As the weeks pass the things I enjoy in China are becoming more subtle. I feel more integrated into life here (or as close as I’m going to get when I can’t talk to anyone and stick out like a sore thumb. Trips to the bread shop are always fun as the staff seem to find me quite amusing, and are always keen to try out their English. Buying what you want is a bit tricky as they rearrange the shop everyday, and I can’t read any of the labels. All the bread looks the same, but some of it is stuffed with odd things, so finding the good stuff is a challenge. Most of the things that entertain me from day to day are along these lines, although there are obviously some more noteworthy events.
Tuesday night I made the fatal mistake of going for a traditional Chongqing hotpot with Ben and Ma Jun. As a warning, I swear that if I’m in a Chinese restaurant back in England and anybody asks me to choose some things that are authentically Chinese, they’re going to regret it. Hotpot is basically a big bowl of chilli oil, with chillies floating in it, that sits on a burner in the middle of the table ( Chongqing is famous for it’s spicy food, which the locals say keeps you cool in summer and warm in winter). Diners choose from a big menu what they want to drop into this fiery cauldron, and then the goods are bought to your table for you to cook at leisure. The eels were fairly tasty, with all the bones removed for easy eating. Seaweed is OK, if a bit rubbery, while the pork and beef were pretty good. Stomach was starting to push me a bit, although once I’d got over the half crunchy half chewy texture the taste wasn’t bad. I don’t think even the brain would have been too bad, but seeing it sat on the table all pink and grey and squidgy for 10 minutes before cooking wasn’t helpful. Once boiled for a few minutes it looked fine, if a little too soft for this westerners chopstick skills. But every piece I put in my mouth made me feel a bit queasy. I’m sure the way it dissolves on your tongue with the slightest pressure is part of the appeal, and it certainly didn’t taste bad. The problem was the thought of it sat on the plate in front of me. I think I may become vegetarian.
A trip to the pub after the meal was required to calm my nerves, and we had quite a good evening, with Ben and Ma Jun chatting up the waitresses, unfortunately Ben chose one who looked like Jackie Chan, while Ma Jun was trying to talk to one who’s boyfriend was stood about 5 foot away. Never a wise move. The use of alcohol to calm my nerves backfired the next day. Test if you wish, but I warn you that the thought of brain dissolving in your mouth does little to calm your stomach
Later in the week Ben shocked me by saying that Chinese schoolchildren are taught that the French won the Battle of Waterloo. Having checked that my facts were right (my knowledge of the result based on Abba telling me that at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender, and it seeming unlikely that Britain would have named a train station after a historic defeat) I confronted Ben with the truth. He admitted that he wasn’t really sure who had won, but he thought that the Scottish might have done quite well. Another schooling story illustrates the extent to which China is embracing capitalism. 30 years ago Henry Ford (who I won’t hear a word against) was used as the model example of how capitalists exploited their workforce. Today he is used to demonstrate the success of production line techniques in a modern manufacturing environment. It’s still surprising how quickly this country can turn around. 10 years ago the Pudong district in Shanghai was rice paddies, but now it’s one of China (and Asia ‘s) main financial centres.
Thursday night bought Shanghai to Chongqing , with a football match between the two cities ( Shanghai has two teams, we were playing their Man City , I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions as to what that means). One of the guys at work knew someone whose dad is a government official, so we managed to get free tickets for the match, and the rest of the season. I’m sure corruption is awful, but it makes things a lot more fun when you know the right people. The football was dazzling, with passing and headers and everything, as well as two goals, one for each team. The highlight of the match for me was either the guy dressed as the monkey king who would whip the crowd into a frenzy by shaking a long stick at them, or the antics of the army. The army presence seemed to outnumber spectators (about 15000 spectators in a 30000 seat stadium). Although technically army, they seemed to fulfil the role of police in England . The best bit was that every now and then they would jog round the track in unison, carrying their little wooden stools with them. I felt really sorry for some of them, as they had to sit with their backs to the match for 90 minutes, watching the crowds jubilation as Chongqing scored the opening goal, yet unable to turn and view their home team. At the end of the match they got to join their friends as they all put on their riot helmets and disappeared out of the stadium. I was going to take a photo, but there was no sign of them when we left, which was a disappointment.
