Monthly Archives: March 2016

Why do I always end up on the back of a bike?



Parking lot at Walmart…..

I suppose I am of the more adventurous type, happy to embrace all kinds of experiences, but being the pillion passenger on the back of a bike, especially a motorised one, is not exactly my favourite pastime.  And until recently I had managed to avoid it almost entirely, only recalling one distant event sometime in  my teenage years.  But in a world where most people can only dream of owning a car, other means of travel are a necessity, so it was inevitable that I would end up on the back of a bike at some stage during my travels, although it looks like it is becoming a bit of a habit.

It happened first  in India, in Kochi and Alleppey to be precise, where Indian men were incapable of using their legs to cover a trifling distance of a few hundred metres to show me where a cookery course was taking place, or to get me to the river for a kayaking morning.  I was hobbled and shaken  – over, in, and around potholes – and had to hold on for dear life.  And then there was Nepal where I was encouraged to make my body move in unison and hold on tightly, as it was safer and easier on the bike.  He may well have been speaking the truth, but it was just a tad too close for comfort for me…

So, only a few days after arriving in Hangzhou I found myself again the passenger on a bike,  an e-bike to be precise, one of those electric scooters that noiselessly and menacingly sneak up behind you.  They move en-masse, engulfing unexpecting cyclists and pedestrians, and only the brave would not jump aside.  But the winter fashion of protecting legs and hands with blanket-type, colourful wraps strapped on the handlebars?  Somehow I cannot imagine this fad to take Britain by storm…  But as John said after our little sojourn, ‘You are sitting at the back, I am the one getting the wind and the cold in the front’…

I bumped into John in the little supermarket around the corner, another white face in the sea of Chinese people.  We stand out and somehow this makes us gravitate towards each other.   John,  a fellow English teacher spawned from the depths of inner USA, has lived in China for a number of years already.  He is a man with expertise, someone who possesses invaluable information about the hows and whats and wheres of Chinese ex-pat living.  A fountain of knowledge not to be ignored…

Having been shown the existence and whereabouts of Walmart on our first day in the area – by the office junior driving a big red Mercedes (on her salary?????) – it was definitely a place to be explored, but on foot???  I do not mind the 30 minute walk there, but traipsing back laden with food and some of other life’s essentials sounded like hard work.  So stumbling across John was a blessing, a ‘god send’ as he introduced me to the possibility and pleasures of riding a bicycle in China.  Whereas in India, as a woman, any thoughts of mounting a bicycle evaporated on my arrival, China clearly offered options of cheap, affordable exercise in the open air.  And it doesn’t take rocket science to discover where London’s Boris Bikes found their inspiration.   Here I can use the bikes for free up to an hour as long as they are deposited in good time at one of the many bicycle docking stations dotted around the towns.  That is if you are in possession of the bicycle/metro/bus card or the Chinese Oyster card!!



On my first Friday afternoon,  when the weather was balmy and spring in the air, John offered to show me where to get the magical card.  We could take in some of the sights in the town, he mentioned, and Linping Hill definitely beckoned.   We had discussed walking, and at the time John had indeed intimated that he was a keen walker too.  So on Friday afternoon, I came prepared: suited and booted for some serious hiking.  We met at the front of the flat block where John was tinkering with his e-bike, not a walking boot in sight on any of his limbs…

‘Hop on,’ John urged.   ‘Seriously?’ I was thinking, ‘On this thing?’…    ‘What about walking?’ I piped up.   ‘Walking???  I was only joking,’ was his retort….  It was not so much the size of the bike that worried me, but the space reserved for the pillion passenger.  Once John had positioned his not unimpressive American posterior on the seat, there was hardly any room left for me.  Let it suffice to say that my manner of sitting on the back of that bike was far from ladylike and maybe I would have been wise to engage in a little yoga whilst in India to ensure flexibility and stretchability of my joints.  And I had no idea where I was supposed to put my legs, so in the end I left them dangling aimlessly just above the road surface, lifting them as required when we veered perilously close to a kerb.  Thank goodness for the protection afforded by my walking boots!!  And even if China’s roads are miles better than the Indian mud tracks, there were a million drain covers and other uneven surfaces to negotiate.  It might not have been too bad if the bike tyres had been fully inflated cushioning the assault on my lower body half.  ‘Oh,’ John smirked, ‘I forgot to mention about the bumps in the road…’  Glad someone was having fun…at my expense!!

