Dave and Esme have had surprisingly little jet lag and have been keen to get out and about during their first full day in Kunming before heading on to other cities, towns and villages. They started today with a visit to the house to meet JD, ma-in-law and our Nanny. JD quickly forged quite a bond with Esme and was very happy to be held and played with for as long as she had the patience. Then off to Green Lake Park to see impromptu dancing and singing, followed by the more tranquil, YuanTong Temple [shown here, with umpteen turtles]. It's Kunming's largest and most active temple and we enjoyed exploring the various sections. We were also lucky enough to stumble across 25-30 local ladies (and a few men) chanting and hitting various bells and drums as part of one of their services.
Mis red the results
A Bangladeshi hotel. A year ago today. Jiajia's been sick all week and we've been blaming the local food. I mention casually that it could, of course, be due to pregnancy. An hour later I'm in a nearby chemist trying to mime "pregnancy test" to the amusement of a Bengali shopkeeper. I finally return to the hotel room and Ava does the test. A red line shows up. We can't read the Bengali, but red means "no", right? We're not sure if we should feel disappointed or relieved and we continue to blame the local food.
A week later, we've returned to China and Jiajia wants to check again, thinking that Chinese tests might be more accurate. We try once again but it's no more accurate. Still red. However, this time Ava can read the instructions and we soon discover a red line is actually a "positive". Gulp. Jiajia's got a baby boy in her. The rest, as they say, is his story.
Cup o' China
We took the train to Guangzhou today. There are handbag and shoe markets there which give Ava a wider range of goods items to sell. It took seconds to buy a ticket, the train was on time, clean and speedy - British Rail please note! The coffee was a rip-off though; 30RMB (£3) for a paper cupful? On the way home we bought our coffee in advance from the KFC by the station. Much cheaper and just as tasty.
The photo above right from Bangladesh appears in my Christmas Newsletter this year. But as my UK friend Jo pointed out, it's not the first picture of me on a boat she's received. The one on the left was taken some 15 years ago in China. I don't think I've aged too badly, although the boatman seems to have!
For anyone who didn't get my Christmas Newsletter 2012 e-mailed through to them, do click below to download a copy.
Crawl the wall
This weekend marks the end of the "Golden Week" in China. The Mid-Autumn Festival and National Day holiday are close enough this year for most people to take a whole week off work - something of a rarity here. Road toll gates are free and people head for the sights or to visit distant family members. Students also have a week off school, but must work the previous and following weekend to "make up" lessons. So not really a holiday for them, or their teachers. In fact, barely a holiday for anyone [see photo above].
Moves at the movie
The hotel where we are staying is great except for one bizarre aspect. As you can see from the photo, the bathroom has a glass wall! There is a curtain, but it is on the bedroom side! So people can look in on you as you use the facilities. Why oh why??
We took in another free movie today. Whilst the others watched an American action flick, Ava and I took AiRan (CAL's daughter) to a Chinese cartoon movie. It was dire, and Ava and I struggled to stay awake. As you can see from the photo, we were the only people in the cinema. At one point I got up and ran a lap up and down the aisles just to wake myself up. AiRan seemed to enjoy it though.
TongHai is proving something of a Mecca for Chinglish. Check out this shop sign and see if you can work out the intended meaning...
Close call & clothes mall
Ava and I are having a few days holiday in a town called TongHai with our good friends Catherine and her family (CAL) and a mutual friend Yang Ping who has business interests in TongHai. It's a pretty town, with many old areas surviving and a distinctly "countryside" feel. We had a bit of a fright on the way down, however, when an oncoming truck lost control on a slippery road and slid backwards, at speed, onto our side of the road, coming within 2-3 inches of the car Ava was travelling in. I was in the car behind, watching it all happen as if in slow motion. Thankfully nobody was hurt, although it was a bit of a shock.
Yang Ping showed us the centre of town, with old and new buildings on cobbled streets. And she was, of course, keen to show us the newly opened shopping mall which she owns! Seven stories high and including a multiplex cinema. Did we want to watch a couple of movies for free? Sure! With free popcorn and coke? Why not? Good friend to have!
The movies were great, but I had to bite my tongue on seeing the large advertising hoarding along the road. Yang Ping asked me if the English was correct - she'd translated it by computer. Rather embarrassed, I did at least offer to check any future slogans for her!
