Beijing, Seoul, Lijiang and Labour Camps

IMG_1305IMG_1352IMG_2596IMG_2541IMG_2526IMG_2517IMG_2306IMG_2262IMG_2223IMG_2097IMG_2038IMG_1876IMG_1828IMG_1661FotoFlexer_PhotoI’m sitting here, staring up at the light. There is a small green bug crawling. I’m feeling strange. I had some dramas at work and I’m supposed to call my manager today to tell her if I want to return or not. I feel strange mostly because I’ve checked my phone (finally) and there isn’t a bunch of missed calls on it as usual. She asked me to come back, but she is not desperate. Maybe she is still busy; I almost forgot entirely about the parent teachers meetings this evening. But that’s also another reason I expected her so much to call. I thought I was needed, I thought they would be anxiously hoping for my presence, I thought the school’s reputation would be at risk if I wasn’t there. Maybe they don’t need me as much as I thought they did. Anyway, my manager told me they would never want to fire me, they think I’m a good teacher, they can see how enthused I am about my students. But all this nonsense has put me in such a tricky situation. Joel is going home. Do I stay or do I go? I’ve decided to stay, so I have enough work experience on my record. I could lie, but if I intend of pursuing a degree in education in the future I think a certain level of comfort in running a classroom would be more than useful. I’m staying but yet I still feel the need to refrain from informing my manager. Maybe like her I don’t want to come across too desperate. I am sitting in my house right now with three South Africans. I have a soft spot for them actually, mostly due to the famed Die Antwoord, but despite finding joy in their company I also feel sad. It’s more difficult to do my ‘me’ things that I have adjusted myself to so well when it was just Joel and I and I also despite our long trip to South Korea together I still crave ‘alone’ time with him, especially considering the most recent drama with work. I feel like our house is becoming like a drop in centre. Anyway, I should probably explain the work situation, so here it goes… The weekend after the holidays Ryan had briefly mentioned that we had to work. We work weekends all the time and it disgruntles me but I still haul my drained body from the bed and I show up. Plenty of other colleagues have not always made the same efforts, but that’s not a sufficient excuse for what we did. We went to bed and just didn’t get up in the morning. There was a part of us that did not really believe Ryan because he is not in a position of authority, it should have been Faye the head of the foreign teachers, or Charming our manager or Lily our boss, every single other goddamn weekend we have ever had to work they had informed us, so why not now? Either way I figured that for once we did not really have a huge work load and thought the Saturday at work was going to be wasted. Before we knew it Charming showed up at our house to retrieve us and explained to us that the students were in fact present. I could not believe my ears, it was completely unheard of for me for students to be at school on a weekend, regardless, we quickly got ready and headed out the door. When I arrived, concerned with my students welfare I headed straight to class. If I had of known for sure we had work, but more so if I had of known my students were going to be there I most definitely would have showed up. Either way, lunch time came and I went to as usual buy a coffee. I ran into Ryan as I was about to leave and he told me that apparently I had a meeting so I went back inside, walked into my boss Lily’s office and asked her why it was Ryan informing me of this meeting not her. I suppose it was quite rude, I think in hindsight I was subconsciously defending my reason (by implying that she needed to inform me personally regarding important matters) for not showing up in the morning. She said to me quite aggressively that she does not know why he was telling me that, that she did not tell him to tell me that and my meeting was later. I said “okay” and walked out. As I walked away I heard almost incomprehensibly “come back!” “Come back!” but I continued walking. Joel came out to retrieve me and I told him that if she was going to speak to me like that I would not return. As I went downstairs and past my other bosses office and Lily’s husband Shawn. He asked me to talk to him for a minute. I obliged and he requested I return upstairs as my Lily had beckoned me. I explained that I did not want to with the way she was speaking to me but hap hastily agreed. I went upstairs, heard more screaming and decided it best not to intrude at that moment so went back downstairs and explained to him my hesitations. He asked me to stand outside the door and wait but I felt a little like I was eavesdropping so declined to do so. A few minutes later Joel came downstairs and said he was going home; minutes after that Lily rang Shawn and told him she had fired him. I stood up to walk out and my boss asked me to stay. I told him I was going to see Joel and he said something along the lines of “Joel has nothing to do with you” so I replied “regardless of what you might think, he does” and left. When I went outside I started bawling my eyes out. Joel had already expressed his desire to leave the company. I already knew he was returning to Australia yet before the whole process was in lingo. I thought we had time. Now leaving would come that much faster. I asked him what happened and he said that he told our boss she should pay us more and treat us better and she fired him. I thought she must have just done so in a burst of rage considering I had requested a salary increase from her an abundance of times (due to our 10+ hour a week work increase). Naturally I was feeling pretty unsettled at this point. Not just because of the treatment towards Joel but also because of a situation with my Teachers Assistant.

My Teachers Assistant was brand new the day prior to this happening. Lily had previously asked me about what I thought to be desirable characteristics in new staff and I explained to her that I wanted a person who is independent and self-motivated, will not contradict my authority but still feels happy to give suggestions at the right time. According to Lily this new Teachers Assistant was going to be fantastic, she was nice and quiet, and had previous experience working in schools as well as English speaking ability. She sounded pretty good to me. When she arrived, we had a chat and discussed the classroom rules and some of the children’s personalities and characteristics. As we were heading up to the classroom I stopped off for a toilet break and told her I would not be a moment and she could wait for me. She responded she was capable of taking herself to the classroom and not to worry. I said “okay” and off she went. I had a slight thought of concern but mostly considered her, as I had idolised, an independent person. When I entered the classroom I saw she was already helping the children dress. I thought it a little bizarre but in my mind offered kudos for her enthusiasm to jump straight into the job. My Nanny and temporary assistant (the P.E Teacher Mr. Lin) were a little confused as to whom the hell this woman was but ultimately there were no major concerns. Within a few minutes she suggested to me that the children should have music when they were waking up. I praised her idea but informed her I had also already considered it and I feel like it’s more peaceful to awaken calmly in silence. And quite frankly I did not really appreciate the way she suggested the idea, comparing our school to her experience at another in such a manner as to almost degrade ours. After that there were a few children sitting at the table waiting for their peers to finish getting out of bed and she looked at me and said it has been half an hour already and that those children waiting had nothing to do and they should start eating. I explained to her that time was not an issue, and asked her whether she liked being hurried out of bed in the mornings, I also suggested that those children could be washing their hands however there was no one there to monitor them. I said this as to subtly imply she should go and supervise them, but she did not take the hint. I also think it is vital not that the children necessarily begin their food at the same time but that they’re all awaiting their meals together. If it was not done that way then there would still be a waiting period for the children served their meals first after lunch as they would have to wait for the other children to finish eating before continuing with the next activity. I found that either way certain children would be left waiting and her method avoided valuable bonding and interaction time for the students.

Sometime after all this I had more issues with her. There was something with ‘wrong’ with one of my children. For a few days she had solemnly spoken, had avoided meals and generally seemed unhappy. She wet her pants and my TA informed me that she would not help her to change unless she spoke and requested the Teacher’s assistance. I continued my work trying with my best efforts to ignore the bawling child but I could not. Every inch of my body felt agitated, and my mind kept questioning “is this child abuse”? I went over there and coaxed her to speak to me before whisking her off to the warm shower and changing her clothes. I am adamant now that it absolutely was. Anyway, that day when Joel got fired I tried expressing my concerns to my boss only to be shut down and told I should not say these things about other people and it was not my place. I expressed to them that it was my place to say because I was the one witnessing the situation. I grew extremely agitated and called her a “crazy narcissistic psycho bitch” and accused my bosses of talking shit behind my other colleague’s backs before quitting in a rage. But they still asked me to come back, so I really need to be on my best behaviour from now on. I feel so terribly torn though, one of our bosses said in our training that if anyone ever dares harm a child then they would have to face the full brunt of the law yet my TA actively pushes around children and even slaps them and I know that if I tried saying something again I would be seen as the one inciting trouble. The best thing I can do for now is stop her if I see it.

A later development was that one of our colleagues had allegedly ‘seen’ Joel roughly handle children or smack them on the head. I told her she must be joking and surely she knows that he would never harm a child, if anything he would have tapped a kid on the head just to play around. But she was adamant that this was what she saw. She tried to make it out like the parents had come to the school about their concerns with him, that the children were afraid of him but slipped up when she blurted out that she told our boss to tell the parents completely contradicting her original statement. This greatly angered me. What a terrible accusation to make about someone, especially when I later found out her mother was the main instigator and I have heard many stories about the abuse she inflicted on her own children. Why was her Mother even allowed in the school considering the children’s own parents aren’t entitled to step foot on the grounds without a special pair of plastic shoes and an invite for a specific occasion.

There were also some issues because Joel did not have a good relationship with his TA. Plenty of Teachers and TAs disgruntled with each other had moved around the school to work with other people but for some reason the bosses were not going to give any le-way for their situation. They ended up having an argument and Joel was moved to another classroom. A short time later the bosses informed us that the government knew Joel’s career background and were asking questions. She blamed Joel’s Nanny for informing them. I personally believe that all these dreadful accusations about Joel were made up because the Teacher whose class Joel was moved into could not handle not being the only foreigner in the classroom anymore.

Anyway, as you have read the school is full of dramas and it is probably good for Joel to return home. I have to put on a happy face every day to continue working in my position but it’s not often difficult because even the worst days are washed away when I see the joy of my children arriving at school as they run up and hug me and say “ Nǐ hǎo Irena Lăoshī ”.

Well, I needed to get all that off my chest. I mentioned earlier in this text that I recently went on a trip to South Korea but I should probably begin with the trip a few days before hand to Beijing to meet my Father. I set off on the Saturday by myself. I was extremely nervous. It was the first time I had travelled that far since being in China without Joel. I cried as the taxi pulled away from him standing at our community entrance waving goodbye. The taxi took me to the train station, then I caught the fast train straight to Beijing. Once I arrived I headed straight to the hostel to drop off the ridiculous number of bags I was handling (I had brought gifts for my family and some of my useless possessions to send home with Dad). After the bags were dropped off I decided to head to the ‘Birds Nest and Water Cube’ or the Beijing 2008 Olympic park. It was one of the few major attractions I had not yet had a chance to visit in Beijing so I thought I would check it out. The stadium was designed by Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron and Chinese architect Li Xinggang. The structure was designed deliberately to expose the frame giving a ‘natural appearance’. The form of the building looks just like a giant birds nest. Although the building from the outside were interesting I was not completely impressed. It was when I entered that I was awe-struck. The sheer size of the seating area was overwhelming, thousands upon thousands of seats were lined up row upon row. It made me think of the ‘hunger games’. I sat there for some time just taking it all in before making my way slowly down the steep steps to the bottom where the race track and medal platform were situated. I managed to ask some people to get a quick snap of me standing on the gold medal podium before being chased away by the looming security guard. After some time there I headed to the ‘water cube’ where all the Olympic water sports were held. This was underwhelming compared to the birds nest but I thoroughly enjoyed the lighting of the building at night and appreciated that they still use the building for swimming programs and recreation considering numerous Olympic parks throughout the world nowadays are simply disintegrating with time. When I left the park there were grouped a bunch of taxi drivers at the entrance trying to offer me ridiculous prices to go to the Art district (my next destination). I knew it wasn’t far and kept insisting they use the metre but they would decline and drop the price a little more. I am too argumentative because in no time I was surrounded by Chinese men amused by my Chinese speaking and argumentative manner, asking to take photos with me and offering to take me out for dinner. I eventually slipped away looking for the subway only to come across some young drunken men also wanting photos with me. Being in a big city was a little overwhelming for me as a lone woman but the experience was didactic. Eventually with some walking I hollered a passing taxi far from the entrance who took me to the Art District for the right price.

When the driver dropped me off at the entrance I was a little hesitant to step out of the car. It seemed nothing more than a dark alleyway. I cautiously proceeded only to find that the darkness was probably due to the majority of galleries already being closed. I enjoyed the street art, and came across some nice street vendors selling handy crafts which I purchased for people back home before stumbling across an open book shop selling wearable art and English books regarding all art disciplines. I bought Joel a lovely and unique tie printed with a photograph but my! As I often dream in places such as these I wished I had all the money in the world to purchase the wonderful dolls, wearable art and canvased masterpieces! I moved on and peered into swanky cafes and looked in a few more crafty shops. I purchased Joel a nice wallet and dreamt of having the funds to buy this gorgeous gold and silver ring embossed with the face of a Peking Opera singer, I swore to myself that I would never again buy any tedious garbage and reserve my funds for worthy expenses such as these knowing full well that with time my fantasys about gold rings and embossed leather bags would fade away.

After rambling the streets of the Art District I decided to head to Houhai Lake. I had intended to go there every time I went to Beijing but for one reason or another I had not yet made the journey. Ryan had recommended it to me and I had heard it was as pleasant in the evening as it was during the day so I decided I should go. I hollered the next taxi I could find and set off. Fortunately it was more than I could have hoped for. The lake with all its little paddle boats lit up by the lights on every building looked breathtaking and the street performers on every corner created a wonderful ambience. I took some time taking in a man playing the violin, he played so elegantly. Then I meandered the shops. I waltzed into a Tibetan shop and shared my interest for going there with the Tibetan owners whilst bargaining heavily for a fascinating mask created from a tortoise shell. I sampled a delicious natural hand-made ice-cream filled with fresh fruits before stumbling across a man selling live turtles. I asked him whether I could take a photo and he abruptly and rudely declined so I pretended to call the police on him in response and then carried on walking staring at all the lovely tables by the lakeside decked out romantically with candles and roses. I fantasized about taking Joel for dinner here one day, it was a beautiful setting. I gazed at the numerous musicians entertaining crowds of people and eventually when my exhaustion became overbearing I head back to the hostel to rest before picking Dad up at the airport in the morning.