But I did end up with my magical card after parting with 200 Rmb as a refundable deposit for the bikes…  and have been whizzing backwards and forwards to Walmart and other parts of the town for the last few weeks.  Cycling is definitely great fun!!!!!

And when I do not feel like cycling?  Or my shopping cannot be squeezed into the basket on the handlebars??  There is always the option of the little taxis, the Chinese version of the Indian Tuk-tuks… Only not quite as many occupants at one time allowed, it seems…

Hangzhou: picture-perfect.

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Hangzhou  is a pretty place, cradled in the hills near the touristy West Lake just outside Shanghai.  Quaint canals and waterways criss-cross the city, and on the outskirts the famed Wetlands offer an oasis of tranquillity for Hangzhou citizens and visitors.  Although the city itself is steeped in history, sprawling satellite towns accommodate the rising suburban population.  Sculptured and meticulously manicured parklands are dotted between high-rise flat blocks to afford outdoor spaces for walking, playing and exercise in the absence of domestic gardens.  And the scenery, flora and skylines are mirrored in splendour in the many watercourses, pools and ponds as a tribute to the architects of ancient and modern Hangzhou.

Hangzhou  is an affluent city, certainly by Chinese standards.   Although there are cyclists aplenty, the picture of swarms of blue-uniformed men on bicycles  gushing along crowded street is all but history.  Cars, big cars, have replaced the humble bicycle and fill the roads at rush hour and e-bikes (electrical scooters) are a much more common sight, less effort involved.   Short, tight mini-skirts and skin-squeezing imitation-leather trousers are de rigour, as well as built-in platforms or height-defying stilettos  which add gravitas, decorum and obviously stature.  At least as it is still winter, legs are covered with tights, but I have been led to believe that when summer arrives the skirts will not be any longer…  What a difference with India where I would have been stared at just for daring to bare my shoulders, let alone a bit of leg…

It’s hard to believe that I have been in Hangzhou now exactly one month.  Time has flown and it feels as if I have been here forever.  Apart from the inevitable language barrier, lack of anything worthwhile on the television and maybe some of the parts of town where typical Chinese architecture has been preserved or imitated, Hangzhou would fit well into any Western corner of the world.  It is easy living, apart from the teaching perhaps…..


Downtown Hangzhou






And the photographs below were taken at the Hangzhou Wetlands, which I visited last Sunday whilst in good company.  It looks like I have already found myself another ‘Doctor Anne’ to travel with at weekends…  and she is even Indian to boot…  Maybe it is not that easy to shake off India after all; I may have grumbled and complained, but I  will always have a soft spot for them.

Hangzhou Wetlands









And lunch???  Well, we ordered from the menu and made sure it had some chicken in it, but were not quite expecting to be presented with a whole chicken, head intact….


‘Don’t be hot, isn’t it.’ and other Chinese food.



‘Don’t be hot, isn’t it.’  I stared at the mobile phone screen of Helpful Chinese Man, plumbing the depths of my memory to find any recollection of the last time anyone told me not to look or be hot…  I suppose I should be flattered at my age!!

I was standing at the counter of a Chinese restaurant, starving and unable to get through to the woman behind the desk.  She was in no mood to even try to comprehend my body language, no matter how often I pointed at the menu or in the direction of the steaming food on nearby tables!!  Any of those dishes would have done the job.

In desperation and in the absence of pictures, I just picked out a line on the menu, hoping it wasn’t anything too unpalatable for my Western palate.  She seemed flummoxed and spewed out reams of unintelligible (to me) language in response.  I resorted to my translation app;  this did not have the desired effect either and my attempts to draw the Chinese symbols were aborted as it took far too long.  So the chef was called for in the hope he could make sense of my request, or be able to describe the ingredients of said dish.  No progress!!

