Battling Thin Air on the Way to Tibet.

‘Diamox,’ Maryam maintained, ‘I always take Diamox to prevent altitude sickness. ‘

I laughed it off, I have done altitude before…  A few years ago, in Cusco (Machu Picchu trek in Peru) coca leaf tea was the perfect remedy to battle any symptoms: chew it or brew it.  Who would have thought that the leaves of the cocaine plant had useful medicinal properties after all?  In Nepal, hiking up to the top of Poon Hill, I might have been short of breath at the last stretch, but I certainly did not succumb to spells of dizziness as some of the younger people who collapsed on the one and only bench, head between their legs…  Neither did I realise that my hiking in Yunnan (Southwest China) last October was at heights where altitude sickness can seriously affect you…  We all struggled up that first hill, but then it was a steep incline and after about half an hour any breathlessness had dissipated into thin air…  Altitude sickness was clearly something affecting others, not me, so no need to pop pills.  Anyway,  I would have plenty of time to acclimatise on the three day train journey to Lhasa anyway.

I had eyed the destination for some time: Tibet, Lhasa, Everest Base Camp (EBC), the Himalayas, the mystique of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan monasteries.  Only, the trip in July did not include EBC, but still better to experience some of Tibet than none at all.  And what the trip lacked in Everest views would be more than made up by a spectacular and scenic two-day train journey across China, promising dazzling vistas and an easier ride into the challenges of less oxygen near the roof of the world.

In reality, the two day train journey turned into a three day jaunt, courtesy of ticket touts who bought up all available train tickets to Lhasa in one fell swoop.   In China, train tickets are only released 30 days before the date of travel and by the time I managed to get online to book tickets (10 minutes after release..), there were none left… no hard seats, no hard sleepers, and definitely not the luxurious soft sleepers.   Actually, only two of the other people who were on the same trip had secured a seat: a hard seat for two full days and two full nights…  But instead of offering a refund, our ‘travel agent’ was hopeful that they could sort things out and they would approach their contacts to see if they could get us tickets after all.  Could we just pay them an extra  900 RMB (£90 – £100)…  This money indeed bought us a hard sleeper ticket … from Xining in central China to Lhasa, with absolutely no idea of how to get to the middle of China…  All trains had been sold out, leaving  us just the option of more expensive air travel  or forfeiting all our money…  In the end, reluctant to pay exorbitant flight prices, I kept on looking online and yes, one day a hard sleeper ticket from Shanghai to Xining was available on a different and much slower train, taking two days to reach Xining…  but I had plenty of time, it was the start of the summer holidays.  What was an extra 12 hours on a train…


‘What’s the food like on these trains?’ I asked Kim, who had just returned from her trip to Tibet, spending a full 24 hours on a train to Lhasa (she flew to central China).  A diet of rice and more rice did not sound appealing, so I took her advice and stocked up on the usual Chinese travel fare:  pot noodles, teabags, lots of unhealthy snacks and some fruit…  Hot water was available for free, so no problem joining the queue on the train to re-hydrate interesting flavoured noodles..  And surely anyone could survive living of such foods for a mere three days.   My bags bulging with ‘culinary delights’, I boarded the train…


Admittedly, I was pleasantly surprised.  Expecting a hard sleeper to be along the lines of the hard top benches of trains in India, I was impressed with the slightly squishy mattress – definitely softer than the bed in my flat – and enough space to almost sit up on my middle bunk.  On the other hand, bathroom facilities were woefully inadequate from a Western point of view: one squat toilet to be shared between about 60 travellers..  Nowhere to wash or shower…  I settled in, hardly noticing the constant hum of Chinese conversations around me and lost myself in a book…  The kind of peace and quiet I had missed for some time; the perfect space for the ultimate me-time.  Outside, the scenery did little to inspire, an endless monotony of distant brown-ish hills…  At exactly 9.30 pm, the whole train was hushed: lights turned off and everyone obediently quietened down.  I slept blissfully…

I arrived in Xining after 32 hours, glad to stretch my legs and have some real food.  More noodles, but at least they were freshly prepared and did not taste of cardboard.  I met up with the rest of the group who had used various modes of transport to get to Xining before boarding the  next train a few hours later…  Another 22 hours would see us safely in Lhasa, Tibet, at an elevation of 3,656 m, where altitude was likely to have an impact on most of us.  We made ourselves comfortable, it was early evening and soon everyone took to their bunks as we listened to the announcements about our journey ahead.  We could expect some discomfort over breakfast as the train would approach the Tibetan Plateau and even more serious altitude difficulties between 11:00 and 12:00 am the next day when the train would cross the Tanggula Pass (5000 m).  Anyone experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness could rest assured, there was a doctor on board..

