It really has been a long time since I have written, to no fault of my own. Well, actually that’s not the exact truth, I was responsible for the breaking of my computer and I could have kept notes in a notebook, but alas I did not. The fan on my computer kept causing it to overheat, so I decided to pull apart the entire thing to attempt cleaning it. Instead the computer wound up in tiny pieces, and I never reached the fan. I did however, manage to break my keyboard. It took a few weeks of asking various people to help me before one of my colleagues, Susana, introduced me to a new acquaintance who offered to help. He picked us up, drove us around looking for a computer repair shop, paid for our dinner and dropped us off home happily and voluntarily, a very kind man. So as a result of the mishap I have to catch up on writing for a lot of adventures that have taken place in these last few months, including but not limited to numerous trips to various amusement parks, multiple dinners, a trip to Xi’an, and another trip to Beijing. I doubt that I can manage discussing and arranging the events in order as per usual so I’ll just talk about them as my memory floods back to me.
I had been promising a colleague for quite a while that I would go and stay with her in Tianjin downtown as we were both keen travellers and she wanted to show me her favourite places of interest in the city. She has two houses, one in Eco-city as she works here 5 days a week and another in downtown. Her place in Eco-city is nearby to mine and her place in Downtown is conveniently located very nearby to a food market, the Italian Style Street and Ancient Cultural Street. One weekend I had the time and opportunity to head to her place in downtown so I met her outside her home after work and then we set off on the long drive.
At the beginning of the drive her child threw the most extreme tantrum I have ever witnessed, kicking the dashboard repetitively and screaming something incomprehensible through broken and timely breaths. I recorded him on my phone, just in-case I ever do get around to producing any ‘music’. When we arrived in her home we set out almost immediately. Our first stop was the food market which showcased a variety of different cuisines from all around China. After tasting a few samples we walked to the Italian style Street in the Italian concession. The Italian concession of Tianjin was a small territory in Tianjin that was officially controlled by Italy between 1901 and 1947. I found the existence of the street some-what amusing, but also pleasing considering the abundance of Chinatowns throughout the world. Interestingly the majority of restaurants stocked German food and beer but waltzing through the area brought me right back to a time not that long ago when Mum and I wandered the streets in the Czech Republic looking for a bite to eat. It was home and to bed after that.
The next morning I called my friend and colleague Esther to see if she would like to accompany us to the Water Park. The area had pretty great reviews and it was a part of downtown I had not yet explored so it tickled my fancy to go and check it out. It is the largest park and recreation area in Tianjin and was established in 1951. Vanessa (the lady who invited me to stay with her in Downtown) and I met Esther at the gates. Her family did not accompany us as her child was occupied for few hours with private tutoring in piano and art. I think it is pretty fantastic that it is the norm for children and teenagers of China to have extra classes beyond their general schooling however I also believe it not only puts a lot of extra pressure on children to succeed but also equates to them missing out on an abundance of opportunities to simply enjoy the pleasures of childhood. So, here we were, three adults going to a park full of amusements while her child was stuck in classes.
The first area we walked through was a mini-city. Walking through it felt like we were going back in time, the paint was chipped and faded on all the little buildings; everything just had this really old-school vibe. That’s when Vanessa stated she had not been there since she was a child suggesting my inklings were right. There were quite a few elder men and woman practising their Tai chi in this area. I have quite an interest in the art so we stayed to watch for some-time. A man there let me try some poses pushing my body into the appropriate position, Tai Chi sword in hand. He stood behind me and allowed Vanessa to take a photo. I thought I had done an excellent job until I saw the photo and realised my stance was far off his, and thus undoubtedly fairly far from correct too. Another man was running around on all four legs like an animal. We conversed with him and learnt that he was mimicking a monkey and had the ability to mimic 18 different animals, fascinating. Afterwards, we strolled onwards and reached an area with a few rides, there was a roller coaster and a Ferris wheel, amongst other rides aimed more towards young children. We went on the Ferris wheel and then I, being seemingly over confident attempted convincing both Esther and Vanessa to come on the roller coaster with me. I had never before (in my recollection anyway) been on one. Finally Esther decided to join me, and all was fine and well until the ride masters pulled my harness down and I was struggling to breath, in turn experiencing a mild panic attack. Looking back on it now my inability to breath was probably my overactive imagination seeking a means to escape the exhilaration, or torture (whichever way you want to look at it) I had just bestowed upon myself. Either way, panicking was pointless as it sure was not going to help me take a breath. I tried to get the workers to loosen my harness to no avail and the ride took off, but it was fine and all over in a number of seconds. I think my true fears lied in the age of the park. I had heard horror stories of screws popping and rides collapsing with people in tow and I did not want it to be me.
After the ride we continued walking through the park and arrived at the Tianjin Zoo, we entered but I was revolted by the conditions of the place. All animals were caged in concrete enclosures and there were no imitations of their natural environment whatsoever. Spectators from all angles went unsupervised and threw foreign objects into the enclosures or tapped the glass windows loudly. I empathized with the animals and found every visitor completely obnoxious. I witnessed a gorilla thrown a ‘fanta’ and drink it and I wondered what kind of implications such substances could cause for the animals health.
After our saddening Zoo experience we went to a huge shopping district in Heping Lu to take a look at some shops. Apparently there was to be a fashion show in the Mall. We were told it was to begin at 8pm so went and had a bite to eat before again pushing ourselves through the excited mob. We waited, and we waited. We were growing impatient and just as we were about to give up and leave the show begun. The show was a combination of foreign and Chinese dancers and models. They were really talented but I could not understand why they were circled by a group of lifeless women in short-shorts blocking our view. I was also frustrated by the fact that a security guard decided to perch himself right in front of me. But alas, it made for enjoyable, free and unexpected evening entertainment. After the show we headed to Esther’s house for an evening on the town. Ryan had informed me about the bar Esther wanted to head to and I was keen to check it out. Vanessa had never been to bars or clubbing before so she was in for a treat. We headed to a bar called ‘Meshany’s’, the drinks were on me, and we played our own twisted version of this dice drinking game popular in all the pubs and clubs in China. I met a fair few of Esther’s friends and then we headed to a club called Satong for dancing. We had already consumed our fair amount of liquor at that point so we just danced, and danced, and danced. By the time we walked out of that place it was 5am in the morning, sun shining! We hollered a taxi and I was drunkenly trying to tell the driver that I wanted McDonalds, but in China the restaurant does not go by the name ‘McDonalds’. Luckily for drunken me we ended up passing it and I started pointing and exclaiming “there there! Stop!” rather obnoxiously. Just as we walked in one of the staff changed the menu over to breakfast, I was disgruntled, I do not rate the breakfast menu but we ate anyway and then headed back to Esther’s place to pick up our things. I really just wanted to crash the ‘day’ at her place but Vanessa thought she better get back to her husband, she did not want him to think she had not been well rested so thought it better to arrive ‘fresh’ in the early morning. She scrubbed off her makeup and off we went. I think I may have given away what we got up-to however as all day at their place I slept trying to recover from my wicked hangover. Vanessa was an absolute soldier and stayed awake the entire day looking after her young child. In the afternoon we drove back to Eco-city.
I had heard for a while about an amusement park nearby to us, and one day after Joel had gotten on the wrong bus he passed it, so luckily for us he knew how to get there. The following weekend after my escapades in Tianjin downtown, Joel and I, and my friend and colleague Xue Pahong went on an outing to go check it out. The parks name was ‘Fantawild Adventure’. I could not believe I had the courage to go on a roller coaster the first time let alone the bravery to go to another amusement park only the following weekend. The park featured a number of rides including simulator and tracked rides, some used 3D technology and interactive screens. My favourite ride was probably the splash down ride where tracks are used to hull you up then when you reach the ‘top of the mountain’ at great speed you plummet down into the water below, then you go on a relaxing voyage down a river, or so you believe until people on the side lines begin water bombing you! Even though we were provided rain coats and pants all participants wound up soaking wet afterwards. The best part was that we got to be the ones bombing unsuspecting ride goers afterwards.
I also enjoyed the flight simulator ride. We waited a ridiculous amount of time as we were informed it was not to be missed. Once we were allowed in we fastened our seatbelts, the lights went off and then when we opened our eyes again our feet were dangling over the edge of seemingly eternal nothingness where they were only shortly prior resting on solid ground. As I looked around me to every side there were others above and below sharing the same experience of weightlessness. A screen then proceeded to project 3D films revealing bird’s eye views of spectacular worldwide famous landscapes, such as Beijing, Cairo and New York. We really felt like we were flying. In another 4D cinema, although not comparable we all got the shock of our lives when water got squirted in our face by a ‘crab’ (the water went up my nostrils)! The other simulating theatres included the School of Wizardry, Prince Nezha’s Triumph against Dragon King (a traditional Chinese myth), and another film about sea life! In my opinion a haunted house is necessary to add to the excitement.
The 4-D films with moving seats and in-theatre sensory enhancements really make for a fun, sometimes amusing and always engaging experience. Other rides included the typical rocking boat ride, making my stomach drop at every decline, the free fall ride which Joel made me extremely nervous about by informing me that he went on a ride in Queensland the same and the aim is to shock you by counting down 3,..2, 1 but leaving you hanging and then dropping you at great speed when you least expect it. The views from the top however, were pretty incredible. There was also a ride called ‘Mount Tanggula’ which was a high speed mini roller coaster, and then the substantially more extreme ‘Flair meteor’ roller coaster with numerous twists and turns and a lot of going upside down. That rollercoaster was not comparable to my experience in Tianjin Down-town. I think after the ride I was semi-concussed. My head and everyone else’s was banging side to side the entire time. I do not recall the name of it, but the first ride we went on when we arrived at the park was a huge ride that went up and down and in circular motions. Although I was initially terrified, once I settled in I felt like a baby in a cot and relaxed myself to the motions.
Would you believe the next weekend I again opted for an amusement park, there is another in our city called ‘Aqua Magic’, either I am going crazy or I am addicted to the thrills but by this point I felt like my body was running out of its adrenaline reserves. I handled every ride despite my anxiety going through the roof. I thought the scariest ride was the Viper. You’re in a two person float and go winding through a tunnel before dropping off an edge into a huge U shape; you continue sliding backwards and forwards until an eventual stop. I am not a screamer but I screamed at the top of my lungs when we plunged over the edge of that one! The slide I most enjoyed was where participants could race together at the same time through different shoots to the end. Another ride was a long wait sitting in blue tubes floating above a pool of water to eventually have water jets blast you upwards and through rapids. The park also offered numerous slides from great heights requiring hiking stories of stairs to reach the top of them with incredibly steep angled slopes downwards. There was only one slide I reserved for my next trip in the park; it was an orange slide on a 90 degree angle boasting at least 100 metres freefall. Joel went down a few times, but I am not game just yet. The fact that it is a slide not a tunnel makes me petrified I will fly over the side of it. The park also had a swimming pool, and man-made beach with a wave pool and concerts.
After the day spent there we headed to Joel’s newly acquired friends house for dinner. Joel met him on the bus. His name was Xiao Lou. Him and his wife fed us a huge variety of different dishes and we drank beer and chatted for some hours. I am a little bit too curious sometimes and often try to discuss Chinese politics with my friends here, however, that evening I had completely forgotten the law which absolutely forbids mention of the Tiananmen Square massacre and overstepped my boundaries. As soon as I said it I profusely apologised and told our new friends I had forgotten the law. Luckily, they did not oppose my perspective and reassured me saying it was okay to discuss these things amongst friends but I should be very cautious in expressing my beliefs or opinions on such matters in public.
Sometime in the following week we had an interesting experience. I usually left the key for Joel behind a poster on our door or in the electrical box when I went to work as we only had one key between us and I usually left after him but arrived home later. One evening when we got home though the key had disappeared. We called our manager Rita and asked her what we should do. We expected that she would suggest we call a locksmith, but instead she suggested that we call the local police as there were both no locksmiths in our area and apparently they will not assist without police consent either. So Joel headed down to the local police station and I waited at the house in case someone came with the key. Soon enough our manager who lives nearby came over to our apartments to await police presence. Once the police arrived we had to wait for a special police hired locksmith. When they all arrived we spent some time deliberating what to do as apparently it was a double-lock door and they would have to break the lock and then replace it, so we had to get in contact with our landlord who lives in France for her consent. It was going to be costly business. Luckily though, after many hours of decision making and waiting our neighbour heard all the commotion and came to inform us that they had seen property management take our key. Our manager’s husband, Joel and policemen went all over the place on an epic mission in search of the man who had found it as property management was closed. Eventually they were able to track him down and have him return it to us. Who would have thought that getting locked out of the house could cause so many people so much trouble!
You’ll have to forgive me on the exact dates but I believe it was the week after this that we had a long weekend so Joel and I decided to go to Xian, famous for the terracotta warriors. On the first day we went to the Tomb of Emperor Jingdi and the Big Goose pagoda.
Emperor Jingdi was a Han-Dynasty Emperor (188-141BC). He did a lot to improve the life of his subjects; he lowered taxes, cut back on needless military expeditions and reduced punishments handed out to criminals. The contents of his tomb were fascinating. The museum holds more than 50,000 terracotta figurines, including imitations of eunuchs, servants, and domesticated animals. The figurines originally had movable wooden arms and were dressed in colourful silk robes, however, with time these aspects have deteriorated. Inside the tomb for viewing are 21 narrow pits, some of which have been covered by a glass floor, allowing you to walk over the top of ongoing excavations and get a great view of the artefacts. There are believed to be 81 burial pits in total. I really enjoyed my time here as the crowds were few allowing us to take our time and read all the information and properly admire what the site had to offer.
After our visit to Jingdi tombs we went and checked out the Big Goose Pagoda. It is one of China’s prime examples of Tang-style pagodas and dominates the modern buildings in the adjacent area. The building is square rather than your typical round design. It was completed in 652AD to house Buddhist sutras brought back from India by the monk Xuan Zang. Xuan spent the final 19 years of his life translating the scriptures with a team of bi-lingual monks. Surrounding the pagoda is one of the largest temples in Tang Chang’an with buildings dating from the Qing Dynasty. We were starved after our time here and went to the Muslim Quarter back in central Xi’an to eat dinner. Whilst we were attempting to find it we stopped to gawk at the Drum tower. The tower dates from the 14th century and is breathtakingly beautiful at night. Swallows sing and circle the tower lit up bright under the night sky. I found it difficult to continue onwards, I think I could have easily sat there all night in admiration without an ounce of protest.
The Muslim Quarter is in the backstreets nearby to the Drum tower and has been home to the city’s Hui community (Chinese Muslims) since at least the 7th century. The narrow laneways are full of butcher shops, men in white skullcaps and women with their heads covered in colourful Hijabs. It was a fantastic place to meander and especially full of character at night. An array of different cuisine can be eaten there. My students prior to my departure had informed me of a famous meat-bun that we had to try so I was determined to have a taste, and where else to find it but the bustling Muslim Quarter full of street vendors. We found a stall and waited in line for a ludicrous amount of time amongst numerous other people wanting a taste and although for what it was, it was expensive, it must have been well worth it because we lined up again for another taste. After that we went to check out the Great Mosque before again wandering the streets of the food market.
The Great Mosque is one of the largest mosques in China and combines a fascinating blend of Chinese and Islamic architecture. Unusually it faces west towards Mecca instead of the typical South. The entrance gate of the Mosque is typically Chinese in architectural design and is deliberately created to keep demons at bay. The gardens with their pagodas built from stones and archways are also Chinese in design. The Islamic influence can be seen in the central minaret and the turquoise roofed prayer hall at the back of the complex as well as the Arabic calligraphy gracing the majority of entrances. The present buildings are mostly Ming and Qing though the mosque was founded in the 8th century and many are unfortunately falling to disrepair. We wandered to complex for some-time finding joy in a lonesome kitten and witnessing Mosque goers prepare dinner for numerous followers who we assumed resided in the complex.
The next morning we decided to head to the notorious Hua Shan or Mount Hua. The mountain is situated in Huayin City approximately 120 kilometres from Xian. The mountain is so famous for its exposed and narrow paths with sheer drops and tracks which have scarcely enough room for one visitor to pass through safely yet are used for both ascent and descent. These dangerous conditions have lead to numerous fatalities. Despite these facts I was determined to tackle it. As I tried to convince Joel that it was a worthy ambition by suggesting that the amount of people that accomplished the climb was vastly greater than those who did not he was crude enough to suggest that knowing my luck I would be one of the unlucky ones. Fortunately for him we were stupid enough to arrive at the train station without our passports (required for ticket purchase). I argued and argued with the ticket seller and at one point it seemed like he was going to sell us a ticket. He took our money, asked us the time we wanted but then his manager decided to waltz on over and tell him that he could not sell them to us. I have to say, despite our frustrations I appreciated the man’s efforts as he had already refused us entry once but obviously emphasized so decided to let it go. When we were about to give up hope someone informed us that a photocopy of our passport was sufficient so I frantically attempted calling the hostel we were staying in to either send us a copy of our passports that they already had or to go up to our rooms, fetch them and take a photograph for us. I could not believe it, our phones were not working. The next plan we had in mind was asking to use random stranger’s phones, which most reluctantly allowed, however the line was not connecting from their phones either. There was a problem at the hostel’s end. Finally we got through to them, and they informed us that our passport copies were held at another chain of the hotel. I was giving up hope but they extraordinarily kind-heartedly agreed to fetch them for us and told us they would send us a picture within twenty minutes. Twenty minutes later we received the images and a phone-call ensuring their arrival. If you ever go to Xi’an I highly recommend staying at Han Tang Hostel the staff are all kind and excruciatingly helpful. Anyway, with pictures in hand we headed back to the service desk. The same man accepted the pictures and again began to process our tickets when the manager came over and again refused us on the basis that they were not the originals. I was frustrated to tears at that point and in a huff and a puff I headed towards a main road to attempt to hail a taxi and go see the Terracotta Warriors instead. I refused to fly all the way to Xi’an and waste a day.
