We had a train to Beijing at 04:30 followed by a connecting train from there to Nanchang where we could make our way back to Yihuang. This meant leaving the hostel at 03:00 in the morning so we just decided not to sleep in a vain attempt to make our bodies want to sleep on the trains. We spent our final night drinking and chatting with our friends before we had to say goodbye - we won't see most of them until either final travelling in summer or Beijing just before we fly home, thank god. We had no trouble getting a taxi and the journey to Beijing passed without incidence. In Beijing we got off at the station we'd first left Beijing at to travel to our projects all those months ago which was pretty surreal as we remembered getting the coach and needing Alicia's help to get through the station and onto the trains which was all a new and slightly experience. No longer inexperienced and clueless we exited the station and told some taxi drivers where they could stick their rip off prices in Chinese. Instead we queued in the taxi rank queue and again having learnt from experience positioned my big body and bigger bag in such a way to ram into anyone who tried to 'slip by.' Eventually we climbed into a taxi to Beijing West station and the long taxi jams getting to the station was made even more painful by whatever the driver was listening to. It sounded like an old man freestyle singing very fast with a pair of spoons. I use the term singing very loosely and I don't know if it was spoons but it was probably a weird traditional Chinese instrument along the same lines. At Beijing West we ate the final fast food of travelling and had a Mcdonalds and half heartedly tried to spruce up in their public sinks. This just meant brushing our teeth and splashing water on our faces. After a 16 hour journey we felt a bit grimy but we didn't really care and we were about to step onto an even longer train anyway. After trying and failing to locate the VIP lounge we whiled away the time before the train in an internet café before dragging ourselves away for the train to Nanchang.
This train again passed without incidence. Probably because for both trains I was sat in a stupor on a hard seat crammed in by lots of Chinese people. On trains like this the best thing to do is hope for sleep but that wasn't happening for me. It's great when you wake up and realise you've just killed 4 hours of the train journey. Instead I just dozed in fits and starts in uncomfortable positions. Eventually though we finally arrived back in Nanchang to find a bit of a chaotic station. There were lots of soldiers standing about and huge crowds of people sitting on the floors and the taxi ranks and most exits were shut. We thought we'd be trapped in the station but we found our way out to find more soldiers and police cars above ground. But not a single taxi to take us to the bus station. We walked to the end of the street to find a big sign saying no taxis past this point on the main road to the station and huge traffic jams. We hailed a taxi and ended up stuck in a bumper to bumper (well, it is China so bumper to any part of any other vehicle) traffic jam. We were getting a bit stress because we had to get the last bus back to Yihuang otherwise we'd be stuck in Nanchang. We made it though and seeing the coloured lights of Yihuang bridge was a big relief. The bus driver even dropped us off at our apartment! We were home.
It was good to be home and we spent a couple of days getting things straight, unpacking, doing all our washing and sleeping. May gave me a stack of post (which I'm still slowly replying to!) including a very long, lovely letter from Senegal. Thank you Zoe I'll get the reply in the post soon! Zoe's monstrous letter is one reason why I'm being slow to respond at the minute - the little free time I have to write letters has been spent adding to a comprehensive, very long letter about my entire year so far in return to an essay all about Senegal from her home in West Africa where she's volunteering. Then Ivy invited us out for the Chinese lantern celebration. We went to her mother-in-laws for dinner and on the way went to hospital to visit Ivy's great aunt. She was our tai-chi teacher when we first came and Ivy said she'd been hit by a car. We bought her some fruit (had to buy different fruit outside the hospital, apparently in China you should give 8 apples and 8 oranges) and expected her to be sitting up in bed, smiling, with a broken arm or something. Not at all, she looked horrific. Lying in bed with tubes everywhere and her face was just a swollen bruised pulp. She croaked out a thank you and we left. On the walk to Ivy's we got updated on Yihuang. Yihuang, the town that hasn't seen a murder in 100 years, apparently, has had 4 in the month we've been away. Two brothers, 7 and 12 years old, were murdered by a machete wielding maniac. A boy from the other middle school was stabbed to death by one of his classmates over 'love' and another man was found stabbed and dead on a zebra crossing. The same crossing we were walking past when Ivy told me about the fourth guy. This is on top of the attempted kidnapping of some kids from No.3 Middle School and Rob seeing a guy threaten a shop with an extended truncheon while shouting at the top of his voice. Pretty crazy. We've been told to stay indoors after dark… I haven't heard anything more about any of those things though and Yihuang seems to be the same old safe place it always was to us.
