Just Chengdu it.

Terrible pun, sorry.  Chengdu was my final choice as a destination to spend my 9 day holiday from work.  Alas, as work doesn’t exactly pay extravagent wages I had to get the train instead of the plane.  The ’35-hour-long-journey’ train that is.  So I lugged my bag-laden self on to carriage number 4 at shanghai central station only to find I’d bagged a bed next to the only  other foreigners on the whole train.  They were a Portuguese couple who were slightly older and exceedingly more attractive than I.  Apart from these glaring anomolies we got on  swell and the day and a half trip to central china went surprisingly quick.  This had more to do with the beers than the scenery (by the first night we’d created a pretty impressive can-pyramid that the cleaning lady was audibly in awe of), as the first twelve hours saw us meander by a successive line of depressing industrial towns the Chinese government clearly bought in flat-pack boxes from Ikea.  The instructions probably read ‘Caution: May contain traces of smog.’  It’s actually pretty terrible that such a large percentage of china (and therefore humanity) live in these blackened concrete travesties.  Ignorance is bliss I guess, as the state controls the media – and therefore glimpses of a nicer world – with a fairly heavy hand.  What would these people do if you showed them an episode of the OC?  Vomit, probably.

The next day the cement prairies had transformed into sharp, green mountains and winding, dirty rivers.  The train pretty much made a beeline through all of this, meaning we were either perched on bridges or cloaked in tunnels.  It truly is an engineering marvel, especially when you consider the heaviest machinary the workers had was probably a wheelbarrow. 

We arrived in Chengdu in fine spirits and after I’d got my refund for the return ticket I’d accidentally bought for the wrong day (stressful) we got ourselves a rickshaw to the Dragon Town Hostel, which cost 4 quid a night and looked like a renovated temple.  China truly has the best hostels in the world (or at least the best from the select countries I’ve been to).  Before we set our bags down a young bloke by the name of Nong introduced himself and told us that in ten minutes he was heading to a ‘dance party’ and that if we paid him 20 RMB each we’d get free drink all night.  There was unified nodding.

That night was probably the best night in China I’ve had since arriving in Shanghai.  Nong turned out to be a professional break dancer from Beijing.  I had stupidly told the Portuguese couple about the time I joined a dancing gang in the same city in 2008 (true story – G is my witness) so when Nong invited me to dance on the hydraulic stage in the middle of the circular bar I had very little option.  As I vaulted the bar the MC (who was at least 50 and later rapped in Chinese) started trash-talking me.  The tension was palpable.  I’m not sure what happened, but in the dance-infused blur that followed I believe the packed club was clapping at me as I performed the funky chicken.  After me, 4 scantily girls performed a Spice Girls number, two blokes with mullets did some Coldplay before seamlessly segueing into Metallica and Nong held a genuinely impressive break-dance competition.  The night ended with street food, lots of wine, novelty hat dancing and a 6am telling-off by the hostel owner. 

The next day was chill-out day.  We ate spicy food, visited a couple of markets and basically did what hungover backpackers do.  I now find myself in the town of Langzhong (pronounced Long John as in silver).  So far this has been equally surreal but I’ll write about it later as my credit is about to die.

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Expo-cited!

We performed our duty as loyal residents of Shanghai and visited the Expo the other day.  Deciding to avoid the crowds and sweat-conjuring midday heat, we traipsed along in the evening with a half-day ticket (£9).  It was still mobbed and it was still hot.  Here are the pavilions that we managed to visit:

Spain – This featured a long entrance tunnel with booming music, crazy visuals and a hot Spanish lady doing some moody flamenco dancing.  In the next room was a giant 30-foot robot baby.  I have no idea what this was about. 4/5

Italy – A little more concerned with what their nation was actually about, the Italians’ effort featured a Ferrari, an expensive pasta restaurant and loads of classical instruments attached to the wall.  The introductory video in the queue seemed promising, going through all the artists, architects and innovators of the place, but inside it seemed to me they didn’t want to alienate any foreigners whatsoever so opted for big visual statements that didn’t really make a statement at all.  3/5