Pros (and cons)
Bangladesh hasn't been the toughest country I've travelled in (Paraguay - I'm looking at you!), but it's probably in the top (bottom?) three! Ava's found it particularly hard - vomiting for days on end takes the shine off any adventure. On the positive side though, it is country #95 for me - one closer to the magic 100 - and it does make you grateful for what you often take for granted (unbroken pavements, clean food, cool climate, etc). It's also been quite cheap and just a 2 hour direct flight from Kunming. But by far the most impressive memory I will take with me has been the friendliness of the people. Some are just "helpful" in the hope of a tip, but the vast majority are genuinely outgoing, curious and delighted to meet a foreigner. The opening question has always been, "What is your country's name?" - an unusual and quaint construction, but eliciting an excited response when England is named ("Britain" gets a blank stare, sorry!) as the conversation rapidly turns to cricket (of which I know nothing). One 20-second greeting stands out for me; on hearing I was from England, an elderly gentleman with remarkably good English simply said, "Ah, England. A land of great civility. Sir, I apologise for our country's infrastructure but hope you will experience the warmth of our people." And with that he smiled and walked off.
The rail way to travel
Our plans to return to Dhaka by "gentle river paddle boat" have again been quashed when we went to buy tickets yesterday and were told the boat no longer reaches Khulna due to the rainy season. We opted instead for an overnight train back. We paid for a first class carriage and at first were pleasantly surprised to find we were the only two in a sleeper with 6 beds. But, at the first station, we were joined by a Muslim guy and his two women (wives?). He proceeded to sing his prayers on the floor throughout the night as one "wife" was being sick in the toilet and the other fell out of bed (and amazingly didn't even wake up).
We arrived in Dhaka at 6am to find the city flooded... [see below]
Chicken breast stroke
Jiajia and I have been tied to the bathroom for the last day or so! Today we were determined to get out and see "a sight" before leaving Khulna tomorrow. My guidebook described a pleasant rickshaw/ferry/bus trip to an ancient mosque. We took a rough hour-long rick ride to where the ferry should have been, only to find a huge bridge there now [see top left]. Undeterred, we found a way to get up onto the bridge and started to walk across. Half way, the heavens opened and we were getting drenched, when a motorised "baby-taxi" stopped and offered to take us to the old mosque. The roads quickly turned to mud [see top right] and it took us over an hour to complete the "30 minute trip".
The mosque was quite old, quite attractive [see above] and quite interesting. Nothing very impressive! Despite buying tickets to enter, and being very sensitive about those praying and not eating, we were quickly approached by the Imam (Head Muslim) who told us to please leave as soon as we had seen what we had to. Not the welcome we had expected - if you don't want visitors, don't advertise or sell tickets!
A nearby (dull) mosque held an unexpected surprise. Behind the building was a large man-made lake (built for water storage). As Jiajia and I sat there cooling off in the breeze, a man approached carrying a live chicken. "I wonder if chickens can swim?" I joked, and then to our surprise we watched as the man lobbed the chicken into the lake! And what do you know - chickens CAN swim! As the soaked and exhausted chicken reached the bank, the man picked it up and headed back to the mosque [see photo above left]. I suspect it was a ritual cleansing before a sacrifice ...or perhaps just a prelude to dinner? The journey back was by two big buses in torrential rain [see photo above right]. Ava raised plenty of glances as ever - it has been quite rare to see women in public here, and foreigners even more so.
Ferry bumpy ride
Our planned "gentle river trip" down to Khulna in the south of Bangladesh changed into a bumpy 7 hour bus ride due to a ticket office having a long holiday. The bus trip included a ferry crossing over a wide river which broke up the monotony. Khulna is Bangladesh's third biggest city, and less frantic than Dhaka. Our hotel is better too, which at least enables us to relax and enjoy some air-conditioning after our excursions into the 35°C, 95% humidity weather.
One of the big bonuses of our time here is access to satellite TV and coverage of the Olympics with English commentary. There is still a 5 hour time difference with the UK, so watching events "live" is limited, but it sure beats the Chinese coverage which barely featured any sports outside, badminton, table-tennis or diving!
Bang out of order
Bangladesh is a country half the size of the UK but with twice the population. Ava and I arrived here yesterday after having our first flight cancelled and the second - a day later - delayed by two further hours. We arrived at 4am and, after few sly backhanders, I managed to get my visa. Since then we've been somewhat overwhelmed by the heat, the noise, the humidity, the begging, the traffic and the pollution of Dhaka - the country's 10 million strong capital city. We've arrived in the rainy season and amidst Ramadan - the Islamic month of fasting. With 85% of the country being Muslims, few restaurants are open and we have to be careful where to sip our bottles of water so as not to give offence. Our pre-booked hotel is filthy and broken, so we hope to move to a better one tomorrow. We had planned to take a 36 hour river boat to the south of the country, but we found the ticket office shut today and not due to open for 3 more days. So we'll try a bus.
