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Life is but a dream

Well, let me tell you, nothing says “Welcome back to Shanghai!” like a nice little dose of food poisoning!

Woke up Sunday morning feeling a bit ropey. In retrospect, I did recall that my belly had been a bit, well, noisier than usual in its digestive duties the previous evening, but hadn’t given it much thought at the time. However now I was definitely feeling rather dicey, and there were unspeakably evil things coming o… well, no one needs too many details, I’m sure. But I had plans – I was meeting some friends to go out to the big textile market near Hongqiao Airport, as I have been wanting to get new drapes for the bedroom since we moved in. (Because the ones we have are so awful. And don’t block out any light. So I wake up with the sun every morning. And the first thing I see is awful drapes. That’s just not right.) So I knocked back some Immodium and headed out.

Oh, the public restrooms I befouled in my wake! But I digress.

Normal course of action for this expedition would have been to look around a bit, check out a few different vendors, see a few different things I like, get a few different quotes, go back and forth, haggle a bit, haggle a bit more, then choose which one I really want, haggle a bit more, and pretend to walk away, and then come back and haggle a bit more. But oh god, I couldn’t bear it. I was feeling worse and worse, and getting tired of seeking out new public restrooms to befoul. So, what happened was this: I found something I liked the first place I went, got a price, and walked away, intending to go have a look around. Which I sort of did, except really it was more like, I lurched around in a zombie-like daze, randomly fondling bits of fabric in between semi-crippling gut spasms. I managed to find my way back to the first place and pulled out the estimate the saleswoman had written for me, and said, in some really grotesque combination of English and Chinese, something along the lines of “Look, I really like these drapes, I really want to buy them, but I’m not prepared to pay that price for them, and I am feeling completely rubbish and I want to go home and go to bed and am perhaps about to die, but before I die I’d like to buy these drapes, but I can’t bear to go back and forth and back and forth about it, so the deal is I would like to pay this much for them, so if that’s OK with you then let’s just get it sorted so I can go and continue befouling in the privacy of my home, thanks very much.”

Which worked, no muss, no fuss. (It’s entirely possible she was just terrified of this giant, rambling, groaning, belly clenching foreigner, and would have agreed to just about any price to get me the hell out of there.) So I have to go pick up my new drapes on Friday. Gosh I do hope they’re nice; I was kind of delirious when I picked them out, as I may have mentioned.

Fortunately, around the time I was finished my friend D was ready to go as well, so we flagged a cab back across town. G had taken M to the aquarium for the afternoon, so the flat was nice and quiet (YAY!) I changed back into my jammies and crawled straight into bed. Woke up a little later – not sure how long exactly, but I’m guessing only about an hour or so, G and M still were not home – in a bad, bad way: shaking, teeth chattering, sweating, every muscle and joint aching, etc. I somehow managed to stagger to the medicine cabinet and find a bottle of Tylenol, then go to the kitchen and get a glass of water, find and put on a sweatshirt, then rolled back into bed in a fetal position and passed out again. When I next woke up it was dark out, and G and M were out in the lounge eating a takeaway. Fortunately I was no longer shaky or achy or chattery or sweaty, so I’d passed the worst bit.

Woke up yesterday feeling much better but still pretty fragile, and still arbitrarily plagued by the odd semi-crippling gut spasm. As such I spent pretty much the entire day laying (lying? lying? laying? whatever) on the couch wrapped up in a warm blanket reading books whilst our ever-so-awesome ayi Xiao brought me cups of ginger tea. Which was so lovely, I might just have to pretend I have food poisoning again next week so that I can spend an entire day doing nowt but lay (lie?) on the couch wrapped up in a warm blanket reading books whilst Xiao brings me cups of ginger tea.

Today I’m nearly myself again – tummy still a bit delicate, but generally functioning normally – so I decided to go meet some people for lunch. As in, meet them for the first time. There’s an pretty comprehensive expat website here in Shanghai, aptly named Shanghai Expat, and on their forum boards someone had posted a general invite to meet up for lunch in the Lujiazui area, so I decided, why not. You gotta meet new people, right? Keeps life interesting. The fellow who organised it had chosen Hooters as our cafe du jour. Yes, Hooters; we have a Hooters here in Shanghai. Wouldn’t have been my choice but what the heck, you gotta go somewhere. So I went to Hooters, and met some new people. Nice group – there were 5 of us, 3 already knew each other, myself and another guy were the ‘strangers’ but everyone was cool and it was good company. (No 3 Mile wings for me today though – I had a safe, boring bowl of soup.) So there we are, we’re all eating, chatting, getting to know eachother, and all of the sudden all of the waitresses were around our table clapping. We were like, huh? One of the girls then says “Here we have the five people from the Expat website, they don’t know each other, they come meet eat lunch together, we sing for you now!” And then they sang us two verses of Row Row Row Your Boat.

I’m not quite sure what more I can say about that.

… aaand, we’re back!


Been a while, hey?

Returned to Shanghai just about a week ago, after spending a solid 4 months in the US. Which was about 1.5 months longer than I’d originally expected to be there, but hey ho, life happens. Won’t go into all the details (as it’s, like, not all that interesting a story except to those involved, who already know them, so there’s no point really) so I’ll just say we got in a good bit of this

as well as a couple of days of this

and even managed to squeeze in an afternoon of this

so, that’s all good stuff.

And now, we are here in lovely Shanghai, where I can buy tissues that are named after girls that are named after poop. Great to be back, folks!

