With the destruction of Kunming's balconies still I full swing, and with more and more flats starting to look like jail blocks, I sense a small revolution underway. One of the qualities I admire in the Chinese is the way they are preparded to lose fights in order to win the longer-term war! Thus, there are no big demonstrations when parts of their property suddenly get demolished but, give it a few weeks for the fuss to die down, and pseudo-balconies are already starting to reappear!
That's right, you'll never stop the Chinese drying their clothes and, with the untimely demise of those very useful balcony railings, alternatives are already springing up everywhere [see photos] - poles between windows, expanding drying racks and even small baskets hung from the (supposedly beautiful) jail bars! Yes folks, balcony revolution is underway!
Tuesday is Children's Day (is there any country other than China that celebrates a Children's Day?) and my school focused on the theme of the environment (again!) to mark the occasion. Students were encouraged to place handprints on large posters of the world [see photo], and wear green ribbons on their wrists. And an hour of our normal 2-hours lessons was spent playing educational games with our students and handing out small prizes and gifts.
The kids loved the "Frogs & Shark", "Skittles", "Word Battleships" and "Boom Bang Magnet" games. I was just happy to be sitting down for some parts of the lesson - my dizziness is back with a vengeance and it was a struggle to do any teaching. Everything seemed to be in a fog. Really frustrating after a month without any health problems. I'm off to see the doctor yet again on Monday morning.
My adult class were studying the theme of "international foods" yesterday evening. When given the imaginary choice between hamburgers, pizza, sandwiches, sushi, coffee, chocolate, french fries and noodles, 5 out of the 8 of them plumped for noodles! Despite thier talk about wanting to travel the world and experience new things, most Chinese are happier with what they know - you can take the Chinese out of China, but you can't take China out of the Chinese!
Good news for them, then, as the Yunnan Government last week announced it was freezing the price of a bowl of noodles! With the ongoing drought here (hard to believe now with heavy rainfall outside as I type) having destroyed many crops, food prices have been rising. But the local government know that a more expensive bowl of noodles will get people really annoyed, so the price has been fixed until October! I celebrated with a bowl for lunch today [see photo] ...and yes, it was still 6RMB (60p)!
Kunming's taxis are usually plentiful and cheap enough, with generally friendly and honest drivers. But one of their most annoying practices is the shift change at 6.30pm, right in the middle of the rush hour. This means that the taxis refuse to go to various places from 6.00pm onwards if it takes them too far from where they have to swap to the new driver for his 12 hour shift. Taxis are almost impossible to find between 6.00 and 7.00pm.
But as of last week, the Kunming Government have made it illegal for taxis to swap drivers from 7.00 and 9.00am, or from 5.00 to 7.30pm. I can't say I've noticed any difference as yet, but it's a step in the right direction, especially with so many roads currently being ripped up to build the first of Kunming's new subway lines. Mind you, if desperate, you could always get a lift on a tricycle [see photo] - they seem to carry anything and everything!
It was lovely to share dinner with my old friend Nita the other day. She seems much happier and more confident these days after something of a rude awakening on joining a rural Senior Middle School last year. Some of her horror stories of the goings on in countryside schools leave me shaking my head in disbelief - new/modern teaching methods being publically criticised by school leaders, teachers turning a blind eye to cheating, young teachers being given the least able classes and then criticised when their class's exam results are below average, etc. How not to run a school! Nita is getting more realistic and worldly-wise though, knowing when to toe the line and when to do what she knows is the right thing.
I had a nice meal a couple of days ago with Ava and my bosses (and friends!), Robert and Rachel. They had been in the UK for a couple of weeks holiday, so I invited them to have dinner to welcome them back and, unbeknown to them, celebrate my half-birthday! We went to a fairly posh restaurant, Golden Sun, near Green Lake which has good western food as well as Chinese options. Certainly my cheesy pork medallions in spaghetti were the real deal!
I had a good meeting with Rob the next day too. He wanted to run some new ideas and changes in the school past me before finalising and announcing them. It's really nice to be "in the loop" and feel that my opinions are valued by the management.
