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Last days in China

15 November 2010 Leave a comment

When I tried to log into my WordPress account on Monday evening to post my experiences on the Great Wall, I encountered difficulties. I was able to log in through the main page, but I couldn’t access my blog at all. I could only assume that the presence of words like ‘Communism’ and ‘Mao’ had led to my blog being blocked. I had Habiba make the post for me – I would have included some pictures, otherwise.

On Tuesday and Wednesday – my last two full days in the Middle Country – I didn’t do a huge amount. Tried to do a bit of writing. Went to have a look at the CCTV (China Central Television) building – the one that has two legs connected by a bridge at the top. It’s a very big building. Mark explained later on that one of the nearby buildings, a more conventional tower, was built as a companion building – the latter symbolising the male member, the M-shaped building representing the female legs. The ‘penis’ had been gutted by fire after a celebration with fireworks went disastrously wrong. On there I passed by the British Abassador’s residence and the British Embassy. Maybe I could have dropped in to say hello to David Cameron. The Chinese soldiers in dress uniform outside were a bit scary, though.

I had dinner with Charlie and Mark each night; the first night we had roast duck and then went for a walk around a small lake – Hou Hai, I think – one of a series of linked lakes surrounded by park that I should have gone to in the daytime, but didn’t. This lake was actually ringed by bars, each one with a PA speaker outside blasting out whatever was playing inside (many bars had live music or karaoke). It was an interesting sonic landscape.

On the Wednesday, I finally took the plunge and bought a few souvenirs from a little maze of alleys crowded with stalls that I hadn’t actually known was there until I started exploring for gift shops. Along with stalls piled high with what we could probably safely describe as tourist tat, there were stalls selling meat shish kebabs or fruit shish kebabs or live scorpion shish kebabs (I assume they get deep fried before you eat them). I didn’t try any.

I was nervous of the whole haggling process and walked into a couple of shops and past a few stalls without stopping to be sold to. Eventually, though I got a small brass dragon as the first of my purchases. The process for haggling for this was typical of what happened for later purchases – or attempted sales on behalf of the stall-holders. I asked how much it was and the woman asked me how much I wanted to pay. I didn’t know so she typed on a large calculator, ’80’ (£8). I said, ‘Twenty,’ and she was all, ‘No, no,’ so I walked away. Then she grabbed my sleeve (arm- and sleeve-grabbing happened a lot) as I went and as I pulled away she said, ‘OK, twenty.’ And that was that.

The woman I bought my gift for Habiba from complemented my hard bargaining skills – I’m sure she just wanted me to buy other stuff from her. A man pointed out a mah jongg set as I browsed his stall. He wanted 650 yuan for it, but came down to 200 as I walked away. I didn’t want to spend that much money anyway – because I’m a cheapskate. I did also buy a pair of massage balls. Each being maybe three centimetres or so in diameter; one blue, one red, both with yin and yang signs on them. They have bells inside. Your supposed to roll them around in a circle on one hand without letting them touch each other.

Separately, I bought a couple of jars of spicy sauce and a few packets of snacks (one of which promises ‘Odd taste’) from a little supermarket near my hostel.

I also – following Charlie and Mark’s advice – changed my train ticket to Tianjin on Wednesday night to one for Thursday morning – the morning of my ferry from Tianjin to Incheon. This sounds dangerous, but, while I was supposed to be a the ferry terminal at 9 am, the bullet trains from Beijing run very often and early and only take 30 minutes to get there. If only you could go everywhere by bullet train.

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Sick and tired

8 November 2010 Leave a comment

Yesterday, I went to the Summer Palace, which just outside central Beijing at the end of one of the subway lines, with Charlie and Mark. The occasion was overshadowed by a couple of things: firstly, I’d been sick the night before so I was feeling a little tired and fragile of stomach; secondly, for the first time since I’d been in China, the weather wasn’t great – it was hazy and smoggy – it reminded me of my first day in India, although the sky wasn’t quite as brown as that.

Whereas the day before, I’d been to the Temple of Heaven and taken my time wandering around at will taking photographs of whatever caught my fancy, at the Summer Palace, with a couple of friends, there was a different dynamic. It was more about chatting than sightseeing, and with the weather as it was, the sights weren’t highly seeable anyway.