Zongzimania

Apologies again for the long break between posts – M and I are off to the US for the summer on Saturday and so have been trying to get a bunch of stuff done, plus see friends before we go (we’ll be away for close to 3 months), all that sort of thing.

But I gotta tell you about last Saturday. Okay today is Wednesday and it is a holiday here, the Dragon Boat Festival. Now in China they do this thing, if a holiday falls during the week, then they have work and school open on the preceding or following weekend, so as not to lose any work days. IT’S RUBBISH. Haven’t really seen my husband properly for 10 days now and even though today is the actual holiday STILL he is at work, because his clients are European and they don’t have it down as a holiday, so they scheduled a bunch of meetings for this week that can’t be rescheduled because of a looming deadline. So M and I will be off to the US and not see G for months and we get no time to spend with him before we go. IT SUCKS. Not G’s fault so I am not angry at him (he is exhausted and stressed to the max as it is) but like I said IT SUCKS.

Ooh, kind of went off on a rant there, hey? Sorry about that. Anyway, what I was starting to try to explain is, because of the holiday mid week, M had school on Saturday. So I dropped her off and on the way back I ran into a woman from the Residents Committee. She invited me to an event they were having in about an hour related to the Dragon Boat Festival. (Regular readers may remember a prior post about a previous event with the Residents Committee; if not, you can find it here.) Apparently actually I had signed up for this event a while back, although I have no clear memory of doing so – I suspect it must be related to a form I filled out when I got my free Expo ticket which contained the question “Are you interested in attended events exploring Chinese culture?”

So, an hour later I found myself in our community room, learning how to make zongzi. These traditional Dragon Boat treats are a sort of rice ball with a date inside, made by forming a cone out of palm leaves, and then stuffing it with uncooked sticky rice soaked in water with sugar, and then you wrap the leaves around to form a parcel and tie it up. Let me just say, I was completely rubbish at it, and all of mine turned out rather lumpen. But it was good fun, and I learned something (for example, what a zongzi is)!

No business like show business

Went back for another visit to Expo on Thursday, this time with Miss M and my friends Michele and Jade, and their daughters Sabrina and Charlotte.

We had a brilliant time, generally skipping the pavilions (who wants to stand in an hour-long queue with 3 four year olds? NOT ME) and just going to shows. Because the kids are small, we went to the Dock Theater earlier in the day and saw the Monkey Journey to the West puppet show. It was really cool, we couldn’t really follow the storyline but it didn’t really matter, it was just fun to watch, although eardrum-shreddingly loud, as is so often the case here (which must be why they all have to shout “WEI?? WEI??? WEI??” into their mobiles at least 20 times in any conversation). The stories of Monkey are a well-known cultural artifact throughout China and is sort of an allegorical account written during the Ming dynasty of the ‘true’ story of a monk named Xuanzang who lived about 1400 years ago and left China on a spiritual journey to India, in order to more closely study original Buddhist teachings. It’s all a bit complicated (so, you know, thanks again, Wikipedia) but suffice it to say that most Chinese kids know the basic tales of Monkey the same way that, say, kids raised in the west (at least the ones raised in moderately Judeo-Christianish households) would know the story of Noah and the Ark, or Jonah and the Whale.

Following that, at the same stage there was a Sesame Street show, sort of a ‘Where in the World is Haibao’ game. (If you don’t know who Haibao is – this is Haibao.) The kids LOVED it, and the muppet costumes were excellent. I can’t even begin to think how hot it must be inside those things though; and we were there on an overcast day, I can’t image when the real humid, hot summer weather hits… blimey.

Then, clearly, it was time for an ice-cream break.

After this we went to the CHA acrobat show, which was completely and totally awesome. This was a seven-act program created around the theme of ‘tea’. (Chinese language lesson of the day: cha = tea.) Now I don’t know about you but I don’t know if I could come up with a seven-act program around the theme of ‘tea'; to be honest, I’d be hard pressed to come up with a single act one. But what do I know. The show was way cool, although I always end up bummed out at the end after watching these people bend like pretzels and balance on the head of a pin about how completely unfit I am. My cross to bear. I especially loved this one section (I believe this was the act entitled “Precious Vessels”) where the performer’s costumes were designed like the traditional blue and white porcelain, it was quite mesmerizing to watch. And we adults were all v impressed with how well behaved the girls were throughout; this was an hour-long show and they are only four, and had just sugared up on ice cream, but they were really engrossed in the program and didn’t get fidgety until well near the end, so we were dead pleased with what good girls we have.

After that, right next to the theater where that was, there was a big Shaolin monks demonstration-y thing with swords and flips and all kinds of cool moves.