At 2.00 am I woke up, head throbbing and engulfed in a wave of nausea.  It wasn’t even breakfast yet…  I made it to the bathroom; no queue as everyone was thankfully asleep…   Altitude sickness??  Surely not, I thought, but the headache lingered for a full day and I just about managed to hold down half an orange and one cup of lukewarm  sugary tea in the next 24 hours.  Altitude sickness hits at its worst at night time,  when breathing becomes shallower and the body takes in less oxygen.   Although none of the others admitted to feeling a little off-colour, headache tablets were gratefully consumed and definitely helped to lift subdued spirits.

Mid-morning the cavalry arrived, dispensing oxygen tubes in anticipation of tackling the Tanggula Pass..  The ‘Sky Train’ or Lhasa Express – as the train is called – comes equipped with two sources of oxygen:  one which is used to pump oxygen into the whole train as it approaches the Tibetan plateau and the other comes via personalised little oxygen outlets near each bunk and along the corridors.  Just attach the oxygen tube, breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth.  I gave it a go, it wasn’t going to do any harm but neither was it the magic wand to quell the symptoms of altitude sickness…

Outside, the landscape had become more fascinating:  snow-capped peaks,  grazing yaks on grassy plains, yellow desolate mountains, construction workers wrapped in furry coats and warm hats.  A barren and inhospitable terrain that proved a challenge during the construction of the railway itself as workers had to contend with low oxygen levels as well as permafrost.  Fencing along the railway offers protection to the local wildlife and tunnels under the railway give them safe passage to cross the line.  Modern China at its best.

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We arrived in Lhasa, glad to get to our hotel for some rest and a good night’s sleep.  I cannot remember when the malaise finally started to disappear, but breakfast – the best breakfast I have seen in any hotel in China – did not look at all appealing…  I managed a little fruit and some yoghurt but passed on the Yak curry and Yak cheese…  I did however have my generous dose of Butter Tea, the Tibetan answer to coca leaf tea… It is not entirely clear how it is supposed to help overcome altitude sickness, or whether Tibetans even use it for that purpose,  but just the thought that it might brighten the mood, stave off the headaches and stimulate some appetite made all of us drink it with great gusto and a big spoonful of added sugar to mask the unexpected salty taste…

Maybe, Maryam was right and to make the most of a short trip to Tibet, Diamox was the answer…  I know for next time.  Everyone in our group was affected to some degree, mainly headaches and nothing too serious.  Would flying into Lhasa have been the better option??  2% of the people that fly directly to Lhasa develop the more serious types of altitude sickness which affect the lungs and brain, and can be deadly if not treated in time… So far, 0% of those who take the train have suffered the same fate..

Visiting the ‘roof of the world’ is certainly testing…




Lessons from the Wildebeest Migration: staying safe on the Chinese roads

‘The difference between Chinese locals and the expats,’ my Chinese friend A explained, ‘is that Chinese locals take the bus and expats prefer their e-bikes.’  If only that were true, the roads in Hangzhou would be so much safer for everyone.

Hangzhou roads are wide, spacious with lots of room for cars, e-bikes, bicycles and pedestrians.  Surely the envy of many European cities battling with legacies pre-dating the advent of anything with a motor: narrow streets, cobbled lanes, dinky alleyways. Cities steeped in history, but lacking practicality in the 21st Century.  China has looked at the West and in its modern cities taken on board the sense of the American grid-system: straight roads, straight corners, easy to navigate flyovers.  The main arteries leading into town have generous lanes for cyclists and e-bike riders, often partitioned by chains or some kind of fencing for added safety.  And there are designated pavements for pedestrians…  With such infrastructure in place, you would expect a safe journey across town no matter what mode of travel you choose…


Being a true expat by now, I did indeed purchase an e-bike on my return to China in March.   Not entirely sure about any permanent damage to my knee nor to my ability to pedal a pushbike, I thought it better to have some motorised backup available!!  I certainly did not fancy being at the mercy of a fickle bus service, standing in the cold, rain or suffocating summer heat or paying for taxis all the time.

After a few weeks of getting my bearings in the new area of town, using buses (which are actually very reliable) and leg power,  I ventured out on my e-bike.  I am not a natural and did not exactly take to riding an e-bike like a duck to water.  Suffice it to say that I learned the hard way that when going down a ramp on an e-bike, it is infinitely safer to turn off the engine so you do not simultaneously accelerate and apply the brakes…  Twice I hit a wall!! Luckily, I was walking down a ramp next to the bike and could let go..   I came off unscathed, and the bike???  A few more scratches and scrapes, but no real damage… It still works!!  I now avoid ramps…

I rode the e-bike painfully slowly at first, carefully surveying my opponents on the road.  Whereas near my previous flat on the outskirts of Hangzhou, two e-bikes or bicycles  would have made a crowd, near the centre of town there were loads of them…  all occupied by the Chinese…   And although I had sampled Chinese road-user habits before, the experience paled in comparison to dealing with the hordes of e-bikes, cyclists and pedestrians invading the space designated to them…  To complicate matters further, in the last few months the country has been gripped by a bicycle-sharing epidemic. This may well sound like a great initiative, but in China ‘good’ ideas are copied over and over, ad infinitum…  Since my return to China, pavements have been cluttered with an oversupply of bicycles in all shades and hues, and the roads have been heaving with cyclists lacking confidence and speed.

