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!
While I continued teaching my usual Sunday classes, Dave and Esme joined the rest of the family, along with some good friends of ours, on a trip to an organic farm outside of Kunming. I went myself a month or so ago and blogged then about what a nice place it is, especially the pretty restaurant with tables scattered between various plants, bridges and streams full of fish. They had a really great day there and, once again, our friends managed to find a way to pay for it all before we had a chance!
Recent temperatures have made this the hottest Kunming summer in 70 years. We've rarely been much below 30ºC in the last fortnight (and still only have an hour of running water a day!). Despite this, Jiajia and I resolved to take JD to the zoo yesterday. Last time we went it was packed, being a National Holiday, and JD was stuck in a pram and fairly oblivious to it all. This time he was far more interested and spotted various animals whose name he knows from his books (although many of the lazy beasts were hiding indoors, in the shade). The butterfly area [see above] was particularly fun and JD enjoyed the monkeys' antics too [see below]. His favourite moment, however, was being passed by a small, chugging tractor. He loves tractors. My highlight, apart from a McDonalds ice-cream, was seeing JD get bitten by a rather angry ostrich who objected to his little finger poking through the cage! Hysterical! Does that make me a bad father?
JD is saying half-a-dozen words now although, unfortunately, half of them are "baba". Baba can mean "daddy", "baby", "bird", "bye-bye" etc.
Yesterday I drove JD, Ava and our nanny out to Guandu, a restored "Old Town" on Kunming's outskirts. It's particularly famous for its bean-filled flatbreads called, somewhat frustratingly, "baba". And so it was that JD's baba gave his baba some baba...
It was a National Holiday, so Guandu was full of families enjoying the sunshine. As ever, JD stands out quite a lot and enjoyed some nice little interactions with Chinese babies and curious adults.Inside one temple he became quite taken with a handmade leaf-hat one girl was wearing. Once she stopped giggling, she gently "crowned" JD with her laurel headdress, which immediately slipped down onto his shoulders. JD's consequent laughter caused a few heads to turn and made the girl's day, I think. Baba!
We took JD to Kunming Zoo yesterday. I last went a decade ago and swore never to return, such were the awful conditions. But things have improved somewhat. Many of the larger animals have been relocated to a safari park outside of Kunming, for example. The tiger and lion still pace to and fro forlornly, but at least they no longer have stones thrown at them by locals (a sign forbids "stirring" the animals!). The water birds looked happy enough and the monkeys, JD's clear favourite, were having a great time. Unfortunately, the zoo was heaving with visitors, today being the last day of the national Spring Festival holiday, and with JD getting as many stares as some of the exotic creatures, we headed home after a couple of hours.
I spent today acting the role of a manager of an international French company! A friend of Ava's needed to convince some farmers in a town outside Kunming that she works on behalf of a French agricultural company. Indeed she does but, for countryside folk, seeing is believing and papers can be forged. A real life foreigner is indisputable, however. and thankfully it seems English and French are indistinguishable!
After a couple of hours of negotiation, contracts were signed (or fingerprinted in the case of some of the less literate workers) and then we all went off for a meal. The land is being rented to grow thorny bushes which are higly prized as burglar deterrents in France and cost a lot as a result. They say it looks more beautiful than fences and barbed wire though, in my opinion, not THAT much more! Still, mission accomplished. By way of a thank you, I was given a bag of potatoes, a leg of ham, two dozen eggs and a live chicken. Result!
Today was a sunny day, so we (Jiajia, Nanny, JD and I) decided to head up to the hills and grab some fresh air. We drove to a vantage point, avoiding the rather crazy driving on blind bends by some of the Chinese drivers, and then walked further up until our legs ached.
Our Nanny proved rather sprightly on the mountain paths, no doubt the result of her countryside upbringing, while I managed to keep up despite having the baby on my back. Ava lagged behind a bit as her fitness suffered during the pregnancy! Spectacular views of Kunming from the top.
Jiajia and I spent this afternoon walking round Mengzi's famous lake (after a very lazy morning snoozing in the hotel). This bridge is reputed to be the one where, in the mists of time, a devoted wife used to bring her husband his lunch each day as he studied on the lake's small island. But regularly finding the noodles cold by the time she got there, she hit on the idea of bringing him a piping hot bowl of broth with a thin layer of oil to retain the heat, and then adding the ingredients (thin meat and vegetable slices, etc) once there, to cook in the still hot soup. Thus, "cross-the-bridge-noodles" was invented.
After the lake, we headed into the old town where I started to recognise certain buildings and shops from my time there, 17 years ago. We also spotted some ladies in their distinctive minority groups clothing, though a lot less than I used to see. As clouds darkened, we headed for the new museum.
The HongHe Prefectural Museum was huge and largely deserted. The first few floors were a little dull, but the last floor had some excellent displays of ethnic minority clothes, musical instruments, tools and traditional ceremonies. Ava particularly loved the embroidery and silver decorations on the various costumes and baby-carriers. Outside, there was a huge thunderstorm and we spent a few minutes watching the lightning, from the safety of the museum!
With the return of our nanny after her week's holiday, Jiajia and I decided to get away for a few days before starting work once again. A newly opened line of track now links Kunming to Mengzi - a town where I lived and worked for a year with V.S.O. back in 1996. So, we took the early train this morning for a busy but fairly pleasant four hour journey through towns, countryside and tunnels. The train terminates at a station some 14km from the actual town (the line is due to be completed by the end of the year) and is, rather bizarrely, situated atop a hill, so you have to climb down 200 steps to get to the road where buses/taxis will complete the journey for you
Mengzi itself has seen huge expansion since I lived there. A vast new development to the west has increased the size of the town fourfold. It's not a town anymore - it's a city. I used to take a horse and cart from the College where I worked to the main shopping street. Now there are flashy public buses connecting you to shopping malls and enormous government buildings. On arrival we found a great hotel; clean, quiet, friendly and only 220RMB (£22) a night, including breakfast. Ten minutes walk from the lake and the old town. We'll explore them tomorrow.
