Monday, 31 January 2011

Monday 31st Jan, 3.30pm, Zibo

So, as it turns out, the “little town” of Zibo where Keer grew up has a population of five million – that’s the equivalent of the number of cars on the streets of Beijing. And the number of people in Croatia.

We are currently at Keer’s grandma’s next door neighbour’s house, on our second tutoring session with the 14-year-old girl who lives here. We’ve been asked to help for a couple of hours every day with English and Maths. Keer’s in charge of the English bit since she can explain all in Chinese. I’ve been helping with trigonometry; it’s comforting to think that, although I am 5000 miles from home, Maths is still a language I can communicate in.

Last night was our first proper night out in China. The hair dresser that we met on Saturday – who cut and dyed my hair for 80RMB – took us to meet his friends at a club night in the centre of Zibo. First impression of Chinese clubbing – much like my first impressions of everything in China so far – mental! The music was exceptionally loud, the lights were dancing as much as the clubbers, and the strobes showed no sign of letting up at any point in the night.

The most bizarre bit of the night’s proceedings was the “light entertainment” – some singing to Lady Gaga’s Pokerface by a club circuit singer, a guy who made balloon animals (!) and spun bowls and kettles filled with boiling water on various poles (including a spatula) resting on his face, and a man who practised Kung Fu, and spent five minutes straining the air from his lungs into a 10-meter fireman’s hose to blow up – and subsequently burst – a rubber glove at the other end. Then it was time for some audience participation and, predictably, Keer dragged me onto the stage to take part in a “gameshow” contest involving transporting ping-pong balls from one end of the stage to the other, using only straws and the principles of suction. My designated partner and I placed second, and I walked away with a giant teddy! 

Having danced ourselves silly we made our way to one of the other floors of this gigantic entertainment complex (which also housed pool tables, video games, and God knows what else besides) and spent a happy few hours singing along to favourite karaoke tunes. The boys we were with treated us to many Chinese classics, the five of them at various stages of their vocal development.

I’ve been making a mental note of the Chinese “adages” we’ve been privy to; a couple of my favourites –
[upon noticing the goldfish at the hairdressers’] “Goldfish are a sign of prosperity!”
[upon entering aforementioned neighbour’s house] “Fat faces bring fortune!” The neighbours were rather excited to see a white face – “This is too good!”. Wondering round the streets of Zibo is what I imagine it might be like to be a Z-list celebrity – people stare as you walk past, trying to figure out if their eyes are deceiving them, and at the same time wondering if such interest should genuinely be warranted.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Saturday 29th Jan, 2.50am, Train from Beijing to Zibo

Four hours into our six-hour journey, we are sat next to the carriage door – me sharing our suitcase with a 20-year-old girl, and Keer on sitting opposite on someone’s duffel bag. Just as well, because the condensation on the bendy bit (where we’d been stood earlier), has rapidly been turning into ice – we are officially travelling on a train with an interior temperature below zero degrees. If I stare long enough at the ceiling, I may make out the change-of-state when the drips turn to stalactites.

The mood has become more jovial as everyone starts sharing cigarettes and realising- to borrow David Cameron’s phrase (originally coined in High School Musical) – we’re all in this together!
My breath is coming out as white mist and, despite donning on my spare pair of socks (and my York hoodie under the newly-bought ski-jacket [200RMB from Silk Street]), I may or may not have frostbite in some or all of my toes – especially the big left one.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Friday 28th Jan, 11.30pm,Train from Beijing to Zibo

Our train was at 10.48pm. We turned up with about 40 minutes to spare. Beijing Railway Station (image courtesy of this blog - thanks!) was absolutely mental! Hordes and hordes of people were packed outside the entrance forming an incredible unmoving mass. We befriended a Jamaican man on our subway journey to the station who’s lived in China for eight years teaching English, French & German. He hopes to start work for the Jamaican embassy in two years. If his English is anything to go by, there are going to be a lot of crossed wires between China and Jamaica.