UK – My buddy and I got to skip the queue as British passport holders, which is a good thing as our pavilion was a box made up of glass tubes.  Inside, the tubes had some seeds in them.  That was it.  However, it looked very cool and in retrospect I think the British planners may have dodged a bullet by going for a piece of art rather than a watered-down museum/national advert like everyone else.  Maybe they were burned by the multi-million compromise in a tent that was the Millennium Dome?  My mate thought it was just a lazy cop-out however (the pavilion, not the dome, the dome was just crap), and this could very well be true.  3/5

USA – Horrible.  Hilariously horrible.  Try to imagine what the most clichéd American pavilion would be like. Now double it.  “Ni Hao!  I’m Kobe Bryant.”  This was the opening line of the information movie.  In the next movie, Hilary Clinton talked about children being our future and how their optimism and lack of inhibitions are so inspiring.  Of course they’re optimistic, they’re six!  They also piss themselves and cry if they lose a balloon!  The final room featured the introductory sentence, ‘And Now a Message From Our Sponsors.’  There followed a series of booths for some of the most evil corporations in the world.  Out of any of the pavilions, the US one was at least the most accurate in representing itself and I laughed like a drain for fifteen minutes, so 5/5.

The Netherlands – Bloody weird.  They are mental. 0/5

Iraq – Spot the war-torn country!  It was hard not to pity Iraq, they didn’t even get their own pavilion but had to share it with Burma and Laos.  They featured a couple of dummies dressed as muslims, a rocking alladin on a magic carpet they had clearly stolen from Codonas arcade in Aberdeen, and a giant lamp with a sign that read: “Aladdin’s lamp will grant you three wishes.  Do not touch.”  I never knew Aladdin was Iraqi so I learned more in this pavilion than in all the others combined. 4/5.

All in all, I was left wondering what the Expo was really about.  It’s slogan is ‘Better City.  Better Life.’  This is about as vague as a covering statement can be.  Billions have been spent on the whole thing and millions are visiting week after week.  But it’s just a series of buildings loaded with faff.  The faff has been dressed up to look informative and enterprising but really, it’s just faff.  Rather than split the whole site into countries, I reckon the next Expo would fulfil it’s promise to inform a little better if it divided itself into different zones like ‘Innovation ‘ (inventions and gadgets) ‘Identity’ (history of different places around the world that could change from week to week) and ‘The Environment’ (I wouldn’t go but it seems every seriously minded endeavour has to feature the E word somewhere or it’s just not legitimate).

So, the Expo then, billions on faffery, but a fun evening if you’re not doing anything else.

Gym’ll Fix It

I discovered a lovely park pretty close to the apartment the other day.  It turned out to be huge and I was rather flummoxed as to how I’d missed it for so long. In amongst the leafy clearings and sculptured water features however, I uncovered an outdoor gymnasium.  Now, all over China these strange adult-friendly work-out machines pop up – on street corners, in apartment quadrangles, next to bus stops – and they’re used fairly regularly by elderly locals who want to keep a bit of fitness in their life.  It’s quite admirable really.  But here, in this park next to Hongkou Stadium were literally dozens of machines, all manned (or womanned) by pensioners in their pyjamas.  Some were swinging about on cross-trainers, others were swivelling their hips on weird circular pads while others remained staunchly by the chin-up bars.  My friend and I waited anxiously to see if any of the octogenarians would attempt a chin-up.  Scanning the other gym-goers it seemed unlikely, what with grannies tiredly swaying on see-saws while their husbands gurned on a roundabout, this place was more a playground for the dead than a place to perform chin-ups. Suddenly, a bloke who looked like a turtle hobbled up, clapping his hands together in preparation.  I set my chuckle levels to high.  Then he took his T-shirt off.  He was like Bruce bloody Lee.  He had less fat on him than a Nutri-grain bar.  Leaping up to the bar, he held his legs straight in front of him then hoisted his frame seamlessly upside down so his toes  pointed perfectly skyward.  Lowering himself like a hydraulic arm he then repeated this routine several times before shimmying off the bar and flexing his muscles for our cameras.  It was the most impressive thing I’d seen in China and that includes the Great Wall.  But the circus hadn’t finished.  Suddenly, turtle-man had a rival in the form of an opera-singing nut in a blue-tracksuit.  Warbling away like Pavarotti he then went ominously silent before performing what can only be described as a Cirque Du Soleil routine on the chin-up bar.  He span around it repeatedly like a fussball player before dismounting and continuing with his opera.  I had to leave as the rivalry was getting too much, testosterone levels hadn’t been as high on the set of the Expendables.

