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Travelling with the locals in Malaysia.

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After a short couple of weeks in China recharging my batteries, I was on my way again in mid August.  Malaysia this time and travelling solo.  After all the rushing around, it was intended to be the relaxing holiday, go-with-the-flow-and-see-what-happens.   A bit of culture in the main cities of Kuala Lumpur and Penang, catching up with some friends followed by a spell on the beaches of Langkawi and Pulau Dayang Bunting.   The perfect way to spend two weeks on my own.

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Hotels can be a little isolating for the lone tourist, so I stayed with friends and relied on airbnb instead to guarantee some human contact and guidance from locals along the way.  Apart from my flight to and from KL and accommodation, I left every bit of detail to the last minute…  I figured there would be trains, buses, ferries and even taxis to take me from A to B, so why worry…   Not having a fixed itinerary meant I could change my plans on a whim and see where sudden impulses would lead me.  It was an interesting and unexpectedly liberating experience…

Of course, not everything went swimmingly, to the contrary.  In Kuala Lumpur I got stranded at a bus stop near the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) after hiking on my own along cobra infested trails.  I admit, at the time I wondered about being the only one on the path, but I had not been able to locate the visitors’ centre and assumed that a clearly signposted track would have been safe…  I decided to turn back at the point where the path blended into the jungle and I had to clamber over trees and tree trunks and hoist myself up on ropes…  and a suspicious rustling in the undergrowth warned me of company ahead.   I was not brave enough to find out whether it was friend or foe, and retreated rapidly to the tarmacked road and other signs of civilization.

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leech attack

In the afternoon, I took no risks and found a guide from the centre before  further exploring the forest and its waterfalls.  Despite an unpleasant encounter with leeches, it was a great way to learn more about the conservation and restoration of a little area of jungle just outside the Malaysian capital.  The guide dropped me off outside the centre, next to a nearby shopping centre.  ‘You will easily find a taxi here,’ he argued, but every taxi driver I approached, shook his head and refused the fare.  ‘Too far,’ they claimed.  ‘I am not going in that direction,’ another one insisted…  I plonked myself down on the bench at the bus stop, not sure how to proceed.  I had yet to work out how to use taxi apps such as Uber and  Grab…  Conversations in broken English with the locals were not very fruitful either.  It then dawned on me that if I were to change my destination to another local touristy spot nearby, Batu Caves, I might be in luck with the taxis, especially as from there I could easily catch the train…

‘No need for a taxi,’ a young man exclaimed, face beaming, ‘You can get the free bus to Batu Caves’.    ‘You mean ‘free’ as in ‘I do not have to pay’????’ I queried…   There is such a thing as a free bus???  As if summoned by magic, the free bus appeared within minutes and the young man immediately boarded to explain to the driver where I wanted to be dropped off.  It was a long journey; the free bus clearly did not take the most direct route but I certainly saw plenty of the not-so-touristy-areas on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur…  Feeling a little nervous, I kept an eye on good old Google Maps  (local SIMs and plenty of data are an absolute must these days…) to help me decide the most optimum point to get off and when I felt Batu Caves was within walking distance, I signalled to the driver that I had arrived at my destination.  I took a quick peek around Batu Caves and found ‘India revisited’ with its Hindu Gods, bright yellow garlands and Southern Indian food on sale: massala dosa and  parotta…  before sauntering to the train station to continue my journey …

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Most of my travel around Malaysia went flawlessly.  Kuala Lumpur itself had an extensive and efficient public transport system consisting of monorails, commuter trains and light rail transit, as well as city buses …. with rules befitting a predominantly Muslim population.  Taxi fares required some prior negotiating, but once I had figured out Uber and Grab, taxis were definitely reasonable.   In Penang, when walking was not an option, they were the best way to get around .  And with fares for internal flights at rock bottom prices, even flying to Langkawi and back was very affordable.