Upon arrival to the Terracotta Warriors Museum the taxi driver attempted charging us double the price stated on the meter. He had pulled over nearby to a group of ‘tour guides’ who informed us that because of the great distance we had travelled we needed to pay for his journey back. We essentially just laughed, threw the right about of money at him and began walking towards the site. The whole way a man kept insisting he be our guide and we refused him due to lack of funds. He insisted we must have been rich otherwise we would get a bus not a taxi. He was not wrong! I certainly would have had I known which bus to catch! It was funny though, the fool gave us all kinds of vital information about the site, how to get there and how to get a bus back to central Xi’an without us handing over any cash. Once we arrived at the museum gates we saw proper museum employed guides in uniform with identification cards charging the same price as the man following us, however, I do not doubt the man trailing with us would have expected us to pay a fee plus his entrance. We went onwards without a guide following the crowd en masse. When I walked through the doors of the museum I excitedly exclaimed “It’s just like the documentaries”, and it was exactly like the many documentaries I had seen. I teetered in slowly, anxious to see what would behold me. The sight was pretty spectacular. A huge landscape comprising thousands of terracotta warriors, horses and carts stood before me, it was pretty magnificent. More brilliant than the sight of it was the skill that went into making these statues approximately 2000 years ago. Also awe-inspiring was the fact that each and every one of the thousands was individually created, all with their own facial features and bodily characteristics. We were also able to see the original well a farmer was digging when he discovered the first artefact in 1974. The site is understandably one of the greatest archaeological sites in the world. It is the tomb of Qin Shi Huang. It is suggested he was either petrified by the concept of spirits awaiting him in the afterlife or as most archaeologists generally believe he expected his rule to continue in death as it had in life so decided to take his horses, carts and Calvary men with him. Nevertheless the tomb offers amazing insight into the ways of ancient China.On the way to the tomb I had spotted a mountain and pondered whether it was Li Shan mentioned in our lonely planet guide so after visiting the tomb we caught the bus there. At the foothill of the mountain was a beautiful musical fountain. It made me think of the musical fountain in Marianske Lazne in the Czech Republic that I visited with Mum. I sat for some time, watched the display and reminisced. We walked onwards and I purchased what I believed were tickets for the cable car to the top of the mountain. We walked through the gates and into a royal garden, in existence since the Zhou Dynasty. Evergreen pines and cypress trees adorned the overlooking hills. Apparently the area was a tourist destination for numerous emperors throughout ancient China’s history.
There is an ancient mythic legend of a Goddess called Nvwa. The legend claims that once upon a time a great disaster occurred and the heavens collapsed, the earth became sunken and wild beasts killed people. Nvwa prepared the heavens with coloured rocks and killed the beasts and proceeded to create more humans by simulating her own appearance. It is said that this occurred at the site of Li Shan.
We wandered the magnificent gardens with lakes surrounded by weeping willows and adorned with majestic arched bridges seeking the cable car entrance, to no avail. It turns out the cable car entrance was a whiles walk away and the tickets we purchased did not include the cable car in the entrance price. We did not have a huge amount of money left and I still intended to trek Hua Shan the next day so I considered the ride unnecessary considering we would get the cable car down from Hua Shan the next day. We caught the bus back to Xi’an and then spent the remainder of the evening getting a little too rowdy with one of the friendly Australian hostel staff members and some expats that were visiting him. One of the girls was also an English Teacher and the other was a yoga instructor. I found her particularly interesting. She was only young. She told us that she went as an exchange student to India when she was 17 years old but there was a problem with her host family, she stayed in the country regardless and instead opted to study yoga in an Ashram which is where she learnt her trade. She is also a marathon runner and has intention to go to Kashmir in India to research the war situation there. She theorizes that the cause of the dispute has something to do with the rate at which the snow is melting. She was incredibly envious of my travels there as she had not yet had to opportunity to visit. Anyway, they were all lovely interesting people and we stayed up far too late considering and discussing our morning’s intentions with them.
So morning had arrived and we woke up bright and early as intended but Joel was not thrilled by the whole concept of tackling an extremely arduous 8 hour trek on the day of our flight so as disappointed as I was he convinced me that we would return to the city, and with our new friendship ties and offers of employment I thought it plausible. Instead we decided to cycle the city walls. The fortification of Xi’an is the most well preserved and oldest city wall that has survived in China as well as one of the largest military defensive systems in the world. Construction of the first city wall began in 194 BCE and lasted for four years. The existing wall was started by the Ming Dynasty in 1370. We hired a tandem bicycle atop of the wall and did the entire two hour circuit. We were told by the hostel staff prior to leaving for our destination the cost of bicycle hire but were not informed of the 200 RMB deposit required and we did not have enough money, I pleaded with the staff explaining that we were unaware and eventually they allowed us to surrender our passports as our deposit instead. I was pretty happy with that deal. The problem was if we took more than a designated period of time to circle the wall we had to pay extra for every so many minutes and I only had exactly enough to cover the cost of bikes. We pedalled fast and hard until we came to a half way point where Joel told me we had already cycled 1 hour. So we pedalled and pedalled to get back to the end all the meanwhile snapping photos as we were moving. We got back to the starting point, checked the time and we had cycled the whole wall in approximately an hour! I asked Joel how that could be considering according to him we had allegedly taken an hour to midway point and he exclaimed “it was an estimate”! I most definitely would have preferred to have taken my time, gotten off the bike at points and taken some decent photos, but such is life. Afterwards I realised I had developed a blister on my thigh from riding and had saddle legs. Due to the bikes poor quality the seats were not of optimum comfort.
We spent the remainder of the day slowly waddling through the streets of Xi’an and stumbled across the ‘Forest of Stele Museum’. I am not normally big on museums but I had previously read a review somewhere about this place so was keen to suss it out. The museum was established in 1090 during the Northern Song Dynasty. It was previously a Confucius Temple and houses approximately 3000 stone tablets, sculptures and epigraphs with the biggest collection of stele in China. The collections of inscribed tablets are engraved with almost everything imaginable from poems, fables and moral codes to religious texts. As you head towards the museum you are greeted by an abundance of skilfully created Chinese calligraphy artworks worth stopping to admire. I really enjoyed an area of the museum that housed Buddhist statues. I have never seen such a vast array and they were laid out and lit up skilfully to showcase their best engraved features. I was mesmerized by them, they looked fabulous. Joel remarked that the majority of the statues were missing their noses or their arms and pondered whether the figures had been stolen which may have somehow been cause to the damage we witnessed. I dispute his theory however I myself question why the first thing that seems to deteriorate on ancient artefacts is the nose. I suppose this is just the most fragile element of their construction. At the museum we were also fortunate enough to witness people making rubbings from the epigraphs. It was fascinating to watch them first use a mallet to hammer the paper into all the creases in the stele and then to accurately and swiftly paint over the paper with thick black ink leaving white transcripts behind.
After we had finished at the museum we continued to slowly meander around the streets of Xi’an heading in the general direction of the hostel. We stopped for dinner at a restaurant with no English speaking staff or picture menu but a waitress insisted we stay and requested other diners with some English speaking ability help us make our order. All went well and the food was tasty. Occasionally we would hear people request certain dishes from the waiter that we recognized so we could mimic them, for example, the famed Chow Mein. After dinner we headed back to the hostel, grabbed our bags and got a taxi to the bus stop which was going to take us to the airport. We had arrived earlier rather than later and just as I was about to settle down and relax I thought to myself I had better check our flight time again. It turns out I thought we were leaving at the time set for arrival in Tianjin. We picked up our bags and made a run for it with minimal time left for check-in. But alas, we made it back safe and sound.
Although I am not entirely sure of exact dates of occurrence due the aforementioned elongated period without ability to write I believe it was the next weekend following our travels to Xi’an that I had some friends over to eat dinner, including an aforementioned colleague from the Middle School Xue Pahong, and the previously mentioned newly acquired friends of Joel’s, Xiao Lou. I served a large salad, boiled peanuts and beans, a tomato and egg dish with spring onions and chilli’s as well as a onion, egg and chilli chicken recipe that my friend and colleague Esther had cooked for me during my time in Tianjin. One of the responses I got was “wow, you can cook”, I responded, “You thought I couldn’t”? It’s like when the next day I had my Chinese teacher over for a lesson and consumption of leftovers she said “wow, your house is clean”, my response “you thought it wasn’t”, you have got to love a back-handed compliment.
That week was also the one year anniversary of my mother’s passing. It was evident the positive impact my Mother had on people’s lives considering the numerous people that messaged me prior to and on the anniversary of her passing offering their support, condolences, and grievances. To celebrate her life and grieve her decease I went to a restaurant in TEDA, the Dublin Irish pub. I ate Goulash, Sauerkraut, meats and mashed potato accompanied by beer and absinthe in a toast to her. On the weekend Joel and I went to Beijing to the Jiankou section of the Great Wall to spread her ashes. I asked the hostel staff whether they knew of a tour that went there, nonetheless, they were unaware of this section of the wall’s whereabouts so we went to another hotel tour desk to inquire there, they did not offer any tours but on the other hand managed to arrange a private driver to take us there. It was a long drive to Jiankou filled with beautiful countryside scenery, an uncommon but welcomed sight in China. When we arrived I was nervous, I looked at the mountain before us and wondered to myself whether I was able to accomplish such a feat, but I was there and backing out was not an option at that point. I began walking, and we shortly came across a sign which warned that this section was closed to the public. We shrugged our shoulders and carried on, I have never let a sign prevent me from an experience before so there was no reason now. I found the path fairly difficult, it was a little steep, not well-trodden and rocky but the main thing bothering me was that we had only been trekking an hour or so and due to Beijing’s summer humidity I was absolutely drenched in sweat. As we carried on we met more and more difficult obstacles and people who decided not to continue walking onwards. It seemed the further we climbed the more treacherous and steep the trail became. There were numerous periods of time where it felt more like I was rock-climbing using my hands and feet to tackle the slopes. Sometimes Joel and I would have to give each other a hand up and at times the incline was a solid 90 degrees. My white top became see-through with sweat. Most of the wall was deteriorated and dangerous. The Jiankou section has never been restored since its construction. This, along with its location along a mountain ridge bordered by jagged cliffs and steep drop-offs, makes this section extremely dangerous to climb. When we reached the top however, the views were absolutely spectacular. The climb was well-worth it.
I found it fascinating that the few walkers we came by were either completely inappropriately dressed, for example wearing business suits and shoes or short shorts and sandals or completely decked out from head to toe in fluorescent jackets, sturdy hiking boats and gloves for climbing.
That evening after the trek, we had a half an hour time frame to quickly shower and change before heading the Peking Opera at the Liyuan Theatre which hosts a four part repertoire, including ‘Farewell My Concubine’, ‘The Crossroads’, ‘A Bird in Cage’ & ‘Drunken Beauty’. Although I regret not purchasing front row tickets for the photo opportunities it was still a fantastic and valuable experience.
The Peking Opera arose in the late 18th century and was particularly favoured in the Qing Dynasty court. At the Opera I found amusement in a mother and child in the row in front of us. Although they were talking amongst themselves it did not really bother me, more so I was bothered by the two tourists next to them who insisted on scoffing with disgust at every word that came out of their mouths. The tourists moved away with time but then the mother pulled out an Ipad for the child to play with. This was all fine and well, if you need to keep your child occupied by this means then do so. I am not sure why but my feelings towards the two rapidly changed when the mother found reason in commentating on every move he made in the game he was playing. I guess it just seemed unnecessary. I think this family was better off not purchasing tickets for the performance at all. Anyway on the subject of the performance I found the combination of singing, dancing, martial arts and dramatisation very entertaining. The style of singing was very peculiar, the dancing skilled, martial arts impressive and dramatization just so. My favourite aspect of the opera, conversely, was the elaborate make-up, masks and costume. The colours of the masks they wear symbolize different human characteristics such as temper, personality and age. As long as one is aware of the different colours and their symbolism it makes following the plot that much easier. For example a person wearing red illustrates that they are sincere, black means direct, white means cunning, blue means brave, yellow means vicious, purple means honest, green means strong, pink means weak, and gold and silver represent holiness.
I suppose you may be wondering what the show what about. Well, as aforementioned the Liyuan Theatre holds a show of four repertoires. Repertoire one, ‘farewell my concubine’ is a tragic but romantic story from approximately 2000 years ago about the battle between King Chu and Han. The King of Han was tricked by the king of Chu. He had his soldiers surrounding Han’s castle singing to make him believe his army had been defeated and that he was surrounded by his enemy. In his desperation he called his concubine to drink with him as he was certain of his failure. She wanted to please him by dancing the sword dance however she did not want to become a burden in war and thus committed suicide with the sword. The next repertoire was a story of an occurrence in the Song dynasty. Jiao Zan was exiled to Shamen Island for the murder of an immoral government official. On his way to the island he stayed at a guest house. His friend has secretly followed him there with aims to protect him. The owner of the hotel misunderstood the friend’s intentions and thought that he intended to kill Jiao Zan. The hotel owner and Jiao Zan’s friend fought until Jiao Zan appeared in time to clear the misunderstanding. The third repertoire ‘A Bird in a Cage’ tells a story of reunion between a son and his mother separated during war. The fourth and final repertoire was entitled ‘drunken’ beauty. The story happened in the Tang Dynasty. The Emperor asked concubine Yang to prepare a private garden banquette for him. When Yang had finished her preparations she waited but there was no sign of emperor coming. A eunuch arrived and informed her that the emperor would be spending the night with another woman and was unable to come. She felt disappointed, lonely and hateful to which her solution was to drink wine by herself until she became very drunk. The play became a reflection of her beauty through her drunken behaviour.
On the Sunday after our busy day of trekking and watching the opera my legs were beyond tired, they were painful and caused me to limp. I decided to, as fortunately there were parlours nearby our hostel, get a massage. Joel refused on the basis that apparently it was a ‘brothel’ and I was setting him up. It was his loss. Although the masseuse sat on me that was as far as any promiscuity went. Afterwards we headed to the Beijing Zoo to go and see the well famed Giant Panda, which was really not that ‘giant’ at all.
The literal translation of the Chinese name for Panda ‘dà xióng māo’ means ‘big bear cat’. Although it is extremely difficult to see a Giant Panda in the wild, as there are only approximately 1,590 left I vowed after our time there that it was my last and final experience in a zoo. Although the conditions in the Beijing Zoo were slightly more appeasing than those in the Tianjin I was still appalled by some of the animal’s habitats, for example the Polar Bear. In this moment of writing all this time later I am still absolutely disgusted. The poor things were enclosed in an open den in the 35 degree plus heat of Beijing with no cool air supply to mimic their natural habitats. To be honest, I am astounded they survived.
In the evening we went to Wafujing market for the second time since living in China to get a bite to eat, we sat on the rooftop of a pleasant Italian joint before being bombarded with heavy drops of monsoon like rain and running inside for cover. We had a good few moments under a shoddy canopy to marvel at the people with umbrellas passing by and the less fortunate people without that were rapidly saturated.
After dinner we headed back to our hostel to collect our things before embarking to the rail-way station for the trip back to Tianjin. The hostel employees were incredibly unhelpful refusing to even attempt calling us a taxi because “they would not come” as it was “too close” (it was a good 25 minute more drive). So we set off carrying three bags each walking to the main road to holler one. I would not recommend staying at Little Mao’s hostel. The whole experience reminded me of a story my mother told me about her time in Greece. She asked a hotel receptionist to call her a taxi and he refused saying that where she wanted to go was too close and she could walk despite her insisting her bag was far too heavy. She argued and argued but he would not budge, she was becoming increasingly frustrated with the country at that point and said so to one of her fellow travelling buddies, she felt guilty but alas, he was just as fed up with the place as her apparently!
When we finally arrived back to TEDA in transit to our home in Eco-city we hailed a taxi to take us the last leg of the journey. We put all our things in the back of his car and then with our luck our driver just happened to get into a dispute with another driver. We could not just get into another taxi like we might usually do because he had all our things in the boot. I think the dispute may have had something to do with the fact that the man had invited us into his taxi when he was not at the front of the line. The fight turned physical at a rapid pace with the other driver kneeing our driver in the balls and then taking his keys from the ignition. I stood around impatiently essentially being useless while Joel tried to separate the two. I had a big weekend and really did not have much patience for the nonsense. I just wanted to get home. After our driver got kneed he grabbed for something out of his car. It concerned me, I thought it was a gun or a knife but he grabbed the collar of the other man and sprayed him with pepper spray right in the eye and got him for a good 30 seconds. He emptied the whole can on the man. After our driver had blinded him the other driver grabbed our driver’s keys from his ignition. Our driver had ample opportunity at this point to take him down should he so decide but rather was fairly considerate towards the man and allowed him to recover from the burns at a distance. He then pleaded with us in Chinese regarding something. Joel suggested that maybe he wanted us to join him at the police station as witnesses. He kept pushing us to sit and wait in the car. I did not want to take part, not only did I not want to be implicated or recorded in any bad business, but I also did not want to take defence to the wrong party. They were arguing in Chinese so I really do not know who was truly at fault.