Took the ferry across to the Pudong side and had lunch sitting on the sheep at the Netherlands pavilion – chips and croquettes, not exactly a healthy or gourmet meal but what the heck, the kids were happy with it, there was cold beer available, and then after we ate lots of sugary mini pannenkoken which were very tasty. (We’d wanted to eat at the Italian pavilion, but apparently the restaurant there is on the second floor so you can’t just go to the resto, you have to queue up for the pavilion, which seems like bad planning to me but whatever.) The kids loved the sheep but of course, because we had stopped moving for more than 1 second, and there were 3 cute Western girls perched on sheep, suddenly we were the most interesting thing in the entire pavilion, and were surrounded by the paparazzi. It was pretty annoying, trying to relax and eat and fend off the paps. I mean, you try to be tolerant, right, because you know basically they are just people who are excited to see your lovely children and all that, and being at Expo of course there are a lot of what you might call ‘bumpkins’. A bit unkind I know, but accurate. I get that they are excited and these might actually be the very first real live foreign kids they have ever met or are ever likely to meet, but they will do things like just pick up your child and cart them off for a photo op, and you’ll hear your kid screaming because some Chinese person is carrying them away, or is trying to physically arrange their limbs to pose them for a photo. They really don’t intend any harm, they just don’t think about what they’re doing and hey, they were gonna bring the kid back, they were just taking a picture, what’s the big deal? So yeah, like I said, you try to be a bit understanding of their paradigm and not, like, punch them in the face, but it does wear on you and eventually you get a bit snappy with people.

After eating we went over to the big Africa pavilion, which is huge and had no queue and now my new favourite African nation is Namibia, the people there were so friendly and lovely and gave the kids little flags and carved wooden giraffes, which excited them beyond belief. Would have liked to have spent more time inside the Africa bit as I hear there’s a really cool bazaar in the centre but the girls spotted a parade going on outside when we passed the open doors and so there was no stopping them, they were out the door for that. Then we watched some African dancers and then some drummers on one of the stages.

By this time it was getting towards evening and the girls were starting to get a bit shirty and overtired, so we headed for the metro, stopping by Sweden for a play on the climbing frame/playhouse thing they have set up outside there. It was a fab day and the only queue I had to stand in all day was a short one to buy beer!

7 Treasures on Line 9

Everyone in this town has an opinion about Expo and its effects – positive or negative – on this city. One thing I reckon most people can agree on as a positive has been the expansion of the Metro system. Within the past year, several entirely new lines have opened, and existing lines have seen extensions and upgrades. Areas of the city that were previously inaccessible without a car/taxi are suddenly just a subway ride away. For me personally, I now have two subway stations within 5 minutes walk from my house (well, half an hour, if I’ve got to drag Her Royal Highness Princess M with me) – the ‘old’ one, Dongchang Lu station on Line 2, and now, Shangcheng Lu station on Line 9.

Line 9 goes more or less due west, well maybe slightly southwest, and down the line it stops at a place called Qibao. Qibao is an ‘ancient water town’ – it’s one of those places that was a sizable, prosperous canal-crossed town in its own right once upon a time, that eventually was swallowed whole by the ever-growing megalopolis monster that is Shanghai. (There are other of these ‘ancient towns’ not too far away, but Qibao is the only one that is properly ‘in’ Shanghai.) The old ‘town center’ is a preserved/restored tourist destination, and Sunday’s weather was most agreeable, so we decided to hop on the metro and go have a look.

It was super easy to get to – 12 stops and about 30 minutes on the train. Probably would have taken longer to drive, with Shanghai traffic. The subway stop is about a 10 minute walk from the “old street” bit (only 5 if you are able to walk faster than a 3 year old) and pretty well signposted, and anyway you can’t miss it, it’s the bit that looks, erm, old. It was pretty crowded, being a nice weekend day, but I was surprised at how few other Western people we saw – seemed like most of the crowd was Chinese. And of course, many of them want to have their photo taken with that incredibly popular tourist attraction that accompanies us everywhere, Most Adorable Foreign Girl in All of China.

Once you go through the gate into the old-towny bit, you have to run a bit of a gauntlet of shops along a narrow passageway to get to the canal. The shops are OK – some of them have interesting, somewhat distinctive and decent quality stuff, some of them just have the same old tat you can find anywhere where there are markets in town and aren’t so special. It’s a bit like Yu Garden really, although G reckons that the quality of goods on offer is somewhat better (I am not quite convinced.) It’s definitely a bit of a crush to get through though; definitely not recommended for the claustrophobic or agoraphobic. Personally I kind of enjoy all the jostling and the madness of it when I am on my own, but when you are trying to keep tabs on a small child, it can be a bit wearing. Fortunately though it’s just a small stretch, and then you come out into a small plaza by a bridge over the canal.

We decided to take one of the little tourist boat rides – why not – and so piled into one with some random friendly strangers (all of whom seemed dead impressed on scoring a ride with the Most Adorable Foreign Girl in All of China). To be honest it is not much of a ride, you just go a short way down the canal, turn around, go a bit the other way under a couple bridges and then come back, but it was still pretty neat. The boat sat pretty low in the water and rocked quite a bit as the sturdy, no-nonsense middle aged Chinese woman paddled and steered it along, so I kind of wondered if at some point a load of water was going to come sloshing up over the side and soak everyone’s bums on one side or the other of the boat, but this never happened, and hey aren’t we all very grateful about that. The canal along this bit is lined with teahouses and cafes, and it makes for a nice peaceful and picturesque ride . (Well, mostly peaceful; there is a constant recorded announcement playing throughout the old town area, alternating in English and Chinese, that went something something like “Please engage in civilised behavior. Please take care of your belongings.” Over and over and over again.)

