A nice day in Bath yesterday with our good friend Krista. Lovely city but, on the day we were there, full of Chinese and gradating students!
Spent a few days this week back in ChongQing - smoggy city with a population of some 30 million. After a day of review and practice, I retook the 3-hour Certification Test and this time passed the thing. So I'm now a qualified Examiner for the British Council. I'm heading back to Kunming later today.
Jiajia. JD and I went to an amazing theme park the other day, along with two other families from JD’s school. The attraction has an "Ocean Park" (large aquarium, plus dolphin, seal and beluga whale shows), a "Snow Park" (huge indoor -8ºC building with slides, aerial walkways, train, skating, skiing, "live snowing", igloos etc), fairground rides and a circus! And all this just a few hours drive outside of Kunming!
JD and I went to a classmate's birthday celebration yesterday. We drove a little way out of the city to a large recreational area with restaurants, a sand pit, swings and these rather cool Mongolian yurts! The focus of the "party" was to climb a nearby mountain. 18 of us set off but only 5 made it to the top, including JD and I.
The views over Kunming were pretty impressive but emphasised once again, just what a polluted city it is - fairly clean by Chinese city standards, but still covered in a layer of smog.
By the time we returned down the mountain, we were pretty hungry. Undeterred by the goat carcasses and dead fish in the tanks, we really enjoyed a tasty banquet - 20 of us around a huge "lazy susan" rotating table. The kids then continued to play in the sand and on the swings followed by a birthday cake. JD is the youngest in his class - still 5½ while others are turning 6 - but he is still one of the "playmakers" when he gets together with his friends!
JD and I had a fun day out yesterday with five of his classmates and their families. We headed for XiYou Cave with delicious meals before and after the trip. Can you spot JD?
JD and I were picked up by one of the families and driven to the cave. however, the other groups were delayed and so we eventually decided to have lunch before exploring the cave. JD thoroughly enjoyed feeding the fish, spotting and catching insects and tucking into a terrific roast chicken meal [see below]. Afterwards we climbed up a mountain path behind the restaurant until it ended at a locked gate.
Then it was off to the cave. JD and I had visited a year or so ago, but he seemed largely to have forgotten it. It's very commercialised, but the cave itself is very impressive despite being gaudily lit with and various plastic models dotted throughout [see below].
A water assault course, a half-size digger to play on, a cave train and a 0.8km slide to get down the mountain - JD had a blast. Nice day.
We spent today in Cardiff. Unfortunately, Wales lived up to its reputation, and it rained almost non-stop. We wandered around the damp bay area, took an expensive boat ride to nowhere and had a picnic on the steps of the Welsh Assembly building. Later we checked out the funfair before heading for "Technoquest" - an interacive science centre which was fun (but not as fun as the Dr Who exhibition would have been - I was outvoted!). Finally fish 'n chips on the beach (well, BY the beach in the car) before heading back to drier England.
Yesterday we took a train down to Hereford to stay with my brother Dave and his family. A very warm welcome and delicious food.
Today we walked into Hereford centre, where Ava loves the charity shops, with a picnic in the Cathedral grounds. JD is fascinated by the "dead people" in the churches, Cathedrals and Abbeys he has viited and now thinks any and every statue must contain a dead person! He's "clicked" with his cousins really quickly which gives Ava and I a bit of a break at times through the day.
Today was yet another sunny and dry day. We've been very lucky during our UK visit so far. Rumours of a wetter day tomorrow though. We shall see.
We spent most of today at a mushroom farm owned by a friend of ours. She has bought a disused school in the countryside and set up shelves of fungi in the old classrooms and in purpose-built sheds outside. It felt rather odd for me to be walking around an educational establishment which didn't hum to the sound of students and teachers,
The school's old playing fields have been reworked into vegetable patches and areas for a couple of cows and some chickens. JD enjoyed digging for potatoes, picking runner beans and dragging out squash. He was fascinated by a grasshopper and faced off against the grumpy bull. It's only an hour or so drive from our house, and we were given a very warm welcome, so we are thinking of visiting again quite soon, for the fresh air, fresh food and to give JD a chance to get his hands dirty.
Despite predictions of heavy rain, JD and I went out to try and find a new park with what is said to be Asia's largest man-made waterfall. After a bus, subway, electric bike journey we found it. The park still being finished, so entry was free. And the waterfalls were indeed very impressive, 400m wide and a mixture of cascades and straight drops. My photo below seemingly managed to catch an image of a ghost, too, which is a little bit worrying!
I've long wanted to catch the subway to its final destination and see what there is to see there. It terminates at "University Town", which I'd hoped offered the chance of some campus scenery and cheap eats. JD, Ava and I were joined by our good friends Peter and Judy and their visiting Beijing friend Kiki [looking at JD in the photo] for the hour-long journey. Sadly, the final station turned out to be in the middle of nowhere and we had to get a minibus-taxi to find somewhere that had any food at all. And the food was awful. Ah well, at least we know now!
