The yellow walls of the Jade Buddha Temple stand on an intersection opposite a Starbucks, where a mustard or saffron-robed monk might be seen bustling by with a take-out coffee in hand.
The walls enclose a pristine temple, very recently refurbished and renovated.
The rooms enclosing the various massive statues are cool, their whirring fans creating a welcoming cool breeze, which sets the long satin and silk hangings trembling.
The temple houses a few very special Jade Buddhas from Burma.
The White Jade reclining Buddha lies languidly and met our eyes with a calm hooded gaze and a secret smile. The Green Jade Buddha sits alone in a private room and we almost missed it. No photographs are allowed to be taken of this Buddha. The smooth green jade is strangely life-like, and the Buddha’s face is extraordinarily smooth and beautiful. I had to pull myself away and out of the dimly lit room to eventually return back into the daylight dazzle.
There we were photographed, together with the two young trainee temple guides who had led us to the green jade Buddha, and also partially bamboozled us with their complexly phrased and mispronounced English.
We found the century-old Xujiahui Catholic Cathedral down a side street in Shanghai.
Once known as “the grandest church in the Far East.” It was established as a result of Xu Guangqi’s efforts to establish a Catholic presence in the area over 400 years ago. Its two steeples rose above some building work. In the nick-nack shop adjoining the cathedral we found and bought a few odds and sods.
I found a small white plastic madonna with a beautiful face to keep beside my bed – a mirror image of the sacred feminine statue I had also adored in the Jade Buddha temple.
Inside the church was sublime, still, silent and very warm. The fans stood still high up in the multi-dome ceiling. It is a church filled with long red banners which are startling against the white marble. Jesus’s gentle, very western, rather hippy-like presence gazes from a colourful collection of beautiful stained glass windows and banners.
We sat in the pews for a long moment where an occasional cool breeze found us, blowing in from the gardens in which we would later leave a number of lit candles for our beloveds.
We walked on from there happily clutching a new tote bag, filled with a collection of plastic Chinese Christian curiosities to treasure.
We started some days in Shanghai with a plan. A walk, a metro ride, a destination – but then sometimes things changed. Sometimes our Apple map app (Google maps banned in China) led us down blind alleys, conflicted with street signs… and Shanghai is still China, and not all of its 25 million people can speak English or help you out on any street corner and point you in the right (or left) direction.
There were some days when we wanted a quiet space and a bit of old China, and so it was when we went in search of Shanghai’s Old Town. Our search, which seemed simple to begin with, ended up leading us down cool tree-lined streets, which dissolved into sweltering, bustling intersections, but eventually, thankfully, led us down onto metro platforms, saw us wrestling with water vending machines, and ended up with us standing and swaying and sipping a strangely flavoured water (what was it?).
We switched metro lines to eventually arrive (the app said a 15-minute walk, thank goodness it was only 5 in the oppressive heat) at the Old Town.
The Old Town is rather a tourist trap. The best bits are the curved bridges over the tepid river filled with huge leafed water lilies with big pink flowers drooping in the heat, and the curved old rooftops, and the curved lanes lined with red pillars. We jostled our way down the curiosity shop-lined streets, buying only two cheap items, an old-fashioned fan, which I immediately put to good use and a small painted tile for my cool courtyard back home.
Hungry, we eyed the food on offer, not sure of the meat and heat combination. Eventually, we bought some chicken pieces on sticks and found a seat at a communal table. The chicken kebabs were good and spicy and the table was cool.
We left Old Town, which, although genuine, is also a kind of theme park, and made our way back to the modern chrome of the metro. The metro rail is incredibly and wonderfully efficient and absolutely spotless. Riding on it, as we did again later when we travelled that evening to meet a friend of a friend, we were even more impressed as we unintentionally encountered rush hour. The throngs of people are enormous, but everyone moves swiftly and in an orderly way. And so the mass of moving people never once (in our experience) bottlenecked or pushed and shoved. The trains pulled in and out every few minutes and people passed in and out of the automated doors. I hardly ever found a seat available, and it was crowded, but there was room for everyone and the air was comfortably cool. We alighted at East Nanjing Road, which is a hub of people and skyscrapers featuring large neon billboards. There was an exciting buzz in the air amongst all the many people gathered down there. Some used the little motorised trains to move the length of the long boulevard past the oblong glowing Apple Store, which is the entire length of one building, whilst above it, Florence and the Machine opened her gentle arms a mile wide, and serenely gazed down on us all. We found our way through the people to the Press Cafe and Bar, which is housed in one of Shanghai’s lovely old Art Deco buildings. It was a real newspaper press building in the 1920’s. (Established as the Chinese daily news called The Shun Pao in 1872.) Inside it is a double volume space under a white ornately plastered ceiling. There are walls of old black and white Chinese press photographs and L and I sat down and ordered cold beers. Benjack joined us and we talked happily for a number of hours and shared platters of tzatziki and fried calamari, chicken and mango salads and tasty pumpkin gnocchi. Ben has lived in China for over 20 years as an architect and the conversation was fascinating and insightful as he talked about the new rapidly emerging China.
