March 26th, 2011

My wife, thanks to one of her hobbies being not just shopping, but getting stuff incredibly cheap, has quite a talent for finding super cheap markets. It turns out that one of them is a short drive from here. Hell, it’d be a short bus- or bike ride, but in her current collossal belly state she’s avoiding both. Not only is it a short drive, but it’s a short drive along roads that are never heavily trafficked, even on weekends when the traffic restrictions don’t apply. What’s best, though, is that this particular market is of the intriguing variety that even I can enjoy.

Trouble is, I don’t want to reveal where it is. It occured to me on last weekend’s trip to this market that if too many foreigners start showing up there, prices will go the Panjiayuan way. I love Panjiayuan, but I loathe having to bargain.

This market sells Stuff. Vast quantities of Stuff. Some of it new, some used, some fell off the back of a truck, some scavanged or salvaged, some excess or leftover from whatever production run or sales promotion, even some food and drink a bit over its use by date. Or quite a bit over its use by date. Some things there you examine with extra care.

Among numerous other things of a stereotypically girly nature, my wife likes to buy shoes there. In her attempts to rival Imelda Marcos, I’m sure the floor of the large hangar half-full with shoe stalls has become very familiar with her footsteps. The first weekend I drove her over there, a few weeks ago now, I noticed a couple of stalls outside the shoe hangar selling books, but I didn’t get a chance to examine them. Last weekend we went back with the mother in law. After a bit too much time dragging along behind the women through the shoe hangar, I was told, run along and play, we’ll meet up later. Sweet. And so I ran along to these book stalls. And now I’m hooked.

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the waiting game

March 26th, 2011

…and so we wait.

The hospital’s alright. We know that because it’s so crowded. There wouldn’t be such a huge demand for its services otherwise.

Based on my experiences those times I’ve accompanied my wife to a check up, Monday mornings are worst. Friday midday and early afternoon isn’t too bad, although the lack of newspapers at the kiosk in the main lobby was a worry. Still, I got me a paper. See, the waiting is so interminable for those of us there in a support role that reading material is essential for me. And then the waiting reached the point where I wandered out of the hospital grounds and down to the nearest newsagents for a couple of magazines. Hospitals of this nature have an awful lot of doors bearing signs saying things like “no men beyond this point”, or even “no family members”.

Naturally enough, considering this hospital’s specialty, there’s a multitude of women in various stages of gravidity, from barely bumpy bellies up to centre of gravity thrown way off and moving oddly in order to maintain balance. But somehow today seemed to feature a lot more little warmly-wrapped bundles bearing tiny, bamboozled, overwhelmed and incredibly sleepy-looking babies. Still, considering how much there is to take in when one has just popped out into this world, it’s no suprise how these newborns looked. Indeed, considering the massive sensory overload a newborn must experience, let alone all the indignities a baby must suffer, it’s probably a good thing that it takes so long for babies to start developing memories.

And I had the good fortune to be born on what is by global standards a goodly-sized island in a country that had at that point maybe 3 million people and roughly 20 times as many sheep. The sheep population has since shrunk drastically, while the human population is roughly a fifth that of Beijing. And here we are waiting for our firstborn…

Waiting. 40 weeks and counting, and the only problem the doctors saw today was that there’s no sign of this baby popping out to meet us in the next few days.

my first Beijing rush hour

December 8th, 2010

…well, my first and second Beijing rush-hours as a driver, that is. I picked up my licence on Monday afternoon and got home in time to quickly whip around to the nearest carwash and get the car cleaned up. Tuesday after class I had time to take the car for a bit of a spin on the relatively lightly-trafficed roads around here. Today, though, was my first day of really serious driving in China.

Today I survived two bouts with Beijing rush-hour traffic and a mad mission to an obscure spot just inside the North 4th Ring nearby the Bird’s Nest, but buried down a wee lane, to pay a vehicle tax that from now on will be paid with the compulsory insurance – and therefore will no longer require a trip to that mysteriously hidden branch of the tax department.

