After meeting Alion he took me back to his apartment to meet his mum where we had proper chips and a joint of beef with almost real western bread and ketchup. I had no idea these things existed in China and was over the moon - apparently Alion really likes chips and his parents get them from somewhere for him. I'm not sure if it was Alion's eating habits or due to the fact that there was an English person in the house but I subsequently received chips and ketchup with every single meal, including breakfast. I wasn't complaining though as other volunteers really weren't enjoying the Chinese food their families were making and it did make a nice change to rice. On the first day of the language course we had one lesson where we learnt how to order Lanzhou beef noodles (Lanzhou is extremely famous for its beef noodles) and then, after the standard two and a half hour lunch break/siesta, we headed to the Waterwheel Garden. In the small museum section only about half had an English translation but it was still fairly interesting to read about; it turns out that many years ago Lanzhou was known as the 'Waterwheel Capital' because the banks of the Yellow River would be lined with these wooden structures. Most volunteers sat down and had a chat and a rest after the museum but Nold, Beth and I took a walk around the other side of the gardens much to the delight of our Chinese teacher hosts who were walking a similar route. They took the opportunity to take many publicity photos which is why there are now a lot of photos in Lanzhou university of the three of us trying out waterwheels. Hands on displays meant you could paddle waterwheels with your feet by standing on them, using a treadmill or running around in circles pushing your body weight against a lever. I wouldn't have done the park justice if I hadn't broken something and a vigorous attempt to get as much water up as humanly possible resulted in one broken waterwheel… Fortunately a guy was on hand straight away to fix it - it would appear this is a common occurrence.
The next morning we were up early and taken for breakfast in the school canteen to sample Lanzhou's beef noodles using the language skills from yesterday's lesson. I couldn't remember much apart from saying 'not spicy' (if you don't ask for this in China you face a severe risk of having your head blown off). My host family had already stuffed me with food before leaving the house so I skipped on the famous speciality and decided to try it later in the week, preferably not for breakfast. The language lessons today focused on shopping and bargaining then we were taken to a shopping mall to practise our latest language and bargaining skills. Unfortunately the shopping mall consisted of numerous floors filled with clothes I really didn't want so Nold and I left and ventured into some backstreets for some more excitement. We started out by completing the challenge that was set on the bus - everyone had a 10 kuai limit and with this they had to buy the random thing they could possible find. Preferably it should be hilarious, utterly useless or annoyingly large and cumbersome. The winner would be allowed to keep everyone else's purchases. Nold and I settled on haggling over the biggest sack of bananas I've ever seen, with this slung over my shoulders and confident we had the win we went off in search of more excitement. The adventure reached a peak when we walked down a tiny backstreet and decided to go for a spontaneous haircut. This might not sound exciting but when you know nothing in Chinese relating to hairstyles it's quite a risky business. Especially after Rob went for a haircut in Yihuang and emerged feeling pretty pleased considering he'd walked in hoping for the best; it wasn't until a couple of days later that I noticed the back of his head couldn't have been wonkier if a blind man had set a pair of shears to it (check out the photos, I made sure I got one of his head haha). Anyway, me and Nold were feeling pretty reckless and marched straight into this tiny backstreet hairdressers. They washed our hair about four times then set about with clippers, I could hardly bear to look. Thankfully, mine turned out alright. Ok, it was short but that means it's easy to keep and I won't get get lines in the South of China. It was also an infinite improvement on the state that the foreign barber in Peterborough had left my hair in. Nold on the other hand, with his blue eyes and blonde hair looked like a prime example of Hitler's perfect citizen after the guy gave him a comb over. He quickly changed that look with some gel then we paid a quid each and ran back to the bus where we found that we were the only ones that had participated in the 10 kuai quest because almost everyone else had stayed in the expensive store… So we won and got to keep our bananas which we dished out for the rest of the day.