We parted late and down the road, towards the river, we could see that the lights of The Bund were on all around – illuminating the tops of buildings, and the Pearl TV Towers red and blue and purple lights blinked at us. We would visit it again another night. It was late and although the streets of the Bund were steamy and sultry we resisted its charms until another time.
A few days later we visited The Bund again and enjoyed the dramatic change as the lights came on and the buildings became ablaze with colour.
It’s raining in Shanghai. Outside the sun parasols have been transformed back into being rain umbrellas. The cool air is a huge relief, the roads awash with water that scooters splash through, their riders soaked to the skin or suddenly (miraculous), clothed from top to bottom in waterproof gear. We watch wet to the skin people passing by from behind the glass of our local patisserie.
We often set off to find a cool place to drink an icy drink, have a cappuccino and find a comfy corner to write in. The FFC has a number of bookstores or interior design shops which feature a coffee bar or juice bar and welcome patrons in to sip an icy drink and to sit for hours on old leather couches or at antique tables and chairs. The ambience is often artsy with booklined shelves and original paintings, soft lighting and muted music. We found Sinan Books early on and thereafter we discovered an interior design shop, filled with art deco furnishings in which we were served a particularly good cappuccino by a slim suave Shanghai man in a crisp white shirt. A slender and beautiful young Shanghai woman, wearing a long flowing skirt and sporting a moving snake plait of hair down her back joined us there with her entourage of admirers. They enjoyed a photo shoot in the stylish space, with her posing amongst all the art deco artefacts.
But today we took shelter in the patisserie after we had travelled to the Bund, early in the morning, on the metro. The Bund is downtown at the river’s edge. The sun beat down on us mercilessly. We hovered on the waters edge promenade, gazing across the Huangpu River. Large working river boats still ply their trade, and large ferries make tourist river crossings. We strolled along and took some pictures of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower and other iconic buildings on the opposite bank. We decided that we would leave our crossing for another day, as the heat was excessive. We sought coolness like shade plants, clinging to the slightly cooler sides of the streets in the inner city. We stopped and admired the many art deco buildings, looking upwards at them. Many are in excellent condition and others, we were grateful to see, are being worked on behind bamboo scaffolding and shade cloth. The Bund was mainly tourist free, apart from small groups of Americans and Italians and larger trains of Chinese people under umbrellas following their leader bearing a flag aloft.
We strolled about the big inner city, crossing roads sizzling in the heat, avoiding Starbucks and KFC’s before deciding to return to the FFC (now called “home”) on the Metro. We now know the number 10 line and alighted just next to the iaPM mall. Opening the glass swing doors from the metro station into the mall was like diving into a very cold, refreshing swimming pool and so we stayed there, moving past the icy glass and chrome windows showcasing Gucci, Stella McCarthy, Dolce & Gabbana and so on and so on. L and I deeply admire design and fashion, if only from afar and so we lingered long and rode the escalators up to the 5th floor. This time we were looking for curry, which we found in a Japanese format (Teriyaki chicken style) at Shirokuma Curry. We downed cold beers with it and made friends with chopsticks after an absence of days. The meal was wonderfully tasty and we enjoyed eating it on the top floor of the very modern and beautiful iaPM mall. It had been a day in which we had enjoyed the very modern side of Shanghai with its huge malls and awesome skyscrapers.
And then the rain came and instead of seeking shelter in our upstairs flat, we ducked into our patisserie, sipping iced mocha drinks and petting a sweet little Chinese former stray dog, called Mona, now owned by a very sophisticated Belgian lady who was sitting beside us.
Our first few days in Shanghai have largely revolved around food. The pursuit of cheese to be more precise. L had done our homework and sourced a couple of tempting restaurants and cafes in the FFC (Former French Concession, where we are staying). We have not eaten any cheese to speak of for the last seven months, and those who know us might remember that cheese in all its forms has always been a big passion of ours.
When we realized that we would not be returning home, but instead be spending some steamy weeks in Shanghai we went out of our way to find the things we would miss by not going home.
Turns out we did not need to go out of our way but could keep to the cool Plane tree planted (apparently by the French over 100 years ago – what a good idea!) streets of the FFC.
On our first night, we walked a fair distance in the early evening to find Cheese.co. We found it down a small street and chose to sit out on the veranda, where we could catch a little cool breeze, as it rustled through the green cicada sounding leaves above us. We ordered cold beers and struggled to choose our toasties from the wide selection on the menu. Eventually, we choose a duck and mozzarella and onion marmalade toasted between sourdough bread as well as a salami and tomato pesto and a few other cheeses melted together in a sandwich.
