Despite having an "unlucky" 13 volunteers on the latest Lattitude course, they all arrived safely and promptly at the airport today and seem a very nice bunch. This intake comprises mixed Brits and Ossie girls [see photo]. For some reason there's no Australian blokes this time - we're hoping this might reduce the late-night, heavy drinking sessions! The training course starts tomorrow and, with Rob (my boss) busy with the beginning of our school term, I'm taking on 75% of the training myself this time. I think that will be a fun challenge if only my upset stomach decides to behave!
I was sent a lovely series of photos today of my youngest brother's very photogenic family on holiday in Plymouth. It's odd that I haven't yet met their two children, as they were both born while I've been in China. But with only a month now until I return to the UK for an extended holiday, it won't be too long before I can make two new little friends.
OK, so this is nothing to do with my life in China, but how cute is this little creature? I spotted him in an online article about endangered species and I think he has now replaced ferrets as my "favourite animal". Look at his wide eyes, that cheeky grin and all those woolly ears. Check out those dinky fingers. And he's called an "Axolotl Salamander" - even the name is whimsical. These little critters live in Mexico, but few are now found in the wild. They can regenerate missing limbs, because they never actually grow out the baby stage of their development. How they reproduce is therefore a bit of a mystery. So my next question - where do I get one?
Jiajia [left] is an art graduate who enjoys fashion design and oil painting in her free time. I've been bigging myself up recently and trying to convince her that I'm also very artistic (total lie!). She's in Shenzhen at the moment visiting clothing factories to restock her Kunming fashion shop. So today I sent her a "photo of me sketching her portrait" [see right]. I hope she'll be impressed but that she won't actually ask to see it when she returns - my digital manipulation skills may be impressive, but I can't sketch to save my life!
Oli and his Chinese wife Ling were probably my best friends in Kunming until they moved to Thailand to start a new life at a new school there just over a year ago. Although we've kept in touch sporadically on the internet since then, it was a real pleasure to catch up with Ling today, back in town to see her family and friends. She hasn't changed a bit. We shared a nice meal together along with my bosses, Robert and Rachel, and my Chinese teacher, Maggie. When the three girls went into high speed Chinese chinwagging mode, Rob and I mused about life, school work and the future! Nice evening.
The twice-yearly Lattitude Training Course is fast approaching. Thirteen western teenagers from Britain and Australia arrive this time next week for the 8-day course which I wrote and, with some able help, run. I enjoy training more than teaching, to be honest (and see them as quite separate skills), so I always look forward to this 6-monthly event. It's also a pleasure to see people experiencing China for the first time. It' s easy to get blasé and, perhaps, a little jaded about life here but, seen through fresh eyes, the strangeness, uniqueness and absurdities of Chinese life are made fresh and vivid again. Today we have the pre-course meeting and then we'll be at the airport to welcome the newcomers before you know it.
Despite forecasts of rain, today turned out to be dry and sunny, so Jiajia and I decided to drive out to Black Dragon Pool Park on the outskirts of Kunming. After parking the car we got a bit of a shock to see goats munching on moss on the roof of a nearby restaurant! [see photo].
The ever-reliable Lonely Planet guide is a bit negative about Black Dragon Pool Park, but we found plenty of interest - trees, temples and towers mostly. The pool itself has an interesting story attached to it. It's split into two parts by a pretty bridge, with the water on one side noticeably muddier than the water on the other side. Apparently this has been a mystery for centuries and the only time when the colours of the water swap over is just before an earthquake!
This afternoon I taught Jiajia to play Monopoly (rather too well - she won) and then we had a delicious Muslim meal in the evening with mutual friends. All in all, a really nice day.
I was invited to an interesting restaurant this evening, serving typical food of the Jingpo minority group. It started with sliced cow's head....
Some of the dishes were quite tasty actually, although most were really spicy. The tea, with "essence of sticky rice" made a nice change and the decor, clothes, music and singing made for a memorable evening.
