It has now been a month since my latest dip into the Middle Kingdom. There is a plethora of reasons why I have waited this long to write an entry, not least because I have had limited opportunities to share photos.
In fact, since I am working more than travelling, I will attempt to write monthly entries in order to ensure that I keep doing things interesting enough to write about.
It seems like an age since I touched down in Guangzhou for the first time in 3 years and I was comforted by the familiarity of the extreme humidity of Guangdong. I arrived at my hostel late in the night and reminisced around the city the next day before meeting Benny for the first time since 2011. Benny was my first Chinese friend who I met in week 1 of my first trip here. He has grown up a lot since but remains one of the nicest people I have ever met. Together with Angel (badminton lady from my first school) we enjoyed delicious Cantonese food before a few drinks. It felt like I was back.
It wasn’t long before I was boarding my plane to my new home in Zhejiang and after a short flight I was greeted by Autumn, a nice Chinese lady who would take me into the city of Ningbo and my hotel. The hotel was much better than I expected and a far cry from the hostels I have always slept in. Little did I know that I would spend the next 20 days calling it home.
After a day of acclimatisation in Ningbo I was required to attend the primary school for my induction. This meant my summer holidays had lasted no more than a week. Part of me still feels as though I had earned the summer break following a long school year. Oh well. My induction period lasted for 2 and a half weeks, and I don’t think it will make interesting reading even though there are certain parts that will live with me forever, such as out first aid training.
Unquestionably, the best part of the 2 and a half weeks spent in Ningbo were the people I met for various reasons. I became particularly close to a British girl named Nicki and a New Zealand couple named Mark and Olivia. Together we were able to find the humour in everything, particularly by relating everything to a scene in The Office (which was easy to do). Generally, we would be out of school by 4pm and we were able to find some Chinese food to try out or a bar to meet in. The group of 12 became quite close because we spent so much time together during this period.
In fact, at the end of the first week Nicki and I decided to leave the city for a while and travel to a large lake just beyond it. We decided to hire a tandem bicycle and cycle around the lake and a water town surrounding it. As soon as we began our cycle ride we were hit by a tropical storm. This made for an adventurous exploration of a water town as we were being beaten with rain trying to navigate our bike across the narrow cobbled streets. The rain became so heavy that we eventually stopped riding in order to seek shelter. We found ourselves in an ancient building full of old men playing Mahjong. We were well greeted and were even asked to sit and play. Nicki clearly enjoyed the atmosphere of the Mahjong table as the rain battered the makeshift roof made of tarpaulin.
As the rain subsided we were able to find a small restaurant willing to provide us lunch before returning the bikes and continuing on a stroll across the lake. We eventually took on the challenge of returning by public bus, which we managed successfully.
In this respect, it has turned out as I thought it would, with my weekdays being focused around work, leaving travel as a priority for the weekend. Indeed, the following weekend Nicki and I travelled to Thousand Island Lake (QIandouhu). It was aptly named since it has over 1000 small islands within the lake. On the Saturday morning we set off by bus on a journey that was considered to be between 3 and 5 hours. In the end it took almost 6 hours which made a major indent in our day. We managed to walk a fair distance and discussed how we might be earning a reputation for ourselves as a couple of people who only visit lakes at the weekend.
Since it was too late in the afternoon to begin any excursions we were kindly picked up by a young girl called Nemo, who took us back to her dad’s house for our homestay visit. The family cooked us up a great meal and provided us with a nice room to stay in.
It has quickly become apparent that Nicki and I are very similar in many ways, which is more of a blessing than I imagined. It seems that being around someone with a laid back approach to problems and a similar sense of humour makes life a lot easier.
The following day we ventured back towards the lake. I have made far more effort with my Chinese in recent weeks but I struggled in this environment, yet we eventually managed to convince a boat man to take us to several islands on the lake. It was a great experience on the different islands, and it felt like we had hiked a small mountain by the time we returned for our monstrously long bus journey back to Ningbo. We had the beautiful images of the lake to keep us company coming home though.
During my final half week in Ningbo I was met by Simon, who would be my boss in Hangzhou. He seemed great, aided by the fact that he is also British. Since I had made lots of new friends in Ningbo, Nicki being the best of them, it was difficult to leave the city. It felt even more difficult knowing that most of them would remain together for the foreseeable future. However, myself, Jeremy and Simon ventured on to a new beginning.
