42. The End Of The Chinese Miracle

Looking back only a few years, the Chinese economy was growing at a tremendous rate. Labour was plentiful and the ability to change jobs quickly was possible. These labourers came from afar, from the villages and helped the formation of China’s newest metropoles.

This had began to fuel a new mentality on spending, an entrepreneurial spirit and a radical change of outlook regarding employment for China’s high streets.

The video below explains China’s migrant problem now….

FT: China’s migrants

Career flexibility is not a given in China. Many families crave what is traditionally seen as employment’s ultimate aim: the iron rice bowl. This figurative rice bowl is managing to get a job which ensures job security for life and pays the bills handsomely. This can be a big event in a Chinese worker’s life- ascending into the middle classes and few employment concerns for the rest of their career. Family celebrations are commonplace for these lucky workers.
However, recent attitudes during growth were perhaps challenging this view, with chopping and changing more common. Many of my friends, on losing a job, were completely nonplussed and were happy to take the extra time off knowing full well that jobs were not in short supply. Freedom in economic growth.

Yet, with the Chinese population due to explode, the idea that lack of labour may stunt Chinese growth is certainly puzzling. Nevertheless, this is where we are.

Small businesses, which form the bedrock of the Chinese economy like no other country. Being less developed than some super economies, family and street business has always been the staple. In growth, the transition to factory work was full of opportunity, provided a stable wage and gave many a chance to spend outside of essentials for the first time. With work drying up in the city for migrant workers, the economy is now grinding to a halt.


(Image, one of Changchun’s ‘western-style bars’)

The boom years saw entrepreneurs in China try all manner of ideas, relatively new to a traditionally guarded culture. Signs of the slowdown are most obvious here, with innovative business falling foul of decreased expendable income and being forced to close within the first 6 months. The care-free and occasionally extravagant middle class are beginning to look at tightening their belts, reigning in spending and reverting type.

Instead of  new start-ups such as trendy new bars, a la mode clothing lines and western-style shopping centres, which appear at least superficially in decline, traditionalism is returning to the fore. Migrants are settling, or returning despondent. With harvest festival reminding many of village life, crisis point may be reached. Perhaps the economy is staring back at manufacturing and production to help out- the recent steel dump around the world may say much about China’s economic struggle between past and present.

Is it that China can overcome its migrant labour issues, and we could soon see a new generation of migrants holding their own trusty iron rice bowls?

To find out more about the Financial Times’ series on the End of the Migrant Miracle, visit the link below! Until next time!




41. Travels- Guilin

Hi guys….

Sorry for not being with you for a weekly dose of fun in a while. As I said, I’ve been traveling around China again to see a little more of the country. This week is Guilin- a beautiful southern city in Guangxi province famous for its stunning natural scenery. I have been told off repeatedly for using a potato of a camera and this has still not got any better, but I’m in the fortunately position of being able to not take this criticism to heart, so I’ll apologise again and move on!(I have been shamed into searching the internet for a more accurate picture of the area, however… so the first picture is just that).

Guilin is famed for it’s incredible backdrops and it seemed best doing a spot of climbing in order to see some of them from above. For an extremely reasonable sum in the nearby town of Yangshuo we armed ourselves with the aforementioned potato, a cheap of chips bag of exotic fruit and a rope. Donning a pair of climbing shoes tighter than an Olympic diver’s Speedos., we set about scaling a nearby rock. This one, actually.
photo 5 (1)IMG_0628

Although I was pretty much a novice to climbing rock, oppose to the indoor/ artificial ones that I did at scout camp in my youth, I was slightly disappointed with my efforts. I have literally no idea how I got into this position, but I do know that it was uncomfortable, as well as having my left knee and right elbow in my own mouth at one point.
photo 4 (1)photo 2 (1)

After creating makeshift viewing platform using my harness and tree branch, I wedgied myself in for a look at the scenery. Boy was it worth it…



Back in Guilin, the locals pride themselves on a rich culture, which is being exploited by the touring masses. In fact, there are new villages muted for taking over from Guilin as the new untouched areas of natural beauty, once Guilin has been overrun by tourism. It’s a shame, as the city itself is charming and really rather romantic, which is difficult to appreciate in any sense when traveling with your brother… The city is pleasant enough to simply stroll around mindlessly without doing anything really, the area does all of the serious touristing.


The spectacular scenery continues in the shape of the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces in Longji, just North of Guilin. Cultivating a wide range of crops , the terraces stretch out for as far as the eye can see, comprising of 3 sets and rising to 1000m in some places. There’s very little point in my wasting your time by explaining more, so let’s just get to the pictures.

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IMG_0646 IMG_0658   IMG_0659 IMG_0657 IMG_0656 IMG_0655 IMG_0654 IMG_0652 IMG_0651 IMG_0650 IMG_0648 

The mountain folk are gentle and welcoming, offering beds for the night and woven local produce. They work for sunup to sundown in most parts of the terraces in order to supply crops and they have become much more than subsistence farmers, with the same families working the fields for generations, dating back roughly 650 years. A truly remarkable lifestyle and one of my favourite parts in China.

So, a little on the South of China this week… Next week the Yellow Mountains as we made our way Eastward towards Shanghai.


40. The story of the back….

Hi guys….

Sooooo, a lot of interest this week for those of you who saw the picture of my back on Facebook. For those who didn’t, it looked a little like this:

photo (2)

It came from a massage and I’ll tell you how!

For a friend’s birthday we decided to treat ourselves to a massage. I say ‘treat’, massages in China are far more common and everyday so to say that it was a luxury is a little overstated. The massage which I got was a bit of a Rolls Royce and cost just under 300RMB, or £30 to those who speak that. For that, they are really quite happy to chuck you around, beat the knots out of your back and stretch you into positions that an Olympic gymnast would cringe at. Forget the therapeutic heaven that you associate with high-end spas and a day out with the girls (I imagine…), this was bone-crunching stuff.

They first started to see how well connected my arms were to my shoulders through various unsympathetic thrusts and, after seeming passing that test, they began slapping, beating and punching every other part of my upper and lower body to give me a real soothing experience.

All of this was nothing compared to the next punishing technique- the cups. The cups, we were told, were to drain out all of the bad fire from our bodies and give a healthier inner feeling. And peace. Bull-swear….. I’m sure I had more fire in my belly after that before. The first step was to start gently rubbing the wooden cups along the back, gauging how much ‘fire’ needed to be removed. Enough, it seems, so they placed a few tested cups on the back- if it bruises too badly, they don’t continue.

photo 1 (2)

Next, they begin to place a few more on, all over the back to keep coaxing out the fire, if you like. As you can see above, they use flame to create the suction so that it can stick to the back like a barnacle.

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Finally, they place as many as possible all over the back, seemingly for maximum discomfort and making me look like a budget sea-monster from Pirates of the Caribbean. At least my face wasn’t ridiculous throughout… oh wait.

photo 4

Fully tortoised up- and to my horror- they simply left us in agonising pain for what seemed like an eternity. When they came back, I looked up expecting to see Autumn leaves falling, but apparently it was only 5 minutes. And it hurt. This is what it looked like when first taken off. Lumpy…..

photo 2 (3)

Straight after this ordeal, they hoisted themselves up using a bar strategically placed above the table, and began kicking the crap out of me for a whole ten minutes. I’ve never felt so abused in all my life, and they seemed to think the whole thing was hilarious.

This is an odd thing to see for you guys, but it is pretty normal here in China. I certainly won’t be a regular however, and I am completely skeptical about any benefit to the body- I didn’t feel even a bit better!

Nevertheless, it is a story to tell, and I will post regularly with when the bruising decides to go down…. it hasn’t yet.


I’m off to the seaside this week, so everyone have a great time out there and take it easy!!

39. Car show- seeing double…

Hi guys, happy week to all…

This week, we got back on the incredulity wagon at the Changchun Annual Car Show. The International Auto Exhibition, to give it it’s proper title, is known to the western visitors as a bit of a chuckle, so we expected a bit of a belter!!

Changchun is often nicknamed the ‘car city’ because of it’s vast amount of cars and particularly the seas of foreign car plants based in the city for manufacture. It’s worth pointing out that it has been called ‘China’s capital of culture’ and the ‘City of Green Spaces’, both of which I have seen no evidence for, so please take my word for it when I call it the car city!!

On entering the show, there was nothing to say this was any different from any other car show throughout the world, but thankfully the cracks opened up as we strolled through the 9 vast halls. Each hall presented a different type/ style or company which ranged from the cutting-edge concepts to the bizarre brainfarts. At one point we climbed aboard a military-type vehicle which, it turned out, was available to hire for the week along with driver and (surreally) a gazebo and camping chairs… I don’t know what is less likely: going on an invasion-themed holiday or stopping for afternoon tea during an offensive. Either way, something was out of place…


The star of the show, to us, were the rip offs which we had be warned about before going. There have been some high-profile legal battles between established foreign companies in China and the new start-up car companies in China over intellectual ownership. This ranges from infringing upon design on the font of the SatNav, lest it look like a copy, to a full blown copy with seemingly just a badge changed. Points for those who guess which we saw….? Points all around I guess then.

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Please don’t look at the badges and assume I’m a buffoon. The ones on the left and centre are a BMW Minis and the other is a by Chinese company called LiFan. It is that obvious. As if not to cheat you, look at the characters on the number plate on the blue car and then the company’s name…. Beautiful copy though, right??

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Although these were few and far between, there is some serious resentment from other companies who feel completely aggrieved that their hard work is being stolen. The counter argument has been on at least one occasion ‘Look, the wheel arches are different, how is it the same?’ There were some more obvious signs that some things were amiss after looking at some Mercedes…

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The rest of the day was fairly without incident apart from some more blunders from yours truly in Chinese. This is beginning to get too much of a feature for my liking really. We were talking to some lovely sales girls, who became convinced that because we were western we must have a lot of money and thus were looking for a car… As part of their pitch they we asking a little about us and how long we had been in China etc. After not really understanding some questions, I decided to leap at one which I understood. I grabbed my chance to impress…. “锅包肉” (guobaorou), I blurted out, recalling my favourite  东北 (northeast)  food. They looked confused then laughed. A lot.

Turns out that the question had been

你最喜欢的车是什么?(Ni zui xi huan de CHE shi shenme?) ‘What is your favourite car?’

and not

你最喜欢吃什么呢? (Ni zui xi huan CHI shen me ne?) ‘What do you most like to eat?’

This, to my untrained ear was the same, and caused quite a bit of amusement considering my answer… I was later sent a picture by friends showing the difference.

guobaorou Simon's an ape

So, a good time had by all…. Have a little look at the rest. No idea what the pink car was all about!!!

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I’ll leave the final word with a Coke Gazebo, which thought it was appropriate to insult me…..

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Have a great week everyone!!!

38. Time to get serious- but only once.

Hi guys,

As thoughts have started to head towards summer holidays, I have recently been asked by a few people about a few more serious matters, such as writing genuine travel advice as if I actually know anything of any value. As crazy as this seems, I’ve decided to satisfy a few of these people here and now! Beware, I may just drop some knowledge bombs. Or not. Let’s see…

The subject of money has come up most often so I guess we should start there. Having lived in a few European countries before crashingmybike here in China, exchanging money comes a little more naturally to me than some (despite the fact that I still don’t know exactly how much a dollar is worth in pounds and ounces).

money exchange

The big companies are clearly the best to go for in this case- a traveler’s no-brainer- as they are the safest. Well… seemingly a no-brainer at least. Whilst I was in Beijing with my parents a Danish family were rejected from the Confucius Temple in Beijing  after trying to pay….. with fake notes. Such a shame to miss out on that, as it is thought-provokingly serene- even to a airhead like me. But then to find out that a good wad of their holiday money had been exchanged into fake notes is crippling. It wasn’t even like they were obvious fakes either. Using my pigeon Chinese, I couldn’t even convince them to return the fake notes, so it was doubly painful. Having said that, we could have guessed that considering my ropey Chinese. Their mistake? To exchange their money in a market. OK, to average common-sensed traveler this is a daft error, but it is tempting to take a great rate and there are some that are genuine, especially in countries that value foreign currencies higher than the domestic one. They are way too far between to be sure, however, so whatever the weather I’d take the hit on a higher commission to have piece of mind. For those who want to risk buying some particularly expensive Monopoly money, best of luck.


Personally I like the Post Office, Thomson and another local company near me, but being as the rate fluctuates like a Yoyo on Red Bull it’s best to shop around. Being a pedantic sausage like me, it can take a while, but don’t lose too much sleep over it!



(the last time I tried to find a good exchange rate!)

In terms of transferring money, most of the major companies such as Travelex have a pretty comprehensive  range of options when choosing to transfer money, from students loans to deposits for properties. These type of companies make a lot of sense because they are reliable and generally quite efficient, as well as offering customer service options for added reassurance and security.  But it is very much down to what you need really. Let me explain…

A good example of a bad example of not knowing how to do it, for you leisure…. A few years ago I was moving to Spain to study for a year and attempted to transfer my meager student loan using a banking service that is usually available to high-flying businessmen at HSBC. The cashier, who didn’t know how much I had to transfer, thought it was strange for someone like me to have in the region of two hundred thousand pounds in a bank account at my age, but she humoured me anyway. I essentially asked to borrow her Arctic lorry to transfer a quail’s egg at a favourable rate. Shockingly it didn’t happen. In that we learn two lessons: the importance of using services appropriate to the job, but also the importance of asking questions to the experts. Just as people consult me on things that I’m supposedly good at, such a bumbling around China, I like to think that the gurus in the know at places like Travelex have a pretty good idea of how to do it best. (Side Note- I bumble around fairly hopelessly: for the purposes of the point I claimed I was good at it!!! Sorry I lied.)

no commission

Perhaps the best way to do it, if you have the opportunity, is to get a local to help out and get the inside line. In fact, getting the best company on the internet is an easy option, but the thrifty transferrist (Editor: definitely not a word Simon.) may be able to get a better deal through a trusted local agent. Particularly if you are in a country where you aren’t speaking a native tongue, getting all the options as clearly as possible is essential in making a good choice.

The final thing to consider is service charges vs commission. Just because the service charge is high, doesn’t necessarily mean you spend more money, as the total cost may be balanced by a cheaper exchange rate. Similarly, and a common trick for these companies, sucker people in with a low or even 0% rate, only to give a poorer overall exchange rate. The best thing to do is work out a total cost and then go with the cheapest option, rather than hope that you are paying less! It is a little more work, but it can save a lot over time, especially if you transfer money regularly. Again, most of the major companies such as Western Union, Travelex and MoneyGram can set up direct debits easily enough, so they can make the job easier overall.

Well, a few bits and pieces on foreign money/ exchanging for you this week. I suppose next time I will return to my usual tomfoolery, but the people have spoken.

Have a great week!! Stay safe and don’t get ripped off on your holidays.

37. It’s all Chinese to me…

So…. Following the World Cup post from last week, it’s probably time to sink my teeth into a post which I have been dreading for a while: language. It perhaps seems weird for anyone that knows my background- a language degree- that I haven’t already said something. It may be because my Chinese is rubbish….


The Chinese language is fascinating. I say, THE, as if there is only one, but I am referring to the prevailing one Mandarin, spoken throughout China uniformly after the cultural revolution. The English name actually comes from the Chinese elders of the ‘Man’ people, the so-called ‘大人’ (da ren). Hence 满大人(Man-da-ren) or Mandarin. In fact, the language is often referred to as 汉语(Han yu) or the language of the Han people, which are the most prominent group within China today.