We didn’t actually go into any of the teahouses this time, because we had eaten lunch just before we got on the subway and so just felt more like walking around, but some of them looked really quite nice. If we go again, and I imagine we might (or maybe I will go on my own, child-free, now there’s an idea…) I think I’ll plan to arrive earlier in the day and then have lunch at one like this:

Qibao is also home to the Qibao Temple. Aptly named, yes? I tried to do a bit of research on this because there is some question as to whether the temple took its name from the town, or is it the other way around. (By ‘do a bit of research,’ it should be noted that what I really mean is, ‘I had a quick Google’, and not that I did some proper scholarship wherein I examined centuries-old manuscripts with a magnifying glass or anything like that.) The literal translation of “Qibao” is “Seven Treasures”, but no one (in my, erm, incredibly NOT in depth study) seems to know precisely what those seven treasures were exactly, although there are several theories (presumably mostly developed by people who do in fact do real research wherein they examine centuries-old manuscripts with magnifying glasses and that sort of thing.) Anyway. Nothing really remains of the original temple, which was built, oh, rather a long time ago, like over a thousand years ago. It was rebuilt in the Ming Dynasty, which still falls in the category of rather a long time ago, 500 years or so. One imagines it suffered a bit of neglect in the past, say, 60 years or so (for some mysterious reason…) but it was rebuilt/refurbished in 2002.

So anyway, we decided to have a walk over to the temple. It’s about a 10 minute walk from the old town bit; very easy to get to, cost all of about 5 rmb to get in, and was really lovely. After the crowded, noisy old town section, it was a relief – very tranquil, very calming and refreshing. We were certainly not the only visitors, but there were surprisingly few other people. I guess maybe it is not as much of a ‘draw’ as the old town stuff, which is a shame, in a way, but then, not, because if it was maybe it wouldn’t be so relaxing.

M decided we needed to climb up all the floors of the big pagoda (7, of course). As we did we passed a few proper actual Buddhist people making their offerings and saying prayers. So on the way down, M decided that at each floor, she needed to “do the bowing” as well. I gave her a handful of coins and at each floor she would kneel in front of the statue and put her head down, then stand and  put her hands together in prayer formation and perform a short series of bows, then put a coin in the altar box. It was very sweet. I was a little unsure about the propriety of her doing this, though – I mean, we are not a religious family by any measure, but obviously there were people present to whom these temple grounds aren’t just, like, a tourist attraction, and for whom such actions would be meaningfully undertaken, and so I was a bit worried that allowing her to mimic what she’d seen could be interpreted as disrespectful.

But generally I gather Buddhists are a fairly laid-back and tolerant sort of folk, and the other people we encountered as she was ‘doing the bowing’ seemed all quite charmed and apparently found it rather endearing, so I guess it was all good. We had a little talk about it after, while we were walking around the grounds, as we saw some monks chanting and other people praying whilst papers with prayers on them were burned. I explained to her that they were burning the paper so that the prayers on them would turn into smoke and be carried up to the sky. She said, “And then they turn into stars, and you can wish on the stars, and then maybe the wishes come true?” (Someone’s been watching a lot of The Princess and the Frog lately.) I told her it was sort of like that, yes, not exactly, but kind of, close enough, why not.

There was a building that housed the pantheon of Chinese Buddhism deities. If it isn’t obvious enough already that I know pretty much nothing about Buddhism other than that overall Buddhists seem to be fairly groovy, except for maybe Richard Gere , who seems to be kind of a windbag, then let me say it clearly now: I know pretty much nothing about Buddhism, other than the central concept that all of life is suffering, and the sooner you learn to accept that, stop being a whiner and get on with it, the better. (I’m sure I’ve rather oversimplified things, but I understand that’s the basic idea.) So I have no idea what the story is with these dieties, who they are, what they represent, where they come from, or what they can do, but they sure are an impressive-looking bunch. Most of them are pretty freakin’ scary and angry looking to be honest, although the guy on the far right seems a bit more chilled out and grandfatherly. A lot of them are much more like this chap, though:

And seriously, I don’t think I even want to know what the hell is up with this guy:

Anyway. It was a good afternoon, always great to find such a cool place that is so easy to get to. I’ll leave you with a few more random photos I took on the day, hope you enjoy them.

Juicy

Hi folks. Have been trying to finish some stuff I’ve written about our ride on the ‘crazy bus’ and a day trip we took out to a place called Qibao, but am having some trouble uploading photos at the moment and am not sure why. Working on it (by which I mean, I’ve emailed my cousin and said “Waah, fix it for me, waah.”)

So in the interim, I will just throw this observation out there: for those of you who were Seinfeld watchers, do you remember the episode where George Costanza was lamenting the fact that the tomato had never really taken off as a ‘hand fruit’? Well, clearly, George has never been to China.

Misty Mountain Hop

Ok so, let me fill y’all in on our fab weekend break in Moganshan. Probably not going to be all that much in this post that is insightful or thought provoking, mostly just me showing off how lucky I am to be able to do this kind of cool stuff. Deal with it.

We left Shanghai on Friday morning, two families (mine and my friend Cara’s) sharing one car, my friend Jacinta’s family following. It’s about a three hour drive, but each car held two children under the age of 5, so we knew we’d have to take a pee/leg stretching/sanity break somewhere along the way, as well as have a little something to eat. We ended up reaching Moganshan around 1:30.

The drive itself was fine, it’s really quite easy and straight and flat most of the way there. However the weather was very foggy, so we couldn’t see more than 10 meters in any direction. We’d been off the highway for a bit, still all very flat and straight, and we were all like, “Is there a mountain here somewhere? I sure hope there’s a mountain here somewhere. Anyone see a mountain anywhere?”