Things I learnt:
1: Beijing rush-hour traffic is less daunting than I expected. Maybe that’s cos of all these years as a pedestrian and cyclist in Chinese traffic – including much worse than Beijing.
2: Driving is a lot like falling off a bicycle. Seven and a half years after having last driven, I feel quite comfortable behind the wheel, like I’m just getting used to an unfamiliar car (which is true taken on simple face value as well).
3: Mandopop is supremely suited to driving in mad traffic. Those silky, smooth, polished harmonies are the perfect antidote to the cacophony of the road. It’s calming, indeed, soothing, in other words.
4: It feels great to be driving again, it’s finding a place to park that’s a major pain in the arse.
5: Buses can be very useful. Changing lanes and turning they create large holes in the traffic that you can use to your advantage – unless the guy in the miandi behind you is cranked up on methamphetamine and his first ever double espresso and determined to demonstrate via his driving that he has the biggest dick in all of East Asia. Has? Is, perhaps…
6: Buses can be equally intimidating if you happen to be on the other side – the side that is being held back to create that hole in the traffic. Especially so if your car is small enough that the 1300cc engine provides all the power you could need. But the drivers don’t want any more trouble than you do, so claim your space if it is safe to do so.
7: I am an extremely vocal driver. Many another road user was told what they should be doing in no uncertain terms. “No, I have the right of way and you are going to stop now” in at least one case. “Bugger off back to Henan, fool”, in another case. But that SUV with Henan plates was being driven especially insanely. One thing I will miss when we head back to Aotearoa is being able to tell from the licence plates which province and/or city a car has come from. I think that was the first time ever my wife told me to shut up. Certainly the first time she ever thought I was talking too much. But don’t worry, I’m not a vocal driver in the getting in a fight sense, just in a quietly venting sense.

football and cars

November 10th, 2010

It’s been an interesting few days.

On Saturday a few of us foreign teachers went round to The Den where we met up with a couple of friends. Then we wandered over to the East Gate of Workers’ Stadium looking for a scalper. After a bit of to and fro we got enough tickets at what we felt was a reasonable price, and the others went in while I waited at the gate. All the others in no hassle, I gave the scalper his money and joined them. Then we went through a security check and found ourselves in the grounds surrounded by a large group of people wearing green, a smaller but far more disciplined group wearing a slightly more subdued shade of green, and a large group in dark blue, some with alsations on leashes.

The large group in green were the Beijing Guoan supporters. To be expected in Beijing, of course, especially it’s Guoan playing. They were a good-natured bunch, really, moving in their various groups towards their various gates with their flags, scarves, vuvuzelas, green devil horns and various other bits and pieces.

And there was security in spades. People’s Armed Police in green, and PSB, thousands of PSB. Some, stationed at various posts. Dog handlers lined up in perfect rows near the gates. Others, patrolling. And their vehicles parked in strictly regimented rows inside the gates, including, by the north gate, the kinds of vehicles I would really rather never see used in anger. And after a fruitless search for scarves, we found our gate and entered the stadium to find more security. PSB on patrol, of course, but men in not-terribly-expensive-looking suits, some on patrol, others stationed at particular points. We found seats, and saw out on the athletics track more security. This time men in what looked like police-issue uniform trousers and shoes and black nylon bomber jackets stationed in two rows, one inner one outer, at intervals of two or three metres all the way around the track, sitting on chairs with feet apart and hands on knees, staring seriously and intently at the crowd. We saw those last group move only when ordered to stand for the national anthem and then sit down afterwards. One did move his hand to deflect a paper airplane that was about to hit his knee -and in doing so earned a small cheer from the crowd in our corner, but otherwise they remained perfectly motionless the entire time.

At the opposite end of the field on the upper tier of the stand just below the scoreboard was a tiny group dressed in bright blue. A distinct line of dark green around their section of the stand revealed they had a very heavy People’s Armed Police guard. They must’ve been the Jiangsu Shuntian supporters. They tried to get a few chants going in the build up to the game, but the large mass of bright-green bedecked Guoan supporters in the central stands closest to them quickly shouted them down with one of the Guoan supporters’ more notoriously vulgar chant. That was fun from the “teach my colleagues rude Chinese words” point of view. But the Shuntian supporters seemed to be outnumbered by their PAP guard, from what I could tell through Saturday’s rather thick haze, and never had a show against the sheer weight of numbers Guoan musters on its home field.

We were in the northeast corner of the stadium. The Ultras, so I was informed by a friend who’s attended a few Guoan games, were that especially green, especially loud, especially passionate group not far around the curve in the northwest corner. The two other densely packed green sections straddled midfield on either side of the pitch. I found it particularly cool when the Ultras and the crowd at midfield on the east side got a call-and-response thing going, with us in the middle seeing these chants fly through the air between the two groups.