We had arranged to meet on the platform at Beigongmen Station in northwest Beijing (not the track, as Charlie had originally suggested – a suggestion that my inner pedant could not resist correcting), but I was fifteen minutes late, partly because I hadn’t set out early enough and partly because I got on the wrong train at first and went a couple of stops in the wrong direction. When I got there there was no sign of Charlie or Mark. I walked up and down the platform, went up the escalator, hung around up there for a minute, went down again, up again and finally sat down to read on one of the few benches on the platform. I was still suffering a little from the night before and was dehydrated because I had felt up to consuming anything.

I’d read a page or so before Charlie and Mark turned up, the former apologising profusely. We went out of the station and headed to a vendor of street food. Charlie bought a thing made of a large, thin pancake with a couple of eggs fried on top of it (maybe some other stuff – I can’t remember) then folded up and served in a plastic bag. I tried a bite – it seemed tasty, but I couldn’t really stomach food.

There was some construction or renovation work going at the palace, so shortly after we entered and we had crossed a bridge over a picturesque pool surrounded by buildings we were faced with a barrier. So we went round instead of going straight up to a temple on top of a hill looking over the boating lake. We didn’t go into the big temple just below it, but walked down to the lake. There were hordes of tourists walking along the lakeside. We walked round to a seventeen-arched bridge that led to a small island and then headed out – at an entrance at some distance from the subway station, so we had to walk a long way back. Whilst in the palace, I bought a deck of playing cards with Chinese emperors’ faces in place of the normal spades, kings etc.

After taking the subway a couple of stops, we got out to take a taxi to one particular university in an area of universities. At this university we went to a Muslim restaurant – only it wasn’t there because the building had been demolished. After making enquiries of passersby (a large proportion of which were young non-Chinese – all students here studying Chinese, probably) we found the restaurant in a nearby building – the university dining hall, in fact. It was called ‘Muslim Restaurant’ – which may not have been a direct translation of the Arabic text above the door.

The food there was OK – the roast chicken and lamb shish kebab were very tasty, and there was some delicious bread. I could feel as I ate, though, that it wasn’t such a good idea for me to eat so much. And indeed, later that night, I developed a bad headache and threw up a couple of times.

I slept to nearly midday today, deliberately giving my body some much needed rest. The rest wasn’t very consistent, as people in my dorm were coming and going all evening and morning, but it seemed to do the trick. During the day I went to Starbucks for a tea and did some writing then came back to the hostel, watched some Prison Break and did some more writing. I had dinner at a bare little restaurant that I’d noticed on the main road near the hostel and that is often full of people. I ordered a stir-fry and a bowl of soup that was much larger than I’d expected. The stir-fry was tasty, but very greasy and rather salty, and it started to make me feel queasy. The soup wasn’t great.

Today, I also signed up for a trip to the Great Wall. I’m to be in the hostel’s bar/restaurant at 7:15 tomorrow morning – which means I should probably get ready and go to bed.

Two goodbyes and one hello

7 September 2010 Leave a comment

It was a socially busy weekend.

On Friday night, Habiba and I went out with Mike, his sister Michelle, Eric and later Demond and Jairius – meeting the latter or the first time. The occasion was Michelle’s last night in the country having visited for a couple of weeks with the intention of finding work here; Seoul turned out not to be for her. We did a little drinking in Hongdae, then went to a noraebang – the big fancy one (whatever it’s called). We were singing for two and a half hours. It had been nearly ten by the time we met up after eating dinner at home and we ended up leaving Hongdae at about four in the morning; it was nearly five by the time we got to bed.

That was the latest either had been out for a long time. We didn’t actually do much drinking, either (I had one cocktail – at a redesigned BricxX – a ‘Naked Canadian’, and one beer), so there were no hangover problems.

On Saturday night, Demond had a leaving dinner and drinks – again at Hongdae. Demond is off to China to teachere for six months before coming back to go to university in Seoul. Habiba and I met him along with Eric, Buzz and a bunch of other people at an Indian restaurant called Agra. Beeb and I shared a tasty chicken vindaloo and a mediocre vegetable curry. Later, we walked to the small park that is a feature of many nights out in Hongdae.