Not feeling too brave on the e-bike, I used to hang back, linger behind the mob, give way to the impatient and more audacious.  I even thought it wise to wait for traffic lights to turn green…  I soon found out that following the throng, disregarding Western notions of road safety, was the much wiser and sensible way to avoid being hit by fellow road users.  A green light certainly does not guarantee a risk-free passage across a junction!!  Whilst e-bikes and bicycles attempt to go straight, cars turning right force their way through, not waiting for a space and coercing isolated E-bikes and bicycles  to weave and dodge around them.  So it makes sense to jump the lights and use those precious seconds to have a head start and as a mass of metal and bodies get out of harm’s way.  Until you reach the other side where cars, e-bikes and bicycles plough in from the right  without so much as a glance to check whether it is safe to do so, no matter the light is green for me and not for them.  It’s a bit like the wildebeest migration: the most likely to end up as crocodile feed are those who head into the river first, or those who lag behind and are no longer protected by the body of the herd…

Even going straight along the cycle path is fraught with danger, especially from riders in slow motion… You may be fooled into thinking that they are the  vigilant ones looking out for other road users… but more likely than not, their eyes will be glued to their phones and their minds immersed in the digital world of Wechat, their ears filled with heated conversations or the latest hits….  They are the ones I approach with extra caution because they are probably totally oblivious of their surroundings or any other traffic.   Add to this that just at the point where it seems possible to overtake those ones who would even fail to beat a snail in a race, a  lonely cyclist or e-biker comes hurtling from the opposite direction, scattering everyone out of his way…

And of course, let’s not forget the pedestrians meandering at leisure between e-bikes and bicycles…  City and road planners certainly had their interests at heart when designing road lay-outs.  Wide pavements sheltered by leafy  trees and with ample room for pushchairs…  Only, in busy areas around metro stations, shopping malls and parks such strips of free space for pedestrians have been turned into dumping grounds for e-bikes and shared bicycles because the planners overlooked or underestimated the need for parking provision…  And careless ‘shared-bicycle’ users discard their wheels just about anywhere they see fit and leave the police to deal with clearing the avalanche of metal. Neither the bicycle users, nor the rental companies are held to account. On the outskirts of Hangzhou, vast swathes of derelict land have been turned into bicycle graveyards as the companies who own them have no interest in claiming them back: the bicycles have been paid for through the deposits from the users… It is probably cheaper to buy new stock than paying any fines.

It seems that in the haste of turning Chinese cities into ‘modern’ metropolises, its citizens have been left behind and attitudes have not kept pace.   Maybe it is a lot easier to change  the infrastructure of a city than the ingrained habits of a population…  China certainly has traffic rules and regulations, but they are invariably ignored by the majority of the Chinese and the traffic police seem powerless to do anything about it.

I still use my e-bike, in emergencies only.  I rather ride a bicycle, at least I can manage the brakes and I get exercise to boot!!  But I feel neither confident nor safe on the roads here and watch every other Chinese road user like a hawk, always expecting the unexpected and hands ready  for an emergency stop…

If only my friend had been right that the Chinese prefer the buses and e-bikes are the reserve of the expat community…




Gouqi, the not-so-abandoned island.



‘Where are you??’ friends  eagerly enquired after I posted pictures of Gouqi on my Wechat* Moments (see below).  Pristine beaches, the sky and sea dressed in shades of blue to rival the Mediterranean.  Surely this was not China, or anywhere near Shanghai where murky brown waters permanently surround the coast, often smothered by the persistence of the grey haze of polluted air.  The closest beach to Hangzhou is in Ningbo, one hour South by bullet train, but reports from those who’ve seen it are far from glowing: turbid waters; grimy, dirty beaches – not exactly the kind of place to while away a lazy afternoon..

(*For those not in China and therefore unfamiliar with Wechat …  it is the Chinese version of WhatsApp, only a little more versatile and much easier to use than Facebook in China.  No need for a VPN to let friends and family know your whereabouts….)


I was on a trip to an ‘abandoned island’, or so the blurb on Travelers Society’s website led me to believe, somewhere to the east of Shanghai.  We were heading for the Shengsi Islands, a scenic area, consisting of hundreds of islands outlying the Hangzhou Bay and boasting multiple quality beaches, rocks, and cliffs.

It was definitely an island, only to be reached after a four hour boat trip from Shanghai’s port,  but abandoned was best taken with a pinch of salt.  As we were making the most of one of China’s few extended ‘holidays’ at the beginning of May (a three-day weekend courtesy of Labour Day on 1st May), long lines of Chinese tourists besieged the ticket booths… We were not the only ones visiting this gem.



