I had a delicious Dragon Boat Festival meal this evening. food cooked by Ava and her Mum, roses contributed by myself and homemade mango juice, all laid out on a table originally designed by Ava herself. A very nice little festival celebration.
I drove the 8 hours back to Kunming yesterday, braving heavy rain, wide-bodied trucks and some outrageous overtaking manoeuvres on the steep mountainside roads! It was probably a rather extreme way to get back into driving after 5 years doing virtually none, but despite Ava owning a nice automatic car, she hates driving and was happy enough to let me take the wheel! The trip was definitely worth it though - we had a fantastic time. It was especially nice for me to see Ava getting to know the LEAF family for herself before they leave for pastures new. Now we'll both miss them.
Our last half-day in Simao and Ava was keen to get some souvenirs. So the LEAF family took us to a large market which at this time of year seems to specialise in roots [see photo]. They were on sale everywhere and, even with his encyclopaedic knowledge of local foliage and how to cook it, Ali was bemused at what it could all be used for and why it was only on sale at this time of year. But there was also lots of fruit (which keeps Ava happy) and we all munched through fresh corn-on-the-cob.
Then we found the "woven items" section of the market. Lesley and Ava were in their element (with Edi's help) thinking of alternative uses for what are basically handmade items for farmers; egg boxes become knitting wool holders, bird cages become lamps, etc. I was just wondering how they thought they would get it all back to the car, when I noticed they were all looking at me... Next came the cloth section of the market. Ali and I sidled off to let the girls wear themselves out.
Ava and I set off early today (ignoring the amusing "Don't drive tiredly" sign!) to get to the Driving Test Centre before the queues built up. My 76% mark on the computer multiple choice exam last time was somewhat short of the 90% pass mark and I've been studying hard ever since. Not easy when the Highway Code is only in Chinese and many of the questions are written in Chinglish (eg The registration of motorized vehicles excludes the registration of: A. Loss B. Registration C. Alternation D. Revocation).
Twenty questions into the exam, my computer froze and I started to panic. Then I realised that all 100 computers had crashed and I wasn't the only one in a sweat. Thankfully, after they all rebooted, my 20 answers were still there and I ploughed on. Some questions threw me: "What should you do at a red light? A. Stop B. Yield C. Not pass D. Go faster" Clearly not the last option, but which of the others makes most sense? Others were ridiculously easy: "When schoolchildren are crossing the road in a queue should you: A. Drive through B. Weave to and fro C. Honk your horn until they move D. Respectfully slow down and stop"! By the end I was hoping I'd scraped through with 91-92%, and was therefore pleasantly surprised to get a score of 96%! I drove Ava back from the Centre with a big grin on my face.
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!
One of the main reasons to visit Shenzhen was to see Ava 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 Ava 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, Ava 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.
Ava 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! This is her "not another blog photo?" look!
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 9 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 Ava, 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.
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. Ava 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.
Ava was raised by her Grandmother, so it was particularly sad when she passed quite suddenly about 6 months ago. Ava 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 Ava 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.
'The Preventative Maintenance Minute'!?
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??
Ava 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!?
Ava and I travelled into the countryside today to a small village called Tuanshan (pron: twarn sharn). It was once the thriving centre of a family made rich through the tin trade. The elegant courtyards, houses and theatre have given Tuanshan "World Heritage" status as well as being on the list of the 100 most endangered such sites. The nice thing about the place is that, although there were a smattering of tourists around, it is still very much a lived-in village. Some houses had little shops selling curios, another had turned their courtyard into a small restaurant, but generally life was unaffected by the trickle of camera-wielding outsiders. We were even invited into a couple of houses for a sit-down and chat, with no ulterior motive other than to show hospitality and stare at the foreigner close-up.
On the way back from Tuanshan, we stopped off at this magnificent bridge - one of only two such "17-arch" bridges in China (the other one being in Beijing)
Looking quite a bit older than it's actual 200 years, Ava and I were a bit perplexed as to why it had been built there. The central tower was apparently to guard the bridge from unofficial crossings, but it spans more of a small lake than a river. We walked back around the outside of the "lake" in under ten minutes. So why the need for an enormous bridge? It did seem a bit overkill!
