Greetings followers :P
So I just logged on to STA travels website to change our flight's home (we're aiming to fly between the 28th and 31st July depending on availability) and I discovered thatthe post I made about our winter travels appears to have disappeared! So once again here is our winter vacation:
Well first we headed out to Nanchang for the magic pre-release, caught up with a few of our friends and did some of our last minute shopping for Harbin. Once again staying in thye Home inn. The only issue I have with that hotel is the walls are too thin- you can hear the w****s at work at the other end of the corridor, very distracting thing to wake up to at 6am and they seem to go on for hours!
Next stop was a 7 hour train journey to Shanghai, not too bad as far as train journey's go, even if it did end up being delayed for nearly 30 mins which isn't unusual in itself but considering that the train started from Nanchang I feel justified in wondering about the state of the Chinese rail system. I don't think I've mentioned this before but the Chinese seem to take railway secutrity to a level almost on par with airport security. All baggage must be put through an x-ray and you walk through a metal detector and have a more intimate scan immediately afterwards. Your tickets are examinted against your ID card or passport before being stamped and allowed through into a large room with waiting rooms. Each train is given a specific waiting room and you must wait there until your train arrives and you are exsorted onto the platform where your tickets are checked again at the doors to the carriages.
Anyway, Shanghai is an amazing city, very cosmopolitan in design with buildings ranging from traditional Chinese style to French villa's and Big city skyscrappers with the odd chic boutique thrown in there. If it weren't for the fact you are surrounded by Chinese faces you could be in the more modern areas of London or New York. You also rarely get stared at- a commodity Jon and I have learnt to appreciate after living in a city which has maybe 5 white people living there, and then only for about 8 months of the year. We were supposed to do some shopping in Shanghai but decided to wander round the city centre and up the Bund instead.
The next part of our trip was to fly from Pudong Airport to Harbin. A simple matter, there is a very handy and English speaker friendly metro service all the way to the airport and enough of the staff speak sufficient English to perform the basic necessities of their job. The problem arose when 30 minutes before our flight was due a nice was put up on the gate telling us that due to mechanical failure the flight was cancelled. Whilst frustrating, annoying, irritating and stressful the staff were very helpful and we managed to arrange an alternative flight for three hours later, which consequently then taxied to the runway 1 hour after it was supposed to have departed.
We arrived very late to Harbin adn after catching the shuttle bus into the city and argueing with taxi drivers in broken Chinese we managed to get a taxi at midnight for only 20RMB, which considering they started at 100RMB, we had no idea where we were going, it was starting to snow on top of the already 3 inch deep snow on the ground and Harbin taxi drivers have a nasty habbit and reputation of trying to take advsntage of and overchanrge foreigners I thought we did pretty well.
We spent several days in Harbin and went to St Sophia, a Russian Orthodox Church which has had its interior stripped and become a monument to the historical development of Harbin. Zoalin park, one of the main sights of the Harbin Ice and Snow festival, at its best at night (so from 4.30pm) the ice sculptures are lit with primary and secondary coloured lights which in some instances is very beautiful, espcially when used delicately on the competition entries. The ice and Snow world, also at it's best and businest at night but enjoyable even in daylight with ice slides and bars- the only mistake we made with this place was turning up at 2pm when it had just re-opened after lunch and the cafes and food places weren't yet open, we'd also just spent a couple of hours walking to the place which is about 2km as the crow flies from the centre of Harbin. Needless to say we weren't exactly happy walking around whilst we waited for somewhere warm to defrost.
Went to what was generously called the Russia Quarter (there was a sign written in rusiian and a few houses and closed shops) and walked across the frozen river which was more entertaining than it should have been... maybe the cold was starting to get to our brains. The food was good and deliciously hot after walking around in -20'C.
