Category Archives: Hangzhou

No escaping China’s clutches…

I may well have finished with China last summer, but it appears China has far from finished with me…  Am I famous, or is it more a case of infamy???

Only just about two weeks ago, a friend in Hangzhou sent me a copy of a newspaper article…


‘Look,’ my friend L. exclaimed, ‘your name is in the newspapers in China!!’

‘Hmmm,’ I replied.  ‘It may well be my name… but it’s clearly your mugshot and your husband’s….’

‘Don’t you fret…  Your mugshot is there!! On that wall…  We’re looking at it.  Just check it out in the left-hand corner..,’ she carried on.  Or did she mean right-hand corner?  The photographs are far too small and far too grainy for me to recognise my own self in them…

Not exactly thinking rationally at the time, and being in the grip of a definite black period in my life, panic ensued at seeing my name – LIEVE LEE – plastered in several places across the paper.  And did I  spot the unmistakable word ‘FAMILY’ in capital letters?  Somehow the only logical connection I could see was to my rather unorthodox exit from China.  I certainly could not recall any grand achievements that would have warranted the attention of the media.  Maybe my agent was pursuing me after all!!  Or maybe the Chinese mafia were trying to get at me via my family in the UK…  What had I been thinking in the summer?  That escaping the past unscathed would just be a plane ride away?  Although granted, a wanted poster usually features the ‘wanted’ person, and not a handful of  nosy loawai staring at some photographs pinned up on a wall…

Calamity Jane

‘On the upside,’ a colleague in Vietnam remarked after studying the photograph, ‘there is no mention of a telephone number to get in touch with the police if anyone was to know your whereabouts and decided to report it.’  But was I really sure??  Do the Chinese use the Arabic numerals or do they have their own unintelligible (to the uninitiated…) characters??  I rued my careless decision not to at least acquire a rudimentary grasp of the Chinese language.  Isn’t counting to ten one of the most basic things we learn in any new language???

The problem was that neither my friend L., nor I, learned a single iota of Mandarin during our stay in China.  So how to get a translation and from whom?  A real Catch-22…  Who to trust?  Would they be friend or foe if indeed the article was less than complementary about my exploits on Chinese soil?  Until I could ascertain the content of the article, it was tricky to decide who would be the most appropriate person to approach to translate it…

After a day or two of some head scratching and digging deep into my list of loyal expats in China, I remembered J from the UK…  A man with a bone to pick with his own agent and well aware of the reasons of my sudden departure from China AND with sound contacts whose command of the Chinese language was undisputed.  I sent him the photograph of the newspaper article and was keeping my fingers crossed.

As expected, a man of his word, he put out some feelers and got the gist of the article to me in no time.  Far from me being added to a blacklist or wanted list, it was all a whole lot more innocent.  The article merely related how J, a Taiwanese friend in Hangzhou, came to the rescue when I needed a lift back home from the hospital after my knee surgery…  Funnily enough, whereas my guardian angel at the time was only referred to as an Australian (???) Chinese member of the ‘family’ – the community where I lived – the journalist clearly deemed it entirely appropriate to add my name in full, just to make sure there was no misunderstanding…  Still, it felt good to have the mystery solved.  I could breathe a sigh of relief; I was not ‘wanted’ after all…

No sooner was the issue laid to rest, than more evidence came to light of my lasting impact on China.  A photograph featuring yours truly is being used by a small Hangzhou-based travel company to promote exciting and adventure packed day and weekend trips in and around the area… Although I am of course flattered, I cannot shift the feeling that, as I was on most trips organized by them between last March and last August, they may have struggled to find any suitable photographs that did not star me…


Personally??  I would have gone for the photograph below.  I much prefer the incognito look. Wanted.  Dead or Alive.



A Factory of Lies in the Name of Saving Face.

Gaining and Losing Face in China

Rain was pelting down, angry rivulets screaming down the windscreen.  I sighed, nervously, as heavy rains would inevitably delay my flight.  The taxi had been punctual, organised by one of only a handful of people in China I could really trust.  Still, I had not been entirely honest with her either, only divulging I was taking a trip to Hong Kong, omitting that it would be a one-way flight.  No return. It was better if she was not implicated.  Questions would be asked, and at least this way, she could reply with honesty.  She was not to know until later, and even then I would not tell her my actual destination.