And just as I was about to admit defeat and go home hungry, Helpful Chinese Man appeared.  Not that his English was any better, but he knew the word chicken, so I was on the edible track.  Hooray!!   Woman Behind The Counter, Helpful Chinese Man and Chef put their heads together to extract further details about my needs.  ‘Did I like spicy food’ translated as ‘don’t be hot, isn’t it’ on Helpful Chinese Man’s translation app and Woman Behind The Counter had merely been trying to establish whether I wanted food to take away or eat in…  I was eventually shown a table and my food arrived: fleshless chicken doused in garlic and green sprigs, enough to feed me and the rest of Hangzhou… that is if you like garlic.

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Up till then, I had been reasonably successful in ordering food in China.  My first lunch consisted of what looked like pork kebab, heavenly spiced, mixed with a few salad leaves and packed in a wrap.  My subsequent independent foray resulted in a vegetarian heap of egg and tomatoes for lunch, served with a huge helping of mifan (cooked rice)… and then there was the garlicky chicken.  But I admit that most of my adventures with Chinese food initially happened under the skilful and beady eyes of Klaus and Eddie from the office, who liked to take it upon themselves to entertain the foreign teachers and introduced us to delicacies such as frog.  I tried it and admittedly it could have been worse: melt-in-the-mouth chicken texture liberally coated with soya sauce…

But these days I enjoy lunches and dinners at the school and although I am sure that in due course I will get thoroughly fed up with the monotony of school food, for now it is a great way not to spend money!!  And at least there normally is plenty of green stuff on the plates….

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But not all the food is to my liking.  A big container full of bony looking stuff was on closer inspection filled with duck heads and beaks – I did indeed put one on my plate to take a picture but had no intention of eating it.  But rather than enjoying my lunch that day, looking at the doleful sight in front of me, put me right off my food.

I love duck but I think I prefer my duck meat neatly shredded, smothered in plum sauce, garnished with strips of spring onion and cucumber and delicately wrapped in paper thin pancakes:  Peking Duck.  I had it for lunch last weekend, as Walmart sells pre-packed kits; they certainly know how to entice the foreigners to keep spending money in their shops….

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Freezing in Hangzhou…


I had been warned that winters in and around Shanghai would be cold, very cold… but somehow the low temperatures on my arrival came as a bitter shock.  Triple layers needed to brave the outdoors!!!  T-shirt, jumper, warm jacket and scarf were not a luxury, and if I had had the foresight of bringing thermal underwear, gloves and a woolly hat, they would definitely have had an outing.  What a difference to the balmy, tropical vibes of Kerala!  But on the upside, we are nearing the end of the winter and soon spring should be in the air.

On  Sunday, we (me and my fellow English teachers) decided to explore the town of Hangzhou on our own and where better to start than with the famed West Lake, declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2011, and which over the centuries inspired many other garden designs in China, as well as Japan and Korea.  Still footsore from my walking expedition the previous day, and battling with the swarm of local visitors to the area, we limited our sight-seeing to only a small part of the lake,  probably not the most picturesque one yet.. but it certainly gave us a flavour of how the Chinese like to spend their Sunday afternoons.



Historical and pretty buildings have clearly not escaped the notice of Western predatory companies such as Costa Coffee (at least it wasn’t Starbucks), its famous logo a blemish on the ancient structures…but then the Chinese have got quite a penchant for all things Western…

It was one of those grey days, wind rearing and burning our faces, the only colour  in the landscape added by the brighter hues of people’s clothing, bikes, handbags or kites.

And then we found the first signs of Spring, pink cherry blossoms to match the tattoo on my foot.  And Chinese visitors relishing in the opportunities of taking countless selfies between the trees…  So I followed their example!!





Urgent Crash Course in Mandarin Required.