Robert (my boss) and I drove 2 hours to QuJing yesterday - Yunnan's second biggest city, with a population of a million. We were visiting Maddi and Chanoa [left in photo], the two Lattitude volunteers serving there. I did the teacher training for them last month and currently have oversight of all the Lattitude volunteers in China. It was a really nice visit, seeing their new flat, meeting their colleagues and hearing their stories and reactions to life in China and starting to teach in a school with 5000 students. They were remarkably settled and positive despite a difficult first few weeks.
I got a fabulous present from my friend Vix this Christmas - a large map of the world with every country covered in a gold layer that can be scraped off when you have been there. For someone who is approaching the magic 100 countries (about half of all of them), it's a great way to keep track of my progress and prompt a bit of boasting to any visitors! At first I decided to just scrape off the individual areas I have travelled to [pic 1], but it looked a bit puny. So I've now scraped off the whole of any country I have been to [pic 2]. So despite only having been to Toronto, the whole Canadian chunk makes North America look a lot more travelled! Is that cheating? I still need to visit Australia and central Africa for it to look really good, while Antarctica would be a massive bonus! But sadly my days of hitting 5-6 countries a year have ground to a halt. It wouldn't be right to do too much exploring without the wife in tow, and Chinese tourists can't always get visas that easily. Still, there are 4-5 new countries looking tempting, Watch this space!
Wire we here?
Jiajia and I were in ChongQing yesterday, applying for her UK visa. We had a scare to start with when, at Kunming airport, and purely by luck, we spotted that our two return flights had been switched. I was due to return to Kunming, but was assigned to a ticket to Shenzhen (to buy clothes for Ava’s store?) while Ava was due to fly on to Shenzhen, but was assigned to a ticket back to Kunming (to teach my English class?). It was the ticket agency’s fault, but they were reluctant to admit it and Jiajia had to insist they got us new correct tickets immediately. We have therefore lost £100 in re-ticketing costs but hope to be reimbursed later.
The visa process has taken Jiajia and I many hours to complete: finding, creating, copying and collating 50-odd pieces of paper required to support her application form. Britain doesn't make it easy for visitors from outside Europe! The actual "handing in" part took just half an hour though, so we had some free time in the city before our onward flights.
ChongQing is a dirty, untidy, noisy city [see the wiring in the photo above!] with typical weather conditions being smog, humidity and drizzle. Ava was very keen to try the famed ChongQing hotpot – the spiciest in China - and we found a nice place (complete with Christmas decorations!) that could do a half-and-half pot, so that I could eat in relative non-spiciness [see photo left]. It was a good meal, and much cheaper than the equivalent in Kunming.
We should find out the result of the visa application in 2-3 weeks.
Me: "I have an Affidavit appointment"
Receptionist: "After David? David who?"
Once the initial confusion was overcome, my paperwork was completed smoothly by 10.30am, leaving me 14 hours before my flight back to Kunming. So I headed for Ci Qi Kou Ancient Village:
This is a Ming Dynasty town an hour from ChongQIng which has been preserved and restored. Some streets were clearly for tourists, selling a variety of trinkets, but walk further and things start to look a little more authentic and "lived-in".
The highlight for me was the BaoLun Temple in the centre of the old town, overlooking the hustle and bustle. It was very peaceful and, at 1500 years old, pleasantly faded. The contrast between ChongQing's modern and ancient was very evident [see photo, left].
A single return trip
I flew an hour to ChongQing today to get proof from the British Consulate there that I'm not already married, and for them to formally "publish the banns" for Ava and my wedding! This plush hotel (next to the cheaper one wher I was staying!) was a good omen. The "Ocean of Morality Big Hotel" decided to go with the Cantonese "Hoi Tak" romanisation rather than the Mandarin "Hai De". I knew I should have copyrighted my Chinese name [see blog banner].
ChongQing is a huge city, with a population rivalling Bejing or Shanghai. It's situated on hills surrounding the YangZi River. Sounds idyllic? It's not. It's an eyesore - highrise buildings everywhere, a construction frenzy and permanently covered in a haze of smog which leads to more spitting that I've seen in a long time. Oh, and it's earthquake prone, too. After tracking down the Consulate for tomorrow's visit (it is closed today for "Sweep the Tombs Festival") I took one of ChongQing's famous cable cars, linking the hill on one side of the river to the opposite peak. I'm sure it is safer than it looks!
Traditional and brand new
We drove back to Kunming today in heavy rain, narrowly avoiding a motorway traffic accident which happened to the car just ahead of us. On the way we stopped in the town of TongHai. Ava has a friend there [right in photo below] who is building a shopping complex [see model in photo above] and wanted half an hour of Ava's time to discuss the advertising strategy and branding of the centre.
He then took us all to a beautiful restaurant in the old part of town for a special kind of hotpot meal [right in photo below]. As it turned out we were to need the hot food as the weather got colder and colder on our journey. Yesterday's sunburn turned into a snow flurry in Kunming!
