The next day Alion returned to his sports meeting - I haven't mentioned this yet. When we first heard about it we assumed they were holding a sports day… some sports day! Three days where the entire school participated in a huge sporting event. The extravaganza was kicked off by a massive parade which we had watched being practised the day before. Every class had a flag and a flag bearer who gathered together in a large block and followed three flags being held at the four corners; the China flag, the flag of Gansu province and the school province. This display was followed by each class who marched in a block (some smarter than others). They proceeded to march around the 400 metre track and past a large podium at the far end. Then the flags broke off and ran through the field in the centre to take up positions in a line and the remaining students went to their respective class places to stand facing more flags being hoisted up the three poles to the blaring sound of the national anthem. Alion doesn't like sports and complained to me every day how boring he thought it all was. While he was occupied with this I was back in lessons with the other vols and had a different teacher 'yi huang lao shi' who was better than our previous teachers despite not being able to speak English. He taught us directions (I may have stolen his lesson plan for this week's lessons…) and then gave us all Chinese names. From now all you can all call me 'Xiao Long' which translates to 'little dragon.' I was pretty pleased with my name; dragons are cool! Not sure why I'm 'little' dragon considering I'm bigger than the guy but everyone in Yihuang says it's a good name. I was also very confused when people made kung fu signs at me and shouted Bruce Lee when I told them - turns out Bruce Lee's Chinese name is 'Lee Xiao Long!' To finish off the morning's lessons we learnt a Chinese song - so now I can sing 'xinnian hou ya' which is a Happy New Year song.
That afternoon we were taken to 'Baita Mountain' - similar to Wuqan Mountain in that it's advertised as a wicked mountain and turns out we're just going close to it to do something entirely different. This afternoon's delights consisted of a zoo - this sounds pretty fun and we were all reasonably excited for it. Excited enough that I even ran a little way up to the place described as 'monkey mountain.' Naturally, I envisaged swathes of happy monkeys swinging about, stealing food cheekily and posing for photographs; a bit like the Gibraltar Rock. Instead our first sight was a solitary bear in a concrete pit. The sight of this made some of the girls turn around and walk straight out but the rest of us couldn't tear our eyes away. Nold and I made our way slowly round and I can honestly say it's one of the most depressing places I've ever been to in my life. Some other bears were in in the same pit but in walled off compartments and two were sitting in very un-bearlike positions which we soon realised was to beg for scraps of food from the Chinese visitors. I'm not a big animal lover normally but I felt awful walking round and seeing animal after animal that actually looked really miserable. The fur and coats showed they weren't well kept and most seemed to be going pretty mental; not surprising considering they were housed in concrete cages often on their own with absolutely nothing to do. Most occupied the time by lying in a corner or, like the panther, prowling restlessly up and down one wall. The kangaroos scratched uselessly at the packed dirt floor of the enclosure and we watched a zebra rolling around on the floor of its bare, concrete yard for want of something to do. We even saw an elephant although it's outside enclosure barely offered walking room. We only saw its back as it had its head in the door of the enclosure - we think it was being fed. Even the doorway wasn't big enough for it and the elephant's back was covered in obvious scrapes from trying to fit through the tiny doorway. Finally, we saw the panda. This panda actually looked like it was going to cry and, to be honest, I wouldn't blame it. It was curled up around a rock and stared mindlessy into space. Soon after this we left, feeling pretty awful.