Ava, JD and I spent a lovely morning at the Golden Temple yesterday along with my friends/colleagues Cindy and Martin, their daughter Liv, and two of their Chinese friends. Liv and JD love each other's company and it's a shame that Cindy and Martin are heading back to Australia in a few weeks. We've really appreciated their support and friendship.
Today was a recovery day after the journey back to China, and a largely sleepless night with an upset and screaming JD. None of which is being helped by a stinking cold with all the requisite symptoms. The school term starts tomorrow and Lattitude, the charity for whom I do teacher-training ever 6 months (starting on Monday), is having all sorts of problems getting their volunteers' visas. So I've no idea how many students, if any, I'll have turn up next week.
But the UK trip was so worth it. We only just made it, with Ava's suspected TB and confirmed pneumonia, and plans were changing all the time. But you can't beat family, can you? Or good friends. Everyone rallied round and were so generous with their time, energy and money. JD has a whole new bunch of relatives and he grew up an awful lot in those three weeks. Let's hope there's less trauma when we (hopefully) return in Summer 2016. The countdown has begun!
[PS 27th Feb: I had a fever last night and woke without a voice! Ava still coughing - 5 months and counting. But at least the Lattitude volunteers all got their visas finally, so a fully cohort next week]
We are staying with my youngest brother Andy and his family now after a wonderful time with Dave and family in Hereford. Andy has a few surprises up his sleeve for our time and the first was for JD - a fantastic "Thomas the Tank Engine" model steam train ride in a nearby park. JD is a big fan of the TV series and could barely contain his excitement at the trip. We walked around the lake and played in the playground first, to build the anticipation levels and then straddled the engine and puffed our way back to the car park.
JD meanwhile was more taken with the local Fire and Mountain Rescue Team doing various exercises which saw them swimming across the bitterly cold Wye river before coming to each others' rescue with ropes and floats. Something for everyone.
One of the things Jiajia likes most about the UK is the easy access to beautiful, natural scenery. I must confess to sometimes being a little blasé about rolling hills and wide-open spaces but what I do thoroughly enjoy though are her ooohs and aaahs as she sees scene after scene of countryside views. Symonds Yat [below] was well worth the drive that got us there. Stunning views looking down on the winding river below, whilst birds of prey hover above.
I haven't ice-skated since I was a youth, so it was fun to head to a small rink in an industrial estate today to give it another go. Esme and Josh were embarrassingly confident. I looked carefree when pushing JD around on a little sledge - less so without the support. JD loved it though. Sometimes he looked a bit nervy, but whenever I paused to catch my breath he was shouting, "...again, again!".
Here at Dave's we've enjoyed meeting up with our ex-Kunming friends Peter and Judy [above], an old mate of mine Krista, and her hubbie Stuart, and the Sams family [right]. Our friends mean a lot to us as a family as Ava has very few relatives and mine are usually many thousands of miles away. So to keep in touch by email, Skype or letter means a lot. And our visits to the UK provide a brief but valuable way to renew friendships.
When we made the last minute decision to UNcancel our trip to the UK after Ava's TB scare and pneumonia, we knew we'd have to cut back on our planned travels to see all and sundry. Thankfully, many of our friends and family have put themselves out to come and visit us at the places where we are basing ourselves. At my parent's house three College friends travelled down to say "Hi", while various uncles and aunts popped in to meet JD and catch up on our news.
Off to MoJiang market this morning, where they specialise in pigs, and pork barbecues. JD enjoyed the former, while I enjoyed the latter (especially after having had gristly goat and cabbage stew for three meals running!)
This was JD's first visit to the countryside, and he had to endure more than the usual amount of staring, shouting and touching from strangers. He coped well, waving and saying goodbye when he'd had enough interaction, and fascinated by all the sounds and sights.
The drive back to Kunming was a more reasonable 4.5 hours, mostly in daylight. There are some crazy Chinese drivers out there though!
A rather surreal day today started in the "Twins Park". MoJiang claims the highest proprtion of twin births of any town in the world and makes of that what tourist potential it can, from hosting a International Twins Festival each year (attracting twins from around the world, they say) to having a park dedicated to all things twinly. They claim that the water in the park's wells (two wells, of course) are what give mothers-to-be a better than average chance of having twins. The statues of a pair of twins urinating and vomiting into the wells didn't inspire confidence, however! [oh, and doesn't that urn in background of the photo above look like a cat!].
