Monday, August 28, 2006

Leaving Xiaoshan

I left Xiaoshan at half past two yesterday afternoon. As the train pulled out towards Hangzhou, my final view of the city was through the gap between two dirty net curtains decorated with pigeons and pagodas: a canal and a factory chimney; the golden-topped hotel and half a pavilion high up on the hill.

I met up with Derek and Jo, two friends from Newcastle, at the hostel around six o'clock. We went out for few happy hour beers in the French Concession and then came back by way of a Russian restaurant and a convenience store, laden with bottles of Tsingtao lager. First I need to deal with the de-hydration, then I'll work out what I'm doing today.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Final Lesson

That's it, then. My working days are over. Yesterday I booked a train ticket to Shanghai and a bed in a hostel for three nights. Tomorrow I'll start packing and go to Hangzhou one last time. As always, weeks that seemed to telescope endlessly seem now to have passed by almost unnoticed.

A few things that still make me smile: inane western presenters talking about eating candied hawk on CCTV9; sunburnt, topless men who push into queues at train stations; waitresses who hand you the menu and simulataneously whip out their order pad; the Volkswagen Santana - the poor man's car of choice; takeaway aubergine and tomato every lunchtime; people taking outdoor showers in their underwear; students using sellotape to strip the ink off their paper when they make a mistake; motorbikes on the pavement; students telling each other that "you only know what the government says" - a conversation I thought it better to truncate. Although the teaching industry and raw capitalism can sometimes be dispiriting, I've never regretted coming here. China has been an experience.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The End of Summer

There's a real end of summer feeling in school this week. Two of the seven summer teachers have already left. A third has no classes, so just hangs around for a few hours tidying up bits of paper and checking emails. The rest of us are teaching from 8.30 to 11.30 in the morning, spending a couple of hours eating lunch and preparing the next day's lesson, and then clearing off home in the middle of the afternoon. The days are beginning to merge into one - it's almost as if I have one foot on the plane already.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Hangzhou Again

Another interesting weekend. After a twelve hour shift on Saturday, I took a late morning bus to Hangzhou and walked around the western edge of the lake to Lingyin Si, one of the few major Buddhist temples to survive the Cultural Revolution. The place was more like a zoo: coach party after coach party led by tour guides screaming into megaphones charged through grottoes full of Buddhist carvings; slouching policemen and tourists with expensive digital cameras pushed aside devout middle-aged Chinese people waving burning incense sticks as everyone clambered to get a view of the orange-robed monks. How I love Sunday sightseeing!

Friday, August 18, 2006

Last Day of Class

Things have gone a bit strange here this afternoon. A twelve-year-old kid rammed a pair of safety scissors into the forehead of one of his classmates about an hour ago. The victim was led down the stairs a short while later, rounded metal stuck a few centimetres deep in his bone, green plastic handles sticking out at right angles to his face. They took him to hospital by the fastest available means - cycle rickshaw. He's now in intensive care. The other child is sitting with his face to the wall in an office down the corridor, looking like he could either explode with rage or burst into tears at any moment.

In The Evening

I called Katka straight after my class finished yesterday. We talked for five minutes until my credit rang out, an unsatisfying, disposable conversation that left me feeling both sad and relieved when it ended mid-sentence. There are so many things you can't express on the phone, no matter how hard you try. She felt so very far away. The only thing to do was to buy enough beer on the way home to get drunk on and spend the next few hours listening to loud music.

Later, just for a laugh, I turned on CCTV9 - China's Newspeak language answer to CNN or BBC World. The latest in their nightly reports extolling the new Qinghai to Tibet railway was a half hour panegyric to the environmental sensitivity of the construction workers. Since the railway opened on July 1st - when the "eyes of the world were all on Golmud" - 400,000 tourists have swamped Tibet. There's currently a three day queue for train tickets and a week-long wait to visit the Potala Palace (probably a bit longer if you're the Dalai Lama). Near one of the stations, a Tibetan businessman proudly showed off his gigantic new plasma screen TV and microwave. His wife stared blankly at the remote control and cooked butter tea on a stove heated by horse dung.

In other news, I learned the name of the company chosen as the official wine supplier to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the location of both the Milk Capital of China and the Kite Capital of the World. I'm still waiting to find out why elderly Chinese men think it's acceptable to walk around the streets in just underpants and flip-flops on balmy summer evenings, though. Maybe tomorrow.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

One Year On

Today is my first wedding anniversary, which must have been why I was woken up at twenty past six this morning by the sound of firecrackers being let off outside my flat. The whole day is still so vivid, so near and yet so very long ago. Sitting now in a windowless office in eastern China while my wife sleeps by the banks of the Elbe, I remember the madcap dash across the park to the register office, slivovice in the back garden until 3am, London in late August, the two-month honeymoon in India, five months sitting on a swivel chair in a call centre and the good and the bad of everything in between. Happy anniversary, Kacenka. I'll see you soon.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Beginning of the End

I'm now at the beginning of the end. In exactly two weeks' time I'll be back at Pudong Airport preparing for the long flight home by way of Munich and Dusseldorf. This week I have only a single class with a single student between 3 and 6pm. Next week I'll have five students in one class from 8.30 to 11.30 in the morning. On Friday I'll be finished, and two days after that I'll be back in Shanghai. Somewhere within that lot I should have four or five days free to see a bit of the country.