Confusion and Confucius
We played a favourite card game of Mum and Dad's last night called "Muggins". The forfeit for the loser was to crawl under a stone bench by our bedrooms. Ava and I got rid of our cards fairly early and were just waiting to see which parent would end up being the biggest mug!
Today we braved today's hot sunshine to visit JianShui's biggest temple. In fact, it's the second largest Confucius Temple in China. We didn't see any other tourists there all afternoon and it was peaceful enough to hear the birds singing. The temple grounds are immaculately well-tended and there's a lovely lake with an island connected by a very Chinese-looking bridge. The interior of the temples themselves are less ornate than Buddhist equivalents, but that's Confucianism for you!
The only slightly disappointing temple issue was that Mum and Dad had to pay for entry tickets. I'd been asssured that retirees - foreign as well as Chinese - get into places such as this for free. They were charged in TuanShan yesterday, too. Seems nobody thought to tell them about OAPs.
We drove to TuanShan today - an old but well-preserved tin merchants' village which now has World Heritage status. It was a peaceful and warm day, with only two other tourists in the whole place. After wandering around there (with Dad trying his magic tricks on any unsuspecting child he saw) we drove back, stopping at Double Dragon Bridge [see photos].
The bridge seems to be out of all proportion to the lake it crosses, partly because the lake has largely dried up in the intervening years, and partly because the lake is small enough to be walked around in 20 minutes. Still, the bridge is still an imposing and impressive spectacle.
In the evening we tried Jianshui's famous barbecue. We passed on the bamboo maggots, but Jiajia was keen to try the chicken feet and tongues!
Zhu lake our hotel?
A 4-hour drive today saw us visit JianShui, a town south of Kunming which retains a lot of it's old town whilst not yet deluged by tourists. Jiajia had worked her usual magic, with a friend of hers managing to get us a room at the best hotel for a third of the usual price. And what a hotel is it was [see photos]. . .
We had rooms in the Zhu Family Residence - a 100 year old mansion with a lake, dancing hall, gardens and hundreds of beautifully decorated rooms. Daytime visitors were paying £5 a ticket to view the courtyard where we were staying! The bedrooms were smallish, but ornately decorated and with very modern bathrooms. And in the mornings and evenings the whole tourist spot was all ours to explore. You can explore it too by clicking here.
Trying out our dressing gowns in front of our bedrooms
More photos from our HeiJing trip
Not to be mist
The beautifully-carved shutters of the windows of our hotel room look out onto a delightful courtyard surrounded by wooden rooms and complete with its own stage. Jiajia couldn't resist a little dance (to minimal applause it must be said!). After exploring the many ornate rooms and corridors in the hotel (in which we appeared to be the only guests), we headed into town and found a steep path that led to a small temple. The lady in charge there was really friendly and seemed a little put out when we politely declined her invitation to share lunch.
In the afternoon, we decided to brave the rain and low-lying mist clouds and tackle the 500+ steps leading up to FeiLaiSi or "Fly Here Temple"!. Flying there would have been a less painful option! The promised views were mostly clouded over, but we did get a glimpse of the town for brief moments [see photo]. And of a small crab on the steps of the temple, which wasn't quite what we expected!
The Temple itself was fairly run-of-the-mill, but we appreciated the chance for a sit-down out of the rain, before attempting the slippery return route.
By the time we returned to HeiJing, it was time for a well-earned meal, a shower and a soft bed for our aching limbs!
We'll leave tomorrow, and hope to find a quicker and less hazardous route back.
Heijing (not Beijing)
Jiajia and I took a late holiday break today to the town of HeiJing, north of Kunming. We went by car (rather than by train) which turned out to be a mistake. Heavy rain, landslides, water buffalo, reckless oncoming traffic, potholes, herds of goats and a disheartening lack of signage led to the "4 hour" journey taking us over 6 hours. HeiJing itself is over 500 years old and was built on the riches of nearby salt mines. The ornate and traditional buildings of that era are still here to be seen, along with cobbled, pedestrianised streets, ancient temples and a river which seems to be going from "near-empty" to "surging" with the non-stop rain!
The highlight of the visit so far has been our hotel. It's very traditional [see photo] and about 150 years old. The rooms are fairly modern within though and the main street of the town is just a 5 minute walk away. Now if only the rain would stop!
Card say thank you enough
I occasionally raid my display of postcards for use in lessons (an "Eden Project" postie came in useful in a recent lesson, and I managed to find cards from all four nations of the UK for another) and yet my wall display at home remains very healthy! Many thanks to family and friends who so faithfully remember me on their travels - much appreciated!
Paul Hider lives and works in Kunming (SW China) and regularly updates this blog about his life there.
Past blog entries