In other news, although I initially was not intending on staying more than a year here in China my agency offered me a new contract with a few extra minimal benefits including a (non-paid) month long holiday and more routine and job stability. I decided to sign as it gives me the opportunity to take my Chinese studies further and work in a classroom environment more similar to a school in Australia. I thought it was an opportunity not to be missed if I intend of pursuing my Masters of Education. The school I will work for is called 3 & 3 International Kindergarten. I will be one of the head teachers at the school teaching K2 children English. I have my own classroom and class so will get to deck out the room anyway I see fit. Normally in teaching over here we are ‘English’ teachers not ‘Teachers’ so we just come in to give each class their lesson, in this new situation we will not only be responsible for teaching, but also be their homeroom teachers, assist them with their meals, supervise their sleeping time and be making reports, ordering supplies and communicating with parents. It will be compulsory for us to study the Chinese language.
Food for thought, it really bothered me that during our training it was consistently emphasized that our school was going to have ‘oak’ furniture as though that would somehow benefit the educational quality and that they had chosen to hire 6 foreign teachers to put other Kindergartens in the area out of business. I think the worst thing of all though was the ever constant discussions on liability. If a child is suffering, for example suffocating we are not permitted to administer CPR as if something happens to the child the parents may hold us responsible. If a child has a disability or difficult to manage illness such as heart disease then the school will not allow children’s enrolment “they’ll have to go elsewhere” we were informed. Having experienced going to school in both public and private systems I had always vowed I would not send my child to a private school, but now I am adamant. I find their attitude deplorable.
Setting up the new kindergarten has been extremely difficult for all of us. We have been working every single day over-time without any weekends or holidays and task after tasks has been thrown at us with short deadlines. For example we were given the responsibility to decorate our entire floors in two days prior to parent’s arrival when another Kindergarten from Shanghai who is part of our ‘group’ were given two weeks to do the same thing. Amongst this I also must write lesson plans for the next month, check everybody else’s lesson plans as well as clean my classroom and manage my Nanny and Teacher’s Assistant in cleaning and inventory taking. I have had to have health checks, and go to all of my students homes to meet them as well as participating in meetings far too often. I have been also required on some days to keep up with the work required from ‘Venus’ kindergarten where I was stationed previously as my company has been too slack to inform the school that I am no longer able to work. I had been working for the kindergarten are our offices so for the safeguard of ENLI they pretended I was still working my mornings for Venus to give themselves time to find a replacement employee.
Health checks are essential in China for almost everything. They are required annually for school children as well as children switching schools and annually for employees of any workplace as well as new employees. And they are the worst. All employees of the new Kindergarten met one day in a nearby small city ‘Hanggu’ for a health-check. We were strictly informed the day before that we could not eat anything oily or any meat and absolutely must not have sex. It was hilarious because one of the Chinese teachers did not know how to communicate that so she was kind of cuddling me whilst saying “no, mwah mwah”. Anyway, when we arrived the first thing I noticed was the poor condition of the exterior of the building. When I entered the intense stench of urine swept over me. Then we all lined up and put our arm through a hole to get our blood tested. I could cope with that, no worries, I had done it before but the next procedure outraged me. We lined up to enter another room. I went inside with my Nanny when she proceeded to take her pants off! I said to her “what are you doing?”, “what are we doing”? in a fluster. Doctors went in and out of the room frequently allowing waiting colleagues to peer through the door with curiosity. Apparently we needed our private parts checked. I threw a fit and said to the Doctor “this is completely inappropriate; people have a right to their privacy”. But alas I eventually gave in and obliged. When it was all over we were expected to carry our vaginal samples loosely sitting on a flat tray through hoards of people to the sample room. I was mortified. Not only were there masses of men and women as witnesses but the risk of bumping someone and these juices flying everywhere. I wound up in tears and swore that I would leave China before having that experience again. My Nanny comforted me “It’s okay, it’s okay”, “It’s not okay” I blurted”! “It’s completely unacceptable”. But China is overpopulated and apparently only around 1000 people have their own Doctors here.
I was very reluctant to accept responsibility for meeting all the children in my classes at their homes to introduce myself to them. I was told to make a power-point and then one by one visit all 29 of them spending approximately 30 minutes with each child. I protested that an opening day was standard and efficient but apparently in China meeting each child individually in their homes is standardized. In the end, although it was both exhausting and frustrating trying to find the whereabouts of every child’s home I ultimately considered the effort worthwhile. Admittedly often I do not recall even half of my students names as I meet them halfway through the semester and am either relief for someone else or teach so many students it is impossible to remember them all, but given the situation of meeting each child individually and spending quality time with them as well as naming them I think my recollection is much better. It was also great to meet children in their home environments because it gave me an opportunity to evaluate their family circumstances, form relationships with their families and observe their behaviour individually. Some of my students were absolutely crazy, biting tables and banging their heads on them, and kicking and punching their parents while others were immaculately behaved offering to share everything they were bestowed with as well as being exceptionally polite. In typical Irena fashion I gave the children fairly non-conventional names such as ‘Theodore’, ‘Sabrina’, ‘Sophia’, ‘Barbara’, ‘Nemo’, ‘Jeremy’, ‘Renata’ and ‘Lydia’. I thought it important to give the children what I see as ‘good names’ as they may keep them their whole lives and too many people over here choose English names for themselves such as ‘Coco’, ‘Cherry’ or ‘Candy’ which make me envision a promiscuous whore standing on the corner of King’s Cross. Anyway, it was hard work, some days I started work at 7.30 in the morning only to leave the school grounds by 11 at night.
Due to us finishing work so late most evenings after working at the Kindergarten my colleagues and I would head to nearby restaurants to have dinner together. One evening one of my colleagues had a scooter and the other had a bicycle. I asked for a lift home as the boys were walking but she politely declined as she had not that long ago been in an accident and did not want to be responsible again for injuring somebody, instantaneously after that conversation a man pulled up next to us on a scooter and I pretended to climb aboard the back. He asked me where I was going and offered to give me a lift. I asked Joel innocently “can I, can I” but all of my colleagues said no insistently and I realised they were right, it was reckless and dangerous to accept a lift from a stranger so I refused the man’s offer, thanked him, and walked onwards. Unfortunately I had started something though, the man asked me to kiss him so I blurted out “no!!!” quite forcefully, but it did not stop there, he proceeded to grab my arm. I pulled myself away from his grasp but again and again he clenched on. I told him “my boyfriend will kill you” and kept walking. Interestingly the man continued following us saying the name of our community over and over and again and then stating how terrible his English was. “Ji Jing Hua Ting, sorry my English is very bad, Ji Jing Hua Ting, sorry my English is very bad….” Etc. In the only breaks between saying this he mentioned that he likes men and women, but eventually switched to claiming he only liked men. So the situation changed from me having to defend myself to having to defend my boyfriend claiming him aggressively as mine “He is my boyfriend, so you cannot have him”. Once we arrived at our community he left us alone. The worst thing about that situation is that it felt ‘normal’ to me. It was just like another day in the office, except it was another day being harassed by a strange man. I approached him initially, but the next day I had bruises left on my arm from where he had grabbed me. I was sad after this. I realised that too many woman (including myself) unacceptably normalised the sexualisation and harassment of women.
On the 15th of August I think I had just fallen into sleep when I was awoken by an excruciatingly loud bang. The building was shaking. I was paralysed for a second as I thought to myself it was an earthquake and considered what my next step should be. Joel told me to get up and I was startled into action. He drew the curtains and beheld a fiery ball of smoke in the near vicinity. I seem to recall something along the lines of “oh my fucking God” slipping tongue and then another huge explosion went off in a loud roar and the sky was filled with a massive red mushroom cloud. I admit my first thoughts were a little outlandish. I thought it could have been North Korea testing their nuclear missiles. Joel had similar suspicions so I suggested if they bombed once they could bomb again, and next time it might be closer to us. We were better on ground level. As we headed downstairs we were met with crowds of people from our community with the same thought, I then considered the unlikelihood of it being a bombing and rather the very real possibility that it was a factory explosion (it would not be the first time I had heard of such an occurrence in China).
I think I would fail as a journalist; I should have grabbed my camera instead of my shoes. If I really aspired to be a journalist I would have wanted a picture more than my safety. Mind you, thinking about it now I do not think I would have raked in the hard cash as China has no copyright laws, thus anyone could use my picture without paying me a dime. My final thought for the evening was empathy to anyone who may have been directly affected. Although I assumed some deaths may have occurred it was not until sometime after following the news I was fully aware of the true magnitude of the blasts, the people that died, the people missing, the injured, the sick and those who had lost their homes. As of the 26th of August, 139 people are confirmed to have died from the explosions, and 799 others have been injured as a direct result of the explosion. 34 people, mostly fire-fighters, remain missing and local residents suggest that thousands of people have been in hospital as a result of chemical burns to their throats caused by the toxic air. The amount of people staying in temporary shelters is more than 6,000.
The first explosion registered as a magnitude 2.3 earthquake so my initial assumption did not stray too far from the truth. Reports estimated it to be equivalent to 3 tonnes of TNT. The second explosion was estimated to be equivalent to 21 tonnes of TNT, with fireballs reaching hundreds of metres high and shock-waves being felt kilometres away. A friend had told me that the explosion was seen from space and I did not really believe him but after reading news sources it has been confirmed the explosion was photographed from space by the Japanese satellite Himawari.
The next day, at work, we were informed that some of the staff could not make it. They were in hospital and their homes had been affected. We were also told that military personal were present in the area. Later in the day we were told to go home early to tape all our windows and doors and put a wet towel under the door as apparently toxic fumes were heading towards Eco-city. We were also told that fire-fighters were unable to keep the situation stable and to expect explosions twice the size later in the evening at approximately 8pm. I cleaned our windows for the optimum view, hurriedly wrote notes in Chinese to stick in the elevator to inform our neighbours and went door-knocking while Joel worked on taping things up. We cooked dinner, devoured it in a hurry and then sat beside the window, camera in hand for around an hour waiting to witness the second blast. Nothing, the blast did not happen.
Although the news originally reported that a petrol station had exploded, within time we learned that the explosions had occurred at the Port of Tianjin. After the initial blasts fires continued to burn uncontrollably throughout the weekend. We were working the weekend following, and although we did not hear or see them people at work quickly received news via ‘wechat’ about another eight additional blasts on the Saturday. Some days later Chinese State media reported that the blast was caused from unknown hazardous materials in shipping containers at a plant warehouse (owned by Ruihai Logistics) specializing in hazardous materials. The company was established in 2011 and deals with substances such as compressed air, flammable and corrosive materials, oxidizing agents and toxic chemicals including but not limited to calcium carbide, sodium nitrate, and potassium nitrate. The company employed 70 people at the port and was an approved agent for the handling of the aforementioned hazardous materials. Its operating license was renewed two months prior to the explosions, outrageous considering that at least 700 tonnes of highly toxic sodium cyanide was stored at the site – 70 times the legal limit. Not only this but safety regulations requiring public buildings and facilities to be at least 1 kilometre away from hazardous material warehouses were not followed and locals were not informed of the dangers either. Authorities claim they were unable to identify the substances stored due to poor record keeping, damages to office facilities and ‘major discrepancies’ within customs. As far as I am concerned this is far from an adequate excuse. If anything it would give authorities more reason to investigate the companies conduct.
The first fire-fighters to arrive on the scene, quite understandably doused the fire with water as nobody had cared to inform them that dangerous chemicals were stored on the site including calcium carbide which when sprayed with water results in the release of the highly volatile gas acetylene, which in turn can detonate ammonium nitrate. A spokesman for the fire department confirmed that fire-fighters sprayed water on the blaze. Apparently ammonium nitrate was also present at the site (an ingredient primarily used for making fertilizer) which has been implicated in numerous other fatal industrial explosions in the past.
The first rains after the explosion came on the 18th of August. We were as per usual at work and were sent up to close all the doors and windows. We were warned by the Environment Protection Board that if we got the water on our clothes, ours-selves or our pets to wash immediately due to traces of sodium cyanide particles in the air reacting with water. Great for me the rain was blowing in the direction of the window and as I struggled to close it the water hit my face. After I finally managed to close the window it was immediately to the bathroom for me to wash. The rains left chemical white foam on the streets and afterwards people complained of burning sensations and rashes on their skin after coming into contact. Luckily for me I experienced no after effects. Meteorologists sought to reassure the public that the rain was not harmful to health however people affected sought to disagree. Rain fell again on the 25th of August and more complaints of skin burns occurred and bright white foam again appeared on the streets. The director of Tianjin’s environmental monitoring centre, Deng Xiaowen stated that the foam was a “normal phenomenon when rain falls, and similar things have happened before”.
Approximately a week after the explosion thousands of dead fish washed up on banks 6km from the explosion sight fuelling fears of water contamination. We were warned that these fish had made it to the marketplace and to therefore not consume fish for some-time. Officials played down the occurrence stating that there were not “high levels” of cyanide in the water but rather the fish probably died from oxygen depletion. Two days later we were served fish for lunch at work. I warned others not to consume it, but after seeing them all happily ignore my suggestion and chow down I tentatively followed suit.
After the explosion daily press conferences were held but after a journalist began asking what were considered invasive questions about the reasoning behind why dangerous chemicals were stored in such close proximity to housing estates they came to an abrupt end.
Despite the fact that we were told the place where we could purchase motorbikes had blown up, a few weekends afterwards we were there to buy them. We were tired of getting the bus or catching taxi’s to work every-day. This method had proved both time inefficient and costly. I figured if we stayed at least another year then the money we spent on taxis will be about equivalent to the cost of the bike. Plus it was worth it because riding a motorbike is so much more fun. I bought a ‘Nanjue’ 150CC and Joel bought a ‘YS Moto’ 150CC. Joel and I decided to buy one each as we would undoubtedly argue about who was driving, which proved true because not that long after Joel blew his head gasket and now he constantly claims driver seat because apparently he “get’s cramps on the back” and “can’t sit like that”. Another note on outlandish purchases, Joel and I bought tickets to visit South Korea in the October holidays! Exciting times ahead!
On the same day as purchasing the motorbikes we got a new dog. We were down in the underground car-park of our apartment building testing our rides when a man came along with a dog following him. The noise of the motorbikes scared it and it ran off. The man went to collect it and tried to call it into the elevator. We gave it a few pats and put it in the elevator for him a few times but it kept running out and eventually ran out of the car-park again. The ‘owner’ ended up just closing the elevator doors without ‘his’ dog and went home. About an hour passed and the man still had not come back to collect his pet who was loitering around us quite sheepishly. Upon closer inspection I realised the dog was wounded. It walked with a limp, had a chunk taken out of its tail, and a big gash on its side and head. It also had huge dreaded lumps of hair in its ears and tail. I remember mum saying to me that dreadlocks can be painful for dogs. So I picked the dog up, took it inside and told Joel that I was going to go and cut the dreadlocks out of its ears. So after I did that I decided that I needed to wash it, and feed it (we only had a tinned can of Tuna available which it ravished like it had never eaten in its life) and finally concluded that the dog must not belong to the man because if it did (ideally) it would not be in such poor condition and he also would not have just left it outside by itself for an hour. I told Joel we should at least keep it for a week or so until its wounds healed. I think everybody who knows me well enough knows where this is leading. A few arguments ensued between Joel and I about whose responsibility the dog was and I ended up saying to him in a rage “fine, I will let it go”. But I took it outside and it had become attached extremely quickly. Wherever I walked the dog followed. It looked like we had a new pet. We had to keep her, she loved us. We named her ‘Mojo’ but a few days later when I was at my Chinese lesson, Joel was walking her and met a few people who explained to him that her name is ‘Hua Hua’ which in Chinese means ‘flower flower’. People had named her that because of the colour of her fur. Apparently she used to live at the old abandoned construction site nearby to our home and only a week prior her play buddy got hit by a car. They wondered whether she was happy now in her new home. Other dog owners introduced their pets to Joel as ‘Ben Ben’, ‘Wua Wua’, and ‘Wong Wong’, meaning ‘stupid stupid’, ‘baby baby’ and ‘lucky lucky’.