Far from abandoned, Gouqi island clearly was very much alive with people whose livelihood depended on the sea.  Endless lengths of fishing nets trailed along the narrow coastal road, its verges  littered with skeletons of perished fishing boats and other discarded paraphernalia.  Whilst thoughtless drivers careered around sharp bends, women and men – too old to be out on the sea – braved the unrelenting sun to mend the nets, ready to be set out into the sea at night for the morning’s haul.  Suspended from polystyrene buoys, the nets crisscrossed large squares in the coastal waters and, come early morning, smaller fishing boats took to the sea to pull in the catch.











On Gouqi, seafood is the staple diet and the giant mussel a speciality.  Whilst fresh fish is eaten in abundance, the rest is dried in the sun on huge racks along the quayside.  Even the local snacks are fish-based: anyone for battered and deep-fried fish backbones???  I tried them – well, only one – after a shopkeeper insisted on handing some to us.  Too crunchy for my liking and not sure about the nutritional value, I discreetly let them slide into a dustbin, out of sight.


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We did eventually find the ‘abandoned’ part of the trip on the neighbouring island Shengshan: Houtouwan, a small fishing village nestled in the lap of the rugged hills with the sea at its feet.  Only established in the 1950s, but hemmed in on all sides and with no room for expansion, the village soon outgrew its inhabitants as the fishing industry expanded rapidly in the 1990s.  The now wealthier villagers left in droves and the village was eventually relocated in 2002 to a more desirable and accessible area, leaving the original village to the forces of nature.  The village history at the entrance of the ‘tourist attraction’ did not chronicle how it became a magnet for visitors, but as vines and ivy invaded the deserted, crumbling stone walls and steps, and creepers weaved through doors and windows, the village became like a ghost town, eerie and spooky, coming alive with the change of the seasons and the whims of the weather.  We were there in the midst of spring, on a warm, sunny morning, the greenery not yet fully showing its lushest.

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And of course, no island and beach visit would be complete without spending some time enjoying the sun, the sand and the water…  I dipped in a toe.. but left the swimming to a few braver souls as I certainly did not fancy the goosebumps that would follow complete immersion.  Instead I joined in with beach volleyball, mainly watching the ball go by rather than being any use on the court, although surprisingly some of my serves ended up going over the net!!!  As our night time beach party was gatecrashed by the locals and other Chinese tourists, we beat our retreat and spent the rest of the evening playing 15 man (and woman..) UNO at the hotel…



These two obviously did not belong to our party…  Only Chinese women go incognito when the sun is out…


In the early evening we hiked up to the highest peak of the island, near an ancient Buddhist temple, to watch the sun cast its dying, warming glow over the cliffs and the sea.



And in the early morning, we  rose before the break of dawn.  Wrapped up warmly for the chill, we made our way to the other end of the island to take some spectacular shots of the sun soaring above the East China Sea…  It’s amazing what cameras can do!!


A place called ‘home’…

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There comes a point when living out of a suitcase takes its toll…  Admittedly, my ‘living out of a suitcase’ may be stretching the truth a little.  I have always had a place to unpack and  call ‘home’.


In India ‘home’ was the ‘far-too-large-for-one’ ground floor of a huge house nestled amongst the coconut trees.  Did I really need two grand bedrooms with en-suite, two reception rooms and a kitchen large enough to accommodate a handful of staff…  But for all the abundance of space, it lacked suitable, cosy furniture or useful kitchen equipment to make life more comfortable.  The walls remained bare, shelves unadorned.  I made do.  And even then, when at the end of my first year the time came to move location, the floor was scattered with heaps of to-be-abandoned belongings.  India taught me to live frugally, not spend money on unnecessary things because they will not all fit in my suitcase at the end.

During my first year in China, ‘home’ was an apartment on the 10th floor of a modern block of flats: spacious, bright and airy.  More wardrobe space than I could fill!  A kitchen with cupboards, but no equipment… not even something to cook on or in.  I invested in a few bare essentials,  and inherited some along the way.   For a whole year, I managed with one plate, one bowl and four cups – four cups definitely not a luxury as each coffee or tea brew deserves a clean receptacle and life is too short to spend it at the sink doing the washing up….  Not much crockery you think, but still I bought more than most: why dish up food on a plate when you have a bowl or pot …  Dinner parties were strictly ‘bring your own plate and utensils if you do not want to eat with your hands out of the cooking vessel’.. and who needs a glass when you can use a cup or mug??  Does beer not taste better straight from the bottle or can??  I tried to jolly up the place with a few hats and candle holders from Ikea, but the flat never felt like home, just a place for temporary residence… I never intended to stay more than one year.