(Which is a very disappointing movie may I add, although it does include the following exchange – Arnie: “Maybe we should go out for dinner some time?”  Sly: “Oh yeah?” Arnie: “Ja. In a thousand years.”  Sly: “Too soon.”  If the whole movie had been like this it would have trounced the Godfather).

I’m going back to the gym to teach them star-jumps.

Maternity Armour

Our boss at the school is pregnant, which is great news as she’ll have to go on maternity leave.  Unfortunately, it’s early days so she’ll be festering around the office for a good few months yet.  I only knew she was pregnant when she came in to work wearing a maroon maternity dress/dungarees hybrid that drooped down in front of her yet-to-expand womb.  I asked the teaching assistant why the boss wore such apparel so early into the pregnancy and was informed that it was a specially made garment to protect the vulnerable, unborn child.  Leaping at the opportunity for a cheap joke I asked if it was a bullet proof vest.  Apparently, yes.  Well, sort of.

Concealed within the dress is a lining of metal to shield the fetus from mobile phone signals or indeed any electro-magnetic activity.  You can’t even use a phone near the dress as it blocks out all signals.  This is absolutely mental.  Either Chinese mothers have been watching too many Godzilla movies or they really are suckers to advertising, because if we are to follow this logic through we should be wearing bloody crash helmets every time we answer a call.  Considering I’ve never seen a group of people so devoted to their mobiles before (they might as well have them grafted to the sides of their faces), I’m pretty perplexed by their fear of the phone when considering womb-based babies.  I watched the boss stagger around the school, heaving her suit of armour about the place and I began to wonder if they’ve looked into what the ‘protective layer’ is made of.

‘Protect your unborn infant from deadly mobile phone attacks with this fully-resistant lead-based baby shield!  Lined with asbestos for quality assurance.’

Shame

One of our teaching assistants was leaving her job so we took her out for a farewell bash.  We asked the girls what they would like to do more than anything in the world.  They all replied in ecstatic unison, “KTV!”  For the uninitiated, this is karaoke.  Now I love kareoke but only after a few conditions are met: It takes place in a scruffy bar or student union.  The songs are epic.  And I’m very, very drunk.  The Chinese do not fullfill any of these requirements.  They sing god-awful chinese ballads in a private room whilst consuming orange juice and peanuts.  For hours.

I discovered that the place we went to could be rented out until 7 in the morning.  People literally nap on the sofa and let others sing before awaking and taking their shift on the microphone.  It’s like night watch in the trenches, although I’d probably rather listen to heavy artillery, even if it was aimed at me.  The girls loved every minute of it, which is amazing as there were 180 of them (minutes not girls unfortunately), thanks to the unmissable deal of ‘buy two hours get one free.’  Things got stranger when buoyed by some successful warbling the girls began chanting, “dance boys dance!”  Not before long the three of us were jigging terribly to terrible music overlaid with terrible singing.

Now to get us into the karaoke booth we’d brokered a compromise with the girls, which stipulated we play some ten pin bowling before we go anywhere near a microphone.  The girls had never played before so we had a good laugh at their feeble attempts to avoid the shameful gutter balls.  I lead the mocking with unrelenting glee.  In her second ever game of bowling one of the girls, Amanda, beat me 99 to 97.  The laughter had found a new target.