Alion took me home for a lunch of chips and shrimps with more ketchup and (almost) real bread before teaching me Chinese chess and napping. That afternoon we went to Lanzhou's provincial museum which was actually pretty good. We got excited by seeing some white people in the foyer and went to speak to them then wandered around the museum. The dinosaur section was pretty cool, there's something about a giant skeleton of a huge dinosaur and giant elephant that traverses any language barrier. Afterwards, we were marched off to get passport photos taken for the school and during this walk Nold tried to teach me a Dutch rap. On the upside I can get about 5 lines in now, on the downside I think my pronunciation is incomprehensible to any Dutch speaker. That evening I taught Alion how to play English chess using the board that Rob bought in Nanchang. I also met Alion's cousin who couldn't speak any English. This didn't stop her talking to me endlessly though and she babbled away; when she left, Alion told me she was telling me about her university although since I didn't understand her greeting I'm not sure why she thought that was a good idea. Before going to sleep Alion took me for a short walk and we ended up on the banks of the Yellow River. This was something I had really wanted to see in China and it was pretty surreal staring down at the dark, fast flowing waters. It's far better to see the river in the dark - during daytime you can see the horrible colour and evidence of pollution which is all lost until the cover of darkness. We stood for a while lost in thoughts then headed back and slept.
On the Thursday our lessons were about teaching so we learnt some useful Chinese classroom phrases which I'm now putting into good use. We also covered body parts and visiting a hospital which I hope I don't have to put into good use. Lunch was chips, beef, ketchup and veggies again and in the afternoon Alion returned to the sports meeting and I met the rest of the vols ready to go to Wuqan mountain. We were deceived here because mountain actually meant visiting a museum at the bottom of the mountain. After making our way through every room as well as finding a 'hidden door' in the roof that didn't seem to legit but we went through it anyway we went back down to find the others holding the final draw of our lottery. We'd all put in 5 mao (5p) and Lowri was the lucky receiver of about 12 kuai and a string bracelet which called for Jony and Pete to re-enact an Olympics ceremony, complete with cigarettes as the torch, to a slightly embarrassed Lowri. Some of the more adventurous among us (basically the lads plus Naomi) used the remaining time to trek up some steps to a little bridge and see the view of some man aimlessly hitting rocks out of a wall. I guess the workers need occupying somehow. After taking some photos and listening to Jono scream like a girl at the pretty big spider we found (of course I wouldn't dream of picking it up and letting it crawl on my arms then chasing Jono with it…) we headed back.
That evening Alion and his friend Rose (Jamie's host) took Jamie and I out for a meal. This was their intention but they didn't really know what they were doing and we ended up in KTV where the 4 of us spent a pleasant few hours destroying some of Britain's best loved songs. Afterwards they took us to a fast food restaurant which was actually pretty crappy but I did get a free coke coupon (just remembered that I never redeemed it dammit!) We said goodbye to Rose and Jamie and I walked slowly back to Alion's apartment with him. We had a pretty deep heart to heart and I felt extremely sorry for him. He's an average student, maybe a bit smarter than most, but hates studying with a passion. Unfortunately, this just isn't acceptable in China and he feels under a lot of pressure from his parents and teachers to study hard and go to university. His parents won't let him do anything like get a girlfriend or have a job or just meet up with mates until he's completed university - this is pretty commonplace in China. His parents are absolutely lovely but this situation is the same for most Chinese children - their parents just want the best for them and in this country the only way they can see that will allow that is by studying endlessly. Alion says he's very envious of me because he just wants to leave home and travel and see the world and do odd jobs for money, he says happiness is the most important thing in life and at the minute he isn't happy. He had to give up drawing and art which he loves and isn't allowed a mobile phone anymore because he texted friends too much and he was even made to split up with his girlfriend a while ago - all because they distracted him from the studying he hates. He also told me that this Autumn is the happiest he's ever been because he met me and the other volunteers and he is so happy to have so many cool friends and a new English brother. I promised I'd stay in touch with him and write him letters.
I'll cover the other half of the week in the next blog! This is taking longer than I thought…