My brother David took part in a half-marathon race a few days ago, raising nearly £800. This was no mean feat for a guy who, by his own admission, was very out of shape 6 months ago. A gradual but increasing regime of distance runs leading up to the race saw him lose a lot of weight and gain a lot of muscle, before taking on this 13 mile challenge. A stomach bug the day before didn't help and he sreally truggled after 10 miles. The last few miles were increasingly vague, he recalls, and he finally came round in an ambulance, guzzling oxygen! But he made it and, having run the distance a couple of times myself in my youth, I'm mightily impressed. It's really no mean feat [as you can see on the right in the photo]. Well done mate!!
Ava and I took the plunge today to see just how difficult it would be for me to get a Chinese driving licence. Having brought my UK driving licence with me in the New Year, we had got it translated, obtained a proof of residency letter from the Police, a proof of employment letter from my school, 8 passport photos, a health certificate, a passport and photocopies of all the above. It took us 45 minutes to get to the Traffic Police Centre [see photo] and we finally started the process.
The first problem was the translated driving licence, which we were told had to be done by the official "Kunming Translation Service"!? So a 45 minute drive back to Kunming to find their little office and get them to stamp our tanslation, and then 45 minutes drive back. The second hiccup was when their computer system refused to process my details because I had passed my UK test when 17 years old. In China you need to be 18 and the computer couldn't handle the discrepancy. Eventually, Ava rang a friend who rang a friend who "instructed" the traffic police officer to simply change the date of my passed test to last year!
The final hurdle was the test itself - a timed, computerised, mutliple choice exam consisting of 100 questions about Chinese road rules. The test had apparently been recently translated into English - badly - but no one could give me any idea what the questions would be like. One Chinese examinee said he had heard it was "really easy" whilst another admitted to having taken it 7 times before! The rules are all written in a huge 250 page "Highway Code", but no one has thought to translate that into English! So alongside 100+ Chinese examinees, I gave it my best shot.
About 30 questions were blindingly obvious: "If you find the road blocked by a herd of animals should you (a) honk your horn repeatedly, (b) speed up, (c) weave from side to side, (d) slow down and be considerate". Another 30 were certainly guessable. About 10 had such mangled English that a wild guess was the only choice: "What material explode? (a) inflammable (b) gas tank (c) car fuel (d) explosive"!? That left about 30 which I could never have known - the levels of fines for various traffic offences, the number of years imprisonment for crashing a non-registered car, the minimum speed on certain roads, the name of the governmental body responsible for exhaust emissions, etc. I scored 76%. Not bad under the circumstances, but nowhere near the 90% required. So it was Ava who drove us home. However, her "friend's friend" returned our memory stick as we left and I see it now contains English questions and answers to all possible 3000 questions! I can retake the test once more without further payments, so now it's study time.
When time is limited, a trip to the gym sometimes gets sacrificed and some exercise on Ava's treadmill has to suffice. Mind you, having found it to be stuck in a "15% incline" mode it's usually more of a power-walk than a run. Still, it gets the heart pounding and the sweat dripping (sorry about that, Ava!). The route to Ava's flat also involves a long walk up a steep hill. So, as it turns out, the treadmill isn't always that necessary!
The destinations of a few of the dozen or so buses that stop outside my flat are still unknown to me. I can't read the Chinese characters on the bus route signs and, even when I can, I don't know where the places are in Kunming. There's nothing quite like a map, a notebook and sense of adventure!
So the other day I jumped onto the first "mystery" bus that came along to see where it led. It was the start of a lovely and lucky afternoon.
After about 45 minutes, the bus terminated outside the Kunming Botanical Gardens (somewhere now very much on my list of places to visit) and just down the road from Black Dragon Pool Park [see photo]. I've been there once before last year with Ava, for our first proper date!
On the journey there, however, I'd noticed a small sign pointing to a Daoist Temple, 1km away. So on the way back I jumped off the bus and determined to try and find it... easier said than done, as it happened. The road suddenly ended when crossed by a dual carriageway, still under construction [see photo]. A few enquiries suggested the old road continued across the dual carriageway, so I headed on. The village at the end of the road smelled awful - sewers overflowing - and still no sign of the temple.