I'm glad I came but I don't think I would like to do it again. Summer schools - the next week and a half excepted - are just too much work, too little organisation and not enough fun. I'm looking forward to a long, long holiday.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Hiking in Hangzhou

Going on a five-hour hike with just a guidebook map, a small bottle of water and a shed load of suncream probably isn't the most sensible thing to when the temperature's nudging forty degrees, but needs must when you're working six days a week. I got off the bus just south of West Lake at 11am, aiming for a narrow trail called the Nine Creeks and Eighteen Gullies and, eventually, the famous Dragon Well village, home of China's most expensive green tea leaves. I ended up finding the village but not the trail, instead wandering along a circuitous route that passed car parks, Chinese kids bathing in muddy pools, a hidden cave full of Buddhist carvings, and a tea room that had pictures of a confused looking Queen Elizabeth taking tea with smiling Chinese politicians all around the walls. In the room where I was hurriedly seated there were a few mushy slices of watermelon, two cigarette butts, an cork-topped thermos of hot water and a single scruffy armchair: I eventually concluded the Queen had probably knocked back her cuppa somewhere else. Or did the price suddenly double for her, too, when she passed on the chance to buy a big bag of overpriced tea leaves? A sudden thunderstorm meant I had to abort the last leg of the walk, so I took the bus back to town and stuffed my face with pizza in a Chinese owned, Australian themed place above Starbucks and across from the Ferrari Store.

I got home around 8pm, had some sushi for supper, knocked back a bottle of Tsingtao and lay on my bed until I fell asleep. The things you can do when you don't have any classes on a Monday morning!

Friday, August 11, 2006

Me and the Super Typhoon

The strongest typhoon to hit China in half a century smashed into Zhejiang Province yesterday. In Xiaoshan it rained a bit in the afternoon, which must have pleased all those workmen who spent the entire morning tying trees to metal posts.

This week has really dragged. I've hit maximum contract hours with six full teaching hours everyday, which means, including preparation time, I'm now working solidly from eight in the morning until gone six in the evening. In the evenings, I have just enough energy left for a long walk home before I flop onto my bed to drink beer and watch DVDs. I've been asleep by eleven every night. I hardly needed to come all the way to China to do any of that.

Thankfully, the teaching begins to wind down next week.

Monday, August 07, 2006


Despite its inauspicious beginnings, the weekend actually turned out pretty well. Saturday was poker night - playing for jiao (half pence) coins, I cleaned up and made enough for my bus fare to Hangzhou and back. Which is how I found myself walking very, very slowly around West Lake, one of the top five tourist attractions in the entire country, yesterday afternoon.

Unfortunately the lake's popularity ensures that it suffers from all the gawdy excesses of modern Chinese tourism. Restored pagodas reached by escalators cut into the hillsides; twelve seater golf buggies laden with sightseers bump up and down over three hundred year old stone bridges; mass parades led by flag waving guides; boat trips and musical fountains. With a bit of patience, though, you can still find some peace and quiet: wander through the willow trees lining the main path and you'll find families dipping their feet into the cool water. And at the botanical gardens I had a bamboo forest all to myself for the best part of an hour.

Next weekend, weather permitting, I want to hike through the hills to Hangzhou's tea plantations. Only five more days to grind through till then.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Down Time

Yesterday I was shattered.

For an hour and a half in the early afternoon I shared a ten by ten metre room with twenty-two Chinese kids. My only instructions were to play lots of games, to avoid teaching them anything new, and not to prepare any handouts or printed materials. Less teaching, more babysitting.

Luckily, it was a one-off. Instead, I now have a one-on-lesson for three hours a day with a 16 year old kid who has very rich parents and very little desire to learn English. The first class started at 8.30 this morning.

I need sleep, beer and a little bit of silence.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

When The Lights Go Out

Without any warning, the electricity went off shortly after half past ten last night. The only light came from my laptop screen. The only air conditioning was a slight breeze that didn't even ripple the heavy, dull coloured curtains that cover my window.

Five minutes later the whole building was down on the street. Some smoking cigarettes, some gossiping by torchlight, some sitting calmly on the kerb. The neighbourhood supermarket didn't sell candles so the owner - fat and barechested with red marks down his back that made him look like he'd been attacked by a suction cup - lent me a torch for the night. When I got back, a workman had clambered up a lampost without a harness and was scrutinising the power lines, while a crowd of people gathered on the road below. As I opened my door the lights all came back on. The big white box on the wall started belching ice cold air. The front doors closed one by one.