When Google failed to pop up on the screen today, I feared the worst. Google and TPTB (the powers that be) have been at loggerheads for some time now, and us ex-pats wondered how long it would be before the whole site went the way of YouTube and Facebook and got blocked. But for once it wasn't (entirely) the government's fault. Google have now admitted that yesterday they added the characters "gs_rfai" to the URLs of searches from China for "statistical purposes". However, China has long blocked any URLs with "rfa" in them, as "Radio Free Asia" (RFA) is seen as a source of anti-Chinese propaganda. So all Google searches were, for a while, blocked too! It seems Google has now fixed the problem, as their site was back up again by the evening. What a game!
Next week is China's annual "Tomb Sweeping Festival" where people return to their ancestor's graves to tidy them up and celebrate their lives. Jiajia will be in Shenzhen again next week, so today we took the opportunity to avoid the crowds and pay an early visit to her Gran's grave. The cemetery is about an hour's drive outside Kunming, though as we hit a series of tailbacks from various traffic accidents on the highway (one was a five car pile up), it took us longer.
Jiajia was raised by her Grandmother, so it was particularly sad when she passed quite suddenly about 6 months ago. Jiajia still thinks and talks about her a lot and was naturally a little upset when visiting her grave. Her Gran was a strong believer in Buddhism, so Jiajia honoured her belief by finding her a spot in a Buddhist cemetery, overlooking an auspicious temple called "PanLongSi". After leaving flowers and cake, and burning incense and fake money we visited the small temple in the cemetery for a chat with the monk there. Ava said she also prayed for my dizziness to stop, which was a kind thought (I've had worse dizziness over the last week since starting to take the medicine designed to stop it!?). Despite black clouds, the rain held off (the government are said to be seeding clouds to try and overcome the current drought) and we drove back to busy and noisy Kunming having enjoyed the peacefulness and birdsong of the cemetery.
What do you do if a taxi driver's fares are a rip off? Well for this guy, the answer was to rip off his clothes in protest [see photo] and refuse to let the taxi do any more business! Being China, a crowd quickly gathered, mostly just curious, but with some giving vocal support!
The police duly turned up but, as they tried to wrap the protester in a blanket, he got annoyed and sidled under their police car, refusing to come out [see photo]. By now the press had arrived too and the crowd was definitely on the side of the naked man! The police looked on bemused, presumably wondering why their training had failed to prepare them for handling a nude taxi fare protester. Only in China, right?
Yunnan's current drought is now said to be the worst for over 50 years. There hasn't been any rain here for 4-5 months now. Yunnan's plentiful hydro-electric dams usually export excess electricity to other Provinces, such as GuangDong, but recently we have started importing electricity from GuangDong as our rivers and reservoirs have dried up. The natural disaster is so bad that Premier Wen JiaBao even turned up the other day [see photo] to look concerned and promise, "The Government will ensure nobody dies from thirst". Thanks for that! Kunming hasn't been directly affected yet, but many villages are relying on water trucks or long daily walks to neighbouring villages, wells or underground springs. And the crops and livestock have suffered too, of course
Premier Wen is said to be the "cuddly face" of the TPTB (the powers that be) - wheeled out to any and all disasters to show the concern of the leadership. He was recently quizzed by journalists as part of the government's annual (yes, annual!) press conference. The questions were, of course, vetted and limited to "relevant" subjects. The answers ranged from the faintly comical, "Although I have no holiday or weekends off, I like to stroll or swim to keep myself full of energy" to the quizzical, "Even if I died nine times over I would have no regrets about my noble hopes" and the nonsensical, "China's development will not affect any other country" ...oh really? .... for better or for worse, I would imagine every country in the world is affected by China's development in some way. If only we could let Jeremy Paxman loose on him!
Another trip to another hospital today with Ava and Rachel to try and get a handle on the dizziness and headaches I've had for the last 9 months or so. I took along the neck x-ray I had last taken week [see photo] which apparently shows a pinched vein, in case this new doctor thought it was more relevant to the dizziness than the last doctor did. This hospital was the "People's Liberation Army Hospital". Robert and Rachel (my bosses) are friends with the head doctor there and got him to agree to see me (minus the usual fees and queues!). He patiently listened to my long list of symptoms and past tests. He asked pertinent questions and examined the medicine I take each day. He seemed like a real, informed doctor (something of a rarity these days!). I was hopeful.