A local lady spotted me looking here and there. She kindly offered to show me the way to the temple. I'm not sure I'd have found it otherwise, as it was down a series of small alleyways. But I could hear it due to the dozens of little bells there, tinkling in the breeze.
The temple turned out to be well worth effort, though. The Daoist monks - both men and women - were decked out in traditional robes and were very friendly, insisting on giving me fruit and wanting to chat. There were only a couple of other (Chinese) visitors, and no tickets or guards (as most Chinese temples have these days).The temple walls have wonderful murals on, depicting ancient religious stories. They looked fresh without seeming too new or tacky.
There was a fantastic 3D diorama on the back of one temple, featuring a host of deities riding a large tidal wave. And inside the various temple halls were some enormous statues (the monks asked me not to photograph them). It was one of the quietest, most interesting and friendly temples I've ever been to in China. What a lucky find! I'll certainly be back!
A health update is probably overdue, especially as there is largly good news to share. My year of headaches and dizziness may at last be over - today marks a full month without any problems in that area. The gout and stomach reflux seem to be under control with a daily pill each and my blood pressure seems to be OK too - another pill a day. I've even felt well enough to get back to the gym [see photo] which has good psychological, as well as health, benefits. A few niggles remain - not something I need to mention here - but generally, I'm feeling such a lot better. It's so nice to get through a day without having thought about any health issues. Long may it continue!
Security is being further tightened at Chinese schools after yet another school attack today, leaving 7 children dead and 20 more hurt. This is the fifth such school attack in the last two months:
24 March - 8 children killed in Nanping, Fujian
28 April - 15 children and a teacher killed in Leizhou, Guangdong
29 April - 28 children and 3 adults injured in Taixing, Jiangsu
30 April - 5 children hurt in hammer attack in Weifang, Shangdong
12 May - 7 children killed and 20 others injured in Hanzhong, Shaanxi
So far there have been no apparent motives, with the police claiming they are just copycat attacks. But I do wonder if this sort of thing is the result of a populace who simply aren't allowed to express their frustrations and resentments?
The nearest four shops to my flat are all shoe shops, so imagine my anticipation when one of them closed down recently and the decor was swiftly ripped out. My mind raced with the possibilities of what it might transform into - a bakery, a confectioners, a dairy shop, even a dry cleaners? So I was gutted when it reopened last week as ...yes, you guessed it... yet another shoe shop. Different livery, different brands, same old shoes. Now I ask you, are all the barefooted people of Kunming ever really likely to congregate at the corner of my litle street for a mass purchase?
I read a very inspirational true story today:
In 1995 a truck sliced Peng Shuilin's body in half. Surgeons managed to sew up his torso, re-routing nearly every major organ or system inside his body. Amazingly, he not only survived, but started to work towards mobility.
The China Rehabilitation Research Centre in Beijing created a sophisticated body cast [see photos] with two bionic legs attached. There is a cable attached to the legs so when one goes forward, the other goes backwards. Rock to the side, add a bit of a twist and the leg without the weight advances, and so on. He is now walking again.
It certainly puts one's niggling aches and pains very much into perspective!
This weekend I've had the great pleasure of hosting the LEF family (no, not a typo - the "A" of LEAF, Ali, was making his own, torturous, way back to Simao - a twelve hour winding bus trip!). It's been a real privelege seeing Freda and Edie grow from toddlers into confident and outgoing young ladies over the last 4-5 years, and to be a small part of Lesley and Ali's work and family life. As their VSO posting in Simao finally comes to an end within a few months, they will be off to new, and as yet undecided, adventures somewhere in the world. I'll really miss not having the family "down the road". They are my closest friends in China. The photo shows the girls trying to teach my how to play a car-racing game on their iPhone. To hear them nattering to each other in fluent Chinese is so cool. Do check out the family's fabulous LEAF blog website.
