So this blog is just going to cover some of the highlights of the past 3 weeks in Yihuang between returning from our October travels and setting off on our three day excursion to Shangrao - I know I'm writing this in a weird order but I'm uploading them in the right order! This probably won't be in any particular order…
The most important thing to happen in this period of time was Rob's birthday on the 8th of October. I laid out a few presents for him after he went to bed for him to wake up to and despite being pretty stumped with what to buy him he seemed pleased with the bottle I bought him, a few bottles of our favourite milk and a selection of his beloved 'chewie.' Little did he know that we had more planned though - I had been conspiring with Beth and Cat since Xi'an and we had organised for them to make a surprise visit that weekend. Unfortunately these two are useless at keeping a secret and about two days Beth randomly sent a skype message in block capitals saying 'WE'RE SEEING YOU THIS WEEKEND!!!!!!!!' to me. This would have been fine had Rob not been sitting next to me. I thought I'd averted disaster as he wasn't really paying attention and I got it off the screen pretty sharpish. I didn't think they'd be stupid enough to jeapordise the plan twice but the night before Cat rang me while I was sitting next to Rob and inquired very loudly if Rob was near me. Of course he was sitting next to me and could hear the conversation so I made a quick thinking excuse of disappearing into my room to 'look for the phone charger that Cat thinks I have.' As soon as I was out of earshot I berated her for being as stupid as Beth then made the final plans for the next morning. They now wanted me to stall Rob for over an hour which seemed like a pretty tough task for early on a Saturday morning. I managed to get him out of the house for breakfast after receiving a text that the girls were positioned on the floor above ours and as we left the house I had a coughing fit to signal we were leaving. When Rob wasn't looking I left the key in the door then we went out into the sunshine. It was a close run thing getting him out because a rare football match had come on TV and luckily it was just finishing when I needed it too - otherwise he admitted he would have just stayed in to watch it. By the way, my plan B was pulling a fuse and faking one of our regular power cuts but it didn't come to that. I managed to persuade Rob that a nice walk in the sunshine was a good idea and we wandered along at a pace set purposefully slow by me. We wandered up to the base of the pagoda and headed back and Rob kept on mentioning how it would be really nice to bring the girls here next time they came haha. I sent a text ahead giving a rough ETA but hit a slight hitch when I reached the door - Rob didn't have his key and I'd given mine to the girls. I pretended I'd left it inside and banged on the door in a pretence of frustration at myself. Eventually it was opened in a swirl of balloons and hooter blowing by Cat and Beth and Rob was sufficiently surprised. It turns out that Beth and Cat's slips hadn't passed him by and he suspected they were coming but hadn't expected them to come that early or have decorated the apartment while we were out so at least part of our surprise worked. They'd put up tinsel, paper chains and a giant 'Happy Birthday Rob' poster they'd made the night before. They'd also filled the apartment with balloons and brought a couple of presents. Our flat now has a dartboard and as a joke they also bought a skipping rope (a reference to their hilarious fat jokes for the both of us) and a toy gun.
We did take the girls up to the pagoda to explore - we hadn't been there before and it's set high on a hill about 20 minutes walk from our apartment. We made it up the steps leading all the to it and spent a long time taking in the pretty views it offered of Yihuang county and sat on a rock in the sun for a long time chatting. Afterwards we went to the school for a few games of ping pong then got some drinks in and went home. We spent the night playing stupid games and having a laugh. We made use of the new dartboard and a pack of cards and spent the night drinking and having a laugh. We even got Nold on Skype to join in some card games and he drank along with the rest of us, albeit roughly 2000 miles away in China's Gansu province. We had a lazy day the next day and after the girls left we planned our lessons and cleaned our flat.
Class 13 is one of my favourite classes - they're also taught by Ivy and are probably my most friendly and enthusiastic classes. Granted, I leave most lessons with a slight headache but their loudness is a mark of their energy which I'm certainly not complaining about considering other classes are like drawing blood from a stone sometimes. They're also pretty funny and they had asked Ivy if they could use one of their evening lessons with her to hold a birthday party for Rob and I (some people just stuck my birthday with Rob's because I'll have left Yihuang by the time it comes around). They didn't disappoint with a party and moved all the desks to the sides and managed to cram 70 or so kids around the edges. They brought in a big cake they'd bought and started to cut it up for us but we weren't quite ready for the food fight that followed… It started with a couple of the cheekier kids mashing a bit of cream into our faces and ended with both of our faces, plus numerous kids, covered in the battered remains of the cake. After cleaning up the cake as best as possible I was asked to play a couple of songs on guitar before we moved onto 'dancing.' I was asked to show some English dancing which I was happy to oblige then they tried to teach us some Chinese dancing. Around this point I got a phone call from another teacher telling me they had some post for me in the lobby so I ran off to collect it - I'd been worried it had all been lost, which it had, and somehow it had found its way to the school. I got a completely unexpected stack of letters from various people along with a few parcels and a very relieved me staggered back to the classroom with a stack of post. We finished off the 'party' with the kids playing some simple games with us where we had to speak basic Chinese and they had to use basic English to spice things up a bit and help understanding between us all. We headed back home where I excitedly went through all of my post - thank you everyone that sent stuff!
