Huan ying lai Xingtai (welcome to Xingtai)
Sarah and I arrived in Xingtai, our new home town for the next four and a half months, on Saturday evening after a 2.5 hour train ride from Beijing on the fast train - its quite nice being so close to Beijing (relatively speaking, this is China!) as there is lots I didn't manage to see in the five days that we were there, so this means there is the opportunity to go back one weekend. King, our placement manager here in Xingtai, picked us up from the hotel and came on the train with us so there were no mishaps at the huge, bustling Beijing West railway station (apparently the largest train station in Asia), and we travelled in first class - big, comfy seats! When we arrived at Xingtai railway station we got a taxi straight to the apartment. It's on the 16th floor of a set of apartment blocks called 'Golden Plaza Gardens' and is fairly central in the City. We had quite low expectations of the accommodation, as TTC (the company who organise the placements and ran the orientation) had warned us that it may be really basic. It's great, though! Sarah and I each have our own decent sized bedroom complete with pink flowery bed (!) , wardrobe, armchair, desk and computer. We share a small bathroom, and an open plan living and kitchen area with all the mod cons. The apartment has been decorated by the teachers who were here last semester and the semester before that too, so there are lots of bright colours and big pictures on the walls. It's lovely (I've put a few photos of it up in the new photo album if you want to take a look)!
We just chilled out on Saturday night, unpacking and stuff, and then on Sunday morning King picked us up for a look around our local area. We had a bit of a driving tour, then went to the Great Lakes Training Centre (one of the places where we'll be teaching English) to have a look around and meet the teachers, who seem really nice. After that, King took us to the Supermarket (crazy and busy, with the biggest pick 'n' mix sweets section I have ever seen!) and helped us pick up some staples - including about 4 sauces which all look like soy sauce but are apparently really very different! He then drove us back to the apartment and made us lunch as we don't know how to make Chinese food - we watched him avidly in the hope of learning some of his skills…I think we will perhaps come back home pros! Later that afternoon we met up with two of the English teachers from the Training Centre, Sally and Olina, who took us shopping on the main street, for a bite to eat, and to see some of the many lanterns which are lining the streets at the moment - Sunday was 'Yuanxiao' (lantern festival) day, which marks the official end of the Chinese New Year celebrations. According to Chinese tradition, there were loads of fireworks and lanterns in all shapes and sizes on every street corner; bright, beautiful, and lighting up the night.
Now comes the eventful bit! We got dropped off by a taxi later that evening, made our way up to the apartment, and tried to open the door unaided for the first time. But the lock was very very stiff, and we just couldn't open it. We tried for over 5 minutes and in the end, I tried a bit too hard and ended up snapping the key in the lock. Actually snapping it right off (I have kept the remnants as a souvenir)! Cue general panic and horror! We didn't have mobile phones yet, so couldn't call King…. and posess no ability whatsoever in Chinese aside from the usual pleasantries so couldn't call a locksmith…a pretty undesirable situation to be in. After a five minute 'what the hell are we going to do' conversation, we ended up walking to the office at the entrance to the apartment building, and with the help of my 'Chinese visual phrasebook' successfully communicated that we needed to use their phone. But King's number didn't work. Ahhhhh! And the phone only worked for local numbers so we couldn't call our emergency contact in Beijing - Solaro - from there. We asked where the nearest phonebox was, ended up being directed to a phoneboxless supermarket, somehow managed to communicate to the non-english speaking cashiers that we needed to borrow a mobile phone (although they seemed to think we were fluent in mandarin the speed and volume of which they were talking to us!), used the checkout girl's phone to call Solaro, who called someone else, who managed to get in contact with King….who arrived at the supermarket in record time with a locksmith. What a star! We were starting to worry we'd have to check into a hotel for the night, but were soon sat in our cosy apartment with a cup of tea and oreos, our prior predicament feeling like a distant memory. And quite a funny one really… We realised then that the limited small talk mandarin we had been trying to speak to the shopkeepers was wrong - the word for mouse and teacher is very similar, just said with a different tone, so we had been telling them we were english mice not english teachers! Ah, you have to laugh at these things don't you!
Monday was spent seeing a bit more of Xingtai. Until then we had not ventured out of our local area, but King drove us up to the north part of the city where there is a beautiful park and lake - it was snowy so looked really idyllic, and we are already really looking forward to going there in the summer to read books in the sunshine and take a row boat out onto the lake. After our walk around the park, King showed us how to cook another lunch - a delicious fish, rice, and beansprout dish, which we are going to try to make by ourselves one day soon! We spent the late afternoon relaxing in the apartment, and then Sarah and I ventured out on our own for the first time. We took a walk down one of the main roads nearby our apartment, and as we are amongst the only westerners in this city we got a lot of attention walking down the street - some people actually stopped and stared! It takes some getting used to! We walked to see some more of the lanterns which were still up- the atmosphere all around was great, kind of like a fairground with baloons and food stalls and lots of families about also looking at the lanterns. We bought some silly baloons to jazz up our apartment (I got a colourful parrot balloon, and Sarah got a Hello Kitty one), then amusingly ended up getting interviewed by a local journalist covering the event who didn't seem to mind the language barrier at all - I do wonder what he will write about us though!
Today we went for another walk in the morning and bought a few bits and bobs (including what looked like english tea bags, but turned out to be a questionable 'milk tea drink' - if anybody wants to post me tea bags from home I'll love you forever!). In the afternoon we went to the Training Centre to pick up some English language text books in preparation for when we start teaching - next week I think, but who knows - King is giving us lots of time to settle down! It's now Tuesday evening, I've just had a nice skype conversation with my dad and am getting ready for an evening of experimental cooking, a bit of reading, and perhaps a DVD.
Congratulations if you made it to the end of this mammoth blog post! More news to follow - perhaps more condensed next time though…!
Hope you're all well.