I head off in the morning to the airport to pick Dad up. On the way I saw a woman whose boyfriend was striding well ahead of her as she struggled with numerous bags. I offered my assistance and carried a few for her as far as we went the same way and then headed to Dads arrival gate where I stood waiting incredibly anxiously. I was fidgeting. I went to the toilet line but it was too long so I popped out for a cigarette and stared through the glass doors in case he arrived. I watched the man in suit with flowers in hand. I waited and waited for what seemed an eternity and he just never arrived. I must have been nervous for I certainly did not have my thinking cap on. After all that time I again read the sign. It said departures, I was at the wrong gate. I ran around anxiously asking people where the arrivals were and called him what seemed like thousands of times. He was not picking up, but his phone was in service so it was clear he had I arrived. I just hoped he had not strayed too far from the gate as I would have no hope of finding him. It turned out the arrivals were downstairs and eventually he was found. I hugged him and profusely apologised sweating like a pig. He seemed relaxed and not concerned but alas I still suggested a coffee and a chat in Starbucks to calm my nerves. I know how it feels to arrive at an airport praying for the person picking you up to be there waiting but I did not realise that picking someone up could cause just as much anxiety. After we dropped his bags off at the hostel we headed to the Summer Palace. Dad has always enjoyed botanicals so I thought it would be an ideal destination to take him. I am not sure he packed the ideal walking shoes though. He only had with him a pair of business shoes and suit pants, I guess that’s what business trips called for.

At the Summer Palace, when we came across craftsmen painting people’s names in stunning Chinese calligraphy he was captivated. So quickly the artists painted and with such skill. I have thought for some time that I may get my name tattooed in a similar design. I know it sounds cliché but the formation of letters is so skillful and majestic that I doubt without a second glance anyone would realise it was calligraphy not solely pictures. After the Summer Palace we went to the Temple of Heaven. The architecture of the ‘temple’ here I find among the most beautiful I have seen in China thus far and I enjoy the musicians and expansiveness of the gardens and natural looking landscapes. As we eventually headed towards the exit we saw a woman who I had met last time I visited the area. We had previously danced to Gangnam style together. I approached her and asked if she remembered me and she did. She danced with my Dad for some time before I joined in. We gathered a huge audience fascinated by the spectacle and then proceeded once again to head towards the exit. The woman followed. Dad started making comments about how he was not interested in “sleeping with the woman” and I brushed him off thinking he was a little quick to jump the gun. We planned on going to Wanfujing food market so Dad could try some of Chinas famous ‘delicacies’ so I invited her to come along with us. I was keen to just get a taxi but she insisted that we caught the bus. I was becoming impatient as I was hoping to also catch the Opera that evening and so when she started questioning whether my Father had a girlfriend I was quick to realise he was right and I was wrong and it was time to bail! We slipped into a shopping mall which I thought was a theatre and I think anxious about the cost or realising we were trying to ditch her the woman sauntered off rather quickly. After that we jumped in the nearest rickshaw and were off to the market. Dad informed me he had previously seen the Peking Opera, as had I so in the end we decided to take our time at the market and discard that plan. Dad as I anticipated was keen to sample almost anything. If you have read my previous musings you probably know I have tasted a whole lot of unappetising foods including snakes, scorpions and spiders. Though I thought I was brave he was less hesitant than I and devoured the cockroaches like they were cotton candy. I was a lot more fearful but tried them anyway, I also tried bat and I ate scorpions again which it’s safe to say I never thought would happen! After Wanfujing I decided that we should head to Houhai. It was not on the original agenda but I had such a fantastic time there the night before I thought Dad ought to see it. We were both tired and he protested but we checked it out anyway and had a little stroll before sitting down at one of the very restaurants I had glazed at starry eyed the night before. We had a beer each and had a banter before calling it a night.
The next morning we arose early to head to the Beijing classics, The Forbidden city and Tiananmen Square. First stop was Tiananmen Square. I missed out last time so I planned on going to Mao Zedong’s Mausoleum but unfortunately it was closed. I thought it was just my luck and we headed to the gate. As I was heading towards the normal entrance a young girl approached me with extremely good English and we got talking. She told me she was a volunteer and so I felt I had no reason to be cautious. After-all she certainly was not asking for money. She suggested we opted for a different gate to avoid the crowds and I thought we may as well, but soon enough we wound up instead in a student art gallery with her showing us her works and the works of her peers. It was one of those situations where although you do not have to buy anything, you feel obligated, luckily the works were quite exceptional. After spending some time there she persuaded us to purchase entry tickets to a temple which was separate to the Forbidden City entrance ticket, we obliged (they were not expensive). After some time trying to find the entrance to the temple and having no luck with a looming awareness of the great vastness of the Forbidden City I decided we should hurry along as it was going to take the entirety of the day. When we finally reached the gates of the Forbidden City I was sorely disappointed to find them closed. It was the only opportunity Dad had to go there on this trip! Who knew that Tuesday was China’s Sunday. Plan B was to take Dad to a fancy lunch at the famed Quanjude for Peking duck. He insisted that the lunch was not necessary but I insisted on him eating there. The restaurant is amongst the most renown in China and Peking duck is the countries signature dish. To me a trip to China would not be complete without trying it, even if it is ridiculously priced and slightly overrated. Dad ordered an accompanying red wine and only drank a glass leaving me to get a little tipsy (after-all the bottle should not be wasted). After lunch I took Dad to the Olympic Park as I thought it was a worthwhile attraction. I am not sure he was as in awe as I was but he enjoyed it nonetheless. In typical Irena fashion I was pushing time for everything and when we finished we had to race to the hostel so I could pack up my bags in a tearing hurry so I did not miss my train back to Tianjin. I probably should have planned for a nicer farewell. I would have liked to have caught the later train but to dismay there were no tickets available. I packed up my bags in about 5 minutes stuffing things left right and everywhere and then gave Dad a hurried kiss and hug goodbye. He thanked me for looking after him and I was on my way. I will never forget three things he said on his trip, “you’ll earn your way to heaven”, “I’m depending on you right now”, and “thank you for looking after me”. The statements really warmed my heart. They really gave me that warm and fuzzy feeling, you know?

Other conversations during Dad’s visit entailed the huge cultural difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Perhaps terrible to say, but it remains very true. I think the underlying reason is because China is such an ancient country that has only opened themselves up to the world in recent times so their culture is independently developed, thus, very unique. For example recently I was at a restaurant (a very nice one I might add) and a man just spat on the floor. When I first came to Tianjin I went to the National Museum and a woman just spat on the floor inside. This kind of behaviour is very common. It is also common for Chinese people to spit their food out onto the tables. I often have children spitting in my classroom. Instead of peeling their prawns most Chinese people put them in their mouths whole and spit out the heads. It is also standard behaviour to eat at fine establishments shirtless. Parents encourage their children to go to the toilet in the streets and instead of dressing children in nappies they wear open crotch pants or kāidāngkù for convenience. The Chinese generally have no concept of lining up and always think their more important or busier or in more of a hurry than anyone. They also ask questions that would be considered exceptionally rude in Australia or make personal statements about your appearance, for example a complete stranger will ask you how much money you earn. I find these behaviours all very intolerable but their culture still greatly intrigues me, perhaps because of my complete inability to understand it. The other evening a woman made hand gestures whilst telling me how fat I was. I have become accustomed to this kind of remark however it was the 20th time she had probably said it to me and I became quite enraged that time. It was not so much what she said but the way she said it. I told her to leave my house and then there was some discussion between us about cultural differences. She really had no idea about what she had done wrong. She persisted to say that regardless of my feelings I was in China and I should accept that is their way of life. She had a good point but the situation still left me feeling quite bitter. My boss suggested that Chinese people have these mannerisms because they are accustomed to a life of no privacy, thus the things ‘we’ might do discreetly they have no shame in doing openly as there is no ‘private time’ for them. I am sure this ‘behaviour’ comes down to a lot of factors. One thing I do oddly admire about Chinese mannerisms is the ‘shame’ culture. Chinese people almost always manage to stay even tempered in work situations, at least, as a result of this culture. The shame culture is an ideal of Confucianism designed to gain control and maintain social order through the threat of ostracism. Comparatively our society is a ‘guilt’ culture which maintains social order through the threat of punishment either now or in the afterlife. Admittedly there have been quite a few times I have lost my temper and almost always the Chinese have remained well-mannered and even tempered. It is only when arguing with people who consider themselves in a position of higher authority than I have received backlash. “Shame is a reaction to other people’s criticism, an acute personal chagrin at our failure to live up to our obligations and the expectations others have of us. In true shame oriented cultures, every person has a place and a duty in the society. One maintains self-respect, not by choosing what is good rather than what is evil, but by choosing what is expected of one.”

Moving on, I only had a day or two after my trip with Dad in Beijing before Joel and I were heading for the October holidays to South Korea. Considering South Korea is so close to China I was surprised by the huge contrast. It was indeed very beautiful. It was a breath of fresh air to be able to see natural trees and hills surrounding the city landscape. In China the only trees you see are planted it some ridiculously decorative fashion, I would prefer to admire the environment in its natural form. The people in South Korea are also all extremely friendly and very approachable and helpful. I think that their independence from the North is extremely integrated in their culture as they seem to express their individualism and liberalism in a variety of ways, from their taste in fashion, to their music, bilingualism or combined Western and Korean cuisine. Their technology is also much more advanced than China. Despite China’s rapid growth in the last two decades it cannot offer many of South Korea (and much off the rest of the worlds) technological advantages. For example taxis with functioning GPS systems and card-reading machines. In China if the taxi and you both do not know where you’re going then tough luck, you’ll have to keep trying until your find a driver that does or you will have to drive up every street and alley whilst the driver asks locals directions and racks up the fair. In South Korea even if the drivers speak absolutely no English they were resourceful enough to translate requests and then input them into a GPS.

When we first arrived at the airport we decided to take the cheaper option and catch the subway into the central city. When we arrived at our subway stop we ran into a nearby ally way to put on our raincoats as it was pouring and then decided to grab a bite to eat. We found a local Korean restaurant downstairs and feasted on some cooked up sausages on a sizzle plate and a beer before searching for a taxi to take us to our hostel. My impression of South Koreans was nothing but good so far, a man came along and asked us whether he could help us and the people in the airport were honest about the cheapest route to the city.

Although from my travels and my readings about Korean culture I have observed that the Koreans have a custom of avoiding casual relationships they normally put non-Asian foreigners in an “honoured guest” category and generally treat them with a special courtesy. Often their assistance to lost and otherwise helpless foreigners can go far beyond normal expectations. “One conspicuous occasion when Koreans typically treat foreign residents or visitors the same way as other Koreans, however, is when they are all competing for taxis during rush hour and on rainy days” which we experienced one evening trying to holler a taxi after visiting the fish market. Joel had finally found a taxi to stop for us after about 30 minutes trying when these promiscuous looking girls walked right in front of him and jumped in. He says there was nothing he could do, I would have shoved them out of the way had I been close enough. I put the nothing he could do down to him being memorized by their tiny skirts, but anyway that’s a story for another time.

I apologise for my little tangent just now. After lunch we found a taxi and bundled ourselves and all our things into in to it only for the driver to turn around and drive up the street we were originally standing right next to. Our hostel was a mere 50 or so metres away. We had been loitering around for some time pondering what to do and it turns out our room was extremely close!

Once we had dropped all our things off at the hostel we decided to head to the Trick eye museum. The museum offered a ‘love’ section, and ‘ice’ section as well as the trick-eye area. Unfortunately we only had the time to enter the ice museum and trick-eye museum but curious about what the love museum held we vowed to come back. As I predicted the artworks were nothing spectacular but it was fun taking pictures pretending to be different people or things in numerous roles. It would be better as a three or more person activity though as it proved difficult to take photos of both of us together in some of the sections.

Both fortunately and unfortunately for me the street where the trick eye museum was had a huge abundance of alternative clothing for sale, I struggled choosing between Marilyn Monroe sweatshirts and rainbow socks, blingy necklaces and 90’s tops. But I was in heaven. Unlike In China essentially all the shops had my size in everything. Frustratingly though most of them would not let you try anything on which I found kind of ludicrous, however, it did not stop me leaving without a tasselled faux leather jacket, a graffiti print olive green coat, a pinstripe crop top with ‘you’re my favourite’ on the sleeves, a leather jacket design clutch, a crop top that says ’90 – that was then this is now’ in a basketball jersey fabric, a pair of leggings with ‘hate love’ repeatedly scrawled down the seams and two pairs of sunglasses though. I could have easily walked away with more things too if I was not being conscious of the fact it was only our first evening and I had to save at least a little cash.

 

The following day Joel was disgruntled because I woke him up nice and early to go on a tour to the Korean DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). The DMZ is a belt of land established at the end of the Korean War that cuts the Korean Peninsula roughly in half and serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea. It was created as a part of the ‘Korean Armistice Agreement’ between North Korea, the People’s Republic of China and the United Nations Command forces in 1953.