And then suddenly, we were driving up it. And up it, and up it, and up it. Lots of steep twisty turns on little narrow roads, and what we had to assume (since we couldn’t see anything except the edge of the roadway with a wall of fog beyond it) were sheer drop-offs at every twist. Still we keep going up, and up, and up. We take our best guesses each time we reach a fork in the road, and eventually find ourselves in the (teeny tiny) village of Moganshan. A couple of the guys jump out to ask, in their best mangled Mandarin, if we have missed a turn anywhere, or are we still going the right way. ‘Keep going up’ is the answer. Well, OK then!  We keep going, and turning, and going and twisting. We see a man, emerging like a spirit from the fog. We ask him. He says, “Keep going up the road. It is very twisty and turny.”

steps to car park from House 23

And then, suddenly, we were there.

Now when I say “there”, what I mean is, we have reached the place where we can park the cars. The house it still 132 steps up the mountain. So we horse all the kids and the gear up the steps, and get our first look at House 23. It was lovely! I think it was originally built in the 1930’s, and renovated with much heartbreak and hard labour a few years ago by a fellow named Mark Kitto, a former Welsh Guardsman with an interesting story to tell. So interesting in fact that he’s written a book about it, called China Cuckoo: How I lost a fortune and found a life in China. Haven’t yet read it myself but it’s on the bedside table (G is reading it first.) It’s run as a B&B, but we booked the whole house as a group, which I can’t recommend highly enough doing. There were 6 families in all (3 arrived later in the evening), almost all of us with children under 5, so this meant we could let them have the run of the place without worrying that they might be disturbing other guests, and basically that we could take over the space and leave our things around in the common areas to come back to later if we fancied.

Actually taken Sunday (when it was sunny) and not Friday (when it wasn't)

We stashed our gear and had a nosey around the place. Very cool. Pretty much everything you might want in a mountain getaway spot – cozy but not small, a lounge with a woodburning stove and comfy leather sofas, a bar room (by night)/childrens play space (by day), dining room, and six charming bedrooms each with clean and bright Western-style en suite. Lots of little containers with mountain wildflowers tucked into them sprinkled around the place. Reminded me a bit of the classic images of a Provence farmhouse. Except, you know, on a mountain in a bamboo forest in China.

Although it was a bit drizzly, once this first group of us settled in a bit, we decided to go on a little walkabout, just to explore a little. We walked a little further up the mountain to House 25 (a smaller cottage, run by the same people), and then a bit beyond that, but the trail started to get a bit muddier than we wanted and so we turned back. And then we set about the serious business of relaxing, while we waited for the rest of the group to turn up. The kids wasted no time dragging out their toys and quickly settled into crafting elaborate fantasy scenarios involving princesses and trucks and towers and balls, and the adults headed off for pursuits such as napping, curling up with a good book, and cocktails (none of which are mutually exclusive.)

As the afternoon turned to evening, the house was filling with the most amazing smell of roast chicken. There were three women working in the house (two I think live there on site) and you can order meals in advance of your stay. Because we were renting the whole place, we also could share use of the kitchen, but we’d made a group decision that on the night we arrived, we’d take the easy route and let someone else do the cooking. SUCH a good choice.  As the other families arrived, we tucked into a delicious meal of roast chicken with fresh herbs, roast potatoes and veg. I haven’t had a roast dinner like it since leaving England, I tell you. It was beautiful. After dinner, slowly but surely we got the kids tucked away to bed, and it was time for the grown-ups to fire up the wood stove, put on a little music and REALLY relax. Some drinks and some good conversation with some good company. Perfect.

Saturday it was still quite misty, but less so than the previous day, and not raining, so although we couldn’t see any grand sweeping valley vistas, it was still a great day for hiking – cool and fresh. After hearty helpings of bacon and eggs, we packed up our picnic lunches and set off  down one of the trails in search of Chairman Mao’s House. Apparently this is a former hotel he once stayed in, then liked it so much he had it appropriated by the State and declared it for his own use. Or something. I’m not 100% clear on the history. We saw many other lovely old villas along the way, clearly built back in the day when wealthy Europeans would escape the Shanghai summer heat in these cool green hills – some seemingly lovingly tended, some suffering serious neglect. It’s a funny place;  because the government owns it all – land, buildings, all of it – you can’t buy these old houses, only lease them for as long as and until the government feels like letting you do so. So you could spend the time and money to fix an old decaying place up, only to have the government say “Well thanks for that, we’ll have it back now” (which is very nearly what happened to Mr. Kitto, I gather). Anyway, we found Mao’s house, saw his sitting room, his dining room, his official paper-signing room. It was… really boring. But the tour bus load of Chinese people all seemed pretty chuffed to be there, so hey, good for them.

Our real destination for the day was the waterfall, so we carried on meandering down the mountain (always in the back of my mind was the knowledge that we would have to go back UP the mountain too, but I tried to ignore that) and enjoying the scenery. Again as it was still pretty misty we didn’t get too many breathtaking views at the ridges, but we did see other cool stuff, like this temple:

and for the kids of course it was quite exciting to find all manner of critters along the way – snails (big ones!), toads, salamanders, big shiny beetles, many many butterflies. Also there were flocks of free-ranging chickens and ducks in the forest as well that we’d spot from time to time. All very novel to our citified young’uns.

The hike down to the waterfall was steep and the hike back up even steeper. It was beautiful though, and I was so impressed with all of the kids. The two littlest ones were in a sling and a back carrier, but the older ones all really held their own and did most of the climbing both ways under their own steam. A little nerve-wracking for the moms and the dads – one tumble could do quite a bit of damage, and the steps were really narrow, and not quite level in many spots, and you can bloody well forget about there being handrails. M had one tumble early on but it was minor, and after she’d had a good bitch and moan about how “I don’t like this dirty hiking!” she enjoyed herself the rest of the way.