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I only spent a short while on Langkawi itself, opting instead to stay a few days on the quieter, neighbouring island of Pulau Dayang, in a small airbnb establishment, Barkatt Chalets.  After a hectic summer I was looking forward to peace and tranquillity, to lying in a hammock watching the ebb and flow of the sea, to being away from the hustle and bustle of tourist fare and noise.  The island was home to only 200 people, mostly fishermen;  a small hotel attracting mainly Malaysian visitors; and Barkatt Chalets.   Airbnb reviews had been glowing, describing Shade, the owner, and his wife, not only as perfect hosts, but also as perfect cooks.  I would be in for a treat…  if I could get there…

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Access to the island was by ‘local ferry’, a small fleet of speedboats shuttling the islanders back and forth for work or shopping.  ‘Let me know when you get on the boat, I will be there to pick you up,’  Shade had promised me.  ‘Just tell them you are going to Selat Barkatt, they will show you which boat to take.’   Having left the touristy beach stretch of Langkawi in the morning, I arrived at the small ferry terminal by taxi, but decided to first purchase my onward ticket for Penang to use later that week.  A fellow traveller at the Sweet Monkey Backpackel Hostel,  where I spent the previous night,  had had her ferry trip to Langkawi delayed because tickets had sold out.  ‘Better safe than sorry,’ I thought, as one of the shopkeepers in the small terminal offered to look after my suitcase whilst I trudged to the other, bigger building just down the road.    ‘Don’t worry,’ she put my mind at rest, ‘if you miss the early ferry, the next one will be around  2 pm.’

Of course, by the time I returned to collect my suitcase, the local ferry was a mere speck on the horizon.  With just an hour left till the next one was scheduled to leave, I sat down with the shopkeeper for a refreshing cold drink…  ‘No need to wait at the pier,’ she explained. ‘ I have already spoken to the ‘captain’.  He will let me know when everyone is ready to board.’  We whiled away the hour and were joined by the ‘local’ American lesbian who made it everyone’s business to know her business.  With no sign of the captain or life on the jetty, we had another drink and listened to the tales of woe of being an American lesbian at sea and living on a boat.  ‘Don’t worry,’ the shopkeeper kept on reassuring me, ‘the captain is probably waiting for some more people before he wants to leave…’

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It was a sultry afternoon and rainy season in Malaysia..  Outside dark, menacing clouds had gathered  and it did not take long for the rain to start.  A trickle at first, but soon it came bucketing down.  As the conversation with the shopkeeper had all but dried up, I ventured outside to keep an eye on things, just in case a ferry might make it across the water…  I sat patiently, resting my feet on my suitcase, whilst the heavens opened even further.

The advantage of being a solo traveller is the ease with which you strike up random conversations with random strangers.  So it was that I initiated a chat with a British couple who had recently retired to the smaller island, part-time I should add: winters in Malaysia and summers in the UK.  Their presence this summer was merely due to the building works going on at their new house, stilted to keep it safe above rising and receding water levels.  ‘Ah, yes,’ they explained, they had given up on the ferry service, and purchased their own boat…  You could be sitting at the terminal for ages waiting for a ferry to arrive or leave…  Unfortunately, as they were expecting a full load of wood to be delivered, there was no room for me in their boat to take me across…

Eventually, the downpour subsided and the captain gathered his passengers onto his boat…  I sent a message to Shade to alert him that my departure was imminent and it looked as if I would make it to the island at long last…   The ferry was not exactly the lap of luxury, but rather a small motorboat kitted out to take passengers.  We walked down the slippery steps on the quay side and the captain helped with my suitcase, whilst I negotiated the gap between the edge of the jetty and the rim of the boat…  By then I was already quite damp, so I did not care too much that the benches inside had rivulets of water streaming down the back and immediately soaked my clothes.  The tarpaulin stretching over the door was clearly not that effective in keeping out the lashing  rain…

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Shade, being a gentleman of his word, met me at the quay side and hoisted up my far too heavy suitcase…  Maybe for a trip like this, a backpack with just life’s essentials might have been more appropriate…

And if you are wondering whether getting off the island was any easier…  On Friday, Shade dropped me off early, at 8 am, in time for the first ferry of the day, at about 8.30am.  After a three-hour delay, watching more heavy showers before finally the sun came through, we were finally picked up.  At least I only needed to catch a ferry to Penang in the afternoon; the rest of the passengers would be very, very late for work…  No one worried, it was part of daily life.

Was a visit to the island of Dayang Bunting worth the endless waiting on the quayside…??  Next post…

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Looking for the real Lhasa.

Initially, Lhasa disappointed.  It looked like any Chinese city with modern high-rise buildings, the usual array of shops, wide roads.  The train station was huge, clearly built recently to accommodate the influx of eager visitors to Tibet.  This was Lhasa, Chinese style.  Did we just spent two or three days on a train for this?  We arrived at dusk and our transport to the hotel awaited us…  No need to fret when what we all needed most was sleep, in the comfort of a bed with soft pillows.