The game started, and the first half wasn’t much to talk about. Guoan was definitely the dominant and more agressive team, but they seemed to lack urgency or much idea of a game plan. Shuntian, although very weak on offense so far as I could tell, did have one huge asset in a very tall, well-built defender who looked perhaps Arabic so far as could be seen through the haze and failing light, who had that magic ability to be everywhere the ball was and stop it from moving towards the goal. And not just the ball. A Guoan player tried to get around him but literally bounced off him the way a tennis ball bounces off a concrete wall. But a Shuntian player fouled in the box, and Guoan had a shot on goal. It should’ve been easy: one on one, and the goalie has no way of knowing which way the ball is going to fly until it’s in the air, and the spot is so close the goalie has no time to correct himself if he guesses wrong. And what happened? The Guoan player hoofed it so high over the bar it looked like he was shooting for the moon. Well, slight exaggeration, but it should’ve been an easy goal, and it was right in front of us.

The second half was more of the same until about halfway through when, way down at the far end of the field we saw a flurry of activity and a ball entering the net. The crowd, including us, was instantly on its feet roaring with long-delayed satisfaction. And this, finally, brought some urgency to the game. Both teams came back out firing, although with Guoan still the more dominant. Shuntian made the Guoan defence work – although their offense wasn’t great – and Guoan threatened the Shuntian goal a few more times. But fulltime came with Guoan winning 1-0.

A pleasing result, to be sure, but the best part by far was the atmosphere. And I don’t mean that thing that should’ve been a perfectly clear mixture of gases dominated by nitrogen that became increasingly opaque as darkness fell. Our corner was a relaxed, easy-going bunch looking for some decent football and a hometown win. To our left and right were the more passionate supporters, but they, too, seemed to be out more for the enjoyment of it.

And so we wandered out feeling good about the world and headed back to The Den for nutrition and liquid refreshment.

Crossing the road I thought we were about to see a great example of people power as the sheer mass of the green-bedecked created two small traffic jams, one that would be northbound, and one that would be southbound. But a southbound bus driver called the Guoan supporters’ bluff. Oh well, you can’t win them all.

I’ve never liked The Den. It’s the kind of place that leaves me desiring a long, hot shower with bucket-loads of soap. It’s something about the sheer number of sifty older men, the crowd they attract, and the vibe they create. Still, it’s tolerable as a place to meet and a place to watch the sports one can only watch via satellite TV. To make it worse, I’d been feeling a bit rundown, tired and headachy the whole day. More importantly, having a pregnant wife waiting at home really cut down on any desire to stay out late. But I hung out for a while, then left my friends with money to cover my share of the bill and headed home.

Sunday was just as much fun. We headed over to a Suzuki dealer not far from here to look at a few cars. The two models we were most interested in were the new Alto and the Gazelle. We had a look at the new Alto, but as soon as I got in the driver’s seat, I said no way. There’s something about the way the roof curves down into the windscreen that makes me feel like half my vision is cut off, and there’s no way I’d want to drive feeling like that. Not only that, but it had close to zero boot space (the old Alto could fit a fold-up bicycle – I know from experience) and very little room for passengers. The Gazelle, on the other hand, felt perfectly comfortable, had plenty of boot space, and room for passengers (although not for an adult passenger behind the driver’s seat if I’m driving – I need to push the seat back all the way to accomodate my legs). And so we indulged in the best form of impulse buying and bought one.

While we were waiting for the paperwork to be processed we tried all the other models on offer except the Grand Vitara. The SX4 and Swift had the same visibility issue as the Alto. Only the Jimny was one I would feel comfortable driving based on that visibility issue, but we don’t want an SUV, it’s out of our price-range, and two-door vehicles aren’t so convenient for getting infants in and out of.

Today I met my brother in law at the dealer and we picked up the car, got some petrol, and headed off to get the car tested and registered. As he’s the only one in the family with a valid driver’s licence (I’m still in the process of getting my New Zealand licence converted to a Chinese licence), he’s the only one who could legally drive the car.

I never really thought I’d ever have to teach somebody to drive. I certainly never thought I’d have to teach somebody to drive in what is in chronological order the fourth foreign language I have studied, or in terms of actual ability, my second language. If it had occurred to me that I may need to, at some stage in my life, teach somebody to drive, I certainly never thought I’d have to do that in any foreign language. But it very soon became clear that although he had learnt how to operate a motor vehicle, his skills weren’t great, and he had absolutely no idea of how to handle a car on the road in traffic. There were too many conversations along the lines of:

“STOP THE CAR!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Car stops.

“What? Why? We need to go through…”

“But the car in front of us is stopped! Can’t you see the brake lights shining?! When the brake lights of the car ahead of us are on, we need to stop, too!”