I half-carried, half-dragged our joint suitcase through the crowds. Chinese officials were trying to direct the (literally) thousands of people into some sort of ordered mess. Our Jamaican friend was convinced we wouldn’t make it to the train on time. Keer pulled my hood down, telling me to “show them your white face” – a phrase she’s used a lot lately – and the three of us, with our mix of white, black and yellow, somehow managed to blag our way through the masses and to the front of the station.

Luckily the Jamaican guy was catching the same train as us; we ran alongside him for a full five minutes before reaching our platform. I’ve never seen such a long train in my life! Carriage after carriage fit to burst with bodies every which way. The Jamaican had been fortunate enough to get a “bed” ticket, and we left him some four carriages from our own – carriage 7 – lucky for some, but not so much for us. Upon reaching it, there seemed hardly any space to board. Keer translated the train guard’s authoritative barking as “Move down, move down, make space for our foreign friends!” No idea how the two of us – officially the fattest people in China – got on with our suitcase. Genuinelly did not think there was an inch of space for any more travellers – how very wrong I was! A group of about five people turned up, all demanding to be let on and allowed through as they had “seated” tickets. It all got a bit tense – everyone convinced they couldn’t move any further, and one of the girls from the newly-arrived group kept poking me and askimg me if I too had “seated” tickets – “No!” – and could I let her through – “Keer, tell her I have nowhere to move and the guy in front of me needs to move first as there is a suitcase between me and him, so I couldn’t possibly let her pass!”

Anyway, I suppose the total lack of space was merely an illusion as we’ve found ourselves in the bendy bit between two carriages with definitely enough room to at least do a 270-degree turn. It’s also become quite evident why there are only four of us stood here – there’s condensation forming on all surfaces and dripping down. Like an indoor rain cloud.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Tuesday 25th Jan, 7.20pm, Beijing

I have found some LAN internet access where we are now staying – in the centre of Beijing, in an apartment, kindly and quickly sorted out by Keer’s father. I am zipping Keer in and out of various dresses as she potters about getting ready for our night “on the town”.

Spot the Westerner
Yesterday we queued for train tickets to Zibo...for four hours. Four hours! Upon reaching the ticket office and requesting a train for the 31st, we were told we’d have to come back on the morning of the 27th as they can only book as far as five days in advance. Given the already fragile mental state we’d put ourselves in as a result of this first set of queuing, we decided to purchase tickets for an 11pm train on Friday 28th – on a 6-hour train journey with no seats. I’m suddenly very glad I bought three fat books “just in case”.

Another day, another wander through Silk Street Market. This time I had a list of items to purchase – adapter plug, watch, shoes, gloves. Sorted all out for less than £20! It quickly became apparent in our 4-hour wait yesterday that my boots are just not thick enough for this shattering cold. (It also became apparent that next time Keer says somewhere is not colder than London, I should probably still double-check with the world’s met office.)

Here’s some maths for you - a single journey on the Beijing subway costs 2RMB – the equivalent of 20p. For the cost of a 1-day Travelcard (for zones 1-6) on the London Underground you could make 75 journeys here! Mental! But not as mental as the motorised rickshaw Keer and I got in today – the driver was a proper loon, going against the traffic, in between the lanes, on and off the pavement – and then hurriedly ushering us off so the police wouldn’t see! Well, if nothing else, the rickshaw certainly pumps up the adrenaline.

We got some Chinese medicine yesterday to sort me out – the pharmacists said I was stressed and his remedy would get rid of the “too much fire in my head”, apparently.

I had my first experience of potential scamming today – we took a trip to Tianenman Square and were strolling along, as you do, taking photos and the like, whilst random people were coming over and saying “Hello! Where are you from?” and, of course, me being completely naive and unsuspecting, I struck up a conversation with two girls who were keen to “practice English” with us, were going for some “coffee and fun drinks”, and wondered if we “want to enjoy together?” I was all up for it – whilst in China, why not make friends with Chinese people? Anyway, in the end we didn’t go because Keer was convinced there was more to the scene than met the eye. Quite a few other “Westeners” were also being accosted by pairs of girls. It was all very odd once Keer put the shadow of doubt in my mind – and then my mind went running wild – “Well, they can’t have been trying to offer us sex because we’re not men...OH-MY-GOD they were trying to capture us and lure us into the sex trade!” But on a serious note, Keer said one of the latest scams has been the setting up of fake bus stops to sell advertising space. And later we found out that, yes, the two Buddhist girls (who refused to be in a picture with us for religious reasons [or because they didn’t want to be recognised in a line-up]) were indeed wanting to take us to some bar and get us to pay for overcharged drinks. And all this under the watchful eye of Chairman Mao’s portrait – tut tut!