The Kunming police are now officially sponsored by Coca Cola! 500 of these tents have sprung up around Kunming, so that the police can observe the traffic in the shade. Not that I've actually seen a policeman in one as yet. They are just another obstacle on the increasingly crowded pavements. Rumour has it that whilst heroin remains illegal, the police are now turning a blind eye to coke ... haha!
I've been following the build up to the UK election, on and off, and was disappointed to miss the first televised debates. But overall, it all seems a bit distant and irrelevant. When I was young there was a real choice between parties with very different policies. Now they all seem to be different shades of the same basic idea, with only personalities differentiating them. Maybe it's time for a hung parliament to force some consensus? We'll see, later today...
Today's "lesson" with my Level One adult class took place in a nearby Indian restaurant. We have a social meal out once a term. For most of them it was their first try of Indian food and the dishes generally went down well. We finished the evening off with some silly games and magic tricks (as ever). Back to the textbooks next lesson!
Ava and I flew back to Kunming today after our long weekend together in Shenzhen. One of the shops she showed me there sells western books and board games which are either "seconds" or production extras from the factories that make them for the likes of Marks and Spencer, MB Games, Dorling Kindersley etc. I managed to buy some very cheap reading books for my school, plus Risk, Dilemma, About Britain and Kerplunk board games for myself. Ava and I tried out the Kerplunk while waiting at the airport [see photo].
The flight back had a very surreal moment when the air stewardesses suddenly started leading an exercise session for the passengers. I couldn't help laughing, but many passengers took it very seriously [see photo]. Just when you think Chinese airlines are much the same as every other airline in the world, something bizarre like this happens!
One of the main reasons to visit Shenzhen was to see Jiajia at work. She flies here every month to track down and buy the latest brand fashions eg Gucci, Prada, Armani, D&G, etc) for her high-end customers in Kunming. Now I have first-hand experience of the travelling she has to do between the factory outlets, her formidable bargaining techniques and the flat where she stays. It's tiring work and, for someone like me for whom clothes are simply a means to keep warm and avoid being naked, quite mind-numbing. But Jiajia has a keen sense of what her various customers will like, and which items will sell well and make the most profit. A real talent and a very successful niche market.
The undoubted highlight of my trip to Shenzhen (apart from spending time with my other half, of course) was visiting this 40,000 ton decomissioned Soviet aircraft carrier, complete with MiG fighters, helicopters, tanks and missile launchers!
Dotted around the "theme park" which surrounds the ship are various items of military hardware and dozens of these bizarre soldiers. They look like statues until they suddenly move and you realise they are actually actors painted to look metal! This one took exception to me tapping his helmet (and their guns make a loud bang when fired too!) Still, not much fun for them wearing full combat gear in 30ºC heat.
The aircraft carrier itself sports a variety of weaponry, as well as it's complement of aircraft, and looks an awesome fighting machine. However, we'll never know for sure - it was decomissioned after 20 years service, having never been involved in any conflict! Down in the bowels of the ship, things get more surreal, with a 4D film showing a simulated attack on the ship (somehow including a swarm of rats and a mine railway!?) and then a great song and dance show recreating the transformation of happy Russian peasant farmers into Soviet soldiers who then all go off to war to get killed. Nice!
To finish the day off perfectly, Jiajia surprised me with a half-birthday treat at a fantastic, if rather expensive, steak restaurant. The lamb chops were delicious (a rare dish in China), the salad bars and bread were free and we both ate far too much.
Jiajia had endured, rather than enjoyed, the boat visit and, coming so soon after the "Dwarf Empire", she just kept muttering "Biantai laowai"... mentally disturbed foreigners!
Shenzhen was just a small fishing village until 1979, when it was designated a "Special Economic Zone". It's now a modern city with a population of nine million. With a few days off work because of the May Day holiday this weekend, I decided to fly to Shenzhen today to meet up with Jiajia, who has been there for a week already, buying stock for her shop. The contrast between the rampant consumerism here [see photo] and the drought and poverty in the villages I visited just a few days ago is quite stark. I find I mix in both circles, without being trapped or feeling comfortable in either. Sometimes it's quite unsettling.
Past blog entries