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Potala Palace, Lhasa

In the morning, we were treated to a taste of the ‘real’ Tibet, or let’s be honest, the Tibet and Lhasa we expected to see: traditional buildings, Buddhist prayer flags, quaint roads full of touristy trinkets, and of course Tibetan people dressed in their customary attire.  We visited the Potala Palace, the residence of the Dalai Lama until the 14th (and incumbent) Dalai Lama fled to India during the 1959 Tibetan Uprising. The palace is an impressive structure, spanning 400m from East to West and 350m from North to South, and leaning into the ‘Red Hill’.  It contains 1000 rooms and 10,000 shrines over 13 stories and with visitors only allowed to stay inside for just one hour, we only covered a fraction of it.  But still enough time to savour the opulence and grandeur of what was once the winter palace of the Dalai Lama and the seat of the Tibetan government.  No photographs allowed inside though…

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Construction of the current palace started in 1645 on the remains of an earlier fortress.  With walls as thick as 5m at the base and foundations strengthened with added copper to withstand earthquakes, the palace rises a full 300m up from the valley floor and towers over the rest of Lhasa.  However, rapid modernisation and urbanisation is slowly swamping the old Lhasa and in order to strike a balance between progress and preservation, the Chinese government has ruled that buildings must not exceed 21m in height in the area surrounding the palace to safeguard its unique atmosphere.

After a lunch of delicious yak stew and beer (brewed at ‘the roof of the world’) in the Tibetan Lhasa Kitchen, our next stop was the Jokhang Temple, considered the ‘spiritual heart of the city’ and the most sacred temple in Tibet.  The history of the temple was rather lost on all of us.  Sated by stories of the Buddha and totally confused by tales about the past, current and future Dalai Lama, we were engrossed in the riches of the building itself and its surroundings.  And the fact that another relic of the past managed to survive the ‘cultural revolution’ of China, albeit that from 1966 to 1979 Tibetans could no longer worship there and for some time the temple housed a pigsty and slaughterhouse, an army barracks and even a hotel… Eventually the temple was renovated and reconsecrated and is again visited by huge numbers of Tibetan worshippers.

The Johkang temple is located in Barkhor Square, a large square dominated by two enormous incense burners and an imposing prayer flag pole, its dome and staff bulging with blue, white, red, green and yellow cloth.  The five colours represent the five elements (sky and space [blue]; air and wind [white]; fire [red]; water [green]; earth [yellow]) which promote health and harmony when they are in balance.  Prayer flags are not only seen in temples, but most houses and buildings in Tibet feature flag staffs on their roofs.  Contrary to what many people think, prayer flags are not prayers to a god, but the wind brushing them is meant to spread goodwill and compassion to all.

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Every day Tibetans, young and old, congregate at the temple to ‘make kora’.  Kora is both a type of pilgrimage and a type of meditative practice in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.  It typically involves worshippers making a circumambulation (revolution; circling) in a clockwise fashion around a sacred site or object.  Such objects fall into different categories and can be either found in the mystique of nature (such as mountains, or lakes) or in man made structures and buildings (such as temples, monasteries, stupas).  Pilgrims to those sites are seeking religious merit, and the more auspicious the site, the more merit they gain.  Most people walk around, carefully keeping a record of the number of circles on their prayer beads or counting malas.  Some carry their own handheld prayer wheel, whilst others spin the big prayer wheels outside monasteries and temples.  It is believed that touching the prayer wheels equals chanting the Buddhist mantra.  In Tibet it is also common for pilgrims to make kora by making a full-body prostration, which takes a lot of time and effort, but gains the prostrator much more merit, especially when it is performed a favourable number of times.  However, it is not just older people who spend their time walking around the temples, it is surprising to see younger people joining in too.  But as our guide explained, it is the only form of exercise available for many and brings people together…

Barkhor Square is the focal point for worship, as well as a hub of commercial activity with a maze of smaller streets radiating from it.  The ground floors of traditional dwellings have been converted into shops plying tourists with mementos of Tibet: from yak paraphernalia, imitation spinning wheels and healing music bowls to tapestries and thangka paintings. Plenty to choose from and something for all budgets.  Coffee shops offer a pleasant respite from shopping and the sun and benches under the trees and in the shade give shelter to those in need of a rest.  Shopping and making kora can indeed be a taxing pastime..