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Sunday 23rd January, 9:30pm, Beijing

It’s Sunday night in Beijing. I’m sat with Keer’s mum watching the Chinese equivalent of “Take Me Out”. (...“watching” is a strong word in this case...) The Party have obviously decided to opt for a host far less irritating than Paddy McGuiness – but perhaps I only think that because I can’t understand him. First impression of Beijing – rather impersonal. Crossing the roads is absolute madness. Being well-versed in the London approach of stepping in front of cars regardless of the traffic lights is definitely an advantage, but it only gets you so far – motorists do not seem to share my view of “if they run me down, it’s them who’ll face the manslaughter charge”...perhaps it’s more the case of “if I run her down, it’s her own stupid fault.”

Wandered round Silk Street Market today with Keer while she tried to locate a nail parlour – when we finally stumbled upon it, it was closed for (Chinese) New Year (3rd Feb). Eventually we found an alternative, and indulged in one of the more pointless leisure activities in life – manicures. Keer also got a full set of acrylic nails moulded on. I, on the other hand, have enough trouble with my chopsticks as it is, and opted out of the fake claws. The market vendors were quite literally yelling at and following me – “Hey girl, want to buy some jeans/bags/Louis Vutton/shoes for you/your boyfriend/your husband?” At first I tried politely declining, but then quickly realised it was best to catch no one’s eye and play deaf/dumb/mute, because the list of potential items and relatives could go on indefinitely.

The food so far has been AMAZING - nothing like Chinese take-away in England, which I am really not a fan of. We’ve had lamb kebabs (not quite the Turkish Wood Green way), liver kebabs, some sort of bean curd soup with fried dough for breakfast (weird texture!), and various dishes at the Peking Duck restaurant – apparently the best duck place in town – the duck pancakes were indeed incredible. Keer’s mum cooked dinner tonight and made us eat all the green vegetables otherwise they’d have been thrown away. There was a dish of what I thought were fine beans – apparently not, it was the green stalk bits on a clove of garlic! Garlic is good for the heart – it can “heal” a broken one, apparently. (Broken in the very literal sense of a “hole in the middle”.) I wish it could heal my sickness, my eyes/nose have been oozing since before we even got here. I think I drugged myself up on about twice the recommended dose of ibuprofen/paracetamol on Friday. A lot of people wear face masks while walking around; perhaps they can hear me sneezing my way over.
Keer’s little sisters are absolutely adorable. They’ve been picking up our (post-ironic) use of the word “blud” – it’s hilarious to hear a 7-year-old Chinese girl saying “Come on blud, let’s play hide and seek!” in a semi-Mancunian accent.

Tomorrow we are going to go and queue for train tickets and hunt down an open mic night for later on in the week. I’ve also been contemplating buying an acoustic guitar over here, if they’re considerably cheaper...

Friday, 21 January 2011


I'm typing furiously on a tiny, tiny Netbook at Heathrow Terminal 4, with blocked sinuses and ear drums fit to burst at any given moment.

HOWEVER, I am less than 24 hours away from a 4-week spell in China!

So, a brief update on last week's abstention:

Cooking. Perhaps not traditionally something that one would think would be difficult to abstain from. But I love cooking! And although I don't cook every day, I do try to make an effort to hunt down different recipes. When my sister was staying with me, we used to have "Breakfast Saturdays" (or, depending on any lingering hangovers from a Friday night, "Breakfast Sundays") and we covered a whole host of breakfast foods, including blueberry pancakes, savoury pancakes (just like the blueberries but with an assortment of cheese instead of berries) and, my proudest achievement, eggs benedict with hollandaise sauce. Poached eggs are actually quite tricky, but hollandaise sauce is just a load of butter and egg yolk and vinegar.