We had a nice meal with Ivy's family and then went home to rest in preparation for a bigger meal at a fancy restaurant with Ivy's father and some businessmen. We rested and after going to the wrong police station to meet her (she said the police station so of course we'll go to the huge one. It's also the only police station we know about and I still don't know what Ivy was talking about) we went to the second meal of the day. In China they love to set off firecrackers and to celebrate the lantern festival we had a never ending volley of firecrackers being set off all over Yihuang. There wasn't a moment's quiet - these things are loud, they really hurt your eardrums if you're close enough. They're also very smoky so for the entire day a great fog of smoke from spent fireworks descended over the town and you could barely see a short way down the street. No-one even pays attention to these stupid fireworks! At the meal, Ivy's dad insisted we call him father (family terms are a way of showing respect and closeness in China) and we opted for baijiu rather than beer. About half way through I went outside to sit with Joy (Ivy's very cute daughter) and she wouldn't stop giggling when I lifted her over my head. Later on in the meal there was a power-cut so I went and stood outside, it was pretty eerie because there were no lights at all and still very smoky and you could just see various shapes moving about in the occasional glare of car headlamps. I stood and watched the fireworks and lanterns being set off. The boss was very, very drunk and shook our hands every few minutes. He wouldn't let go of our hands and just kept saying he's very sorry to both of us. No idea what he was apologising for but apparently he told Rob he'd been in Afghanistan. Not a clue. They all wanted us to go to KTV so we accepted and sang a few songs but left early pretending we had school the next day because Ivy and Joy were made to come to and her father wouldn't let her go. So we left so Ivy and Joy could go home, KTV wasn't that good anyway. Just drunk guys wailing into microphones. And the boss kept trying to dance with me… Like ballroom dancing…
Not that much has happened although March has slipped by extremely fast and it's scary that there's only 4 months left before I'll be leaving China. As of yesterday I've been in China for exactly 7 months! We're definitely in the 'home straight' now. The other week I saw a female builder actually wearing a helmet. That's worth mentioning A) because it appears everyone's so highly trained here they don't require safety equipment and B) it was strapped to the top of an enormous paddy field hat. You know the type, weaved into a flat cone to protect from the sun. Well it looked ridiculous precariously balanced on top of her hat and I wish I had a photo. We've also started to use out kitchen. In half a year I've used the kitchen once and that was to cook some dubious pancakes. They weren't too bad and I had fun creating an enormous mess. One looked so bad I had to throw it out of the window much to the amusement of the middle school children who could see me from their balconies. It landed in a tree by the way. Since returning from travelling we've purchased some extra kitchen equipment and both of us have been cooking the occasional omelettes for breakfast. Naturally this requires more trips to the supermarket (a new, bigger one's opened really close to our house) and the other day I went to buy some tissues. Well I found a shelf full of them but only in big bulky boxes, I wanted small packets. So I went round the corner which seemed about the right size and cheaper. Then a young female worker came up to me and as far as I could tell she was asking if 'I had a girlfriend,' 'does she live in China,' 'do I have a Chinese girlfriend,' 'were my female English friends coming to stay' etc. After a few minutes of confused questioning where I did my best to going back to comparing prices, I'd been doing perfectly well on my own, she pointing to the advertisement behind me and suddenly all became clear. She wanted to know why I wanted to buy a pack of tampons. Oops. It's difficult not being able to read things sometimes… I followed her back around the corner where she found the tissues I asked for and then quickly slunk away.
The weather's also been pretty crazy recently. It's been very hot for a few days, according to Ivy around 25 degrees but this has been punctuated with lots of rain and storms. That's right, we've entered the monsoon season. And some git's nicked my umbrella. Because we're the only ones in our abandoned apartment block I thought it'd be safe to leave my open umbrella on our dust covered third floor landing. Apparently not. My money's on the tramp under the stairs. Although I dare say he needs it more than me I was still annoyed. Anyway, last week I woke up at 02:00 in the morning and lay in bed for a bit trying not to have an epileptic fit from the blinding flashes filling the room. I'd never seen lightning like this before and the rain outside was deafening, it was absolutely chucking it down. That was nothing compared to the thunder clashes that repeatedly rolled through the sky and made me feel very small indeed. I hopped out of bed hoping to stand at a window and watch the lightning strikes but our windows were facing the wrong way and I couldn't see anything but the constant flashing. So I went back to bed. That period of being sensible lasted about 3 minutes when I realised sleep wasn't coming back anytime soon. So I hopped out of bed again, dragged on trackies and a hoody, slipped into my fur boots and left the house. I didn't take a coat because I was intending to stand at the bottom of the stairs to watch the lightning. Well I still couldn't see so I walked to the crossroads to have a clear all round view of the sky. I stood on the intersection for quite a while in awe staring up at the sky. It wasn't raining so much anymore but the road next to me was completely flooded and water was rushing down it at quite a rate. I was staring at the sky trying to see the actual lightning bolts but I only saw a couple. There was so much lightning I can only describe it as God flicking a light switch on and off. I thought the rest of the lightning strikes must be hidden behind the tall apartment buildings so I decided to go for a walk. I figured I'd come this far and I wasn't sleepy and it was very warm out so I waded through the road/river and started to trek down the middle of the big road - the camber meant it wasn't flooded. I walked to the quarry bridge and it was quite surreal walking down a deserted street in the middle of the night. It was very eery behind closed in on either side by towering blocks resulting in tunnel vision where all you can see is the abandoned part of the street in the distance constantly flashing up in blinding light and shadows. It could have fitted into any horror film I've ever seen. I jogged lightly for a bit and stood on the bridge but the light show I'd hoped for wasn't there. The lightning must have been behind clouds or disappeared beyond the mountains. I stayed for a further two bolts (both were impressively huge) and walked back. It was strange standing in the middle of the bridge above the swelled river because after a while I realised it was almost silent. No thunder at all just constant lightning. I guess the storm must have been really far away by that time. As I started to walk back I heard a commotion of very panicked geese/ducks in the distance and suddenly remembered the 4 recent murders in Yihuang and the started thinking about the likelihood of being hit by lightning… Needless to say I jogged back just in time to hear a cockerel, maybe he mistook the lightning for dawn because it was only quarter past 3. Bit too early mate. Very impressive because I was out for just over an hour and by the time I got back the streets had already drained! I went back to bed then but struggled to sleep again. Ivy said I'm crazy.
Speaking of Ivy she's just rang to ask where I am. Seems the afternoon lesson I thought was at 16:00 was actually at 14:10 and I've just typed right the way through it without a care in the world. First time I've ever missed a lesson, apart from illness, but Ivy thought it was funny. Phew.