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Back from Yunnan and packing for home

Wuxi city centre

We arrived home last night after our journey through Yunnan. We now have two days to get packed and ready to leave Wuxi for good.

Our holiday was brilliant. We were both really glad we decided to visit that part of China before leaving. We took loads of photos, so I will write a separate post about each place we visited. Our favourite places were Dali and Shangri-La, but there were interesting things to see in Kunming and Lijing too. The best thing was seeing the different cultures and ways of living which seem a million miles (and years) away from the high rise buildings of Wuxi.

Our last day in Wuxi is Friday (John’s birthday). We are staying in the historic Peace Hotel on The Bund in Shanghai that night, before flying back to the UK on Saturday.

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Saying goodbye

Dinner at Taste

Today is John’s last day of school. He doesn’t have any actual lessons to teach, but has gone in to sort out files, tidy up and say goodbye to his colleagues. In the meantime, I am at home packing up boxes to be shipped to Switzerland. I have no idea how we managed to acquire so much stuff in one year.

Most of John’s colleagues are flying home for the summer this weekend or early next week, so it has been a week of goodbyes. This is the reason we have managed to eat out every night since Sunday.

On Monday we went to Taste, the same place we went for Christmas Dinner. The owner is a Kiwi (New Zealander, not bird) and the food is excellent. We went with Sarah, Steve, Lisa and Paul, some of the first friends we made here in China. Sarah, Steve, Lisa, John and I all went for hot pot dinner in the first few days of arriving in China when we were all still pretty overwhelmed and unsure what was going on. Of course, we are all experts now. Lisa and Paul are staying in Wuxi, but Sarah and Steve have decided to try their luck in a new school in Qingdao.

On Tuesday, we visited Mark who was staying on the 36th floor of an apartment-hotel in the city centre as he had moved out of his own apartment. He will be relocating to Dalian later in the summer with his wife, Yi Lin. It was great to get  bird’s eye view of the city, although it was a shame the weather was so hazy. Afterwards, we went to a tappenyaki restaurant at the top of the Great Eastern department store. The food is cooked in front of you by the chef, great in theory, but frustrating when you have to wait for the group next to you to get their food before your food is cooked.

Football teams

On Wednesday, I had my last Chinese lesson with Grace. She is moving to Shanghai in the summer to start work in the international department of a high school. After my lesson, John joined us for lunch at a Hong Kong restaurant that serves the best steamed shrimp dumplings in town. It was good to sit and chat. Grace has been a good friend to me. As well as teaching me the language, she was the person who taught me how to get around the city on the bus and showed me where the interesting places are. It has been invaluable having inside information.

After lunch, John played in a staff v students football match. Yes, you did read that correctly – John played football (for the first time in about 20 years). When the students came on looking young and fit in their matching kit, I thought the teachers would be thrashed. In fact, the teachers won 1-0. A good example of age and experience coming top.

The playing/ watching football made us thirsty so afterwards we went to HBO, a bar not far from the school, for beer and burgers.

Last night, the headmaster of the school invited all the foreign teachers (and spouses, luckily) to a meal at an Italian restaurant in the city. The food there is delicious, but the service is a bit random. Many main courses arrived before starters and I ate half someone else’s dinner before being given what I ordered. Never mind, it’s good to share.

So after all the goodbyes and packing today, we will just need to decide where to eat tonight – we have no choice now I have packed the wok.

Staring

John and Giraffe

Wuxi is a small city by Chinese standards (about 5 million people) with a relatively small non-Chinese population. Therefore, whenever we leave the house we are the subject of interest for other people. This is usually benign and can consist of staring and saying ‘kankan waiguoren (look foreigner)’ or even requests for photos.

As a naturally grumpy person, I hate it and have developed a whole new range of hard stares (to add to my already impressive repertoire). I don’t mind people who actually talk to me and ask where I am from etc., especially if they ask in Chinese (thus giving me speaking practice), but the people who just stare make me feel a bit like a zoo animal.