Harbin has also had a stroke of genius which makes it an excelent place for shopping. Considering that for a good portion of the year Harbin is covered in Ice and snow it can be very dangerous to cross over the roads, there is also only so much space above ground. So they have created vast swaths of underground shopping malls beneath the roads. So not only in winter can you do a lot of shopping (which besides the ice festival and other ice sports is the only thing to do there in winter) but you can also nearly walk from one end of the city to the other in the warmth, only coming up occasionally to cross a bridge! I think Harbin was propably one of my favourite places that we visited.
Next we moved on the Changchun, a city know for car manufacturing and business mainly but with a few sights to see, only a few hours from Harbin. Dont't bother going, at least not in winter. The geological palace was covered in snow and the nearby museum was closed. There is also, on the other side of the city, the puppet emporers palace and a museum that details the attrocities of the Japanese occupation.The palace, whilst interesting, had most of its exhibits and museums closed so only mthe main palace was open. The interior is very much how I imagined the decor of MI5 and MI6 when they were first created with only occasional reminders of the fact that it was a Chinese emporers palace.
Fortunately we only spent 2 days there and headed back toHarbin to fly back to Shanghai. Another note about Chinese trains, there are split into classes.
First there is the G class- a rare breed of train designed to solely run on the high speed lines, they are the most expensive trains but also the fastest and most confortable.
Next in the T-class, goes at a fair pace, has air-conditioning and heating and confortable seats
K-class trains are the most commonly run and are a few steps below our ordinary seats. The seats are firm with poor back support but it still has air-conditioning and heating.
Finally there are the numbered trains. These are as low as you can go without hitching a ride on the back of a coal train. the seats are material covered wood, there is no air- conditioning or heating and they are the first trains to be packed full of people, they are the cheapest trains available and so those who customarily use them are not used to seeing foreigners on them. Cue being treated like an animal in a zoo for the next 3 hours. Jon had it worst as he had no seat so was relegated to sitting on his luggage in the smoking area, being poked prodded and pinched at by most people who passed by. I was fortunate to have a seat so got stared at an taked about behind peoples hands for the entire journey which at least was easy to ignore.
After a terrible journey, a disappointing few days being taken advantage of in Changchun (getting a reasonably priced taxi from the train station there had been like prospecting for gold) we were greated with bossy, loud, obnoxious and rude taxi drivers at Harbin trying to charge use 100RMB to get to our hotel after only having paid 9RMB to get to the station from the same hotel a few days before. We decided we'd had enough and walked to spend a night of luxury at the Holiday inn 1/2 a mile from the station. It may have cost nearly 200 pounds for the night but it was worth every penny. The room was spotless, the staff friendly, the bed was soft (as in I could sit on it and leave an impression of my butt in the mattress), the food was tastly and they served real bacon and pancakes for breakfast. (Bacon in china is more like what we would call gammon (ge4nerously) in Britain, most of it is normally fat and comes in a variety of animals starting from prok and progressing through beef and donkey meat.)
Starting the day in a much better mood than we had being in the day before we took a taxi to the airport. We'd initially planned to grab the shuttle bus but were followed from the hotel by a taxi driver who, via his phone, told us that we had missed the shuttle bus not long ago and that he would take us to the airport for only 120RMB including the toll- this from our research we knew to be a very generous offer as many taxi drivers will quote this as the bottom end of the cost and will expect you to pay the toll in addition to the fare. So we jumped in and after a nerve wracking 45 minutes got to the airport, (the speed he was going and the number of times he nearly lost control of the taxi on the ice was enough to turn you white but he always managed to save it from going into the central reservation in good time).
We went back to Shanghai for the Spring festival although the unfortunate location of our hotel ment that we couldn't join in with much of the celebrations and so instead watched the fireworks that went off in the neighbourhood and watched the Shanghai spring gala on the TV- the first and probably only time we will watch Chinese TV.
We were back in Pingxiang for the Lantern festival and Anastasia brought some fireworks, firecrackers and lanterns back to school and we set them off together on the school sports field, it was very beautiful.