There were far too many obvious holes in his knowledge and understanding of motor vehicles, traffic and roads. It made for a very stressful day.

And just to add to the stress, the dealer sent the wrong document to the testing station, so we had to wait while they went back and got the right document. This meant that we couldn’t complete the testing and registration until after lunch.

But the staff of the testing and registration stations were on the ball, and once we had the right documents, everything went smoothly. It also helped that over the lunch break, we left the car parked at the front of the queue, and that anyway, there weren’t that many cars to be processed in the afternoon, and so we were out and back to the dealership to finish up the paperwork pretty quickly.

And so now we have a brand new Suzuki Gazelle paid for and registered and sitting in the driveway outside our apartment block. It feels good, but it will feel better when I have my Chinese drivers licence in my hands.


September 24th, 2010

The results of today’s trip to our local Carrefour were, as always, mixed. There were the usual crowds, though timing our trip for midday-ish seemed to moderate that eternally frustrating aspect of any Carrefour trip. Well, it’s not the crowds so much as the dopey twits that crowds contain. They were present today, of course, but in the usual proportion to the total crowd, so manageable.

We happened to come across the last 100% pure New Zealand wool quilt on sale, the one that had been put out on display. It was still clean, though, miraculous as that may seem, and so we got the woman in charge of quilts to get us a box and pack it up for us. 200 kuai, not bad. Especially considering there was a stack of Aussie wool quilts right next to it going for absurd prices. So tell me, what would you do? Snap up the last example of top quality product at a very good price, or go for the second rate product at a grossly inflated price? And yes, that question was motivated as much by trans-Tasman rivalry and my patriotic duty as anything else. And our quilt came with a free facecloth! Awesome!

Lamps? Forget it. Fortunately we’d already scoped out the B&Q next door and had noted one that a) looked cool; b) would serve our purposes exactly; and most importantly c) was reasonably priced. Want a desk lamp suitable for study? Fine. Anything else? Forget it.

In the queue to pay for our new quilt: Sheesh, I’m in the wrong line of work! Making baby products is the way to go. Really. And Carrefour is generally good at keeping the prices low, so I hate to think what the price tags on those things would’ve been in any other store. I guess we’re going to be spending the next 6 or so months scrimping and saving. I’m not worried about what comes after that, as I’m sure that from the end of March onwards, even if we have time, we won’t have the energy to waste money.

Downstairs and headed in my usual direction. Half-litre cans of Apostel Bräu Extra Strong (yes, on these cans ‘extra strong’ is written in English) at 9.9 kuai each. Best deal. Carlsberg cans of the same volume were cheaper, but that’s the local version, whereas the Apostel Bräu is imported from Germany and, as the cans proclaim, “GEBRAUT NACH DEM DEUTSCHEN RHEINHEITSGEBOT”. I’m not sure about the lack of an umlaut on the a in gebraut, but from what I remember (and it’s been a hell of a long time since I studied German, so corrections are more than welcome), umlauts are not needed on capitals, and it is all caps on the can. I really miss the days when our local Carrefour used to stock Greene King IPA, imported from England, half-litre cans at roughly the same price as this Apostel Bräu. Apostel Bräu is good, but the Greene King IPA was better, and I really loved having such a good brew available at such a reasonable price. Still, the Apostel Bräu is a good enough substitute, and better, I hate to say it, than the Malaysian-brewed bastardisation of Guinness.

I wish I could afford, or justify splashing out on, a Chimay…. Maybe for 满月.

The pizza in their deli looked good, but then we got home and reheated it (Carrefour’s just far enough to require reheating). So I spent a slightly delayed lunch slowly, patiently, frustratedly chewing through what felt and tasted like warm, stale rubber. Carrefour usually has passable product at reasonable prices, but in this case the product would have been better used as punishment for misbehaving kindergartners (you want to hit your classmate? I’ll make you chew Carrefour pizza if you do that again! – nah, perhaps a bit too cruel) and was grossly overpriced. If they want me to ever eat their pizza again, they’ll have to pay me 790 kuai per slice rather than charge me 7.9 kuai per slice.

And then a quick trip back to B&Q to pick up that lamp we need, and a mop, then home.

So we got most of what we needed, with the sole exception of light bulbs, which were forgotten amidst all the excitement, but still, yesterday’s shopping trip was far more successful. One trip in which we acquired exactly what we intended to for the prices we wanted to pay and managed to dispose of our old sofa-bed, albeit for considerably less than we would’ve liked, but hey, how much can you get for a broken-down old sofa-bed? And all of that happened within the space of an hour.