We waited for our order with anticipation and sat back on our bar stools to watch the street in front of us as we sipped our beers. It was a busy and yet very quiet street, filled as it was with great moving streams of electric scooters. I envied them as they passed. All scooter riders ride without helmets in China and so they pass sedately by, with their hair flowing back in the breeze. Young couples, him often with his shirt open and billowing, her often side saddle hands loosely linked on her lap, or sitting with her cool milky limbs astride her boy and clinging. There were families too, a little one sometimes standing in front, little hands holding onto the side mirrors with another child squished between their fathers back and their mother behind. I noted many foreigners amongst the cool passing throng. Young men with pretty girls riding pillion, and other older grey fox men, some of whom had lived in Shanghai for over 20 years. Some talked to each other as they meandered past, some peddling sedately on bicycles.
Around us at other tables sat mostly young Americans. They were drinking beer and fussing over a Staffie called Buster. I could not shake some images from movies in my mind, mainly about GI’s and Vietnam I suppose, and pavement cafes and endless clouds of scooters going by. But this is no war zone. Instead, this is Shanghai, the City of Dreams.
The toasted sandwiches were a revelation. We shared them half and half, savouring every mouthful and then we strolled home in the dark, under the now silent trees, so safe and happy.
The still hot evening streets were flanked with Shanghai skyscrapers in part, lit up by great glowing neon billboards, filling the night with dazzling and blazing colour above the trees and the warm tarmac.
The next day we embarked on part two of our cheese quest.
In Lanzhou, we have eaten a so-called pizza once or twice and have been severely disappointed, and unfortunately made ill by them. Let’s not go into that now…
Palatino Roman Restaurant was a place sourced by L. It featured stunning reviews and real Italian, or as the ad said, “Roman cuisine.” We found it, small and stuck away, through a cluttered garden of vines and verandas. Inside were a couple of older Italian men speaking in rapid Italian to the owner, an elegant Chinese woman who switched from Italian to flawless English to greet us as we entered. We were led upstairs to the dimly lit and very cool intimate space and shown to a table. The menu was exciting, not cheap, but affordable for us. It was pure Italian bliss. The Italian men joined us upstairs and so our entire meal was eaten to a soundtrack of an Italian conversation, for which we were grateful. L and I took our first mouthful and as the very thin crust crunched and crumbled between our fingers our eyes met and I think it was me who said it first “I feel so happy right now.”
Ah! The power of food!
We ate pizzas topped with thin slivers of Parma ham, piled with crispy rocket leaves, oozing with stringy mozzarella, shiny with salami, and we plunged into a shared salad of green and black olives, capers, artichokes, chunks of mozzarella, and juicy sliced tomatoes. We sloshed all with fragrant extra virgin olive oil and a drizzle of black balsamic vinegar. And so ended our cheese odyssey.
But no doubt there will probably be a second journey before we finally head home.
We began our trip to Shanghai with a long train journey and a smooth transfer to the metro. Standing on the hot streets of Shanghai for the first time, we were approached and helped by a friendly lady who literally walked us to the front door of our Airbnb, in the Former French Concession (French Quarter).
There we met with our host Ian, who took us up 3 flights of very narrow ancient wooden stairs. After settling in we gathered around a table on the roof garden where we chatted and drank good German beer out of small wooden cups until after 1 in the morning. Ian, a neuroscientist, with his Salvador Dali moustache and Bretton Fisherman T-shirt, talked about his son Lucifer and life in the very authentic French Quarter, which, as he says, could still be the 1930’s in many ways.
We retired to our small room with its soft bed on the floor and view of Chinese life behind windows across the street.
In the morning we left early and descended the very steep stairs, viewing other tenants through open doors, eating noodles for breakfast from large bowls and washing over basins. Outside the narrow alleys are lined with parked scooters, bikes and there is washing hanging out. The gathering heat pushes up the alleys in waves to greet us.
We went down hungry after a deep cool sleep to a patisserie with counters of croissants and sourdough bread and sandwiches behind glass. We ordered cappuccinos which arrived with picture perfect foam and at just the right temperature. We sit at small tables, surrounded by more non-Chinese people than we have seen for seven months. Our neighbour is from somewhere else and he seems settled in Shanghai with his American partner and they have a cute little dog with them called Tequila. We move tables, like Goldilocks, till finally, we are most comfy next to a Swedish man and his daughter. We talk with him long enough to eat our almond croissants (sorry Olympia but you have moved to second place – the croissant is just as good – but, hey – its in Shanghai…) and we drink another cappuccino and share a Chelsea bun (it seems a man can just live on bread alone…). Eventually, we leave the coolness and seeing as how this patisserie is literally on the street right below our room, we know we will return tomorrow morning. Outside we bump (literally) into a man, very hot as he is dressed for the long cycle ride he has just done, and I am not sure how, but we are chatting. His home is the world, but right now we are talking on the pavement of a Shanghai street and he invites us on WeChat, and for a beer – sometime later.