The truth is that I enjoy languages and consider myself fairly good at picking them up- it’s just nobody told the mandarin language of this fact, as I am struggling really quite badly. I’d describe my Chinese as a generous ‘passable’ even after nearly a year of battling with it. What does that mean? Well… I’m not dead and I have formed a limited bond with the fruit lady…. But then she looks at me like an alien when I speak Chinese so I’ve no idea how much I get across. Due to a gaff on my part, I’m pretty sure I told her that her daughter is ‘cheap’ opposed to ‘beautiful’, which is a bit awkward.


Chinese tones have been the bane of my linguistic experience and have helped to muddy an already confusing relationship with the aforementioned fruit lady. For those who are unaware, Chinese is very much a tonal language and they are essential for accurate communication. A little example at my expense? Very well…
The Chinese characters for ‘buy’ (买)and ‘sell’ (卖)are not only frustratingly close for a simpleton like me, but the pronunciation is also remarkably similar, separated by tone. So, imagine the poor lady’s surprise when I strolled up confidently telling her that I wanted to mài (sell) some fruit, and not mâi (buy) some fruit, as I believe is customary. I have a sneaky feeling that the Chinese stuck that one in there for a bit of a laugh at muppets like me.

I have managed to navigate my way around a little, however so it’s not all that bad!!

You may have noticed that I’ve got my finger out to write 3 posts this week, so it is a little short, but there will be more as ever next week!!

Have a great week everyone!

C’est du chinois….

Alors, comme je n’ai pas poster en French depuis…. quelques mois (désolé les fans) je vais recommencer en explorant la langue chinoise et mes carences sans arrêt! Il vous semble peut-être un peu bizarre, vu mes connections linguistiques personnelles- diplômé en langues appliquées- que je n’ai jamais parler de la langue. C’est à cause du fait qu’en chinois, je suis super nul!!


Je dis ‘la langue chinoise’ comme il n’en existe qu’une- bien sur je veux dire le plus prévalent, le mandarin, parlé partout la république populaire après la révolution culturelle en 1959. En fait, le nom donné à la langue en français, le Mandarin, vient des aînés (les 大人 da ren) de la dynastie ‘Man’. Donc, on l’appelle 满大人(Man-da-ren) ou le mandarin. En effet, la langue s’appelle souvent 汉语 (hanyu) ou la langue du peuple Han, le plus nombreux en Chine actuellement.

La vérité c’est que j’adore les langues et des fois je fais des semblants d’avoir une aptitude pour apprendre les nouvelles langues. En réalité, personne ne l’a mentionnée aux chinoises parce que chaque semaine c’est une véritable bataille pour moi contre mes livres pour faire sens de la confusion devant moi! Je décris le niveau de mon chinois comme ‘passable’, même après quasi une année entière des ces types de batailles. Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire exactement? Puis, je ne suis pas mort, et j’ai été capable de former un sort de communication limité avec la vendeuse locale de fruits…. En revanche elle me regarde à chaque fois comme si j’étais un extraterrestre, donc je sais pas à quel mesure je me fais compris. A cause d’une gaffe pour ma part, je suis sur que je lui dis que sa fille est ‘pas chère’ au lieu de ‘belle’. Enfin, on comprend bien pourquoi elle me croit anormal.


Les tonalités chinoises on été le fléau de mes expériences linguistiques et m’ont aidé à confondre une situation déjà précaire avec la vendeuse susmentionnée. Pour ceux qui ne savent pas, le chinois est essentiellement une langue tonale et elles sont impératives pour une communication précise. Un tout petit exemple à mon dépens? D’accord….
Non seulement les caractères chinois pour ‘acheter’ 买 et ‘vendre’ 卖 sont très proches pour un simple comme moi, sinon la prononciation est remarquablement similaire, différentié par tonalité. Puis, on peut imaginer le surpris de la pauvre fille, en apprenant que l’étrangère voulait mài (vendre) du fruits, et pas mâi (acheter) du fruits, comme la grande majorité habituellement. A mon avis, c’est une ruse pour avoir l’occasion de bien rire de connards comme moi! Bien joué.


Mais la verité c’est que je sais vivre en Chine, même avec mon chinois déplorable donc c’est pas si grave que tout ça.

Je sais que cette foie le blog est un peu court, mais je vous juste faire coucou pour savoir que je vais bien!!

Está en chino….

Bueno, como ya no he echado un post en español durante mucho tiempo, supongo que debería escribir ahora! Por alguien que esta interesado en los idiomas, me extraño mi mismo que no he hablado sobre la lengua china, el mandarín.

La lengua china es fascinante. Bueno, digo LA, como si fuese sola una, pero me refiero por supuesto al más predominante, ella que se habla por todas partes en china después de la revolución cultural en 1959. El nombre en español viene de los señores de la gente ‘Man’, los ‘大人’ (da ren). Entonces tenemos los 满大人 (man da ren) o el mandarín. De hecho, el idioma se refiere aquí se conoce por 汉语 (han yu) o la lengua de la gente Han, que es el grupo más numeroso en China hoy en día.


La verdad es que aunque a mi me gusta con pasión los idiomas, y me considero una persona que sabe adquirir nuevos con una cierta competencia, nadie les ha dicho a los chinos por han creado una lengua que estropea la cabeza!! Digo que mi mandarín pasa de manera cotidiana después de casi un año de estudio bastante relajado. Qué quiere decir? No estoy muerto de hambre, y he formado un vínculo con la mujer que me vende fruta… Pero me mire como si yo fuera un extraterrestre cuando hablo en chino entonces no sé en qué medida me entiende. Gracias a un error por mi parte le dije a ella que su hija era ‘barata’ en vez de ‘guapa’, así que ya enredemos muy bien porque me cree anormal!


Los tonos chinos me cuestan tanto en esta experiencia lingüística y es por su culpa que mi relación ya complicada con la vendedora de fruta mencionada se ha hecho más complicada. Por los que no saben, este idioma depende mucho de los tonos y son esenciales para una comunicación efectiva. Un ejemplito a mi costo os apetece? Muy bien… Los caracteres chinos que significan ‘comprar’ (买)y ‘vender’ (卖)no solamente se parecen, sino la pronunciación es extraordinariamente similar, diferenciada por los tonos. Pues, imagina la sorpresa de la pobre mujer cuando llegue a la tienda con confianza, explicándola que quería mài (venderla) manzanas, y no mâi (comprarme) manzanas, como es habitual me cuentan. En mi opinión es un chiste chino para reírse de los extranjeros. Genial, gracias chicos.

Aunque digo mucho sobre mis debilidades en chino, estoy vivo y en buena salud, entonces no es muy grave como lo parece!

Ya sé que el blog es bastante corto, pero os saludo para decirles que voy bien aquí!!

Hasta pronto todos!!

36. The World Cup

With the World Cup in Brazil upon us, it seems a good plan to tell you guys how it goes down in China… Cue a blog.

With no Chinese participation and a country no particularly known for footballing might, it may be safe to assume that the World Cup is passing by without much notice. Wrong! In fact, there seems to be two distinct groups of people, the completely apathetic and the fanatics. As the games are on at midnight and three and six in the morning, those who were watching the previous day’s games drag themselves around like zombies drinking Horlicks. It’s no help that as usual the kids like to run  around like Tigger on Red Bull just to grind in the pain.

England have done me no favours, either- their early exit has allowed for ridicule from the American contingent (who at the time of writing were very much still in the competition), as well as local restaurant owners heckling me down the street and laughing at me when I told them where I am from…. Brutal. Nevertheless, after drawing Honduras in the office sweep stake, this seemed only appropriate, topped off with my Chinese name on the back!! Xi Men sounds like Simon a bit (I suppose) and can translate as West Gate, but is a common Chinese surname and not a forename.

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The Chinese have got it sorted in terms of watching the games, though. They enjoy street BBQ and beer in copious amounts with big groups of friends crowded around TV screens, every bit what we imagine everyone to be doing at World Cup time.

School have got on board and organised a match between a staff XI and what they called a ‘professional team’- which turned out to be a local club side. After a couple of training sessions with a bit of a thrown-together side, we strolled out into the ground (which even had a stand!!) to face the well-drilled opposition. The standard of the game wasn’t the best and our side lacked real quality in several areas. To put this into context for those who know me- I was given the number 7 shirt and asked to play the Pirlo role- the playmaker of the side. For those who don’t know me, I have never play a full 90 minutes on pitch as I’m usually a goalkeeper and being asked to anchor the side is about as sensible as giving a 4-year-old the responsibility of cooking for 500 distinguished guests at a dinner party. Nevertheless, we took to our task manfully.


After being bombarded with shots and besieged around on our own 18-yard line for the first twenty minutes, the foreigners took a wholeheartedly undeserved lead through a piece of uncharted magic and brilliance. One of the central midfielders, who cleared the ball with a delightfully weighted through-ball down the line with an elegance and balance rarely seen on a football pitch. He then proceeded to head in the resulting corner to the delight of the assembled masses in the crowd. For those of you who haven’t clicked, yes it was me, and yes I am utterly ashamed of this entire paragraph. There is a video, which will almost certainly follow in due course. Until then, here’s a picture of me waving.

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Half time arrived with the foreigners trailling 2-1, due in part to a comedy own-goal by one the Americans, who I can only assume was attempting some sort of American football style safety. At half time, we were treated to a some excellent backroom staff treatment, with close friend Shina deciding that I needed a cold bottle of water in the back of my leg to help with….. well I don’t know really.


The rest of the game- fair to say- played out according to how it should, with the Chinese hosts controlling large parts and making us run ragged. Several bouts of cramp towards the end didn’t really help our cause, but all in all it was an excellent days football with some good links forged for the future, with even talks of a rematch. For those interested in the boring details, it ended up 7-4 in the end. Massacre.

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I hope you have enjoyed a little look into the World Cup here in China. I’m off to go and find some sleep from somewhere, as I had to get up to watch England’s thriller against Costa Rica last night and thus I’m tired and fairly depressed!

Have a great week everyone!

35. Foodie

One of the things that I like the most about China is the food, so it’s strange that I haven’t touched upon it much. Of course there is a world of difference to the restaurants that are stumbled into late on a Saturday night after the football, or slightly earlier before the X-factor. Let me explain.
There is such an abundance and variety of fresh local produce to choose from (despite issues with being able to store it hygienically), that Chinese cuisine can afford to be amazingly diverse. I’ll have a little look at a few- aside from the day-to-day delights.

The basis of all good Chinese cooking lays in a variety of complex spices and these 3 ingredients: soy sauce, Chinese cooking wine (料酒)and vinegar (醋). Unlike much of the food made in Southeast Asia, China prefers to take its time with lots of dishes, but still manages to churn out food at a heck of a rate. I’m going to look at a few of my favourites, I hope you like the look!

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The very best of Chinese cooking is the holy grail in my opinion- 锅包肉(Guobaorou). This lightly battered sweet and sour pork dish may not reach the hefty heights of haute cuisine, but it represents excellent 东北 cooking (northeast China). Fortunately, it is sticky enough to remain firmly within my body for many years to come- sorry arteries.


Nevertheless, each of the main ingredients above feature, and the recipe looks something like this….

Ingredients: (serve 2 – 3 people)

200g pork loin*, cut into thin slivers about 2mm think
1 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tsp Chinese cooking wine

1/2 cup potato starch or cornflour (cornstarch)
a little over 1/4 cup water

oil for frying about 1 – 1.5 cups

1 red chilli cut into long thin strips (about 1 tbsp)
2 – 3 spring onion (scallion) cut into long thin strips or long slices
1 (thumb size) piece of ginger shredded into very fine thin strips
5 tbsp Chinese red or black rice vinegar
2 – 3 tbsp sugar
2 tsp light soy sauce

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
a little fresh cooking oil or meat frying oil

extra spring onion and chilli for garnish

Fry off the marinated battered pork twice, whip up the sauce in a frying pan and stir in the meat. Eat. Simple!!

Next, we come to noodles, which are keenly debated in China- who has the best noodles. As I’m so woefully under qualified to debate this, I’ll concentrate on another speciality, originating from North Korea: cold noodles (冷面). This is fairly acquired taste because it is a bizarre texture and cold noodles seems somehow wrong, however it is incredible. Again using plenty of vinegar, the cold meaty broth is accompanied with vegetables and often a flavoured boiled egg to add substance. Not necessarily something which screams to you from the menu, but a good bet in the north!

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It’s impossible to write about Chinese cooking without mentioning Hotpot (火锅), which is so prominent in Chongqing, Sichuan province. The fact that folk songs and dances have been performed about this dish shows how important it is. A popular folk song tells how local men fought for the ladies’ affections by the strength of the Hotpot, with the spiciest and tastiest supposedly wooing the girl. The spicier the better with Hotpot and whilst that causes a few minor issues later in the day, to be able to eat authentically as they do in Sichuan is a feat. Once I went to a Sichuan-style restaurant in Changchun and I was asked on 3 separate occasions if I could handle the spice. Fast-forward with my eyes and nose streaming in equal proportions, I came to the decision that they know best.

wet hot pot

Coming in two forms- dry and wet- Hotpot can really be a little of what you fancy, meat and vegetables, all cooked in a spicy sauce. The dry Hotpot uses oil and is cooked quickly, whereas the wet Hotpot is usually cooked at the table to your own taste in flavoured and spiced water. To my knowledge it doesn’t exist in the UK, but I’ll certainly be looking out for it…

dry hot pot

肉夹馍 (roujiamo) is affectionately nicknamed the ‘Roger Moore’ due to anglicised similarities in pronunciation. No idea if James Bond has ever had one, but he jolly well should. Although they vary from place to place, the traditional ‘Roger Moore’ comes from 西安 (Xi’an) and is usually a spiced meat in a bun, similar to this one.
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The slowly-braised meat can be served with bean sprouts and is eaten as a snack or for breakfast with a peanut juice or milk- shaken not stirred of course

I hope you have enjoyed having a look at some of the specialities here in the North, as well as some classics from all around China.

I’ll leave you with a glimpse into a Hotpot session and a cheeky glance at the ‘Beijing Bikini’…. more to follow on that front!


Have a great week chaps!

34. Education, education, education

From Mr Blair’s election manifesto to Crashing a Bike’s humble page, the message rings out. However, I think he may have been better rolling out this policy in China, as it would have been a guaranteed winner.

Education, as I’m sure you can remember from previous articles Let kids be kids? and Growing Pains, is the absolute bedrock of a child’s upbringing, with much of the importance in terms of family function placed upon this. The well-known one-child policy in China used to be as tight as an donkey’s y-fronts, yet it has slowly been relaxed, with families that fall under certain qualifying criteria being allowed more children.

What does that have to do with the price of egg-fried rice? Well, the vast amount of the family’s income is poured into the child’s education, with priorities landing firmly with that and often not with something that is needed for the family as a whole. The overwhelming majority of my students are fortunate to come from very affluent backgrounds- some even buy me weekly gifts- but there are several who clearly scrape together the cash for extra lessons, something which is alien to us. At this age, studying in the west is a serious deal, with many reducing social lives to the bare minimum during this period.

In China, this starts very early, with school lessons being supplemented with music lessons and extra maths or physics lessons, all to the detriment of other aspects of their lives. Does it affect their abilities to think creatively, practice sport, build social skills and master the arts?

Yes, it absolutely does, after a year of teaching them I see little creativity, a sea of drones and even some who lack basic motor skills at the age of 16/17. [Editor’s note: Simon, give a slightly more diplomatic answer, lest you offend the censors or something].

I believe so, they are fairly inept with the most menial task and their lack of free time is telling as pressure builds up, surely they should tell their teacher to take a running jump?. [Editor’s note: You are a teacher, doughnut. Have another go].