When I was walking ‘Hua Hua’ one evening parents of some of my students asked me to accompany them to their house for ‘play’. I was extremely tired having only finished work at 7.30pm with a 7.30am start and had to again start work at 7.30 in the morning the next day, so I politely declined. They kept asking and I kept declining offering to spend time with them another day. The woman started slapping my arm (quite painfully) and harassing me to please join them because they wanted to ‘talk to me’. I eventually came to the conclusion that I was to either punch her in the face to get her to leave me alone or to follow her. I decided to follow her. I went to her house and she started pushing all kinds of food in my face despite having told them I had already eaten. Just as I was about to leave they invited over two more of my students to converse with me. I was speaking in Chinese and they were being pushed by their parents to converse in English. The Mother harassed the poor children saying that my Chinese is good and their English is not very good and they must study harder. I left after we agreed that tomorrow we would meet and they would teach me how to make Jiaozi (dumplings). I agreed but told them I could not until 7.30pm at the earliest. The next day we finished work a little earlier. I was excited to go home and relax and finish writing this blog when there was a knock on our door at approximately 6.00pm. I opened the door and behold that woman. Joel said to me “why is she here” and I replied “because she is crazy. She wants us to come to dinner, are you coming”? One of the beauties in being a foreigner is that you can often say almost anything about anyone in front of them and know that they won’t be able to understand you, as evil as that sounds. But really, she was too forceful with her desire for friendship. Ryan told me a story recently about being in an elevator discussing the characteristics of Chinese people with our colleague Susana and suddenly a Chinese person in the elevator blurted out “just so you know, we understand 100% what you are saying”, Ryan replied “and it’s true”. They were discussing how Chinese people always take photos of you without permission and how rude it is. So you have to be careful sometimes. Most Chinese people have studied English half their lives, most still have not mastered the language, but there is enough that have. Anyway, I went on a little bit of a tangent there. We followed the woman, I thought we were going to her house but she took us down to the underground car-park and shoved us into a van. I asked Joel “do you have your phone”? “no” he said, “well that’s great, neither of us can call 911 if we need to”. More people I had never met appeared, we sat in the middle seats, two people in the front and about five of them piled into the back which had no seats and off we went arriving at ‘commercial street’ a short time after. We went to the restaurant ‘Chongqing’ to have dinner which is my favourite in Eco-city, I told them that and they said “we know”! I asked “how?”, they replied “just a guess” phew! Once we were seated, in Chinese I ordered myself a bottle of beer and Joel a bottle of Bijiu. Bijiu is Chinese white liquor about 42 percent and it tastes pretty awful. When it arrived he was shocked, “how come you have beer and I have Bijiu?” he questioned. I was laughing hysterically, I had tricked him. That was his drink of the evening. We all ended up having a pretty jolly time. As our hosts regularly requested cheers I got through a few bottles of beer and Joel got through the bottle of Bijiu. I had fun communicating in Chinese and Joel was jolly and drunk grinning ear to ear. When we got home we took Hua Hua for a walk and Joel was so sweet, wrapping his arms around me saying how lovely it was walking the dog together. We went to bed, and Joel told me to leave him alone because he was very drunk. I think he had the whole head on the pillow and the world starts spinning around you experience. At approximately 11pm he woke me up, sitting on the edge of the bed saying “Irena, help me, help me”. He told me he had woken up on the floor and asked me to go get the tissues and wipe the spew from his mouth. I obliged, wiping it from his mouth and his arms and then proceeding to clean it up from the floor, got him some water and put him to bed where I rubbed his back as he cried himself to sleep. It was the cutest thing. I also messaged our boss and told her that he was very sick and may not be able to make it into work the next day. I felt pretty awful, but I ordered the bottle, that did not mean he had to drink it all!
In the morning Joel asked me whether he should go to work. I questioned “do you have a headache; do you feel like you’re going to spew”? He answered no but said he was very tired so I suggested he should go. The whole day virtually at work he slept on his classroom rug and during meetings would leave on occasion because he thought he was going to throw up.
In any case I feel like I am beginning to understand what it might feel like to be a parent, working so many goddamn hours, looking after ‘crying babies’ and lending out and borrowing money left right and centre struggling to make ends meet. But I guess these last few months it’s expected considering we both bought motorbikes, flights to South Korea and travelled to both Xi’an and Beijing.
Since I last wrote I have experienced in abundance. Just to list a few things, I visited the Forbidden City, Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven in Beijing, and went to the town of Hanguu. I had dinners with colleagues and randomly met acquaintances, celebrated birthdays and partied. I ate luxurious and not so luxurious dinners, and was ripped off by a random taxi driver.
One weekday evening I was on my way home after my Chinese lesson in TEDA and got off the bus on at the community centre in Eco-city to get a packet of cigarettes, I was rushing as it was fairly late at night already and the last bus back to my house was at 8.00pm, of course I was interrupted by a seemingly nice fellow inquiring about my country of origin. I told him that I was from Australia and he then asked to have dinner with me. I politely declined a few times explaining that not only did I have no money for dinner but I also needed to get the bus home! He insisted, pleading with me to help him with his English and offering to pay for my dinner he also said to me that if I missed the bus he would walk me home afterwards (I expressed my fear of getting lost to him). I eventually obliged and we went to a nearby restaurant, I let him decide what to order and when the dishes came out he let me choose from the selection. I wound up with a common dish that consists of cucumber, black fungi, eggs and chicken as well as a tomato and egg soup. I received a phone call from Joel during the meal asking where I was, I told him that I had met a man who wanted some assistance with his English and that we were having dinner. Joel responded harshly “you know he only wants one thing right”? I replied, “Yes, to learn English”.
After our meal I started walking in the direction I believed to take me home and the man started beckoning me in a different direction. I kept saying “I am pretty sure I live this way” and he kept saying “come this way”, eventually he said that he would love to keep talking and practising his English and his house was only around the corner and asked to please accompany him. I was growing rather wary, and although looking back it was a very stupid idea I decided to follow him on the basis of the fact that my phone was flat and I could charge it at his house in-case I did need help. So off we went and he farted all the way to his home, it was awkward. Neither of us laughed, neither said anything, the farts were just greeted by silence, I somewhat emphasized with him. If I was in his situation I would be feeling horrendously embarrassed. Once we got to the front doorstep of his apartment complex the man tripped on the front step falling flat on his face and splitting and spilling a bag of peanuts he had purchased absolutely everywhere. We spent some time cleaning them up, in silence. When I went to go inside his house I was shocked and became slightly afraid as the entire house was completely empty. He directed me into the bedroom as it was the only place to sit and I sat down on an office chair, the only things in the room were that chair, a mattress on the ground, a portable wardrobe and a suitcase. It was quite bizarre. Apparently he had only just moved into the house from another city three weeks prior. Anyway, conversation pursued about his work, his red book denoting his college education, and whatever else but before long he was beckoning me to sit next to him on the bed. I declined stating I was happy in my chair and pulled the phone-charger out of the power-point and started to grab my bag to leave. He said that I was beautiful and asked us to be very good friends, he asked for a hug and then kissed me on the neck! Yuck! I was out of there, I went to the front door and I could not unlock it, I went to the back door and into the ‘garden’ to be greeted by a giant fence and a dead-end, I had to go back through the house where I beckoned him to please unlock the door. He obliged and then started following me on the route home asking whether I was ‘angry’ with him. I said “no, no”, then he asked me for my phone number, so I looked up Joel’s phone number in my phone and gave him that. When I walked through the door at home the first thing I said to Joel was “you were right, I was wrong”, I then informed him that I had given his number to the man, he looked up at me and said “so that’s who has been calling me non-stop”. In hindsight looking back on what I have just written I really should have seen that an uncomfortable situation arising was inevitable, however I admit complete naivety for I honestly assumed at the time that this was simply a man seeking a little help with his English.
The weekend following the meeting of ‘the’ man it was one of my colleagues Suzanna’s Birthday. Accompanying her was Ryan, Nikki, Imilka and I. She celebrated at a restaurant in TEDA called ‘Delights’ where they sport a variety of cuisine from different countries. Joel and I had gone to dinner there with one of our bosses Lily and a colleagues Helen on one of our first evenings in China. The first time I was there I had fajitas, this time I chose to have sausages and sauerkraut. My choice was questioned, however sauerkraut is extremely difficult to come by in China and I missed my favourite food!
After the dinner we headed to KTV for karaoke. KTV is a very popular place to go in China, I was very excited about going there at it was my first time in the well renowned joint. Once we got there we were greeted my numerous men in black and white tuxedos and then escorted up an elevator to a surreal white hallway full of numbered doors, whether you looked left or right it seemed to extend for an eternity, it looked like a futuristic hotels corridor. We were guided inside one of the corridors many doors and much to my awe was a small room fitted with a few tables, a lounge, TV, and Disco lights! It was not at all as I expected. I admit, initially I feared going to KTV thinking I would have to get horrendously drunk to sing in front of the numerous spectators; however we had our very own karaoke room!
With mostly pop being on offer I chose an array of songs from the likes of Pink, Avril Lavigne and Eminem, and received compliments for my rapping. Other than our drinks being delivered on a silver tray from strapping lads in tuxedos we were left alone to drink and sing the night away. After a few hours spent there we all headed off to a club called ‘Muse’, I enjoyed it. They had a variety of performances which were all very enjoyable and entertaining. We danced till morning and then awaited Suzanna’s boyfriend to pick us up and deliver us home! (Quite beneficially he is a taxi driver), not prior to a stop at KFC for some drunken munchies though!
The next weekend Joel and I agreed to work on the Saturday at a conference for ENLI, unbeknown to us our role there. It turns out the conference was for the opening of ENLI’s new kindergarten, our job was the spend the whole day keeping young children entertained whilst their parents were inside as well as assist with trivial chores like piecing flyers together and arranging business cards on table tops. Joel found a great use for all the stickers we had, instead of awarding them to the children he put them all over his face and body! It certainly kept them amused as soon enough the children in hysterics also started putting them on him and themselves. One little girl became very attached to him and followed him everywhere! He also ingeniously found some spare balloons from the conference and became quite the clown blowing them up and offering them to the kids. I attempted to make things like animals with the balloons, to no avail, although the potential for a balloon toy captured the children’s interest for a fair-while. We also spent many hours playing ‘balloon volleyball’.
After the long and tiring day our bosses Lily and Shawn wanted to take us and the other colleagues present to dinner to thank us for our time. They took us to a spectacular Japanese restaurant in TEDA where all the waitresses were wearing anime costumes and a band was housed at front. I needed to go the bathroom so excused myself prior to being seated. Not before long one of my colleagues had come to find me as I had obviously been taking a while – reason being that the toilets were the famed Japanese electronic toilet! I was taking my time admiring the gadget and all its functions. It had a heated seat, ‘posterior wash’ for washing your backside, ‘front wash’ for washing your lady bits, adjustable water temperature, adjustable water pressure, auto lid and seat, and warm air-dry. All features were controlled with ease by remote. There were a variety of other features which I did not understand how to use as the instructions stuck to door were all in Chinese. Quite the experience, I must say! The most astounding thing about the restaurant though was its sheer enormity and huge arrange of food available on offer. There was a range of counters throughout the restaurant each with its own chef hosting almost any food you could imagine. I kept thinking of the parents in the anime film ‘Spirited Away’ when they started indulging in copious amounts of delicious food and unknowingly turned into pigs, I was afraid the temptation was too great and that would soon be all of us. I started with a soup and some fish dishes, including starfish (which was absolutely putrid, it looked like poo and tasted like ocean floor) and then moved on to Sushi which was the most beautifully presented I had ever seen, after that I consumed some crab legs and a profuse amount of sashimi. I then moved on to have some more western style cuisine including roast lamb and peas and corn, that was very well welcomed, I have not enjoyed a roast since our arrival in China and I do not imagine that I will again until my return. Unsure how, but I have failed to mention the table aligned with several varieties of cocktails both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, so we helped ourselves. We also of course had to give the Japanese Sake a shot too! (Excuse the pun) This was nowhere near as bad as I have heard, although I am not suggesting the taste was to die for either. After our meals we were fronted with a massive array of deserts including several cake varieties, fondue, baked goods and fruit. The tiramisu was delectable, the fondue was fun, the cheesecake was welcomed and yes I ate a lot of desert. This restaurant was fantastic, for one fee the best of quality dishes with the greatest variety were to be eaten at your pace and leisure.
The weekend following was my birthday! I turned 23 years old. I arranged to invite the majority of my colleagues to a restaurant in TEDA. Luckily for me I had the assistance of my Chinese teacher to choose a restaurant and book the tables. Unfortunately however I did not receive notice from a lot of the people invited of their intent to come and after booking one table we had to split into two separate tables. We were fortunate at least that there was another table available in the restaurant! Some of my colleagues arrived with the most bizarre gifts; included was a Minnie mouse travel pillow, a bouquet of teddy bears and a caterpillar stuffed toy. I did not expect gifts and was faced with the dilemma of where to put them as there was no way I was going to carry all these huge things around with me the rest of the evening. My boss Shawn stepped in and let me drop of the things at the office for safekeeping over the weekend. Shaun had brought cake for the occasion as well as a cake for another two of the colleagues who had recently had birthdays so we blew out candles and celebrated as a group in the end. After the dinner the plan was to go to KTV however almost everyone bailed on me so left was Joel, Ryan and I, a group we discussed was too small for karaoke. We went to a nearby park instead and got drunk on Vodka and cheap wine just like the old days. The problem with the park (well for me at least) was the lack of toilets and after ‘opening my tap’ I had to cross the road too frequently to use the pubs toilets. The employee there was rather pleasant so on the third trip I assured him that my friends and I would be there to drink soon, so we did. We went and drank some more, smoked a sheesha, played a few games of darts and then eventually I was awoken from being passed out on a table in the corner. I drunkenly said to Joel and Ryan that I wanted to stay, but when I finally raised my head off the table it became evident the pub was closing so it was time for home.
The weekend after my Birthday our time had finally come for Beijing! We had been anticipating our travels there since our arrival in China. We had received our first full salary so I wanted to go there to celebrate. This weekend fell on a Labour day (God knows what that day is supposed to celebrate) so we had an extra day off. We left on Thursday at about noon and arrived in Beijing at approximately 4pm in the afternoon. Eager to check-in to our hostel and go exploring we went to check out bank accounts only to discover we had not yet been paid. After calling our employer we were assured it would be in there very soon. After ‘soon’ had passed we called them again to be told that there was a ‘problem’ with the bank and that it would be in our bank accounts in one hour. We waited another hour and half and called back again to get the truth that our boss had wanted to check all the pays herself (so everything was getting double checked) and that they were about to do it! So many hours were spent sitting around outside a bank checking out balance frequently, when really had we have known it would take a few hours to check our timesheets in the first place we probably would have just sauntered off and eaten dinner somewhere nearby. Instead I spent some time on a nearby nature strip laying down to snooze until a lady kept berating me about the filth and the wetness and how my clothes would get dirty and that I am better off sleeping on the bench nearby. I kept trying to explain to her that I really didn’t care but she was spying on me and every-time I lied down she would commentate on my actions! Alas! It was late by the time our pay arrived so after checking into our hostel we only had time to visit the Wangfujing food market.
Wangfujing is one of the famous local snack streets and night markets located in Dongcheng District, Beijing. It is famous for its many exotic foods. Whilst there we tried scorpion, spider, grasshopper, silk worms, beetles, bees, seahorse, goats penis, snake, dragonfly, millipede, and cow kidneys. The first thing we tried was the seahorse, in which I questioned the morale. Afterwards we tried grasshopper. Joel was brave enough to take the first bite pulling a face of squeamish displeasure. I took the second. In anguish I flapped my hands around like a bird in distress saying ‘Oh my God’, ‘Oh my God’ and ‘get it’s legs out of my mouth’ repeatively until it was safely in my stomach. After I had braved the grasshopper I was fairly fearless regarding everything else. I swallowed everything, although tentatively. The only thing I did spit out was the goat’s penis, it was near impossible to bite through and tasted like ancient semen (and before you crack the joke, no I do not know what that tastes like). The scorpion and spider surprisingly almost tasted good. They were slightly salted and spiced. The spider was kind of like eating a hairy chip.
The morning following our visit to Wangfujing we went to the legendary Tiananmen Square. The square is best known in recent memory for the pro-democracy protests of 1989, a student led demonstration that received broad support from city residents. About a million people assembled in Tiananmen Square triggered by the death of former communist party general secretary Hu Yaobang. Hu Yaobang had expressed grievance concerning inflation, inadequate career prospects and the corruption of the party elite in China, appealed by his thought students gathered to mourn his passing. Mourning soon turned to protest with the students seeking government liability, freedom of journalism, freedom of speech, and the reinstatement of workers control over commerce. The movement ended on the 4th of June 1989 with the declaration of martial law in Beijing by the government and the shooting of several hundred or possibly thousands of innocent civilians by soldiers. The crackdown became known as the Tiananmen Square massacre after troops with assault rifles and tanks fired at unarmed civilians attempting to block the militaries advance to the square which had been occupied by students for 7 weeks. The Chinese government condemned the protests as ‘counter-revolutionary’ and has prohibited all forms of discussion or remembrance of the events since. Joel and I had a minute of silence in the square to remember the terrible fate suffered by the aforementioned innocent protestors.
Central of the square hangs the legendary portrait of Mao Zedong. The portrait weighs 1.5 tonnes. The picture has hung in the square since the 7th of July to memorialize the Second Sino-Japanese war. Annually, since then, a new portrait of Mao Zedong has been hung at the square every October the 1st (the founding date of the Peoples Republic of China). Our friend Hans was telling us that there is a massive hoard of identical portraits stashed away somewhere. Occasionally, the picture has been diversified such as on the occurrence of Joseph Stalin’s death where a picture was hung in his honour.
One simply walks through Tiananmen Square to reach the entrance gates to the Forbidden City so later in the morning we went to explore it. We had completely underestimated the size. We spent many hours travelling through the vast maze of buildings and Alleyways. Although one could expect expansiveness, I mean it says it in the name ‘City’; we were ignorant until we experienced it for ourselves. The Forbidden City’s entire complex covers 180acres, larger than Hobart! Millions of workers commenced building the City in 1406, completing it in 1420. The Forbidden City was the Chinese Imperial Palace from the beginning of the Ming Dynasty until the end of the Qing Dynasty. It was the home of emperors and their households as well as the ceremonial and political centre of Chinese government for almost 500 years. The City now houses the Palace Museum. Declared a World heritage site in 1987 it is also listed by UNESCO as having the biggest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.