The park is a strange place. It’s mostly paved, with one small area cordoned off by trees and bushes. It’s pretty dirty – it has to put up with hundreds of drunk Koreans and foreigners every night. It has some strange characters – like the makgeolli seller who joyfully gave everyone in our group a free paper cup of the white alcoholic drink beloved of middle-aged Korean hikers – even though we were all like, ‘No, I’m OK, thanks, no … oh, um, OK, then.’

It has a nice atmosphere, though. Especially on Saturday. There were a number of people – maybe twenty – drumming in the secluded side area. The noise made by the djembe drums was impressive and hypnotic. Demond joined in. We listened for maybe an hour. Shortly before, in the main part of the park, Habiba and a couple of the other women our group – including Mary, a South African we met paragliding last year (and who I completely didn’t remember) – danced to accompaniment by Demond and a Korean drummer.

On Sunday, we met Ksan for the first time in a few months, along with her boyfriend Jun-hong. Ksan was studying in Britain – in Durham, to be precise. And also travelling all over the place. Habiba and I went with them to an Uzbek restaurant near Dongdaemun History and Culture Park. The meal was very good – we had borscht and shish kebabs (the first lamb I’ve eaten in a very long time – Koreans don’t eat it) and sesame bread, among other things.

Then we went to a couple of exhibitions at the still unfinished History and Culture Park. Firstly – and accidentally, as Jun-hong led us to the wrong place in the pouring rain – a retrospective of world magazines from the last fifty years. Secondly, an exhibition of Korean posters of the last hundred years. Both displays were moderately interesting.

Which reminds me – the previous weekend, we went, with Jessica and June, to an exhibition of work by pop artist Keith Haring. That was a much more fulfilling experience, although waiting to watch the 15-minute documentary with terrible sound wasn’t much fun.

Upon entering her 32nd year

Habiba was 31 yesterday (the 12th of July). Happy birthday to her!

I finished work early and came home to start preparing dinner. Dinner was to consist of salmon grilled with a seasoning of finely chopped garlic stem, ginger, hot pepper, lemon juice and a bit of olive oil. I also put together a stewy kind of thing made of red onion, more garlic stem, tofu, asparagus, zucchini and mushroom. Plus there was a salad – which Habiba helped with when she got home – of various types of lettuce, celery, cucumber, carrot, avocado, almonds, olives and jalapeño peppers. Basically, lots of the food I didn’t grow up eating, but which Habiba has weaned me on to.

Also joining us for dinner were our friends and her colleagues JP and Zach. Everyone seemed to enjoy the meal. I wasn’t entirely happy with the stewy thing – it wasn’t quite what I’d envisioned – the tofu didn’t hold up too well in the jumble of ingredients. But it tasted pretty good. For dessert we had tiramisu (purchased, along with the other ingredients, at our local massive supermarket, E-Mart). When I bought picked up from the bakery area at E-Mart I also got four candles to go with it (and in it), three big ones for each decade and one smaller one for the odd year.

After that it was time for presents – from me, anyway: Habiba had already received goodies the previous week at work. First was a Korean cookery book (in English – and Korean) that I’d wrapped in some of Habiba’s fancy paper and decorated with hearts and stars and a crescent moon. Zach helpfully pointed out that it would be impossible for a star to show in the middle of the curve of the moon, as I’d placed one. I countered that hearts floating in a night sky was also unlikely.

The second gift was a nice pepper grinder that I’d bought from Lotte Department Store in Seoul city centre. It was a little expensive, but probably cheaper than a similar one in a similarly posh shop in the west. This pressie was wrapped in red wrapping paper (previously used – we’re environmentally friendly) and tied with the golden twist ties that fasten the ends of packs of vegetables and mushrooms from E-Mart. The package’s shape and size were, shall we say, suggestive. In retrospect, it would have been better to give this gift before dinner – that way, we could have used it. Habiba has been pining for a good pepper grinder for a while, so it was a good gift, I think.

Habiba also had phone calls from her family and friends wishing her a happy birthday. The highlight of which was this morning when she spoke to her father. He’s in rehab now and apparently off his ventilator – huge steps forward from his condition while we were over in America. I’m sure that was the best present she could have wished for.

The next stage of the celebrations come at the weekend – a night out and some sort of daytime activity are planned.