As it turned out, by the end of that same day we had arrived in Hangzhou, viewed apartments and secured tenancies on the places we wanted to live. This meant I could quickly call Hangzhou home. I was particularly pleased with the quirky layout of my apartment, but less impressed with the 2 month’s deposit that I had to pay.
We spent the remainder of the week attempting to create a nice class room atmosphere with our limited resources. The weekend break was welcome and Nicki came to experience Hangzhou. The most famous landmark in Hangzhou happens to be a lake. Cautious of our new reputation we steered clear of the lake for the weekend and instead took in some other sights, such as an ancient street and 6 pagodas.
Monday came quickly and this signalled the arrival of the children back at school. This was quite an experience as the parents in my class represent a very close knit community and they were quick to make me part of it. I have quickly noticed how I have to adapt my teaching style here and I feel as though it will take me a while to adjust to the children, as much as they need to adjust to me.
After only 3 days of the new term we had a national holiday to celebrate the end of World War 2 (the Anti-Fascist, anti-Japanese war). This meant that we had the Thursday and Friday to do as we wish. In typical Chinese fashion we were required to return to work at the weekend to catch up on the learning the children had missed.
To take advantage Nicki and I had booked a cheap flight to Beijing on the Wednesday night and a bullet train back on the Saturday. Nicki’s resolve was tested on when we arrived in Beijing since we realised that she had left her residence permit receipt (temporary replacement for a passport) on the plane and we would therefore not be allowed to stay in the hostel, nor get our transport back. I was immediately impressed with her lack of stress or panic, but noticed that she instead thought more pragmatically about the solutions and how we could get by. The hostel we had booked into would not let us stay, aside from the small sofas by the entrance. It was already 3am so we obliged and decided to wake up early to seek a solution to our problem. I think that we both secretly enjoyed having a problem to solve.
Despite Beijing having so much to offer we made it our mission to ensure that we could both get back to Zhejiang Province for work at the weekend. Our first stop was the airport, where we found out that the permit had not been found but we had the opportunity to watch some of the massive military parade happening close by in Tiananmen Square.
We then headed to the train station but could only obtain my train ticket without a valid passport. We then considered a variety of legal and illegal options, but we were warned by the British Embassy to stay on the right side of the law. Strangely, the British Consulate and embassy were shut because of the military parade so were of little help to us. We were no closer to getting a train ticket back for Nicki by the evening but felt confident that the embassy would sort us out in the morning.
Consequently, we headed for a walk into Beijing’s ancient hutongs. It has been 5 years since I last visited Beijing but there was an air of familiarity about the hutongs, which felt strange as we wandered past bars and shops. We settled in a couple of bars and enjoyed a peaceful night with a few drinks and some live Chinese music.
The next day it quickly became apparent that there was a solution to our problem and the British consulate was able to provide Nicki with emergency travel documents to get her back to Ningbo on time. This was a huge relief and a sense of accomplishment for us both.
This meant we could enjoy the rest of our afternoon and evening without any burden of worry. We headed straight to Tiananmen square, where there were remains of the parade from the previous day. Unlike the previous day, the weather was now horrendous enough for me to consider a poncho as an essential. My last visit to Tiananmen had been in the snow. This was a very different experience.
We wondered around the square for a while and took a few pictures ‘with Mao’ before heading towards the Forbidden City. It is a strange feeling to stand on a square that would appear ordinary had it not been so poignant in China’s rich history. The Forbidden City looked almost more glamourous with a grey sky as backdrop. Yet, it soon started to rain even more heavily and we found ourselves wondering between the great buildings swiftly to avoid the rain. I feel as though it would be best experienced without the need for a poncho or an umbrella hat.
However, we managed to experience more of Beijing than it was looking likely to. We vowed to return with less drama in the future, but I fear it will not be as memorable next time.
I have summarised a whole month very quickly here. It’s been eventful but I am sure China has not presented itself in all the glory I know it holds yet. I keep trying to see China through Nicki’s eyes and want to reassure her and myself that there are more fantastic things to come.