My second year in China spurred on a change of heart…  maybe there was some merit in making a house into a home, even if I would only be here for a short while.   It didn’t need to cost the earth either and some small purchases could go a long way.  Having moved into a shell of a flat, still being refurbished by a new homeowner/landlord, gave me a little scope: I just might be able to encourage her to add the right comforts and luxuries…  With a little patience, and lots of prodding via my agent, I extracted hot water for the kitchen – definitely not something you should take for granted in a modern Chinese kitchen.  Windows have now been fitted with mosquito screens so I can let in the breeze.  A small electrical heater appeared to fight a losing battle with the damp and cold permeating the flat…  Luckily I have a few months to work on more lasting and effective measures to keep the room temperature up before the start of the cold and damp Chinese winter…

Rather than waiting for the big teacher exodus at the end of June when all things useful and Western can be bought at rock bottom prices from expats parting with China for good, I paired down the essentials of homely living to an oven…  I cannot  profess to ever having been the greatest fan of cauliflower cheese, but there’s something comforting about the version of bubbly cheesy sauce oozing around tender-to-the-bite cauliflower topped with oven-crisped breadcrumbs..  Or proper crunchy pizza; not the floppy, soggy variety reheated in a microwave…  And an oven has the great versatility of toasting bread, baking bread, cakes, and scones; roasting potatoes and decent portions of chicken; grilled asparagus and salmon à la Jamie Oliver…  Living in an affluent city in the shadow of Shanghai means that although not all Western tastes and flavours are catered for, there is access to a reasonable supply of ingredients to ward off the worst of food-homesickness…

When putting nails and tacks in walls is strictly forbidden, lifting the spirits of white and grey surroundings required a bit more inventiveness.  A white, old and smelly cupboard could be transformed into a display cabinet with the help of a borrowed screwdriver to remove doors, and a lick of paint courtesy of B&Q (yes, B&Q!!) around the corner…  I was even able to select my own shade of baby blue, choosing from a colour palette to match Dulux’s own in the UK.  Family snapshots and favourite photographs from my travels printed out at school now smile back at me in cheap and cheerful photo frames from the local Ikea store.  Shawls bought in Thailand last summer add a splash of colour; blankets and cushion covers conceal the dreary brown of the sofa-cum-sofabed… And although I have no intention of stockpiling Chinese mementoes in the coming months, maybe I will just buy a few interesting knick-knacks and spruce up the room with fond memories of the exciting places I visit and friendly people I meet.

At least for the next 8 or 9 months, my apartment will feel a little bit like a home to me…

Playing at being ‘Jane in the Jungle’.


Finally, the time of procrastination is at an end…  Back in China, almost settled into my new apartment, and knees as operational as they will get: time to don the hiking boots and explore the great outdoors of Hangzhou and beyond!!

Over the past twelve months, I have been on a fair few trips in China, mainly with organisations that cater well for the expat community…  Cash-rich (relatively speaking) and time-poor, weekend trips are often the only option for us, with longer trips reserved for Chinese national holidays or the long summer break when everyone hankers after an opportunity to escape China’s pollution and insanity, as well as Hangzhou’s oppressive heat.

Recently, a new travel group has burst onto the scene, this time based in Hangzhou itself.  Capitalising on a gap in the market for low-cost trips for eager low-budget travellers such as students and English teachers, they offer day trips for the adventurous and hike-loving,  all within easy reach of Hangzhou…  give or take a few hours of sitting in a coach… So my last few weekends have been fairly action-packed on a quest for the hidden gems and thrills of Zhejiang Province.


Noodle Village

After an early start and a tedious drive battling with holiday traffic in China, we reached the ancient noodle village of Panzhoujia…  If we had expected to take part in the noodle making ceremony, we had arrived in the wrong season.  Tea leaf picking was the more urgent, and clearly more profitable business rather than entertaining hapless tourists with draping over-long noodles over the extended chain of arms…  Of course, we – all twenty of us –  had a little go and carefully stretched one noodle between us before having the pleasure – and it was a pleasure – of eating the famed noodle soup trying to fish out the meters-long noodles…

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The 3-D Village

Chinese people have a knack of spotting business opportunities where we might see none… Derelict and remote buildings nestled against a hillside would hardly attract our attention, but how better to entice the masses than by decorating walls with 3D paintings and calling it the ‘3D Village’…  And when a visit to this place coincides with the spring extravaganza of rapeseed flowers on the hillside terraces, you can be guaranteed of an influx of visitors and a healthy supply of traffic jams..

Authentic Hangzhou

Real adventure can definitely be found in and around Hangzhou with the Hash Harriers – the running/hiking group with a ‘drinking problem’.  Admittedly, I have so far stuck to hiking the trails rather than running, but a slower speed means more chance to take in the often spectacular scenery.  A recent night hike revealed Hangzhou’s West Lake in its nocturnal glory, a blaze of colour reflected in the water.  And of course,  there is more fun to be found off the beaten track, clambering over rocks and sliding down muddy slopes, experiencing some of the few remaining authentic nature areas that escaped a Chinese makeover…   Nothing beats a bit of a ‘Tarzan and Jane’ exploit!!