Nothing really happened today. I didn't get gout or any dizziness. I saw no Chinglish. China did not experience any earthquakes, floods, typhoons, civil unrest or mining accidents. I had a bit of work to do, but I wasn't really busy. I washed my clothes but nothing broke or leaked. I didn't get lost, injured or exasperated. Nobody died. No further websites got blocked. I ate well and had no adverse tummy problems. All in all, a very unremarkable, even dull, day. Hmmm... come on China - this is not why I'm here! Where's the action?
Despite China's continuing blocking of Facebook (and other similarly un-threatening websites), I manage to get in occasionally through a proxy server. Today I found someone had posted this picture on my page! Others had commented that it looked "cute" and "an improvement". One person didn't even seem to realise it had been tampered with - now surely I don't really look anything like that, do I?
Using whiteboard markers and erasers at work has left half a dozen of my shirts with big black marks on them - not a problem I ever had when using white chalk! So it sounded like good news when my friend Jiajia had a look at one and confidently said she had the necessary cleaning materials to remove the stain and whiten it all up again. However, she returned with her first attempt yesterday looking very sheepish. Her first application had got rid of most of the mark, but she then decided to go for a second application to finish the job. That one just left a large shredded hole [see photo] where the mark had once been! She claims she "successfully removed the stain" as promised, but I had sort of expected the shirt to still be there! She left with a second stained short, hoping to perfect the process... I'm not holey convinced!
I popped into the school today to pick up a nice bundle of newspapers, magazines, care packages (thanks LEAF!), a couple of letters and this mysterious postcard from Moscow! With no name, CAPITAL LETTERS and a minimal message, I don't have a clue who to thank or who's been checking out Red Square! All very KGB!
My friend and ex-student Nita left today to start her teaching career in a countryside school an hour or so from Kunming. She seems keen and confident and although there were tears in the eyes as she said goodbye, I think she's found her calling at last. Good luck Nita!
So that was country 93. I liked Sri Lanka a lot and found the people to be exceptionally friendly and warm. The travel there and back wasn't the easiest however. Firstly arriving in a new country at midnight isn't ideal. Then yesterday I found out that the bus to the airport stops running "sometime before 7pm" and my flight was due to leave at 1am. So having run out of money, checked out of the hotel and dripping with sweat in the intense heat, I took an early bus to the air-conditioned airport. I managed to change my clothes for dry ones in the toilet there and then settled down to kill 8 hours with a book, a last bottle of water and my MP3 player. After the 3 hour flight to Bangkok (no chance to sleep with a much-needed meal to eat) I had another 5 hour wait there for the remaining flight to China. So when I finally got home, I'd been without sleep for 36 hours and was barely thinking straight. I'm hoping to catch up on my Zzzzzs tonight.
JiaJia's Grandmother died earlier this week and I was invited to attend the day of funeral ceremonies with her. We started in the morgue and, after preparing the body, travelled with it to the crematorium. After performing various traditional rituals we transported the ashes to a cemetary for storage until a more auspicious month, when they will be formally buried. It was a curious day for me, witnessing a complex and fascinating series of rites and rituals, whilst very aware that this was no fun "cultural outing" - people were upset and everything had to be done with solemnity and dignity. I've been to a few funerals in the countryside - noisy and chaotic affairs - but this one was more ordered and ritualised, and a cremation instead of a burial. So it was something of a privilege to be involved and I was glad to hear my attendance had been in some way helpful. But a tough day for all concerned.
To be honest, Colombo doesn't seem to have a lot to offer the tourist apart from energy-sapping heat and humidity, so I've struggled to kill time on these last few days. I even found myself shopping...! I did take the chance to get my stubble shaved off today though. It should help me get through immigration on the way back to China!
I’m probably in Colombo a day longer than I need (or want) to be. It’s such a big city that to get anywhere means a crowded bus, super-slow train or exhausting walk (with persistent cries of "Taxi?" from every passing tuk-tuk). Still, I need to do a little shopping, and there are a variety of religious buildings to view – Muslim mosques, Hindu Devi temples [see photo], Buddhist shrines and Christian churches dating back to the British occupation of the island. I had a nice meal at a restaurant famous for being used in Duran Duran’s "Hungry like the wolf" video and later, having had my fill of cheap and cheerful curries, I took the chance to blow my budget on a tasty Pizza Hut meal.