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Near the mosque, just a few streets away from Barkhor Square, we chanced upon a thriving market in caterpillar fungus.  The curious looking organisms – in winter an animal and in summer a plant – are being harvested on the Himalayan high grounds of Tibet, Nepal and Sikkim (in neighbouring India) at elevations between 4300 and 5000 m.  The fungus is used in Tibetan and also Chinese medicine and has been popular for centuries as a traditional cure for ailments ranging from asthma to impotence.  No wonder that as the Chinese middle class has expanded, so has the demand for the fungus.   The fungus can only be found for a few months each year, from May to August, and has become a major source of income for many Tibetans.   As the prices of the fungus have soared, so has the harvesting of them and environmentalists are warning that the harvest could have a damaging long-term impact on the sensitive environment of the Tibetan Plateau.

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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…

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‘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…

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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…

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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…

 

 

 

The Great Brick Wall of China…

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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…

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Breathing life into the heater…

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

Tangled in the Sticky Web of a Chinese Contract…

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When I signed my contract for China last year,  I knew the small print left a lot to be desired.  It was not just the small print, actually there was very little to commend the contract to anyone…  Pay seemed adequate.   Not generous, but then again it was hardly going to be a full time job and as demand for English teachers in China easily outstrips supply, salaries are simply boosted by doing some private work on the side.  Although the contract included provision for medical insurance (as required by Chinese law), there was no room for being sick, unless of course without salary…    Holiday pay was non-existent (apart from eight Chinese statutory holidays), on the other hand there was the potential of doing extra work in July and August to tide teachers over.   The work on offer by my agency amounted to more hours for less pay…   Would I be interested??  Really??

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The not inconsiderable cost of obtaining a working visa would be paid by the teachers, rather than the employer as is the norm in other industries (or ESL agencies in neighbouring countries)…  As far as getting flights reimbursed at the end of the contract, I worked out in an instant that under no circumstances anyone would ever be able to get the full amount promised by the contract.   ‘Pro rata’ definitely worked in the favour of the agency…    And if anyone thought of jumping ship mid-contract, the penalties for doing so involved the repayment of several months of salary…  Your only options would be to leave the country straight after payday never to return, taking all your hard-earned ‘kuai’ with you,  or vanish off the radar whilst hanging on to your hard-earned ‘kuai’  and join the merry band of illegally employed teachers and run the risk of deportation if caught…

Of course, I put out feelers and spoke to people on the ground before  signing…  Curiously, the agency’s London Office could only put me in touch with two teachers, both still in their honeymoon period after just six weeks in China and in the job…  Glowing reports flowed my way.  ‘Great job.  Great kids,’  Italian Anna assured me.  ‘Best thing I’ve ever done,’ South African Riaan declared.  But as the contract strictly forbade employees to say anything negative about either the agency or the schools, no surprises there, I was hardly going to get to the crux of things…   Anna profusely apologised afterwards knowing that her positive spin certainly glossed over the less attractive side of the job.   ‘I felt bad,’ she explained, but what choice did she have?

Although a lot of contracts for ESL teachers in China run along the same lines, mine was particularly ungenerous, probably one of the least generous ones I have come across.  But, in those early days, I placated myself:  I was going there for the experience,  and that was all that mattered…   At least I had read and understood the contract and started the job with my eyes wide open, which is more than can be said of the many younger teachers.  So even if the reality might turn out to be a tad uncomfortable, it would certainly be interesting..  And come the end of the contract, I would be free to leave and head for my next adventure!!

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The academic year ran relatively peacefully …   Just a few hiccups along the way as agencies use two different contracts: one for the teachers and another one for their schools.  Unfortunately,  the promises made to the schools do not always tally with the promises made to teachers and expectations vary accordingly.   Most things got smoothed over along the way quite effortlessly.  We, the foreign teachers, found refuge in our own ‘Foreign Teachers’ Office’ and our contact with the rest of the Chinese staff was limited to essential, need-to-know communication.   After a while one-sided efforts to integrate sapped all our energy  and seemed very pointless…  Plus, what the eye does not see, the heart doesn’t grieve over…  The feeling was definitely mutual!

In early October, with the end of my contract looming in the distance  and my daughter’s wedding in the UK just on the horizon, decision time was imminent: should I extend the Chinese episode or move to the next destination… ? In any event, no way would I spend another year in the little hamlet of Linping…  Too quiet, no pubs, no social life, no life…  Having filled the evenings of my first year in China with copious amounts of evening work and watching Grey’s Anatomy,  change was essential.  Downtown Hangzhou all the way, I thought!!