Tianmen Mountain challenge… walking the glass plank…

And then there was the challenge of the ‘Coiled Dragon Cliff Walkway’, built along the edges of Tianmen Mountain’s summits, clinging to the sheer vertical cliffs. Part of the cliff-hugging walkway had a makeover last summer and those who dare can now brave a walk over the 100m long tract of crystal clear glass looking all the way down to the bottom of the cliff… It is not for the faint-hearted and requires a bit of stamina as the walkway is only reached after climbing 999 steeps steps.  Not a mean feat on warmer days, but the views of the valley and the surrounding nineteen peaks are awesome and certainly worth the effort.  And the scary looking bridge suspended between two peaks???  Luckily, it looked more flimsy from a distance; it was clearly well-maintained and in good condition to make sure that visitors do not come to a sticky end…  At the end of the climb, we found a delightful little pool, fed by fresh water streaming downhill…  How could anyone resist the temptation of dipping their feet in???



The Great Brick Wall of China…


Michael, my agent, collected me from the airport.  As arranged.  With just a stopover of 90 minutes in Beijing, my suitcase was the first one to appear on the conveyor belt when I reached Hangzhou…

I only made my connecting flight by the skin of my teeth.  Wow, if I thought Heathrow was a large airport, or maybe Hong Kong, it was nothing compared with the scale of Beijing.  To transfer from the arrivals hall to the departure area within the same terminal, I was herded onto a train, which took an agonising fifteen minutes to reach its destination.   This was definitely not the bullet train variety travelling between Chinese cities… Of course, I needed to clear immigration and still run the gauntlet of another security check before boarding the flight to Hangzhou…

I headed for ‘Departures’ on the third floor, looking for the gate number…in vain.  In desperation, I accosted a security employee at his desk next to his computer – the only living soul in view – but his job description did not include  ‘helping stranded passengers finding the necessary information’.   Whilst the minutes were ticking away at breakneck speed, he advised me to check the board on the floor below.  Really, no board on the departures floor itself??? I rushed, I ran, I scaled the escalators…  I grabbed the first person crossing my path; she simply scanned my boarding pass and hey presto, the gate number appeared.  After a mad dash back to the third floor,  I finally reached the gate, the last person to board..  I must make a mental note for the future: allow more time for a transfer through Beijing, even if it bumps up the price of the ticket…

As my return to China had dragged on a bit, finding a new flat was a priority.  Michael had been ‘proactive’ the previous weekend and, after a brief flurry searching the web, sent me some adverts for what he considered suitable living space….  Suffice it to say that our ideas and tastes clearly clashed and I was certainly not going to spend the next twelve months holed up in a box, nor pay exorbitant prices for a lavish two-floor apartment.  Was there no middle ground?



Deciding to play it safe, I dispensed with Michael’s flat-hunting services and took Amanda with me.  Although Chinese, she is a sensible person with a clear understanding of Western standards of living accommodation… She is a woman after all…  In the end, we agreed on a perfectly sized ground floor flat, nestled in the middle of a quaint Chinese neighbourhood, but within walking distance of life’s necessities, such as Starbucks, McDonalds, CenturyMart (a rather posh, expensive Chinese supermarket chain) and of course, the school where I would be teaching…

There was just one little snag: the flat was clearly still a work in progress: a bathroom without doors, a bed without mattress, no furniture and no heating, and definitely no kitchen…  On the upside: freshly painted walls, brand new sanitary wear in good working order, a separate bedroom, a sofa bed in the living room and the generous offer of two televisions provided by the landlord.

Keen to be absolved of the cost of the hotels (paid for by the agent until suitable accommodation has been found),  Michael hastily arranged a meeting with the estate agent and the landlord for the next day.  He wanted to get the deal signed and sealed as soon as possible.  It did not worry him that he had not seen the property, as long as I was happy, he was happy…  During the two minute conversation we had, I tried to imprint on him that it may still be a few days before the flat was ready for me to move into and he may have to put me up in a hotel a little longer…  ‘OK.  I shall collect your suitcases from the hotel after work and bring them to the flat tonight,’ Michael reassured me.  ‘When Michael???  The flat is not yet ready…’ ‘Tonight, after six!’…

Two of Michael’s answers immediately send all alarm bells ringing: ‘OK’ and ‘I see…’   Both spell disaster as he either has not grasped the message at all (OK – ‘Hmmm, I will need to figure this out later’) or he has realised he does not have a clue about what he is required to do (‘I see’ – he doesn’t see it at all…).  Although he vehemently denies this, Michael is an agent ‘on the side’.  His day job keeps him busy during business hours, so he only has his evenings to deal with any urgent paperwork or other issues for the teacher(s) under his wing…  Needless to say, it explains a lot about all the delays with my visa and currently my residence permit.

I spent my first two nights back in a hotel in downtown Hangzhou, close to the centre, but some distance from my school.  Not very convenient, as my new job requires me to be at school for 8 am.  With the contract for my new flat to be signed in the evening, Michael insisted I checked out of the hotel.  ‘Michael, where will I stay tonight??  Do you have another hotel booked?  The flat is not ready for me to move into…Where do I leave my luggage?’ I urged him. ‘Don’t worry,’ was the the worrying reply. ‘It will be fine..  The hotel will look after your suitcases and I will pick them up tonight before we sign the contract…’ ‘And what shall I do when I finish at school..?  Wander the streets in the cold??’  ‘Go and have some coffee somewhere…Isn’t that what Westerners do??’