Not alot else of an exciting nature has happened recently. We've started teaching again and are now about to start our 9th week of teaching this term, all of us only have oral classes this term which is a great relief to Jon and Scott as both of them were dreading doing writing classes again. We've gone out to visit Jack, a local expat, a few times to drink wine and beer with him, exchange movies and chat. It was my birthday this month and we had a small party with a few students we get on well with and played some games, built a model together and, of course, ate cake. I bought myself a tailored qipao for my birthday, its a lovely red with gold trim and a dragon and lucky knot design on the fabric.
On a negative note I have also managed to contract some sort of eye infextion whilst out here and had forgotten to pack my glasses. Of course this led to an exciting trip to a local doctors. Carrie escorted me an acted as interpreter. The doctors itself was like a small hospital but the building lacked any of the false appearance and pretence at cleaniness a western doctors had, it reminded me more of one of those victorian buildings where they've set up a scene from the era. In short, it could have done with some TLC. When we went I was fully expecting the doctor to talk just to Carrie and that I would just be pointed into various positions by the doctor. I was not disappointed. After being asked for my Chinese name she spent about 2 minutes examining my eyes, all the whilst chattering to Carrie in Chinese, the only thing I got from the doctor via Carrie was "it's very serious" I was then presecribed about half the dispensary (at least that's what it felt like, there were only 4 different types of pills and some eyesdrops) I was then escorted back to the doctors office and she poceeded to make potions on my eyes involving about 4 different types of eyedrops, eye cream and antibacterial compresses for half an hour and then told to come back the next day at 8am and not to use my eyes in the meantime. That evening was one of the longest and most boring of my life I can tell you. You never realise how much you rely on your eyes until your told not to use them. I was once asked if I would prefer to be blind or deaf. At the time I answered I'd rather be blind as I was already part-way there and my hearing is quite good. I've changed my mind... I'd rather be deaf.
I've also had to make a trip to a chinese opticians because of this infection (at least I presume it's some sort of infection, nobody has actually told me what's wrong, despite my best efforts to find out). Opticials here don't use the conventional eye tests that we in the west are used to. They start by measuring your eyes with a machine, this appears to give them a baseline from which to start testing your eyes. And rather than having you read various letters of the alphabet from a screen they use only 2, E and C. They then ask you to tell the which way round the letters are, this is a lot more difficult than it sounds and I resorted to drawing the letters as I saw them on my hand for Carrie to tell the optician. They appear to only have one other test- to project a white circle with some lines coming from it's centre and asking you if any of the lines seem special. This has led to the optician giving me a pair of glasses that are " the best he can do" and telling me to come back again for another test when the infection is gone so he can try and get a better match rather than listening to me when I said it would probably be better to give me a pair with the prescription for my contacts which are fine for use except for looking at projected screens and being contacts. Needless to say this has left me with a pair of glasses that whilst I can see through in a way are no where near right for my eyes. Never again shall I take Martins optical services for granted!
That's about everything that has happened round here. Next weekend we are going to Nanchang again for a magic event. We were supposed to be teaching that weekend but only got told about it yesterday. May 1st is a holiday in China and of course the school likes to give multiple days off, so we are having 3 days off in a row Monday to Wednesday. But of course the school also doesn't want its students to miss any classes it's not obligued to give them off so we are supposed to be making up the classes for Monday and/or Tuesday on the sunday and/or Saturday before- although exactly what is happeneing about making up classes has not been finalised yet! This wouldn't be so bad if we hadn't previously being told that there was only one holiday this term- the 4th-5th April (when I pointed this out I quickly got told that there was also another holiday that would have to be made up in June although the exact dates have not been decided). So of course we made plans and paid for stuff as soon as it became available. As a compromise we are going to try and make up the days the following weekend instead. Somehow I think this has been more effective in getting the school to tell us stuff in advance than all our complaining and polite requests.
Until next time! x