That was a quick trip to one of the bigger and more comprehensive of our local markets and a quick look round their furniture section. Beds came in three varieties: Superexpensive (but probably quite reasonable compared to regular furniture stores) all wood; expensive, but some lesser variety of wood; and cheap steel frame quickly and easily assembled. That third variety came at pretty much what we wanted to pay, and we had decided that we don’t need top quality, just good enough.

A quick check of the rest of the market revealed that, as I had expected, they didn’t have any lamps of the kind we were looking for, but they did have DVDs, so we stocked up on a few, and I made a mad dash for the nearest ATM. That was out of order, and I’m sure it’s because of the absurd amount of cash the guy in the queue ahead of me withdrew, so I made a mad dash for the second nearest ATM, then back to the market. Arrangements had been made for the delivery of the bed we bought, so we headed home, with the Mrs stopping off to see if our local recycler wanted our old sofa bed. He did. Price negotiated, sofa bed removed, the bed deliverer phoned to check our address. He arrived within a few minutes, and quickly assembled the new bed.

And all of this, apart for the bit where I lament the loss of Greene King IPA from the shelves of our local Carrefour, is because there is an imminent change, a rather permanent change, about to happen to our family. One that requires the retiring of our old sofa bed, which was fine when we had family crashing overnight or for a couple of days as they passed through Beijing, but is not suited to long term stays. A change that will require my mother in law to be here for rather longer than she has previously spent. A change that requires my wife to buy an ever larger wardrobe. A change that will require us to bite the bullet and spend bucketloads of money on all that expensive baby stuff we saw in Carrefour today. A change that is both exciting and utterly terrifying.

And so all this shopping is about us making some of the necessary rearrangements. I do have to say, our apartment looks a lot more like a family home now.

not just heat

July 7th, 2010

It’s not just heat that’s been on the way up recently, but water use, too. According to 北京晚报/Beijing Evening News, Beijing has set a new record for water supplied to the city. Twice. Well, a record for “so far this year”, followed by a “most ever”. But first, a clarification: This article is dated July 6, so where it says “yesterday”, it means July 5. It only showed up in my Kaixin001 feed this morning. Anyway, here’s the record setting:

市自来水集团介绍,在7月4日城区日供水量达268万立方米创出今年新高后,昨天市区日供水量达286万立方米,超过去年夏季278万立方米的历史最高日 供水量,也创出北京百年供水史上最高水平,已接近市区的日供水能力。统计数据显示,昨天高时供水量出现在9时到10时,1小时供水量达16.48万立方 米。

The municipal water supply group said that after the amount of water supplied to the urban area reached 2.68 million cubic metres on July 4, setting a new record for this year, yesterday the amount of water supplied to the city area reached 2.86 million cubic metres, breaking the historic record set last summer of 2.78 million cubic metres of water supplied in one day, setting the record for the largest amount supplied in Beijing’s 100-year history of mains water supply, approaching the maximum amount that can be supplied to the city. Statistics show that yesterday’s peak water use was betwen 9 and 10, with 164,800 cubic metres supplied in one hour.

[Yes, as always, I have played it a bit fast and loose with aspects of the translation. Corrections and improvements are welcome]

Apparently demand for water is so high that the water supply group is considering limiting water supply to certain industries for the duration.

Now, I’ve said it a million times before, and I’ll probably repeat it several million more times, but one of the things that worries me most about Beijing’s future is water:

北京连续十年干旱,虽然今年降水多于往年,但是密云水库的蓄水量反而低于往年。今天上午,密云水库的蓄水量为9.4亿立方米,比去年同期减少2.4亿立方 米。此前不久,来自河北三座水库的2亿立方米水,经过南水北调京石段工程持续进入北京。河北水抵达北京团城湖后,经过管道进入市自来水厂,加工过滤后进入 千家万户。市自来水集团称:“目前北京自来水管网中三分之一的水是河北用水。管道中的每一滴自来水都非常珍贵,希望市民要珍惜使用。”

After Beijing’s 10 years of continuous drought, although precipitation has been higher this year, the amount of water stored in the Miyun Reservoir is actually lower than in previous years. This morning, Miyun Reservoir held 940 million cubic metres of water, 240 million cubic metres less than at the same time last year. Not long ago, 200 million cubic metres of water from three reservoirs in Hebei entered Beijing via the Beijing-Shijiazhuang section of the South-North Water Diversion Project. After Hebei water reaches Beijing’s Tuancheng Hu, it is piped into a municipal water treatment plant, and then after treatment and filtering enters the city’s households. The municipal water supply group said, “Currently a third of the water in the city’s pipe network is from Hebei. Every drop of water in the pipes is very precious. We hope the citizens will cherish it.”