We walk on and the heat is crushing, but the pavements are deeply tree lined and the shade is thick, so we keep on walking. The air is full of the sound of cicadas filling the air all around us. We have two olive and basil rolls in our bag and a thermos of cold water. We pass old Chinese restaurants, piled high with bamboo steamers and big bowls and low tables, cheek by jowl with trendy juice bars and vegetarian restaurants and American style bars and European bistros. Eventually, we are sweating and although a tree deep park is nearby, we are lured in by a bookstore sign and as we step onto the dark wooden stairs of the classic French building, an icy wave of air-conditioning washes over us and so we go in. Inside is a world of books, a collection of English classics and those we studied as students, and although we make a snap decision to buy one, we can’t decide which one, and so we buy none. What book to buy from a beautiful Shanghai bookstore. Maybe something deeply South Africa, we spy a JM Coetzee, or maybe an old favourite – I see “Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson … and I am nostalgic about another time, Lex finds a hardcover collection by Joan Didion, but perhaps something by an Asian writer, Haruki Murakami or Kazuo Isguro…? Instead we buy an icy fruit and veg drink for me and L sips an avocado milkshake – which is so delicious and I steal multiple sips because what is that lingering spicy something I can taste? And here I am writing at a table surrounded by books, under cold air-conditioning with no intention of leaving anytime soon.
Clary and her family and extended family run the Nirvana Hotel. Her husband is Tibetan and he, together with her young and beautiful daughter, and the Chinese and Tibetan staff, all add to the colour and interest that make Nirvana Hotel the special place that it is.
We enjoyed all of our meals at the hotel with Fiona, often joined by Clary and her husband. He comes and goes, in a yellow jacket, sometimes on a motorbike or in their 4×4 SUV. The feeling between the threesome is warm and loving, as their daughter switches easily between Dutch and English and Chinese and Tibetan. She arrived in her traditional Tibetan long skirt from school and paused to sip a spoon or two of sauce from her fathers’ bowl, whilst twirling his ponytail, hanging from beneath his leather hat, around her fingers.
I saw her another day, grinning and clinging to her mothers back, as Clary sped off to someplace on the motorbike.
Nirvana Hotel is like that – multicultural and multilingual and full of interesting people travelling through.
The next day L and I decided to revisit Labrang Monastery on our own. Fiona was staying in the backpackers and had many friends in the town.
The Monastery is huge, and there are tours on every day. We decided to find our own way and so we set off, walking some of the Kora, to begin with, and turned the wheels. After a while, we followed one of the paths into the centre of the monastery.
There are monks everywhere, walking singly or in groups. They stay behind huge wooden doors in ochre-coloured flats made from adobe walls. There are numerous large halls and temples. There are fascinating sculptures made from butter… there are places and sights seen within the walls that left us confused and yet peaceful about not knowing….
We were content with coming across groups of monks sitting outside in the sun together, some with cell phones out, some laughing, some within the confines of a temple doing a kind of martial art, with one blowing on a hornlike instrument. We stood silently and watched a pile of offerings being burnt, branches of a special tree, bought from stalls that were everywhere, carried strapped on the back of motorbikes, or in arms, or on backs, to be burnt together with soft silken white cloths and bouquet-like bunches of gathered strings of prayer flags. And all the while the incense rises.
At about 11 we began following monks. We had been told that at 11 every day the monks gather to chant – but we did not know where. Somewhere within the Monastery. We noted that the monks were appearing wearing their large spiral shell shaped yellow hats ( some new and golden, some faded and brown) and one or two older monks appeared with an instrument that looked like a metal scroll rolled up and they wore cloaks with very broad square shoulders. We followed them.
And there the monks were gathering, on the steps of the courtyard of a temple. We came in quietly and found a step to sit on in the shade. There were Chinese tourists next to us, who were standing up and posing in front of the gathering monks, flashing their cameras and getting really up close with the seated monks.
I am told that the monks sit out on the stairs to chant every day, no matter the weather. They shed their identical black boots and sit barefooted in their cloaks, even in freezing weather and snow.
We took a photograph or two from our seats and when the monks began chanting we could not resist recording a little. I was enthralled. Our Chinese neighbours told us that at 11.30 all the monks would pass into the temple beyond, which is what they did. Some monks came running, a little late, and just made it to their places on the stairs in time to shed their black boots. The boots remained scattered on the stairs when they all stood and moved into the temple. I wondered how easy it would be for each boot to be found by its rightful owner again.
We stood as well and followed them into the dimly lit interior of the temple. No photographs were taken from that point onwards. We stood against a wall and observed a number of different ceremonies. At one time some monks, carrying large brass urns, moved along the rows of monks seated on very long low cushioned benches and filled each of their bowls with a milky drink.