On the other hand, John doesn’t mind at all. Anyone who stares at him gets a friendly wave and ‘ni hao’, all photos posed for and requests for help with English grammar granted without a moment’s hesitation (although, as John teaches maths, not English, his advice might not always adhere to standard rules).

So, does this explain why John cycled to work with a Giraffe today?

Hangzhou

Fountains on West Lake

Last week, we had a really good couple of days in Hangzhou. I am not sure that it is paradise on Earth, but it is very pretty. It is about 2 hours from Wuxi by high speed train and its close proximity to Shanghai makes it a really popular place for Shanghai folks to escape to for the weekend.

Luckily, John had a couple of days off work, so we were able to visit on Thursday and Friday rather than at the weekend. There is a Chinese idiom ‘人山人海’ (Ren Shan Ren Hai) which literally means people mountain people sea – a perfect description of Chinese scenic spots on the weekend.

Accommodation is pretty expensive, but as we are planning to stay in youth hostels when we visit Yunnan in the summer we thought we would have a trial run. The hostel was lovely. We had an ensuite, double room. The bed was a bit hard, but all in all it was great. The best part was the location. It was just off Hefang Lu which is a pedestrianised street full of shops selling snacks and souvenirs and only about 15 minutes walk from the West Lake.

Cap’n John

The West Lake (西湖 XiHu) is the reason Hangzhou is so popular. It is not as big as Tai Hu near Wuxi, but it is much more attractive. We took a boat trip to an Island in the middle of the lake then on to the Louwailou restaurant on the lake shore for lunch. I was especially keen to go to this restaurant as it had a starring role in one chapter of my Chinese textbook (the main character, Mark, visits Hangzhou and meets an informative taxi driver).

For lunch we had West Lake Vinegar Fish (西湖 醋鱼 XiHuCuYu), which is one of the typical Hangzhou dishes (another is beggars’ chicken – chicken cooked in mud, which is smashed at your table). To be honest I wasn’t very keen on the fish, but it was good to try it in the authentic location.

Afterwards we took a rowing boat out on the lake, which was a bit hard work for a relaxing break. We had a paddle each and as John is a lot stronger than me, we spent some time going around in circles and crashing into other boats. Back on dry land we were just in time to see the spectacular fountains which ‘danced’ in time to the music. Very impressive.

In the evening we shopped for souvenirs (tea and old-style propaganda postcards) and visited the food street. There were stalls selling every kind of snack, from tasty kebabs to scorpions and the ubiquitous stinky tofu (it really stinks – like stinky cheese gone bad). One man tried to tempt us by shouting snake at us in English, but I thought that is a treat I could happily live without.

Mountain climbing

View of Hui Shan from the park

On Saturday we (well, John) decided it would be a good idea to walk to the top of Hui Shan, a mountain on the edge of Wuxi. We got up nice and early so we could avoid the midday heat, we also thought it might be a bit quieter first thing.

We reached the park at the bottom of the mountain well before 8am and the place was absolutely heaving. There were hardly any spaces to park our bikes. The park was swarming with people doing Tai Chi (with swords), dancing and generally milling about.

The mountain path has stone steps all the way up. The lower steps were really busy. There were even stalls on either side of the path selling fruit, snacks and various random items.

The crowds thinned as we got higher. The steps were pretty steep and as we made slow and steady progress, we were occasionally overtaken by a wiry Chinese grandfather who looked like he jogged up the mountain every morning.

At the top was a cafe where we stopped for tea and to admire the view. It was a bit hazy, but well worth the effort.

Mangosteen

Mangosteen

There are fruit shops and street vendors selling fruit on every corner in Wuxi. Even in winter the selection was varied and interesting. Now summer is settling in, the shelves are heaving with tempting things, many of which I have never seen before. For example, the picture is of a mangosteen. Only the white bit inside is edible, the purple rind is really bitter. The flesh is really sweet and juicy and a bit mushy. Yum.

My favourite, though, are the melons. Last week the temperature reached 34 C, plus humidity, so the piles of watermelons outside shops were just irresistible, although I nearly collapsed carrying one home.