It was so strange leaving China.  You are meant to feel emotional, engulfed by a certain sadness, clinging on to make these final lasting memories.  But there was nothing, just emptiness and overwhelming numbness.  The relief I had been expecting had not materialised, not then anyway.  And there was no regret in saying goodbye to friends; those that mattered I would see again in the different countries we call ‘home’.  In this shrunken world we live in, everyone is only a few flights away, and Skype or Face-time connect us in the meantime.  China is just a phase, a rite of passage for the band of English-as-foreign-language teachers.  One home in a string of many, but never intended to become permanent.   My departure from China was just the end of one chapter, and not the best one.  Not one I felt the need to reread..  Not then anyway, maybe later when the dust had settled and I could look back and add it the list of ‘experiences’.

At the airport I tried to subdue my anxiety.  Not about flying, I am pretty much a pro by now.  But my exit from China did not happen as planned and I would not be able to relax until the plane was in the air and I had left Chinese soil and airspace.  And although I had nothing to reproach myself about, a door had been closed, possibly forever.  I had spent my last few days and hours carefully dodging my agent, arranging a visa for Vietnam, whilst hastily disposing of my meagre belongings.  Within the small local  community of expats an oven, a portable induction cooker and even a handy airing rack were prized possessions and my ex-colleagues descended on my flat like vultures on a corpse, picking over the scraps.

My return to China in March 2017 had been fraught with problems.  My agent’s incompetence had not only prevented my timely arrival back in Hangzhou, it further marred the next few weeks as he seemed clueless about how to secure my residence permit.   A simple procedure that takes just a couple of days if you know what to do.  Instead of gathering the forms and papers himself, he eventually offloaded the task onto the school I was working for…  In good Chinese fashion, he was happy to take the money and let others do the work…  To add insult to injury, my agent had also negotiated a separate deal with the school to increase the fee paid to him because I was a properly qualified teacher…  Not that any of the additional money ever saw my pocket…  All in all, just like I was not exactly in awe of my agent’s performance, the school were equally unimpressed with him.  He was already skating on thin ice as he had previously introduced a string of totally unsuitable teachers, so the school were keen to cut ties with him at the end of the school year.  However, as my contract was with the agent and not the school, as often is the case in China, this meant I would not be able to continue teaching at that school.

Of course, I was not privy to the conversation that took place between the school’s principal and my agent and I can only surmise what happened from the snippets that reached me, and from my Chinese friend’s interpretation…  ‘You have done nothing wrong,’ she translated the events, ‘They just want to get rid of the agent, and are using any excuse to justify this…’  Apparently, I failed at team work… a flippant remark made by the 24-year old British ‘academic manager’ of the school, who was catapulted into the Chinese labour force straight from uni, ready to teach English, with not a clue about real teaching nor about a Western style workplace where discussion and exchange of ideas are welcomed…  Not so in China!!  Having arrived at the school in the middle of the school year, it only seemed normal to me that any professional teacher would ask questions about the how and what of the curriculum and teaching methods, if only to ensure continuity for the students.  Not so in China!!!  Questions are taboo; it was not a wise move on my part…

‘Michael (my agent) refused to accept what we were saying,’ one person in the know at school confided.  ‘Well, schools can only employ teachers directly after they have completed a full year with their agent,’ Michael stubbornly insisted.  Maybe the school indeed wanted to employ me directly in September, but refused to pay Michael’s price for buying me out…  And there will have been a price, I can assure you, a hefty one… I still had another seven months left on my contract with him.  Throughout August employment offers from the school, in various guises, blipped up on my WeChat.  Maybe I would be interested to be the school’s substitute teacher, filling in when other teachers were not available…  Or how about just coming back for one month in September and then they would rekindle the negotiations with my agent to release me from my contract…?  But without a real guarantee of a secure job and freedom from the agent, I would have been foolish to oblige.   At the end of the day, the school were equally culpable and never substantiated my ‘shortcomings’, as honesty would have meant someone would ‘lose face’ and that would never happen…  I was the fall guy, no chance of clearing my name.