I'm looking around the apartment now and although the last of the balloons were recently cleared up most of the birthday decorations are still up. They improve the look of the place and other recent additions help turn it from a house into a home! My wicked Chinese mask hangs on one wall near the birthday poster. Tinsel and paper chains hang from various places and some Chinese luck decorations of various sizes hang in other spots. We have our dartboard, timetables and drawn pictures stuck on another wall and each of our door-handles has an angry bird soft toy from a Mcdonalds in Xi'an hanging from it. My bedroom is decorated with lots of 18th birthday cards, good luck cards, teachers day cards from students, my language course certificate, a large sheet with my calligraphy practise on it and a photo wall of all my favourite people in England (thanks to Sarah for surprising me with a stack of photos in a letter!)
We've done some cool stuff over the past few weekends. We learnt how to make Chinese dumplings but only how to do the folding part. Soon we'll learn how to make them properly from scratch so I can make them in England. We also spent one Saturday with some English teachers who taught us how to play mahjiang which is a Chinese gambling game. It's a little bit like rummy played with rectangular blocks. It takes quite a bit of concentration to associate which Chinese blocks fit with others and when to shout 'PUNG' or 'GUNG' and once we'd mastered the basics of the game it emerged that there are lots of complex exceptions to the rules which spiced up the game and wrecked my brain a bit. We played it with the gambling rules and gambled with playing cards - I think I ended up with 3 left while Rob increased his original 10 to 12.
One weekend Huan invited us for a picnic with her husband, daughter and some of their friends. We went to the lake where we've previously swam and they produced a lot of food but not quite what I was used to for a normal barbeque. It turned out it was his first time with a newly acquired second hand barbeque so I got it lit for them and cooked all the food. The best in our opinion was some lush chicken which is a standard barbeque edible. We also got through a lot of sausages but these weren't quite the same because I haven't seen a single proper sausage in China - they only have weird tasting sausage shaped things which obviously don't contain any real meat and have been made in a factory at any time in the past ten years. Other delights included a variety of vegetables I'd never seen before and squid on a stick. While eating we saw some little children near us holding a rabbit and we couldn't fathom how they'd caught the poor thing. I noticed when they put it down that it is was limping and I picked it up and found it had a broken leg and was bleeding from the mouth. I told Huang and she said it was a pet rabbit that the child's father had caught and given to her. They were passing it around none too gently and kept putting it on the floor and scooping it up again. It was shaking with fright and obviously in pain but there was nothing we could do - animal care isn't high on Chinese people's priority lists. The worst thing was when one girl dropped the rabbit from the height of her shoulder and after that it could barely move, I took it again and found it now had a second broken leg and later on we saw the kids walking off with the 'pet' rabbit in a transparent, dirty plastic bag being swung carelessly round and passed from kid to kid; I would have liked to have broken its neck and put it out of its misery but Huan said I had to leave the rabbit with the kids and we went back to the barbeque.