I'm going to try and drag this blog into higher spirits by telling you all that on the way back to the bus I found a Chinese pokemon card on the floor! I showed Beth straight away (she's been looking for some) and after she tried to steal it from me (and bent it in the process) I managed to keep it in my safe, and slightly smug, possession. That night Alion and some of his friends wanted to take us to a hotpot for a meal together. Now, with 27 volunteers and each having at least one, if not two hosts, and various friends and classmates wanting to tag along it just wasn't feasible that everybody could come. Naturally, however, everyone came attached to somebody else and so the meal numbers grew pretty fast with no-one realising. Thankfully, this was arranged by the Chinese kids who refused to let us have any input and eventually a reasonable sized (but still pretty big group) was sorted out to go. The hotpot meal was lovely, even if Alion and a couple of others were slightly annoyed at so many people coming. In China a hotpot basically means a giant pot put to cook in the centre of the table where you add stuff yourself to cook. Lucky me - I got served a chicken head from the pot and it wasn't actually too bad. After spending a good few minutes making a chicken's head 'pop' out of my mouth to the disgust/delight of everyone else (seriously, the fun is never-ending) I took the dive and bit right into it. There's really not much edible meat on a chicken's head. The crest/comb is very fleshy with not much flavour and the other small bits of meat are just as soft and rubbish to eat. The real feast comes when you bite through the skull and you're rewarded with a mouthful of brains. Take my advice and don't ever do this. The brains were boiling hot so to start with they burnt my tongue. After that the flavour kicked in and, although not too bad, the mushy texture isn't my particular favourite. I ate it though and spat out a broken skull, numerous small bones and a beak. Alion had ordered a few bottles of beer for his English friends which were well received and you'll remember that we were drinking in the Chinese way - in shots out of a small glass. Alion, bless him, being 16 and not allowed to drink alcohol made it through two (maximum three) glasses before declaring to Beth he was 'feeling very crazy tonight' and then worrying about how angry his parents would be if they found out he'd drank alcohol. This meant that when we left the restaurant (on the way out I had another nose bleed, saw a tubby, stripped to the waist, Chinese drunk shouting at the other diners and posed for about a billion photos) Nold, Jamie and I had to take Alion, Rose and Lily for a very long walk to 'sober them up.' We were naturally sympathetic and gave them lots of water and chewing gum etc. This wasn't quite what we expected, we hadn't realised they couldn't drink alcohol, we hadn't realised they would do it anyway and we were astonished to learn that a couple of small glasses had made them so worried. The walk was brilliant anyway, the 6 of us headed down the the banks of the Yellow River where we stared, mesmerised, into the water and at a huge bridge adorned with ever changing lights. We decided to do something fun and we so taught them a little ceilidh dancing. Jamie, being the true Scot that he is, took the lead to refresh mine and Nold's memories and this is how an Englishman, a Scotsman, a Dutchman and 3 Chinese kids came to be swinging themselves madly round in circles late at night on the banks of the Yellow River. The dancing went down so well that Nold decided that, to give a little something back to all our host children we'd hold a big ceilidh for them all on our last day tomorrow. With this decided we continued to walk to meet Lily's father and played 'catch the shadow' which was way more fun than it sounds. We sprinted down the side of the river jumping wildly at each other''s shadow and laughing manically.
The evening took a slightly different turn when we met Lily's father at the foot of a huge apartment building. He didn't say much but led us up to one of the top floors and out onto an empty balcony. We spent a while in silent awe staring down at the tiny, lit up city far below us with the mighty river flowing very close to us and lined with tiny, bright lights. This was a pretty surreal moment and, even if we had a working camera among us, it wouldn't have done it justice. We said goodbye to Lily and Nold and the four of us were left to walk home. Jamie and I strode ahead leaving Alion and Rose (his best friend, because 'we are both strange and we can tell each other anything') to walk behind and have a rare private chat. After aimless wanderings and getting lost they took us to the main road where Alion's Mum gave everybody a lift home. I slept well that night.
The next day was our final day of the language course and we spent the morning with the same teacher as yesterday learning calligraphy. It wasn't so much much learning calligraphy as being given brush, ink and paper and left to your own devices but it was still pretty fun. Rob and I drew on the skills of our single calligraphy lesson from Yihuang (we get weekly lessons) and everyone managed to ink out at least their name. I covered two sheets with the mandarin characters for 'Xiao Long Ying Guo' which translates to 'little dragon, England.' Those sheets are now stuck proudly on the walls of our apartment. We all painted our Chinese names onto a large white sheet at the front to commemorate the course and after a short break we gathered once again in the conference room. Here we received our certificates from a very small Chinese woman and with that the course was over. Nold, Jamie and I decided to make our ceilidh plan a reality so we grabbed as many people as we could and took them outside to teach them some traditional Scottish dancing. It was a bit hectic but massive fun; I understand some of you have already seen a short video and laughed at us all… if I can I'll put the video from Ella's blog onto here as well. We then decided that more space was needed so we trekked to the sports field, picking up a few others on the way, and continued our dancing with renewed enthusiasm. Eventually, we were tired out and finished off with a load of random activities. This saw the lads get on all fours to make a giant human pyramid, Nold get on my shoulders for a shoulder battle with Rob carrying Alion (this ended in my nose bleeding but it was worth it) and numerous photos being taken with the excitable Chinese kids.