In his infinite wisdom, Michael forgot to inform me of the bad tidings (his ‘company’ losing the contract with the school) until a full three weeks later, the end of July .  And instead of being proactive in securing me an alternative job before schools closed for the holidays, he waited and waited in the expectation that I would be able to persuade my school to change their mind…  Once back from my trip to Japan, it took me a mere two days to have two firm job offers in hand: one in China and one in Vietnam…  The Chinese one was by far the more lucrative, but in the end I had no option but the turn it down.  No way was I prepared to pay Michael US$ 3000 to buy my way out of my contract when the only reason I could not return to the school was down to his conduct, and not mine…  Believe me, I tried.  I was willing to pay him US$1000 – I would have earned it back within the first month, but the $3000 he insisted on???  ‘You don’t owe him anything,’ my Chinese friend (who is in the business of placing English teachers with schools) assured me.  ‘He breached the contract, not you..  He lost the contract with the school, and that puts him in breach..’  I had read the small print in the contract before signing, but never in a million years had I thought that a breach clause, or series of clauses, would ever apply to me…

I accepted the position in Vietnam, delaying my arrival until September to first make full use of the summer break and enjoy my planned trip to Malaysia.  And so I set in motion the train of deception as I could not afford for anyone in China to become suspicious… I took days to reply to my agent’s messages and postponed meetings until the end of the summer vacation under the pretence that as I was too busy; it was my holiday after all.  I point blank refused to put myself through a series of unpaid demo lessons when I had already two job offers in the bag, just on the basis of an interview… And I certainly would not entertain the idea of jobs outside of Hangzhou…

I finally left China at the end of August.  Ultimately, it was easier for me to just pack my bags and quietly leave the country, not to return.  I know I could have fought it, and involved a lawyer…  As I found out in August, many clauses in my contract did not comply with Chinese labour law, making it a worthless piece of paper and invalid in a court.  My agent had breached the contract long before I did, as he did not pay me for the days I worked in July… but by then I had had it with China and the lies for the sake of ‘saving face’..   I firmly closed the door of my apartment one last time, leaving the key in a secure place for the agent.  I would wait until I had reached Hong Kong before sending him a message; I did not want to be in China when he unleashed his fury.

Would the agent really have had the power to prevent me leaving China?  He certainly could not make good on his threat of cancelling my residence permit: he did not have my passport.   Would Chinese immigration officers really have detained me at the airport until I paid up the US$3000??   Would the agent really have added  me to the blacklist so I can never again obtain a work visa for China, or maybe not even enter China on a tourist visa?? The rumour mill is rife with scaremongering and speculation and I really did not have the stomach for the legal wrangling that would have ensued.   Tired of arguing what seemed like a lost cause, I did not want to wait to find out.  It was time to leave the Chinese adventure behind, it had run its course and I was thoroughly unimpressed…

Sitting in the lounge at Hong Kong airport, safe from the threats of my agents and the tentacles of Chinese authority, I dispatched my messages and waited to board my onward flight.  But just as the morning downpour in Hangzhou had thwarted a speedy exit from the country, an impending typhoon affected flights in Hong Kong.  An aborted landing attempt on arrival and a three hour delay for take-off later, I was finally on my way to Hanoi.

Vietnam, a new country, a new chapter…

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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???



China’s north-south divide of haves and have-nots.

Ever wondered why the children in my classroom wear coats inside when I am teaching??  I did when I first saw photographs and videos taken in Chinese classrooms… This was before I learnt about the Chinese north-south divide of haves and have-nots.

A mention of the north-south divide immediately brings to mind the line that separates the more wealthy from the less wealthy, or the economically developed countries from the less developed areas of the world, the haves from the have-nots.  In China, however, the north-south divide of haves and have-nots takes on a completely different meaning, especially in winter.   It is the great dividing line of being warm or cold in the months when temperatures dip to uncomfortable levels…  And Shanghai and Hangzhou are just on the wrong side of it…


About sixty years ago, in the time of the Great Leader, a plan was hatched to provide Chinese citizens with free central heating in homes and offices and centralised systems were installed in residential areas, with the assistance from the Soviet Union.  Laudable you may say, and so it would have been if the offer had embraced the whole of the country.   But at those years, China was facing extreme energy shortages and the then Premier, Zhou Enlai, suggested the Qin-Huai line, a well-known geographical demarcation between north and south, as a cut-off point.  Buildings to the north would be provided with free or heavily subsidized central heating for four months each winter; buildings to the south would have no heating facilities whatsoever…  Rather unfortunate for those living below the line, even by just a mile….

I had been told by other Westerners that the cold in Shanghai and Hangzhou is different. Not that anyone could explain why.    Although freezing temperatures are not unheard of, the mercury seldom dips below zero and hovers somewhere between the low single digits and just above ten…  Like a British winter, basically.  But whereas in Britain we move from one nicely warmed room to another toasty area, here the only way to stay warm is to keep moving, moving from one icy place to another even icier place… There is no escape from the clammy penetrating cold sweeping in from the sea.  It flood your entire body and soul right down to the core..