I don’t know, but it must have an impact of sorts. [Editor’s note: Better, much better].


Come exam time, the heat is really cranked up. Want a few examples? OK. Mentally raise your hand when it gets too crazy for you. For the record this is the equivalent to ‘A-levels’ or the set of exams that you do before university.

-A good proportion of bars and nightclubs are closed around this time, to make sure everyone has a decent night’s sleep.

-Attendance in class drops because most parents think private tutors or home self-study is more productive.

The teacher can tell you to make some ‘improvements’ to your life if they think it will be beneficial to their students. This includes:

-breaking up with boyfriends/girlfriends

-forcing them to cut their hair

-taking their phone for the exam period.

A reminder, this is the teacher, not the parents.

-There is an ambulance assigned to each school during exams, for if any student passes out under stress.

-Every road has to closed off leading from the school to the hospital for the same reasons as above.

-The teenage suicide rate is disproportionately higher in China than in any other country at this time.

If you didn’t stop and wanted more, you are a monster.


The reason is fairly simple. University places are so fiercely contested that fractions of percentages are the difference between reading classics at the equivalent of Oxford or studying colouring at Sheffield Polytechnic. (That, by the way is a test to see if my older brother read the blog, after he studied Geography at Sheffield. This is not a cheap shot at anyone, a simple test).

The one-child policy

In the previous system, there was a fine, forced termination of the pregnancy or even jail time for those who didn’t tow the line.

One of the main criteria- aside from backhanders and ignoring the law of course- is that if each parent is an only child, they will be allowed another.


This is what is being said in and around China, but many western sources say that they haven’t been as relaxed as this, and the BBC claiming that it only has to be one of the parents, which defeats the point, as the vast majority would be anyway. The point is that the new law is:

a) unclear, and

b) ineffective, as the lack of clarity in China suggests that actually those who really wanted to get around it did, by hook or [most definitely] by crook.

Well, there you have it Ladies and Gents, if you are still struggling through exams then I feel very much sorry for you, and you should have a similar post written about you! If not, best of luck and ‘fighting’ as they say here: 加油!! (jia you!!).

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33. Pic in the wall

Last week I took a little time out with a particularly popular Chinese past time- photos. For me, photos are a great way of sharing memories and remembering the places and people most important to us. As many of you will know, I pretty much hate photos of myself and therefore there are usually very few of them- fortunately the scenery around me is often much better. Over the last year or so, I have been getting better, being less reluctant with people and even engaging in the era of the ‘selfie’- a cheeky snapshot of yourself in just about any situation. To put a spin on that, you may remember the spin-off ‘Maoie’ ‘Wallie’ and ‘Warrie’ from blogs on Beijing, the Great Wall and Xian respectively.

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After seeing these, it’s not a massive wonder why I don’t like the camera, and an even better insight into why the camera doesn’t like me!!

The Chinese, however, must have around a third of all of the photos of me in one form or another. Usually there are several requests in bus stations, outside schools and even as I’m eating dinner. The almost celebrity-style attraction to foreigners in this city is quite astonishing considering that there are many around, but naturally it is a step down from the fame that I generally receive in Europe. Travelling somewhere is a chore sometimes but if it is what the people want, I can take one for the team, be called ‘handsome’ and deal with it…

So, after all this complaining, it may come as a surprise  that I voluntarily went to a 3D art gallery where I was to be part of the set. A selection of incomplete scenes are laid out, requiring the visitors to become part of the fun-filled setting.

Despite the fact that most of the scenes are fairly mild to western tastes, the idea of having your head stuck in the toilet was far too wacky for the Chinese contingent, so I had to be the one to go. I went a little too far and ended up with my upper body around the u-bend, though.

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Places like this give a chance for what is generally a fairly conservative country and people to go wild and let loose. I hate to generalise a people like this, but please do bear with me! Chinese people’s sense of adventure and mischief is largely more immature that what westerners may think is edgy. For example, instead of playing a card game for money, gambling is replaced with some sort of forfeit. Typically, this would be slightly mean or even evil at home, like running round the garden in your underpants (or worse), but here it may be sing a song for 5 seconds. The sense of tame is read differently.

Similarly, at the exhibition, wild was pictures such as this, with several of my friends blushing and refusing to do it:

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Interestingly, some of the works were quite novel and tested the creativity of both artist and visitor alike. It is fair to say that the work with depth perception was cleverest and illusion was really the key for most of them. I took a while to sit with some French 19th Century Madames to discuss that very issue but they seemed a little flat.

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Most of the pieces were, naturally, surreal and were completely inspired by an impish sense of fun and the devious. I was left me dreaming of long-sought-after riches and even the complication of removing a friend from a particularly awkward situation. It often happens when you are least suspecting…

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I eventually had to call an end to proceedings in favour of the nearest hospital, when this happened….

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All in all, however, a pretty different view of the Changchun scene, with good company to boot.

But I still don’t like photos, for the record.



32. 3 Gorges

Hi everyone, sorry I have been a little busy lately, but here is the next installment of my trip with the parents!!

Halfway through the week I decided that my parents might like to partake in a relaxing mosey down the Yangtze River through the Three Gorges towards some dam that was built in the 1980s.
Taking a cruise down the river is very much available to all budgets, with varying timescales as well. The ‘tourist class’ option that we took was high end and, in truth, slightly above what we wanted… On the other hand, it seems that some of the low end options can be a bit grim. It certainly made me uncomfortable  for the trip being called ‘Sir’ by everyone! The balcony was lovely, though!

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Nevertheless, a 4 day cruise passing through the Gorges along with several other stop offs was on the cards.

Instead of ruining it with my tedious prose, I’ll hand over to the camera and interject when I feel the time is right.

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The White Emperor City holds a firm place in Chinese history, so the opportunity to pass up going there was too tempting. It sits on an island overlooking the gate to the first of the gorges, the Wu Gorge, and once provided a seat for Emperors of the Shu Dynasty. Our guide expertly helped to explain that the city was so-called because of a) who lived there and b) the colour of the walls. Personally, I tip her to go on and do big things.

The area is so beautiful that poets and writers came to visit and stay in the area, as well as being graced by politicians of the calibre of Mr Mao. In fact, one of China’s most beloved poets decided to live there for a year. His poetry can still be seen in inscriptions on the central Pagoda and the walls surrounding the palace.

Across from the White Emperor City begins the Wu Gorge, its secrets being increasingly carelessly guarded by the widening Kui Gate (Kway). Before the Three Gorges Dam project, the gate was a mere 8m wide, spanning to over 150 nowadays. It holds such importance that it has even gained a prestigious place on the 10 Yuan note, so my holiday snaps look something like this!

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The afternoon saw us sailing through the gorges, letting the scenery take over from the history teacher. At points, it’s possible to see coffins nestling on caves, dug out of the cliffs. It’s assumed that they were of rich noblemen or kings, due to the scale of the operation, and from the few that have been excavated so far, one contained a small fortune in coins and the other the bones of a teenage boy and what appeared to to a sacrificed female. In fact, some were given a double burial, the rather grisly result of which, a pile of bones, are proudly on display in the White Emperors City.

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Whilst the gorges are slowly being touristified to the limit, with the relocated farmers of yesteryear becoming folk singers and boat taxi drivers along the route, appearing to be as well off and compensated as the government likes to present. In fact, the theme of progress and flood protection/ prevention was a keenly pushed point and, whilst it is difficult to prove either way, it seems to hold water (excuse the pun…!). The lesser and mini three gorge are just as spectacular as their mammoth namesakes.

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Last up was the imposing 3 Gorges Dam project, which provides a mind-blowing  amount of electricity for the nation- most hydroelectric plants struggle to power the security guards pocket radio, so it’s really quite a feat. Each of the 5 locks descending the gorges take a cool 45 minutes per, and considering we entered the first at midnight, I can’t claim to have seen the full descent, but the engineering behind the project is a marvel. Having said that, I was slightly disappointed that the boat lift that is currently being constructed wasn’t finished, as that would have been amazing.

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Anyway, history lesson over. Absolutely spectacular and what I see as an absolute must for any visit to China… Have a great week everyone!

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31. The Terracotta Army

Hi guys,

These last few weeks I think you have been starved of crashingabike, but I have a heck of an excuse… My parents were in town, and I was getting on with some travelling. So, for the next little while, I’ll tell you about that, OK? If it’s not, now would be a good time to leave. A quick apology, however, and the news isn’t great for Apple, as they have all come off my iPad! Apologies to all.

One of our stops was in Xian, home of the Terracotta army. Little intro needed really.
After having been fortunate enough to see an exhibition of these sometime last year, I felt that I had some grasp on the situation as we entered into the imaginatively named Pit 1, home to the unearthed Eighth Wonder of the World. I wasn’t. By a long way. The scale of the place is simply astonishing.

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Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who achieved a unified China for the first time in its history in his short reign, set about a plan so barmy that it makes Despicable Me’s minions seem plausible. Reigning supreme over all China after destroying one by one the other nation states that lay in his path, Emperor Qin Shi Huang had a fear, which grew into an obsession- death. It is known that during his lifetime he always took huge a escort of men and carriages wherever he went, often sending several other duplicates so that no one knew exactly where he was at any time. In fact, as part of this personal bodyguard, it is said that only the most skilled soldiers were taken, the most skilled of which drove the carriage that bore him, in case of surprise ambush. His doctors prescribed him mercury, thought at the time to prolong life, seen as an eternal metal, which debilitated his health no end. From an early age, he planned his own path into the afterlife, with thoughts turning to what he needed. What followed is truly astonishing.

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Consideration into what he needed was thorough, which centre stage seemingly taken by his overriding obsessions- eternal power and protection of himself. Therefore, he would need an Army. The piece-by-piece hand-made warriors stare out across the empire in battle formation, poised to come to the defence of the emperor at a moment’s notice. The detail in each one attempts to tell of the unthinkable amount of labour involved, especially details such as each owning a unique face. Using mainly prisoners among the skilled craftsmen, the 700,000-strong labour force was split into groups, with quotas to fill each day. It isn’t possible to say how many perished during construction, but it has to be in the thousands, especially considering some of these facts:

-in order for no one to know the precise burial site, all of the people present at the burial were reportedly slain

-if quotas weren’t met, the whole work party was executed

-during the building of the tomb, if any worker refused to work or didn’t show up, not only was his family killed, but so were those assigned to his work group

-human remains have been found regularly during the excavation process, as well as bones of horses and other treasured animals to the emperor

A lesser-known fact about the warriors is that they were coloured and they were painted according to rank. Regrettably, the early phases of the excavation were ill prepared, owing to a lack of expectation to the size of the operation. By consequence, some were damaged and the pigments instantly came off on contact with the air. Future excavations have pledged to take more time and consideration into how they can preserve them as best they can, leading to an inevitable decrease in progress.

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What is perhaps most intriguing is what happens next. It is generally agreed that although work continued after the Emperors death, the full extent of his plans were never realised. What isn’t known, on the other hand, is exactly what did get finished. In surrounding tombs, accidentally found during trial excavations, dancers, acrobats, musicians servants and other hands have been found, along with a stable block. This is even before entering into the main tomb itself. Although it is unlikely to be completely comprehensive, no one can accurately predict what may be hidden beneath the man-made central mound and surrounding areas, which surely is immensely exciting for all involved.

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Most thoughts point to scripture found describing untold treasures and an underground kingdom laid out as a replica of the emperors own, with rivers and lakes of mercury. Scared of destroying some artefacts as well as showing respect for the burial site, the technology still is not available to begin an excavation, but early soil tests show a frightening mercury content. The romantic in me hopes that something truly magical is found.

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In good Chinese fashion, I decided to have a little bit of fun and take some more of my selfie ranges, as seen in previous blogs. This week, my ‘Terrie’, or ‘Warrie’. You choose!!

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Also, I got slightly carried away and bought one myself, slightly bigger than I wanted it to be. I heard a sneaky rumour before going that it is possible to get your own face on one, but unfortunately that never came to fruition. Nevertheless, coming to a home near me in England soon!

Next week, the Yangtze River and the magnificent 3 Gorges. Should be a belter….


Have a great week!

30. Bacon sushi

Hello everyone!

This week I got out there and tried some street food- that’s right, with a food safety record like China’s I still thought it was good and well to risk 3 days on the loo for a lighthearted paragraph or two… After a bag of warm-up crisps, we packed up a bag of just-in-case Imodium and hit food street.



Many of you may have heard of the Beijing food street, with all kinds of Chinese ‘delicacies’ available- in actual fact it appears to be exaggerated for the tourists, but impressive nonetheless. Changchun food street, by contrast is best summed up thus: imagine expecting the Eiffel Tower and actually getting Blackpool Tower. Nevertheless, we had a spare afternoon and a bunch of food to keep us entertained, so we set off.


I’d like to think that I’m fairly open to new food experiences, but there were some interesting combinations which were a little bit gut-wrenching. I hope the pictures do it some justice… There certainly were some fine ideas which need to be introduced into the western world in earnest, as the title suggests.

We started off with something that was really quite unexceptional in China: street barbecue, more precisely barbecued beef. As abundant as budding writers in Starbucks, street barbecue in China blends a delightful mix of taste, value for money and a Russian roulette-type risk element at toilet time.



For 5 RMB, this provided an excellent and fairly secure start to the afternoon for the stomach, as well as a handy walking stick, as the one that came with the kebab was about the size of a tree trunk.


With confidence high, we set off to a few more of the stalls along road, each of which are constantly busy during all hours of the day. In fact, they still remain busy during the winter, although they have to put up a protective plastic sheet to save them from cold.


The next stop was a gelatin spicy soup (I’m not making it up), which looked a little like this:


I’m told that this gelatin can be mixed with all manner of things- chili, strawberry, peanut sauce and I imagine carrot and coriander if that’s your bag. It’s surprising, then, that something so versatile can be so ruddy awful. It was a bit like eating jelly made by people with no sense of texture- the soup was reasonable but between the group of us we couldn’t finish a fairly modest bowl, so it gives an idea as to what popular opinion was.

So, we have seen the good and the bad- now to the downright ridiculous. I’ve seen some crazy things since being in China, but few as unashamedly mental as this menu, from the accurately named Crazy Fries (yes, they are the sauces available):


Depressingly, they were out of the ‘yogurt fruits mayonnaise’ which was a huge shame, and put a damper on the whole afternoon, as that is clearly something every sane person would HAVE to try.


Some of the more questionable items were the BBQ-ed squid, which on paper was absolutely fine, but the smells of food street managed to turn the stomach- considering the open sewers etc so much that it managed to be pretty unappealing! Also on the list were pigs trotters, duck’s head, an octopus something (particularly nasty) and some tomato sauce-drenched pasta-like cylinders, which resembled a tomatoey Chinese answer to mac and cheese.


The highlight of all things unpleasant, just to top things off, was a local favourite in summer, also popular in most parts of China- stinky tofu. For those wondering if I’m showing unfavourable bias, the literal translation is stinky, and it is so-called because of its impressive range- it’s possible to get a whiff from at least 100m away, only exacerbated by a stiff spring breeze. That said it was pretty decent, despite the fact that, on the face of it, it is as obviously non-aesthetically pleasing as a made-up badger who has run out of deodorant and dental floss.



Haute cuisine is not something that is particularly associated with street food, nor the hors d’oeuvres that greeted us around the corner, which were perhaps even the piece de la resistance of our outing. The huitres brought a gourmet element to proceedings and provided a welcome change to the other filling platters. I’d like to say more, but the only ingredient seemed to be a shellful of je ne sais quoi, so let’s look at the garlicky pictures instead.