After our visit to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City complex, rather exhausted we decided to go to a nearby restaurant for a very late lunch. After begging Joel to get the Beijing Duck and him stressing his disinterest to eat it at ‘that time of day’ I settled for the Sichuan duck. Joel’s meal arrived not long after he had ordered; I waited for mine and waited some more progressively growing more a more impatient until Joel had finished his meal and mine still had not arrived. I stood up and told Joel I was leaving and not waiting any longer for my food and I certainly was not paying for it. I walked off and waited at a nearby wall prying my head around to corner to see what events may unfold. Not before long Joel was hurryingly walking away from the restaurant with waiter following screaming incomprehensibly. I wondered whether he had heeded my advice and left without paying. Soon the woman yelled out to a man nearby who scuffed Joel by his collar, it was at this point I ‘reappeared’. The woman was quick to notice me and started yelling at me in Chinese, whilst I responded aggressively in English saying “the food never came, I am not paying for it if it was never served”. I asked Joel whether he had paid for is meal, and he had, she was seeking the money for my food that had never arrived. Within seconds a large crowd of mostly male spectators had arrived in the street. Becoming increasingly aware of the potential surrounding danger I threatened to woman stating I would call the police, she shrugged smugly and told me to go ahead. Instead I called Ryan to reason with the woman explaining the situation to him. It turns out just as Joel stood up to leave the meal was ready and even if I didn’t eat it they had still cooked it so I ‘needed to pay’. We ended up coming to an arrangement where I paid and the duck was thrown into a plastic bag for takeaway. For all I know it was probably spat on, anyway the food was not worth the wait, it was rather bland tasting and also costly. In my experience it is very important in hospitality that meals all arrive at around the same time so I was feeling pretty peeved.
After the fiasco we started walking onwards with intent to go to ‘Hou Hai Lake’, we knew it was nearby but as we did not know its exact whereabouts we attempted hollering a taxi to take us there. All the taxi’s said no on the basis of its close proximity so growing impatient we requested to be taken to the hostel instead. I was about to sit in the front seat of a taxi when the driver said I couldn’t as it was wet, so Joel and I both climbed into the back. The driver said he would take us for 15RMB but he needed ‘change’ so we were to give him 100RMB in exchange for 85RMB return. We gave him the hundred but he complained and said he wanted ‘real’ money, we had no idea what he was talking about but he gave us the 100RMB back and we gave him a different note. Then he proceeded to ask us where we got the money from, we told him “the bank”, duh! He still was not satisfied so we exchanged a different note. We realised that this driver was acting like a crazy man but did not think that much of it and jumped out of the taxi and waved down a different driver. When we got into the next taxi the new driver started laughing and pointing at our money, we had been ripped off hardcore. The driver before us had managed to swiftly and slyly replace all our legitimate 100RMB notes with fake ones. The reason he didn’t want us to sit in the front seat of his taxi was so that we couldn’t see him make the exchange. I was so angry and upset, I thought I was well experienced in scammers but this man had managed to blatantly before our very eyes fool us. I felt rather stupid. Money equivalent to one hundred Australian dollars was stolen in seconds and it seemed so obvious after the fact. We examined the money and it was more than obvious it was counterfeit. The money was pixelated, had no risen areas, even the colour was slightly different to the true note. Fooled me once, I won’t let you fool me twice I suppose.
That same evening we met up with Ryan in our hostel. It turns out he had another friend who was also staying there so we met him, his name was Han. Then with intent to meet up with a few more of Ryan’s friends and then go to celebrate a jazz festival for jazz week we went to his friend Ross’s house for pre-drinks. Our plan did not equate in the end and after having a few we head off at about midnight to the Sanlitun district. Once there Ryan, his friend Jinglei, Joel and I sauntered off to a very fancy whiskey bar to have a nice quite and strong drink before we hit the club. Our drink was 50RMB each, easily the most expensive drink consumed since being in China but we took the risk hoping that we could get away with using our fraudulent money in the dim lighting. We had no such luck. After that we headed to the ‘Kaii’ club, a gay club where we were well rehearsed beforehand to expect our feet to be glued to the floors and to be careful of the strip pole because if we make contact we may get an STI. We tried our luck there getting rid of the counterfeit notes too, but it just wasn’t happening for us. There is so much counterfeit money running around Beijing that any local with sense always checks their money. Alas, I had great fun dancing on the forbidden pole with crazy topless men who seemed to be on some kind of substances grinding on either side of me and persistently coaxing me back to dance with them every-time I managed to sneak away. I had a lot of fun, for once in my life I didn’t felt an ounce of self-consciousness dancing away to the pop tunes. There was something in the vibe of the place that made me feel completely at ease. An interesting moment, I could only find male toilets and after waiting an exceptionally long period of time to use one of them was greeted with an obscene humongous poo in the toilet bowl. I just went ahead and assumed that the flush must have been broken, peed over the top of it and then I was out of there! Whilst washing my hands at the bathroom sink however the man unfortunate to have entered after me poked his head around the corner of the toilet door and said to me ‘hey! Why don’t you flush?’ I responded rapidly, “ask the guy before me that question”, “it wasn’t me”, “okay”, he responded and again closed the toilet cubicle door, pretty lame that I had to take the wrath for the sloth before me! Anyway after we tired of dancing, or more so Joel became convinced one of the men was ‘turning straight for me’ we left and ate a few doors down at a kebab place. A kebab each and a pizza between us we drunkenly ate in abundance hoping that the food would save us from the dreadful hangover we knew awaited us the next day.
We dragged ourselves out of bed the next morning and went with our new found friend Han to visit the ‘Temple of Heaven’, a complex of religious buildings. It was constructed in the same period as the Forbidden City (1406-1420) during the reign of the Yongle Emperor. From the Ming to the Qing Dynasty, in Ancient China the Emperor was believed to be the son of Heaven. It was his duty to administer earthly matters on behalf of, and in lieu of heavenly authority. To be seen showing reverence in the form of sacrifices to heaven was extremely important thus annually the Emperor would participate in a ceremony praying for good harvest. The temple was built for this purpose. The temple was a majestic site surrounded by a huge array of glorious gardens enjoyed by artists of various talents including but not limited to a woman in traditional village costume dancing to ‘Gangnam Style’, a skilled crochet artist, and musicians playing classical Chinese instruments such as the Jinghu and Zheng.
The Jinghu is a Chinese bowed string instrument in the huqin family. Made of bamboo with a cylindrical soundbox covered in snakeskin forming a taut drum, it has two strings which the hair of the ‘bow’ passes between. The strings were formerly made of silk but nowadays are commonly made from steel or nylon. The Zheng is an ancient Chinese instrument also made of bamboo. It has an arched surface with 13-21 strings stretched over individual bridges. Like the Jinghu, in Ancient times strings were made of silk, however nowadays metal is common. The Zheng rests on two pedestals and is played using 3 to 4 imitation fingernails. On the right side of the bridges both hands pluck the strings and on the left side the left fingers bend the strings to change pitch. The instrument was initially played by herdsman and originated as early as the Qin Dynasty (225 to 206 BC).
The evening after visiting the temple we went out to dinner with Han to a famous restaurant called ‘Quan Ju De Peking Duck’ to try to world renowned dish. The restaurant had 5 stories of seating areas and we still had to hurry to enter to ensure we could be placed somewhere to eat! When we left the restaurant security staffs at the front door were sending people away, they were full. Peking duck is a dish that has been cooked and prepared since the imperial era in China. Quan Ju De was established in 1864 during the Qing Dynasty. The first manager of the restaurant started out selling chickens and ducks but then paid a retired chef from the palace for the Peking duck Imperial recipe. It was then that he started serving the dish to the public masses. Since the restaurant has expanded to manifold chains both internationally and in China.
It was a forty minute wait for the duck. When it arrived the meat was delicately carved in front on us by the chef himself. The meat was then served on special plates with a candle underneath to keep the meat warm. The procedure to eat it was to wrap the meat with spring onion and a plum sauce into a thin savoury pancake and then consume. We were asked whether we would like to keep the carcass of the duck (which still had a lot of meat on it) or whether we would like the chef to use it to serve us a duck soup after our meals. We opted for the soup. The duck was quite tasty and refreshing; there was something rather delicate about the ingredients combination. The meal was light, and not at all oily (which in my experience duck often is). The skin was crisp and the meat juicy and tender. The soup was differentially quite tasteless. It was good for a once off experience, but with a meal costing more than 500RMB in the end I probably won’t opt for it again.
My observation is that the duck is more famous for its cooking procedure rather than its taste. The cooking of Peking duck requires a precise method. First the Duck is chosen for preparation, after the feathers are plucked air is pumped between its skin and flesh, then a tiny incision is made to remove its entrails. The bird is then washed thoroughly, and a wooden skewer is inserted through the middle to allow its hanging and heating. The body is then filled with water and the incision is closed. The skin of the duck is air dried and brushed with a layer of sugar, and then the duck is cooked in a special oven that uses smokeless hardwood fuel. The oven heats to 270 degrees for 30-40 minutes and the duck is turned regularly to allow even cooking.
After dining at Quan Ju De we headed to Nanluoguxiang, built in the Yuan Dynasty, a well-preserved ancient part of Beijing showcasing an array of traditional Chinese architecture, known as the ‘hutong’. Nowadays the area hosts a vast array of different shops selling everything from clothing and makeup, to ceramics, antiques and handicrafts. As we passed by each stall with an eager interest in the process of the handicrafts creation we became more and more disgruntled. Our friend Han was frequently mistaken for our tour guide and almost every stall we went to offered him a percentage of profit or a ‘free’ gift in exchange for him persuading us to spend outlandish amounts of money for their stock. We did not understand their conversation, luckily for us that he was our friend though because every-time this situation did arise he would gently encourage us to move along and inform us after the fact of the seller’s dishonesty. We did make a few souvenir purchases but only from the honest.
After a very long stroll through the huge market we sought a taxi, and after sometime unable to holler one we had a break for ‘stinky dofu’. The week prior our boss, Joel and I had a discussion about this well known food. He had described its disgusting odour and how you could ‘smell it a mile away’ and how its taste is not much better. He stated that where a westerner would run from the stench a Chinese person would smell it and seek out the stall until they could devour the highly favoured dish. Stinky Dofu is fermented tofu produced with brine made from fermented milk, vegetables and meat. It can include shrimp, amaranth greens, mustard greens, bamboo shoots and Chinese herbs. The process of fermentation can take as long as several months. The sauces accompanying the dish were spicy, sweet and tasty. Ultimately it was fairly nice despite with my every bite the foul scent overtaking my nostrils.
The next day we went to see the Summer Palace. The summer palace offers a variety of gardens, lakes, palaces and other classical architectural structures. Although new gardens and buildings have been added to the Summer Palace grounds over a number of years the first structure (Wang Hill Palace) was built during the Jin Dynasty (1122-1161 CE). In 1998 UNESCO placed the Summer Palace on its World heritage list declaring it ‘a masterpiece of Chinese Landscape garden design’; my opinion does not differ. As you walk through the entrance gates of the Summer Palace you come to the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity (built 1750), the administrative area of the Emperors. The name comes from the Confucian saying ‘the ruler who reigns benevolently will have a long life’.
In the courtyard lie Five Lake Tai stones, signifying longevity, and two pairs of bronze dragon and phoenix incense burners. The dragon represents the Emperor and the phoenix represents the Queen. Also situate in the courtyard is a sculpted bronze ‘Qilin’ statue dating from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
The Qilin is a mythical hoofed creature with a dragon-like head surmounted by a pair of horns and flame like head ornaments. The creature is said to appear with the forthcoming or passing of a wise or memorable ruler. It is an omen thought to bring about prosperity or serenity and supposedly protects against destruction by fire, which is ironic considering at the end of the Second Opium War in 1860 the French and British burned the palace down in response to the torture and carnage of a European peace delegation.
In 1888 3 million taels of silver (originally designated for the Chinese Navy) were spent on the reconstruction and enlargement of the Summer Palace, which turned out to be a regrettable decision considering just 6 years later China lost in the First Sino-Japanese War and a mere 12 years after its reconstruction the Palace was slighted a second time during the Boxer Rebellion when it was seized by the eight allied powers. The seizure resulted in the vast majority of gardens being destroyed and artefacts divided between the allied nations. Since the last annihilation of the Summer Palace it has been under restoration however the re-establishment faces many obstacles and challenges due to a lack of original plans.
Our first stop after the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity was Suzhou street and the garden of harmonious pleasures where we could circuit a beautiful lake surrounded by willow trees and ancient pagodas. On our journey we came across a man playing the Jing Hu, he noted the beautiful colour of Joel’s eyes and then told me that he felt very close with me as I was like his daughter. Apparently our likeliness was based on the fact that we both had tattoos, and he felt I was worthy of serenading due to the fact. He played beautifully with his instrument of expertise. After sharing song and conversation we headed on our merry way up ‘Longevity Hill’ to the Tower of Buddhist Incense, the uppermost building in the Summer Palace, holding a statue of Guanyin (an East Asian deity of mercy and a bodhisattva associated with compassion by Mahayana Buddhists). From here we had spectacular views of Kumming Lake, the 17 arch bridge and the Yu Feng pagoda in the distance. The central Kunming Lake was completely man-made with the excavated soil used to build longevity hill and covers an astounding 2.2 square kilometres.
Stranded in Tianjin
One evening a few weekends after our journey to Beijing I was on my way to the bus stop after finishing work to meet Joel at Commercial street for dinner when a barrage of my colleagues came running after me all looking very spunky asking whether I wanted to join them for dinner, I agreed and asked whether Joel could come along. When I got to Commercial street I was awaiting his presence so gave him a call, he was wondering where I was. Apparently I had told him to meet me at the Community centre by accident. He was not pleased and made the walk to Commercial Street. We went out to dinner at a barbeque restaurant and ate skewers of fish, mushrooms, chicken cartilage (which was a fun word to teach my colleagues) and multiple others and indulged in broad beans and peanuts boiled in salty water. I had only ever eaten peanuts roasted and I had never been a fan of broad beans but I enjoyed them both cooked in this method. We also had a Chinese bread mantou which was quite delicious and enjoyed quite a few beers holding cheers for anything and everything. Joel and I also showed off our Australian drink ‘sculling skills’. When I spoke to my colleagues the following week at work they told me that one of the teachers who was there that evening had arrived home and must have sat down at his desk, he woke up the next morning after sleeping head on desk all night! Apparently he had a bit too much to drink.
The next weekend was Joel’s Birthday. He had decided he did not want to do anything ‘special’ for his Birthday this year. All he knew was that he wanted to go shopping somewhere he had not been before. On the Friday evening of his Birthday I stopped off at Commercial Street to buy him a cake. I was pretty impressed, I ordered it and it was ready within half an hour. I entered the patisserie to watch the baker adding the final touches of fruits and a little chocolate ‘Happy Birthday’ sign. I do not know of any places back home where you can order and have a cake made within the hour!
I caught a bus home but it was my first time ever having caught a bus from Commercial Street, so cake in hand I took the best guess and got on a bus facing the direction I needed to go in. It was the wrong bus and ended up taking me to a part of Eco-City that I had never been before so I opted to get off and cross the street to get on another bus, again heading in the general direction I needed to go in. After waving my arms frantically for the bus to stop and jumping on I realised it was the exact same bus I had just gotten off, it had obviously just done a loop but I stayed on assuming it would eventually go to where I needed to go, I was wrong. The bus ended up again taking me to a part of Eco-City where I had not been. When we arrived at one of the bus stops every single passenger got off the bus, I asked the driver whether I should also get off and he asked me where I needed to go. I said ‘Seasons Park’ the area that we live in but he did not know of the place, so I told him I needed to go to the ‘Tianjin Binhai Foreign Language School’ because at least I knew how to get the right bus home from where I worked. I was unaware however, until the bus driver kindly showed me my stop that there was at least three ‘Tianjin Binhai Foreign Language Schools’ in Eco-city and the one he took me to was the wrong one! I started saying ‘number 2, number 2’ growing nervous and frustrated. A few stops down the track he started beeping his horn at another bus driver on the alternate side of the road and beckoned me to go and get on that bus! Once I was on that bus pure relief washed over me, as we turned the corner I recognised my street, turns out I really was not that far away from my place at all. Next time I’ll be walking. So finally I delivered the cake home to Joel and we got ready to head to TEDA for dinner.
We went to a restaurant on the fourth floor of a shopping mall on Ren Ren Lou. It was pleasant because the days are getting hotter and seating was outside. We ordered a spicy beef hotpot, salty duck eggs and tofu, broad beans and chilli, seaweed and egg soup, barbeque skewers of mutton, pork, bread, chicken, and a keg of beer of course. After our meal Ryan and Suzanna came to join us and we drank another keg between us, got kicked out of the restaurant because it was closing time and then drunkenly head to McDonalds. We had intent to go to the ‘Dublin’ Irish-pub but we didn’t make it that far and wound up returning home.