I certainly do not like the look of those numbers.

Anyways, that’s enough breakfast-time blogging and dodgy as hell translation. I do still have exam papers awaiting grades.

on the edge of a storm

April 5th, 2010

I’d finished my lesson prep so far as I could – one of those frustrating ones where you know what you want to do with the class, but you’re struggling to figure out how to put it all together – and I was sitting there, fidgeting, nameless, directionless, frustrated energy bubbling away just beneath the surface. I decided to get up and go for a walk and burn some of it off.

Get outside, bump into a colleague, chat for a bit. The sky was grey, the sun was sinking, nothing unusual. A few raindrops fell, and I said, well, I better go, meaning I’ve got to get some fresh air before the weather turns nasty and night falls. Out the gate, down the road, I was crossing the next intersection, a quarter of the way out into the road, looked back, and


Big, black, ugly, menacing cloud bearing down, the kind you see on one of those really disturbed summer days, days when the air is filled with tension that snaps into a violent squall that scours the city then disappears as quickly as it came, leaving the place beaten about, but calm. A slightly over-the-top description, perhaps, but if you remember the summers in Beijing between, say, 5 and 8 years ago, you’ll have seen more than a few of the squalls I’m referring to, and you’ll know that they can be as violent as they are sudden.

And so I crossed the road and continued on the route I had planned, thinking, I’ve got to get some exercise, and I’ve got to figure out what to do about this weather. And so I, zipped up my jacket, flipped on my hood, and continued, one eye on the weather, one eye on hazards, like our friendly, local high-tension powerline and on places to shelter should that cloud’s threat turn into reality. People were zipping around with extra urgency, hawkers quickly packing up their fruit and veges, everybody keen for shelter.

I stopped in the little Jingkelong about halfway along the weather-shortened version of my stroll (I had been thinking of adding another loop into the route, but that didn’t look like the best idea, having less potential shelter along the way), but they had no Yanjings in the fridge as they have for the last couple of weeks. So I walked to the shelf, and settled on splashing out on a couple of cans of Tiger – it’s no different from the rest, just a cooler-looking can and higher price, but might as well. I opened one can and put the other in my pocket, sipped and watched the weather. Wind and a bit of rain, not too bad, looks like we’re only copping the edge of the squall this time, might as well head for home.

A nothing story, but a reminder of the weather that is likely to come in the next few months. Last week I saw the first blossoms of the spring – ‘first’ meaning the first I’ve seen so far. It hasn’t quite sprung yet, but it’s certainly on its way.

Friday afternoon (Good Friday, it seems. I completely forgot) we jumped on the bus for Yanqing, came back yesterday evening. We had pretty sweet luck with the transport both ways, beating the holiday crowds both times. We got off the bus at Nancaiyuan close to six on Friday evening and got in a taxi straight away – for the first time ever, not needing to negotiate the price, the driver giving us the right price straight away. We headed up to where the road crosses the Gui River into the county town proper. There was still ice on the water. Patchy, thin, dangerous-looking, but still ice. And, of course, no blossoms that side of the Jundu Mountains.

Change of a different kind: The old cinema west of the bridge on the south bank where the main road crosses into the county town, a cinema that had been gutted for renovation last time I saw it, was standing there rebuilt in a style largely reminiscent of that of the new church on the north bank at the eastern end of the county town, a red brick modern style one would expect of perhaps the mid-90s where I come from, but with an odd dome poking out the top seeming to stubbornly keep the style of the old cinema. I don’t know what this building has become, but as we zipped past in the battered, old Xiali, it certainly looked like a church. Still, maybe it’s just a renovated cinema. Or something else.

The ice disappeared as we headed west, and the river was completely thawed by the time we reached the next bridge, less than a kilometre down the road, and crossed over to the north bank. A couple of blinks of the eye and we were back into countryside, and some farmers still finishing off the day’s work in the fields, some burning off stubble, others turning the earth over, others, maybe judging from the aroma, spreading manure, all preparing for the planting. In response to a question from my wife, our driver said, nah, won’t be planting corn till about the 20th. Preparing, at least, then.

So, yeah, it’s still cool up there. Not uncomfortably cold, even quite comfortably warm during the day if you’re out in the sun, but certainly still cool. Even had my brother in law not claimed the bed in the other room, we would still have been sleeping on the kang for the warmth, I’m sure. In fact, my brother in law still had an electric blanket on that bed.