Francophilia left well behind us, we galloped into the realms of fusion cuisine, and the Chinese have got it bang on. They have clearly decided that Denmark’s and Japan’s kitchens haven’t been merged anything like enough, and are willing to do something about it, gaining my undying respect in the process. It’s bacon, and sushi. Bacon. Sushi. Bacon- delicious. Sushi- inspired. Delicious inspiration. It needs some tweaking- I’m fairly sure that it was cooked in a microwave, and they served it hotter than a pool of lava with a fever, but essentially they have nailed it. You can also see how much it blew my mind…

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I’m off with the parents next week, so you won’t be hearing too much for a week or so, but have a great week everyone, and plug Bacon Sushi to everyone you know. It’s the future. Really.

29. Gone to the dogs

Happy Wednesday everyone!


This week I’ve been taking advantage of the fine weather that we have been having, by taking the opportunity to take part in a photo walk around the city. We decided to take the city’s tram, stopping off along the way at a moment’s notice to take some snaps. Some of the photos were of high cultural importance, such as this:


However on a serious note it gave a great opportunity to observe an average market day in the city. To give fair warning, there is a shocking picture at the end, which certainly turned my stomach. So, if you are in any way squeamish I suggest you stop reading when I give the signal!

Anyway, the market itself was a maze of stalls selling all types of goods, some fresh as they could be, some with processed products or cooked goodies such as pastries.  It is interesting that such a large amount of fresh produce can be transported across China so efficiently, considering that for at least 6 months of each year in this part of the country a harvest is impossible, whereas in the south there can be two or three a year. Whilst most vegetables and fruit are abundant enough to keep down to a reasonable price, some products are difficult to get hold of, such as limes. In fact, a friend of mine bought some for me on a Chinese website not dissimilar to eBay/Amazon, which is an altogether more interesting way of shopping. Around this time of the year the south of China has just had the first harvest of the year, so the prices of fruit, veg and nuts have plummeted- no excuses for not getting your 5-a-day!

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The majority of things are done on a weight basis and, as you can see above, even the highest quality products are priced at teeny tiny prices. Furthermore, it’s possible to get a wide range of spices to help form the base of many of China’s dishes, such as the lip-burning Hotpot.

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One thing which doesn’t necessarily appeal to everyone is the meat and fish on display. I generally steer clear from buying fish here, just because of the way that they are preserved/ stored pre-sale. It is not uncommon to see a tank of fish with either far too little water to be able to sustain the fish, leading to their death before their ‘time’, or the water in unbelievably dirty. Indeed, true to form, the fish at the market ticked both of these boxes, except for the fact that some had been part-butchered as well.


The meat was, as usual, left out in the sun which is either appalling hygiene or the beginning of the longest slow-cooked steak of all time. Whichever it was, I left the meat well alone. Next to one stall was a meat associated with this part of the world… doggie. After having this conversation with many people during my time here, opinion is generally divided over the ethics of eating dog, considering that dogs are as popular as a pet here as it is in the West. When raising this point, you are often shot down quickly by people eager to correct you by saying “Well, we only eat a certain type of dog”- the mangy horrible ones, which appears to pose no problems to a lot of people. Nevertheless, this poor beast laid slain on the table in front of me, and was quite a sight in reality… As I said earlier, I will put it right at the bottom and I will leave it to you to decide whether to see it. Fair warning, the head is there,too. Interestingly, some of the market stallholders we reluctant to photograph the dogs and even if we were, they refused a personal photograph. Generally, people were happy enough to let us photograph them, so there certainly still seems to be a taboo about eating dog, even in a country which on the face of it accepts it as normal.


Overall, a thoroughly entertaining day with all of the sights and sounds of the market, so to finish there’s a selection of photos of the people we saw and met, including a lady who decided that our company was particularly boring…

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Here’s the dog…




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Have a great week everyone!!

28. Beijing and beyond!

So this week I’m again in the capital to see what it has to offer…


The first thing to point out is that none of the lies about the pollution and population density/ overcrowding dreamt up by West didn’t appear to be true at all- as you may be able to see in the photos! It was really quite shocking as usually it lingers up near 200 or above on the AQI, as you may be able to remember from Breathing is overrated.  In fact, we almost apologetically stumbled over the Forbidden City, such was our ease on approaching it. Of course, it is nothing like this in the high season, but we were treated to a relaxed stroll around, opposed to a bustled, dirty sweat-fest which is sometimes the case.


A theme of the trip was how easily we were let through bag checks and just generally how much easier access was for the foreigners. We were hurried through security checks as if they were personally offended us by having a cheeky peek at my sandwiches and flask before OKing me and many people were turned away from places where we simply strolled through. A good example of this is taking- by accident I hasten to add- the entrance door into the forbidden city which passes right under Mr Mao instead of one across to the side.


We went there tee hee hee.


Did anyone stop us? Nope. We decided to be slightly cheeky and test out our new superpower. We noticed that in Tiananmen Square, just before dusk, some Chinese people were turned away in front of our eyes as it was closing to the public, however we decided that an evening stroll was just what we wanted, so we did it anyway. Did anyone stop us? Nope. It seems that there is some sort of hangover from the Beijing Olympics, when China was so eager to impress that foreigners were given essentially a free pass. Not that we minded, of course, but it smacks of double standards, so best advice is to make it particularly obvious that you are not Chinese (we found and inability to speak Chinese and white skin useful clues) and you make yourself slightly untouchable.


In fact, we took it a final stage further into the realms of another ‘selfie’ session, and I think that I may have just stumbled on an excellent traveler game. I haven’t yet thought of a name but it may be something like ex-totalitarian-photo-shoot-game. Effectively you find a picture of an ex-dictator in a famous place and then ‘selfie’ yourself, publishing it under a snappy name. I went with Maoie, and this is what it looks like:



I’m sure Mao would have appreciated that no end. But the fun doesn’t stop there. If you, too, would like to have a go, send me the picture and I’ll not only publish it on the blog, but I’ll also mentally send you a sticker. Your choice of colour! Lovely.


After all these fun and games, we got on to the serious business of touristing around perhaps the (2nd) most iconic landmark in China- the Forbidden City.



At around 80RMB plus audio guide, it is a steal. Beside the stories of Emperors and concubines, spiritual solace and daring coups, the beautifully preserved/ restored architecture make it formidable experience for all. Learning tales such as when the palace was attacked during the Ming Dynasty, to the point where the gold on the gilded fire cauldrons was scratched off leave an effortlessly enchanting feel to the whole place.


Incidentally, these cauldrons were actually to help put out fires, being filled to the brim with water, which begs the question of how the nelly they managed to act quickly to douse the fire, being as they are so heavy. Sense reasons that they obvious stayed put, instead being used as sources, but this just seems elaborately inefficient to me.


Behind the palace is a view to bring out all o the cliches… I’ll go with breathtaking on this occasion, particularly as we were blessed with the weather being as clear and sunny as it was. In fact, I actually broke out a t-shirt on top of the hill. Stretching across the entire city and beyond, just sitting there was enough.


Another pleasant aspect to the park was tranquility, even though we were in the centre of one of the urban districts in the world. We saw birds signing, which is something that is somewhat rare in the concrete jungle of Changchun. Even the toilets were encouraging when you got things right!!




From tea houses to landmarks of global importance, there is barely a finer experience for than meandering through the Hutong districts just outside of the centre, watching life unfold. For the more adventurous, you could try to delve into some of the narrow alleys and communal areas in housing complexes to get a better look, but just as good is spending a few moments watching a feisty game of Mahjong or photographing a group of elderly ladies sip tea to keep warm whilst chattering the afternoon away.SAM_1076

The Yonghe ‘lama’ temple, may not offer the the biggest but reputably the best example of a Buddhist temple in China, with thousands of Buddhists streaming through the doors everyday. I was not able to get a picture of  the 25m-high wood-carved Buddha in one of the main temples, but it was quite the sight. Also, it was carved from one solid piece, which is staggering and simply a triumph of craftsmanship. It was interesting to note that by far the vast majority of people there were young-ish and although each ages group was ably represented, I got the feeling that Buddhism is alive and kicking looking towards the future. Furthermore, there is no awkward feeling of stepping on someone’s toes…..


I think I have sufficiently bored you for a week! So join me next week for street markets and a very China-ish picture… Let’s see what happens! have a great week!

27. The Great Wall

Hi everyone,


After last week’s blog which probably should have gone went viral after seeing me dance in such a fine way, I come to talking about a much more mundane subject of The Great Wall of China this week. Ok, fair enough, it is an unimportant landmark in the grand scheme of things, but it may be worth a listen anyway!

Also this week, how I became a man in China….


After spending a few days in  Beijing, we decided to leave the comfortable capital for a much more convenient climate of the side of a mountain to take on what would be the first of the seven great wonders for me… other than why toilets in Australia flush backwards:  The Great Wall. Considering that there are several visitor options, I think that I chose the correct one for us, but we will see why further below.

Over 6000km long, the Great Wall provided a line of defense for the state against oncoming armies from across the whole of Asia and what is now known as modern China. Have little look around  Mutianyu from one vantage point- the highest point that we reached, but also from where the defending army was housed….

Looking further to the East (left), you may be able to see the remains of the cut off sections of the wall (at least to the public), which I decided was an excellent position to film from. crashingabike risks everything to get the best shots… As the camera focuses upon the main building- the main guard house for this section of the wall and a key place to position troops to make sure that each side of the mountain was covered at any given time. Interestingly, this was particularly cold for the time of year, and you can only wonder what temperatures it reached during the depth of winter.

The location of the wall seems ideally  placed, as the invaders would have not only needed the ability to scale the surrounding mountains, but also the wall itself, which averaged a good 10m in height at all times, if not higher. It is bewildering how any army managed to mount any sort of serious attack, let alone completed it.

In fact, I was particularly surprised at how steep the wall was in many places- if I found it a test to walk up the impossibly steep and misaligned steps the  surely the attacking force would have given up after having a go on the actual defenses… no?

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It’s bizarre, because most people assume that the wall is either flat, or easy to walk upon. Whilst it is true that many sections are restored, and therefore less authentic, the general feeling it that wall was complicated to defend, with a virtually infinite supply route needed in order to continue it and a difficult communication system to the other guard houses.


Nevertheless, the wall is a marvel of engineering, and I can only imagine how it was completed in such an impenetrable way, with such effectiveness.

The scenery around us was magnificent, too, and I’d like to fill the rest of the blog with it… enjoy!!




Finally, on the lighter side of things, I managed to take a picture which seems to encapsulate the current trends in the west… I introduce the Selfie and great wall of China, a WALLIE.




And for all that are wondering why I became a man this week….

There is a Chinese saying that you are not a man until you have seen the Great Wall.

Although I have no idea if this is factually true, I entirely urge everyone with the opportunity to see this wonder, to do so. It’s incredible. Perhaps they even saw us from space….

Have a good week. Take care all!!



ps, next week I have another in my unique ‘selfie’ range, also based in Beijing… comment below for what it may be!!!

26. Conferencing, Chinese-style!

Hi all!

For those of you who may have been expecting a bit on my trip to Beijing last week, as suggested in the last post, you may be disappointed. However, I have received a very interesting piece of news this week that will hopefully entertain you just as much and thoroughly embarrass me at the same time- the DVD from our company’s Annual Party in Harbin has arrived.

Before visiting the Ice festival in Harbin, our school treated us to a night in a plush hotel in Harbin for the annual conference and party. Whilst the conference was as interesting as counting matchsticks, the party afterwards threw up some interesting insights into how the Chinese like to (semi-formally) party.


(Me and a teaching assistant.)

I even had time to pretend to be a boxer…


The night was pre-planned for months, with many people billing it as one of the highlights of the year. A time where everyone can dress up, let their hair down and relax for a night, among other cliches. True to form, everyone was dressed to impress, including the catwalk-style entry at the beginning of the evening. In truth, this was a night of serious entertainment, in all senses of the phrase. The whole event was done properly and thoroughly, which was marvellous. True to Chinese hosting, the food was lavish, the wine flowed and everyone was having a great time.


But there’s a twist. Why, you say? Well, it turns out that aside from congratulatory speeches and prize givings to the best and brightest lights in the school, we were all to perform some sort of showpiece for the entertainment of the rest. Here’s an example of the variety of the performances, as some chose more traditional pieces.


This year, it was decided that the foreign teachers would perform an acapella mash-up selection, themed vaguely around ‘doo wop’, culminating in the Lion King. There is a video, but just from the description I imagine you can have a pretty solid guess as to how it went, so alas I’m not going to post it here! Fair to say, the less said…

Fear not, however, there is a video of something altogether more embarrassing. One afternoon in mid-December, one of the Chinese staff came into the office looking for volunteers to help them with their performance. It transpired that it would be some sort of latin dance, perhaps a Cha Cha Cha, put to modern music. OK, we thought, and did what all good friends would do and signed up the rest of the males who weren’t in the room at the time… Not counting on the fact that they had already done the same to us that very morning. Of course, knowing that I have the coordination and composure of an ice-skating giraffe who has just had his tail set on fire, I swiftly declined, which seemed to upset the girls quite a lot, for reasons which become apparent later. Nevertheless, my mind was made up. I was not going to make a fool out of myself by dancing. End of.

Anyway, skip forward to the first lesson and the gravity of the situation hit home. The instructor strolled in; for we were to have lessons for what we assumed would be a 2 minute lumber around the dance floor. This was swiftly followed by the news that we were to think carefully about the costume that we were going to wear, which felt like being hit with a cricket bat. We recovered quickly to turn it into excuse to get another suit. Excellent thinking, Batman.

However a minor case of lost in translation hit the group, as when the shirts arrived, they looked like this….


Zoom on a few weeks and after a few sessions with the teacher and a dress rehearsal (??), we stepped on the stage ready to take on the audience. A few excuses side notes to get out of the way first. I apologise about the quality of the video, although production costs were really quite high, this hasn’t necessarily translated over via my laptop onto YouTube 😦 .

Also, it is worth bearing in mind that I was terrified of doing this and although this is obvious when you watch the video, please bear in mind that I was actually smiling throughout and it is definitely your eyesight failing you if you think I, or any of us for that matter, are stony-faced.

Finally, if some of the steps are slightly out in places, this may be the copious amounts of Dutch-courage medicine taken just before we went on affecting our judgement quite badly. Although it is mainly our fault, the Chinese also had a few tricks. As part of the celebrations, it is customary for everyone to make a speech on the table and then for it to be toasted. This can often go several times around the table, effectively until it’s decided that there is nothing else to say. Whatever the weather, several glasses of adult grape juice are drank, so it did slightly have an effect.

In front of a packed house we prepared to show them the fruits of our labours and this is the result. Enjoy.

Well, that’s how I’ve been getting down in China recently, congrats to all those who spotted my wardrobe malfunction halfway through… very pro of me.


Have a great week! Next week I’m writing about a wall! Should be intense.

25. KTV

Happy Tuesday to all,

This week I’m going to have a look at a piece of popular culture which I’ve been looking forward to for a while. I say that, because I have been to KTV a few times, even mentioned it here, without actually writing about it in any detail.

I’d like to make a sweeping statement about those of you who are wondering what KTV is- you haven’t been to Asia. Was I right? No. Ok, I’ll never do it again. KTV is an Asia-wide karaoke chain which is as popular here to some people as the local pub or a curry night. Whilst the thought of karaoke to many western people sits as well with them as having a lemon lunch, the Chinese go wild for it.