On the Saturday there was a ‘Harley Riders’ convention in Eco-City so we went to visit that, we got there a little late though as most of the riders had gone home with their bikes. The event was held outside the local fortress; Joel thinks that it was built in case of an attack by North Korea. I don’t dispute his beliefs considering that they are directly across the ocean from us, only an hour’s flight away. There were police guards and soldiers present everywhere, if one looked upwards towards the canon tower a soldier bearing arms could be seen watching all the visitors below. We had heard word that a rock-concert would be held out back so tried our luck sneaking in but were rapidly turned away as we didn’t have a special ‘wristband’ available for Harley riders only. After our rejection we wandered around the outside of the building to see whether there was another entrance. There did not appear to be one, but I did find a barred door to another part of the complex. Sneakily I slipped my hand through the gap in the door and jostled a wooden plank that was blocking the entry out of its holding. I cautiously slipped inside taking a photo to my left, a photo in the middle, a photo to my right and a panorama before niggling step by step further and further inside of the found courtyard. The lights were on in one of the buildings so I was extra vigilant about someone spotting me out the window, turns out my caution was a waste of time, as I looked up I realised I had been on surveillance the entire time anyway. I turned around, snapped another quick picture and I was out of there. As I returned back down the alley that I had just trodden I noticed a gaping hole in the fortress walls, I climbed inside and peered down a long corridor of darkness. In my temptation to explore, I pondered whether the hollow walls would lead anywhere or whether I would just hit a dead end, turn around and be caught in the act by one of the many passersby. Joel came to find me, “what are you doing”? He asked, “trying to stop the curiosity killing the cat” I replied, “let’s go, he summoned me”. It was soon after that moment that he pointed out the aforementioned gun dweller on the roof. Still, I peered through the next window growing evermore curious finding hollow abandonment on the inside, my favourite kind of place to explore. I pleaded with him to attempt going inside with me, trying to persuade him with the possibility that an exit may be found on the ‘other side’ where we had be turned away from going prior. We left shortly afterwards, and all the way back to the centre of Eco-city I begged of him to go explore that fortress, if not that evening on another day when there were no crowds. He told me that our capture would result in imminent execution, “all the more exhilarating” I replied.
We had dinner that evening in Eco-city at a ‘Halal’ restaurant; I think we were intrigued by the Koi fish in the window and the beautiful blue hotpots with painted dragon designs on the exterior. I of course wanted to order the blue hotpot, prettiness prioritized before taste of course, so we did. Ingredients we ordered for cooking consisted of lamb, a variety of mushrooms, kelp, fish tofu, chicken balls, crabsticks, beef balls and spinach and noodles. For sauces and condiments we chose a chilli oil, seafood sauce, ‘special sauce’ garlic and coriander. The hotpot came out with merely prawns inside a watery broth. The beauty of the hotpot is the ability to cook it for yourself in front of you, you place the ingredients in the boiling broth and then fish them out and dip them in sauces of your selection. Unfortunately despite the fun in cooking it I thought it was the blandest tasting and most dislikeable hotpot I had consumed, differentially Joel thought it was the nicest he had eaten but still did not enjoy them generally.
The following afternoon, considering Joel said he would like to go somewhere ‘different’ shopping for his Birthday I asked him whether he would like to go to Hanguu (the next town away), he agreed. On the way I stated that it was rather late and nothing may be open, I shared with him that my students who lived there described it as a town like Eco-city but smaller, Joel’s response was to question why were going there, the reason was of course because he said he wanted to go somewhere different and neither of us had been there before. It turns out he wanted to go somewhere different in the places already known to us, all a misunderstanding. Either way we were in the taxi and on the way so there was no harm in scoping out the surroundings.
It was difficult trying to describe to the taxi driver where we wanted to go when we really had no idea, but I managed to in broken Chinese suggest he take us to a place for eating and shopping, and we were lucky he took us to a fairly decent and bustling shopping and restaurant area. We had a browse around a few shops first and wandered through the deserted marketplace but nothing seemed to appeal to Joel’s interests. The marketplace area was pretty huge; it could be a worthy experience to go again during the daytime when stalls were open. After looking around this area we walked down a lengthy street housing a substantial array of restaurants but nothing seemed to tickle Joel’s fancy. He said to me that he wanted steak (I only know of one place you can get that in China and it’ll set you back at least $100 Australian dollars, and it was also nowhere near our whereabouts at the time). He wanted something meaty and hearty and none of the restaurants were able to satisfy that craving. We ended up returning to the marketplace street vendors and getting a spiced sausage on a stick, some deep fried spiced squid, fresh juice, sushi, and a ‘pancake’ and by that I mean chicken and sausage with potato, soybean sauce and chilli wrapped in a egg covered fried wrap.
So in the time since I last wrote we experienced two new cities, enjoyed a vast variety of cuisines, met some new people and enjoyed the company of our old foes but I would have to say Beijing was undoubtedly the highlight!
We had been advised to move house by our employers as a position as a Middle School Teacher was opening up in the Binhai Foreign Language School in Eco-city and the move would prevent Joel from having to continue travelling 1.5 hours each day to work in TEDA (Tianjin Economic Development Area). I was pretty adamant that I did not want to move from Tianjin downtown as I had only just become well-adjusted to the area that we were living in and had begun to become accustomed to where to buy the things we needed, the good places to eat out and how to get to local tourist attractions, but alas the decision was made and within a week we were to pack up our life and move an hour and a bit out of the centre of the city. The perks of moving are that by living in Eco-city we are practically neighbours with Ryan, and our apartment is bigger and nicer with running hot water in the kitchen! There is also less travel time to work for both of us, and our apartment complex offers a swimming pool, gym, pool table, and a basketball court. The life in Eco-city is quiet and there is no-where to really go in terms of tourism, shopping or partying, so it might be time to get fit instead I suppose!
Eco-city is situated about 40 kilometres from the Tianjin city centre and about 150 kilometres from Beijing. It is located in the Tianjin Binhai New Area which is one of the fastest growing regions in China. Prior to the development of Eco-city the site comprised mainly of saltpans, barren land and polluted bodies of water. Quite oppositely, now days the city boasts great environmental considerations including power generation through the use of windmills and solar panels. All the water in the city is recycled and the government provides free public transport for reduction of carbon emissions caused by heavy traffic flow. Citizens are also encouraged to recycle; as a result rubbish bins are abundant with designated sections for paper, cans and other waste.
Prior to the move I had a day where my morning classes were cancelled thus I had approximately six hours to kill, I used this time to explore the local area. I requested the taxi driver take me to the Tianjin National Museum and ended up in a completely random location, so I walked to see what I could find. I managed to stumble across ‘Heping Lu’ shopping district, St Josephs Church and Porcelain House. Joel and I also had a day available on the weekend prior to our move to check out things locally so we went to the Tianjin Natural History museum and the Tianjin Eye.
I spent my last week in the Experimental High School essentially just mucking around with my students playing games and enjoying their company. I skate-boarded to work every-day that week so I had my skate-board in my classes with me which all the students were very intrigued by. I let them all have a go which they thoroughly enjoyed. In one class however a student fell off, the skateboard flew from underneath him and rammed into the class-room wall. The sound echoed the corridors and within seconds a Chinese teacher came bursting into the room demanding answers, I discreetly moved my skate-board into hiding as the boy ‘responsible’ copped a lecture. Once the teacher had left the room I asked him what would happen and he said “she will kill me” and then “my parents will kill me again”. I felt sorry for him, firstly it was an accident and secondly it was at least half my responsibility for bringing my skate-board to school and for allowing the students to use it, so we went to her office and I explained that it was accidental not intentional and that it was my responsibility for allowing him to use it. The teachers just said that he is a very naughty boy and that he knows better than to play in the classroom. I think however he may have avoided receiving the wrath of his parents at least as he did some kind of fist-pump action after leaving the office.
As it was my last week at the school my international baccalaureate students who are studying to go to a Korean university took me out for lunch. We went to a local restaurant where they served a dish called ‘málàtàng’. The dish originated in Sichuan. A large number of skewers are presented with a variety of different ingredients. You select those that appeal to your taste, place them in a basket and take them to the cook who cooks them in a mildly spicy broth. I have never seen a cook so fast with his hands as the man who made our lunch! You generally pay one RMB per skewer. All the ingredients are served to you in the broth and then you add a selection of sauces including sesame seed sauce, chilli oil, garlic, vinegar, etc. In my broth I had dumplings (jiaozi), fish balls, lotus root, mushrooms, noodles, quail eggs, sausages, and tofu. After our lunch on the walk back to the school we spotted a poodle in a basket with died orange ears. When I went to give it a pat it responded quite aggressively, I thought to myself if my owners died my hair orange and made me sit in a little basket I would feel that way too!
On the last day at the Experimental High School one of my grade 8 students gave me a gift of a ‘shark bone’ necklace and a letter. He explained that it had come from Australia and would remind me of home. Although it was actually a Maori design and was made in China I found the sediment very thoughtful. The letter read: “Dear Irena: we are still good friends even through you donot teach us and I know you like Baymax. So I draw one for you. I hope you like it. meanwhile I hope to make you understood that we all Love you kiss~ kiss~ Your student Daniel1 Huang Bing Chao 2015. 3. 25.” The letter contained a picture of the character ‘Baymax’ from the movie ‘Big Hero 6’. He was holding a skate-board. There were also another two pictures of Baymax in the bottom right hand corner of the letter with thought bubbles inscribing “leave” and “no!” The reason that he had made me a card with ‘Baymax’ is because he was watching the movie in one of my classes and I had made it known that I had watched it recently and that I thought it was a good film.
On the morning of my cancelled classes, as aforementioned, I ended up in a random location but with some walking stumbled across St Josephs Cathedral. It made a bad morning a little more pleasant, the quiet of the cathedral allowed for some much needed peace and tranquillity. St Josephs Cathedral (also known as Lao Xikai Catholic Church) is a Roman Catholic Church. The Church was built in 1913 and is one of Tianjin’s protected historical relics and is the largest Roman Catholic Church in the Tianjin Province. I spent some time there admiring the architecture and the art on interior and exterior. I sat in the pews gathering my thoughts on my desires for the future, my regrets of the past and sending love and thoughts to my mother. I also reminisced on the time I had with mum in St Barbara’s Cathedral in the Czech Republic. A Church seems the appropriate place for such reflections. Once I left the church I went to an area where a candle could be lit for the deceased. Just as mum and I had once lit a candle together in the Czech Republic, I lit one for her. There was an indoor area to protect the flame; it should burn a long time in her memory.
The Church borders a major shopping district, so after I had gathered my thoughts I wandered this area. The shopping area was so large that there are small buses taking people from one end to the other. I have never seen so many stores. Whilst I was strolling a young man approached me and beckoned me to follow him, he spoke no English and I didn’t know where he was leading me but I riskily went with him anyway. He ended up leading me into a hairdresser with pumping beats where he tried to persuade me to cut my hair as short hair is ‘very sexy’. I agreed to allow it on the condition it was free, but they were soon trying to get 70 RMB out of me, so I left. I then had my lunch whilst enjoying the scenery of window washer’s abseiling down a rounded building façade.
After lunch I hailed another taxi and attempted again to get to the museum, on the journey I spotted a museum, (not the Tianjin National Museum I was seeking) and a very bizarrely decorated building so I jumped out of the taxi with not a lot of time to spare before my classes to have a look. I had stumbled once again unknowingly to another attraction ‘Porcelain House’. Porcelain house is a historical colonial building situated in Tianjin which has been radically re-decorated by its owner using copious amounts of broken porcelain including 4000 pieces of ancient porcelain (some dating to the Han dynasty), 400 pieces of jade stone carving, 20 tons of crystal and agate and millions of pieces of ancient Chinese ceramic chips. It made for fascinating viewing.
A few days after my solo adventure Joel and I had a day spare on the weekend and thought we would get a little tourist taste of Tianjin downtown as getting there would involve far more effort in the future. We went to the Tianjin Natural History Museum. The museum has been a part of the city since 1914 and specialises in palaeontology and fossils and features a collection of almost 400,000 specimens of this nature. Within the collection are four main sub-categories – basic palaeontology, animals, plants and paleo-anthropology fossils. At the museum there were moving dinosaur robots, life size animal replicas including instinct species such as the mammoth. The whole museum was laid out in a time-line of the development of the earth from the ‘beginning’ of time to as we know it. Despite the minimal English signage we learnt a great deal about the development of man-kind. The museum was housed in a unique architectural dome with a walkway through a man-made lake to the entrance. Entry into the museum was free and visiting was a worthwhile afternoon spent. The most memorable moment inside the museum was when a woman casually spat on the floor nearby to us. It’s very normal for people to spit on the ground in the streets of China (they blame it on the air quality), but I found spitting inside much more horrendous than I usually find the act.
After a visit to the Tianjin Natural History Museum we went out for dinner at a nice Korean barbeque restaurant where we had sour tofu soup, and a variety of barbequed skewers including lamb, shitake mushrooms wrapped in bacon, squid, and more. After dinner we got a few beers (pi’jiu) and went for a walk through ‘People’s park’ where we were lucky to witness a man practicing his ‘chain whipping’ for Tai Chi – mind you it was difficult to pass as the echo of the loud crack carried for miles. The park was built in 1863 during the Qing dynasty and was originally the private garden of a wealthy salt merchant named Li Chuncheng. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Li family donated the garden to the state. It was officially opened to the public on the 1st of July 1951 as People’s Park. The park is unique because in 1954, Chairman Mao Zedong presented the park with his calligraphy of its name, which was the only work of calligraphy Mao ever wrote for a park.
After a pleasant exploration of the park we hailed a taxi to take us to the Tianjin Eye (also known as the Tianjin Ferris wheel). I thought it would make for a pleasant evening but when we got there the ticket booth was closed. Despite this it was very busy there. In a short time we were approached by a man selling tickets to enter the Ferris-wheel, we thought he was selling them at inflated prices so it was better to not purchase them but we succumbed to our desires and paid a little extra than standard for entry. We walked through the front doors, lined up and prepared for beautiful views and romance but instead reached a desk where they asked us to pay for our tickets. Now we figured the guy who sold them too us was a scalper but we failed to realise until that moment the ‘tickets’ he had sold us were not tickets at all! They were ‘waiting’ tickets, quite possibly obtained somewhere for free and that only allowed us entrance to the ticket counter! We were infuriated. We went outside on a search for the man, but of course we could not find him anywhere! We did however come across another woman selling the same false entrance tickets, we tried to ward others off purchasing from the lady but no-one seemed to heed to our advice. In the end we became rather thuggish I must admit and harassed the woman for our money back for some-time. We tried talking to the police man on the scene but he was disinterested so we took matters into our own hands and followed her around saying ‘yībăi’ (meaning 100 RMB) for a good half an hour until she coughed up our cash. It was the last of our funds, thuggish but we thought it necessary at the time considering our minimal funds.
When we moved up to Eco-city a small van was arranged for us. It is interesting how when coming to a country with precise packing all ones things can fit inside a backpack. When we were to move housewe were not quite so precise with packing, we just shoved everything into various bags we had accumulated and wound up with about 8 bags between us. We dropped off our things at our new apartment where an American teacher named Paul was still resident. He was not leaving until the Monday so we were to stay at Ryan’s house for the next two evenings. I spent that afternoon with a teacher, also American, called Chris who had taken over Paul’s classes. He gave me a tour of the new school that I was to work at, and then Joel, Paul, Chris his wife Jessica and I all met at the community centre to have lunch. I had the famous Kung Pao chicken. It was good and it was cheap.
The Saturday night that we stayed at Ryan’s place was his birthday. We went out for dinner in TEDA (a nearby city) to a beautifully decorated Turkish restaurant. Accompanying Ryan, Joel and I was his Chinese teacher Nikki as well as Susana and Lisa who are both Kindergarten teachers also employed by ENLI school of East West Studies. Whilst there I requested that Nikki also provide me with Chinese language lessons during the week, she obliged, thus I added two evenings to my full-time work schedule to dedicate to learning Chinese! After this we went to ‘Jacky’s pub’ where I played some pool with Nikki and engaged in conversation with an Italian and a bunch of Germans. Following the pub we went to a club which I fail to recall the name of and danced the night through until the early hours of the morning. We were pretty stoked to discover that they were playing bounce music, one of mine and Joel’s preferred genres. Fascinatingly, at clubs in China if you purchase a large number of drinks you get staff allocated to encourage you to drink more and drink with you. Quite opposite to Australia where a bartenders training requires the ability to recognize drunk people and refuse service. After the club we went to KFC where Joel and I both passed out on the tables and eventually arrived back at the apartment at approximately 6.30 in the morning. The next day was spent sleeping until the afternoon and generally being horrifically hung-over.
Monday I was the begin work. The new school looks like a large shopping complex and is very modern. The layout is simple. As may be assumed by the name the school has a good emphasis on language learning so almost all the teachers have a good English speaking ability and the students level is higher than that of the Experimental high school. My first week was quite pleasant. The teachers are friendly and invited me to have lunch at their table in the cafeteria. A perk of this school is that the lunches are free and very good! We grab a tray and some chopsticks and then from bane-maries have a variety of dishes to choose from, normally containing different meats and vegetables with spices, dumplings (jiaozi), stuffed buns (baozi) rice (mifan), yoghurts and fruits. My least favourite is the rice gruel ‘soup’ they serve. It is just rice in lukewarm water.