So how to endure a winter here?  People are resourceful and adapt.  Instead of just wrapping up warmly to venture outside into the cold, people wrap up even warmer when entering their arctic homes.  Shoes and trainers are replaced with fur-lined boots and Chinese people wallow all day long in thickly padded pyjamas that make normal movement impossible…  And with an extra coat on top.  And yes, in school windows are thrown wide open to allow the more temperate outside air to circulate and ‘warm up’ the classrooms.  My days at school are spent in a state of permafrost…


Living in winter pyjamas


And then wearing long underwear underneath the pyjamas

In the meantime, I bought an extra woolly hat and special leggings and tights with fur on the inside.  Deliciously warm!!!

Luckily, China’s recent economic advancement has allowed for some improvement and newer apartments below the line of haves and have-nots now come with an air-conditioning-cum-heater units.  They are electrical, not very efficient and expensive to run, but at least they take away some of the chill.  For instance, my apartment has one located just next to the huge window, fighting off the biting cold permeating the double glazing.  But whilst the area around my window and bed easily reaches a sultry 25 degrees, the heat does not travel well and never extends to the bathroom at the other end.  Getting out of bed can be a trial and a frosty toilet seat is not exactly inviting; showers have to be kept short (not a lot of hot water in the small tank) and can only be started once the cubicle is misted up with hot steam.  I have been tempted to supplement my heating with a small electrical oil radiator; it’s all the rage… and probably more effective than the huge unit on the wall.  But with China trying to curb its greenhouse gases, maybe adding to them by generating the luxury of heat may well be frowned upon…


Last winter, us foreign teachers were chastised for putting on the blow heater in our small office.  Why did we not put on our coats, like the rest of the teachers and students???  It was an alien notion to us then and at the point no one had explained the big divide which meant that heating was a luxury only to be enjoyed on very special occasions, such as a whole week of deep frost…


I certainly no longer make fun of e-bikes fashioned with little blankets at the front to shield hands and body from the icy winds…You would do anything to keep warm…

Maybe  the solution is moving several thousands of miles to the south of the big dividing line…  Hmmm, and I have just signed up for another year in China, in Hangzhou…  I better invest in some more and warmer winter gear.


(drawings by Anna Z. and found on her blog post:

G20 Jitters in Hangzhou


May 13th, Xixi Wetland in Hangzhou.

It’s been the buzz word since my very arrival in Hangzhou: G20, the meeting of the world’s financial big wigs discussing how to improve global financial stability and other important issues.  For months billboards announcing the prestigious event  have been cluttering every corner of the city, the airport, the metro and even the Xixi wetland park, so it’s hard to miss China’s and Hangzhou’s pride in hosting such an auspicious gathering.  And this being China, no stone is left unturned, no ID left unchecked, no tree left to wither and no factory left to pollute the air to ensure that when the world’s eyes are zoomed in on Hangzhou and China, everything will run smoothly, as clockwork, and the world will be greeted by an aura of perfection as no other country can achieve.


More G20 … Hangzhou airport…

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G20 adverts on the Hangzhou metro..

Buildings shrouded for months by scaffolding and unsightly boards have been uncovered; Wulin Square has indeed become a square again.  And across the canal overlooking the Binjiang district, where the dignitaries will congregate,  an impressive new skyline has been drawn as opulent hotels and stylish flat- and office blocks have mushroomed in the vicinity to take full advantage of the expected influx of visitors, new businesses and residents in the wake of the event.   Hangzhou will present a pretty face, a delightful façade and the world will revel in China’s accomplishments.





With the responsibility of organising such an international get-together of the world’s most influential and highly regarded politicians comes the responsibility of keeping everyone safe.. and security in and around Hangzhou will be watertight, as expected.  But whereas in Western countries residents in afflicted areas would be given plenty of notice of what lies in wait, not so in China.  Reliable and official information has been sketchy, leaving plenty of room for speculation…

Wild rumours started circulating  as early as May when one agency advised its teachers that no foreigners would be allowed to enter Hangzhou between 15th August and 12th September…  Leaving between those dates would be at our own peril, with no entry back into Hangzhou guaranteed.  There would be no exceptions… Hello, what about schools starting on 1st September??  Although this measure was later (read: sometime in mid July..) clarified to only apply to groups of tourists visiting the area, teachers were engulfed in a flurry of uncertainty about how to deal with the impending holiday break.