A notable difference between karaoke night in the UK in a dingy pub and the KTVs is best summed up in a photo…..

ktv room

Groups of friends go to a KTV to rent a private room for a period of time, usually hour slots, to sing a wide range of pop and golden oldies. As you can see, it is a very comfy environment which has staff attending each room serving a range of drinks and snacks- including a fruit boat, as seen in The Hangover Part IV. With different microphones for everyone, there is unfortunately very little getting away from the fact that you will be singing at some point.

In fact, I’ve found that many Chinese people take the opportunity to impress the westerner with their English skills, instead of the thousands of Chinese songs available. It’s certainly true that the selection of songs differ from place to place, meaning that choosing a place with sufficient English songs is sometimes difficult.


Surprisingly, for me at least, the awkwardness of singing in front of a group of people disappears completely and there is not even any need for some dutch courage. Some are even completely obsessed about it, with some school children sneaking in for an hour or so before school! Being open for 24 hours, it is naturally popular with University students, as their dorms tend to have a curfew; the cost during the early hours drops dramatically, so they prefer to take the financial hit of having to pay a few more hours in the KTV than having their evening cut short.

There is a bit of cynicism surrounding the KTVs as well, as it is ‘well-known’ that there are certain other services available from the service staff, should you desire that. I say ‘well known’ as I have never seen nor heard anything about that, nevertheless I am assured that it happens.

When next possible, I will try and take a video of a KTV session and perhaps see if it can make its way onto the blog when possible!!


As for me, I’m off to Beijing this week to clamber on some wall they have there. Apparently it’s quite good.

I’ll be the judge of that.


Have a great week everyone!

11. The Hangover IV.

Crashing A Bike In China

I’ve been frequenting a few bars over the time that I’ve been here. I’d like to confirm that obviously I only did so to really get a flavour for you fine people. I naturally had to sample a few of the local beers, cocktails, shots, chasers, the odd wine, a bit of Baijui… A few bits and pieces to really just to make sure all bases are covered- the basics. Quite keenly, as you can see from the photo above, Canon have invented a new camera setting, which is taken through the lenses of the photographer’s eyes… Neat stuff, eh? You can see this now, as authentically as I did!! As I’m sure you may have guessed, things are not as they perhaps are in some other bars I have seen around.
Firstly, the Chinese buy their beers by the… dozen doesn’t seem right, nor bucketload. It slightly difficult to…

View original post 588 more words

24. Harbin International Snow and Ice Festival

Happy Wednesday everybody…

I know  I sometimes (from time to time) complain about Changchun’s winter, but recently it came good in the form of the world’s biggest Ice and Snow festival. Harbin has the dubious honour of being China’s coldest city and is heavily influenced by close neighbour Russia, as seen in much of the architecture and local cuisine, which drifts slightly away from the Chinese norm. In a city where winter temperatures regularly dip to temperatures in which even freezers reach for a scarf and gloves, it seems entirely appropriate to stumble across a park displaying some awe-inspiring works from some of the most celebrated ice sculptors.


Sponsored by some of the most prominent global brands, banks and wealthy individuals, the festival really does have the purse to be as extravagant as it pleases, with one local beer company commissioning a 200m beer bottle as part of their investment. (Note to Budweiser on that actually, Harbin Beer is promoting itself as the Official Sponsor of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, which just doesn’t seem legit….). 


 Nevertheless, this isn’t a bad example of how the festival doesn’t take itself too seriously, offering more quirky pieces alongside the main attractions. Included among these are several slides for children (and big children 😉 ) as well as ice-based games and activities to make it day out for all the ages. There was also outdoor Laser Quest available, but being as my mind cannot compute this, I’m not going to pretend to be able to explain further.



Castles and bridges surround the main exhibitions, meaning that each was linked in a very friendly way too!

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Many of the main exhibitions were of classical Chinese buildings, depictions of famous works or scenes based from the lunar calendar, but there was plenty of room for more internationally recognised works, such as a scale model of the Colosseum.



Each of these has an underwhelming information panel, however there is a guided tour option which offers a more comprehensive run down. Delightfully there are also horse and carriages to whisk couples around the park- no doubt wonderful at sunset.


Also, competitions are held between global artists, including an entry from Jamaica, which was a bit confusing…. The rules are each contestant is given a block of ice and may not use more than that, but may use as little as they want. The intricacy of each design is incredible, which gives me a chance to display how average my camera is, and even more so how poor my camera skills are!

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The only regrettable part of the day is the time that we went. Despite the fact that it was far quieter during the day, as you can see in the pictures, but they evening is when the park bursts into life. The lights add a spectacular end to each day- in fact, the sculptures are carved around the florescent lights which allows them to really show off. Unfortunately, we were leaving just as the lights came on, so we didn’t really experience the full effect, but it did leave a impressive back-drop as we left to go home.


All in all, great fun and an excellent use of terrible weather conditions!! Well done China!

Have a great week everybody!

23. Thailand

Good Wednesday everyone!

This week I’m going to tell you a bit about our week away in Thailand, some well earned R and R. Be prepared for some jealousy-inducing pictures and carefully-worded innuendo, there to mask certain elements of Thailand’s culture…. you know what I mean.

Leaving Changchun chilled to the bones we arrived to an entirely agreeable 25 degrees in Bangkok- at 1 in the morning. After hearing stories of heightening tensions amid the Thai elections due later in the week, we decided to head directly south to our first bar of call- Pattaya. Pattaya, for those who would like a European frame of reference, is comparable to Benidorm in Spain, with a similar ex-pat-local ratio and a bar scene to rival it. Upon arrival, we decided to venture out to sample some of the delights that the place had to offer. The local economy is based upon the nightlife, which is sensible because it does a roaring trade, but I fear they have become too successful because most people serve drinks in buckets instead of glasses.


I can only assume that they have ran out of appropriate vessels. The bar scene does all it can to draw in customers and this is backed up by entertainment such as drag queen shows (!!!) and what I think were nightly table tennis tournaments in some places (note: this may have been something else). The cunning Thai people have also tapped into the local bee population, too, and promote their products through the medium of t-shirt slogans, offering down right obvious advice, along the main strip.

no money no honey

Anyhow, Pattaya (and particularly the notorious Walking Street) offers a full range of debaucherous activity, which wasn’t any of our group’s cup of tea- so we moved on.

With the ‘attractions’ of Pattaya firmly behind us, we concentrated on the real draws of Thailand and promptly sank ourselves neck-deep into all the beauties the this enticing country has to offer. We went to Koh Chang ‘Elephant Island’ so called because of the supposed shape of the island, and not because the animal is native to the island. In fact, there are some, but serve purely as a tourist attraction. However what it did have, in abundance is what most think of when we think of Thailand- the beaches, the endless menus of delicious food and all the outdoor sports and accompanying scenery to boot.


We were there on a full relax diet of sun, sea and sport, my good self rarely being spotted without a mango juice in hand. Lovely stuff. Aside from the usual beach pursuits we embarked upon an epic 7-hour kayak expedition to explore the south tip of the Koh Chang. Paying little more than a pound apiece, we left in high spirits to begin the adventure. Unfortunately, we didn’t take the tide into account, meaning that we spent the first 3 exhausting hours reaching our destination, before collapsing into a heap for a couple of hours before deciding to return. The southern part of the island offers some mind blowing sights and sounds, but my buffoon of a friend decided to test my cameras ability to swim and retain salt water, so it was out of action for the afternoon. Luckily, a full 48 hour surgery (or bowl of rice) saved the camera and therefore the rest of the pictures, but it was touch and go for  a while.

I do, on the other hand, have some pictures of our snorkeling trip, so that will have to do!


The food is something to behold, and the freshness of ingredients add a whole new dimension so we decided to go on a cooking course to get a flavour of how..

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The emphasis in Thai cooking is in the preparation of quality ingredients and this can radically change the end result. In fact, many Thai dishes spent no more than a few minutes cooking but need several hours of preparation. The dish above is my favourite, called Tom Yum (and I can confirm that it is Yum for a reason!). The hearty soup is a perfect combination of spices, herbs, veggies and meat, couple with a thin slice of what I claim to be heaven. I absolutely urge you to have a go if you are so taken, but beware the ingredients are sometimes a devil to find outside of Thailand…


Aside from the real food, I had the chance to sample some scorpion, which I have the proof of below…


My best advice. Don’t. For me, being deep-fried didn’t help mask the taste of it’s chewy innards and my face resembled a wasp-chewing pitbull during several parts of consumption.

After being in a cold climate for so long, we indulged a little too heavily in the sun and surroundings, losing time and sun cream effectiveness, allowing one of us to make a pretty sublime impression of an embarrassed tomato…. Guess who?


They say all good things must come to an end, and was lamentably true for my Thailand experience…. The gentleness of the people and natural and cooked wonders of the country rival a lot of what I have seen.


So with that in mind, as the sun set of the holiday, it left me with just a few more reasons to travel again! Sorry Mum and Dad!!


Have a great week everyone. Stay safe!!

22. 春节快乐

Hi chaps,

I’ve been a little lazy with the blog again, but fear not, I’m back from holiday and a lunar year more experienced for it!!
For, of course, it was Chinese New Year last week with the two-week long Spring Festival to boot. The festival sees working China virtually grind to a standstill for two weeks, including schools, banks and even most restaurants, for the population to disappear to their home towns to spend some quality time with friends and family.

hong bao

From the stories I hear this mainly includes endless streams of extended family, copious amounts of grandma’s best from the kitchen and hours and hours of mahjong. All sounds pretty familiar, I’d say… Excluding the apparent willingness to win lots of money off their own family members. Chinese tradition dictates that loved ones, particularly children, receive a ‘hong bao’, a small red envelope stuffed with money, signifying good luck and prosperity for the coming year. One of my elder teenagers gambled his entire hong bao playing mahjong, losing the vast majority to his father. Lovely.


Other favourites include gathering around to watch the Spring Festival Gala, a televised procession of the great and good, interspersed with traditional song and dance. Although the popularity of this is waning, some interesting moments cropped up, most notably from Li Na, the star of Chinese tennis and recently crowned Australian Open champion, who caused a stir by refusing to appear to collect a reward from the government for her services to China.

So what about the dragon…?
Legend has it that in ancient times a huge monster called Nian came to terrify the local people, each year on certain days in the lunar calendar. The people were so afraid that they stated indoors, cowering from the beast, which came to destroy their lives. As in any good Chinese folk stories, a wise man appears to save the day. By working together as a community, he persuaded the people that rid themselves of Nian by banging gongs and drums, setting off fireworks and being a general nuisance.  Nian came again, but the people had prepared, their plan going off without a hitch… Nian was forced to flee, running himself to exhaustion allowing the people to overcome and slay the monster.

The anniversary of this is still celebrated today, with fireworks going off at all hours of the day, so if the monster was anything like me, I can see why it drove him to ruin!

What was I doing, you may ask, during all of this mayhem? Well, I decided to avoid the chaos of the mad dash for home (trains being booked up for weeks before), the sleepless firework-filled nights and the ghost town that was left behind. I spread my wings for Thailand. More on that next week!!

For now 春节快乐 to everybody from China, and have a great week!

21. Visiting Shenyang

Last week my heart soared several feet as the train headed through the Chinese countryside because the revolving temperature reading was nearing zero. It finally settled at a disappointing minus one as the train slowed into the station, but nonetheless I was excited. The prime destination was Shenyang’s Winter Palace, home to the Emperor Puyi (from The Last Emperor of China, I may remind you). I have a feeling that if this was his idea of escaping the harsh winter, I wouldn’t enjoy his company too much.


In the midst of Northern China’s largest city, the palace rises out of the ground, sticking out like a sore thumb among Shenyang’s modern high-rise skyline. The Winter Palace is a curious mix of out-buildings, temples and the emperor’s quarters themselves, which all need a lick of paint really. Shame. The bizarre thing is  that it is partially restored and maintained in places and left to ruin in others.

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Tradition dictated that the queen should walk on one side along with her courtiers and the emperor would enter on the other, surrounded by his entourage. This continues right until the entrance of the palace- stepping the wrong side would just be silly. This strict separation is mirrored in the private quarters, but the emperor would have a crafty solution to that one…


The reception palace seen above would receive all official guests, the emperor being blessed throughout by the decorated thrones of dragons, symbolising longevity.

The exquisitely decorated banquet hall was slightly bemusing in that it would only just be big enough for me and all my teddies at my annual tea party, however the details were stunning. Interestingly it was the Grand Hall is the oldest of the buildings in the Imperial Palace, but all of the main features were largely unblemished, except for the paintwork. The octagonal shape serves to represent each of the Eight Banners in the the Manchurian State- a unifying theme which is common in and around lots of Chinese official buildings: a nod towards the delicate solutions to a the nation’s fractious history.


All jokes aside RE the paintwork, any restoration work is tasteful and remains appropriately understated for the settings. The remaining artefacts are well maintained and presented, but lots of the former wealth and glory was stripped by the Japanese during the invasion. This, regretfully is a common theme in many palaces and temples in the north of China. Fortunately, these all give an insight into the daily lives of the palace staff and the royal family itself.


As the inventors of the first ticking clock in China- due to the fact that they wanted to spend equal time with their queen and concubines alike. On display were some examples of oriental and western clockery- with with hilarious consequences. China wouldn’t be the same without have the odd translation gaff here or there, but this is up there!

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The concubines quarters are separate, but conveniently close to the emperor’s- each concubines being ‘on call’ so to speak at any given moment. They all dined together and would be ordered according to the emperor’s whims and current preferences. These comfortable quarters were a place of immense potential for the courtiers, even providing heirs and holding great influence over the ruling elite.

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Moving through the UNESCO site we notice a something which typifies attitudes towards disability in China. Many buildings, despite being several floors high in the majority of cases, are not wheelchair accessible and this picture shows how even the Imperial Palace reaches the bare minimum for accessibility:


So close, yet so very very far… It remains a comparatively minor blemish (apologies if that sounds in any way insensitive), in one of the most interesting historical sites in Northern China.

All in all an excellent day out in Shenyang, wetting the appetite for some more travelling very soon!

20. Birthday suit…

Hi everybody,

I hope things are all well with all and you are on as finer form as I am. After a hectic festive period I am back with some exploits from China for the New Year.

Unfortunately, to what I’m sure will be an audible groan from the grand majority, the title this week is slightly misleading. I will, however, be speaking a little bit about my experience getting a suit for my birthday- which is frankly more exciting to me than you I’m in no doubt.

A bit of background to this is the fascinating ‘living room industries’ which appear in much of Southern-Asia. The type of thing that I mean is being able to have a lightning quick turnaround on specialist items such as bespoke suits and handcrafted jewelry. In fact, there are so many of these boutiques alongside the road that it seems that these are the people who really drive the average man’s economy, not the corporations. The network is as intriguing as it could be, as there seems to be no competition or mad scramble for custom, and the tricks which are commonly used by tourists to drive a hard bargain. It’s true that the price structure ranges, roughly in the following 4 categories: Native Chinese, Chinese Native with foreigners, Foreigners who speak Chinese, Foreigners who don’t speak the lingo. However, although it is more expensive, it’s not wildly different, which is quite a compliment to their overall integrity.

After learning that we needed t o buy an outfit for a work conference later in the month (not the worst piece of news considering we were to be given a small budget to help us out) we scuttled off to Changchun’s indoor kingdom of cloth, Bei Fang, to find some suitable attire (I’ll get my coat… or suit). After exploring this silk adorned shrine to the world’s best fabrics for over 20 minutes, we arrived at the front of an inconspicuous stall laden with roll after roll of the holder’s finest. Our Chinese colleagues got stuck into haggling with the owners, which seemed odd considering we hadn’t yet decided which and how much of each material we were to purchase. Those who follow the blog regularly know that me trying to work out these kind of things usually ends up in me needing to sit down with a glass of water to calm a dizzy head, so the question was left unasked and therefore unanswered.