Early starts, that means, earlier than if we’d managed to claim the bed. Sleeping on the kang means there’s no way you could roll over and go back to sleep. But it’s warm, and in the winter when the coal stove is going, warm enough it can have you sweating in even the coldest weather – so long as, of course, you stay on the kang and under the covers. That can make getting up in the morning a delicate negotiation between drying off and staying warm. But it’s warm.

all changed…

March 28th, 2010

…changed utterly…

…apologies to Mr Yeats. But ‘utterly’ is how much it had changed. No terrible beauties born, though,’least, not I saw.

Needing to walk off a load of overdue test marking (marking that had been done, I must emphasise, though I’m not sure I trust the elderly and increasingly doddery office computer to have kept a record), I wandered off out the South Gate and through the Twin Dragons, then south into what had been – what still was – the Hongyan Market. ‘Had been’ because when I lived in the Twin Dragons, indeed, right up until not so long ago, when I was last in the area, which can’t’ve been much more than three years back, the Hongyan Market was a large, but fairly typical for this area, local market. Nuffink special. Three or four large hangars, looking like the kind you’d expect around the edges of a World War 2 aerodrome in southern England circa the summer of 1940, but painted in bright blue and white and housing all the various fruits, veges, nuts, spices and sauces, meats, clothes, curtains, blankets, shoes, socks, sundry household necessities, whatever the local neighbourhood could need. These hangars were fed by a driveway of the kind of white concrete one sees on driveways and parking lots built cheaply and not expected to see much serious traffic. The driveway ran like a southward extension of Xidawang Lu.

And the driveway has become a southward extension of Xidawang Lu. The driveway must have been ripped up, rebedded and repaved, because that stretch of concrete is no longer there. Indeed, nothing is there, just a road extending much further south than any road I remember in that area. And the market? Completely uprooted and replaced, and not just replaced, but replaced by something that looks so established you wouldn’t know anything had changed if you hadn’t known the area as it was a mere four years ago. The only hints I had that I was in an area I should’ve known were the fact that I had walked there following roads I’ve known longer than I’ve known my wife and the buildings around the market area – buildings that I’ve known as long as those I’ve known those roads I mentioned. Had I been kidnapped, blindfolded, taken to the market, and prevented from seeing those familiar buildings, I would’ve had no way of knowing where I was.

And no, I am not just talking, “Oh, things change fast in China”, or even, “Things change so fast here that if you haven’t been back in a few years, you won’t know the place”. I’m talking, this market hasn’t changed at all. It’s been completely replaced, and a road pushed through, and a bus depot installed, and all of this done within the last three years and yet the market, road and bus depot that are there now look as though they’ve been there for ten years already.

And that’s what I can’t figure out. Is what I saw today the market that was always there, except that the facade has changed, and the changing of the facade has opened up areas of the market that were formerly obscured from the direction that I always entered? I don’t think so, because although there was always ‘stuff’ behind those hangars, there were never any intriguing little alleys, let alone giant signposted gates (both of which were in ample evidence on this afternoon’s visit) to entice one into a little exploration.

Except, of course, that I never saw any reason, or even any way, to explore beyond the old market. It was there, I wandered through it, I made what use of it I could. And now, no more than three years down the track, it isn’t just completely different, it is a completely different and far larger market sitting in the place occupied by the market I remember, but looking like it’s been there forever.

And walking out of there, I found myself wishing we still lived down in the Twin Dragons, close to this new market that wasn’t so new but is so much huger and comprehensiver than its predecessor.

And then I remembered my landlord when I lived in the Twin Dragons. Fortunately my wife never met him.

But it was nice to walk out of there and northwards into areas that haven’t changed, areas that exude that comfortable establishedness of neighbourhoods that have no reason to be questioned, and have no reason to doubt. Thence through an area that is being torn down, and yet survives, so far. Then back through established and safe neighbourhoods and home.

Still, this new-but-not-new market, I’ll be back there, and fairly soon, and often, if for no other reason than just to see.

tiger year

February 13th, 2010

And so we’re preparing to celebrate the advent of the year of the tiger down here in Chaoyang District. It’s the first time my wife has spent the Chinese New Year away from home, the first time I’ve spent it in downtown Beijing since fireworks were allowed back within the Fifth Ring Road. We’ve hung our 福 characters and couplets and set off a role of firecrackers for that. lzh has most of the food ready waiting for friends to come and help her wrap jiaozi. Our supplies are ready for the evening, and friends promise more on the way. I have more firecrackers waiting for midnight.