The Chinese do NOT speak English.  I suppose this should not have come as a surprise since the demand for English teachers in China easily outstrips the demands of other countries.   Maybe I was lulled into a false sense of security after effortlessly negotiating the hurdles of my lack of knowledge of Malayalam in Kerala; there was always someone in the vicinity whose English vocabulary just about stretched far enough to overcome the language barrier.  Not so in China as I found out on my second day in the country…

An afternoon hike on a hill overlooking the town started off pleasantly enough.  There were six of us (mostly recently arrived teachers), chaperoned by Eddie and Klaus, two guys from the office who had taken it upon themselves to familiarise the newcomers with the highlights of Hangzhou.  We strolled along the manicured lanes and walkways chiselled in the side of the hill to make the climb easier and the experience more palatable for the Chinese weekend amblers.  Personally, I was expecting something a little more strenuous from a hike up a hill, and whereas everyone was huffing and puffing like the three little pigs (especially the younger ones), I kept ahead of the rest, not a bit out of breath!

The sights were indeed amazing:  views over the famous West Lake, the Hangzhou skyline dissolving in the mist, the rocky outcrop at the summit a picture perfect location for a wedding shoot,  the ancient Boachu pagoda towering over the treetops.

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It was somewhere at this point that things started going distinctly wrong.  All being adults we had not thought it necessary to exchange contact numbers; surely we were not going to go off in all directions like little, unruly kids…  But I lingered just a little longer than expected to take more photographs than the rest so that by the time I ended up at the famous Pagoda, there was no one else in sight. Was I ahead of the group, or had I fallen behind?  I hung around just for a while, but as dusk was hinting its presence and the moon began to glow more brightly against the darkening sky, I felt it prudent to venture to the exit in the hope that I would meet the others there.   But which exit indeed?  Not an English word in sight, it looked all Chinese to me… Not sure which way to head, I took the most obvious and easiest route: straight down, of course after checking with a friendly Chinese couple that I would indeed end up at an exit.

Where was I staying, they enquired.  Unfortunately, the name of my hotel sounded gobbledegook to them, even though I pronounced it as it was spelled in English…  ‘Hanting?  Hanting…’ Helpful Chinese Man With Little English mused.   I duly showed him the spelling on my phone, which did not seem to shed any more light on the matter…  He sent his wife off  to a nearby store in search of a Chinaman Who Knew A Little More English.  In no time at all, she rushed back, gleefully shouting ‘Ghanting!!’  Well, how was I supposed to know that the ‘h’ had acquired a guttural sound!!

Did I have the address of the hotel, Helpful Chinese Man With Little English prompted.  I really did not want them to go out of their way, they had been very kind so far,  and said I was happy for them to show me the way to the metro.  From there I could work out where I was staying;  I had used the metro the night before and vaguely remembered the name of the station.  After some insisting, I recalled that P in the London Office had indeed sent me the address of the hotel.   Helpful Chinese Man With Little English studied my phone intently, making head nor tail of the English letters, nor understanding the address when I read it out.  But Wulin Road rang a bell.  So when we crossed Wulin Road on our way to the metro,  Helpful Chinese Man With Little English decided to accompany me to the hotel, which should have been quite close…  But walking down the road, I sensed something was amiss… This did not look like the road of my hotel.  This road was busy, flash with expensive shops and unlike the drab, dreary, grey road where us poor teachers stayed in cheap hotels… And indeed, when we reached the hotel, it was the wrong one.  Same chain, but different location…  Let’s face it, I was picked up at the airport and only needed an address to put on my landing card.  So did it really matter that P in the London Office had given me the wrong address???  So there I was in the midst of Hangzhou, without the address of my hotel, no contact phone numbers, and when I finally hit a WiFi spot, the only person I could reach, did not answer her phone…

Helpful Chinese Man With Little English dutifully accompanied me all the way to the metro, another mile or so, with wife and daughter in tow.  He kept on reassuring me that they were going in that direction anyway, and also needed the metro.  But when I finally arrived and bought my ticket after counting the number of stops (I was convinced the number seven played some part in my return on the metro the night before), I did not see them get their tickets, nor board a train…

I made it back in one piece and the first thing I did in the hotel was grab one of their cards, with the address on it IN CHINESE….  And the flat I live in now???  I have taken a photograph of the front of the building with the name both in English and Chinese.  I learnt my lesson and do not fancy a repeat experience.  I shall persevere with learning some USEFUL Chinese words and steadily add to my Chinese business card collection!!  Some lessons are learnt the hard way….