As we set off on our voyage we learnt an abundance of fascinating information. I am not usually one to go on ‘tours’ however it was the only real means to visit this area as the guards at the DMZ must know at least 24 hours in advance of your arrival. Anyway, the tour guide asked us to glance over at North Korea as we were heading closer. She told us to take notice of the landscape and compare it to that of South Korea. We observed there were no trees, the landscape was completely bare bar a few buildings. She explained that the North Korean government cut down all their trees so they could always observe the doings of their people. The few buildings I just mentioned within our sights she said was a propaganda village. The reason South Korea believes that it is a false township is that apparently at night time there is never any lights and when they peer at the windows through binoculars they find they are glazed over with black paint, they also never see any people residing there.

As our guide went on to explain the day’s itinerary she explained that we would be visiting North Korea’s infiltration tunnels. She told us to observe the charcoal sprayed in the tunnels. Apparently when South Korea discovered the tunnels the North Koreans tried to excuse themselves by claiming they were merely old mines but the charcoal is only smeared onto the walls, the walls themselves are not charcoal. After the mining story was debunked North Korea tried claim that South Korea had in fact tried to infiltrate them but upon observation of the dynamite holes it is clear to see that the dynamite was pointed in a southerly direction.

After the separation of Korea into North and South many people were separated from their families. I met a few people during my stay in South Korea that told me members of their family live in the North but they have been luckily enough on very few occasions to have visited them when the borders have been opened temporarily. According to our guide census suggests 65 percent of South Koreans want unification but are still concerned because North Korea is in such a horrific economic situation so if they reunited South Korea would have to support the ‘Northerners’ financially.

Our guide went on to explain a little more of the history that caused the division of Korea. From 1910-1945 Japan occupied Korea during the Japanese colonial period. Then at the end of the Second World War Japan surrendered to the United Nations so Korea could be independent, however the Soviet Union and the United States both wanted the Korean Peninsula because geographically it was advantageous. Neither countries wanted another war so they agreed to divide the peninsula to North and South. Soviet Union troops occupied the North and US troops occupied the South. Seoul became the capital city of South Korea, and Pyongyang became the capital of North Korea.

Because of different ideologies two different nations were formed in 1948. Kim Il Sung became the first dictator of North Korea and the official name of the country became the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. As aforementioned the people could not choose where they stayed so many families were torn apart. Supported by the Soviet Union Kim Il Sung prepared a war to invade South Korea because he wanted to unite as a communist country. More than 2500 Soviet Union troops prepared tanks, aircrafts, rifles and troops to invade the South but South Korea were not equipped with any of these things so they defended their nation with poorly trained soldiers and no tanks or aircrafts. Summer of 1949 America decided to withdraw its troops from South Korea so only 500 American military advisers remained in South Korea. 1 year after, June 25 1950 North Korea launched a surprise attack on South Korea, and this is when the Korean War began. With only a distance of 52km between Seoul and North Korea, within four days North Korea captured Seoul. Within three months 3 quarters of the South Korean nation was captured by North Korea. American president Harry S. Truman requested the UN members to assist South Korea and 16 nations decided to dispatch soldiers, 5 nations sent medical supplies and military supplies so totally 21 nations joined the Korean War. The mission was successful so soldiers eventually moved to the Northern side and captured Pyongyang and started heading further and further North. They thought they would have success ending the war but then approximately 200,000 Chinese troops joined North Korea and they were left without hope.

Both sides finally agreed that no one could win the war so in 1953 on July 27th there was a cease fire agreement signed at Panmunjom. The South Korean government were not present as they wanted to finish the war, so the US, UK, Russia, North Korea and China met and agreed and after this the war was over. Technically, however, the Korean War is not over yet because there was never a peace treaty signed so although they stopped fighting they remain at war. Because there was only a thin border between the two nations there needed to be a buffer zone created which as aforementioned is called the ‘DMZ’. The area is 4km wide and is 260km long from the East to the West coast. More than 1 million land mines were airdropped in this area. Now 1/3rd of landmines are cleared but it is estimated to take approximately 500 years to clear the remaining mines. No one enters the DMZ other than a small minority of people that live there and it is controlled by the United Nations.

On another friendlier note, when the relationship between North and South Korea was in good form the president of South Korea visited North Korea and agreed on economic cooperation. As a result, in North Korea there is a huge factory zone and a lot of the factories are South Korean. South Koreans can use cheap labour and North Koreans are given an opportunity to work. It is extremely practical as there are no language barriers. 123 South Korean factories operate in North Korea. This became a symbol of ‘inter-Korean cooperation’.
During the tour we went to a train station right on the border of South Korea. If it becomes possible to pass through North Korea, South Korea can be connected to Europe by train. It opened in 2002. In the future South Koreans hope that the trans-Mongolian railway, Trans-Siberian, and trans-Chinese railway will be connected. A lot of people have questioned why the government with the support of many donors has continued to keep running the train station but it is very important for South Korean people, to them the train station symbolises future peace between the two nations.

Another symbol of unification between the nations is the ‘unification bridge’. This bridge is the only current means to enter North Korea and was built with the money of the former CEO of the Hyundai cooperation who was originally North Korean. He was the first civilian of South Korea to enter North Korea after the war.

As aforementioned, a few people live in the DMZ zone. There is a South Korean village (opened in 1973) located inside the zone. It used to be a US army base. Several times North Koreans killed American soldiers there so they abandoned camp. There was a time after the war when South Korea was very poor and the people were starving so the government located people to this village. They were offered free housing and free land. So a few retired soldiers and their families moved there. Apparently the soil in the area is exceptional for growing produce, another reason the South Korean government tried to persuade people to move to the area. Nowadays 110 families live there with 450 people, they are farmers and cultivate the land. They grow rice, ginseng, and soybean. Their income averages about 100,000 US dollars a year and they hold festivals in the area every year to celebrate harvest. There is also a North Korean village but our tour guide informed us this was also a ‘propaganda’ village. In the 1980’s South Korea set up a 100 metre high flagpole in the DMZ then North Korea responded by building a flagpole taller than theirs (160 metres high) it used to be an official world record. The flag weighs 240 kilogram so it rarely flies.

After viewing North Korea from the South we headed to the third infiltration tunnel. We were warned prior to entry that if we have any health problems such as asthma we should inform our guide. I told her I had asthma but was still determined to do the walk. It was an extremely long way down to the tunnel and ridiculously steep. I imagined the soldiers going down there possibly quite a few times a day and I knew that it would be that much harder on the way back up but I was not going to miss it. So we got to the bottom and walked through to the end and then headed out and back up again. I counted my 300 and something steps all the way back up and out and I was determined not to stop. Whilst in the tunnel I saw the angle of the dynamite holes and I felt the charcoal on the walls. I noticed how low the ceilings were and I am very happy that I made the effort.
It would be very interesting to go to North Korea now and hear what they have to say about the South. Our tour guide primarily spoke of propaganda on the part of North Koreans and her perspectives (understandably) were very bias.

After the DMZ we went to check out Nandaemun market which was close to our hostel, had some Korean street food and then headed out in search of Yongma Land abandoned amusement park. It was a bit foolish of us really as for some reason Joel’s phone was not working and the sim card I had purchased was not working in my phone either, but we caught the metro to Manguu station from the nearest metro line to our hostel as articles I read online advised anyway. I thought it would be nearby but we had to change lines four times increasingly becoming more and more lost and heading further and further into the outer suburbs of Seoul. I knew it was ‘east’ from the Manguu subway station exit but it only occurred to me once we arrived there that I had no clue which way east was so I asked a stranger who pointed straight up the street. We started walking stopping every ‘helpful’ looking person on the way asking if they knew where ‘Yongma land’ was, in typical South Korean fashion everybody tried very hard to help us by means of translators and maps but no one had much luck. Eventually as I strolled past a store and noticed a map on the wall I strolled in to try my luck. The man showed us exactly where it was on the map so memorizing the directions we set off in the taxi. The driver ended up driving us around for approximately an hour. We reached a very dark park on a few occasions and I kept insisting to him that it was most probably there but he was not convinced and we were a little frightened of hopping out of the car in the middle of nowhere thus decided to trust his instinct. He kept asking people but eventually gave up and kicked us out of the car in the middle of nowhere. We walked to a Baskin’ Robbins store and ate some scrumptious ice-cream whilst Joel convinced me to give up and go home but anyone who knows me well knows that I am an extremely persistent person so whilst he was in the toilet I asked some nearby girls if they knew the place, luckily for us they did and even better they offered to take us there! So we left together and started a fairly long trek up a steep street to reach the park we thought may have been the place initially. We had however missed a side entrance which explained why we could not see it. We continued trekking uphill reaching a forest until eventually we found the gate! The park was small but I was ecstatic that we had made it. I asked the girls to call the phone number on the gate and the park owner/security guard/whoever he was came along and charged us some money (we shouted the girls) to switch on the lights! It really was magical. While Joel and the girls played I first looked everywhere taking photographs and leaving no stone unturned, with intense curiosity. I marvelled at everything. I imagined the K-pop stars shooting their music videos there. Joel comparatively seemed a little underwhelmed. I suppose that is what happens when someone like me is so exhilarated and describes a place in all its glory. The park owner snapped what seemed like a million ‘romantic’ pictures of Joel and I together under the fairy lights and I even got to use some of the rides as Joel pushed me.

At approximately 11pm we decided to leave and I convinced Joel that we should go to Noryangjin Fish Market. He was pretty exhausted but I insisted at it was open 24/7. I really wanted to buy some fresh seafood and then have it cooked at one of the local restaurants. We ended up with some fresh baby octopus, a flounder, abalone, and some scallops. The restaurant we found was wonderful. It was a very traditional. We had to take our shoes off at the entrance and put on slippers and share a table with other guests. We were seated on cushions with low tables and ate with our legs crossed beneath us. First we had the scallops and abalone barbecued and then we had the flounder cooked into a spicy soup. The baby octopus much to my horror came out cut up and still squiggling served with a lemon sauce. I was pretty disgusted, even though I had eaten an abundance of crazy things in my life for me the thought of something still alive horrified me the most. Alas, I have some insane obsession with trying new things and not being afraid, I mean I have it tattooed on my arm for goodness sake “turn your fear into faith” so I decided to give the octopus a shot. As I tried to pick it up with my chopsticks its suction cups grasped them. As I put it in my mouth I could feel it squirm but it was actually surprisingly quite delicious and between us we consumed the entire plate.

After a nice sleep in from a late night prior we decided the following day to go relax at the ‘Cat café’ for lunch but after finding the place much to our disappointment there was no food on offer, only a variety coffee. We still enjoyed ourselves and had a drink marvelling at not only the huge variety of species and abundance but their sheer size. Then we headed to a nearby restaurant we had eyed off on the way in for lunch. The lunch was really fantastic, we had homemade burgers, shared a pizza and enjoyed a delicious and fresh goat’s cheese salad. I thought the homemade burgers were ingenious. The Chef’s had cleverly hollowed out the centre of a bun and stuffed the ingredients inside and elegantly presented the hollowed insides alongside on the plate for dipping in sauces. Ideal presentation for a messy eater such as myself.

As we were feeling a little slack we decided to spend the afternoon strolling the grounds of the Palace. It was not initially on my agenda as in my travels I felt like I’ve seen a huge abundance of similar places and wanted my experience in Korea to be ‘different’ however it was still a lovely place to take a stroll. We especially enjoyed the changing of the guards and the abundance of Korean woman dressed in traditional clothing. Whilst we requested photos of them they all seemed to be having their own mini photoshoots. We stayed there until closing time when sirens rang throughout the grounds to notify visitors of closing and then slowly waltzed back to the hostel with a quick stop at the market before going to a ‘Korean Dinner and Show’. I’m a big fan of traditional costume and cultural performances so I thought it essential to see and as a result I am I stoked I decided to go. The evening begun with us being picked up from the hostel by a driver and then we were escorted into a very small restaurant and served 5 or so courses of traditional Korean cuisine. Afterwards we headed to the concert hall. Joel fell asleep during the show from exhaustion but I watched glazy eyes the whole way through. It was the best cultural performance I had seen since the Monkey dance in 2009 in Bali, Indonesia. The lighting was spectacular, the costumes were beautiful, talent outstanding and the dancers were insanely in sync. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it.

The next day we got up bright and early with intent to hike the city wall. We managed to find one of the ‘gates’ but there was no wall surrounding it. A man gave us a map and directed us towards the walls beginning but with some walking around and stopping at a Starbucks to use the Wi-Fi to check its whereabouts we ended up in another part of Seoul which seemed equally fascinating. We were right next to Seoul’s oldest church as well as one of the smaller palaces. We watched the changing of the guards and then went for a meander through the palace grounds before coming across a show. I thought it was an international martial arts festival I had read about on the internet due to the karate practitioners but realised soon afterwards that it was something else as some people starting jumping around dancing and playing instruments with bells on their heads, anyway I never quite figured out who they were, what they were doing or where they were from. It’s worth mentioning the beautiful street landscape. It’s a line of tall modern buildings but right at the end is the main palace with a spectacular backdrop of a mountain behind. Anyway, it turned out that we had found a parade. There were belly-dancers and hip hop dancers, singers, and giant French puppets, there were charity organisations and petitions and games for all ages. One of the petitions was regarding the ‘Sewol Ferry Disaster’ another was creating awareness for the mistreatment of Falun Gong practitioners.