And then we get up early tomorrow morning to head for the airport and catch our flight to Auckland. I’m guessing that between fireworks and the early start, we’ll be doing most of our sleeping on the plane.

Bad news from home means the first week of our trip is going to be rather more sombre than we were hoping. The timing could be worse, though, as this time round we get to be there without having to scramble around looking for last minute flights, seeing as we were planning on being there anyway. And it will be interesting to see how lzh copes with being surrounded by my mother’s rather large family. Grandma will be leaving behind seven children and…. I can’t remember how many grandchildren and greatgrandchildren. A lot, anyway. Still, it’s going to be far from a good start to the Tiger Year.

So we’re all packed up except for that last minute stuff. A taxi has been booked so we don’t have to take our chances. Tomorrow just short of midday our plane takes off, and 13 hours later we’ll be in Aotearoa – the first time in seven years for me, the first time ever for my wife.

Assuming anybody still reads this blog: Happy new year to you all!

simple pleasures

February 9th, 2010

There’s a simple, tactile, olfactory pleasure in spending a morning in bed with a good book unaware of the passage of time except by the turning of pages. There’s a comforting surprise in seeing just how many hours have slipped by.

Equally to strolling with no greater aim than to burn off a little energy and get a little exercise and fresh air.

And to the exploration of things new, even if it’s nothing more new than the new quarters of a long-standing neighbourhood market.

I’ve watched that new market being built from our loungeroom window and balcony for the last couple of months, it being 20 metres south of our place as the crow flies (but of course, there’s an inconvenient wall in between), occasionally wondering what this new structure would become. It gradually came to look more and more like a new indoor market, but I couldn’t be sure. Eventually, bright yellow, almost but not quite orange, wall panels were fixed to the steel frame, windows were inserted, a roof put on, and work shifted to the interior with the sole exception of two signs announcing that this, indeed, would be a new market. The market it would replace, whose name it had taken, which sits diagonally across the road about 50 metres away, the one that had been threatened with being replaced by a hospital. This time around they had the new market almost completed before the old one was closed.

I don’t know what this presages for the old market. When I walked past it today, as last time, the gates were firmly locked and peeking through the gaps revealed a wasteland. The old structures, those thin, steel frames that supported the thin, steel rooves that sheltered the stalls from the sun, rain and snow, were gone, leaving an empty, forlorn space strewn with rubbish and the little bits of rubble not worth removing. There was no indication that I could see of what this wasteland would become.

But the new market looked good. Nothing fancy, but functional and clean. At one end was a gate with two middle-aged men bearing red armbands proclaiming them to be safety inspectors, or something like that, who formed the nuclei of nebulous and ever-changing groups of friends and acquaintances stopping for a chat. Inside, a paved courtyard expanding to the left, where a bicycle park had been establised, with the market building and its entrances to the right. Along the southern wall of the courtyard immediately left of the gate was a small building in three compartments: A women’s toilet, men’s toilet, and the “standard scale” (公平秤). Inside, the building felt either spacious or as if they’d spaced the stalls out wider than normal, I’m not sure which. It’s not a large building, but the spacing of the rows of stalls made it feel somewhat Tardis-like.

The northern and southern walls were lined by mostly butcher, seafood and delicatessen stalls, with a few selling various assortments of spices, sauces, nuts, beans, grains, sweets, and one selling various alcohols I won’t even venture to name (that being far too deep into traditional Chinese alcohol culture for my mediocre knowledge) out of large earthenware vats, interspersed mostly at corners and in odd niches. The centre was widely-spaced rows of stalls selling mostly fresh fruit and vegetables. Tall stalks of sugarcane stood at one stall, and….

….was that taro I saw sitting on that counter?! Taro I have not seen for many a long year.

Upstairs was clothing, shoes, and all the various odds and ends required to run a household. Up there quite a few of the stalls were closed – the owners having gone home for the holiday, perhaps? – and two or three were still unoccupied. Clothing seemed to dominate, but there were more than a few stalls set up to cater to the neighbourhood’s Spring Festival needs – all but the fireworks – and several ranging from brushes and brooms and those other little necessities up to hardware like tools, low-end electrical goods like lightbulbs, plugs, cables, multiboxes, various plumbing necessities like taps and their components, and even one selling rangehoods and the various bits of pipe, duct, and tubing needed to get the smoke and grease of a Chinese kitchen outside.

In other words, it was exactly the old market shifted into a new building. And yet it seems somehow smaller. Did all of the market shift, or did some give up and move elsewhere?