one on our street. Worryingly, there was no sign of the jacket and as it turns out, the man who had it couldn’t make dinner!! But still we got to eat really good meat sticks and chicken washed down with plenty of beer, or baiju for the gluten free amongst us. Julian was our translator as usual and at one point the owner came over to drink with us and take pictures.


After a fairly ordinary meal we headed back home and things started to get interesting. Me Sam and Julian got driven (in a Mercedes!) home but then the Chinese man whose car it was told us the other car was going to a club. After calling the others and confirming, we hopped back in and went to a fancy club. When we got there the driver left and rode away on a bike he’d folded up and put in the boot! Whilst we waited for the others, the djs started a conga line and then threw ¥1 notes into the crowd.


The others then arrived and we started dancing, but we had to share the dancefloor with a little girl who was loving life! We were all conflicted as to whether to judge or not since she seemed to be loving life.


After dancing a bit we were mysteriously led into a room with other Chinese men and 2 women we are convinced were prostitutes. Turns out it was ktv! Happily I have no photos of this section of the night since it descended into very strange party games involving tissues and cigarettes.

Once we’d all got a bit tired the party broke up and we were driven home via street food dumplings at 3.30am underneath a busy road. Very strange end to a very strange night.