Dr Yang said that it sounded like "convulsed veins disrupting blood flow to the brain" and suggested a Transcranial Dopler Exam (for which he refused any payment). A nurse took me off, initially to the wrong department (curiously labelled, "Evoked Potential Dept"!), and then to the right room, filled with banks of machines and computers! Various parts of my head were then prodded with a probe, and I could hear the pumping of various blood vessels on loudspeakers. Eventually a computer printout emerged [see photo] and showed that there was indeed a reduced blood flow to the left side of my brain. Back to the Dr Yang, who prescribed various medicines which he said would cure the problem within a month (again refusing to let me pay for any of it) and then invited me to share a large cake he'd just been given! What a guy! If it really does cure the dizziness I will, in theory, be well for the first time in over a year. Maybe there is some light at the end of the tunnel at last. I feel my "potential is definitely evoked"!
As of this morning, my computer's search engine started suggesting websites in Chinese characters. Why? Well, Google finally pulled out of China today, boldly refusing to self-censor it's search results (at least that's the reason they are giving). So now typing "Google.com" forces me to the uncensored (but illegible to me) Hong Kong website. What effect will this have on China and the Chinese people? Well the Government has, of course, reasserted it's right to censor whatever it pleases, and the vast majority of Chinese people use "BaiDu" anyway - a Chinese search engine. So no floods of tears amongst the populace here. And fortunately, after some deviousness, I've found an easy way to access "Google.co.uk", so perhaps I won't be too affected anyway.
The last I heard, my niece Esme was into gymnastics and trampolining. But yesterday I received this school picture showing her as captain of her school hockey team. What's more, the rest of the team is drawn from the year above her at school. Now if that doesn't show an exceptional mix of maturity and physical strength, I don't know what does. Bully off, girl!
A new and welcome feature of the blog website I use is the ability to see how many people visit your blog each day and, crucially, how many are unique visitors (for example, I myself "visit" my website every time I launch the internet - it's my Home Page - but I only count as one unique visitor). As you can see from the graph, it's an average of about 50 different people every day. Quite amazing! Who are you all? A handful of you have "signed in" to the Guestbook (see tab above) but can perhaps I encourage any others to make themselves known? I'd love to know who's watching!
"The Dream?" "The Reality?"
The Yunnan government has been announcing some ambitious plans recently for making Kunming the hub of Asian railway travel. They are already building a high speed rail network to Shanghai in the East, and perhaps even to Taiwan, via tunnel. To the North, bullet trains will reach Chengdu and Chongqing in 3 hours instead of the current 19+ hours. Heading South, Chinese engineers will be forging high speed tracks through Thailand and Malaysia, to Singapore. And to the West? Nothing less than a high speed rail link to London is promised by 2025! It may all sound a bit fanciful, but this is the country that completed the "impossible" rail link to Tibet under budget and ahead of schedule. This is the country that already has 350kmh (217mph) trains whizzing between Beijing and Shanghai. Don't underestimate China's "track record"! Hey, maybe in 15 years time I'll be able to catch a train home!
"The Dream?" "The Reality?"
One of Kunming's newest attractions is "Dwarf Empire", a theme park populated by little people (max. height: 1.3m / 4ft). Some sing and dance in twice daily shows, some clean the streets, some serve food and some chat with the tourists. They all live in little mushroom-shaped houses [see photo]. I kid you not!
Is this all just crass discrimination and exploitation? Well the eighty or so dwarves themselves seem very happy, apparently. Rather than trying to eke out a living in a country which prefers to hide disability rather than cater for it, they earn a decent wage at the park and get free food and accomodation. Lin Sun, one of the dwarves, is quoted as saying, "It's really pretty good here. There isn't much for us to do workwise in the outside world other than bar or promotional work which is generally humiliating."