A swarm of workers came out of nowhere to set about the 8 foreigners as if we were medical experiments rather than suave and seasoned gentlemen, just out to the tailors as one might be when one required new clothes. In their defense, they had gauged the situation perfectly. Now, I have never had the privilege of trotting off to a tailor so i didn’t really know what to expect, but I did feel a little uneasy…

Immediately the tape measure came out, the man moving about his business in an efficient manner, stopping only to readjust the trembling dead weight in front of him. Panic had set in with me, among the nerves, which was about the worst thing possible- leaving me in an unnatural pose twisting slightly to the left. When he reached my nether regions, all hell broke loose. With the tension getting to me, I chose to show a sign of solidarity with my new-found tailor friend’s intimate approach by boldly cupping him back. After a torrent of Chinese and some fairly expressive gestures, I realised that I had made a mistake, and was quickly ushered on to a beaming lady who kept calling me- Thin White Boy.

After a few more minutes of measuring I was ready to choose the material, style and colour of my suit. Better late than never, I suppose. It was then that the reality of how much labour had to be put in for my money. Including 5 full tailored suits and 7 tailored shirts we were asked to hand over £235. Pick up in 10 days and service with a smile…. That can’t be right, can it?

Tune in in a few days time to have a look…. I can’t wait- unless the nice gentleman took offence to my bonding offer and has made me look a right banana.

Have a great week!

A Christmas message- a bit late…

Hi everybody,
Just a quick Christmas and New Years message for all my dearest and nearest during the festive period.
You may wonder why it’s only a ‘quick’ one. Truth be told there quite simple isn’t too much to say… The festive period which has become so important in the Western calendar just doesn’t exist in the same way here. But it doesn’t stop a few people trying. A good example of this is a Chinese attempt at a Christmas tree which I saw in the street the other day- surrounded by presents, topped off with a star, but no decorations in between. Close, but no cigar, China.

Also, Christmas music blares out of speakers in shopping centres and in the streets themselves, alas, with none of the warmth that we have come to love. There are no public holidays as such, and whilst more and more families are choosing to celebrate the occasion privately, or at cringeworthy gatherings at local institutes and universities, the large majority let the day pass them by as any other might. In fact, several of my students had a term-ending written exam in the morning, which shows how little festive spirit has flooded into China. So, I barely noticed Christmas this year- a blessing in disguise perhaps- until the day itself.

New Year was filled with a constant flow of good cheer and more ‘cheers’ among the western contingent, but the Chinese are preparing with increasing frenzy for Spring Festival- Chinese New Year to you and I. As the Gregorian Calendar is recognised formally, the lunar calendar embellishes Chinese culture in many ways, as the next few weeks will prove. Should be a good one….

I’m aware that there is nothing of interest to say, so I’ll wrap up by wishing everyone a prosperous and happy new year ahead to one and all!!

Out in the cold!!

Hi guys,

Important week this week… For a blog competition that I’m in. As usual need little introduction- it’s me failing to get to grips here in the cold. Please please comment, like and share away on the post if you love it. The comments section is at the bottom of the page for those who appreciate what I’m writing about! Thanks very much, enjoy!!! If you are overseas, pop a little message on from where you’re posting from, boosts my ego terribly.


18. Growing pains

So last week we began looking at education by starting with the kiddies. This week- and it isn’t particularly pretty- let’s see a day in the life of a Chinese adolescent. In between explaining their daily dealings I’ll drop in a few disturbing facts about how life carries on this period. I’m sorry this is a little heavy reading compared to my usual rubbish- fear not I’ll be back to complaining about pregnancy tests or my backside’s snow-induced bruise next week- but I really think it’s quite interesting.

I’ll take one of my favourite students as an example. Tom is 15, a surprisingly eloquent individual, but a typical Chinese teenager nonetheless. To wind him up once, I engaged him in some light mischief- on my part at least. I asked him to use orange in a sentence, to which he replied:
‘My father works in an orange factory.’
‘Really Tom? That’s great, but what does the factory make?’
‘No, I mean it’s one that processes fruit.’
‘Ah, what fruit does it process?’
(Nb. At this point I grab the rest of the class, but lose Tom for a while).
‘It’s an orange factory.’
‘I know, Tom, I don’t need to know the colour, which fruits?’ (This back and forth continued for a while, until he snapped).
‘Sir, I fear that you misunderstand me. Or I am struggling to express myself in the correct manner.’
A beautiful sentence, for a wonderful young chap.
So, it’s with regret that I learn about their troubles throughout what is effectively some of the most formative years of their life.
High school starts from anything between 6.30 and 7.30 with the luckiest starting even before that. (Let’s not forget that some travel to high schools around the city, depending upon preference and academic ability).
The morning progresses as any other school- with the exception of the national anthem blaring out of the tannoys as they trudge uniformly into their classrooms- a veritable smorgasbord of syllabus filling education. For those of you have read Breathing is overrated, this apparently includes the memorable ‘exercise for the lungs‘ lesson, but I digress.
Once a week- as is compulsory for all students in china, including at university- they fill the playground beneath me to play basketball or have some ‘fresh air’. I’ve no idea how these lessons go, but judging by their general motor skills this doesn’t have a spectacular impact upon grades.
Lunchtime arrives around 1pm and they are allowed to relax and spend some time away from their studies. For all of fifteen minutes. It becomes clearer why this is utterly wrong later. But anyway, fifteen minutes.
The afternoon rolls on, still in their classes of 50 per teacher. What? Did I not mention that? Sorry- on average there are 50 students to a class, one teacher. The effect that this has is interesting, because barely any of my students could honestly say that they hasn’t fallen asleep in a class, and it offers an explanation as to why it is virtually impossible to get my students off their (insert profanity here) phones during my own lessons.
This is a country, however, where the teacher is king. Teaching ranks amongst the very most respected professions in China, alongside lawyers, doctors and… errrmmm…. bankers (couldn’t resist). It is not uncommon for teachers to confiscate iPads until the end of term, shout at the students like they are subhuman or even smash a students phone should it be used during the lesson…. It mystifies me to see them using them in my class, but that’s not important. What is important is the level of respect- it’s akin to the respect that rugby referees get off 30 ugly, hulking, testosterone-driven players on the pitch for 80 minutes.
An astonishing fact is that their official salary from the Chinese government amounts to roughly £1.50 per calendar month. Even by Chinese standards, this isn’t much. Odd. The rest comes from school fees, maintenance allowances and the parents themselves. Odder. Seemingly, the amount given to the teacher improves students results… Let’s not scream corruption too quickly, rather foul play- if mummy and daddy gives Mr Smith a reasonable percentage of his wage, which student would receive his undivided attention for longer?
Anyway, Tom toddles back off home after his long day of lessons at 6pm, yes 6pm with a backpack full of homework. They even squeeze in a quarter of an hour in the break during my class on a Sunday evening, which gives an idea of how much they receive… A few hours of it. Nightly. Usually 3. Please do the maths and work out how that figures. A recipe for grey hair, I’d say. Low and behold…

Without delving too far into the birds and the bees- as I’m still learning about it all myself- it’s a tricky time for any given teen around the world, but the Chinese love to pile it on. Aside from first loves, parental disputes and school from 7-6, they still have to negotiate homework and social exploration- the two are entwined. If that amount of homework is given, when can social time start? With all that is above, is there any surprise that emotion, creativity and personality are often found lacking from conversation with the youth of China?

Exam time is another kettle of fish, but I’ll have a look at that sometime in the future. It’s another eye opener!

Dejalos ser niños

Hola a todos!

Ya sé que no he escrito desde hace mucho tiempo. Sin embargo, estoy aquí ahora, no os preocupéis!

Siendo un profesor, es sólo correcto que yo tomo interés real en el ámbito (ríe). Por lo tanto, esta semana os voy a sorprender sobre el mundo extraño del sistema escolar chino. Al principio, pensaba que enviar los niños a una escuela de inglés para clases adicionales era un triunfo de iniciativa, un primer paso positivo para asegurar de que sus niños recibiría un impulso importante en el mundo cada vez más enfocado en el idioma inglés. Puede que si. O podría ser que la gente aquí está conducido por razones económicas, y las clases adicionales ponen en marcha un los primeros pasos hacia una buena educación y, de ahí, un empleo bien remunerado. Tel vez se lleva a cabo un proceso meticulosamente calculado desde el principio. A ver….

Sólo con 3 años, entran en la sala a la escuela como sí fueren ganado para participar en una de mis clases demostrativas para estudiantes perspectivos a las 9 de la mañana. El sábado. Para los que se pide si eso no sería un poquito tan joven, examinamos la evidencia. Saben apenas su lengua materna, es más difícil para ellos andar sin caerse en el suelo, que para mi solucionar ecuaciones cuadráticas, y generalmente les mola más saltar en el aire que aprender un idioma extranjero. Por mi parte, me acuerdo con el último punto… A QUIEN no le gusta saltar? Por otro lado, es magnífico que un niño tiene la capacidad comunicar, igual si es sólo un nivel muy básico, en la segunda lengua cuando ya no han empezado a dominar la suya.
Sin embargo, tipifica precisamente los actitudes con respecto a la educación en China, un arduo camino que consumirá cada una de las fibras de su ser hasta la universidad, y más allá. ‘Hasta el infinito y más allá sería una buena manera de resumir perfectamente los deberes durante la adolescencia, pero ya veremos eso luego…

Efectivamente, los actitudes con respecto a la educación son ‘tanto como sea posible, lo más pronto posible’.

Pasamos ahora a los niños de 6-9 años, y a primera vista, vemos todos los rasgos de una multitud de vidas llenadas de risas, de esperanza y de oportunidades, el mundo a los pies (algo de cliché, eso si, ¿me disculpéis?). Sus capacidades lingüísticas, incluso a esta temprana edad, eclipsa completamente la gran mayoría de jóvenes españoles (es un comentario, no un juicio) y algunos tiene una comanda del idioma que me inspira cada día. Si mi chino era aún 10%, sería un hombre muy contento.
De hecho, hacen cosas más maravillosas, menos explicables que uno podría imaginar. Por ejemplo, a uno de mis estudiantes (Frank) le gusta sentarse en mis pies después de haber terminado la tarea, como un pingüino-ser humano combinación surrealista. Creo que me lo hace para decirme que ya lo ha terminado, y todos comunicamos de maneras diferentes, entonces ¿quien soy yo de juzgarle? Otra clase mía, y a propósito mi favorita, les cuesta en cuanta la pronunciación de mi nombre. Simón se hace Salmon, seguido de repente por Simon Fish (salmón el pez). Mientras de que se parece una clase contenta como cualquiera, cuando nos despertamos de este sueño surrealista, notamos algo más siniestro. Se nota de maneras distintas, y los ejemplos ilustran perfectamente lo que quiero decir, pero es un brusco despertar.

Echar un vistazo al reloj para relativizar- el grupo ‘Salmon Fish’ tiene clase conmigo para 2 horas, seguidas por una hora más con su profesor local chino, a las 9 por la mañana el domingo. Añadimos el hecho de que a menudo unos de ellos llegan tarde por hacer una clase antes- será una clase de matemáticas suplementaria o una clase de piano- y ya se demuestra la intensidad de sus fines de semana. El peor de mis preocupaciones a la misma edad era sí llegaría a encontrar dos guantes para poder jugar al fútbol el siguiente día. Y si preguntaría mis padres, te dirían que eso era algo que podría salir canas. La cruel realidad es que unos de ‘mis’ niños tienen el pelo gris- por razones que entenderán, no puedo hacer fotos.

Otra perversidad del sistema escolar es que esta mentalidad está profundamente arraigado, que vienen a nuestra escuela para relajarse. Naturalmente, no es elección suya, pero me han dicho “me gusta (esta escuela), aquí ellos jugamos juegos” decidí de ignorar la falta gramática para considerar el comentario… Cuando todos los juegos terminen, vuelven a casa para terminar los deberes. Me siento mal darles deberes, sin embargo cuando no lo hago, los padres se quejen.
Abordaré el asunto de planificación la próxima vez porque se hace más evidente con los adolescentes, pero es justo decir que el futuro empieza ahora.

En efecto, yo debería haberlo sabido, gracias a los ejemplos que os he dado al principio. Alejarse de esta situación tan surrealista y se nota que no todo marcha bien.
Primero, mi clase ha mutado el nombre aparentemente inocente ‘Salmon Fish’ en favor Stupid Fish ‘el Pez Estúpido’, la razón por eso no llego a entender. Segundo- y lo más siniestro de todo- del niño simpático de mi clase de nivel inicial. La semana pasada Frank se puso en mis pies como siempre, nada de anormal. Pero unos segundos luego, me miró con la sonrisa del Garfield. Me di cuenta de que acabó de tirarse un pedo sobre mis pies.
Si ya yo no había visto las señales, es culpa mía. La lección que aprendí ese día? Las cosas no son siempre lo que parecen.

La próxima semana, examinaremos el efecto de educación sobre la vida de los adolescentes chinos. Valdrá la pena leerlo, ¿no?

Que les gamins soient gamins

Salut les gars,

Je sais que je n’ai pas écrit depuis longtemps, mais je n’ai pas toujours le temps et donc l’occasion de blogguer chaque semaine !! De toute façon je suis là maintenant, alors ne t’en fais pas.

Etant un professeur d’Anglais, il n’est que juste de montrer un intérêt professionnel dans le domaine de temps en temps (rires…) Pour cela, je vais essayer de vous choquer cette semaine en vous comptant quelques histoires et expériences que j’ai eues du monde bizarre du system scolaire chinois. Au début, je croyais que prendre des cours d’anglais supplémentaires était un triomphe d’entreprise, un premier pas en avance positif pour lui donner à l’enfant un coup de fouet pour réussir dans un monde de plus en plus anglophone. Peut-être que oui. A l’autre côté, il est vrai que les Chinois sont surtout conduits par l’argent et ces gamins suivent déjà les premiers pas vers une bonne éducation et, par conséquence, un emploi bien rémunéré. Est-ce que je dis que c’est un procès très précisément calculé depuis le début ? A voir…

Dès que l’âge de trois ans, on amène les enfants à mon cours démonstratif pour les perspectifs à 9h samedi matin. Pour ceux qui se posent la question, est-ce que trois ans font un peu trop jeune ?, on examine l’évidence. Ils savent à peine parler leur langue maternelle, c’est encore plus difficile pour eux de marcher, que moi de pratiquer les équations quadratiques, et généralement ils s’intéressent plus à sauter dans l’air qu’à apprendre une langue étrangère. Pour ma part, je comprends complètement la dernière raison, c’est qui, qui n’aime pas sauter dans l’air ? Cependant, je remarque une admiration pour tout cela- la capacité de cet enfant de communiquer de bas-niveau, dans une deuxième langue quand ils n’ont même pas maitrisé la sienne.

Néanmoins, ces exemples sont parfaits pour s’illustrer les attitudes vers l’éducation en Chine, une route ardue pour laquelle ils vont donner corps et âme. En effet, pour moi ils échangent une partie de son âme pour faire les devoirs pendant cette route, mais nous verrons bientôt que je veux dire…

Les attitudes vers l’éducation sont effectivement ‘autant que possible, dès que possible’.