J. decided to escape Hangzhou and China altogether during the summit period, booking himself an extended return to the homeland.  ‘Do you really want to be around here, with all the additional security??  Having to conjure up your passport at the drop of a hat? Maybe tanks on every street corner…’  He is lucky, his school does not start until after the October National Holiday week, so no rush for him to be back.  Canadian A. opted for caution and squeezed all her planned trips – Bali and the Philippines – into the first weeks of the summer and would definitely return before the curfew date.    I implored my own agency to shed some light on the matter and maybe see if some trustworthy information could be garnered from the authorities.  But after several weeks of being promised an ‘official notice from the general manager’ regarding the arrangements for the G20, I was still none the wiser… Would they really shut down the whole city for a whole month, grounding planes and stopping trains whilst I was perfectly able to purchase flights in and out of Hangzhou throughout August and there appeared to be no restrictions on the sale of train tickets ??  Tighter security, yes, understandable… but total lockdown???

My agency remained on the sideline, advising on my ‘return to teaching duties’-date according to  the whims of the school and the requirements of the authorities.   Whereas in mid June, I was told all schools in Hangzhou, including mine, would not reopen until at least 7th September and I saw my holiday period luxuriously expanded,  the powers at my school stubbornly insisted throughout July on a starting date for teachers of 25th August with the intention of being ready for teaching on 1st September…  So, maybe it would be in my interest to be around in Hangzhou from 25th August, just In case the school required my attendance, the agency recommended.

I obediently planned my summer with this date in mind. Well, give or take a few days…  Surely a return late on Friday 26th August, just before the weekend rest, counted as being back around the 25th… and after all, we would not be paid for our days of work in August.   However, after touching tarmac in the UK on 28th July and with my return flights to China booked (via a relaxing holiday in Thailand starting very soon), I finally got the official word via the global tentacles of WeChat: school will resume on 8th September.  I am gutted, I could have had an extra week on the beach in Thailand… or will it still be possible to change my travel date…???

Now it may strike you as rather unkind of the school to make such an important decision at the eleventh hour, but I suspect they had little choice in the matter.  In an effort to keep Hangzhou  pollution and people free around the beginning of September, local officials have declared a week-long public holiday to coincide with the G20 summit.  Offices, factories and schools (?) have ‘given’ their staff extra time off, ex-pat forums whispered.  Reportedly, Hangzhou residents – Chinese ones anyway – have received generous incentives to leave town, such as free and discounted tickets to tourist destinations further afield in the province, in an operation aptly named ‘Zhejiang Tourism Carnival’. What is there not to enjoy about the G20…

When Maggie, a Chinese friend, was asked a little while ago whether she was excited about Hangzhou hosting the G20, she looked blankly.  ‘G20??? What is the G20 actually all about??’…

And just in case the blue skies should fail outside, one 5* hotel has not left anything to chance..DSCN2271

Dividing the Spoils.


Hangzhou is bleeding, haemorrhaging profusely to be exact.  Running dry of teachers..  Some are leaving for good, others take a break during the summer, going home or  travelling to the beaches of neighbouring countries where living is cheaper and the sunshine more abundant.

This is not a new occurrence, it happens about every six months at the end of yet another semester.  Teachers whose contracts have finished leave in droves, driven to the end of their tether by the trials and tribulations of teaching in China…  Often this has more to do with how the agencies treat us, rather than the schools..  But it isn’t Western teaching and after a while, most want to get back to the familiar or move on to another yet unexplored territory and a new exciting adventure.  The world is big, English is a powerful language and native English teachers are in great demand.  The world is our oyster, so why stick to China..

So remember the flat I moved into… about a lifetime ago.  Empty, devoid of everything bar a bed, a huge sofa and a coffee table.  No utensils, no plates, nothing to cook with, not even a chopstick in sight.  Slowly over the last four months my cupboards have become less bare as I bought a second plate to eat from  (you never know when a visitor may call) and a bigger bowl for noodle soup.  I now have two sets of sheets and duvet covers and even an oven next to the one-ring electric stove.  I have savoured Stephanie’s (local bakery and coffee shop) homemade yoghurt and indulged in the luxury of Nescafe Gold as the containers make perfect little vessels for spices, tea, coffee and a multitude of pulses and nuts.  I have bought a Chinese tea set – not only useful but also decorative – to spruce up the joint and to have delicate jasmine tea sipping from dainty Chinese cups.  But I have stuck to essentials, and believe you me, you don’t need all that much to get by.