Friday night provided Ben and Ma Jun to continue working on the waitresses from earlier in the week. A much more acceptable meal at Country Style Chicken (Chinese fast food place) set us up well for the evening, as we ate so much that we couldn’t move for a few minutes. We managed to get to the Newcastle Arms for happy hour (the first time in 5 weeks, usually I forget), and were simply delighted to find that they had a face painter in. With a fish painted on my right cheek and a grass skirt round my waist, while Ben had a different fish on his cheek and Chinese and British flags on his arms, the scene was set for a night of fun. After unsuccessful attempts to teach us ballroom dancing (although the crowd seemed appreciative), and a bit of Hawaiian style bum shaking dancing we were ready to move on. Those of you who have been to Asia will know that staring is fairly acceptable over here. Now try walking through a crowded city with a painted face and wearing a grass skirt. As an aside, staring doesn’t take long to get used to, but the spitting is a bit weird. You really don’t expect the petite girls to hock up a huge greenie and then spit it on the street (although if they’re polite they will bend down and aim it in the bin). I’m sure it’s not the healthiest thing in the world, but it makes me laugh, although a lot of the other engineers out here get pretty upset about it (and it is a bit much when they flob on the restaurant floor during dinner). Back to Friday evening, and we headed to Golden 2000. It was cool having Ben there, as he could explain the play they put on. Apparently it was set in Shanghai , and told, with the largest amount of shrieking possible, the tale of a revolutionary who was getting the better of a rich man and a landlord. Obviously a prostitute fitted into the story somewhere, but Ben didn’t go into that much detail. A demonstration of my grasp of Chinese caused my companions and the two girls at the bar to collapse laughing, which is the normal response to my attempts to communicate in the local tongue. It’s quite hard to convey without sound, but the words for big watermelon, embassy and big river monster are practically exactly the same, which could lead to a nasty encounter for any traveller in need of ambassadorial aid.
I also got given a Chinese name, I asked for something that meant ‘crazy fool’ (in the style of the A-Team, which would be pretty cool), but I think some of the subtlety was lost in translation, which leaves me with a name that is more like stupid idiot. A rethink may be required.
The weekend provided an opportunity to head to the swimming pool that we had spotted up by the football stadium. A carefully planned approach (get on a bus that looks like it’s headed in the right direction) saw me ready to take my place with the locals. Unfortunately I’d forgotten my compulsory rubber ring (not really necessary in 5 foot of water), so I felt a little out of place. It was great fun splashing about in the scorching sun, as well as giving me the first proper exercise I’ve had since I got here (if you discount wandering round the city for hours). As ever there were loads of people to talk to, although I can’t imagine anyone in England opening a conversation with ‘Do you have any friends?’.
The journey back form the pool passes Pipa Shan Park . The highest point in central Chongqing at 220m, I’d love to be able to say it was fantastic, but unfortunately the trees spoilt the view of the city, although they do provide shade for the blokes sat around with their birdcages, and the plants on display weren’t anything that special.
A trip to the 3-D cinema last night completed the trip. It seemed a fair bet that the plot wasn’t really going to be the main point of the film, a gamble that paid off as two aliens whizzed around a theme park that (rather strangely) seemed to be based on Futuroscope in France.
I’ve been assured that my digital camera is currently in Hong Kong , and should be arriving here this evening. This means that next week I should be able to send some pictures from the Three Gorges (the trip for this weekend). I’m only going to send photos to people who I know are in the UK , as it’s always difficult trying to view big e-mails on the slow computers that you end up on when abroad. Anybody who wants to opt in/out let me know and I’ll sort it out