The theme park hit the international headlines recently when The New York Times ran a story on it, but then accidentally attributed a photo of two of the dwarves as "Hilary Clinton and the Chilean President" ...Ooops! [see photo]
I went to a travelling freak show in China once and, fascinating as it was, I wasn't qute sure whether I was helping the performers through my entrance fee, or perpetuating their situation. Maybe both? But I think "Dwarf Empire" deserves a visit. Only in China...!
Despite having a heavy cold and finding her car had a flat battery, Ava managed to come with me to the hospital (again) this morning. We met Vivien (an ex adult student of mine) who works there and enabled us to skip queues and see the right doctors. First up was my 3-month old skin rash. This is the fourth doctor who's looked at it and, as expected, this one rejected all previous medicines I'd been given, preferring something different once again. (Yes, I'll try it, though more in desperation than confidence!) Then we went to a bone specialist. He looked carefully at my fingernails(?!) before declaring I needed a neck x-ray. We skipped the x-ray queue (once the considerable fee was paid) and it does now appear that I may have a couple of misaligned vertebrae. However, the specialist x-ray doctor said this wasn't uncommon in someone my age, and was unlikely to be the cause of the headaches and dizziness. His advice was to drink more milk, exercise more at the gym (I wish!) and look elsewhere for the cause of the pain. So pretty much back to square one. Anyone know a doctor who can advise me what to test next??
I spent a couple of hours this afternoon at the Kunming TV station doing a voice-over for a DVD advertising a Yunnan hi-tech manufacturing company. I managed to get my mouth round the tortuous vocabulary (eg "The Lincang Xinyuan Germanium Industry Company Limited is a trusted and mutually-beneficial producer of Germanium moncrystalline electro-optical grade wafers") but the difficulty came with trying to sync the script with the pictures. It was all very well for the Chinese presenter, but the English translation was, in various sections, heaps longer (or shorter) than the Chinese original. The technician kept waving his hands to speed me up or slow me down as I desperately tried to focus on articulating my "Germanium monocrystallines"! English translations are generally all about ticking a box, and not really valued that much. But they seemed happy enough by the end and it was a fun (and profitable) visit.
You know how it is - you're waiting for the sink to fill with washing up water and your eyes start reading the bottom of your mugs. We've all been there! Well, over the years, I have built up quite a nice little collection of Nestle mugs. You get one if you buy (or get given) a special presentation pack (containing coffee, powdered milk, spoon and mug). I have 8 mugs in my collection and I'm quite proud, as they are Limited Edition [see photo]. But hang on - I see mugs with a copyright of 2005, 2007 and 2008! Just how "limited" are these editions? I've been cheated! I feel a right mug!
What more could one want for a present (and can I wait until November to be given one)? A "something" spotted in a shop last week which not only misspells "toilet" but shows two dogs leaving pawmarks and little "messages" in and around the loo! And more hanging from underneath the bowl, come to that! Don't you just want one?
Having made it through a busy weekend of lessons, I've got a week ahead that I hope will tackle the twin problems of (a) my continuing headaches, and (b) the need for my balconies to be ripped out and windows replaced. I fear they may be conflicting aims!
Jiajia is away in Shenzhen (near Hong Kong) this week, visiting export factories to get new stock for her Kunming store. Before she left, however, she gave me a lesson on how to wash up properly, the Chinese way. It's a wildly complicated procedure (or so I insisted, so that she has to do it by herself in future)! And, having moaned for weeks about how shockingly short her hair had been chopped (after trying out a new hairdresser), she went and got it cut even shorter last week... women!?
I spent a fun morning with the LEAF family yesterday. Ali wanted to explore the older streets of Kunming, particularly in search of a famous old Herbal Medicine shop. With this excuse, we headed into the backstreets and had an informal competition to see who could take the most interesting photos. My first entry was this one: black and white cats in a pincer movement, eyeing up leftovers from two diners.