Jianshui (pron: jen shway) is a small, well-preserved town about a 4 hour bus ride from Kunming. I last went there some 13 years ago, but only to visit teachers I was training at one of their schools. I also passed through the town about 2 years ago en route to the YuanYang Rice Terraces. I saw this gate (on a roundabout) then and decided to return and explore the old town sometime. So Ava and I headed there today.
Jianshui's two claims to fame are it's "chaodofu" (smelly tofu) and the Confucius Temple (one of the largest in China). I'm not a big fan of the former, but the Temple was very impressive - large, active and very well-kept (if expensive, at 60RMB or £6 a ticket). It also helped to be there on a warm and sunny day.
The highlight for me, though, was spotting this UFO hovering above the temple. It was a pinprick spot [see red circle] but, when I zoomed in on it with my camera, an odd and fascinating shape was revealed. Not very "aeroplane" or "balloon"! It stayed in the sky for some minutes, but when Ava and I glanced back after chatting about it, the object had completely disappeared. Very spooky.
Kunming (indeed, most of Yunnan Province) is suffering a severe drought this winter, with no rainfall for months now. The flipside, however, has been weeks of warm sunny days at a time of year when one would normally be wrapping up warm. Ava and I decided to take advantage of the sun and explore a local (but new to me) park. She wanted to check out the pagoda, while I was hunting for chinglish. Ava found her pagoda...
...and the chinglish was plentiful, too. Top left is a bin for "organisms", then (clockwise) a "Lotus Pund", an advert where "nothing is possible" and finally "non-religious transport for computer technicians"??
Chinese New Year kicked off here at midnight last night, to the sound of fireworks and crackers all over the city. Ava's flat is up a hill, so we were able to see an impromptu and adhoc display, building up to the usual 12 o'clock cacophony. This year is the "Year of the Tiger", here seen exiting a Kunming taxi!
Ava's Mum had been out earlier in the day shopping for food and had prepared all the ingredients... Ava than took over and cooked up a variety of delicious New Year speciality foods, which I was delighted to help them devour! We were all stuffed by the end.
Ava's only other relative, an adopted, and frequently inebriated, uncle managed to turn up just half an hour late for a couple of fags, a couple of bottles of beer and a bowl or two of food, before heading off to his friend's for more of the same! Today is also Valentine's Day (the next time it falls on Spring Festival Day will be in 38 years' time). Being our first, it was a particularly special day for Ava and I.
Today is Spring Festival Eve, traditionally a day for cleaning out the house and preparing for the (Chinese) New Year. I like to think I keep my house fairly spick and span, but my wardrobe is always a collection of "piles" - this pile for warm clothes, that pile for T-shirts, etc. Ava's eye's lit up at this challenge. Working in a shop, she can magically fold a whole variety of clothes perfectly flat and symmetrical with the flick of her wrist. So within 5 minutes, my clothes looked like a shop display [see photo]. But will it stay that way?
When one of Ava's (rich) customers invites her out for dinner (and I'm allowed to tag along), you can be sure of a classy restaurant, great service and delicious food. Having a couple of dozen well-to-do customers vying for your latest Dior, Givenchy and Chanel garments means that only the best "bribers" get the chance to buy the best clothes first! Last night we went to a lovely old restaurant, serenaded with live harp music [see photo (L to R): harp player, customer texting, tea ceremony]. The restaurant's owner is also one of Ava's customer and, on seeing Ava's new jacket, wouldn't take no for an answer in buying it off her, there and then! It was, as always, nice to meet more of Ava's friends. A lovely bunch, full of fun. There was very little English being spoken which forced me to practise my limited Chinese and spurred me on to learn more during this coming year.
Still, at least my invites are a little more friendly than this one received by Robert the other day, with the Mayor of Kunming requesting the HOROR of his company!! What a difference a letter makes!
Six months ago Ava and I had our first proper "date", so today marks our half-year anniversary of being an "item". Mind you, we have spent the majority of that time on seperate continents, so it doesn't feel quite that long! Ava is actually 1000km away in Shenzhen this week, hunting down the latest fashions to ship back to her store.
As a little challenge, I decided to try and get to Ava's flat by bus this morning (she's always driven us there before). I found it eventually, and then walked back home (40 minutes). It's left me a bit shaky (I'm still getting the shakes on some days, presumably from the glandular fever) but it was good to get out into the sun and discover some new routes around town.
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