The students were all quite self-esteem boosting. I was showing them pictures of my family and in the majority of classes they stated that my face is ‘thin’ now, and I used to be very fat. Apparently I used to look like an old woman and they couldn’t believe it was me in the pictures. So flattering of them, but this is the Chinese culture. In another class a student said I was fat at the current point of time, I mentioned this to the grade nine teachers stating that I was aware that it was China and that I Chinese people are very straight forward but noted in Australia it would be considered very rude. The teachers went on to inform me that in China it was quite standard upon meeting a new person to ask them their name, their age, their occupation, where they live and their salary. I said to them that we very rarely ask questions about salary or political preference in Australia, and if we do we normally state it’s a no-obligation question to save any uncomfortableness for the questioned. The teachers then said “we don’t vote here, so we don’t have to worry about that issue”. It was an insightful and also mildly amusing observation.
On one of the week days I was headed over to Ryan’s apartment as we were going shopping in Tanguu ‘Golden Street’ (another nearby city) to find the perfect outfit for his Beijing birthday bonanza. On the way I was stopped by a man and his child and was asked whether I was a ‘laoshi’ (teacher), upon confirmation it was requested that I give his child private English tutoring. So within a week of living in Eco-city I have managed to fill up five days a week with full-time work and four evenings a week, two of which will be utilised to learn Chinese and two of which will be dedicated to teaching English! We met up with Susana in Tanguu and went shopping in Zara. I purchased a lovely A-line skirt, and Ryan purchased some nice white pants, brown belt, and ‘linen’ sweater and blazer to wear in Beijing. In another shop I also bought some sneakers so that I can hopefully (when time permits) start going to the gym in our apartment complex. After shopping was finished we decided to get some dinner in TEDA. The place that Susana had recommended was unfortunately closed so we went on a taxi mission and a bit of a walk to another restaurant she had in mind. Here we had a dish with snow peas, scrambled eggs with tomato (xī hóng shì chǎo jī dàn), a dish with spring onion and chicken, and barbequed skewers of mutton, bread, tofu (dofu), and shitake mushrooms wrapped in bacon. It was a rather delicious meal, we chatted until rather late considering our early rise for work in the morning!
Our first weekend in our new apartment and I took Joel to see Tanguu’s ‘Golden Street’, we were deliberating what we should eat and eventually just settled for some street food. We had this incredibly delicious roll stuffed with pork and spices and a dish similar to ‘malatang’ with various skewers boiled in broth and added sesame sauce and chilli oil. For approximately two Australian dollars each it was an incredibly good purchase! After some time just browsing the streets we caught a taxi to the Tanguu Aquarium. The entrance fee was ghastly expensive, but we figured we were there so we should take a look inside. For our viewing displeasure there were polar bears, arctic foxes, penguins, and beluga whales all in tiny glass enclosures in completely unnatural habitats. The animals were clearly distressed, continuously running in circuits from door to door for escape from the spotlight. In another aquarium there were turtles, sting-rays and a variety of fish species this one was not quite as disturbing, perhaps because the animals were smaller and the tank larger or maybe it was because these particular animals have less obvious capabilities of revealing their distress. After we left we got hustled into a taxi where the meter jumped from the starting price of 8 RMB to 25 RMB within a minute. As soon as Joel noticed this rapid hike in price I told the driver to pull over and we gave him 20 RMB and jumped out. He proceeded to follow us in his taxi and berate us for the next five minutes. Risky business really, but we just continuously said ‘bye-bye’ until he drove off and let us be. We caught another taxi to TEDA (with a more honest driver) where we went to a shopping complex offering IMAX films and went to see ‘Kingsmen: the secret service’. We ordered popcorn and sadly my intense craving for salty and buttery goodness resulted in bitter disappointment as apparently the popcorn served in Chinese cinemas is off the sweet variety. I found the film quite captivating at the beginning but the plot became far-fetched and ludicrous.
Finally we were free and Ryan had the opportunity to meet and greet us in our new homeland China! He took us to a place called ‘Helens’. Helen’s is a great place with a bustling atmosphere. The walls are adorned with graffiti, and each table has its own mini book shelf offering English novels for your reading pleasure. Sheisha’s are offered on hire to smoke and beer is super cheap at about 10 Yuan or 2 dollars approximately. We stayed there for a while and played a Chinese drinking game in which each player has five dice. After shaking the dice in your cup you must guess how many of whichever number dice both you and the other player has. The number ‘1’ is a ‘wild’ dice and can count as any number. The other player must always up the number to your suggestion; otherwise they can call your bluff. If they are right you drink if you are right they drink! Whilst there the bartenders also offered us the chance to skull a beer in a competition against other bar-goers for the fastest! It was a selection at random, but Joel, Ryan and I all got chosen to compete! None of us came close to winning but we all got a free beer out of it! So why say no? After a few hours spent there playing drinking games and entering drinking competitions we quite drunkenly headed for another club in which the bartenders were Russian and the drinks were over double the price! We had good fun dancing there to Chinese pop. We also got the privilege of watching a band from the Philippines perform which quickly dampened the atmosphere considering their ear paining singing and their extremely slutty attire. Shortly after there was a bizarre incident in which Joel put his cigarette out in an ash tray on this table with a group of guys sitting on it. One of the men from the table stood up, grabbed the ash-tray up and proceeded to empty the contents onto the floor in front of us before dropping it at our feet! I had forgotten that they purchase the right to use a table in clubs here so a simple gesture on Joel’s part to avoid putting cigarette butts on the floor rapidly ensued a dispute especially considering that after the actions of the Chinese man I retaliated by placing a beer on his table. Soon there was a complaint to management and Ryan was resolving it with his exceptional Chinese lingual skills. He explained how both parties were drunk and we were told to ‘remove ourselves’ from the situation. So after leaving the club although another place was considered I was drunker than I realised and feeling like I couldn’t stand and may be sick I was the spoil sport who suggested home!
The next day we went to ‘Old town’ or ‘Ancient Cultural Street’ after a very necessary Mc-Donald’s lunch where (although formally opened in 1986) we could see all the cultural elements of China. There was vendor after vendor sporting Chinese ‘antiques’ and calligraphy brushes as well as the occasional scorpion lunch and a huge array of New Years decorations. There were also vendors selling Jade and other semi-precious stones, wooden carvings, leather goods and toffee art.
We spent the remainder of the week training for work and then Spring Festival was upon us! The Spring Festival or New Year’s falls on the 1st day of the 1st Lunar Month, which this year was the 19th of February! Considering we had already some weeks prior celebrated the coming of 2015 in Australia, one could jokingly suggest that when we came to China we went back in time as now we were celebrating the coming of a New Year all over again! Chinese New Year’s day is an occasion for Chinese families to get together, they will eat dumplings or ‘jiaozi’ for breakfast as they think that ‘jiaozi’ in sound means “bidding farewell to the old and ushering in the new”. The shape of the dumpling is similar to a gold ingot from ancient China so people eat them and wish for wealth. We participated in this tradition and ate dumplings on the New-Year; however we did not wish for wealth! (I am seriously started to think we ought to have considering our lack of it now!) Another tradition for the festival is to decorate windows and doors with red colour paper-cuts or stickers containing themes such as “good fortune” or “happiness”, “wealth” and “longevity”. Lucky for us our land-lord had left us with a well-wishing on our door and several posters to place around the house! Another tradition which we without option participated in was the insane amount of fire-works that are set off every-day and night for 15 days! There is a law in China that no one person is allowed to store more than a ton of fireworks under their house which gives you an idea of how many are set off in this time! One night I went and purchased some fireworks and set off two, making for a fun-filled 20 minutes. The fireworks are set off to ‘ward off evil spirits’. Joel and I were sick with the flu the majority of the festival however we did we did make it to Ancient Cultural Street for at least one of the days in the break! We felt it was quite a feat as it was the first time we had really caught the subway by ourselves and negotiated with taxi drivers our route. We spent some time viewing the Confucian Temple, (established 1426) however, only from the outside as it was closed for Spring Festival. We also enjoyed eating spiced and grilled squid on a stick!
A few days later I was running out of my vitamin supply and still run down with the flu so I attempted to find a chemist nearby to us, I asked a girl on the street to speak with our friend Helen on the phone from work (who acts as our translator if need be) and direct her to direct us to the nearest chemist. It was explained to us that there was not one available nearby to us, however once we got off the phone with Helen the girl that I asked and her friend gestured that we follow them! So Joel and I, without any Chinese ability, and the girls without any English ability walked jointly for about 45 minutes without a word we could say to each other. We didn’t even know if we were necessarily being taken to a chemist! But eventually we ended up at a fairly large shop stocking Chinese medicines and vitamins! It gave me great faith in the selflessness of human-kind that they would take us so far in the opposite direction of where they were originally headed just to assist us. I offered them some money for the effort but they politely declined, showed us in their translator that we needed to rest and were off on their merry way.
After the Spring break I was told that I was to be teaching Middle school. I have 2 different grade 8 classes 4 times a week, 4 different Senior 1 classes 2 times a week, and a Senior 2 class once a week. Each class has about 50 students in it but the Senior 2 class has about 100 students! It was terrifying. I was thrown into the role without ever having the ability to witness another teacher’s class-room. To discuss some memorable experiences of my first week at work, on the first day of teaching a Senior 1 class one of the students came up-to me and said “oh, you are so beautiful” which was nice. (I secretly hoped that my alleged beauty would help me manage the behaviour in the class-room) The student disappeared for a few minutes and then came back and repeated his comments and jokingly ran into a wall at the sight of me. In another one of my lessons a student introduced himself as ‘Master’ which I still do not believe is his ‘true’ English name, anyway, he shook my hand and asked me whether he could dance for me. I responded “You want to dance for me? You can dance for everybody, I will call upon you!” so when the bell-rang I asked him to enter the ‘stage’ (the teacher’s have a raised blocked and pew to stand on at the head of the class-room) and dance for his class-mates, he reluctantly agreed and did moves such as ‘gangnam style’ which made for a great round of applause from his class-mates and an fun way to begin the lesson! In another class one of my students just casually had a ‘Carlsberg’ beer half finished sitting on his desk. I can believe drinking during school hours but to showcase it for the whole class and teacher to see was quite absurd.
We arrived in Beijing, China at 1.15am on Friday the 6th. When we walked out the gates at the airport there was a taxi driver arranged for us waiting with our names on card ‘Joel Stalker’ and ‘Irena Harrison’. After our long flight we were straight onto the road for a long journey to TEDA in Tianjin. The school we are employed by, the ‘Enli School of East West studies’ had arranged a hotel there near our office. The journey was long and arduous and after some hours I desperately needed to go to the toilet. With no Chinese to assist me I held on until I without choice desperately signalled the a ‘T’ with my hand and the taxi driver responded by signing a ‘W’ which I assume represented ‘WC’ for toilet and I gave him the thumbs up he pulled over on a 8 lane highway, I clambered out and peed on the side of the road which certainly made for an interesting first experience in China. Anyway, we arrived at 4.30am where it was straight to bed for us and then after a mere 6 hour’s sleep and suffering jetlag we went apartment hunting with Helen who works at the school office who had kindly come to escort us. I had told them that we did not have much money when we were still back in Australia so the apartments we had choice of were not in the best of areas, were rather modest and small. The apartment we eventuated with was chosen on the basis of it being the cleanest, odourless, and with a bigger kitchen than the 2 by 2 meter standard in the other apartments. Joel was not too happy with the selection; I think mostly because of the surroundings, we live in a community consisting of multiples of identical concrete apartment blocks. He also expected something a little more modern, perhaps not with paint peeling off the walls or a bedroom, door-less and only containing enough room for the bed or maybe it was the very old washing machine in which you have to take the washing out and put it in a different section of the machine for the spin cycle with the draining pipe running to the shower drain. Perhaps it was the lack of hot water in the kitchen. After we had viewed the apartments we went to a huge shopping complex in TEDA and bought a few groceries. It was fascinating just viewing the sheer size of the place let alone the mass variety of foods they had on offer and the way they were presented. There was a massive section offering alcohol and cigarettes, and section dedicated to Sushi and Sashimi. Perhaps the most interesting was the meat section offering delicacies of chickens feet and necks or the slightly displeasing fresh shark and turtles live in aquariums ready to be freshly slaughtered for supper. That night we went out for dinner at a restaurant called ‘delights’ with the Principal Lily and office employee Helen. It was a multi-cultural restaurant including Australian lamb chops and chips on the menu but mostly specialising in Italian, Mexican and Indian cuisine. Joel got burritos and I had Fajitas. I have to say I was fairly impressed by the three story layer of plates I was served with the meat at the bottom (prawns, beef and chicken), fajita bread in the middle and salad, sauces and jalapenos on the top plate. I had watermelon juice to drink and Joel tried the famous Chinese Tsing Tao beer. The next day we went and got our subway cards and our Chinese sim cards and then we headed back to the real-estate agent to sign the lease for our apartment in the ‘Li Xin Li’ community and obtain our key. We went with Helen and the real-estate agent Mr. Zhao to the apartment to check over any flaws to be amended prior to us moving in by the landlord. We discovered a lack of curtains, refrigerator, internet or working lights. As we were to leave Joel was given the key to practice locking and unlocking the door when he some-how deadlocked it stranding us all indoors. Just as we thought we would be there an eternity Mr. Zhao called his agent friend to come and rescue us, once he arrived we wrapped the key in some newspaper and threw it out the window for his fellow agent to heroically climb the stairs and unlock our apartment door from the outside! After this we opened our Chinese bank accounts and received our bank cards and then went for a walk around our local area to find we are relatively nearby restaurants, the theatre, an art museum and a luxiourous shopping mall stocking brands such as Prada, Dior and Dolce and Gabbana. Helen then took us to our local supermarket where we went and got some basic food and cleaning products for the apartment. That night we went out for dinner again with Lily and Helen to go and try the famous Chinese hotpot. Each seat in the restaurant had its own stove element where our soups were to be served and heated before our eyes. First we had to go and make our selection of sauces which we were encouraged to mix together. There was peanut sauce, sesame sauce, chilli oil, coriander, fish sauce, soy sauce, spring onion, oyster sauce, vinegar, etc. First I mixed sesame seed sauce with spring onion and oyster sauce and dried shallots. In the second tray I had coriander with chilli oil and fish sauce. After we made our selections an array of different food types were brought to our table to be added to our soups as they consistently boiled, including tofu, baby squid, silverfish, chicken balls, fungi, winter-melon, noodles, and lamb. The idea of the hotpot is to keep the pot hot and cook the ingredients as you feel the urge to consume them. After they have finished cooking you, chopsticks in hand dip them into your sauce selection. It was a delicious and variety filled culinary adventure! The next morning we packed up our luggage and checked out at the hotel before going to the famed Swedish IKEA to purchase any of our new homes short-comings, the enormity of the complex was astounding. There were rooms after rooms of show-rooms before getting to the massive restaurant inside. According to Helen much more people eat at IKEA than shop there. The restaurant housed at least 500 seats and the food was obtained in a canteen like assembly line. First you grabbed your trolleys which held up-to three trays and then you followed a cue in a counter-clockwise circuit to get your food. Some was self-service, pre-cooked and cold dishes from refrigerators and others were requested and served from huge bane maries. I tried Salmon with tartar mashed potato and brochili, a cold chicken wrap, some cold spicy chicken and a croissant, and Joel had steak with gravy and mashed potato and brochili, and a cold chicken wrap. Most interesting was that we then had to take our trays of food through to a check-out much like in a supermarket to pay. We went on a decent walk to the train –station with two huge bags after this and caught a 30 or so minute ride back to our nearest train stop and then caught and taxi to our apartment complex, dropped off the stuff before getting another taxi, then another 40 minute train ride, and another taxi back to the Hotel in TEDA to obtain our luggage and take it back to our new apartment!