To keep things simple, I first approached my current agency to see whether they would improve on my salary and transfer me to a school in a more desirable location, in the heart of  Hangzhou civilisation, rather than on the periphery.  After weeks of dragging things out, I finally was given the best I could hope for…  A meagre increase (but at the top end of what any teacher in the agency could expect); a vague verbal promise of a relocation to downtown Hangzhou, depending upon vacancies; and a not so vague clause in the contract suggesting they could place me in any school in any area they deemed appropriate…  Plus could I also please pay an advance on my salary  for February/March so they could afford to pay for my medical insurance…  I would eventually get this money back in my April salary as, clearly, the contract stated that it was the agency’s responsibility to fork out for this and was part of the package…  ‘Hell, no,’ I said…  It was time to look elsewhere, so I did.

Of course the agency kept my school very much in the dark about my decision to leave after having  reassured them in September  that I would stay at least until the end of June, the full academic year…   An interesting pledge, especially as my contract was definitely due to finish in January and I certainly had not been approached by them with a request to extend it until June.  Suddenly, their proposed new contract made sense:  there would be no relocation to downtown Hangzhou, because, first and foremost, the agencies need to appease the schools…  I would have been given the choice of staying put –‘ Sorry, no suitable school available in downtown’ –  or moving to a less desirable area in China.  And having signed a contract with no real get-out clause, I would have been trapped and probably would have resigned myself to another six months of boredom…  Clearly the preferred outcome for the agency.   ‘Lucky escape!’ I thought.

Finding a new job was child’s play… In order of importance: I have the passport, I have the (Masters!!) degree, I have the  experience and a qualification to teach English as a foreign language, so I can get the right visa…  Although not a native by origin, my British passport is all that matters to qualify as a native English speaker in China… and believe you me, as a non-native at least I can write and speak grammatically correct English and have an accent that is universally understood…

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The sticky point was that the new job involved moving to another agency which made everything decidedly tricky.    Avoiding a costly visit back to the UK and applying for a new visa hinged on the transfer of my  ‘Foreign Expert Certificate’ and work permit before the expiry of my residence permit which coincided with the expiry of my contract…  and being the innocent piggy-in-the-middle between an aggrieved school and a thwarted agency meant I could expect no favours or help from either of them.

It may well have been that my agency’s hands were tied and it would have been difficult to effect the transfer any earlier, but any reputable agency – as I was told later – should allow for transfer time in their contract…  It is a mean streak, designed to discourage teachers to change agencies because of the cost and time involved in obtaining a new visa, especially since agencies (in China) expect the teachers to bear all the costs…

Although my new contract with the new agency is on much improved terms, it is still with an agency rather than directly with a school…  By the time my new boss (all of 25 years old and I can assure you that in the ‘interview over lunch’ I was the one asking the questions..) indignantly stated, ‘You have a British passport, you have the experience, you have the qualifications!!  You do not need an agency to get a job in China…’ I had already signed the contract… So, we will see how this one pans out…

You live and learn but some lessons are definitely more expensive than others…  And  not being able to transfer my ‘Foreign Expert Certificate’ and work permit turned out very expensive indeed…   (more in the next post)

 

A small matter of cultural differences.

Travel, and especially airports, brings out the worst in people..  The queues to check in; the queues at the  baggage drop off; the negotiations at the ticketing desk about overweight suitcases and hand luggage;  the liquids through security; the gauntlet of passport control – do you really still look like that person in the photograph… ? A journey fraught with stress and anxiety, long before anyone has even boarded a plane.

On the whole, I have been lucky.  Most of my air travel has been pretty uneventful and gone smoothly, disregarding the inevitable turbulence which is out of human control anyway.  This was until my flight back to Hangzhou from Thailand, courtesy of AirAsia, which as a popular budget airline has caught the attention of the novice travellers from China…

Although Thailand gets a fair amount of Chinese tourists, we hardly crossed paths during my ten day stay.  Mostly they kept to themselves, avoiding eye contact  and conversations with Westerners as the mastery of English has not yet trickled down to the proletariat.  Knowledge of world languages is not really necessary as Chinese visitors move en mass, shepherded from one attraction to the next by the umbrella wielding leader of the flock.

I may have anticipated sharing the flight to Hangzhou with mainly Chinese people, however I was not prepared for being submerged in Chinese culture as soon as I hit passport control.  My suitcase had changed hands flawlessly; its weight hardly raising an eyebrow…  I headed for the door emblazoned ‘International Departures’ and immediately joined a throng of Chinese bodies trying to force themselves through the narrow entrance.  No orderly line to be seen; every man for himself.  And if anyone was not quick enough to fill the minute space in front of them, Chinese beady eyes kept themselves peeled ready to make a move.  If looks alone could kill, the floor would have been carpeted with my victims…  I used my elbows, I learnt from the best: the experts in India…  I am not proud of it, but I too had a plane to catch….