The sinking of MV Sewol occurred on the morning of 16 April 2014 en route from Incheon to Jeju Island. The Japanese-built South Korean ferry capsized while carrying 476 people, mostly secondary school students from Danwon High School. In all, 304 passengers and crew members died in the disaster. Later investigations revealed that Sewol had been issued warnings regarding its seaworthiness. The South Korean Register of Shipping noted in a stability test report dated 24 January 2014 that Sewol had “become top-heavy and less stable. Throughout the previous year, the regular captain had warned the company about the decrease in stability and passenger satisfaction and attributed it to the removal of the side ramp, but the company responded by threatening to fire him; the last warning and threat was on 9 April 2014, seven days before the incident. The captain had also requested a repair for the malfunctioning steering gear on 1 April 2014, which was not done. Before the last voyage, Sewol was loaded with 2,142 tons of cargo, twice the authorized limit of 1,077 tons, and 761 tons of ballast, less than half of the required 1,695 tons. The company budget for the safety training of the crew was US$2, which was used to buy staff paper certificates.

 

The sinking of Sewol has resulted in widespread social and political reaction within South Korea. Many criticize the actions of the captain and most of the crew of the ferry. More people criticize the ferry operator and the regulators who oversaw its operations. Additional criticism has been directed at the South Korean government and media for its disaster response and attempts to downplay government culpability. On 15 May 2014, the captain and three crew members were charged with murder, while the other 11 members of the crew were indicted for abandoning the ship. An arrest warrant was also issued for the owner of Chonghaejin Marine, which operated Sewol, but he could not be found despite a nationwide manhunt. Prosecutors sought the death penalty for the captain under the charge of homicide and the prosecution told the court that he failed to carry out his duty. Lead prosecutor Park Jae-eok said: “Lee supplied the cause of the sinking of the Sewol…he has the heaviest responsibility for the accident. We ask that the court sentence him to death.” While no formal pleas were made, Lee denied intent to kill. The others had lesser charges, including negligence. The Incheon District Court on Wednesday 5 November sentenced the late ferry owner Yoo Byung-eun’s eldest son Yoo Dae-kyoon to three years in prison for embezzlement and breach of trust.

On 11 November 2014, the Gwangju District Court found Captain Lee Jun-seok guilty of negligence and he was sentenced to 36 years’ imprisonment. The judges said that he was clearly not the only person responsible for the tragedy and they accepted that his negligence did not amount to an intent to kill. The chief engineer of the ferry, identified by his surname Park, was found guilty of murder and jailed for 30 years. Thirteen other crew members were given jail sentences of up to 20 years on charges including abandonment and violating maritime law.

In the cases against officials over the overloading of cargo, Kim Han-sik, Chonghaejin Marine’s chief executive, was found guilty of negligence and received a ten-year prison term. Six other company employees and a Korean Shipping Association official also received prison sentences.

The ‘Sewol Tragedy Victims’ Committee’ calls for the enactment of the ‘Sewol Bill’ which allows thorough and independent investigation into the cause behind the tragedy which took a combined 304 lives from their families. Although they have already obtained 4 million signatures their goal is 10 million. The family’s main questions are ‘Why was not a single person trapped inside the ferry rescued despite having ample time, resources and opportunities’? And why was a disaster like this even allowed to happen?

 

The worst thing about the Sewol Ferry Disaster was that the accident was completely preventable had proper safety measures been in place. But not only that, the South Korean government responded questionably to the disaster. The government used undercover police authorities to obtain access to the families’ social media accounts and place them under illegal surveillance and when the families attempted to hold a peaceful march riot police suppressed them and supporters by setting up barricades and shooting them with high water pressure hoses.

 

As aforesaid the second petition we signed was with regard to persecution of Falun Gong practitioners by Chinese government. This persecution is arguably the greatest human rights disaster of the 21st century due to a number of factors, including the scope of the persecution, the mechanism and method of persecution, the number of persecuted victims, the amount of resources used in the persecution, and the duration of the persecution.

Falun Gong is a Chinese spiritual practice that combines meditation and qigong exercises with a moral philosophy centred on the tenets of Truthfulness, Compassion, and Forbearance. The practice emphasizes morality and the cultivation of virtue, and identifies as a qigong practice of the Buddhist school, though its teachings also incorporate elements drawn from Taoist traditions. Through moral rectitude and the practice of meditation, practitioners of Falun Gong aspire to better health and, ultimately, spiritual enlightenment.

Falun Gong was first taught publicly in Northeast China in 1992 by Li Hong zhi and although the practice initially enjoyed considerable support from Chinese officialdom, by the mid- to late-1990s, the Communist Party and public security organizations increasingly viewed Falun Gong as a potential threat due to its size, independence from the state, and spiritual teachings. By 1999, government estimates placed the number of Falun Gong practitioners at 70 million. Tensions culminated in April 1999, when over 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners gathered peacefully near the central government compound in Beijing to request legal recognition and freedom from state interference. This demonstration is widely seen as catalysing the persecution that followed.

On 20 July 1999, the Communist Party leadership initiated a nationwide crackdown and multifaceted propaganda campaign intended to eradicate the practice. It blocked Internet access to websites that mention Falun Gong, and in October 1999 it declared Falun Gong a “heretical organization” that threatened social stability. Human rights groups report that Falun Gong practitioners in China are subject to a wide range of human rights abuses.

The persecution covered not only the entirety of China but the perpetrator also extended persecution overseas to countries where there are Falun Gong practitioners or Chinese consulates.
The main methods of persecution adopted include extorting confessions with torture, injection of psychotropic substances, forced labour, torment, illegal detention, verbal abuse, torment, forcing one to renounce his belief, forcing one to aid in the conversion of other Falun Gong practitioners, sentence without trial, etc. The methods of persecution adopted beyond China include harassment of overseas Falun Gong practitioners, intimidation, compilation of black lists, destruction of private property etc. The most deplorable among these crimes is the act of forced harvesting and vending of organs from living Falun Gong practitioners – an act ordered by the perpetrator. In 2006 Canadian human right lawyer David Matas and former secretary of State (Asia pacific) David Kilgour undertook an independent investigation into allegations of organ harvesting from living Falun Gong practitioners and confirmed that these allegations are true. In particular, the investigation report described this act as a new form of evil on this planet. The results of this investigation has been incorporated by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture into their report and it was forwarded to the Human Rights council, causing an international uproar. The European Parliament and the US House of representatives Foreign Affairs Committee have subsequently passed resolutions condemning the CPCs acts of organ harvesting from living Falun Gong Practitioners in 2013 and 2014. In June 2015, the US House of Representatives once again passed a bipartisan resolution that seeks to put an end to live organ harvesting by the CPC.

Ever since the beginning of the persecution launched by the perpetrator in 20 July 1999 close to one hundred million Chinese Falun Gong practitioners have lost their freedom of expression, freedom of thought, freedom of belief and freedom of association. Their reputation and basic human rights have been trampled upon. These victims, together with their relatives who are harmed by implication, number in hundreds of millions by conservative estimates.

According to information released in a press conference the perpetrator abused his authority and expended up to a quarter of the total national resources for use in the persecution. The persecution was launched on the 20th of July 1999 and to this day is sustained without recess.

Jiang Zemin’s (the President of the CPC 1993-2003) crimes committed are namely genocide, torture and the most severe crime within international criminal law ‘crime against humanity’. In domestic law the perpetrator has at the minimum violated provisions from the constitution of the Peoples Republic of China, Chapter 2 on the Fundamental Rights and Duties of Citizens. These provisions are namely, Articles 33 to 41 and article 46. Article 238 on unlawful detention and deprivation of freedom, article 239 on kidnapping, article 244 on forced labour, article 246 on insult and slander, article 247 on extortion of confession, article 248 of abuse by prison and detention centre personnel, Article 251 on illegal deprivation of citizens right to religious beliefs, article 397 of dereliction of duty and many others.

The informer’s petition was for formal investigations into the perpetrators alleged crimes and to hold him Jiang Zemin legally responsible in accordance with the Constitution of PRC, crime law, international criminal law and the relevant international human rights conventions and treaties which the PRC has ratified and entered into force.

I felt so small minded and ignorant when I learned about such atrocities that I never before knew of, atrocities that are occurring right now. A fair time after hearing of these atrocities in South Korea I came across some money in my handbag one day that had some Chinese characters printed on it. I was curious as to what it said so when I arrived at work later that evening I asked my boss whether she could tell me what it was. She started talking about the Falun Gong and was surprised to hear that I knew about them. The note said something along the lines of ‘If you have faith in the Chinese government you will die, if you join their army you will die’. I asked her what she thought about them and her feelings were not good. I explained to her that I had heard the South Korean perspective I would like to hear the Chinese general public opinions. She began telling me some horror stories. First she told me that her Auntie was Falun Gong and she used to play some brainwashing music to her as a kid similar to something that the Hari Krishna might play, secondly she added her Auntie had been pregnant on three occasions and lost the baby every time due to what she said was some bizarre exercise the Falun Gong insisted she did. Next she added that there was a horrible protest in Tiananmen Square involving 5 Falun Gong practitioners. She said that they doused themselves in petrol and set themselves on fire on New Year’s Day 2001. One of the people was a 12 year old girl who was ignited by her Mother. One person died and there were four survivors. I kept prying for more information all the meanwhile informing her that what she was telling me was drastically different to the information I heard in South Korea. When I asked her why they did it she said they committed suicide so they could be with their God. I told her that the Falun gong practitioners that I had spoken to insisted that they were spiritual not religious and their following was more about healthy living and exercises than anything else. I went on to ask her whether she had seen these people on fire, whether there was footage and she said that yes she had seen it. She told me the Falun Gong broke up families and when I asked her why she just said that when certain members of families trusted the Falun Gong the families felt they had to shun them because they could not trust them themselves. She and her boyfriend went onto say that the leader, Li Hong Zhi was being protected in America by the American government. Her boyfriend even went so far as to suggest that the Falun Gong was created by Americans and brought to China to hurt Chinese people. She said that the Falun Gong hate Mao Zedong and they believe the Chinese government to be a cult that controls the Chinese people. When I asked her what the Chinese government thought of the Falun Gong she told me that they think the same way about them, a cult that controls the masses. I was not sure what to think after she told me all these things so I set about asking a few more locals who essentially shared the same views as her before doing my own research.

What I discovered was that the Falun Gong was outright banned in China in 1999 shortly after in what founded in May 1992. As aforementioned, initially the government praised the practice as did locals with tens of millions of people becoming followers but by the mid 1990’s state media began publishing articles attacking the practice labelling it as a feudal superstition. In retaliation to the information spread about them Falun Gong practitioners began staging protests and writing to newspapers to complain. After a Beijing TV talk show host attacked the Falun Gong live on air the group was successful in having the producer responsible for the segment fired. The station even aired a pro Falun Gong film several days later, but their protests were not always so successful. When Falun Gong practitioners protested outside offices of a Tianjin newspaper in 1999 300 riot police arrived to break up the demonstration and 45 people were arrested. It was at this point the group made an ill judged decision. On April the 25th more than 10,000 practitioners gathered near the Zhongnanhai government compound in Beijing to demand an end to official harassment. It was after this protest that Jiang Zemin became enraged and demanded the movement be defeated. On July 20 1999 security forces swooped and detained several thousand Falun Gong practitioners, a few days later the movement became illegal for “advocating superstition, spreading fallacies, hoodwinking people, inciting and creating disturbances and jeopardizing social stability”. The majority of the detained Falun Gong (and at least 15 percent of the total population) were held in Labour camps for the purpose of ‘re- education’. It is in these camps that the aforementioned atrocities such as torture, forced labour, execution, and organ harvesting allegedly occur.

A concerted propaganda campaign was also launched. In the first month of the campaign almost 400 articles were published in state media attacking the Falun Gong. The campaign reached a whole new level when information was released alleging 5 Falun Gong practitioners had set themselves on fire at Tiananmen Square on January the 23rd 2001. This was the protest my boss had informed me about. Apparently the general public had been generally ambivalent towards the Falun Gong prior to this protest. The event struck a chord with the public though and caused great traction in their stance on the movement as was obvious to me when I spoke to local people. All the people I spoke to shared almost identical stories about how there was an absolutely beautiful 12 year old girl. She was a singer they told me but her very own Mother set her on fire after being brainwashed by the Falun Gong that doing so what result in them finding ‘Nirvana’ and joining God in a happy afterlife. A story that of course would tug at anybody’s heart strings.

The Western media raised doubts about the state’s account of the incident. The Falun Gong themselves denied any involvement based on numerous factors, firstly that their teachings explicitly forbid violence or suicide in any form.

The following are two quotes from the Falun Gong Master Li Hongzhi. The first is regarding the main text of Falun Gong, Zhuan Falun published in 1995 and the second is from one of Master Li Hongzhi’s lectures in Sydney, Australia 1996.

“The issue of killing is very sensitive. For practitioners, we have set the strict requirement that they cannot kill lives. Whether it is of the Buddha School, the Tao School, or the Qimen School, regardless of which school or practice it is, as long as it is an upright cultivation practice, it will consider this issue very absolute and prohibit killing–this is for sure. Because the consequence of killing a life is so serious, we must address it in detail. In the original Buddhism, killing mainly referred to taking a human life, which was the most serious act. Later, killing large-sized lives, large domestic animals, or relatively large animals were all considered very serious. Why has the issue of killing been taken so seriously in the community of cultivators? In the past, Buddhism held that lives that were not supposed to die would, if killed, become lonesome spirits and homeless ghosts. Before, rituals were performed to free these people’s souls from misery. Without such services, these souls would suffer hunger and thirst, living in a very bitter situation. This is what Buddhism said in the past.” (Zhuan Falun, “The Issue of Killing”)

 

Question: “The third question is the issue of killing as mentioned in the book. Killing a life is a very big sin. If a person commits suicide, does it count as a sin or not?”