But with the great exodus have come great opportunities, depending upon the ties and friendships forged in the short period teachers have been around.  As hard-earned money is spent to accumulate a few meagre possessions, can you blame anyone for ensuring that those find a worthwhile and deserving home??  The luggage allowance on the aeroplane does not increase an iota on the home leg, so all those chattels that caught our interest  will not find space in our suitcases.  And I know that the sensible thing would be to leave the cupboards stocked for the next incumbent, but what about all those fellow teacher charity cases?  Irons and ironing boards change hands, electric mixers and small ovens move across the city, blenders, toasters, pots and pans are in great demand.  Cushions anyone?  Or what about a double duvet with cover??  You sell what you can, and the rest goes to charity, the teaching community charity who are grateful for all the little bits that come their way.

So in the grand disposal of possessions I bought an electric blender at a snippet of its real price to concoct  velvety smooth soups and pasta sauces; the whisk attachment a bonus to create lump-free pancake batter.  I gained some mixing bowls and storage jars, rice and spaghetti included.  I am the proud owner of exotic herbs such as dried rosemary and oregano and I inherited some ‘imitation vanilla essence’.  My pot and pan drawer overflowing meant I could discard warped and burnt pans to make room for the better specimens.   I now have a double duvet, with duvet cover,  big enough to hug two (you never know…) and to huddle myself in during the winter months or just when the AC cools the flat down too much…  And the one and only wine glass I now possess serves as a beer glass too, so no longer alcohol from a cup or can in my home!!


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I know there is still room for more, and lots of space to be filled…and if I decide not to move on in January 2017, but to remain in China a little longer, I will take part in another round of accepting discards and things unwanted…  And I will have more time to make more friends who will benefit when I eventually leave and need to find a home for all these cherished possessions…

It goes a long way to explain the empty flat I found on my arrival…  I wondered about this when I first arrived, but it is clear to me now, crystal…


Sampling the ‘atmosphere’ of Yellow Mountain.


The weather forecast for the weekend sounded grim: drizzle on Friday, rain on Saturday and more rain on Sunday.  Not quite the best prospect for a hike into the mountains!  But as Jeff, my companion for the trip, argued: they are mountains after all, whimsical, just like the weather.  We were not going to be put off by a little bit of uncertainty about whether to stuff our backpacks with protection from the unrelenting sun or from the unrelenting downpours.  Umbrellas and waterproofs bulged our bags;  sunglasses dangled at the front and a wide-brimmed hat  would come in handy whatever the weather would throw at us.  So we bought our bus tickets and off we went on our four hour jaunt to the foot of the Yellow Mountains, one of the most famous and beautiful mountainous areas in China and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990.

Our arrival did not go unnoticed and a posse of hotel employees was on hand to point us in the  ‘right’ direction.  Our smugness at having our accommodation sorted out the night before soon evaporated as the cheap hostel of our choice was a whopping 80 km away.  So after a brief discussion at the hotel reception, we settled for a nice, comfortable twin room at the price of 100 Rmb shared between two.  Definitely less than a taxi fare to the hostel.  Even adding the non-refundable hostel cost to our night, we did not even spend £10 a head for a soft bed and a hot, gushing shower…  Luxury, affordable luxury indeed!!


In our room devoid of a window we were oblivious to the weather antics outside and only at breakfast caught a glimpse of what Noah must have been facing in his Ark… If there is such as thing as sheet rain or curtains of rain, this was it.  I may have missed out on the monsoon experience in India, but this made up for it!!!!  No way was this walking weather.  We dawdled and ate more breakfast.  We made for the shops stocking extra weather- and water-proof gear and settled for the canary lookalike outfits with ‘blue-footed booby’ matching booties.  And waited… and waited for the worst of the storm to ease.

Eventually the biblical deluge slowed into a trickle, and dressing the part, we set off to the bus which would take us to the cable car.  Although I would have been happy to tackle the millions of steps to the top of the mountain, my companion was more keen on exploring the views at the top… He had been before and the sunset and sunrise unfolding over the eerie mountain landscape were definitely the highlight of the trip, he assured me.  Plus we were planning to walk down the mountain on Sunday to take in the scenery on our descent.