Anyway, what did I learn from my cooking-free week? That the mere definition of "cooking" can cause disagreements! My housemate and I spent a good 15 minutes debating whether the microwavable soup I was eating was a "cooked meal" - in my eyes, definitely not - putting a pot into a microwave for 4mins and stirring half-way through is the equivalent of shoving a pizza in the middle of the oven. But apparently my "no cooking week" was misleading, as my housemate assumed I'd just have to live off takeaways! This would not have been financially viable. In fact, no cooking meant very little expenditure in Morrisons. Instead of wandering round the aisles looking for different ingredients and inevitably buying a cheese board, my purchases were limited to (the aforementioned) soup pots, fruit, and a load of bread. Definitely ate more apricots last week! No ready-meals made the list - maybe if I shopped in M&S I wouldn't be so put off by them... And I was not averse to accepting others' cooked foods, so I visited my parents for dinner too.

All in all, definitely decreased calorie intake - although that wasn't really the point. And found out that Sainsbury's have great reduced items if you go past 10pm.

I also inadvertently didn't drink alcohol for a week due to a course of antibiotics for an ear infection. This was slightly more difficult as last Friday was quite a draining day, both emotionally and physically, and I would have appreciated a drink to relax with - but life goes on, and I found solace in Mafia II on PS3...I had to play the first mission four times because I'm shockingly bad at video games.

Next few posts will be dedicated to my China trip - hurrah! I'm not sure whether or not blogger is a blocked site there - only on way to find out, I suppose..!

Thursday, 13 January 2011


I have a new favourite word - "hippocampi"!

As in, the plural of "hippocampus" - "a complex neural structure (shaped like a sea horse) consisting of grey matter and located on the floor of each lateral ventricle; intimately involved in motivation and emotion as part of the limbic system; has a central role in the formation of memories." [Definition courtesy of Princeton people]

And I would direct everyone to read this article, wth its very many interesting points. Namely, we all have the potential to be geniuses/genei (both words are acceptable, apparently). And that the Nature v Nurture debate has no clear winner.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

1 Week Without...

Firstly, HAPPY NEW YEAR! We have officially completed 1 full week, so only 51 left to go!

So, this year I am doing something a little different for my new year's resolutions.

As ever, I have one main thing to do battle with - the same thing I did battle with 2 years ago, which defeated me three-and-a-half months in. You might have guessed it, you might have not, but point is I have again become a non-smoker! No more "quick-cig-with-a-drink", on a Friday/Saturday(/Anyday) night, which inevitably leads to social smoking downfall. The trouble for me isn't the physical addiction to nicotine, it is the addiction to the habit that helps break up monotony, the habit of standing in the garden with a coffee and a fag, the habit of drunken conversations outside any alcohol-serving establishment, no matter the weather.

In light of this abstinence of mine, I had a brainwave to make the quitting more interesting. If I gave up cigarettes for a week (with the intention of giving up indefinitely), what else could I give up for a week? Or what could I take on for a week that perhaps I hadn't done before? So, my idea for 2011, to make the year more interesting, is to take out or add in little bits of "stuff" in life and see how I go!

As mentioned, first week has been cigarette-free (...with one slip-up last Sunday night, wholly uncalled for - and actually later that evening I also got out my shisha pipe for about 10mins, but no other indiscretions, honest!). It' been quite a drag (ha!), but I know it's worth it and it's been quite pleasant to feel my lungs clearing up, and to not be spewing crap up all the time.

Other ideas of potential cutbacks, as follows:

1 week without...
- sugar
- caffeine
- mobile phone
- social networking
- cooking
- public transport
- meat

...and so on. I thought it might be interesting to note how it goes. It also means practising a hell of a lot of self-restraint and -discipline, something I often think I lack. A few of the ideas I have in mind might have to be taken on for a number of weeks in order to actually feel like a challenge - alcohol, for example, I don't necessarily drink every week, but within the space of a month there should be enough social gatherings and/or birthday parties for me to really practice alcoholic self-restraint.

So, any other ideas anyone has for things I could live with (or without) for a week (or more), comment below!