 

Master Li Hong zhi: “It counts as a sin. Now, this human society is no longer good, and all kinds of strange and bizarre things have appeared. They talk about the so-called euthanasia and give injections to let people die. Everyone knows it. Why do they give an injection to let a person die? They think that he is suffering. However, we think that his suffering is eliminating karma. When he is reincarnated in the next life, he will have a light body without karma, and he will have a great fortune awaiting him. While he is amidst the pain and is eliminating karma, he is certainly not having an easy time. If you do not let him eliminate his karma and kill him, isn’t that murder? If he is gone, carrying the karma, in the next life he will have to repay the karma. So, which would you say is right? Committing suicide has another sin. This is because a person’s life is pre-arranged. You have disrupted the sequence of the God’s entire layout. Through the obligations you carry out to society, between people there is this kind of interrelationship. If the person dies, won’t this entire sequence disrupt the god’s arrangement then? If you disrupt it, he will not let you go. Therefore, committing suicide is sinful.” (‘Lecture in Sydney’, 1996)

Several Western journalists and scholars noted inconsistencies in the government’s account of the event. Such include the fact that the only self-immolator who died on the spot in CCTV footage appears to fall from being bludgeoned on the head by a man in a military suit, the self-immolators appear to be wearing several layers of possibly fire-protective clothing and masks and their hair and bottle of gasoline both remain intact despite these both being extremely flammable. Police, who normally are not known to carry fire extinguishers on duty, appeared to have used almost 25 pieces of fire-fighting equipment on hand on the day of the self-immolations. The camera of the CCTV footage zooms in on the scene as it unfolds; surveillance cameras in Tiananmen Square are usually fixed. One of the self-immolators Wang Jindong shouts comments that do not form part of Falun Dong teachings. The hospital treatment of the victims, as recorded by Chinese state media, is inconsistent with proper care of severe burn victims: for instance, patients were not kept in sterile rooms and the 12 year old girl who allegedly underwent a tracheotomy appeared to be able to speak and sing clearly mere days after the surgery.

The World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong further called attention to portrayals of Wang Jindong on state-run television, claiming that the man who self-immolated on the square was not the same person who appeared in subsequent interviews with CCTV. It pointed to a voice analysis conducted by the Speech Processing Laboratory at National Taiwan University, which concluded that the voices did not match, and also noted that the hairline and facial proportions appeared to be different. These observations were used to advance the theory that the self-immolators were actors. There were further inconsistencies in media reports. In Wang Jindong’s Personal Statement on the January 23rd Self-Immolation Incident published by Xinhua on April 7, 2003 Wang Jindong recalled, that after flicking his lighter and being instantly engulfed in flames he recalls police trying to stop the fire, he said he twice refused them to put out the fires on his body but with the polices success he called out in disappointment “Truth, Compassion and Forbearance is the universal law. It is the law which everyone must follow. My Master is the chief Buddha.” An earlier report by Xinhua published on January 30, 2001 claimed that as the red flames burst out from the man he shouted “The great law of the universe is the law that everyone must experience”. So first we must notice that the first article says that Wang Jindong called out after the flames were put out whilst the second article claims that he stood up and called out whilst engulfed in flames. Secondly we must observe that his statement is quoted completely differently in both articles. Additionally, both articles contradict the CCTV video footage in which no smoke or fire is seen on Wang, and Wang does not call out what he said in his original statement. Further contradictions occur between Wang Jindong’s personal statement and reports from Xinhua. In Wang Jindong’s personal statement he claims that he and Liu Yunfang hung bottles of gasoline around their necks and also secured them under their armpits with sticky tape before putting on woollen jumpers and cotton-padded jackets. After that they took their single-edged blades and lighters and used the blade to cut through the clothes and sliced open the bottle before taking out a lighter, flicking it and immediately being engulfed in flames. However according to the article written by Xinhua on January the 30th a man “continuously poured liquid over his body from a green plastic bottle so the two reports are entirely at odds with each other over this technical issue. Finally a photo was published in the Jin Zhou Daily newspaper that shows the Sprite bottle placed on the ground beside Wang Jindong’s right leg which not only differs from media reports but also differs from what is shown in the CCTV footage where the bottle is sighted between his legs.

It is difficult to arrive at a final judgment regarding the self-immolation with such an abundance of contradicting information. It’s quite possible that desperate people who would do anything for money agreed to partake in the act of self-immolation especially if authorities promised to rescue them before the flames could do harm. Or perhaps the entire event was staged. It seems unlikely it was Falun Gong practitioners due to their adamant anti violence beliefs it could be possible that the act was committed by new or unschooled Falun Gong practitioners who in the post suppression period for whatever reason decided to make the ultimate sacrifice. It could be speculated that they did it to protest the government’s crackdown on the Falun Gong but again it seems unlikely considering the contradicting accounts of that day, the Falun Gongs absolute denial of involvement and the fact that as aforesaid the entire act would be against their beliefs.

 

After processing the new abundance of information we learned at the parade we set out on an expedition to find a skate shop we had passed the day earlier. Joel needed to buy a new pair of shoes. After about 30 minutes walking up and down hills and through alleyways we found it which I think was actually quite impressive considering finding addresses in Korean cities approximates finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. In fact there is no better illustration of the difference in Korean and Western thinking than the naming of streets and the numbering of buildings for addressing purposes, for there the contradictions between the logic and rationality of the west and the “illogic and irrationality” of the East are plainly visible for all to see and experience on a daily basis. Historically in Korea most streets were not named, numbered, or otherwise identified in any way, making it impossible for people to orient themselves or locate buildings or homes by referring to the lanes or streets that they were on or near. Furthermore houses and buildings were not numbered in sequence according to their locations on or near streets. Instead they were numbered on an area basis in the order in which they were built. In other words, there is no such thing as “street addresses”; instead there are “area addresses”. Individual addresses had nothing to do with their street locations. To further complicate the problem of finding places in Seoul and other cities, there was little or no order in the relationship of many lanes and streets, resulting in mazes that were virtually impenetrable by outsiders. This fuzzy system results in Koreans’ (as well as foreigners) navigating in the cities primarily by means of well-known landmarks. After arriving in the vicinity of a desired location, it was then a matter of searching. Still today many streets and most lanes in Korean cities are not named. Generally the only streets that are named are major thoroughfares (and in many cases they were first given names by foreign residents).

Either way, after finally finding the place and Joel ‘umming’ and ‘ahhing’ about whether or not to buy anything we left with some new grip-tape, bearings and no shoes but were pleasantly surprised to come across the Namsangol Hanok village on the foot of Namsan Mountain during our waltz back to the city. The village included houses representing different social classes from the Joseon era which were all relocated there from different parts of Seoul.The attraction is free, so well worth a look. Each house displays various types of furniture and household goods that would have been found in the Joseon Dynasty.

Evening struck and as we strolled back to the hostel we came across the Myeong-dong shopping area and decided to take a look. I bought a few K-pop CDs and we enjoyed some local street food and browsed the shops before we were approached on two sides by awfully silly looking people dressed in dog and cat costumes beckoning us to their prospective dog and cat cafes. We had already been to a cat café, and I have always been a dog person not a cat person. Had I have known prior that a dog café existed I probably never would have opted to go to the cat café in the first place. I took note of their directions and off we went spending some time petting and admiring all the different breeds.

After arriving back at the hostel we established we still had time to go and check out the Sex Museum. It was essentially the same as the trick-eye museum but as Joel suggested it was allocated its own separate area as it was R-rated. I thoroughly enjoyed it there, although I was hoping it would be an actual museum with information on the first sex toys, or displays showcasing different BDSM equipment but it was fun nonetheless and we collected an array of outrageous photographs. We head out for some supper afterwards and were fortunate enough to come across a few Korean buskers, for some time I watched some men presenting incredibly feminine dance moves to female pop songs and laughed along with their large audience before discovering a skate-board welding rap artist nearby and being mesmerized for some time. For dinner I ate for the first time ever the famed chilli cheese fries which although expensive were not at all underrated. Afterwards we walked around for a bit admiring the heavily gratified streetscape and listening to the buskers performances before heading back to the hostel for an ‘early’ night sleep.

The next morning we thought it best to head to the famous area of Seoul ‘Gangnam’. To be honest there was not a lot to see there, and I did not spot any K-pop celebrities (that I am aware of) the only thing that somewhat resembled a Korean version of Hollywood was the stars printed on the ground noting Korean celebrities and the gold sign saying ‘Welcome to Gangnam’ but I was happy to be there either way. We headed to a place called ‘K-pop experience’. I expected that I would be handing out my fair share of money there but much to my surprise and pleasure everything was free for us to use! I put my hand around the waists of ‘G-dragon’ using a simulating TV screen, got to use the most amazing make-up for free including a spray on body foundation which made my skin look incredible, dressed and dazzled myself in insane bling and put on a bright red hair wig before Joel snapped numerous photos of me whilst I pretended to be a famous K-pop star. I do not think Joel was as into it as I was, but hey maybe it’s a more of a ‘girl’ thing.

After spending some time there we went to check out the Gwangjang Market for dinner. The market was renowned for its abundance of local cuisine. After as usual sampling almost everything we sat down to ‘Modum-jeon’ kind of like a Korean bubble and Squeak upon invitation. The dish is prepared by placing colourful savoury pancakes made by pan-frying flour with egg-covered meat, fish and vegetables. It was not the most delicious thing I had eaten but it we enjoyed the opportunity to sit down with a local and have a chat. It turns out the man who invited us owned a restaurant only across from the stallholder where we ate. I marvelled at how he promoted this other women’s business and seemed to hold her in his heart with admirable affection. He told us she was ‘famous’ there and every-body loved her, she was kind hearted and hilarious. She looked at us with intent curiosity and she downed shots with the restaurateurs. I asked the man whether he had any family in North Korea and it was he who told me that when relationships were good between North Korea and South he had the opportunity to visit them on a few occasions, as I have briefly mentioned prior. We asked him where we should head after that and he suggested another nearby market that mostly sold clothing, he informed us it was a block away so we took a walk. Whilst walking we came across a section of the City wall that we had been looking for a few days previously so we took a short hike through some of the sections before descending back down into the city and taking a look at the market. There was not really anything particularly fascinating about the market, each stall mostly sold the same or similar fairly standard items of clothing and accessories. Afterwards we decided to seek out a little bit more excitement and hit the town so I checked out some cheap areas of the city to buy drinks and we headed to a bustling university district nearby to the trick-eye museum and the market stocking an array of alternative clothing that I spent a small fortune on the first night we arrived in Korea. We walked around for some-time sussing out the best bar to go to before finally settling on a dark looking bar with a fair few customers and extremely dim flashing lights. The coolest thing about this bar was that they had an ‘alcohol’ menu. It was possible to buy sets which included for example, what we ended up purchasing a bottle of Jägermeister, four Red-bulls, and a crackers and dip platter and a fruit platter. Although expensive, probably equating to around $100 Australian dollars it was far cheaper than buying each shot individually. Instead of opting for a club afterwards we again meandered the streets and watched the goings on through the windows as well as mingling with a few drunken random locals that crossed our path before heading home for a nights rest for our flight back to Tianjin the next day.

The next day we took another quick look around Nandaemun market before heading to the airport back to Tianjin. I have to say I felt pretty deflated returning to China after having such a ball in South Korea and the sadness continued onwards with me for a month or so after returning but alas, in life there is time for work and there is time for play and after draining all our funds it was our time for work again.

 

That did not stop us for enjoying a few weekends here and there in the time following though.

One of our above-mentioned South African friends regulars Beijing for Church and often stops off for a day in downtown Tianjin for a little luxury in the ‘Number 9 Hot Springs’ hotel so a few weekends after our trip to South Korea we decided to accompany him there. It was a bizarre place, although you can book a room it is not required but your entrance covers 24 hours free meals and a comfy reclining sofa to sleep on. We went for that option. When you hand over the cash you are given some pyjama resembling clothes to throw on for the duration of your stay and a pair of slippers before being escorted to a locker to store your belongings. First we headed into the dining hall for an all you can eat buffet dinner. The selection of food was huge and the restaurant must have sat 500 diners. We then headed to the hot springs to chill out in the pools. After that we got a massage each and Joel tried the cupping massage as well as traditional Chinese reflexology foot massage, both in which he yelped with pain as I expected. Our friend requested him a fine looking lady so I ordered myself a male masseuse just to keep things even. The next day I decided to go further out of my comfort zone than I have yet done before, in terms of body and self-consciousness any-way. Our friend Shayne kept talking about how liberating it was to walk around naked in the men’s section of the hotel so I thought I’d give it a shot in the women’s area. In both the men’s section and women’s section there are separate change rooms, dressing rooms, saunas, hot pools and spa treatment areas. In the women’s area female staff stood by whilst you were changing to assist you unclipping your bra and customers waltzed around freely and proudly flashing the hair on their pubis. In a way I greatly admired the confidence and fearlessness of them. It is very normal behaviour in China. Change-rooms are always like this, hairy shameless woman standing around chatting with each other. It’s really quite a shame that in Australia we are taught to be embarrassed or ashamed of our bodies. Anyway, I went on a slight tangent there but my point was not without purpose. Admittedly when I walked over to the spa area I attempted to get a body scrub and moisturising treatment whilst still in my bathing suit and even said multiple times in Chinese I was too fat before being finally convinced to strip, but hey I still did it! I stripped naked in front of numerous women and allowed my body to be scrubbed and cleaned and prodded poked and pushed in all kinds of directions. I did not feel liberated but I did feel accomplished. It was a big step in the way of self-confidence for me. Anyway, the whole place felt very bizarre and alien. Never in my life have I been to a place comparable before, there is no real sense of day and night as the whole space is mostly shielded from any natural light. When you finally step foot outdoors again it takes some readjusting to bring yourself back to reality.