Visitors and changes

Kennedies in Suzhou

We have had a busy few weeks from the end of April up until now. John’s parents were visiting from the UK. It was great to be able to introduce them to Wuxi and environs. They have been to Hong Kong before, but never to mainland China. They made the most of their time by arranging a tour of Beijing, Xian and Guilin while there were here.

They are currently spending a week in South Korea, but will be flying back to Shanghai for one night only on Saturday. Hopefully we will get the chance to show them the lights of The Bund at night time. The view really feels like something from the future.

I think they have enjoyed their time in China. I was very impressed at their language skills. We arranged a brief lesson for them with my teacher, Grace, and afterwards they were ni hao-ing and xiexie-ing like natives. I also admired their chopstick skills, I don’t think there is a noodle or peanut in China that could get the better of them.

It will be sad to say goodbye on Sunday, but we will be seeing them soon, as well as lots of other friends and family. We have made the decision to move back to Europe this summer, rather than staying for another year. John has a job at a school in Lausanne and now I just need to find something for myself. We will be leaving China on 21 July in order to spend a few weeks in the UK before term starts.

Anyway, we have a lot to do before then. John’s students are now in the middle of exams and I have my own exam booked for 17 June (HSK level II), so all being well, I should have something to show for my studies. We planning a tour of Yunnan Province before we leave. It will be good to have an adventure before we go.

A lesson in bicycle security

A happy man on his trusty bike

Since coming to China, John has fallen in love with cycling. He bought a second-hand bike, with a loose chain, from a colleague and it became Silver to his Lone Ranger.

Even though he cycles to and from work everyday, he still likes nothing better than to zoom off for a ride in the evening or at the weekend, especially now Spring is well and truly here. No trip is too short or too long to go by bike.

Despite this love, he has been very lax about bicycle security. He says that this is because Wuxi people are generally honest, so it won’t get stolen. I wondered whether the real reason was that he didn’t like to keep his trusty friend in chains.

Yesterday the worst happened: He left home to go to the shops and there was no sign of his bike. Usually, it is parked immediately outside our apartment, next to my bike. My bike was still there (safely locked up), but it looked pretty lonely.

We searched everywhere in case the someone had just moved the bike. We even looked in the spooky basement of our building. The basement is a dusty, last resting place for every imaginable type of bike, but John’s wasn’t there. In the end, John came to accept his bike was gone and sadly set off for the shops on foot.

When he reached the security guards’ office at the gate of our area, he suddenly spotted his beloved bike. The guards had taken it in the night to give John a lesson in bicycle security. He muttered something about how they should have better things to do, but I noticed this morning his bike was safely secured.

The Brilliance of Lake Li

John at Lake Li

The sun shone today and it really felt like Spring. John and I cycled to Lake Li to enjoy the good weather. Cycling around Wuxi is quite straightforward. Most of the cycle paths are good, although you do need to watch out for potholes and the occasional ebike rider travelling in the wrong direction. The lake looked lovely in the sunshine.

Out and about again

Blossom

After a couple of week’s of hibernation to recover from colds and hide from the bad weather, John and I decided it was time to go on a bike ride today. I was keen to visit a garden close to Lake Li famous for its plum blossom (Mei Hua Yuan) as the blossom will be gone in a few weeks.

The weather this morning was misty, but as it wasn’t actually raining, we thought we would try it. The garden is about 7km from our apartment and is quite an easy bike ride.

The garden was really lovely and worth a visit. It was good to be able to smell the blossom and listen to the birds. Even though there were quite a few visitors, it didn’t feel too crowded. It was beautifully maintained and had some beds that had been planted with bulbs ready to sprout as soon as the ground warms up. We guessed that some of them must be tulips as they surrounded a miniature Dutch windmill and giant clogs.

After an hour or so, the sky turned dark and it was obviously about to rain. We thought we would risk taking a longer route home between two mountains and over the Grand Canal. So, we got completely soaked in heavy rain. Maybe not the best cure for a cold, but it was a good ride.