I was all set to splash out on a comfy air-conditioned bus to Colombo today but, as I arrived at the bus station a cheap and battered local bus to Colombo was just leaving and the temptation to get going without a wait was too great. So, stuck on the back seat of the bouncy bus for four hours, I finally made it to Sri Lanka’s capital city. The first couple of hotels I tried were full, so I used the money I’d saved on today’s travel to go a little bit upmarket and get an air-conditioned room at a small hotel. Not a bad idea either as it’s so much hotter and more humid here. Thank goodness for the odd cooling sea breeze blowing off the Indian Ocean, just 100m from my hotel.
Sigiriya Palace is a day trip from Dambulla and a fascinating site. On arrival, I was somewhat take aback by the ticket price ($25) which is not only the amount of my daily budget on this trip for everything – hotel, food, tickets, travel, etc, but also, I think, more than I’ve paid for any tourist site, anywhere in the world. After that little shock though, the day itself was great fun and fascinating. The Palace is built on a steep hill which rises out of the surrounding plains like some sort of Sri Lankan "Ayers Rock". You approach it through what used to be water gardens, temple buildings carved from huge boulders and small caves. These are all ruins now, but it’s easy enough to imagine what it was once like. Then up a series of steps, viewing ancient, but extremely well-preserved, frescoes on the way. The halfway point is at the bottom of the photo. Climbing these next steps involves passing to half a dozen large hornet nests [middle left black dots in photo]. As I arrived, other tourists were rushing into a heavily netted shed, as there were rumours that the hornets were about to swarm. I waited a few minutes, but really quite fancied climbing the steps by myself, so set off before the cowering crowds re-emerged! Arriving unstung at the top of the rock I explored the remains of an enormous palace (or possibly temple – no one is quite sure) and enjoyed the great views. It was very windy but a nice way to cool off after the hot and tiring ascent. Then it was time to face the hornets again…!
A few hours bus ride north from Kandy lies Dambulla. It’s main claim to fame is the Royal Rock Temple – five caves in the hillside overlooking the town which house various Buddhist statues. Worryingly the entrance at the bottom of the hill is dominated by a huge and very tacky "golden" (plastic?) Buddha statue, sitting atop an ugly, modern museum (containing little of an interest) paid for by donations from Japanese businessmen with, presumably, nothing better to spend their money on. I feared the worst, but after making my way up the hill this afternoon I was very impressed by the ancient caves, a couple of which are very big indeed, and subtley lit to make the statues look very lifelike.
Today is my last day in Kandy – a lovely town. I visited the Temple of the Sacred Tooth which apparently boasts one of Buddha’s molars. The purpose of the Perahera Festival, which finished yesterday, is actually to parade the tooth around town (not that you actually get a chance to see it on the parade or in the temple). The temple therefore turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, as half of it was closed to visitors because everything was being tidied and packed away for another year. Even the elephants were getting a good clean [see photo] and some extra vegetation to munch on. Tomorrow I head on to Dambulla
I usually do my travelling with a Lonely Planet guidebook in hand and Sri Lanka is no exception. One of the things they do extremely well is to highlight possible walking routes away from the mainstream tourist attractions. So today I caught a local bus and headed off into the countryside to track down three temples and walk the 10km of pathways between them. I do enjoy days like this – clean air, little cost, friendly people to bump into (though crucially no other foreigners!) and an element of challenge as I endeavour to find the temples without getting too lost or sunburnt! One of the motifs I spotted in all the temples was this "7 animals in one" monster [see photo] which apparently boasts the tail of a peacock, the body of a fish, the mouth of a crocodile, the nose of an elephant, the legs of a lion, the eyes of an eagle and the ears of a monkey! It’s not often a 500 year old piece of art makes me chuckle!
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