A few weekends afterwards we decided to go to the Tianjin Aircraft carrier as I had discovered it one lunchbreak when Ryan and I took a different route to go fetch some petrol. It had been recommended by an old colleague of ours and I knew it was nearby to our house but did not previously know the exact means of getting there. We set off on the Sunday on the motorbike. The Tianjin aircraft carrier is called Kiev and was sold to the Binhai Aircraft Park in 1996. It is capable of hold 32 aircrafts in total including 12 Yak-38M fighter aircrafts and 20 Kamov Ka-25 or Kamov Ka-27 helicopters as well as 1,612 crew. The ship served the Soviet and Russian navies and officially entered service in 1977 after the disintegration of the USSR the ship was taken by Russia. Due to a low military budget and worsening ship’s condition, she was retired on 30 June 1993. Although the vast majority of the attraction was vast open space and the entire place was mostly desolate in terms of both employees and visitors I think the place was still well-worth taking a look, even if the entrance fee was a whooping 220RMB per a person, which is about $100 Australian dollars total. As we strolled past the numerous shops on the way in a man asked us if we were interested in purchasing some chocolates, I blurted out to him “we spent all our money on the entrance ticket in here” which was not far from the truth but still a little rude on my behalf considering he was merely doing his job. It never ceases to amaze me how in China you already pay so much money on entry but almost every attraction is at least half shops. It’s like you’re paying money to enter an exclusive shopping area or something. Anyway, after browsing the various aircrafts on display outside we headed to the aircraft carrier itself to scope it out. I have to say it was pretty cool being able to see the inner workings of a naval ship. We could see the torpedos lined up and rearing to go and the inner workings of almost every room in the ship, the laundry, the dining hall, the sauna etc. When we were finished we even got to see a Russian show with ‘real’ Russians doing a few pretty fantastic dance routines.

In other news I made a poor attempt at quitting smoking. I asked the same woman who called me fat at my house’s friend to help me do it. She is not a doctor, nor qualified in acupuncture but she is Chinese and a Chinese medicine enthusiast and considering acupuncture originates in China I thought I would give it a go. When she came over I had about 7 guests at my house excluding her and her friend. As she stuck the needles in my ear Esther started freaking out a little saying she could see blood. I knew it was not normal to see blood in acupuncture so I started to become a little concerned. After the woman placed the needles in my neck I began feeling really uncomfortable. I could hear people talking around me but because of the position I was sitting in I could not see anyone, that combined with the fact that in Australia when my Auntie Sue had done acupuncture for me she had only used two needles in both ears and this woman had already stuck at least 10 into my neck and ears made me become increasingly anxious. I started to feel sick and faint, I am sure it was all in my head but every time she took a needle out I started feeling better. The crazy thing is that she then stuck another needle in my hand between my index finger and thumb and persistently wiggled it about asking me whether I felt sick. I did not feel unwell but the feeling was really bizarre, even though there needle was in my hand I experienced sensations in other parts of my body. I felt no pain but I could swear she was poking that needle so far into my hand that I could feel it on the other side. I did not get another treatment after that, and unfortunately I am still smoking. That same weekend my aforementioned South African roommate Esther gave me green and black African braids which was took an insane 12 or more hours spread out over a few days to accomplish.

The next weekend I was invited the woman’s house on the 16th floor of our building. I swear I am not just referring to her as the woman who called me fat because I’m that obsessed with the whole idea, actually to be honest I just do not know her name despite seeing her almost on a weekly basis. Anyway, she invited me over to teach me how to make dumplings. When I got there I apologised for over-reacting the last time I saw her and I could not believe that she in turn profusely apologised and bowed to me. Now this woman is an elderly woman and in China it is virtually unheard of for an elder to bow to the younger generations so I believed her apology to be extremely genuine. When I got to their house they had already prepared the stuffing for the dumplings so just taught me the numerous correct techniques for folding. It was surprisingly quite simply once you got the hang of it!

The weekend after that was Nikki’s (my good friend and Chinese Teacher) birthday. We went to the renaissance hotel. Everybody looked gorgeous and we enjoyed a luxurious dinner together before heading out to KTV. We had a lot of fun there singing to different tunes and getting ludicrously drunk. Mind you about the only things I can recall about the evening now is pretending I was walking to the altar with Nikki’s birthday roses, sitting on Joel’s lap both legs over him and belting out some song together, talking about Korean boys and Shanghai with Ryan’s beau and then eventuating in the bathroom where I threw up pink before drunkenly stumbling outside and deciding I was too drunk to carry on. As is tradition everywhere in the world I insisted we went to McDonalds but threw up before hand so did not eat, then I begged Joel to escort me to the taxi as I could not walk. Finally I attempted eating a burger in the car before telling Joel to quickly empty one of the McDonalds bags so I could throw up in it. Puking up the burger was interesting. I don’t think the thing ever hit my stomach, it came up in kind of dry clumps, odd feeling. We finally got home and I told Joel he could eat the chips but to save the other burger for me in the morning. Waking up hangover and feeling sorry for myself I asked him where my burger was and he ate it. So poor Joel, also hungover was forced to go on a mission to McDonalds to replace said burger while I laid on the couch in my underwear feeling sorry for myself. As awful as it all sounds I actually had a really fun evening! Next time I’ll eat more and drink less. Ironically the reason I was drinking so much is because I left the house with a chronic headache and after a few wines it disappeared. I kept drinking because I didn’t want to sober up and it to come back. I really can be a fool; I neglected to consider the headache I was bound to experience the next morning.

The day afterwards was also the beginning of a week of snowfall being the first of this winter in Tianjin. I tried to enjoy it but I opted to stay on the couch the majority of the day before eventually heading out and making snow cones with our roommate Esther. It was pretty beautiful but man it was cold!

 

 

We’d finally heard news of Joel’s visa that week too so we booked a holiday to Lijiang and lucky for me work let me have two days off so we were there for a total of four days! When we arrived at the Lijiang airport after a pretty long flight I became breathless. Already, so quickly, only as I had just stepped foot out of the door was I blown away. The airports backdrop of snow covered peaks was astoundingly beautiful. We hopped on a bus to the Lijiang city centre and I was captivated by the scenery the entire way. When we arrived we got a taxi to our hostel (the hostel staff were happy to give the driver directions) and were picked up on the main road nearby by the staff who escorted us uphill to the place. We stayed in the Garden inn. The prices were completely reasonable, the staff where exceptionally kind and helpful and the rooms were incredible for a hostel. In our room we had TV and kettle, gorgeous wood detailing and blue and white porcelain sink and a shared balcony with views to die for. If I ever head back to Lijiang I will most definitely stay there again! Highly recommended.

Once we dropped off our bags we went to explore the Old Town. The old town of Lijiang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A little history on the place, the town has a history going back more than 1,000 years and was once a confluence for trade along the “Old Tea Horse Caravan Trail”. Resultantly, the ancient town of Lijiang used to be called ‘Gongbenzhi’ by the native Naxi people. It means “a market town for carrying goods to trade”. Square Market, is the centre of the Ancient Town as well as the main business plaza of the city. The streets extend out of the Square Market like a spider’s web. Different from most Chinese ancient cities the Ancient Town appeared as an irregular and asymmetrical layout without a city wall. Commercial activities had always been the daily main course in the Ancient town of Lijiang. The streets therefore developed into varied trading areas.

The streets still maintain their ancient style and figures and some traditional businesses are still in operation. People therefore can easily feel how it was to be in the Ancient town when walking down the stone streets. Visitors enjoy walking down the rocky streets with such richly ornamented houses on both sides.

The square market was among the first structures built in the long process of constructing the Old Town. The most extraordinary feature of the Square Market is its sanitation system. Regardless of what year it may be, it is a phenomenal ideal of environmental protection. Whenever the square needs cleaning, a sluice at the West River will be closed in order to make the water level rise over the bank. Once the overflow reaches the square, it washes the garbage to the Central River which then carries it to the lower reaches. There are numerous wide open gutters scattered throughout the town. I narrowly avoided tripping into one one day and wondered how many people have done that already.

 

 

The square opens Omni-directionally to the city. Different from most other ancient Chinese cities with defensive walls, the Square Market connects with all the roads, streets, even country lanes. People can easily come to the market by taking many ways around the town. The square Market is the geographical centre of Dayan (the official name of the Ancient town of Lijiang and surrounding area). It used to be a political and commercial centre of the area that connected Tibet, Sichuan province, Dali and the Jinshajiang region. People came to town from rivers or over mountains. In the roads that approach the Square Market, merchants Caravans and travelers horses were seen during all hours of the day and night.

Unlike other Chinese traditional squares, the Square Market has a more Western style. It’s a multi-functional place of varied activities like trade, ceremonies and for fun and entertainment. Such an architectural design was very rare in ancient China because squares normally were considered as the places for formal ceremonies. As time went by, the Ancient Town of Lijiang developed into a city with Square Market at its centre, encircled by stores and houses extending outwards from it.
The rivers in the Ancient Town mostly come from the Black-Dragon Pool at the foot of Elephant Mountain. The water first spouts among rocks in Elephant Mountain then gathers into a pool named Black-Dragon Pool. A stream flows from the pool to join another creek which comes from Jade Dragon snow Mountain. Naxi people named it the Yuhe River. This river flows into the Ancient town and diverges into three major branches after passing the Yuhe Bridge: the West River, the East river and the central River. The central river is the original waterway while West River and East river are both man-made rivers. The west river was made in the Yuan dynasty and the east river was created in the Qing dynasty. From these three rivers extend hundreds of small creeks that reach every house in town.

The ancient town of Lijiang is a city of rivers and streams and thus it is also a city of bridges. There are all kinds of bridges in Lijiang like slate bridges, arched stone bridges, bridges made of oak and single plank wood bridges. In the old days some bridges were also built as markets of trade in the town and they were called Bridge market. People used to sell particular commodities on particular bridges. For instance, the Yadan Bridge (duck Egg Bridge) is the bridge for selling duck eggs and the Jidou Bridge is for selling chicken and beans and the big stone bridge is for selling eagles and Chinese medicine. The constructions of these old bridges are also varied. Bridges on the Central River are mostly arched stone bridges; they were built normally wide and in great numbers; among them Big-stone bridge, Long Life bridge and South Gate bridge. Most bridges of the East and West Rivers were made of oak.

All the streets in Old town are paved with a type of special stone, called Lijiang breccia, which were collected from the mountains nearby. Having experienced hundreds of years of exposure to treading and wreathing, the surface of the stone became very smooth with colourful stripes. The Naxi people therefore call these stones ‘wuhua shi’ (colourful stones). Another special characteristic of these stone streets is that they don’t get dusty on sunny days or muddy when it rains. Anyone can enjoy a walk on such beautiful and clean streets.
These are the safest streets in the world. All the streets are just for people to walk on so they are not as broad as regular streets.
The Dongba or Naxi hieroglyph was the main thing that drew me to Lijiang and it was developed through the first scriptures of the Dongba religion. Believing in all creatures has spirits the Naxi people created their religion which came to be known as Dongba. It first appeared in Baidi which is located at the foot of the Haba snow mountain near the Jinshajiang River. It had developed from the ancient worship of nature during the united tribe period. In the long history of its development, Dongba religion absorbed some thoughts of the ancient Tibetan and Lamaism beliefs eventually forming its own unique style. Dongba religion advocated respect for nature and ancestors. Despite the absence of uniform organization and temples, Dongba religion offered great benefit to the Naxi people. Their most magnificent religious book, called the Dongba scripture, recorded a multitude of beautiful lessons. One story recounts how Aming Shiluo was to be the first person to expose the Dongba religion to Lijiang. He first arrived at Baisha, and ancient small town near Lijiang which we were fortunate to visit. He opened schools there to teach Dongba religion. He acquired many disciples over time. It was in Baisha that he standardized the Naxi hieroglyph. He wrote the first scriptures of Dongba religion in that pictographic form. Becoming the prevailing religion in Lijiang, Naxi people began to have their unified spiritual mainstay. In future years, Naxi people’s lives became influenced by the stories, rituals and religious ceremonies. The Naxi peoples commitments to the preservation of natural resources originated from Dongba religious belief. As well, they instinctively cared about all creatures’ even trees or little animals because of their belief that all living things are embodiments of gods. This unsophisticated affection was later rewarded as Lijiang became one of the most beautiful homelands of any people.

Naxi people called the Dongba hieroglyph sijiulujiu. It was eventually fixed as a type of written language in the 11th century. The Dongba hieroglyph is the only living pictography in the world. The over 1500 pictographic characters survived the test of time. The Dongba hieroglyph and Dongba scripture together are the two greatest contributions of Dongba culture to the world. The Dongba hieroglyph had begun by the time the Naxi settled in Lijiang. In the seventh century, some single pictographic patterns started to be commonly used among the Naxi people. By the tenth century the founder of Dongba religion dingba shiluo, standardized these patterns and made them an integrated written language system.