Did about half the hike back up the mountain, this time more ‘straight up’ than the meandering route we’d taken down, and emerged near Moganshan Lodge (also run by the Kittos). The staff there was cool with letting us eat our packed lunches at their picnic tables, so long as we bought drinks from them. As they sell beer, we found this a most agreeable proposition. And because it’s a small world, we ran into another couple there that G and I know, that live in our apartment complex in Shanghai. We’d just met them a week or so earlier, at someone else’s barbecue, and it emerged in that conversation that we’d all be in Moganshan at the same time, and “Hey, maybe we’ll run into you on the mountain!” And so there you have it, we did. Introduced them to our mates and it turns out that they are from the same neighborhood in Melbourne as Jacinta’s mum, and so it goes.

After our leisurely lunch, we hiked the rest of the way up the mountain. The remainder of the afternoon was spent much the same way as the first: napping, playing, reading, exploring, and so forth. Again, so great to have the whole house, so the kids can just hang together as a ‘pack’, and as parents we could sort of come and go, knowing that there was always a set of adult eyes on them. So some people could nap, some could read, some could hang with the kids, and then swap around after a bit.

And then – it was BBQ time!

Each family had brought some stuff for the grill, and we’d pre-ordered some big bowls of green salad and potato salad to be made, so the men got busy with meat and fire and we had ourselves a feast. The kids were easily dispatched to bed shortly thereafter, what with having been sufficiently exhausted by copious quantities of fresh air, exercise and grilled meat, and it was another chilled out casual evening around the wood stove for the grown ups. As we were something of an international group to begin with, someone came up with the idea of making a list of all the countries visited between us – I believe we came up with a suitably impressive 72! Europe, North America, Asia and republics of the former Soviet Union were well covered, but we had a surprisingly poor showing for Central and South America, and not too many African nations either. Oh and the Balkan states were rather underrepresented. Still though amongst 12 people, I reckon 72 is not bad.

Sunday dawned bright and beautiful, with the sun working hard to burn off the morning mist. For the first time we were treated to some stunning valley views. After another delicious breakfast, we set out for a final hike. This time we took a fairly easy route, with a few minor ups and downs but mostly fairly level, not too challenging. The path was wide and clear; this was a sort of ’round walk’ at the top of the mountain that is pretty well traveled and takes you around to several scenic viewpoints and landmarks. Perfect after the previous day’s down-the-mountain-and-back-up-again journey; my thighs were still feelin’ that. We passed above a tea plantation, and got to see some “queer stones”. (That’s how they were labeled on our map, but honestly, I’m not sure how anyone would know; I didn’t see a single rainbow flag or pink triangle amongst them.) At one point we turned at a ridge and spotted this cool looking rope bridge and pagoda off in the distance:

So we carried on trekking over thataway, and that was a fun adventure. M was a little nervous on the rope bridge – well, it is a bit shaky shaky, but it was quite wide and stable really. The bit with the little red roof , is actually a little glass walkway thingy that takes you out over the edge a bit. The kids thought this was just the most amazing thing! The adults were somewhat less impressed, not just because we’re a bunch of old cynical cranks but because right below the glass there is a web of metal rods, which kind of takes away much of the sense of “ooh look, there’s nothing underneath me!”. But still it was pretty cool.

We finished our walkabout and ended up back at the house in the late morning. In theory checkout was to be 12:00, but the folks running the place had told us earlier that as there were no guests coming in for that day, there was no rush for us to go and we were welcome to stay on into the afternoon, have a lazy lunch and relax if we fancied. Which we so did. Whilst some kept the kids occupied, a few of us hit the kitchen and combined all of our remaining food (a surprisingly large amount, and no one wanted to truck very much back down the hill to take home), and prepared a sizable and tasty buffet lunch to eat out on the sunny front terrace.

As always, however, all good things must come to an end, so eventually we had to finish packing up and head home. It was a great time. Oh I forgot to mention, at the start of the trip, we didn’t all know each other. I mean, each family knew at least one of the other families, but no one knew everybody, because the whole trip came about as a result of a conversation between myself, my friend Alexia, and two other friends, Zena and Marita, back in early April. At the time the four of us said “Let’s book it!”, figuring we could get two more families on board between us. And then Zena’s husband was transferred to Singapore (boo hoo, I miss my friend!), and Marita realised there was a conflict with another event her husband had planned. So between Alexia and I, we sent out lots of emails and asked around and got others interested, but as I say in the end we had a group where not everyone knew everyone.  But we had faith that, you know, we’ll all get on fine, and a weekend is enough time that we’ll get to know each other, but not so much time that we’ll get sick of each other. And of course it all worked out really well; we had plenty of ‘together as a group’ time, and plenty of ‘family’ time, and ‘individual’ time, and the kids were super well behaved on the whole (probably because all the parents were so relaxed) and it was just totally cool. And we are all agreed, we must do it again sometime.

Laowais in the mist

Aaaahhh. Rest and relaxation.

Have escaped the city for the weekend. Along with 5 other families, we have booked a lovely old villa on top of Moganshan, a mountain about 3 hours drive from Shanghai. Here’s a video of where we are staying ( I didn’t shoot this, it’s a promo video from another internet site). The video is a bit twee and the voiceover chick is a bit annoying but it’s a nice look at the place nonetheless.