Inside the temple was dim, with pillars and ceiling covered and hung with fabrics that were a multitude of colours. The deep low chanting from the seated men continued unabated, while visitors from the outside circled the inside of the temple. Some Tibetans, dressed in outfits of glossy brocade, carrying large candles set in big metal candlesticks, prostrated themselves, and then led a slow path to where we could see the glow of many candles lighting up large golden Buddhas. Up front, we also glimpsed altars, strung with white cloths and incense and other offerings.
After a long time, L and I left via a side door. We were feeling tired and a little overwhelmed, and as we had no offering to make we did not make the journey around to the front with the other adherents.
Outside it had started to turn chilly and we set off on the long walk home, stopping at a monastery shop to buy a couple of boxes of Labrang incense. A monk served us and we paid him on our phone using WeChat. We took a photograph of the interior, not including him, as he had quickly ducked behind a thick curtain hanging over a back door.
On the way back to the hotel we asked permission from two elderly Tibetans to take their photo. They were seated wearily on some steps in the monastery and they sat still and silent while L took their picture.
Back at Nirvana, we felt hungry and so ordered a large amount of food. This time we chose a selection from the Tibetan menu, including a fried mutton dish and a sizzling platter of yak meat. It was all delicious, and when we were replete we retired to our room and slept for most of the late afternoon.
After leaving the bus, we crossed the road and noted another Western woman and we fell into step with her. She was very friendly and lovely and chatted to us in her lilting Irish accent as we walked. Yes, she knew the hotel, Yes, she knew the town, very well as it happened and yes, she could speak some Tibetan (she said humbly).
On journeys, the chance encounter is never really by chance – and this meeting with Fiona became the one thing around which our visit to Xiahe would turn and revolve.
Nirvana Hotel was exactly as it had appeared on social media. Clary welcomed us on the street, she was coming to meet us, and she met us with the direct and open gaze which I associate with the Dutch. She is professional and friendly and very real, a combination that works extremely well within her immaculate and meticulous (her attention to detail is remarkable) hotel.
Our room was spotless, with the bed covered with my favourite crisp white linen. There was a narrow strip of fabric over the foot end which I immediately recognised from a table in the restaurant and decided that I had to find myself a meter or two. It turned out to be a particular fabric which is authentic and only to be found In the Xiahe region.
That is a word that we felt summed up the Nirvana Hotel – authentic.
We loved our bathroom and shower, in which we indulged in an abundance of hot water, before going downstairs to enjoy a meal at the restaurant. The menu features a wide range of meals, from the Chinese, Tibetan and Western traditions.
We met Fiona and she took us for a walk before we returned to enjoy a delicious spread of dishes, mostly from the Chinese selection.
We had noted the Labrang Monastery, on the right as we had turned left into the street leading to the Nirvana Hotel. Fiona, as it turned out, has a long history of visiting the Monastery over the last 15 years, and so she became our willing and very able guide and source of information regarding all things Tibetan.
The sun was going down as we set off from the hotel, but the streets of the town were still buzzing with people and traffic. The Tibetans are partial to motorbikes, having mostly swapped their traditional horses for them a number of years ago now. The long sleeves of their Tibetan coats, usually worn on only one sleeve, except when it is cold, have extra long sleeves which hang well over their hands, and conveniently act as a type of glove when riding their motorbikes.
I tried in vain to get a picture of whole Tibetan families riding, sometimes all four, on one motorbike. But photographs of the elusive Tibetans remained unobtainable yet again.
The vast majority of the monks in the Labrang Monastery are Tibetan, as are the vast majority of the people who attend the Monastery and who walk the Kora.
The Kora, we were to discover, was the ‘walk’ that Fiona was to take us on that evening. The Kora is a 3,6 km circular walk that runs along the outside perimeter of the monastery. We set off, walking clockwise, beginning with a long row of prayer wheels. The prayer wheels are beautifully and brightly painted and they are large and heavy. Most of the walkers spin them with vigour, and as I reached for them I was met with them spinning heavily and forcefully and at first, I withdrew my hand, afraid of them hammering into my fingers.
The walkers also walk speedily, no languid strolling whilst doing the Kora. After hearing that many of the walkers walk the Kora twice a day, once at dawn and once at dusk I could understand why. Many of the walkers are old, some very old, and there are also a lot of folk prostrating themselves along the way. We came upon these figures, laid out in front of us along the path and, not sure how to react, we picked our way respectfully around them, quite in awe of their commitment and dedication.
As the sun went down the path fell into darkness and I began to stumble and gripped L’s arm on the uneven earthen path. In the gloom, I would feel a group of monks or even a single monk approaching us from behind. They walk briskly and they mutter as they walk, their string of prayer beads hanging in a loop from one hand and passing, bead by bead, rapidly between two fingers. I can’t say I could hear the rustling of their thick woven robes. Or the footfalls of their often trainer-clad feet – but they passed me by like some kind of wind, and they had no smell and yet there was something – a clinging of incense perhaps or just that marvellous wild Tibetan thing…
That took me by surprise. I think it was Fiona who said it, but I certainly thought it – if I had suspected that I would experience the nearly 4000 monks who live and work at Labrang to somehow be walking on air, in any way – those thoughts soon changed. The monks are very manly, skirts and all, some almost having the air of rough and ready street fighters. They are very distant beings though, for the most part, they hardly meet your eyes and they refuse to be photographed, which is why, out of respect, most of our monk photographs feature them from the back, and in the distance.