We did indeed have a great few hours hiking on Saturday …. and the views of the rugged mountains and protruding rocks with  fanciful  names such as ‘The Immortal Pointing the Way’, ‘The Eighteen Arhats Worshipping At South Sea’ and ‘Ladder on the Clouds’ …  ???  My photographs of the veil of mist draping the landscape are absolutely awesome and breathtaking  …  How did Jeff phrase it?  Atmospheric …  and so it was.  But just here and there the fog lifted gingerly and the drizzle dried up to tease us with a fleeting glance of what was lying beyond the grey murkiness.  And the sunset?  It was probably magnificent, but hidden behind the cloud deck.  We did not even bother to set our alarm for the 5 am sunrise event…

Luckily, the weather was more merciful on Sunday.  As the rain had dulled to a mere dribble, waterproofs could be binned and we followed the throng of Chinese visitors on the steps downwards, bemused at the few people whose idea of visiting Yellow Mountain involved sitting on a chair being carried upwards by wiry, strong men.  On the other hand, it does give an income to some of the less fortunate people…


Most of the locals disappeared once we passed the cable car; they opted for the easier route to the bottom of the mountain.  So we had the paths mostly to ourselves, or shared them with the brave ones hiking up from the foot and with the porters who cart up all the supplies as there is no other way of bringing goods to the hotels for the tourists and hotel staff…

And on the upside… As we missed out on the spectacle of an awesome sunset and sunrise, and actually seeing the impressive rock formation of Mount Huang, we are already plotting our return in October  when all the trees are cloaked in their autumnal shades.  The great thing about Yellow Mountain is that every season has its charms and one visit is never going to be enough…



And the winner of ‘The Best Texan Chilli’ is ….


I love cooking… so when the opportunity to take part in the ‘First Hangzhou Chilli Cook Off’ competition  presented itself I was not going to turn it down!!   Adverts for the event cluttered all the expat websites tempting budding chefs, not just Americans and foreigners who know what a chilli should taste like, but also local Chinese cooks.  Let’s try to integrate and promote a sense of community, the message rang.  Proceeds to go to charity! The leaflet did not exactly specify which one, but it sounded like a good cause nonetheless.  Plenty of orphanages and disadvantaged children to be cared for, we thought.

Being in the company of Indians, we left the Chilli to the Americans/Europeans and plumped for the ‘Non-Chilli Spicy Food’ class, concocting an Indian curry instead.  Our initial team of three shrunk to just two members on the day, we set off laden with ingredients, banners and bunting to jolly up our stall.


As the non-Indian member of my team, I focused mainly on chopping and stirring, leaving the adding of spices to the ‘One In The Know’ and kept fingers crossed.  We were working on Indian intuition, not a recipe book in sight…  And although P had tried out the curry before, she had not cooked it in the large quantities we were expected to produce…  Neither were we prepared for the cooking conditions:  a huge pot on a rather small burner giving off a paltry heat unable to cope with the vast amounts of onions to be sweated and browned…


So at the 10 am start of the event, our curry was still bubbling away and aromatizing, slowly gaining the optimum flavour to present to the judges and the public.  Our next door neighbours, definitely in the right spirit and dressing the part, were keen chilli fans, the pleasant odours of their wares wafting across…  We shared their beers, which was a lot cheaper than buying our drinks in the pub/restaurant run by an American who was clearly making a mint on the day…

Visitors came to our stall and sampled our curry, nodding their heads in approval at finally savouring a proper curry in Hangzhou, one that resembled Indian food, as eaten in India…  We were confident…

The afternoon lingered on with plenty of tasters.  And in the background, the obligatory ‘Eat the most hamburgers’, ‘Eat the most pies’ and ‘Eat the most cake’ (without vomiting) competitions carried on.  We could have been at any Chilli Cook Off in the US of A…  But the day eventually drew to a close when all the chillies had been consumed and everyone was eagerly anticipating the announcement of the winners…

I had looked around earlier and tried several of the chillies and curries entered by the other teams.  Apart from the professional amateurs from the Americas and Europeans regions, a sprinkling of local Chinese and Indian businesses also cooked chillies and curries.  And I was glad I was not the one to be judging the competition, although the Chicken Tikka Massala  cooked by the chef of a local Indian restaurant had all the hallmarks of too much sauce, too much food colouring and too little resemblance to anything Indian that I have eaten in India..  You know the kind of Chicken Tikka Massala that comes out of a jar…

But we should have taken more notice of the local businesses sponsoring the event and their lavish contributions to the raffle prizes…  Indeed when the winners were announced, not a single American entry was deemed the best.  You would have thought they should have been able to cook up ‘The Best Texan Chilli’.  The trophy went to the Chinese chefs of the restaurant that donated generous raffle prizes…  And the best non-Chilli dish trophy went to the Indian chef of a restaurant supporting the event…   And at the last minute, the organisers announced a surprise new category: the invention of a new chilli dish … which was given to a Chinese business selling chilli ice cream…  And the charity we supported???  A local ladies football team….