With nowhere to go at the end of the school day, one of my new colleagues took pity on me and I stayed in her flat until finally, a few hours later, Michael turned up and we set off to meet the home owner…  ‘Did you pick up my suitcases from the hotel?’ I pressed him… ‘Later,’ he shrugged off my remark. ‘Later, after we have signed the contract.  And then you can move into the flat.’  ‘Michael, I cannot move into the flat!!!  Did you speak to the owner about the mattress and the bathroom door??  I have nothing to cook with!! The heating does not work.  All my things, such as sheets, towels, are stored in YOUR flat…’  Michael insisted that the home owner had confirmed there was a mattress on the bed and the bathroom door had been fixed…  And what about sheets??  ‘No problem,’ he continued, ‘I will take you  shopping and you can buy sheets and towels.’  ‘No way, Michael.  I have sheets, I have towels.  If I have to move into the flat today, YOU will be paying for my shopping… It may be cheaper to find me a hotel for tonight!’

I was not privy to the Chinese wheeling and dealing that ensued during the signing of the contract, but any suggestion of negotiating on the monthly rental fell on deaf ears.  Being clever, I had  clinched ‘free accommodation’ as part of my package as this would save me forking out three months rent, another month’s rent as deposit and the agency fees in one lump sum in advance, plus my accommodation would be paid for in the summer.. .  But the flat was slightly over budget and I had agreed to pay some of my salary towards it.. so Michael did not feel HE would gain anything from achieving a rent reduction… and, as he confided afterwards, ‘Prices go up for foreigners…’   Maybe if he had not paraded me at the signing of the contract, the house owner would have been none the wiser…

By the time all the red fingerprints had been inked on the papers, it was nearing 9 o’clock and Michael was still adamant I should move into the apartment on that day.  ‘Let’s at least check out whether there is a mattress and then, if you  insist, YOU can buy me all the necessities such as sheets, a kettle.…  Why not get me a hotel room for tonight???’  Still jet-lagged, I was so not in the mood for camping without sleeping bag or airbed…

The estate agent handed us the keys and showed us to the house…Nothing had happened since my last viewing the day before…  There was no mattress, no curtains in the bedroom, nor a door for the ‘wet room’.  Paint and builders’ dust covered the floors.    At last seeing sense, Michael relented and reluctantly agreed we should collect my suitcases from the other side of town and look for a hotel nearer my school…  It was almost 10.00 pm.

After a quick dash into town to get my luggage, Michael started searching…  He had spotted a cheap establishment very close to my new apartment.  ‘You stay in the car,’ he said, ‘I shall go and see if they have a room available.’   He returned, tail between his legs… ‘Ah,’ he explained, ‘they are cheap, very cheap, so they don’t allow foreigners..’  We drove to the next hotel, just around the corner in a niche spot opposite the famed GongChenQiao Bridge.  ‘Far too expensive,’ Michael decided after looking at the special rates on offer online; he did not even venture inside.  We set off again, and Michael tried his luck a little further afield, but there was nothing to be found within his budget nor with rooms available…

Running out of options, we returned to the posh hotel.  It was past 11 pm and Michael had a day’s work at the office ahead of him and I needed to be in school by 8 am.  I unloaded my suitcases and accompanied Michael to the reception desk; I was here to stay whatever the cost.   The hotel had indeed rooms available, but this late at night, there was no hope of getting the discounted rate suggested by the internet.  And they certainly did not have any rooms at budget prices…  I have no idea how much Michael paid in the end, but he certainly turned a few shades paler on the mention of the figure.  By then I was beyond caring!!  I smiled and inwardly could not resist the thought, ‘Serves you right for leaving this till the last minute… You only have yourself to blame for not listening…’

My hotel room was wonderful, comfortable and luxurious…  and I only had a few hours to indulge.  I filled the bath to the brim and sat there enjoying the bubbles, leisurely topping up with soothing hot water… because undoubtedly, I would be moving into my new home the next day…   With three months’ rent in her pocket, the landlord would have no excuse not to at least put a mattress on the bed and curtains in the bedroom…


Breathing life into the heater…

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Which remote control will get the heating going?? New batteries maybe???

Good things come to those who wait and ….. hustle (part 2)


I set my alarm for the crack of dawn: 5.15 am.  My friend Liz had offered me a bed for the night and a lift to the airport.  Being a seasoned flyer, I had already checked in, so no need to turn up too early for my 7 am flight.  Life’s essentials for my short trip easily fitted in a small backpack and I did not even have to worry about taking little containers of shampoo, conditioner or toothpaste, which would be provided courtesy of my classy hotel in Brussels.  I breezed through security!!