As we walked the Kora that first time, many monks moved past us out of the moonlight, setting the prayer wheels into a lumbering and rapid turning before striding on. We paused at a place where we could look down onto a large group of monks gathered in a courtyard below. We rested our hands against the cool terracotta tiles along the top of the wall. There was a full moon already riding high and casting its silver light over the Tibetan hills in the distance, competing with some strips of red and blue and yellow neon on some far-flung buildings.
We stood in silence and we could hear the monks debating together below us, with some clapping and some laughter and some lunging towards each other and then some running around the perimeter of the courtyard by one or two young ones, with their habits billowing and blowing around them.
We ended our Kora walk at the place where we started, admittedly having softly chatted for most of the way, which we continued to do over supper, but there was so much to learn and we just couldn’t wait to find out as much as we could.
We were early for the bus. We had left the school and taken a taxi across town for nearly an hour, but we still arrived early. The queue to the ticket counter was long, and the signage was all only in Chinese, but we used our app and in the end, we found ourselves in possession of two tickets to Xiàhé (known as Labrang in Tibetan).
There was a station cafeteria, Chinese style, but even so, it felt familiar to any other station café around the world. Not quite a greasy spoon, but a beef noodle shop, with the same dim interior and large space of empty plastic-covered tables and maroon velveteen covered chairs as found elsewhere.
There was a wooden archway covered with artificial flowers leading to a section next to the window, and we sat there with two large steaming bowls of noodles, with platters of sliced beef and savoury and sour plates of various pickles on the side.
From there I surveyed the other customers and began to note the travellers walking back from the bus station where they had disembarked from buses.
They walked by in groups and I began to note the Tibetan people amongst them, distinctive by their clothing, the women in their long dark skirts, red sashes and thin long plaits. I observed a group of young men, all with gold rings glowing in their ears, at a table near us. Their tussled hair and wild air caught my attention and my eye, and when they caught mine they smiled, broadly and easily between long drags on their cigarettes.
Lex pulled out his camera then and tried to unobtrusively snap them for me – not very successfully – and over the next few days we would see many Tibetan men and women, and their quality, which I cannot name in other way but as a certain wild untamedness, remained elusive.
The bus ride was quite long but immensely enjoyable. Across the aisle, a young Tibetan couple flirted with each other. His hand, with its large yellow gold ring, was constantly touching hers. Her hand fingered his heavy brocade jacket, which was casually worn on one arm, leaving the other arm free, with the empty sleeve wound around his waist and secured with a dashing leather, silver knob studded belt.
The seat in front of us was taken by a maroon-robed monk, no doubt on his way to Labrang Monastery in Xia He. His head of short black stubble was just visible to me above his seat. His cell phone rang frequently and he talked softly to a young Tibetan man who sat beside him, in a language which I soon recognised as not being Chinese.
The bus was comfortable, the road dual carriageway and pretty empty of other vehicles. The scenery was welcomingly green and treed and rural, and I felt myself relaxing into it after the months of being in the intense city atmosphere of Lanzhou. At first, the villages we passed through showed abundant signs of Islam, with the hills and valleys dotted with multiple minarets and spires rising from many golden and dazzling white and glowing emerald domed mosques.
After a while, the presence of Buddhism was more strongly felt as we began to note more and more temples and tangled streamers of prayer flags flying haphazardly up the mountainsides.
The road separated eventually and became a single road and we began encountering more trucks and animals and random stops along the road, to drop off and pick up passengers in what appeared to us to be the middle of nowhere.
It was a long bus trip from Xian to see the Terracotta Army. We had made sure that we had boarded the right bus – and not the ‘blue bus’ which is apparently a tourist rip off. We took the bus the locals take, with it stopping to drop people off at work stops along the way.
It was raining outside and the bus windows were misted up. Inside the bus, we bought tickets from a bus conductor who spoke no English, and we sort of listened to her when she stood in her uniform and talked for a long time into her headpiece microphone.
A swipe across the glass window revealed just how many terracotta army businesses there are along the way – the soldiers stand still and silent on the pavement, sustaining many families, restaurants and businesses.
We arrived eventually, to no rain, and the place where the bus stopped was a wide parking lot with no obvious ‘enter here to see the army’ buildings.
Thereafter there was a lot of walking. There were food stalls everywhere, and there were also stalls selling full animal pelts and strips of fur to make collars, which were all hung up on wire fences.
We walked past them all in search of entry tickets, or indeed the place where they were sold. Eventually, we found the building, after a detour to dump our rucksack which L had been labouring under.