Inception

It finally arrived at the cinemas yesterday, so I naturally made it to the midnight screening.  It was as good as I hoped for.  I don’t know how anyone could write something like that.  My mate and I both loved it, but talking about it afterwards we realised there were tons of details we missed or just didn’t comprehend, so I’ll be going back for a second viewing.  Absolutely phenomenal!

Tell you what though, after Shutter Island, The Departed, Reservation Road and now this do you think DiCaprio might consider a romantic comedy with Sandra Bullock?  The boy needs to lighten up!

Hong Kong Visa Fun-Run!

Panasonic!  Philips!  Canon! Apologies but I’ve been looking at that glow in the dark skyline for far too long.  I’d escaped to Victoria Harbour after a couple of ill-advised hours with some fifty-year old ex-pats, in some typical ex-pat bar called something like The Junk or O’Malley’s Irish Dragon.  I’d just like to point out that telling Kathryn ‘The Mangler’ Duncan about this on facebook (they have facebook in HK!) she enquired if ex-pats were former postmen.  No.  And they’re not former arse-holes either.  They’re current arse-holes, right now, in every sense of the word.  Well these particular ex-pats were anyway, I’d hate to be accused of brushing with such broad strokes.  The average Hong Kong ex-pat wears a blue shirt with a white collar, is either overweight or over-muscled and cruises round bars yelling down his mobile about containers needing riveting.  Their heads need riveting.  I had one guy telling me why China was a shit hole, why Hong Kong had no culture and why us Christians had to lead the way.  He couldn’t answer why he’d stayed in Hong Kong for so many years but I think it had something to do with a 22 year-old Filipino bearing his children.  The longer I sat with these blokes the stronger the sour taste in my mouth became.  They wanted to be in white helmets and red coats, forcing the colonials out their opium dens and into some good hard labour, but instead they wore matching shirts and rolled bullshit around like dung-beetles (thank you Karl Pilkington).   I drank up and hit the harbour, now here was something worthwhile!

I’d been sent down south to get my working visa sorted and the actual process of visa-fetching took all of fifteen minutes, which meant I had plenty of time to scope out Honk Kong.  It’s fair to say Shanghai has a bit of a rivalry with Hong Kong, a bit like Glasgow and Edinburgh but with rather larger buildings.  Shanghai’s got a fair bit to go before it impresses as much with it’s skyline it must be said, but the thing with Hong Kong is that it’s so compressed by the surrounding mountains it feels like they had to build skywards out of necessity.  In Shanghai they have all the space in the world, they’re just doing it because they can.  I won’t go into all the comparisons but I must say it feels good to be back in Shanghai, as Hong Kong is another level in terms of stress, congestion and noise.  There were prettier women in Hong Kong mind, and no-one spat once.  One major observation I had was the amount of deformed people cruising around.  Maybe it’s because in China they hide most of them away (I’m not backing this up with any facts or definite knowledge, it just seems like something they’d do) but the ratio of deformed folk in Hong Kong was much, much higher.  In just a short stroll down Nathan Road I saw, and I’m not exaggerating, two dwarves, a man with no back, an old guy with a huge melting face (the worst by far), a bloke with opposing eyes and a drooling woman.

So, I got the visa and came home.  Again both my flights were delayed for unknown reasons (no-one minds about delays here but as soon as you deny them a blanket on the plane they go mental) and I’d especially like to thank my boss for buggering up the booking of my outward flight.  I had to buy a new ticket at almost bankrupting cost and suffer the anguish of dealing with Chinese ticket officials for 90 minutes.  I’d rather hang with the ex-pats.

Oh, also.  This story with the Chilean miners buried under several hundred metres of earth.  Ever since they got a camera down there I can’t help thinking it’s becoming just like Big Brother should have been.  Imagine Chantelle collapsing in the zen garden because she’s suffering from acute vitamin D deficiency.  “Day 37 in the Big Brother house and Bubble’s scratching the walls with his fingers looking for a gas-mask and a mineral pack.”  Channel 4 missed a trick there.