An interesting fable about the Naxi pictographs recalls that a long time ago the ancestors of the Naxi went to visit God to learn literature together with the ancestors of other ethnic groups. The Maxi’s ancestors carved what they learned on pieces of wood and stone while the others wrote theirs on leather. On the way home they became very hungry those ancestors could not stand starvation and boiled their leather for food. The Naxis ancestors endured and brought back all the wood and stone carvings that later became the foundation of the Dongba hieroglyph. This explains why the other regional nationalities don’t have their own written languages.

The next day we headed to the nearby Baisha Naxi Village. If you want to witness the authentic life of the Naxi People and appreciate their culture, but are tired of overcrowded Lijiang then Baisha Village is the place to go. The village, at the foot of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, is about 4.9 miles (8km) to the north of Lijiang Old Town. It is much quieter because it is not so commercialized.

 

Baisha Village used to be a Naxi settlement. It was the political, economic and cultural centre of Lijiang prior to the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644). Its construction started during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) and it became prosperous during the Song (960 – 1279) and Yuan (1271 – 1368) Dynasties. From the Ming Dynasty, the governors moved their families to Dayan Town (the current Lijiang Ancient Town) but still built temples in Baisha Village, making this village a religious centre during the early Ming Dynasty. The existing Dabaoji, Liuli and Wenchang Palaces and even the famous Baisha Murals were completed during that period.

Wandering around the village, you can enjoy the slow lifestyle of the Naxi People and their friendly smiling faces; as well as better scenery than that of Lijiang. You can freely enter various courtyards to see the beautiful and man-made tie-dye artwork hanging for sale or drying in the sun.

Heading for this village, the Baisha Murals cannot be missed. These Murals are representative of Lijiang Murals and their creation took about three hundred years, from the early Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911). The paintings were finished by Han, Tibetan and Naxi painters as well as painters from other nationalities, so they are not a symbol of Naxi Culture but a fusion of art from different nationalities. The peak of the Lijiang Murals was at end of the Ming Dynasty. Now only 55 pieces of murals are preserved in religious sites around Lijiang Town.

After we had a look around Baisha village we decided to bus onwards to Jade Mountain. Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (Yulong Mountain) is the southernmost glacier in the Northern Hemisphere. Consisting of 13 peaks, among which Shanzidou is the highest with an altitude of 5,600 meters (18,360 feet), the mountain stretches a length of 35 kilometres (22 miles) and a width of 20 kilometres (13 miles). Looking from Lijiang Old Town in the south which is 15 kilometres (nine miles) away, the snow-covered and fog-enlaced mountain resembles a jade dragon laying in the clouds, hence the name.

According to the research of geologists, for about 400 million years the area around Jade Dragon Snow Mountain was the ocean and it was during the last 600 thousand years that the different landscapes had come into being because of the uprising of the lithosphere.

At Jade Mountain is a national AAAA scenic area called Jade Water Village. With only a little money in our pocket we were a little hesitant about entering the attraction however with a quick search of online reviews ultimately decided it was worthwhile.

Jade Water Village is one of the major sources of the Lijiang River. What’s more, it is the heritage sacred of Lijiang Dongba culture and heritage base of Baisha fine music. Jade water Village has many landscapes filled with national and local characteristics. There are the Dragon Three Cascading Waterfalls, old trees, magic springs, Dongba wall galleries, the Dongba ancestor temple, Baisha fine music show, Naxi ancient buildings and traditional life display, Dongba traditional ritual activities & a traditional Naxi waterwheel. Jade Water Village also has 30 Naxi performers to show the traditional Naxi songs and dances for tourists.

As always seems to be the case for us in China we were a little disappointed to discover after our arrival in Lijiang and our hostel already being booked that the trek we intended on doing (Tiger Leaping Gorge) was 3 days duration. I really ought to do more research before I set out on such things, anyway we decided to do a 1 day trek which consisted of half of the Upper Gorge trail. The Tiger Leaping Gorge is a place known worldwide for hiking. It takes three days to complete a full hike whether one starts from the Upper Gorge or the Lower gorge.
The Jinshajiang River turns north to Shigu then flows about 40 kilometres to pass between Jade Dragon and the Haba Snow Mountains. The turbulent water passes between the two huge mountains and forms Tiger Leaping Gorge, the longest deepest and narrowest gorge in the world. The water falls 213 meters in this 30 kilometre long gorge and his narrowest portion is only 30 metres wide. People are often in awe at the chaotic nature of the Yanzijiang River in this area. The upstream beginning of Tiger leaping gorge is at 1800 meters above sea level. Jade dragon Snow Mountain on the south bank rises to 5596 meters. The cliffs on this bank are too steep for paths. The Haba snow mountain in 5386 meters in altitude on the north bank. The glaciers on this side make it possible to build a road which travels along the length of the entire gorge. Above this road, there is another path for hiking. Tiger leaping gorge is divided into three parts: Upper gorge, Middle gorge and Lower gorge.

We hiked the upper gorge. Starting from Tiger Leaping Gorge county one will pass a bridge over the Yangtze River. After walking down the narrow road at the foot of Haba Snow Mountain for about 9 kilometres, one will enter the boundary of the Upper Tiger Leaping Gorge. It is the narrowest portion of the whole gorge with a width of only 30 metres. The cliffs on both sides are very high and steep; making the gorge look even narrower. There’s a huge rock 13 meters high that strands right in the narrowing of the river’s channel and the water dashes against the stone and splashes extremely high towards in the air. The sound is so loud that it is like a tiger roaring the huge rock therefore was named the Tiger Leaping stone. But it seems even a tiger would be scared when faced with such a gorge. Although I heard a contradictory story that apparently a tiger leaped from that huge stone to the other side of the gorge and that is how it got its name.

The Gorge was absolutely breathtaking. Never in Australia would one be able to walk along such fragile cliffs edge with such a long fall below and no railing, we were living on the edge quite literally! We walked through villages and waterfalls and herds of wild goats. It really was a spectacular trail I would highly recommend to anyone. After we finished the trail I could not believe I had it in me to then spend some hours wandering the Old Town market but I suppose an initial urge for food and then a full stomach replenishes your energy levels.

We spent our last day at the Black Dragon Pool which is a famous pond in the scenic Jade Spring Park located at the foot of Elephant Hill, a short walk north of the Old Town. It was built in 1737 during the Qing dynasty and offers a spectacular view of the region’s tallest mountain, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, over its white marble bridge.

 

The park features several smaller temples and pavilions including the Moon-Embracing Pavilion, Dragon God Temple and Wufeng Tower. The Moon-Embracing Pavilion was originally built in the late Ming Dynasty however the current structure is a reproduction from 1963 after a fire in 1950. The Dragon God Temple (Longshen Temple) was constructed by local Naxi people in 1737 and is located to the east of the park. It was given the name Dragon God of Jade Spring by the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty in the same year. The threefold overlap Five-Phoenix Tower (Wufeng Tower) was built during the Ming Dynasty (1601), and today is located at the north end of the park. The tower was originally situated at the Fuguo Temple, which is 30 kilometres to the west, but was moved to Jade Spring Park in 1979.

After visiting the park we discovered a few street hawkers. We were hungry and poor so decided to eat there. They had many of the same foods on offer in Tianjin but there was also an interesting bread similar to a naan bread which we filled with egg and different pickles and spices that looked funky but tasted brilliant. After finding our home street delicacies incomparable to back in Tianjin we went back for seconds on the new found street food. We sat on the steps of a nearby shop and ate up before heading back to the hostel and packing our bags. After sitting around for a while at the hostel adding pictures to my Facebook I suddenly yelped! I had misjudged the time. It was not 2.30pm that we had to leave the hostel it was 2.30pm that we had to be at the bus stop! If we caught the bus we were probably going to miss our flight so with the little money we had we luckily managed to get to the airport in time.

My observation are that Lijiang, perhaps because of its rustic nature and slow life meeting its colourful culture is such an attractive place to be.

The weekend after returning from Lijiang I decided to have a ‘mock’ Christmas party so Joel and I could celebrate the day together. The evening before I planned to go shopping I was left at home to baby sit and no bank card due to human error and thus had no means of doing the shopping I needed to do so it became Joel’s responsibility to go shopping the next day for our feast, he also had to of course get the Christmas tree. On my menu for entrée I planned to cook dinner rolls, roasted brie pastries and my Mum’s famous chicken noodle soup, main was Garlic, Lemon and Rosemary roasted chicken, jacket potatoes stuffed with cheese, cream cheese and bacon, a layered salad and a potato salad as well as some oranges stuffed with a sweet potato and orange mixture. Desert was a fruit Christmas tree and ice-cream bomb. I invited Ryan around as well as a few colleagues from my old school. I planned on inviting around a few more of Joel’s Chinese friends but could not find their contact details. The food was a hit and everyone remarked that I had outdone myself so that was great. My old colleagues had to leave around 10 before their school closed and so it was left Ryan, Esther Joel and I playing drinking games. We played a game in which every cards number represented a different rule. Numerous times for elongated periods we all had to wear a beer carton box on our heads. Ultimately I wound up throwing up on the floor in the bathroom, honestly not because I drank too much but because I ate too much. I then summoned Joel to clean it up as it was ‘his turn’. Alas, “you did it on purpose” he exclaimed and I was left to clean up my own spew. He has some odd concepts sometimes about the things I do and I always question when he says such things, I mean why I would ever deliberately inflict something dreadful on myself like that purely for the sake of attention, but anyway, all in all the evening was a good one and it was wonderful to indulge in some of my favourite foods.

The next day we went skiing. A few friends had a recommended the place to me in recent weeks and Joel had never been skiing before so we decided to give it a whirl. We got a taxi and showed the driver the map my friend had sent to us and then set off. It was nice to see what was past our town and the town over, even if it was not much. Eventually I noticed a small hill in the distance that we were rapidly approaching, covered in snow. I started laughing hysterically and as did the taxi driver. Too small he exclaimed I laughed and nodded in agreeance. When you’re told you’re going to a ski resort you at least half expect it to be high up in in the mountains somewhere, with hot chocolates and spas and all kind of lovely glorious things but this place, this place was a little bit of a joke if I’ll be honest. It was literally one hill with a ‘beginner’ and ‘intermediate’ course that looked the same and an area to go sledding down the hill on donuts. The surrounding areas had no snow. It was an amusement park, definitely not a resort. Either way we got our ski’s and set out to give it a go. It was my first time skiing since I was 12 years old. When I was 12 I had gone to Mt. Field National Park in Tasmania with my Dad. He never taught me how to stop and I was foolish enough to not ask before heading off. As I reached the bottom of the hill I started getting nearer and nearer to a large pile of rocks so I decided to fall, after that there was a minor snow storm and Dad wanted to ski back to the car so off he went leaving me scared and walking through the ‘blizzard’ (I was too scared to ski so I walked). After about 1.5 hours walking in snow boots I finally got back to the car but Dad was nowhere to be seen. Luckily I spotted the keys on top of the wheel and unlocked the door. The first thing I did was peel of my snow boots and my feet were blistering and black. Snow boots are not designed to be walked in. I started worrying about Dad, I thought because he was skiing he would have arrived before me but I think he took a longer course. Anyway, he returned. To this day I often tell that story and he avidly denies it ever happened. Who knows, perhaps my recollection of events is a little more dramatic than what really happened, I was only 12 after all. Anyway, Joel of course was a total natural and although he had never skied before he was still a lot more confident a lot faster than me and opted to do z turns and go down the intermediate course before I built up the courage. I could not believe he did not fall once!

 

I did not really do anything on Christmas day itself, well actually I did. I did a lot, I was really busy but not in the celebratory sense in the running around like mad sense. I got up early in the morning so I could say goodbye to Joel. I had asked work whether I could have from 11am to 2pm off work so I could see him off at the airport but due to the Christmas concert that day my wishes were not granted, instead I got up early and arrived at work late as I spent some time saying goodbye. I told him I loved him, expressed my sadness and kissed him multiple times before heading down the lift. I believed it would be the last time in a long time that I would see him and as expected I cried but I also vowed that if my day was spent sitting around doing nothing I would be going to join him. So the first few hours of my day I essentially did nothing, I was only sitting on my phone as our grade weren’t to arrive at the kindergarten until 9.30 and we started work at 7.30am but after that things got pretty hectic. I was busy doing the makeup and costumes of all the children in my class and entertaining the parents all the meanwhile trying to call Joel and taxi driver only to find out it never arrived. I then began arguing with the driver in front of my children’s parents which I am sure was inappropriate but I was left little option when 20 minutes later he still had not arrived at our house and there was only limited time to arrive as Joel had to check in at least 2 hours before his flight! Anyway, the driver eventually got there and was even kind enough to give me a call and let me know that Joel has safely arrived. Shortly afterwards my children and I headed downstairs for the big concert, I sat on a seat dedicated for the teachers so I could do the actions and sing and the children could mimic me. I am not sure why but after teaching them ‘Jingle bells’ and ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas’ for the past two months they decided not to sing and only do the dance. It was a shame but I suppose they were nervous. My parents left at around 12pm and without stopping to ask I raced out the gate myself, hailed a taxi and requested to be taken to the airport as quickly as possible. I called Joel and told him “in the name of love I am coming” before explaining to him that I was switching my phone off as I was scared work would try calling me (although I had told me TA to tell anyone looking for me that she did not know where I was, but maybe they should try calling me).Joel waited for me outside, we smoked a cigarette together and then as I was starving we went in for a bite to eat but after only a few bites into our meal they started calling out final boarding for his flight. I could not believe how quickly time had gone. I had neglected to remember that boarding is normally a good 20 minutes before take-off. He started shovelling food down his mouth as I told him there was no time for that and then we raced to the gate. He kissed me goodbye and I told him to kiss me properly, the last thing he said was “I did” before we blew a few air kisses to each other and then he disappeared out of my sight. It wasn’t hopelessly romantic as I had willed. I imagined running and jumping up on him for a prolonged kiss before he walked through the gate but time did not call for it. Maybe when we meet again. I went back to our lunch and dismally ate a little more before receiving a message from him that they had closed the gate and were not going to allow him to board the plane. I started panicking asking people to help me but they didn’t really offer much assistance (I suppose because they were restaurant staff not airline staff) but shortly afterwards I ended up apologising profusely for my panic as they staff on the boarding side had sorted something out and apparently the plane was going to wait for him, thank god too because if he had have missed that flight he would have missed his next two connecting flights home as well and that would have been catastrophic. After I knew he was safe on the plane I called the same taxi driver back to come and pick me up. I arrived back at work around 2.30pm and although people had been looking for me my TA kept her word and no one realised that I had actually left the premises. Work then gave us an early hour off work and I spent the afternoon talking with Dad before spending the evening ensuring Joel got on his next flight.