Will have lots more to say about it and some nice pics (I think) soon but right now just enjoying peace, quiet, and fresh air. Aaaaaaaahhh.

Expomania

Hey ho, finally got around to taking myself to the Expo yesterday! I couldn’t spend too long there, as I had to get home by 4 to collect M from kindergarten. But mainly my goal was to get over there, have a look around, get the lay of the land, etc so that I could plan a good day out with the family sometime in the near future. So although I didn’t go into many of the pavilions, it was a good opportunity to reconnoiter. Overall I’d say it’s not awful, it’s not fabulous, although there are things about it that are fabulous, and things about it that are awful.

I thought it would be nice to take the ferry there, since the Dongchang Lu Ferry Entrance Point is, like, a block from where I live. And it was sort of nice, in that the ride itself was nice. The not nice bit about it though is that where it dumps you off is in, like, the most boring bit of the whole Expo site, which is a bit of a drag. Unless you get really turned on by the idea of visiting the China Aviation Pavilion, which, fair enough, some people might. Not me though. So I had to go off in search of something more interesting. Fortunately there are a number of buses that cruise around the site, so I hopped on one of those to see where it would take me.

As it happened, it dropped me off somewhere near the “Footprint Pavilion”, which was all about the development of cities. I had actually wanted to see that, so I decided to join the queue (everything has a queue). Now… here’s the thing. First of all let me say, I do try to always bear in mind that I am a guest here, and that I have freely(ish) chosen to live in this country in which beliefs, customs and behavior may at times jar uncomfortably with my own. And of course stereotyping and generalistions are just that. So I’m somewhat reluctant to make sweeping statements containing ideas to the effect of “Chinese people are like this” or “Chinese people are like that”. But. The fact is, queuing in a crowd of Chinese people is not a pleasant experience. OK fair enough: queuing almost never is. But Chinese people have a very different concept of “personal space” than those of us from, well, not-China. So as we snake through the barriers, everyone is just completely pushed up right against everyone else and shimmying to get ahead an extra centimeter. On top of that, all of the other joyous public personal grooming sights one can witness here are on full display as well – the nosepicking, the spitting, the ear-cleaning. And also of course, the smoking and the spitting. It’s pretty full on.

At one point, there was a group of women behind/next to/around me and they were all talking about me, it was pretty entertaining. My Chinese language skills are far from brilliant, but I know enough that I could catch most of what they were saying. Mostly they were talking about my boobs (well, they are big, what can I tell ya), and about my ankle tattoo, and trying to figure out where I might be from, that sort of thing. But it was just really funny, listening to them speculate and hypothesize about everything abut me, thinking I couldn’t understand them. After a while, just for laughs, I just casually pulled my mobile phone out of my bag and called my ayi (housekeeper) and had a short but completely fluid conversation in Chinese with her, asking her if she was feeling OK (she’d been sick earlier in the week) and telling not to worry about picking up my husband’s clothes from the cleaner as I’d already done it the previous day, and letting her know what time I expected to be home. Man, those women had suddenly gone awfully quiet.

The Footprint Pavilion itself was OK but not what I expected, I thought it would be more about future urban planning but actually it turned out it was all about how cities evolved in different parts fo the world. Which isn’t awful or anything, but I kinda feel like, I already knew about that. There were exhibits on ancient Greece (a walk through model of part of the city if Troy), Rome, Egypt, some Assyrian statues etc etc.  I mean this is all good stuff and if you are your average Chinese person for whom this is your first and maybe only time to ever see this sort of thing it’s probably more impressive, but I was like “Yeah but, I’ve been to the British Museum like a hundred times.” As well as of course studied the history of Western Civilization in college. So between the queuing and the fact that a lot of it was stuff I in which already had a pretty good grounding, this pavilion maybe wasn’t the best use of my time. That said, everything in there was very well presented and well done, and I did enjoy it (the queuing part, not so much), especially this cool scroll thingie from the Qing Dynasty depicting scenes in the cit of Suzhou:

I could only get those two pics and then some guy came and yelled at me for taking photos of it. Oops.

After this I made my way across the river and had lunch in the Luxembourg Pavilion. Now given all the options, Luxembourg might seem an odd choice. How many times have you found yourself sitting there thinking “You know, I could really go for some good Luxembourgian food right about now”? But the thing was, I was hungry, and I wanted to eat someplace that I thought would be uncrowded and fairly quiet. So I thought – and I mean no disrespect to the good people of Luxembourg here – I thought, well, Luxembourg is a small place where not much happens and probably there won’t be many people there like there would be in, say, the restaurants in the Italy or Thailand Pavilions, so I’m going to Luxembourg. And I had a nice beer and some sausages and mash and it was lovely.

After that I just had a bit of a wander around the European Zone, jut getting a feel for where stuff is really. I’m drop dead tired right now so instead of going on and on about it, I’ll just get some photos up for now, sorry I don’t have the energy to explain what everything is just now, but I’ll be going again sometime and hopefully will be able to explain it all much better then!

It’s curtains for you! But not me.

Oh this day. Grrr.

It’s not like anything so bad has happened, it’s just that it’s, like, one of those days where a bunch of small things all kick in one after the other, and ya just feel like, can I have a do-over? Just go back to bed and then get up and try it again from the top, because this just isn’t working out?