The Chinese lay claim to many of the world's great inventions (gun powder, paper, the compass, table tennis, etc) but I was impressed to see them proudly explaining why graffiti started in China. Apparently hip-hop and rap can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty. Who knew?
I saw this sign (alongside some very tasteful and uplifting examples of said graffiti) at the top of the mountain where I often go running while visiting Shezhen. It's a taxing 45-minute run up a paved pathway, overlooking a reservoir, and then a 30 minute jog back down again. But yesterday I decided to try and continue running over the mountain and on to wherever the pathway led. I took 100RMB (£10) with me and a handwritten note with my address on it, planning to catch a taxi back "home" once I got to the end, or got too exhausted to continue. After 45 minutes running to the top, the pathway started to go downhill. Then uphill, downhill, uphill, downhill... no signs of any exit off the mountain. I finally had to quit after a further hour of running and managed to scramble down the hill. But no taxis - I was walking along a motorway. Finally, I found an underground station but had no idea in which direction I should take, or which station was nearest my flat. I finally spotted "North Railway Station" a few stops away and, sure enough, there was a taxi there which got me home after 2½ hours out and about in the 34ºC heat and humidity.
Ava and I flew to ChongQing this week to register JD with the British Consulate. We'd been told that registering now will make any future British passport application go more smoothly. I'd meticulously prepared all the dozen documents required - in fact, the Consulate official said she'd never seen such an organized application before. However, we still had enough problems to turn the usual 30-minute process into a 5-hour marathon. Firstly, the Consulate asked for a couple of documents which had not been listed on their wesbite. We had to gently persuade them to follow their own guidelines and accept what we'd brought. Then, other items their website said were critical turned out not to be needed. Most annoying was their insistence on using the name on JD's Birth Certificate, which is his Chinese one. They kindly rang our Kunming hospital and the Government Maternity Department to see whether "handwritten and stamped" amendments could be made to the name, but apparently not any more (recent rule change). There's no space on the computerised Birth Certificate for more than a 3-character name anyway (Who needs more? Chinese names only ever have 2 or 3 characters). So we've had to register JD as Zhu Pin Xiu (朱 品 修), and his future British Passport will probably have to go with that name too.
We stayed the night in a cheap-and-cheerful hotel just 100m from the Consulate. When Ava booked it online, she decided to pay a little extra for a window. Well, there it is, on the right of the photo. A4 in size and with a picturesque view of ...a corridor! The room also had one of those strange glass-walled bathrooms. So one's ablutions are there for all room-mates to observe. Nice!
[Click here for more photos of JD's early weeks]
Jiajia and I took a drive out to a town called FuMin the other day. We managed to pick the first day of heavy rain here in over 6 months. After a wet walk around the market, we headed for a popular out-of-town restaurant and enjoyed some local food. On our earlier walk, we spotted this old farmhouse which retains a just-legible slogan from the 1950s. Jiajia was able to work out the missing characters to reveal the exhortation, which says "Learn from other villages. Let barren mountains be fruitful". All good stuff, and amazing it's lasted this long.
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!
We chose the coldest and windiest day of our time in the UK so far to visit the very exposed Dover Castle! Ava's romantic views of castle life were quickly blown away! Entry should have cost us over £30, but came free with our apartment.
There's a lot to see and do in the castle area, but much of it includes outdoor queuing. We did one of the tunnel tours, but passed on the newest attraction as those brave souls waiting an hour in line for it looked frozen. We gave it few hours in total but were happy enough to get back to the car and return.
Jiajia and I drove to Canterbury today, using my parents' car, lent to us for the week. The cathedral - Jiajia's third in a fortnight - was quite expensive and very busy, but had lots to see inside. The cost of parking in the city was even pricier though. Ava bought lots of fruit and I had my first Burger King in a couple of years. We'd thought about joining a tour of the river but, having seen one of their punts from a bridge, decided not to bother and headed back to our castle.
A second day in London today, starting with a spin on the London Eye - fast changing from a "must-see" to a "not worth the silly price". After lunch with my friend Cathy, Jiajia and I wandered down the bank of Thames to the Tate Modern art gallery. As ever, there was the usual mix of thought-provoking items and absolute tat (should that be the Tat Modern?). I particularly enjoyed "piece of paper and a biro" (I kid you not). Actually, I tried to take a photo of "chair and fire extinguisher" but the gallery attendant told me it was just where he sat and not art. What does he know? Jiajia, at least, was taking it all seriously and got very excited on spotting a painting by her all-time favourite artist, "Modigliani".
Later we crossed the Thames on the "formerly wobbly" Millennium Bridge and arrived at St. Paul's moments before it closed for tourists. I let Jiajia explore alone however, as the £15 entrance ticket seemed very steep for somewhere I used to go for free in my youth.
Ironically, people claiming to "simply want to worship" were still let inside, and for free. Any liars could always ask for forgiveness once inside, I guess?
Jiajia and I spent our first day up in London today. We just managed to get to Buckingham Palace in time for the changing of the guards, but Jiajia wasn't that impressed. Nor for the Palace itself or Hyde Park or Trafalgar Square. However, we hit gold dust with the National Gallery. As an art graduate in China, Ava had only seen world-class oil paintings in books. She loved seeing them up close, and it was a struggle to drag her away after a few hours. Covent Garden also hit the spot, with the "Lush Handmade Soap" shop parting her with a wad of money. Out with history and culture then and, next time round, we'll stick to oils (and lotions to remove oils).
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