Passons à autres choses, les gamins de 6 à 9 ans- sur le surface on note bien tous les caractéristiques d’un enfant sain et normal, une vie remplie d’espoir et de possibilité, sourires sur les visages et le monde à leurs pieds (d’autres clichés existent encore…).

Ses capacités linguistiques dépassent déjà la grande majorité de jeunes françaises (un simple commentaire, pas un jugement) et certains maitrise la langue de merveille, une véritable inspiration. Si mon chinois était une fraction de son anglais, je serais un homme content et en paix.

En effet, pour la plupart, ils font des trucs les plus merveilleux, mais moins explicables, qu’on peut jamais attendre. Prenons comme exemples mes cours. L’un de mes gamins aime bien s’asseoir sur mes pieds après avoir terminé sa tâche- comme un humain-pingouin surréel. Je crois qu’il veut me dire qu’il a fini, mais on tous communique de manières différents, donc qui suis-je de le juger ? Autre classe mienne- et ma préférée- ils ont du mal quant à la prononciation (et ceux entre vous qui savent comment je parle en français : taisez-vous !!). Sans être capable de prononcer Simon correctement, ils m’appelaient ‘Salmon’ (saumon) avant de choisir Salmon Fish (poisson). Je n’arrive pas à expliquer pourquoi. Lorsqu’ils se semblent contents et les événements de la vie dépassent comme à n’importe où,  au réveil de cette situation surréel on observe quelque chose tout à fait plus sinistre. Cela se manifeste de plusieurs manières, mais chaque un de mes exemples s’illustre parfaitement que je veux dire.

Jeter un coup d’œil à l’horloge nous offre de perspective- le groupe Salmon Fish a 2 heures de cours avec moi, suivies par une autre avec leur professeur locale, à 9h le samedi. Conjuguez cela au fait que souvent ils arrivent en retard à cause de son cours que termine à 9h, disons son cours de piano où un cours supplémentaire de maths et on remarque les indices de comment son ‘week-end’ peut être si intense. Quand j’avais le même âge, le pire de mes soucis était si j’arriverais à trouver deux gants pour le match de foot le lendemain que, si vous demanderiez mes parents, était déjà assez compliqué des fois. Assez pour faire croitre des cheveux gris ! Mais la dure réalité est que les cheveux de ces gamins sont teintés de gris, dont je n’ai pas le droit de prendre des photographes.

D’autre perversité du système scolaire chinois est que cette mentalité est tellement enracinée, même à cet âge si jeune, qu’ils assistent au cours pour se détendre et pour profiter d’un matin libre de devoirs. Naturellement ils n’ont pas le choix, mais ils m’on dit : « J’adore cet école, nous joue des jeux ». J’ai décidé d’ignorer la faute grammatique pour réfléchir… Quand tous les jeux sont finis, ils rentrent chez eux pour terminer les devoirs.

J’aborderai le sujet de planification la prochaine fois, pour il devient beaucoup plus évident parmi les jeunes, mais on dirait que l’avenir commence maintenant.

En vérité, j’aurais du deviné qu’il y aura cette côté plus sombre, grâce aux exemples que j’ai cité antérieurement. Prenons de recul de cette bulle surréel, et on voit bien que les choses ne sont pas comme elles doivent l’être. En premier lieu, la classe a subi une mutation au nom Salmon Fish, en faveur de Stupid Fish (poisson stupide) ; la raison pout laquelle je ne connais toujours pas. Deuxième- et le plus sinistre de tout- le garçon de tempérament doux, Frank. La semaine derniere, Frank s’est mis sur mes pieds, comme d’habitude, rien d’anormal. Mais quelques secondes plus tard, il m’a fixé avec le même sourire de Garfield, le chat. Je me suis rendu compte de fait qu’il ventait de péter sur mes pieds.

Si je n’avais pas vu les signes avant, je me blâme entièrement. Le leçon que j’ai appris ce jour-là : les choses ne sont jamais ce qu’elles semblent faire.

La semaine prochaine, si j’ai le temps, on examinera l’effet de l’éducation sur la jeunesse… Ca vaut la peine prendre le temps a lire, on dirait… ?

17. Let kids be kids?

Hi guys,

I know that I’ve not blogged for a bit and I’m sure that heads have been turned in even the highest government positions because crashingabike has been off the airwaves for the last week and a half. Nevertheless, I’m back and colder than ever.

Being a teacher, it’s only right that I take a real interest in my field (pause for laughs). So this week, I’m going to try and wow you with a few factoids in the bizarre world of the Chinese school system. At first, I thought that with parents sending their children to English school for further lessons was a triumph of enterprise, a positive first step to ensuring their child receives a boost in an increasingly English language-orientated world. Perhaps it is. But perhaps people here are driven by money and these children are already going through the first steps towards a good education and thus a well paid job. Perhaps it’s a carefully calculated process from the start? Let’s have a look.

As early as the age of three, children are wheeled in to my English demonstration class for perspective students at 9.00am on a Saturday morning. For those of you who are wondering if this might be a bit too young, we’ll look at the evidence. They can barely speak their mother tongue, they find walking harder than I find quadratic equations and they are generally far more interested in jumping and running than learning a foreign language. On the final point, I at least sympathise with them… who doesn’t like jumping? However, I see a wonder in all this- the ability of a child to communicate, albeit on a very basic level, in a second language when they haven’t yet begun to master their own.

Nonetheless, this absolutely typifies the attitude towards education in China, a rocky road which will absorb virtually every fibre of their being until they reach university- and beyond. In fact, ‘Infinity and beyond’ is perhaps a suitable way of describing their homework load during their teens, but we will get to that.

Attitudes towards education are effectively ‘as much as possible, as early as possible’.

Moving towards the 6-9 year olds, we see on the surface, all the traits on budding young lives full of hope and possibility, smiles on their faces and the world at their feet (please note, other clichés are available). Their language ability even at this age dwarfs the vast majority of British teenagers (a comment, not a judgement!) and some of the students’ command of the language is quite inspiring. If my Chinese was anywhere near their level, I’d be a happy man…

In fact, they do some of the most wonderful, least explainable, things anyone could ever wish for. For example, one of my children (Frank) likes to come and sit on my feet when he has finished his work, like a surreal human-penguin combo. I think he does it to tell me he’s completed a handout, but in fairness we all communicate differently. Another class- incidentally my favourite group- have a few issues with pronunciation. Failing with Simon, they chose Salmon as a replacement, followed shortly by Salmon Fish. Whilst they appear happy with life and events pass them by just as they might any other, but awakening from this surreal situation, we see something more sinister at hand. This manifests itself in several ways, but both of my examples illustrate this perfectly, with rude awakenings.

A quick glance at the clock can bring things into perspective- the Salmon Fish group are in for two hours with me, followed by a further hour with their local Chinese teacher, at 9am on Sunday. Couple this with that fact that it is not uncommon for them to come late because they have had already had a piano lesson or extra maths tutoring that morning gives a little clue as to how intense their ‘weekend’ can be. The worst of my worries at the same age was being able to find two gloves for my football match that day which, if you ask my parents, was enough to put grey hairs atop the head. But the grim reality is that some of these kids do have a grey tinge to their hair (which for reasons you will understand) I cannot photograph.

Another perversity of the school system is that this mentality is so engrained into them, even at such a young age, that they come to the school in order to relax and enjoy themselves. Naturally they have no choice, but I have been told “I love it [the school], we play game”. I ignored the grammar for a second, and pondered the answer… When the fun and games finish, all in a second language I might remind you, they disappear back home to complete their homework.

I’ll broach the subject of future planning next time, as it becomes far more evident amongst the teenagers, but fair to say that the future starts here.

Realistically, I should have probably seen this coming, thanks to the examples I gave at the beginning. Step away from this surreal bubble, and we see that all is not right.

Firstly, my class mutated the seemingly innocent Salmon Fish into Stupid Fish; the reasoning for this still escapes me. Secondly- and most sinister of all- from the sweet young boy of my lower level class. Last week Frank plonked himself on my toes, just as he would do normally, only to look up with a grin the size of Garfield’s a few seconds later. He had passed wind upon mine loafers.

If I hadn’t seen the signs before this, I only have myself to blame. The lesson I learnt: things are not what they seem…

Next week, I’ll look at the effect of education on the teenagers of China. That’ll be worth a read, won’t it?

16. Breathing is overrated.

I think most of you are wondering how this blog has come so late, but to me, it is more interesting that it has come at all… at least here in Changchun.

The pollution levels here are normally (relatively) good. In fact, it was probably a fairly good reason for me coming specifically to this city, in favour of some of the better-known ones around China.  Sometimes in Beijing, the atmosphere is yellow- ouch. So it is interesting that the last, during virtually the entire week, the city was the worst in China for air pollution. You can see now why my lungs have gone on strike.IMG_2744

(A room with a view??)

To give a bit of background flesh to this, the rating for air pollution is called the Air Quality Index (AQI). This chart is measured on an individual basis by governing agencies throughout the world, so the categories are set at independent levels. I understand China’s AQI to be officially measured between 1-300, but we will come to why this is slightly irrelevant in due course. Naturally, each country has a luddite-friendly colour code for their AQI charts, with handy explanations for each. They have different meanings for foreigners and Chinese people:

Colour rating Meaning Chinese people Foreigners
Green Excellent Enjoy it until your alarm clock goes off. Safe.
Yellow Good See above. Not dangerous to anyone with a healthy set of bagpipes.
Orange Slightly Polluted Nothing out of the normal. Enjoy your day! Indoors if your lungs are bad and/or you have a dicky ticker.
Red Moderately polluted Carry on as normal, nothing to see here. Have a little think today about how important breathing is to you.
Purple Heavily polluted Consider wearing a mask Rent a DVD and get cosy, you’re not leaving the house today… preferably don’t breathe at all.
300+ Severely polluted Make sure you actually wear your masks. Wear a rope and take a whistle with you when taking out the bins, it doesn’t pay to take chances.

This helps the simpleton, such as my good self, immensely as anything above orange creates a ‘Is my trip outside necessary?’ type of question. Often, ‘not necessary enough’ is the answer.


Changchun rarely reaches the dizzying heights of even Moderately Polluted and generally stays within the lower echelons of Slightly Polluted. (As I write this, I realise how bizarre this must sound to you, but I repeat, this is relatively good for China. Dare I say that I’m even grateful for this…?) Look through most of my photos, and you will see some pretty clear scenes, along with the occasional misty background. Not too bad, overall.

So then we come to last week. I click on my AQI app to have a little look at what’s going on and find that the AQI reading is at a brain boggling 568. If that doesn’t register, remember that the scale was only designed to go to 300. To give that a bit of perspective, it was very difficult to see the top of the buildings only a hundred yards or so down the street. If you are having trouble imagining that, then I really wouldn’t recommend finding out in person… Have a look below instead.


I’d even argue that the camera has done the pic a favour here.


Furthermore, on that day I only found one place in China with a rating of in the Green section- Tibet. There we a few places even higher, notably Haerbin at 780, which must have been a citywide game of Blind Man’s Buff for a few days. In contrast, the ENTIRE UK was reading Green, as was the vast majority of mainland Europe.

China’s northeast hit by air pollution so bad “you can’t see your own fingers in front of you”

For those of you scrabbling for the tissues and weeping for my safety, it quite important to note that there are no ill effects of this level of exposure, at least for the amount of time that I will be in China. The long-term effects kick in after perhaps 10 years here- short term I may have a chesty cough of two, but that’s about it. On that note, if there is anyone such as a doctor or Wikipedia expert who can disprove this, I’d prefer it to stay between you and you. Thanks.

Nevertheless, there is a serious health implication for the dear Chinese, who suffer this year after year. It’s perhaps similar to what many ‘developed’ nations experienced during their industrial revolutions throughout the past few centuries. Imagine the smog of London with Jack the Ripper snooping around and were about there. Oddly, attitudes today towards health haven’t developed a conscience. In fact- and I quote- the polluted air is ‘Good exercise for the lungs’. Without a doubt this is a line fed to schoolchildren and adults alike through public health announcements, but the danger is still there. Conscious or not, there is a profound effect upon health in terms of stamina and general exercise habits here. The fact that this is a part of life here, and that people are so blasé is obviously more troubling.

All I know is that my lungs have taken a kicking over the last week, and I’d much rather see the return of bluer and clearer skies thanks very much. If anyone knows the weatherman, let him know for me.

IMG_2747  I blame these guys!

With all this in mind, I’m not going out today… I’m staying put. Have a good week!!

15. “Friendship, Peace, and Spring”

Just a quick one this week on the Changchun Sculpture Park, which I visited last week. Mainly pictures this week, so none of my boring prose. You’re welcome!

I will however give it a brief introduction… Found to the south of the city, the Sculpture park is reportedly the biggest in the world, boasting hundreds of works from artists across the whole world. Our guidebook explain that is is 920 square kilometres of some of the finest artwork to be found in the northeast of China. Whilst this is clearly wrong, the 920 hectares of ground was nontheless impressive. After my abject failure understanding the nuances of the majority of the pieces being exhibited, I’ve decided to leave it up to you to ponder them instead….

As usual, there are many more photos on the Facebook page, but for now enjoy the smorgasbord of contemplation that I’ve made for you.

Where possible (and more honestly where I can remember) I’ve included some names!


IMG_2655 IMG_2657

For those of you who recognise Rodin’s the Thinker and Les Bourgeois de Calais, the Park claimed that they were authentic and not replicas… I’m pretty sure that I saw the Thinker sometime last year, and Les Bourgeois de Calais have a permanent place in…. Calais!

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Door                                                Springtime

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The first of Spring                                              The Kiss

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Sun and moon

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The Elders

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The Silk Road


A personal favourite of mine is a world entitled, ‘The unseen helper’. It was even better in the flesh!!


The centrepiece of the Sculpture Park is a true masterpiece, and culmination of several artists efforts-  Ye Yushan, Pan He, Cheng Yunxian, Wang Keqing and Cao Chunsheng. Their work, entitled “Friendship, Peace, and Spring” encompasses their vision of a united world, brought together in solidarity and goodwill.


Surrounding the 30m central totem, are 5 adjoining representing what some see as the lifeblood of world culture- music. Each of the spin offs represent a continent, and play instruments typical of these- flutes and guitars to drums and violins. There are also carvings of animals in the backdrop- a Puma from the Americas, a Lion from Africa, a Bull from Europe, a Tiger from Asia and a Kangaroo from Oceania.


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The backdrop of the hundreds of sculptures pointing towards this emphatic symbol of hope for the future is a real triumph- one which I saw as inspiring, at any rate….




Agreeably, not a sculpture, but count the cranes!! No wonder we’re all smogged up!

14. 5 things- telling someone ‘I hate you…’

In a week of birthdays (well in my life, anyway!) I’ve decided to take a slightly left field approach to what to get someone for a birthday present. In fact, it’s exactly what not to get someone as a birthday present- in China.

The Chinese, as most of us already know, the Chinese are a superstitious bunch… In fact, they won’t let me even write their names on the board in red ink, because doing so would signify blood, and therefore their impending doom. Odd? Perhaps. Believable? In China, I very much think so. (Note to the non-believers: do your Crashing A Bike homework, you’re very much behind!!).

Some general rules of the present process is to always spend in terms of seniority or importance, the more money= the more important the person is to you. Also, you are only required to spend the same amount of money on the person as they have done for you. So that’s a lesson to all those who buy DVDs from the discount bins and pass them off for top notch goods. (Editor’s note- Simon, you are a hypocrite, get off your high horse right now).

Nevertheless, if you are suddenly found in a position whereby you have to buy a present for a Chinese person, I’m here at hand to help you…. Never fear!!