A large group of us then left to catch a bus to the town centre to 'go shopping.' Unfortunately the Chinese idea of shopping was taking us to wander aimlessly through some very large, very expensive clothes which we didn't particularly want. I amused myself by grinning at every single shop assistant I passed (there's a lot of them in China) and seeing who gave the best reaction. If you're wondering, the winner was a woman who squealed and hid behind a manikin then watched us from under the armpit until we'd passed. Most of the vols were adamant they wanted to buy a really nice gift for our Chinese families. There was an obstacle in the way of this seemingly simple goal however - Alion is one of the most stubborn people I've ever met. Many people had this problem with their hosts and Alion refused to give me any help on ideas for presents. Most of the standard gifts I could think of couldn't be given for his parents for one reason or another and if I showed any interest in something present-like Alion would literally manhandle me out of the shop in a very upset manner. Rose (Nold's partner and a good friend of Alion) was equally as distraught at the thought of a present so Nold and I decided to settle on some nice chocolates - you really can't go wrong there. In order to purchase this basic gift we had to pretend we were both buying them for a girl which meant the cover story that we were both in love with Ella, a girl who wasn't with the group at the time. In order to satisfy Alion and Rose's disbelieving, but ultimately gullible, personalities we had to ring Ella and declare our undying love and tell her we hoped she liked our chocolates. Our hosts were satisfied with this (they couldn't believe we'd do something like that if it wasn't actually true) although I'm not sure what Ella made of her out-of-the-blue phone call.
We chilled in a bar for a bit where we met Jony and Jamie and their hosts who disappeared soon after to catch their train to Xi'an - ours wasn't until the next morning. Eventually it was just me with Alion, Nold and Rose and our hosts took us to a barbeque restaurant which was absolutely lovely! The table has a gas barbeque set in the middle of it and you order what you want to cook yourself. We had a really nice meal and then thought we'd make our way home considering Nold and I had to pack tonight in preparation for our very early train the next morning. It took more than two hours to get back to Alions house. At first we tried to catch a taxi, after 45 minutes and numerous empty taxis just ignoring us we gave up. Of course as soon as we started to walk away a man just walked to the side of the road and hailed the first taxi that passed, I was less than impressed. We went to catch a bus instead. The first bus we literally could not cram ourselves onto and it drove away with people hanging out the door. The next bus was slightly (and I mean slightly) less cramped and I barged my way onto it. After ages standing up and being incredibly wary of everyone around me (pickpockets are rife in Lanzhou, especially on public transport) we finally got off …into a busier part of town. We couldn't work out what was going on and I asked Alion what number bus we needed. He told me and after waiting for 20 minutes I asked when it would arrive. Rose told me it didn't stop at this spot. This is where I got very confused - when waiting or a taxi they said they didn't know the bus number, when we couldn't get a taxi they suddenly knew the number, we got on a bus, got off at a stop where the bus we needed didn't stop at but waited for that same bus anyway. Confused? So were me and Nold, at least I'm sure that feeling lurked somewhere under our frustration. From this bus stop Alion rang his mum and we got another long, packed bus to meet her. We begged to be let into a closed restaurant for fear our bladders would burst where we took a 'Nijmegen piss.' Then we saw Alion's mum and eventually I got home. Alion and Rose are lovely and actually very clever, they also wanted to get home as much as us and were getting as frustrated as us. Maybe something got lost in translation but to this day Nold and I have no idea how or why it took over 2 hours to do a 20 minute journey.
When I finally got back I packed my bergen up and then presented my small gifts to the family. I only had some ferrerro roche for the parents thanks to Alion's sabotaging and Alion was convinced I hadn't got him anything (he wouldn't let me near anything). Little did he know I already had it - I left him the chess set Rob and I bought in Nanchang because I'd taught him how to play English chess that week. The family wanted loads of photos and Alion's mum asked if I would be her 'English son' and told me they were my Chinese family! Alion has called me his English brother all week (not uncommon in China to call a young person that's older than you and close to you brother or sister).
With that I went to bed with a painfully early alarm set and not looking forward to the next day for numerous reasons… That covers my time in Lanzhou though phew! Next blog will be about Xi'an and then I'm almost up to date! Now I'm off to bed because I have the first of my week's lessons starting tomorrow. Hope you're all enjoying the weekend!