The first issue: the weather. OK fair enough, weather happens. Sometimes it rains. I understand. If that had been the only thing that didn’t go the way I wanted today, you know, it would have been no biggie. But it set the tone for the day, I guess.

Because it was raining pretty heavily in the morning, I didn’t get out to start trying to do the things I actually wanted to get done until close to noon. The main thing I wanted to accomplish today was to get some new drapes made for the bedroom. The ones in there now are white, and very thin – which means we wake up with the sun every morning, like it or not. I HATE THIS. I do not want to get up one minute earlier than I absolutely have to.

G needed to go into the office for a few hours, so that meant I had to take Miss M with me on this excursion. Now, I love my daughter dearly, of course I do. But I’m sure every single one of you out there who has ever had a small child knows, and I’m sure those of you who haven’t can well imagine, that even the simplest of errands becomes infinitely and exponentially more complicated when aforementioned small child is involved, in any way. In retrospect, I should never have attempted this today with her in tow and instead spent the day on the sofa watching The Princess and The Frog eight times in a row, but as we all know, hindsight is 20/20.

Anyway. The biggest cock-up of the day is the fact that I didn’t really know where I was going. Through the help of a local expat website, I got some information about an area where there are (apparently…) a number of shops that do made-to-order curtains and drapes at reasonable prices. I didn’t have a specific address, just the name of a particular street (Yishan Lu) and a cross street (Yude lu). Here is what should have been my warning: I checked the map, and it showed that Yishan and Yude do not, in fact, intersect. They do come fairly close though, so I figured, OK, I know the zone I need to head for, and there is a metro station nearby which is on one of the lines that is also very near where I live, so it’s fairly easy to get there so I’ll just go and have a wander and I’m sure we’ll find one of these many shops that are (supposedly…) right there.

HA bloody HA.

You can guess how well that worked out, hey?

First of all, just getting to the metro station – a block and a half away – took an age, as M needed to splash in every puddle en route, stop for a snack, stop for a drink, stop to look at a child mannequin in a store window, stop to look at a shiny thing by the side of the road, stop to amuse herself by spinning her umbrella, and really generally just stop walking at random intervals. Eventually what felt like about an hour later, we get to the station and board the train. This part of the trip is mercifully uneventful. About 9 stops later, we emerge. I start walking to where I think I’m meant to be looking. No curtain shops. I see every other kind of home-related shop: tiles, timber flooring, windows, wood screens, kitchens, bathrooms, carpets, wallpaper – on and on and on, but not a single shop that does textiles. I try another nearby street. And another. Circle back and try another.

Mei you.

Bear in mind it is humid and sticky as a swamp; and I am carrying a big shopping bag containing a) a large throw pillow which has all the colours in it we have in our decorating scheme so I wanted to have it with me to help me choose a suitable pattern of fabric and b) a panel of the existing drapes so I can show what I want and what size since my Chinese isn’t great; and most pertinently, I’ve got miserable bitching 4-year-old attached to the end of my arm reciting a continual monologue of whinge.

So, I’m like, fuck. this. noise. (Sorry for the swearing, but that is actually exactly what I thought, so it’s not gratuitious.) I’d told M that if she was really good whilst Mummy went to the curtain shop, we’d go to the Barbie Store afterward. Well she really wasn’t especially good, actually she was rather a pain in the ass but I didn’t fucking feel like dealing with the moaning I’d have to endure if we didn’t go, so we grabbed a cab and headed for Barbieland. (That sentence did contain gratuitous swearing, it’s true.)

We went to the Barbie Cafe first for a late lunch/early supper. I love the Barbie Cafe. It’s really good. In general our time at the Barbie Store was good, really the best part of the day (not that there was a lot of competition of that department, but anyway…) I won’t go on about it now as I’ve written about it before – here’s a link to my previous post about that, in case anyone is interested.

I got to see the new Debbie Harry Barbie, about which I have seriously conflicting feelings. She’s the first of the new series of dolls called “Ladies of the 80’s.” On the one hand I’m like, well, hell yeah, of course she should be, too f’ing right. (See, reining in the swearing now.) But on the other hand I’m like, ‘…really? I mean, really?’

So, yeah, having a nice time at the Barbie Store, the afternoon might not turn out to be a total disaster, eh? OOH NOO. On the way out, M catches her fingers in the opening doors of the elevator, screams until the walls shake. (Fair enough – it hurt, I’m sure.) She’s fine, no lasting damage, but it meant we had to shoot back upstairs in the lift to the cafe, and get some ice. OK, it’s not a major tragedy, no trip to the emergency room or anything, but it totally takes the wind out of her sails and she curls up under my arm and starts sobbing that she ‘just wants to go home’.

Which we do. Except the first cab I get doesn’t want to go to where I want him to go, so then I have to try to get another one. On a rainy day on a main shopping street in Shanghai, it can be nearly impossible to get on taxi, let alone 2. So I stand there on the street with my crying kid for half a century, whilst other people unencumbered by a crying child of their own jump nimbly in front of me anytime a free cab appears so they can snag it first. Eventually I got annoyed enough by this that I whacked the next guy who tried this move in the shins with my umbrella and tripped him. Of course, from all appearances, it was a completely innocent accident…

*sigh* Minor trials and tribulations in the grand scheme of things, I know. It’s not exactly true human suffering. BUT GODDAMN IT, it was a really frustrating, stupid, useless day. Can I please have a do-over?