It’s been really inspiring hearing all the doom and gloom scenarios since returning home. The economy is buggered, there are more jobs on the moon, more money in Sudan and less misery in a North Korean jail. Awesome. Welcome back. I left Scotland in 2008, accidentally rather than deliberately avoiding the brunt of the recession. I have returned to find it’s been a rather large brunt.
Meanwhile, in Asia, things are ticking along nicely. You may have heard China are doing quite well. They are. However, I’ve heard India being mentioned in the same exasperated breath by some who’ve been articulating on the Asian boom. From what I could see (and I’m no expert, I just have eyes), this is unwarranted. Yes, Indian economic growth is impressive. But if the place wasn’t improving I’m not sure how they’d get by at all. We’re talking about a place where thousands die every year shitting on train tracks. There’s no toilets see, so seeing the rails as a useful alternative, pissed up locals stumble about on some sleepers with their robes down before the Chennai Express splats them into a human dosa. We’re talking about a place where cows block traffic, where kids sell postcards for your old museum tickets so they can be made into more postcards, where men pan for the gold of melted jewelry in funeral pyres. We’re talking about a rather strange and wonderful country. It’s amazing. But it’s not going to be taking over the rest of the world anytime soon. The problem is, I think, they’re too steeped in their own culture. They’re too religious. It’s what gives the place it’s vibrancy and colour, but they’re all so deep into it all, making money and developing infrastructure is pretty low on the pecking order for many Indians, in comparison to say, the upcoming holy holiday or a distant relatives wedding traditions.
In comparison, many in China are at a loss to what their culture is. In the east, especially in Shanghai, money is the religion. They don’t have anything else. Culture is for time wasters. The government has streamlined the whole nation (minus the pesky west and their old chum Tibet) into a well-oiled, manufacturing machine. So you’ve got two countries, both massive in population terms, both massive in terms of their economic growth, but polar opposites in nearly every regard. One needs cash, the other needs culture.
Asian insight over. I’ll go get a job now.
Well they arrived. Not quite the fanfare they or indeed I was expecting, but they arrived. The problem was they didn’t tell me what time they were arriving until 3 days prior to arrival. During this time my internet was cut off and I then I went to Hangzhou with Aussie Ben. Therefore, G and Spinks landed in Shanghai at midnight with no idea where to go and no-one there to help them. Luckily a Nigerian bloke called Felix offered them some Jack Daniels and ended up taking them to his brothers’ place for a nap. A wonderful tone-setter for the trip to come if there ever was one. They got hold of me eventually and I gave them the details for the hostel they were booked into. Smooth.
Today I took them to the Bund and Luxun Park. Spinks swam in the lake with all the old guys (we met an old bloke called Mark who loved posing with us in his speedos) and we had a chin-up competition with the pensioners in the outdoor gym. Embarrassingly, G won. Now, the two of them are passed out on my couch (it’s 7pm) and apparently we’re going to pop along to the nightclub Nigerian Felix owns. As I said, a good start.
Apart from this, it’s been all endings and farewells. My last weekend at school was particularly bitter sweet. I had to pose for photos for most of the time as parents queued up with their cameras, trying to force a cheesy smile when all I wanted to do was weep. I’ll miss a lot of the children, they were great fun, cheeky, loud and hilarious. I’ll also miss my favourite verse of The Wheels On The Bus – “Alex on the bus goes “handsome boy, handsome boy, handsome boy…” Self-penned of course, but I’m pretty sure no other group of individuals will be willing to sing that. So, it’s farewell Walawala, and hello to the open road. First stop – Qingdao!
It’s been a hectic week or so, not that I’ve had a hectic work schedule (as if) but I’ve had to fit in a final day’s sightseeing with my parents (we went to some old villages outside Shanghai, enjoyed some drinks in the highest bar in the world and then finished off with a gourmet burger in the French Concession), a date with a Chinese girl (weird) and a weekend on some islands and beaches.
Firstly, it was with a heavy heart I bid farewell to my folks. They managed to squeeze in an inordinate amount of activities into their slender week-wide stopover. I must mention that on the last day when we visited the outlying villages, my banker student had organized and paid for (what a ledge) a driver to scoot us around. Dropping us off back at the hotel my dad reckoned he should tip the guy (despite him taking us to the wrong village at one point). I wasn’t so sure that this was a good idea as tipping can actually be seen as quite offensive here. Many of the locals believe that their jobs shouldn’t require a patronizing extra fee to vindicate their efforts, which is fair enough. Anyway, dad attempted the sly hand-shake with the money in the palm trick. It was just like GoodFellas. Except the taxi driver leapt back like dad had just electrocuted him and waved his hands in the air in horror. Slightly embarrassed, we slunk inside and spent the extra cash on beers.
