We survived the 20 hour train journey! The train was actually alright and fairly comfy. We were in hard sleeping which were three bunks high in a little compartment of 6 bunks that were open to a long thin corridor running down one side of the carriage. There were small fold away seats and tiny tables at the side. We got lucky with our carriage, every other one we went in was like a kindergarten with noisy kids but ours was comparitively calm. Rob bought a bag of random Chinese snacks for us all to try - we found that you can eat the wrappers on the white sweets and that steamed cabbage flavour crisps taste better than they sound.
Our lack of Mandarin caused more problems... 6 Jiangxi vols were next to each other in one compartment while the other 2 were in a different carriage. We knew they were in carriage 2 and that we were carriage 5 and we could remember walking past 6 and 7 so Ned and I walked in the direction of 2 to find them. When we reached what we thought was 3 a curtain was across the corridor and so we blindly walked under it - the confused train staff that filled the carriage sent us back. We thought they were having a meeting or something and so three hours later Beth and I tried again. This time there was only one man and we begged him to go through for 2 minutes, eventually he relented and we walked through the silent carriage to carriage two. Unless Ella and Nicole had been packed into boxes they definitely weren't there. We were really confused because their tickets definitely said carriage 2 and then the angry man in charge of the goods carriage sent us back again. Then we were accosted by another angry train guard who jabbered at us for a while, it took us ages to realise that we were supposed to wear shoes oops. By the way, I make it sound like all the Chinese are angry, they're really not. Everyone is extremely friendly and welcoming and even the angry ones take pity on us after a little while and become friendly.
We have yet to get used to being stared and laughed at though. One night in the hostel I went for a shower and walking down the corridor in my towel a Chinese woman coming the other way looked at me so I said 'NeeHow!' She stopped and laughed her head off then guffawed all the way down the corridor before watching me in the mirror and continuing to laugh. This is pretty common but the worst so far was on the train. We went to the buffet carriage to get something to eat and walking between the packed tables we were stared at (obviously; we are white aliens). I said 'chilfen' to the man with trolley at the end which means food and he almost wet himself. He shouted at the chef in the kitchen who also laughed then the trolley man walked off with his trolley and the chef carried on cooking! We stood feeling a bit self conscious as everyone was sneaking looks at the foreign devils before the chef came asking what we wanted so we said 'food, anything.' Of course the obvious answer was to laugh in our faces then go for a cigarette with the trolley man that reappeared. We gave up and went to eat our last bag of steamed cabbage crisps.
I made friends with the Chinese family next to us who tried to help us with our Chinese pronunciation. They were delighted with my guitar and we taught each other card games. After a painful explanation cheat was a big success. They taught us a Chinese version of chase the ace and one other game which still appears to be throwing cards down in any order and shouting a lot, needless to say any card I put down wasn't allowed though... Eventually we grabbed some sleep and I managed a whole 5 hours which is good for China so far! Then we had to navigate our heavy baggage through the packed Nanchang station.
We had a full welcoming party from the three different schools we were going to and we were greeted like heroes! They didn't appear to know what they were doing but were so so helpful. They took us straight to the medical centre (they had no idea where it was though) and we spent ages being prodded and poked and they took blood and urine and measurements and every single nurse laughed when I said hello, thank you and goodbye in each different room. We said goodbye to Beth and Cat and Ned and Matt at the centre then our school staff took me and Rob for breakfast. When we said we liked 'bowzas' the driver disappeared then ran back with a bag of around 20! This was on top of the huge bowls of soup and noodles they'd filled our table with already. We both fell asleep on the 2 and a half hour drive to Yihuang to the Chinese karaoke music played on a screen at the front and were woken up to the sound of gunfire. We thought we were being shot at, actually we'd arrived at the school gates where they were setting off fireworks for us and the 'wise principal' and all 9 top school leaders met us. We had two film crews filming our every move and out of the firework smoke ran two girls carrying huge bunches of flowers! They welcomed us then asked 'can I have hug' haha. We were then interviewed with a translator for Jiangxi TV! We're treated as famous celebrities here.
We were taken for a banquet with the head of Jiangxi province and all the school leaders where everyone toasted us with beer 'Ganbei!' Feeling drowy and stuffed again they took us to our apartment - it's amazing! Far far better than we expected and better than pretty much all the other volunteers put together (apart from Beth and Cat -.-). Turns out that despite being a poor area the school was rebuilt 4 years ago and as a result they are building lots of brand new flats nearby. Lots of building work is still going on but PT volunteers in any country are housed in the same conditions as a local teacher and in Yihuang all the teachers live in the apartments next to the school. I'll put pictures up of our apartment when I can; we've definitely landed on our feet! Despite being really nice on the surface, when you walk around you can see a lot of signs of poverty, whole families appear to be living in open garages. The school looks very modern and well kept (by China standards, definitely not by British standards!) and has a lot of students that live in the dormitories on site. The school is massive and known for being good locally and caters for all of the poor children from the outlying rural villages that travel to Yihuang to live at the school for a good education. We were taken shopping where our 'Waibans' (Huan, Ivy and Mrs Huang - they are English teachers looking after us) helped us buy things we needed. That evening the headmaster and school leaders took us out for another meal where we were 'Ganbei'ed' with more beer and were forced to eat insane amounts of food. The headmaster insisted on joining us for breakfast as well and the next days lunch he dined with us and the schools top 9 people in the school's dining hall where we were toasted with beer by everyone AGAIN.
Chinese meals are a bit like a giant game of centurion. You have plenty of beer and a glass about half the size of a normal glass, it is a sign of respect to toast people which means filling your glass to the rim then shouting GANBEI! and drinking it straight down. You can't not ganbei, that would be disrespectful so inevitably me and Rob finish every meal with vague smiles and a slight headache. Unfortunately they always choose to ganbei me as I'm struggling to get a decent food from the spinning lazy susan in front of me which means I have to drop my chopsticks and try to spin it back again when I'm done...
The school went out and bought us bikes as well! This means we can explore a bit more of the town and we can find our way to the shops and post office now and we even ventured across the bridge today! We are also allowed to eat alone now so we arrive at the dining hall early then sit in the middle and wait for the students to flock to us. We have plenty of lads come and speak to us in broken English standing around and chatting then in a ring around the table we tend to have lots of shy girls who refuse to look at us and stare into their bowls giggling and blushing. Lots of the children say they have never seen a foreigner before and we are asked the same questions over and over again - 'name and age,' 'how high are you' and 'do you have girlfriend!' Students and teachers, male and female alike have all told us that we are 'very handsome' and today a lad told us we were 'beautiful' hahaha. They all love basketball and ping pong as well and keep asking us to play basketball; they think we're pros because of how tall we are.
I wrote this a little while ago and have been saving it as I go along - I've just got some rare internet access thanks to Huan who navigated the Mandarin error messages in school in one of my frees so I can upload this. I'll try to upload some photos as well, of my apartment and of our time in Beijing although it'll be a miracle if that succeeds. Our apartment is pristine by the way; me and Rob are very domesticated! I reckon we're the only lads in China who've been out with the intent to buy an iron and ironing board. Be impressed.
I'll write a more recent update when I can! Also, despite there being a post office across the street they refused to send letters to England when I asked in my best Mandarin, turns out they don't know how and so the easiest option was to just refuse. We've found another post office just across the river we can use though so I'll get some letters out soon!
Feels like months since I was in England!
Miss you all, Dan x x