Here are the top 5 NOT to buy….

1)      Tick tock.


Yes, a clock. Giving a beautifully crafted clock might seem like the perfect ornate present for a loved one or close other, but in reality you have just  mentally handed across a countdown to the end of their life… Something which I’d not be so thankful for, on reflection.

2) A pear


I’ve got a feeling that giving a pear to a lover for their birthday might not be too well received anywhere in the world, but none of these compare to the symbolism of giving it to a Chinese person. ‘Pear’ or 分梨 fēnlí sounds like the Chinese for ‘breaking up’ 分離, pronounced the same. This is liable to get you a slap- as is the fact that you got them a pear for a present. Double whammy. Apparently, for the sadists amongst you searching for extra trouble, half a pear is worse, as it’s already been split.

3) Use your loaf-er.

Shoes is an excellent no-no. You’re telling them to go away. Short and sweet here, no further explanation needed.

4) An umbrella


This is perhaps my least favourite, because it involves people getting wet instead of getting awkward. Apparently, giving an umbrella signifies that there is a dark shadow over the friendship. Perhaps the last act of decency is to give the departing friend an umbrella so that they are sheltered from the rain as they make an exit from your life. Therefore, if there is a choice between getting soaked and saving a difficult conversation, and helping a pal out with an umbrella, I’d wear a cagoule! It doesn’t bode particularly well that I was given one on my first day from the school I’m working at….


5) The man in the green hat.

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This person is ideal to avoid. Very seldom will you see a Chinese person in a green hat, particularly in the company of a couple. This is the perfect way of signalling that the wearer is sleeping with one of the individuals, and is therefore an excellent gift to avoid!
A treat for all those not impressed by that, and need some more… Why green? Well, firstly it’s the colour of envy, but also it’s said that it’s because a turtle is green and a turtle will hide when in danger. Hiding under a green hat, therefore, is akin to giving an amigo a particularly awkward piece of news.


For those of you searching out a bit of fun with people’s often ludicrous comparisons of me to famous celebrities, I’ve had rather a mixed week. In fact, it was worthy of a graph.


I got my second (lifetime) comparison to Jude Law, which is just lovely, and I had a great day thanks very much. For the purposes of accuracy, I’ve managed a high quality, high budget, paint-job comparison.

me and jude

I’d like to point out the astuteness of that comment, as well as the fact that I was staring wistfully into the distance as they said it. Lovely.

But then yesterday the ego did a helter-skelter of epic proportions and naturally ended on its backside.

Let me explain: I was pottering around school yesterday when a girl came rushing up to me saying:

-“Oh…. It’s you, Simon. I’ve missed you.”

For two reasons the ego was soaring, the latter being that the English was spot on. I was about to carry on with my day with a spring in my step, then it came. Spoiler alert, neutrals, it’s not a pretty ending. Here’s how it starts, and I’d say it gets progressively worse.

She continued: “Show me your teeth.”


Never in my dental life has that sentence led on to better things.


“Haha, you look like Goofy.”

I told you. But then again I told you it gets worse…..

“It’s so cute.”


Never since 1929 on Wall Street has there been a bigger crash in confidence. Safe to say I was leaving that class in a considerably worse mood.


At this point I’m again going take some time out for family birthdays, this time to wish my brother a happy one- for yesterday. Classy.

Have a good week!!

13. Road trip

I mentioned last week in The Long White Mountain that I had a surprise towards the end of the trip to the mountains. Let me tell you, it was a good one. A lesson in luck- one of which I’m a little bit embarrassed to tell you (jammy git springs to mind.). We had mind boggling luck throughout the trip, such as just managing to get to places on time, but more importantly bumping into the right people at the right time. I was beginning to believe in some sort of divine intervention, yet I think that’s perhaps unfair on the generous people that we met along the way… Let’s see the story of the road trip!

As we were heading up the mountain towards the everlasting beauty of Heaven Lake, we started talking to a couple of guys from Shanghai and Guangzhou, holidaying through the Spring festival. We chatted quite happily until the summit and parted ways- seemingly never to meet again. Wrong. As it happened, they were at the very same restaurant as us later that evening, ordering a vast array of dishes, each bettering the last. Towards the end of the evening, they had convinced us to exchange our bus tickets, in favour of a road trip back with them in the car. It would be quicker, more interesting and with splitting the petrol, more economical for everyone. All sounded logical. Logic, however, is not China’s forte, and this has filtered down to it’s people as well. Nevertheless, at the end of the day we couldn’t care less, so I’m not going to have a grumble this time.


Just after 11am we left Changbaishan for Changchun, leaving behind some great scenery and memories, and, unbeknownst to us, starting some fresh ones. Now, the bus down there is a cool 8 hours of mind-numbing boredom, with very little to see, and even less to do- in essence, think of it as about as interesting as an 8 hours lecture on shoelaces. Ben and Chad, our newly found Chinese friends/ tour guides/ drivers/ minders, were in fine fettle as we left, enthusiastically inviting us to make ourselves at home and providing breakfast in the back of the Volvo saloon.

We got to know each other reasonably well during the first few hours- they began to get to grips with our day-to-day lives as teachers in China, and the difficulties and differences from our lives back home. We got to grips with their engineering jobs in a tractor factory, along with their families and music collections- 60s and 80s french disco music, featuring such gems as ‘Aga-doo’ in french and ‘I am the music man’ and a variety of stage musical classics. I’m afraid that surreal just doesn’t cut it, by a long long way. Yet anyone who wouldn’t want to see what that was like is a liar, and I expect a written apology. If you don’t agree, put the music on try me. Our cheesy bubble of warmth rolled on, across the Jilin countryside.

I’ll just give you a glimpse into the music situation:- Claude Francois

We quickly worked out that they didn’t really know where they were going, and this was going to take a lot longer than expected yet, in that moment, we were as worry free as a cat with a bowl ‘ole bowl of milk.

What’s more, we were repeatedly told that “If you want stop, tell us, and we stop.” regarding breaks and photo opportunities. They meant it, we soon realised, as they were quite happy to pull over wherever they fancied, including to the side of a busy A-road or motorway hard shoulder in order to snap away. As we know, photo opportunities with westerners are not something to be shunned, so there was plenty of that as well…

P1090466You may be thinking that the Chinese countryside has little to offer in terms of visual treats, and there is an air of truth in that- in fact at one point we drove for a full 45 minutes without seeing anything but fields of corn, still waiting to be harvested. I only say ‘still’ because with winter rapidly approaching** there was still little movement on that front! We were reassured that migrant workers are brought in to help the farmers during a pretty intense few weeks and all would be fine in the world- I won’t be going hungry this winter, then. In fact, the farmers themselves have nothing to do during the winter other than socialise, serenade their wives with ancient folk songs and get tanked up on spirits such as Baijiu, due to the fact that it reaches downwards of minus 25 in the region in deepest, darkest December.

**= we are expecting snow here in Changchun as soon as next week!!


Nevertheless, we were fortunate to experience the very best of the Autumn too, with leaves turning their most beautiful for our passage.


At one particular part of a busy A-road, we had to weave in and out of a line of cars, all stopping to look at a tree. The BlackLacemobile duly came to a halt too, still blaring sounds of the 70s as loud as antisocially possible. Here’s why, and please note we didn’t paint this beforehand, but the red seems absurdly unnatural:


(See what I mean? Autumn came to play!!)

As the night drew in, and the sun set along the horizon, I reflected on how fitting the the beautiful scene was for the end of the journey, and decided on not very. We still had around 4 hours to go. So settling down to complete our mammoth journey, which would eventually last 12 hours, it’s with thanks to Chad and Ben that I can bring you this story, as they took us in so readily.

But this is just the beginning of the story about Chinese hospitality… Sometime soon, I’ll be sharing a lesson with you about it. To give you a flavour of it, a teaser if you will- we didn’t pay a penny for anything that day.


Dedicated to my Mum, this week… whose birthday it is today!! Happy birthday, MUM!! x

12. The Long White Mountain

After yours truly displayed all the tactical nous of a blithering idiot by leaving his camera battery at home, you have been left for a little while to hear about the pinnacle of my away days in the mountains- Changbaishan. Although the literal translation is ‘Perpetually White Mountain Region’, it is frequently referred to as the Long White Mountain in the infrequently erected notice boards in the park. The Long White Mountain is aptly named, due to it being so spectacularly factual in title.

Whereas most of Jilin province bathes in warm sunshine during the summer months, it’s possible to see the mountains snow-capped peaks for around 8 months in the year. It forms the highest peak of the Changbai Mountain Range– otherwise known as the Manchu-Korean Range, due to it’s proximity to the Korean boarder, as we’ll see later, and Manchuria, which we saw a little of in the Last Emperor of China.
Despite the lack of snow, I still had to put my ice blocks of fingers in my pockets throughout the day, but that was easier than expected, thanks to my camera gaff (of which I’m not bitter!) The area itself is set out in a similar way to a British National Park, with protected areas free of traffic, larger open green spaces, and extortionately priced park parks. If anything, it felt slightly comforting to pay to walk on sporadically maintained gravel tracks, and stare in bemusement at what some people will buy in a gift shop. Alongside the usual tat, there are huge business opportunities in one rather surprising field- medicine. Changbai mountain is known for being a source of alternative medicines, such as fungi and plants to be ground into powders or made into tea. Ant extract and Ginseng roots are perhaps the most common products sold, with each fetching a mighty sum for even a few grams for their anti-ageing properties. A single root can reach up to as much as £6,000. Animals are hunted for their antlers/ horns and spread out far and wide across China. It really is a huge industry, with many swearing by it, even if they perhaps can’t really afford it.


Nevertheless, we were there for nature, and nature we got. In abundance. As cars are not allowed anywhere near the park during the national holiday, as there would simply not be enough space for them, we were treated to wide open spaces, the like that I haven’t seen since I arrived in my new concrete jungle. The 6am bus ride was about a popular with me as the idea of having tea with Nigel Farage. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to risk the invitation, so we caught the bus.
The park is split into different areas: The waterfall, the underground forest and Heaven lake.
The waterfall is found in a part of the mountain where natural hot springs are quite prevalent, and as the waterfall rages on in the distance, it is possible to eat a lunch of local delicacies cooked in the some of the natural springs themselves.

P1090313P1090310It’s interesting to note that although we don’t have the proof, naturally, we had our photos taken by far more people than we took photos of anything. That’s right, we were ‘papped’ (paparazzied) so many times- a delightful boost to the ego, I must say! I think some preferred the picture of us, to that out the outstanding natural beauty before us. Here is what the waterfall was like, not like they would know!


The underground forest is found nearer the base of the mountain, and is so called because of it’s “disappearing act” some centuries ago. After a period of seismic activity, the ground quite literally collapsed in upon itself, forming a bizarre leafy bowl a couple of hundred feet below the conventional forest floor. The rocks to the right of the photo perfectly show the scale of this monstrous cave-in. No wonder, then, that there were numerous temples dotted around, with thoughts firmly fixed upon the Gods of the Mountain.


I was always told to save the best until last, so I have done here. For me, Heaven Lake ranks right up there with some of the most beautiful places that I’ve ever been lucky enough to visit. Unfortunately for us, the day itself was not very clear, and perhaps didn’t do the place justice. So, I’m quite happy that despite this it will stay with me so prominently for some time to come.

Mercifully, there weren’t nearly as many people as predicted, as  the National Holiday is a time of year that everyone will become a tourist for a few days! I’m not much of a poet, but the serenity of Heaven Lake, sitting right on the cusp of arguably the most backward and terror-ridden countries in the world, is striking. In the distance, North Korean boarder guards patrol the edge of the dormant volcano, with many foolhardy tourists each year straying too far into their mitts. One even received a prison sentence for his troubles.


With a whole host of memories we left to return to the hotel, content with our day’s work, and ready for the long slog back to Changchun by bus. As with everything in China, there is a twist in the tale about that, but we’ll get there in good time…..


If you haven’t already, have a look on facebook at the photos for this- Crashing A Bike. It’s not my personal account, so I’ll accept you allllll! Particularly above all, look for the ones for the Long White Mountain, they’re stunning.



Written with very special thanks and mention to Sean, my travel companion and featured photographer!! Here we are, doing a very typical Chinese pose.



11. The Hangover IV.

I’ve been frequenting a few bars over the time that I’ve been here. I’d like to confirm that obviously I only did so to really get a flavour for you fine people. I naturally had to sample a few of the local beers, cocktails, shots, chasers, the odd wine, a bit of Baijui… A few bits and pieces to really just to make sure all bases are covered- the basics. Quite keenly, as you can see from the photo above, Canon have invented a new camera setting, which is taken through the lenses of the photographer’s eyes… Neat stuff, eh? You can see this now, as authentically as I did!! As I’m sure you may have guessed, things are not as they perhaps are in some other bars I have seen around.
Firstly, the Chinese buy their beers by the… dozen doesn’t seem right, nor bucketload. It slightly difficult to give an accurate description of how to describe it. After much deliberation, I think the following picture gives a strong argument for table full. The Chinese buy their beers by the table full:

Why? Answer: not sure. Best guess is that it is a marketing scheme which forces repeat custom. Although it is not obligatory, and beers bought and not drank are then retained on a credit system, meaning that the next time they can access their prepaid beer account once again. I suppose really, it is quite clever on the part of the bar owners.

A typical bar is usually set out with more exclusive sections, usually raised surrounding a central set of tables, which are arranged in a style befitting primary school canteens (imagine Harry Potter and Co for a better idea) and smaller dance floor. The bar in which I conducted my research at midnight a few days ago had a catwalk-style dance platform, I seem to vaguely remember. This segregated layout is a great example of the importance of Chinese hierarchy, although this becomes a much tighter knit mélange as the liquor flows! As it turns out, too, the dance floors are quite a formal affair, with seemingly territorial groups who take part of it for the evening… quite bizarre. Also, although I was luckily not witness to this type of behaviour, there are instances of aggression towards white males who speak to Chinese females, despite the fact that their intentions may be entirely innocent.  *SPOILER ALERT: THE NEXT SENTENCE KILLS THE MOOD.* Muscling in on another pack’s female population, as we see on the Discovery Channel is a huge no-no. In fact, one of my friends was hospitalised after a misunderstanding in a bar, requiring reconstructive surgery… His girlfriend was with him at the time.**

As a group of westerners, we are generally treated in the former, more exclusive bracket, as it is quite chic to have a group of white people in the bar- exotic if you will. Therefore, we had endless tables’ of beer as our disposal… and for some reason this fruit selection (let’s not bother with why. It’s evident that neither I nor anybody for that matter knows why people want fruit in a nightclub.)


Nevertheless, it is a great opportunity to meet new people, and as you can see, it’s easy to be the local celebrity for the night. They are more than happy to have a chat in English, or even batter out a conversation even though they are in the full knowledge that I don’t understand a word- admittedly, it is quite enjoyable. The French call it ‘Yaourt’ or yoghurt- the sound of another language to an ear that doesn’t understand it… Which is ironic because a Korean couple were talking to me in Korean, and one of them gave me a Yakult. (The phrase “for some reason” could have come in 2 places in that sentence, oddly).


Nevertheless, during the early hours it was time to go home. Hmm, rather it was time to collate my data from the evening’s boozing researching session. After another thoroughly insightful evening’s entertainment, I was left to contemplate one thing- how does Chinese beer give such a deathly sore head, even after 2 or so…???

Have a lovely week! See you soon!! I know Changbaishan awaits, I’m just cranking up the anticipation levels…. I bet you can’t wait!!

** Here marks the point in the post where the mood fell through a trap door. I’m so terribly sorry.