I had genuinely thought that this was going to be a really quiet week, with no interesting stories. I shouldn’t have underestimated China ‘s ability to surprise.
After 5 weeks here I’m finally starting to feel settled in. I still get the odd surprise, often from unlikely quarters (this week it’s often been down to ice-cream). First I bought a lolly that was full of kidney beans. The next one I bought had a picture of an egg on it, but foolishly I decided that it couldn’t be egg flavour. I found out shortly after that it could, and egg flavour ice cream is a little odd (I’ve also seen cheese flavour ice cream about). Then in KFC (normally a safe haven of mundane food) I got one with cherries and stuff on top, but found out that they were a whole range of different beans. I’m sure I’m going to think English food is really boring after being out here (this week I’ve also had chickens feet, some part of a cow they couldn’t describe and whole, bite size, octopus. For the first time since I got here I didn’t even try one dish on the table, The little ridges all over the cows stomach made it look really unappealing).
The problem with feeling settled is that it’s started to close my eyes to all the amazing things that are going on around me. Of course some things are still so surreal that I have to notice them. Groups of people doing Tai-Chi right in the city centre is something I don’t think I’ll ever get used to, and people bartering over the price of a live chicken in the middle of the street is odd. I always find policemen with guns unusual, but they don’t usually carry pump action shotguns (although there are about 5 different types of police, and most of them aren’t armed).
To avoid the problem of not noticing things I’ve decided to set myself two challenges. Firstly, every time I go to the supermarket I have to buy at least one foodstuff that I don’t recognise. As I found out in the first couple of weeks, this can backfire. I figured noodles were a pretty safe bet, so I boiled some up and ate them with my dinner. I found them OK, a bit chewy and tasteless, but not bad. It was only when I dropped one in boiling oil a couple of weeks later that I realised that they puff up like quavers (crisps) if you cook them properly, and taste a lot better. The latest round of food experimentation has resulted in an unknown vegetable sheltering in the bottom of my fridge, while I try to work out what to do with it.
The second weekly task is to visit a scenic spot in Chongqing , but the outward journey must be done only on public transport. Usually it’s easier just to take a taxi, as the buses only have signs in Chinese, and they aren’t that much cheaper than getting a cab, but it as the disadvantage that there isn’t that much potential for things to go wrong (and obviously things going wrong leads to the best adventures). This week it all went disappointingly smoothly, I managed to get the right bus straight away, for a visit to the People’s Great Hall. I’m not sure what the purpose of the hall is, although I would guess it can hold exhibitions etc. It also contains a couple of hotels, while in front there is a large paved square. Threadbare topiary animals graze the lawn that surrounds the square, while Chinese signs tell you not to walk on the grass. I had wondered why I was the only person strolling on the carefully trimmed lawn. Colourfully lit fountains complete the scenery and make it a pleasant place to watch the group of about 600 people doing their synchronised dancing as the sun goes down. The rain that came at the beginning of the week has made the evening weather beautiful, the perfect temperature for walking round in shorts and a T-shirt, without the humidity that can make conditions here really unpleasant. We’ve even had the first couple of days of blue skies since I got here.
Fortunately the lack of actual excitement during my trip to the Peoples Hall was more than made up for when I locked myself out of the flat. I had to work on Saturday, and being a bit bleary eyed slammed the door behind me on the way out. Fortunately my landlords had a spare key. Unfortunately I’d left my key on the inside of the lock, which meant that the spare key wouldn’t fit in. After a few attempts to hammer the key in from the outside we realised the only way to sort things out was by entering via a window. As I live on the ninth floor, this was always going to be a bit tricky, but having visited my neighbour’s flat we realised that by going to the floor above mine it would be possible to lower someone down to my bathroom window. I was quite keen to do this, as it looked exciting. Unfortunately my landlord was having none of this, and insisted that it would be better if his granddaughter went. The bathroom of the flat above mine had a ledge outside it’s window. About 2 foot square it provided enough room for my landlord (who must be about 65) to stand on as he lowered his granddaughter (who’s probably about 10) from the 10 th floor to the 9 th . None of the considerable crowd of Chinese people who had gathered in the surrounding flats seemed that bothered about this, but I was having kittens. To be fair, there was a cage around my bathroom window with a gap in the top for the girl to lower through, but I had looked at the cage from the inside and knew it was only held to the wall by about 7 small and rusty bolts. The amount the cage bent where the girl stood on it pretty much confirmed my suspicions that it may not have been the best idea to rely on it as a safety device. Fortunately all turned out OK, but I now have to at least triple check that I have a key with me before I can leave the flat.
While this drama was going on in my apartment, Ben had ended up in hospital. He blames it on his body ending up out of balance after he slept on my sofa on Friday with the air conditioning on it’s lowest setting for the whole night. When followed by walking out into the hot street when we left the house, it seems to have made him a little unwell. My understanding of medicine makes me a little doubtful of his explanation. It sounds like they thought he was dehydrated as they put him on a drip and kept him in overnight. I don’t think he’ll make the same mistake again.
One thing I have realised this week is the luxury I’m living in. The family of 5 who live next door have a flat about half the size of mine, and while I thought 2500Rmb rent (about 200quid) a month seemed pretty reasonable, it sounds like most people pay about a tenth of that (although this is for a much smaller flat, and some distance from the city centre). Unsurprising when the average engineer over here can only expect to earn about 3000 Rmb a month.
Saturday night provided some Western style fun. I went out with all the guys who are over from England at the moment, and a guy called Alex who is in the same hotel as them joined us. Alex proved to be a bit of a liability. The only Scotsman I’ve ever met who gets drunk and then shouts about how great the English are, he was also keen to tell anyone who would listen, in the broadest Glaswegian accent, how he’d lived in Australia for the past 35 years (he’s about 67). Having already visited a couple of bars (although the others had been to considerably more than me), we decided to head to the Reunion Bar. Although it’s not really a karaoke place, three of us took the stage for a rendition of Wonderwall. With a musician who didn’t know the tune, three English guys who didn’t know the words (one of them singing in a fake Manc accent) and a drunken Scot who kept running up and shouting ‘Shithead’ into the mike every time there was a pause, I think it would be fair to describe the reaction of the crowd as stunned silence. The exception was the rest of our group who were collapsed laughing, especially once Alex took to the mike for his 15 minutes of fame, singing a song that nobody had ever heard before and probably hope never to again. Comedy genius.
Friday night’s meal with Ada , her friend and Ben was a bit of a washout. Although it started promisingly when she turned up dressed more casually than me, things went downhill from here on in. Basically Ada and Ben both talked (in Chinese) all night, while her friend, who was very shy, didn’t say anything, and I couldn’t understand any of it. Ben felt that stopping the conversation every half hour to tell me to say something was a helpful attempt at bridging the language barrier. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but I couldn’t think of anything very useful to say in the situation. I had quite a fun night, but have pretty much decided to give up on finding a girlfriend out here. I’ve been chatting to a few people and apparently culturally it isn’t really that normal to go out with someone for a month or two, although if I promise to come back sometime in the near future they would wait for me. Unfortunately as I have no plans to do so, it looks like my luck may not be in.
That’s pretty much it for the last week, I’m having an absolute nightmare getting my digital camera out here, but with any luck it will be delivered soon and I’ll be able to illustrate my stories (I wish I could have got one of the girl dangling out the window!)