As I didn’t really do anything for Christmas I decided on New Year’s Eve that I should head out. Normally every-day I am so exhausted but when it came New Year’s Eve I could not nap before my next job, I was tossing and turning so I suggested to my roommate we hit the town. I head to work first and finished around 8 o’clock. I asked whether my bosses wanted to join me and my roommate asked the people on the 16th floor (ex-student’s of mine) whether they could baby sit her son, they obliged. I got home around 8.30 and aimed to shower and get dressed by 9pm (Australian 12am) so I could call Joel and our mates and have a virtual beer with them. Much to my dismay I called him and called him again and he never answered so we head out. First we went to the Dublin Irish pub and ate some pizza and had a few beers and waited for our friend Shayne and his girlfriend/thing to join us. I met a guy called Chris there from Maple Leaf school (a pretty well-renown school in China) and we got chatting, apparently our music tastes are essentially the same so after arguing with him and consistently attempting to get him to play ‘I’m a Ninja’ by Die Antwoord he eventually gave up the music seat and let me choose the music building up to the New Year’s countdown and after it. The mix had a little Nero, Major Lazer, Diplo, Stanton Warriors, Prodigy, Infected Mushroom, Caspa and Die Antwoord. Esther, Feifei, Shayne, Matty, Krystal and her boyfriend and I all drank some celebratory shots and then headed to a club called Soho that I’d heard a lot about but never been too. They were playing the Bee Gees when we walked in, and don’t get me wrong I love the Bee Gees but I wasn’t feeling it I really wanted to dance, not just ‘dance’ you know! So after about three minutes there we left and headed to another club called Muse. I headed in and was initially disappointed as I found the music was not too good. I started whinging to my friends saying “what is this shit? it’s New Year’s Eve, and I want to dance” and then headed off to the bathroom with Esther. Suddenly the DJs started playing Will Sparks and I was amped. I started banging on the bathroom door telling her to hurry up and let’s get on the dance floor. No one was on the elevated stage they had for dancing so I try to coax her up with me but she wasn’t having a bar of it. ‘Fine’ I said and jumped onto the stage by myself dancing like crazy jumping around shaking every part of my body. I was wearing a short black mini dress with long knee high boots the music was so loud it vibrated through every part of my body, I gazed at the members in the audience, they were all looking at me but I had not a care in the world, my main desire was to try and coax them onto the stage with me. I held my hands above my head in a Hollywood stance and shook my ass just like my belly dancing teacher taught be before switching at the drops to the classical drum and bass dance that Joel is so good at. I did not realise until the next day that the DJ was calling out in Chinese to all the people in the club that a foreign girl was on the stage and I had obviously had a little too much to drink she told my audience I was having so much fun and that everyone should raise their glasses and drink and dance with me. It didn’t take long for people to start joining me on the stage and begin dancing around me, I gave myself a stitch from going so crazy that after a while I stepped down, but every time I stepped down a man’s hand would reach out to me and pull me back up. Once I stood down again my friend informed me she was leaving. She had her son at home and she was already running late, I myself was beginning to feel ill and begged her to only stay half an hour more but she insisted the time had come to leave. Very shortly afterwards Shayne and Feifei told me they were leaving. I wanted to go with them but Feifei had laid down a lot of money for the table and there was still around 10 unopened beers and a cigar smoking in the ashtray so they hinted at me that if I didn’t stay it would be a waste. So it became just me and two Russian brothers who were acquaintances with Shayne. It seemed like only two minutes had passed and then suddenly I saw people and beers bottles flying through a crowds of people and the music stopped. I’m not sure if it really did or everything just went slow motion but before I could blink there was probably 50 different people involved in a hectic brawl, the whole club was on fire. I started edging my way slowing to the door all the meanwhile staring ahead of me, people started evacuating at a rapid pace, the lights were out. A man picked something up and smashed it over another man’s head and then security dressed in all black started carrying people out the door, they were all fighting to be free as they were carried out, but not the last man, the last man didn’t struggle, clearly he had been seriously injured. It was at this point I decided to leave. I followed the trail of blood to the exit and grabbed my friends coat, put it on and went outside. Right outside the entrance to the club was a man, surrounded by people but completely alone his entire face was bright red with blood, his eyes were closed. His once white t-shirt was completely red with blood. He reminded me of a scene in the movie ‘Jesus Christ’ where he was covered from head to toe in blood, that’s what this man looked like, not an ounce of his body was not red. Behind him a man ran off and 40 or so men chased after him, I thought there was going to be a riot. A pool of blood started to gather under the man’s head, no one was beside him. I stared for a moment just like everyone else and then casually waltzed over to check he was breathing. He was breathing so I let him be, just checking on him every so often but then the man started shaking and convulsing and at that moment I knew he was in dire need of help. I quickly took off my jacket and wrapped it around him before in broken Chinese urging people to call someone for help. You would not believe their reactions, it disgusted me. They all started saying to me “you’re a foreigner, you’re a foreigner” as though that actually had anything to do with the situation at hand. I was infuriated, what was wrong with this people, I started screaming at them, “So what if I’m a fucking foreigner? What the fuck does that have to do with the fact that this guy needs help?” eventually a man came along a called an ambulance and offered the stranger another jacket to wear. I sat beside the injured man for around 20 minutes telling him consistently not to sleep, and to look at me knowing that slipping into a coma was the worst thing that could happen to him. As I continuously attempted to look into his eyes his blood dripped all over my hands and arms. Eventually approximately 30 minutes later an ambulance finally arrived, unbelievable considering the hospital was only about 10 minutes’ walk away from the scene of the fight. Two gentlemen started to lift him up to put him on the stretcher but the weight of him was too much. They called for help and I grabbed his other arm, together we laid him down and he was whisked into the back of the van. One of the men started bowing to me repeatedly saying “xiexie” (thank you), “mei shi” (no problem) I replied. He asked for my number but my phone was flat and I didn’t know it off by heart, at that point one of the Russians was standing beside me so I told one of the brothers to give the man his number and they jumped in the back of the van and were off.

After that these Russian guys offered to take me to this other pub, I agreed, anywhere but where we were was fine by me. We ended up walking into this random quiet dodgy corridor to a lift. I said to them “this place seems a little dodgy” and they told me it was a back entrance to wherever it was we were going, so I shrugged my shoulders and followed on. It the middle of a seemingly empty building on whatever floor there was a quaint little dim-lit pub which I got the gist may have been closed as the brother ‘Eugene’ told us to wait outside for him a moment, he soon came outside beers in hand and we walked back to Muse, he quietly stashed the beers in a bush before we head back inside. I could not believe that our beers were still sitting there in tact on the table. I slowly made my way though one of them as a I chuffed on a cigarette and attempted a little small talk with Eugene but unfortunately due to the pumping loud music my meaning wasn’t really get across so I started to feel bored, as did he I think because shortly after being there he suggested we leave, his only concern being the unfinished beers on the table. So I grabbed five and he grabbed five and we walked out with them. He stopped to talk to his brother Roman for what seemed like forever and I began to get the impression that he was avoiding leaving with me, so no skin off my nose I went outside and asked a stranger for a cigarette. As I left security was giving me a scrutinizing look for having all the beer in my hand but I just looked at him and said “I bought these”. Soon enough Eugene was behind me and asked where I had been, I responded “you mean where the fuck have you been? I waited like 5 minutes for you”! Anyway, we grabbed a taxi together (he lives in the same community as me) and said to me “Let’s go back to my place” I replied “and why your place not mine”, apparently he had a wider selection of music than me so it was settled. The whole way back I was trying to find out his salary and whether they had jobs available meanwhile he was telling me how much he loved my “Australianness”. Apparently he had a lot of friends in Canada who were Australian and he really wants to go to the country. Anyway as we stumbled through the door of his place he apologised for it being a ‘bachelors’ pad and a little messy, I felt an abundance of shame as the mess in their place was incomparable to the state of our home at the time. Anyway, it was really nice we kind of just sat there on his couch listening to music, shotting ‘orange infused’ cognac and talking shit for hours before his brother eventually arrived home. At that point Eugene fell asleep and my conversation continued with his brother. Not once did I feel bored talking to them. It wasn’t until around 6.30 in the morning that I left the place and made a walk home wearing only my short sleeved mini dress in the cold. I came across men and women going on their morning walks and wished them a good morning but was only met with stares. I got home, jumped into bed and passed out. I didn’t get out of bed until 4pm in the afternoon. I called my mate Shayne and explained to him my killer hangover and that I felt like I had been hit by a truck (seriously don’t even remember a time suffering such a terrible headache) and being the wonderful friend he is he came over with some Panadol, a pack of chips and a fizzy drink to assist me in my recovery. Bless him.

Anyway, summing up. My observations since the last time I wrote are that It’s definitely true that the longer you stay in a place the greater an understanding you gain.  I was always intrigued by communist societies and their function, mostly because of my families distaste for them due to the treatment they received at the hands of the Russians after World War 2. For a long time I did not notice anything astounding about China other than Chinese people’s eccentric Nationalism. I did not see much more than the red flags strung above every classroom blackboard, or the ritualistic Monday’s flag raising ceremony which every school in China was required to participate in. I did not notice more than the Mao Zedong memorabilia everywhere, I heard little from people other than their disgust in the polluted air and how difficult the economic depression was after Mao Zedong came into power, or that I should not mention the Tiananmen Square massacre in ‘public’ places. I knew that Chinese people think of Taiwan and Tibet as part of China and that the rest of the world generally do not. People discussed their dreams of living somewhere like Australia without so many people, but it wasn’t until I really started investigating things that I realised truly how encaptivated Chinese people are in the propaganda of the Chinese government. The lies scared me so much more than the truth. The first thing I noticed was after the explosion in Tianjin. The government was informing everyone in the media that a gas station had blown up, but interestingly the stories of the local people say it was an explosion at a local port. The local stories matched that of the international media, the only difference is the international media failed to report the intoxicants hovering in the air for days afterwards, the thousands of people suffering from burns to their throats, the locals taping up their windows or the dead fish washed ashore and then sold on the local markets. But it was when I noticed some Chinese writing scrawled onto a bank note and asked my boss about it that I started noticing an even greater divide between Chinese people’s beliefs and the beliefs of the ‘outside’ world than I had initially realised. She told me it was written by the Falun Gong, she told me all about them, about their cult like beliefs and atrocities and even though I had heard things almost opposite from the Falun Gong themselves in South Korea I did not doubt her or her beliefs, I opted to do more research elsewhere, independent research. Unfortunately my research did not result in only information debunking Chinese government propaganda related to the Falun Gong but also a whole tirade of new shocking information. Firstly I learnt that to this day in China there are a total of 69 ‘labour camps’ in which hold a majority ‘Falun Gong’ practitioners. The inmates are forced to wear identical clothing, work as slaves and endure disgusting methods of torture including but not limited to the more traditional ‘body stretching’ or the less traditional method of placing a toothbrush inside a women’s vagina and twisting it. I read and watched numerous live accounts and horror stories. Attempts to send information to the public on bills, and labour camps all sounds scarily similar to the events that occurred at the hands of the German people in world war two. Worse is that I was not even aware of it, and that no one seems to be doing anything about it. When my ears and eyes started truly opening up I started to notice a lot more it terms of smaller less significant things, I noticed for example after losing my wallet one night and seeking CCTV footage that there are numerous rooms in my community alone that a filled with footage covering every square inch of the area where we live and surrounds. The walls really do have ears. I started to notice that even the cigarettes I buy every day are called ‘Zhongnanhai’ which is named after the ‘Zhongnanhai’ government headquarters in Beijing, meaning literally everyday just by buying a packet of smokes I am quoting this ‘mantra’.

[1] Hiebert, Paul G. (1985). Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
[2] Boye Lafayette De Mente (1998) The Korean Mind: Understanding contemporary Korean culture, Tuttle publishing.
[3] http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/436255-54-facts-that-reveal-how-the-self-immolation-on-tiananmen-square-was-actually-staged-for-propaganda-purposes-part-1/
[4]http://www.lonelyplanet.com/south-korea/seoul/sights/arts-culture-literary/namsangol-hanok-village#ixzz3tMdNO3PL

Xi’an, Beijing, South Korea, Motorbikes and Cheap Liquor!

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.

Exploration of 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!

A move from Tianjin Downtown to Eco-city

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.

Settling in Tianjin

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.