I returned to the barbeque spot next Sunday because I'd seen a trail leading off into the undergrowth that I wanted to follow. I woke up early for my exploratory walk and put on boots, shorts and T-shirt, grabbed my rucksack and took some water and food to last the day with me. I biked up to the lake and started off on my mystery trek. I had no idea where I was going but I was hoping I'd find a path up into the mountains. I followed the trail for quite a way but found that it only reached more of the small farming fields that are dotted everywhere here. After exploring the few trails that led off from the one I was on I set my sights on one that was at a slight incline. I was now on the other side of the lake and in a kind of basin between some small mountains covered in greenery. I saw plenty of strange bugs and lots of pretty big lizards darted out of my way as I approached. At one point I stopped to drink some water and I got growled at by something in the bush to my left. I followed this trail for quite a way and got quite a shock when I walked face first into a spider's web. I looked around for the owner of the web and found a horribly big spider. I don't mind spider's normally, when I say normally I mean in England, but this thing was monstrous. Looking at it and how close it was to my face sent shivers down my spine. Not only was it massive but it was brightly coloured with a black body and legs but decorated with red white and yellow markings including bands around the legs. I've googled it since and found that my initial suspicion of it being very poisonous was correct which doesn't make me like it any more. I tried for ages to take photos of it but my camera alsways auto focused on the leafy background and made the spider blurry. I kept walking for a while and found a small grove of 8 or 9 orange trees. They were all unripe and I plowed on to see what I could find. The path became more uphill and I encountered more of those spiders . I managed to avoid a faceful of web again and only walked into the odd few strands. Eventually the trail became surrounded by giant leafy plats which formed a tunnel around me. At some points I had to stoop or even crawl to make my way through. I was on careful watch for more spiders or other strange bugs and eventually I made it to a dilapidated and long abandoned house. I proceeded for a bit further until I left the enclosed surroundings of the leaves behind and emerged straight into another web. I batted at my face a bit and checked I didn't have one on me then inspected my surroundings. From where I was standing I could see another 6 spiders and it seemed that the further along the trail I went the bigger they got. I walked another few steps and got another faceful of sticky spiders web and this took me by such surprise that I jumped around a bit swiping at my face to get it all off. Since I wasn't a fan of being covered in spider's web and the fact the spiders were increasing in size and numbers the further I went I decided to turn back. The path seemed to have been returned entirely to the wild from what I could see a little way ahead and it didn't appear to be leading anywhere, besides it wasn't quite the picturesque mountain trek I had hoped for. I turned back into the undergrowth for fear that the spiders would continue to get bigger and I would find a Chinese Aragog and made my way back along the trail to my starting point of the lake. By this time it was early afternoon and the place was deserted. I stripped to my shorts and laid by the lake with my picnic food and book in the sun. I had a long time of peace and quiet then headed back for a cold shower.
Last weekend we were invited out again with Huan and her husband to go camping. First of all the three of us went to a banquet with Big Ben (an intensely annoying English teacher) with some teachers provided by the parents of one of the students. The teachers got started early and forced glass after glass wine upon us. We had another delicious banquet and started to decline more wine and toasts towards the end of the meal. Unfortunately the Chinese are exceptionally difficult to deter when it comes to alcohol unless you're literally passed out under the table and after ganbei-ing a few more glasses we made it out. We wobbled slowly home on our bikes and had ten minutes to pack for the camping trip. We made it back to the car and spent the 2 hour window vaguely smiling out the window and occasionally giggling at nothing. We passed many of the other campers as we drove there - it seems Huan's husband is part of some kind of camping/cycling/outdoor club and everyone else was biking the mountain trails to the destination. We were shown into a small rural stone yard when we arrived where we were left to sleep for a bit until the others arrived. They let us have a ride on their pretty sweet mountain bikes and we whizzed down the mountain for a while. Then we had to bike back up the mountain which was hard work and when we reached the top we were taken through a tiny mountain village of rural farms and led to a patch of ground for camping. Everyone whipped out tiny little tents and we helped to set up the campsite before sitting around again waiting for dinner. After some time, we were taken back into the tiny village and into a small barn where tables were set up with plenty of dishes. We were honoured with the most important seats, the ones facing the door and sampled the beautiful dishes they had laid out for us. As a mark of respect we were once again ganbeied multiple times and kept supplied with beer and once we'd eaten our fill we went back to the camp sight. The place had been transformed and now a barbeque was set up (everyone was stuffed from the banquet but the Chinese love to eat). Someone had brought along a large set of speakers and a laptop and Chinese dance tunes were blasting out. Some people got up and started dancing and Rob and I added to the excitement by dancing manically to 'Gangnam Style' twice over. I followed up this act by fetching the guitar they'd asked me to bring and played a couple of songs through a microphone. The performance was awful because the sound lagged and I was a little drunk but then again so were my audience and because I'm foreign I reckon I could have got away with screaming down the mic then throwing the speakers into the mass of tents. Other interesting points of the evening were the toilet - literally planks of wood laid across a stream with one plank missing in the middle. The appearance was topped off with a falling to pieces, rotting wood shelter and a filthy mud bank wall. The occasional rat scurrying across the floor finished off the experience and the ripe smell of the pig next door added extra delight to this treat for the senses. We were woken early next morning and given cups of hot water to drink. Up to this point I had been impressed - my impression of the Chinese was that they weren't adventurous at all (Huan had been very worried about us going camping because she thought it was too dangerous… I tried to explain it was one of the more comfortable camping experiences I'd had and that yes we still thought the weather was warm). These guys did mountain biking, camping, drinking and partying in a mountain field. My opinion fell a little when they decided against climbing the mountain they were intending to go up because of the tiniest bit of drizzle. It literally wasn't even raining or cold but they called it off and I saw their native Chinese spirits deep inside them once again.
I can't think of anything else we've done recently… there must be loads more I'm missing! This post's getting pretty long anyway and when I remember more stuff I'll add it onto a later post if it's interesting enough.