The date with the Chinese girl was a weird one. It turns out she’s quite smitten with me (not sure why) and revealed to me that the night before we met she had spent hours researching scotland on the internet. Alarm bells were ringing. Then she asked me to rate my feelings for her on a scale of one to ten. Alarm bells were deafening. I diplomatically dodged that bullet and suggested we go for a drink. Chinese girls don’t usually drink but she insisted that back in her uni days she was a bit of a party girl. One rum and coke down she fell asleep on the table. Oh no. I had to rouse her (no ‘a’ in rouse unfortunately) and take her for a reviving walk in the fresh air before bundling her into a taxi. We’re meeting again tonight. Wish me luck.
The trip to the islands was pretty special. Unofficially it was a kind of farewell trip for me and my flat-mate who I’m leaving behind here. He brought his Chinese girlfriend along, which was a lifesaver as she organized everything, from the buses, to the hotel pick-up to even breakfast in the morning. I was very impressed. She even held her drink in the evenings. On the monday we caught the ferry to Putuoshan island, which is a deeply Buddhist influenced little gem in the Pacific. The ferry was crammed with Chinese tourists fighting over seats. When we arrived the dock was crammed with Chinese tourists fighting over tickets. I had some trouble locating my inner peace. Quite removed from being enlightened we marched away from the bus depot and headed for One Thousand Steps Beach. It was completely deserted. The buses didn’t stop there and we had the whole place to ourselves. For the first time in China I had found an untouched beach, totally wild and windswept , the only sign of humanity being a tiny temple perched on the cliffs overhead. It was pretty close to paradise. We spent the rest of our time lounging on beaches and trying not to drown in the sea. I got horribly sunburnt despite the repeated application of lotion. Thanks genetics. So now I’m home, well at least my home for the next few days before Spinks and G arrive, rubbing aloe vera on to my shoulders and plotting more adventures in western China. It’s going to be a good few months!
A new bar has opened just near our apartment, which wouldn’t be such a big deal anywhere else in the world (apart from maybe Saudi Arabia) but as our neck of the woods is not filled with foreigners, bars are as common as Gaddaffi sympathizers. (Ooh, topical). The bar is called The Narrow Gate, they serve beers for 10 RMB (a quid) and jugs of whisky and coke for 50 RMB (you do the maths). Good music is played there and on one wall is a huge hand-painted mural of the Last Supper. Those of a Christian disposition might take offense at getting plastered under the watchful eyes of JC, but I’m pretty sure I can see wine on His table and he looks pretty cool with it. (Admittedly, the artist may have added this, in which case it was a pretty lame Last Supper if it was just bread and water). The best thing about the Narrow Gate are the two Italian barmaids – Boobie and Nose. These aren’t their real names of course, but our affectionate nicknames for them (behind their backs when we’re sniggering about them like naughty school boys). They are both beautiful and seem to have taken a shine to us, especially Australian Ben. We now go frequently just to set up Ben with Boobie, both of whom are very coy until those whisky pitchers add up. There isn’t much point to this entry to be honest, I just thought I’d exclaim my joy that a decent bar is finally within walking distance of my pad. I’d also like to take this opportunity to bemoan the price of going out in downtown Shanghai (as expensive as London at least) and the number of “cool” bars and clubs that are about as fun as hanging out in abattoirs. People who preen at a specific spot in a club, gazing solemnly over the dancing hoards like they’re JC in that Last Supper picture need to get a bloody life. In fact I’m off clubbing in Shanghai completely. I can’t be bothered with the desperate, cloying posturing of the cool-brigade and I can’t be arsed with terrible remixed dance music that sounds like a giant having a cardiac arrest.
In other news, I’m at the provisional stage of planning my trip back west in august. It looks like I will be joined by a couple of hardy souls from Scotland, and it looks like we’ll be bumbling through western china, tibet, nepal and india. Now originally I wanted to continue through the middle-east but as they seem to rather selfishly be protesting for more political freedoms and killing each other, I have been forced to re-think. Now I’m considering a sudden jut north from india to Kazakhstan (by plane unfortunately) and then heading west through there and into the Ukraine before making the final dip into Europe. Better start saving…