Thank goodness we made our own fun that day, but I wonder how many non-Chinese entrants will be rushing back for the Second Hangzhou Chilli Cook-Off….  Maybe sponsors of the event should be in a separate category????

And if you wonder about the spelling of ‘chili’; blame the Americans…




Beware the bargains….


I made it to Suzhou eventually…  only a week later than originally planned and maybe the trip was just a condensed version of what I had in mind.  But I made it and that is what counts!!

Suzhou is a picturesque little town, a tourist magnet just outside Shanghai and definitely on the list of attractions for visitors to the area, not unlike Hangzhou.  So it was inevitable that I would want to see what all the fuss was about.   The weekend trip, which is deemed long enough to cover essential Suzhou, had to be curtailed to just a Saturday as my Italian friend had a birthday party to attend that evening.  And as she still had to buy a birthday cake and get spruced up for the party,  we were left with about six hours to do it all.

Time being of the essence, we whizzed to Suzhou on a high speed train, racing ahead of the grey skies bursting with rain.  Rather than making use of cheap public transport, we put a smile on a local taxi driver’s face paying probably just a little over the odds.  But it got us into the touristy heart of the town, ready for our exploration at break-neck speed.

Touts crowded the area, eagerly pointing to their display boards flaunting generous discounts for all the town’s features of interest: its famed  gardens, towering pagodas and temples; its quaint waterways lined with age-old houses;  its interesting museums and freshwater lakes.  We counted our blessings at being able to buy  access to our three destinations of choice for a fraction of the advertised price.  A bargain… or so we thought.

After parting with our money, we were herded to an assembly point, with a horde of other Chinese tourists waiting to get onto a bus..  A bus???  The garden and pagoda we had come to see were nearby and Pingjiang Road and Shantang Street just around the corner.  It would at least save our feet, we mused, and followed the flag obediently.


The tour took us around Suzhou town, that is to the newer parts full of shops and high rise blocks of flats, not the charming old buildings we were expecting to see.  We were treated to a boat ride (we paid for this one…), studying sights that had not made it onto our list of ‘must-sees’.  We quizzed the tour leader.  The gardens and pagoda we had the tickers for???  Next, she mumbled, we’ll be getting there next…

But another detour beckoned.  We passed Suzhou’s Silk Museum, which clearly warranted a visit and the entry was free.  To be fair, it was interesting to see the exquisite work produced by the humble silk worm  and to marvel at the elasticity of the seemingly fragile thread spun by such a delicate creature.  And we took the liberty to take an abundance of photographs before being told this was forbidden…  How were we supposed to know as there was no notice to alert us???  And obviously, the ‘Chinese Masters of Copying’ have understood the powers of guiding visitors through a well-stocked shop.  Silks of all hues, woven into pillows, underwear, nightgowns, classical and modern Chinese dresses and shirts screamed to be purchased.   We talked to our tour guide…. Yes, she confirmed, the gardens were next…


Only she forgot to mention that is was ‘next’ after stopping at a pearl factory, no entrance fee to be paid.   I believe the expression that most accurately reflects our sentiment at the time was: ‘We saw RED’.   With only a few hours left to enjoy Suzhou, pearls were not on our agenda as the time frame allowed in the ‘museum’ suggested a generous amount of time allotted for checking out the shop near the exit…  We were not born yesterday, so we left, clutching our tickets to the pagoda and gardens…

In the end we did not make it to the Humble Garden of The Administrator, nor the pagoda, but mustered up just enough energy and enthusiasm to join the throng of tourists in the old part of town: Shantang Street and Pingjiang Road.  We passed some of the pretty waterways and narrow cobbled roads, vibrant umbrellas dancing on the pavements along the canals and bringing colourful cheer to a dismal day.

On the upside, we may have missed out on most of the sights we had set our heart on, but that’s just a reason to come back another time… on a day when the sun laughs at us and no umbrellas obscure the delightful old town.  And then, we will just pay full price for the attractions we really want to visit, and leave the ticket touts shouting themselves hoarse…  There are such things as false economies and falling into the trap of peddlers is just one of them…