We found a street specialising in signs and badges. Ali was after a sign that people in the countryside hang over their front doors to show that they are a good and moral household, by collecting stars in each of 12 categories. The first two shops refused to sell one to him (possibly spotting the lack of morals?), but a third shop did the deal when nobody was looking! I spotted my favourite Chinglish of the day, warning of slippery floors [see photo].
We finally stumbled across the Herbal Medicine shop we were after. A fine example of a 150 year old building, all too rare in Kunming these days. It still sells traditional medicine - ginseng, dried twigs, flattened lizards, etc. And then it was off past the KFC, Pizza Hut and MacDonalds for a well-earned bowl of noodles.
I had a reoccurance of my headaches and dizziness throughout today. Maybe it was a reaction from the end of the Lattitude course? Maybe the result of a sudden drop in temperature from the last few weeks of warm, to today's chilly? Maybe some sort of drill boring into my head [see photo]? Or maybe because of Freda and Edie's draining of my silly joke resources for an hour over dinner! Yes, the LEAF family are back from a snowy retreat in Scotland and heading toward Simao, where they have been working with VSO for the last 4 years. They are only staying there for a last few months, while they tie up loose ends and hand over to a new volunteer. After that, their plans become more vague, but seem to include travelling and finding a new challenge in another country. I've seen more of the LEAF family than my own family over the last 4 years, so I will miss having them "down the road" (albeit 7 hours bus ride away!). Their blog is well worth following too - much more informative than mine, and written by various members of their family.
The latest Lattitude training course has come to an end. Yesterday was focused on the volunteers observing lessons at the school and then teaching a 50-minute lesson themselves. For many of them it will have been their first experience in front of a class, instead of being a student in one. They did well overall, although some nerves showed and quite a few ran out of activities well before the bell rang!
Today's final sessions ended with a ten minute walk to a rather posh restaurant for a Farewell Banquet, serenaded by a Chinese harp player. The venue would normally have been out of our price range but the owner is a customer of Ava's and dropping her name when we rang got us a hefty discount! The volunteers fly off to their projects around China tomorrow, while I'll be tidying up their classrooms and getting ready for my first adult evening class for over a year.
I found this website and blog the other day, by a Canadian guy in his 60s, - Bill Moore - who is exploring what it's like to be a blind foreigner living in a developing country, by recording his feelings and experiences. He hopes to make contact with visually impaired people, and set up some community projects in Yunnan (the Province where I live). Knowing myself how tough it is sometimes to live in a different culture, I can't begin to imagine also being blind and managing to cope. It's well worth a read if you have the time.
Last weekend was my nephew Louie's 4th birthday party. Apparently he was a bit overawed and shy with his 13 party friends at first. But I guess he perked up in order for this delightful photo to have been taken.
Louie's sister, my niece, Daisy seems to have been too busy scoffing the chocolate cake to be in any way shy, by the look of this cute photo! Both of my brothers have such photogenic kids - I can only assume it's down to their mothers' genes!
The Lattitude course is progressing well, despite both trainers being unusually low on energy levels (Rob is still struggling with food poisoning and, although my headaches have thankfully stopped, I'm "straight-to-bed" tired by the end of each 6-7 hour teaching day!). We've had the usual incidents - a stolen wallet, a case with the keys locked inside and a volunteer trapped in a lift for 20 minutes! But this intake are a great bunch and easy to teach. This afternoon they are all off on a half-day outing to the Golden Temple which will give them a well-earned break from the intensive training sessions.
The latest brainwave of the Kunming local goverment is to remove all balconies and burglar cages overlooking streets. This is happening at a bewildering rate - we heard rumours about it just over a month ago, posters went up a couple of weeks later and teams of workmen are now ripping balconies down all around town. In the photo you can see the bottom floor has been done, with the floors above to come. My flat is due to be "sorted" next week, one of hundreds, possibly thousands, in Kunming. I thought at first that it might be a safety measure but no, this is China - I'm reliably informed it's part of a scheme to help Kunming compete in the "most beautiful city in China" competition! I'm not convinced it looks lot better. The local government has also banned outside dining at restaurants, increased the number of road-sweepers and planted 800,000 trees! All very well, but I lose my balcony!!
Past blog entries