The flight announcements looked promising:  we were scheduled to take off on time.  Unaware and unsuspecting, passengers were herded onto the plane and, once seated,  praised for their efficiency.  We were all ready and waiting for take-off 10 minutes ahead of time…   It was at this point that the captain chose to put us in the picture.  Fog in Brussels!!  Our landing slot had been pushed back and take-off delayed by about an hour…  Whilst we sat on the tarmac, waiting for clearer skies over Brussels,  my mind raced, ‘Would I still have enough time to make it to the Chinese Consulate before the 11.30 am deadline??’  The time difference between England and the continent meant we would now not land until nearer 10 am.   I could still get there before they closed for business, but I would have to dig deep and pay for a taxi..  The Chinese Consulate was not exactly in the city  centre and out of reach of the metro network, and the bus route from the airport was uncharted territory to me.  With only a small margin of error, too much of a risk ..  I queued for a taxi!

The taxi driver was familiar with my destination and whereas I immediately shadowed our progress on Google Maps, he followed his nose… straight into a traffic jam on the Brussels ring road…  I had seen the red stretch looming,  warning us of stationary vehicles.  I sighed.   Time ticked by as we crawled along.  Had he not checked the traffic flow before setting off in the direction? What about the back roads, maybe they were less clogged?? He apologised in English (lots can be forgiven from those who speak English…), ‘I know where this is, so did not need to look at Google maps…’   We made it with an hour to spare.  Plenty of time, I thought, I had all the necessary documents, I had scrutinised the internet..

The Consulate was not very busy, just a small huddle of people.  I went to the legalisation counter, confident of a quick and smooth process,  and presented  the legalised copy of my degree (legalised by the Belgian authorities), my original degree (just in case) and my passport plus a photocopy of my passport.  The girl – Chinese – at the counter checked the papers carefully. ‘I need to see your passport,’ she said.

I pointed to my passport and the photocopy in full view..  ‘No, this is a British passport.  Do you have a Belgian ID card or passport?  Are you a resident in this country?  I need proof of residency,’ she continued.  The Consulate could only legalise documents for Belgian citizens, it transpired…  I either had missed this bit on their website, or maybe it had been omitted in the information..  A grim consultation with her supervisor (in Chinese) only seemed to confirm the requirement..  There was definitely no way around it.

A resident in Belgium??  Not having lived in Belgium since the 80s, any claim on residency had well and truly missed the boat…  But I still had an old – duly expired – Belgian passport, which was sitting safely  in a folder in my daughter’s home in the UK.   Would they accept that if I could get a copy??

It took less than five minutes for my daughter to answer the phone in the UK, locate the passport amongst all my belongings, take a photograph and send it all the way to Brussels…  I showed it to the supervisor.  She nodded approvingly, but she expected a printed copy…  ‘And where can I get this printed?’ I enquired, looking at her computer and other digital media equipment in the office…  If I had hoped for sense, there was none…  ‘Go and find a printing shop,’ was the immediate reply.

Anger bubbled to the surface, but if I have learnt one thing in China, it is that anger does not get you anywhere.  Chinese people respond best if they are made to feel they are doing you a favour…  So I grovelled, I pleaded, I debased and humiliated myself… ‘I have come all the way from London this morning and have to go back tomorrow.  Please, please is there anything you can do to help me??’ I all but fell on my knees intently staring at the computer screen in front of the supervisor… Would she take the hint??

‘Ok,’ she finally relented.  ‘You can send it to me by email.  There is an email address at the back of the room.’  She waved vaguely in the direction of the wall behind the photocopier.  ‘And then you have to wait…’  I sent the email from my phone, and then did as I was bid…

I waited.  There were just three people still sitting in the room.  I waited some more.  Everyone had been seen to.  I still waited.  The supervisor looked busy, she moved some papers, she walked to the other side of the counter, she made some coffee, she polished her nails.  I waited… With ten minutes left to closing time, she eventually glanced in my direction and motioned me to come.  ‘Did you send me the email?’ she asked accusingly, ‘I cannot see it.  Which email address did you use?’  ‘The one you asked me to use… you know,  the only one at the back of the room…’  ‘I see.  That was not the correct one, but I shall have a look then…’   Really???   It took her all of a few seconds to locate the email and push the print button…  she passed the papers to the girl who was responsible for dealing with the legalisation applications…

With the legalisation application finally accepted, all that was left for me to do was explore a bit of Brussels before returning to the Chinese consulate the next day to collect my legalised degree..

It came as a bit of a shock the next day when there were no further hiccups.  After paying my dues – of course adding a sticker to the back of the certified copy of my degree does not come cheap – I took photographs of all the stamps and stickers and sent them immediately to the agent in China so he could carry on with sorting out the paperwork for my visa…


It was February 10th.  It took a further month to get my visa to return to China.  I finally picked up my passport in London on 13th March, and headed straight to Heathrow for my evening flight…