MoJiang's other claim to fame is that the Tropic of Cancer runs through it. Thus, everything in the south of the town is sub-tropical, while everything in the north of the town ...well, isn't. The inevitable park shows the Tropic of Cancer line climbing over a mountain. Each level of the stairs is dedicated to another country through which the line passes - quite a few, as it happens. On the far side of the mountain, the line passes through a replica of Stonehenge. Not sure why.
With all the talk of cancer, it was ironic to find this toy in a nearby toyshop. "Benign Girl" must surely be cancer-free...
Jiajia and I are spending this weekend with friends ("DL" and her family) in Heijing, a very well-preserved ancient town, built on the proceeds of a salt mine. Jiajia and I went there once before, 4 years ago, but it rained the whole time which dampened our enthusiasm. This time though we are having lovely sunshine and use of DL's recently purchased property here. And what a place! A hundred-year old, 25 room mansion built for a salt magnate, and later owned by a leader of the Kuomingtang (the army who opposed Mao Zedong's Communists). Each of the rooms has original period furniture and the whole place screams history!
Exploring each room in turn leads to new discoveries and interesting stories. These painted-over panels, for example, extol the virtues of Mao Zedong and the Communist Party - the house wasn't always owned by the Kuomingtang! And at the "back" of the house, a large concrete gateway had once been added, with a hammer and sickle carved above it - now bricked shut again. We had no running water at first (but we're used to that!) but managed to get a single tap working later. What DL and family plan to do with this place (and the substantial land that came with it) is anyone's guess but, in the meantime, we are very lucky to have the run of the place.
We've spent a fun few days here. Jiajia has been combining our holiday with some work - she visits the factory outlet markets here every month to stock up on the latest brand fashions. JD and I have been spending at least part of the day walking round with her, meeting her various contacts there who have been really thrilled to finally see JD after all the photos. None less so than "Mink Lady" [centre] who treated us to a nice meal alongside her business partner and her son [right and far right]. And JD has quickly got the hang of wandering into total strangers' shops with a beaming smile and leaving ten minutes later with free stuff (grapes, candy, toys, etc!).
Jiajia, JD and I fly to Shenzhen today - our first time away as a nuclear family, and JD's first time to fly. That's assuming the chaos at airports round the country has subsided by then [see Kunming airport "riot" above]. Apparently the air force are randomly commandeering airport runways for a countrywide military exercise, causing huge delays and cancellations to hundreds of commercial flights! Only in China, right?
Dave, Esme and I have been in Hong Kong for a couple of days now, and leave
One surprise was a neat collection of twice-lifesize famous football players from various World Cup teams (and one from Sweden, who didn't even qualify!). If only the real Rooney had put in this much effort into England's games, right? I watched the first two England games, despite them being at unearthly hours of the morning here in China. I couldn't be bothered with the third. At least the national team had the courtesy of not raising our hopes at all this time. Lost, lost, and out we went. Nice!
Our final evening here has been spent up Victoria Peak. The last time I was here was some 15 years ago, when there was just a viewing area and cafe. Now there are a dozen restaurants and a dozen more retail outlets! But it's still free to go and see the city from surely the best viewpoint ever. We went late afternoon and, after a furtive MacDonalds, saw it once again as the lights twinkled on. Magical.
If you are outside China, you can see all of Dave's photos here.
A few hours drive from Dali is the small town of Shaxi (pronounced "SharrShee", despite what my brother insisted ..."Shaksee", indeed!)
We checked into a charming, traditional house cum hotel [see above] and enjoyed a sunny day in Shaxi walking around the well-preserved old town, which includes their famous ancient theatre [see top picture] overlooking the cobbled town square.
Other interesting sights needed some pointing out, however, such as the old slogan still visible on this house, proclaiming something along the lines of "True progress can only come through Governmental control of the people" - a real throwback to the days of Mao Zedong etc. Behind the main town, building work is taking place to pave and beautify the river front, including this picturesque bridge [see below]. So far, the town seems fairly authentic and untouristy, but that could all change very quickly unless care is taken. We really enjoyed our short stay, though.
With my weekend's work done, Dave, Esme, Ava and I headed off on some travels. First a 6 hour bus ride to Dali, a well-visited town which has managed to retain its beauty and identity whilst attracting thousands of tourists a year. We checked into such a pretty little guesthouse we quickly decided to spend an extra night there. That evening, Esme entered retail heaven when she saw the plethora of street stalls selling handicrafts and ethnic minority accessories.
We wandered around happily for a few hours checking out all the purchasing options, which largely seemed to revolve around further decoration of Esme's dreadlocks! I was pleasantly surprised at how few of the items for sale appeared on multiple stalls. The vendors seemed to be selling fairly unique items, by and large. Esme decided to end the day by having a henna design painted onto (into?) her arm to add to her hippy vibe!
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