We followed a path with others which wound through some just budding trees and finally came upon the huge structures which house the three main pits containing the clay army.
There were groups of foreigners on tour here and there. We heard German and English and some Scandinavian language – it was the first time we had seen so many foreigners for months!
We moved into the buildings and were relieved to see that our timing was good. There were relativity few people inside and we could easily approach the rails and gaze down into the archaeological dig – the pits containing the clay figures.
It was also easy for us to get close to the metal statues recovered from the pits which now stand boxed and glowing behind glass in their dim chambers.
We moved to the rail, after waiting for a minute or two for a gap to open up.
And there the soldiers stood beneath us, made from clay, their wooden bows and other weapons having long since disintegrated, leaving them clutching air in their clenched fists.
I was surprised by the feelings and emotions that stirred in me as I gazed down at them.
I had read the story around them of course and knew a little of their history. The army is a relatively recent discovery, and the massive pits under huge dome roofs containing them are still working archaeological digs.
And so they felt different from any other historical site I have ever seen. I felt moved to tears as I stood and stared at all those thousands of ancient motionless clay soldiers.
On the bus back to Xian I noticed again the hundreds of replicas lining the road outside various businesses. I myself had only bought two small fridge magnet soldiers as reminders of the real thing.
The real soldiers were never made to be works of art – but with the belief that they would, in fact, come alive one day, and live to fight for their creator…
I wondered if that was why they had stirred such emotion in me.
Made from dust, as they are, they have, in some small way, achieved the goal of living forever after all.
I wondered if, in looking at them, we look at ourselves. They stand as clay men, created as they were to one day live, waiting to have life breathed into them.
They wait in rows, sealed in, wearing the individual faces given to them by one or other of the 700 000 workers who made them. Only a few body and head moulds were made, but all the faces were allowed to be created differently.
They stand there, being stared at by millions, on the bucket list of many – with some still waiting, hidden in their pits, to be uncovered, together with their chariots and horses ( I spotted one, with only the rump and back legs emerging from the wall of clay) to be pieced together, restored and returned to their rows.
We will be forever grateful that we visited the terracotta army when we did – just at the beginning of Spring. We have heard stories of the crowds experienced there during the summer months.
There was a lone military type Chinese man pacing backwards and forwards along one side of the main pit – but still, we felt that we could have reached out and touched the soldiers if we had dared. They felt very accessible to us.
I was sorry that there were no archaeologists working in the glassed off section behind the pit where apparently workers may be observed putting together the armless, legless, headless clay soldiers who are moved there – supported and sometimes covered, between desks and other archaeological paraphernalia.
Still – I was sorry to leave and walk the long path back to collect our bag – this time nibbling on a spicy Chinese kebab bought from a food stall.
The soldiers stayed with me for a long time – I think of them still.
After our shower, in which we failed to remove all the Holi Festival paint, we set off, me with a pink streak in my hair and L with a flash of pink in his beard, to visit the Muslim Quarter street market, set within the walls of old Xi’an.
It had stopped raining, and we were grateful for that as we climbed aboard the bus that would take us there.
Xi’an is even more beautiful at night, which we discovered as we travelled through the wonderfully lit streets.
We got off at the Drum Temple and strolled to the entrance to the Muslim Market, where people stood on the few small stone pillars there, for the purpose of taking selfies, featuring the brightly lit and colourfully detailed Drum Temple in the background.
The streets of the Muslim Market were filled with people, and the sidewalks crowded with a multitude of stalls all manned by Muslims, wearing their distinctive little white hats. The women had their heads draped and covered by fabric decorated with silver or gold brocade and white lace.
They all laboured intensely at their various stalls exhibiting their skills of pounding sugar, or peeling the flesh cleanly off the bones of an animal (mutton or beef?) leaving the skeleton to hang, picked completely clean of flesh as if by some large bird of prey.
Women demonstrated their skill in making ice cream over a frosty steel plate, spreading and scraping and finally rolling the ice cream into bud like spirals, and then placing them together into a small tub, like so many rosebuds.
At one stall a man pushed a millstone around, like a mule would, crushing a mound of chillies and then scooping them all up into jars with oil (one of which L bought).
The variety of stalls were endless and the street, flanked on either side by ancient buildings visible above the stalls, stretched on for miles.
Every now and again a Muslim man would stand out on the pavement outside his stall and bark some words, almost aggressively, at the passing crowd. I suppose he was advertising his wares.
I wondered about this community, the Hui, and stood still in the street, gazing at their marvellous faces, all toiling together under the soft yellow glow of the lights. I wondered if they were mostly family-run stalls, sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts, and young men and women with the destiny of their roles already written as they were born.
We hardly bought any food (we were still full from our Indian dining..). We opted, instead, to spend some money at a silver jewellery store, mainly because of the woman seated at the entrance, dressed in a kind of silver armour and an elaborate headdress, who was banging away at a strip of bright silver.