Finally through the door, more chaos awaited.  The next room was seething with people, like wildebeest intent on launching an immediate stampede.  But the only danger they wanted to escape, was the poor attendant who desperately tried to contain everyone  between the futile barriers.  No matter her vigilance, she was no match for the persistent Chinese.  Barriers were lifted and moved and small  sections of the herd surged forward, unseen, swallowed by the other Chinese who meekly watched them forge their way to the officers in charge of passport control.  My heckles rose and I had to remind myself of the pointlessness of any retort: I was only going to experience more of the same in China, much, much more…

Passport control sorted and electronic gadgetry x-rayed, we were guided to the AirAsia departure lounge, deep in the bowels of the airport, carefully separated from all the domestic flight passengers.  Of course, my flight was delayed.  It is par for the course…  Taking into account that I was heading for Hangzhou, just a few days before the G20 summit meeting and rumours about additional security abound, this came hardly as a surprise…

When boarding time was announced, the Chinese travellers moved in unison, all aiming to get on the plane first.   However, our aircraft was some distance from the departure lounge, so we were ‘treated’  to a leisurely bus journey around the airport first.  And then we arrived at the steps…  The Chinese who would have trampled their fellow travellers to be first in line???  This rush suddenly vanished as they all whisked out their mobiles to take selfies next to the plane, on the steps up to the plane, in front of the door of the plane…  It was clearly more important to ensure that the world was aware of their whereabouts and could relish in their international travel..  and our flight was late already…  Did another ten minutes of immortalising oneself on camera really matter???

Eventually, all passengers were ushered onto the plane to find their allocated seats … and a  game of musical chairs ensued.  I always make use of online check-in to ensure I have my preferred seat, near the aisle, ready for a quick get-away after landing.   I know the ropes: the advantage of being a seasoned air traveller.  Maybe the Chinese have not yet cottoned on to this and wait until they get to the ticketing desk to find out whether they will be admiring a view through the window, being squashed in the middle, or having easy access to the toilets and exits courtesy of an aisle seat, or indeed are sitting next to friends or family…

A father pleaded with the girl next to him to swap seats with his young son.  A reasonable request, I thought.  So the girl took the middle seat next to mine, leaving just the window seat unoccupied.  She had barely sat down when two obnoxious chewing-gum chewing twenty-something Chinese girls turned up,  clutching McDonalds bags, looking ready for the kill and clearly joined at the hip.  There was just this small matter of them being assigned seats at opposite ends of the plane, one of them the window seat near me.  Clearly, me moving was out of the question, so they preyed on the girl next to me.  Unfortunately, she buckled under the intimidation and quietly retreated to the tail end of the aircraft.  The McDonalds twins sunk into the spaces next to me…

In the meantime, passengers busied themselves with sending last minute messages to the rest of the world, entirely oblivious to the stewardesses preparing  the plane for take off.   Permanently glued to their mobiles, safety announcements fell on deaf ears and as soon as the stewardesses turned their back, WeChat conversations continued.  I really have no problem with the Chinese travellers disregarding their own safety on a flight. Let’s face it, there is a bottomless pool of replacements..  But I would prefer them not to do it when I am on board.  I still have quite a few more boxes to tick on my bucket list before MY plane is downed….

And if I was expecting peace and quiet after we were finally in the air, I had not reckoned on the most disturbing Chinese habit of all…  Window girl gulped down her McDonalds purchases and settled in her seat, removing the ‘vomiting’ bag from the seat pocket.  Maybe McDonalds upset her stomach, I wondered.   But no, she just needed a receptacle for her spit.. She made a horrible retching noise, as if trying to haul stubborn phlegm from the pit of her belly, and deposited it  into the bag with great gusto…. every few minutes.  I covered my ears, I closed my eyes.  It was going to be long, long flight…

And the thing I had been dreading before my departure???  My arrival in Hangzhou marred by extra security measures?  I breezed through the airport:  getting off the plane,  clearing passport control and even collecting my luggage… all done and dusted within 20 minutes of touching down.  I have no idea what all the fuss on the expat websites was all about… scaremongering maybe… Or could it have been that my plane landed around midnight when most security personnel had long since clocked off???