It was a pretty big day. We were leaving Mana’s house that morning and going for a ‘tour’ of some of the major tourist attractions before being dropped off at Mucaonga in the afternoon to spend time with Sifa and his family before we were finally to leave back for Australia the next morning. We arose and packed our bags, did some minor cleaning and ate our breakfast said goodbye to the dog and then set off. Our first stop destination was the blow holes. It was so beautiful, there was a group of school kids there which was fun and like almost every other child they loved the camera, but the crisp blue waters crashing against the cliff’s edge, the whales in the ocean and the lovely natural shape formations of the rocks were enough for me to not want to move on and rather stay there forever. Alas, we did soon leave and I forgot to mention that on that day, again I was destined to be driver. Liam was to sit in the front seat next to me, and Mana who is a taxi driver was escorted in the back seat! The next destination was Captain Cook’s landing place. There is a plaque there that alleges that there was in the same place a Banyan tree which he sat and rested underneath, there was also a traditional shade shelter at the sight and a reasonable view, however here like in a lot of parts of Tongan the water was polluted so I would rate the destination average, at least in comparison to our prior experience. The next destination was some ancient ruins in Lapaha; unfortunately the only sign there was in Tongan so I still do not know what the ruins actually were. Near the sight there was an abandoned house with Tongan paintings covering the roof which was fantastic to see. After this we went to Ha’a monga A’Maui which is known as the Stonehenge of the pacific. It again was an ancient ruin no one knows exactly why it was there but there are a few theories. One theory includes the fact that it represents the bond between the king’s sons with the stone at the top being the unity and the two blocks of coral down the side being the boys. It is about 7 feet tall and 6 feet wide and the top piece they assume got there by a large mound of dirt underneath to help place it there. After this we went to the beach for a little bit waiting for Sifa to come and collect us from there, we missed each other however, so we just navigated our own way to his house with some deep thought as to how we got there in the first place. We were welcomed upon arrival and then were taken out into the bush so that we could see the work Sifa and his family do there. We both attempted climbing the coconut tree but although we probably both reached a metre or two the slipperiness of the tree, the lack of branches and upper body strength made it an unlucky feat so we watched Sifa fetch us some fresh coconuts instead. I forgot to mention that prior to this he had shown us his yam and watermelon farming and his uncle and little cousin Moses (1 year old) and Sisa (2 years old) were with us. I had carried little Moses to the coconut tree area and was somewhat baby-sitting him I suppose why the men worked on our van which had broken down. The van’s sliding door did not close, the windscreen was broken and it was generally very dodgy but the men in Tongan seem to be able to fix every car and with some new petrol and the replacement of the car battery all was well. Back to the coconuts. With Sifa’s machete he cut them open and provided a drink and a meal in one for us both, shaping a spoon out of the hard surrounding shell. It was the most delicious coconut I have every consumed, but I suppose I had never been lucky enough to have one straight off the tree before. So once we had piled back into the van and it was “ehmmm, cough” running smoothly again Sifa picked some more coconuts to feed the pigs they farm at their home and then we set off back. We chilled out back home for a couple of hours and waited for dinner to be cooked outside on the open fire, with coconuts used as tea-towels to pick up the hot pots. We very shortly after heard terrible news that one of the men who had helped us with the car in the farm fields and we had spoken to had died shortly after we left from “working too hard”. He was over 70 years old and still working the land in the heat of the Tongan sun and it was a bit of a shock to hear the death of someone after they had so recently seemed fit and well. I made a note of having and minute of silence in respect. For dinner we had a delicious chicken and cabbage dish in a broth with some breadfruit which I had never tried before and some minoke. It was delicious and I think Liam especially thought so because he had two bowls which everyone seemed to find great humour in. After dinner we were to head off back to town to go and look at the Heilala festivities apparently, but it seemed realistically we were probably only there so that Sifa could check his Facebook, so we both did so and then to make the most of our time in town Liam and I bought a round for John, Sifa, Noah and us. It turned out though that after we had purchased the shot’s the boy’s weren’t allowed in the club to drink them. I went downstairs and spoke to the bouncer who said that they had no I.D and thus they weren’t allowed in, so I argued for a little bit and said they were older than me and that they forgot it and could they at least drink it outside. The bouncer agreed as long as we were quick and got out of there straight afterwards as the police might come, but when I went back upstairs they insisted on checking with the bouncer again! This time they apparently they weren’t allowed in. inside because they were wearing sandals; I promptly stated that I was wearing sandals but apparently it’s acceptable for me because I am a tourist. Either way we had the shot’s and then we left, I think they just didn’t really want any locals in there at that point in time at least. After this we headed back home and were invited to join them at the Kava party. I can’t say why but I was so beyond exhausted at that time that I simply could not have gone so we decided to make the mission to bed. They were to cook us a pig in the morning but when we arose they were cooking something else, apparently the boys were too sick from drinking too much kava and had been throwing up and gotten home at 5am so they didn’t quite have two or three hours’ worth of energy to cook it for us, which was fine. So for breakfast we had some beef sausages with tomatoes sauce and white bread and onion in a true Aussie way and some onion and tea they had cooked up for us, we then took our last photos, had our last hugs and said our farewells before we were to board our flight for Melbourne.
It was the Heilala festival , specifically the block party. We went to that and it was pretty damn good. As much as we tried to have specifically Tongan food whilst we were there we did admittedly cave in and purchase a snow cone (which Liam has never tried before? Um what?) and some fairy floss. Prior to this we tried some coleslaw like substance with some BBQ pork and chicken as well as the traditional local vegetable the minoke. Now, for a pescatarian and a vegetarian it was a positively awful experience. The combination of guilt succumbing me and my body’s readjustment to the proteins resulted in me eating very little and feeling rather sick. My conscience is so conflicting in this regard. I don’t want to eat meat, but I just as strongly believe in eating local food (for it is a large aspect of culture) and I also think it is a lot better to eat it than to throw it away, but alas my stomach simply could not handle it Then and there I vowed that I wouldn’t be eating meat again. The next time I ate meat was the very next morning. But anyway, I suppose I should discuss the happenings of that night. There was music left right and centre covering the entire long strip of the street. There was modern western pop with traditional Tongan music in-between and even a pacific island cliché’ of Guns N’ Roses. I thought it would be a good idea to go to a bar and have a drink or two or three to get myself in the mood for the festivities. Upon arrival the owner of the bar offered us some liquor made by their company, and my God! It was coffee flavoured and amongst the nicest beverages I had ever consumed! I asked him what else he had and he listed off a reel of lemon, coffee, orange, gin, vodka, whiskey, and Sambuca! So naturally I insisted on trying all of them and finishing again with the best (being coffee) by this point I was pretty drunk! I was approached by a Tongan guy who worked at the pub and introduced me to his uncle (insuring I told him we were good friends). The owners kept insisting he departed from the bar and it seemed he was using us as an excuse to stay there. We had a dance, shared a cigarette and I found great humour in his attempts to hit on me despite Liam’s presence. “I like you” he said, “Is Liam angry?” he pursued. The dancing is crazy sexual in Tonga. They seem to be stuck in the 90’s and Jak was showing us a variety of ‘moves’ such as ‘ride the horse’. It was rather humorous. I might also mention the huge queer culture present in Tonga, with quite a few obviously man-woman roaming the streets. Anyway, after the drinks I fully intended on going to the massive tent area and partying it up, but I drunkenly ended up home.
The next morning we awoke with full intentions to go to the tourist café ‘friends’ but on the way I saw a run-down little restaurant full of local people and I just couldn’t resist the urge to be amongst them. We went in, and as per usual the only options were meat. One may expect in a tropical island that there would be a large amount of fresh fruits and vegetables, but the only fruits you can buy seem to be the standard apples and bananas and the only vegetables are root vegetables like minioke, taro, and yams. So I got three different types of food with minoke and Liam did the same. We shared the food, but my! Again we could nowhere near complete our meals, the Tongans eat a lot! On my plate there was pork wrapped in taro leaves and cooked in coconut milk as well as cabbage coleslaw like substance with pork and another meat dish which I do not recall clearly. Liam had a kind of curried fish, which was nice! But I have always been a bit cautious with fish so I couldn’t enjoy it to the best of my ability! He also had a spicy like curry and again another meat dish which I cannot recall!
We then went on our way to ‘friends’ café as intended. On the way we ran into a sailor from California and we invited him to join us. I had the most delectable iced coffee I have ever had, you could feel the texture of the beans, but it should be noted it was much more similar to a thick shake than the typical ice-coffee we drink at home. After this we hired a scooter and set of in a random direction, essentially hoping to run into something exciting. We stopped on the way to admire some tombs. They are incredibly decorative here with woven doilies and flowers and posters covering them. Some seem to be rather specific to the deceased tastes, covered in Heineken bottles or seashells. We were nearby to a village so we thought we’d take a wander. I enjoyed there patting a baby goat and untangling it from its ropes as well as playing soccer with the local children.
I guess it starts getting pretty crazy and exciting after this. We kept riding downwards towards the water’s edge. Upon arrival I declared that I would live peacefully there for the rest of my life. It was gorgeous, the local’s pigs were just drinking and eating in the water and the canoes rested upon the shore. It wasn’t your typical clear bright blue water and white beaches as expected but it was tranquil and beautiful in its own right. I was busy trying to catch the piglets and taking photos on the way when a local came up-to us and started chatting. Soon enough he invited us to his house to eat pig. Now as much as I really didn’t want to do so, it was an excuse to go into a local’s home and experience life there, so I couldn’t really refuse on those grounds. We intended on leaving the scooter by the roadside but Sifa insisted on pushing the scooter up the hill to his house. He walked along feeling very pleased with himself that he now had foreign friends in his village. We went to the house and were introduced to his many cousins, brothers, sister and uncle. It turns out that his parents were divorced and now deceased and that is why they lived with the uncle. He promptly jumped into the pig pen and after some squealing knocked it on the head and it was dead. He then gutted it, left it for a while to bleed out and then through the ass to the mouth put it on a spit to roast over the fire. For some hours his brother Noah turned the pig whilst Sifa took off its fur. I hate to admit, but watching the skin slowly change from pink to golden brown over the warm fire was ridiculously mesmerizing. We had a wander around whilst it was cooking, and saw the vegetable garden and the pig pen, had a chat to the village dogs, who were eagerly hoping to have some meat left over for themselves. Once the meat was cooked and they had enough photos taken, Sifa grabbed a few banana leaves to set the table and the meat was in a very much barbarian manner thrown onto the leaves and cut up with one large knife or broken with the hands and eaten without cutlery. His uncle was lovely enough to have walked to the shop and purchased us some salt and some water without our knowledge. We had with the meal cooked bananas and minoke also referred to as tapioca. I must admit, my guilt was wearing off by that point and the pig tasted absolutely delicious. After our meal we paid his uncle a modest amount of money for welcoming us into his home. He refused initially of course but we had already pre-decided to do so for a pig at the market could have made a good profit for the family and Sifa had commented prior that after we leave his uncle would get angry for killing the pig! His uncle also apologised profusely for the state of his house insisting that they are a ‘poor family’. I suppose it’s all comparative, their house was rather large although not nice, but the poor man did unexpectedly have a few extra children to care for. Also note-worthy is that he is the town police officer. One of the more fascinating things was that Sifa told us to lie to his uncle and say that we had met him on Facebook and he had invited us to com and stay in Tonga because his uncle would have been mad if we had just met him on the beach. I found this rather bizarre; I would suggest that the majority of the time in Australia the opposite would be a better story to suggest happened to your parents, although I’m pretty lucky. Mine don’t care either way.
After we had finished our meal Sifa suggested that we go in a van to town with the scooter in the back because it was dark, a little bit wet, a long journey and unsafe. We agreed because quite frankly we couldn’t really be bothered riding back anyway. Issues occurred though when they tried fitting it in the back with the greatest of difficulties. It was pretty hilarious until they smashed and broke the light on it. We decided to rent it out an extra day and get it fixed elsewhere instead of paying the $100 dollar deposit on the bike, for it would be a lot cheaper. So we drove off to town incredibly crammed, it was funny and typical of such as place and we all laughed at the discomfort of the situation. Once we got to town we dropped the scooter off at the guesthouse and then I expected that we would have a drink in one of the bars in town. It turned out however that they had brought along their own bottles of something and we pulled up at the ferry terminal to consume them. It should be mentioned that on our first night of arrival we dropped some other tourists off there and there was a group of loitering teenagers about, now I understand what they were doing there. The ferry terminal, undercover seems to be the Franklin Square of Nuku’alofa (the Capital city, by the way).
So the intention to have one drink was soon erased when we decided to have a few more. Noah kept topping me off and I suppose I recognized my drunkenness when I found ridiculous hilarity in the fact that Liam had never before gone fishing, actually we all did. I was dancing with Noah whilst now becoming seemingly cliché’ of the place Sifa whispered in my ear “I like you” and “Is Liam angry”, my response of course being “he knows no rage”, which is not untrue. With that occurring the ‘other guy’, I have forgotten his name was rubbing my leg, so I guess I figured I was in a bit of trouble but I was just a bit too trashed to do anything about it. Plus, it was still fun despite their perhaps not so positive intentions. I don’t actually remember being bundled into the van, and I only got reminded of stopping at the shop the next morning when I said “what am I going to do without cigarettes” as in Tonga, on a Sunday, due to the it being a highly Christian nation there is not a single shop open! It seems I actually had a pack which was great, but anyway…at the shop I apparently got out of the car and ran off to pee behind a big crate and I must have been pretty drunk, as was Sifa’s sister because we peed side by side and laughed about it. It was pretty degrading to remember it the next morning. So yes, after this we somehow ended up at Sifas sister’s boyfriend’s house (I think) so that he could take a shower. We were only to be there for twenty minutes and I was feeling pretty sick and desperate to get back to the guesthouse at that point. They took me into a bedroom and told me to sleep, but I didn’t want to, I did however throw up pig all over the floor. I recall Liam mentioning something about the pieces of pig but when I went to look all I could see was a huge blur. I stumbled outside at some point and then again proceeded to throw up and fair few times. I find it pretty fascinating that when I am drunk I seem to believe in God. I was told that I repeatedly cried out “God help me”. I would have hospitalised myself at home, but it’s Tonga so I didn’t expect them to say or do much other than shake their head at me for being a stupid tourist. I have never been that drunk. At everyone’s touch I said “go away” because it made me feel absolutely shocking, although I admittedly succumbed to some of Noah’s ‘moves’ and one point. I remember having a cigarette shoved in my mouth and the next thing that happened I woke up wondering where the hell we were and wondering why we were there. I decided we should leave so we weren’t forced to pay a large amount, and that I’d rather leave a bit of money on the table. Upon leaving though we awakened Sifas sister by accident and I still drunk stumbled along following her back to our guesthouse where after throwing up again a few times I passed out until afternoon, I was way too seedy for church that morning! One I arose again we decided to go for a ride. Perhaps a little drunk still and feeling pretty cheeky I stated that I was going to ride the scooter and for the first time ever used one singing out as I drove off “I’m going to do a blockie”. So yes, I fully intended on doing a blockie but got pretty damn lost on the way and ended up being gone and good 20 minutes at least and I only nearly crashed once until I remembered where the breaks were and what their use was! I pulled back up the guest house and saw Liam wandering back in the distance, he was just grateful that I was lost, rather than dead. Anyway, after that short journey I declared that I didn’t really want to go anywhere at all; it made me feel pretty sick both from drunkenness and fear I suppose, so again I slept of the alcohol poisoning. After I awoke the second time we enjoyed some more Tongan food with locals, this time it was beef wrapped in taro leaves and coconut milk as well as a similar lamb variety and taro and minoke. The taro and beef were pretty damn good! After this we decided to set off to have a look at the royal palace. We figured that it would be all lit up and night time. As we walked out the door we were informed that as a part of the Heilala festival there was a Christian choir concert on, so we thought we’d check that out too.
There was a variety of different choirs from a variety of different Christian organizations and yes some of the singing was absolutely incredible and the dancing was no doubt entertaining, however I could only listen to God speak for so long. “That’s not what you said last night” Liam chuckled. It kind of saddens me that the missionaries have taken away peoples culture, but they still do retain a fair bit, more so than a lot of pacific islands perhaps as they have never been colonised. Mostly being their dress and food. After this we walked to the royal palace. Upon initial sight we were convinced that it was a rather large home instead of the palace, but the crowns on the gate suggested otherwise. As we walked passed there was a man on the inner palace walls standing in the shadows of the trees and he shyly said hello, now I could be completely wrong but he looked like the man in the pictures of the king that we had seen and I wouldn’t expect they would hire a gardener at that time of the evening, and the security was already standing place outside. We could have well said hello to the king, he is known for his modesty and I wish I had asked the guy! We took some photos, loitered around there for a while and then head back home to spend the rest of the evening patting a local pregnant cat, boiling up some water and drinking cups of tea.
Yesterday we didn’t really do anything much because I wasn’t feeling that well, so the day was still productively spent doing some homework and watching travel documentaries, we had some garlic and onion chicken was cassava (another root vegetable) for dinner. Today we arose early so we could go to church, I enjoyed dressing up in traditional Tongan formal wear for the occasion which included the weaved plant skirt and the long top and sarong. Church was totally bizarre, initially I gathered the impression that it was more modern version of our churches back home, there was no drinking of the blood and body of Christ but there were still songs and donations made. The major difference was that they had a band and the singing was a lot more upbeat, everyone was dancing and singing and they had the lyrics up on a projector so we could even sing the lyrics in Tongan. The church was founded by a man from Zimbabwe so it combined the ‘African’ style with seemingly American influences. One man went into a seizure like state from the ‘love of God’ which is something I have only really seen in the documentaries about church life in America. Two people were trying to hold him up and he eventually fell and hit a table and pushed it aside. We had corned beef for lunch shortly after which is apparently a favoured dish of the Tongans. I know we sell it at home but I had still never had it before, it was cooked with garlic and onion again, soy sauce, mixed vegetables and vercemilli noodles. It seems I’ll be a master of cooking Tongan food in no time! Mana had slept all day because he had a big night at the Kava party again and later in the evening we were on a rush to Macuonga to drop of a package and he preferred to eat, he asked who was driving and I promptly took the keys despite being unaware that he was not joking! The ride was pretty scary, the visibility was minimal as the street lights are scarce here and there were small children and local street dogs running all over the road, I was also in a diesel car which I had never driven, it was a huge van, and it was a manual which I haven’t driven in a while. There were also two Tongans, i.e., Mana and his wife Isobel bickering the whole way minus the occasional comments about how I shouldn’t hit someone or I’ll go to jail, hah! So once we got to the destination, Mana left his wife there after their argument and told her to make her own way home! I was shocked I tell you! They were only bickering about whether to turn the inside car light on or not because she had lost something! Afterwards the evening was just spent packing and cleaning dishes, we’re in our last few days here!