L decided that we should buy a pair of extraordinary earrings there for me ….made of ‘canary stone’, which is what our Chinese translation app told us they were made of, but later we found out it was yellow jade.
The transaction was sealed by the saleslady pouring a colourless tea into small blue porcelain bowls, each of which contained a small fish charm made of silver. We both drank our tea and the deal was sealed.
Later we bought a small book of Mao Tse Tungs quotations, simply because I loved its redness and we managed to bargain the stall owner down from 80 yuan to 20 yuan.
Later we drank cappuccinos under the very modern roof of a nearby Starbucks and viewed the brightly lit Bell Tower in the middle of the busy street above us.
We were tired and gladly walked out to catch a bus, and we slept very well under the crisp white linen in our hotel room.
We had our first ride on a Chinese bullet train when we went away to Xi’an for a weekend. We knew we were travelling at speed because the speed appeared in red letters on a digital screen in the carriage at regular intervals.
I sat facing, with my long legs a little cramped as we swept in and out of tunnels. I suppose the train travels fast and straight and cannot manage the curves and gentle ascents and descents of the hills we saw around us.
The view through the windows alternated between darkness and dry terraces, a few scattered low houses, and after the outskirts of the city, there were more and more half-built concrete blocks of apartments.
We were travelling together with our Indian friend to join him in celebrating the Holi Festival. Xi‘an boasts an Indian Restaurant – it looked like it could be fun.
Ganesha (special to him and special to us – the Elephant God – remover of obstacles) had already helped us out by making a bus stop for us early that morning – we were the only passengers he stopped for – and thus ensured that we made our early morning train.
Now, after our arrival at the unbelievably confusing station, followed by a mind-blowing underground tube network (thanks dear Chinese speaking and reading friend…) we surfaced onto the streets of Xi ‘an and made our way to the restaurant.
It was raining a little but little Ganesha statues led us up a stairway to another large marble Ganesha statue against the wall.
We were also following the music, which we had heard from a long way off. It sounded like an Indian soundtrack from a Bollywood movie. Our Indian friend had been excited for weeks and as he bounded up the stairs we followed.
It was drizzling slightly but there were a few Indian men and Chinese women and men with faces already smeared with paint, dancing in front of a large printed screen which was standing in the open courtyard, depicting scenes from a previous Holi Festival.
A tray was prepared with burning incense sticks and other bowls, including one containing a red paste which was offered to Ganesha (his curled trunk was touched with a finger that left a red print) and we were invited forward to receive a red dot gently printed at the place of the third eye between our eyebrows – and then the party could begin.
Our friend could not be contained and swept up by his enthusiasm and energy we all joined in, sliding about on the damp tiles which soon turned into a multitude of vibrant colours as the powder paint, piled high on platters, began to be thrown about.
L and I were not spared and our hair and faces were soon turned to an assortment of exotic colours.
Many photos were taken, and later we saw that everyone had been photobombed by a collection of pretty Chinese girls ( and we were glad of it).
We were hungry and soon tired of the dancing and were ready for the promised Indian meal. We had surrendered our black coats and other clothing to the rain and they had been painted by the powders that had fallen upon us.
We went inside and queued in front of the fragrant aromas of the buffet. We left colourful fingerprints on our plates (even though we had washed our hands – the paint was hard to remove…) We went ahead and ate the delicious meal mostly with our fingers, tearing up the naan bread and dipping and scooping the chunks into bowls of chicken tikka masala, basmati rice, a delectable array of curried vegetable dishes and gently fried pakora bits and pieces.
We washed it all down with Tiger beer to the accompaniment of Bollywood images and a soundtrack played on a huge flat screen. Occasionally the stage was taken by young Chinese women, all veiled and dressed in belts of shiny coins and colourful chiffon, who danced for us with graceful arms and expressive hands.
The place was filled with many Western people, and there were a number of very attractive young Indians who held their own private party at a smoky table over a shared hookah and much beer, and danced in the aisles with a beautiful freedom and abandon that made us all smile.
We tried to wash more of the paint off in the bathroom, but the majority of that work was left for our hotel room, where I caused the glass box wet room in our hotel to be decorated with a splattering of pink and green dots against the white enamel.
Lex followed and added his own selection of colours to our bathroom.
We washed it all away but as I dried my grey hair later I realized that I still had a swathe of pink running through a large section of it. L’s beard was still a little pink on one side, but we shrugged and got dressed because we had plans for the evening.
The next day we would leave Xi ‘an and catch a late train back to Lanzhou. We arrived at the station at close to midnight and joined a long queue of weary travellers all waiting for a taxi. Our exhausted group of foreigners lagged at the tail of it and prepared to wait – until – suddenly we were waved to the front by some station official. We were confused, but we did not hesitate and followed his lead as he guided us to the very front of the queue – I don’t think any of us looked to left or right – I made no eye contact with anyone, but I swear I could feel the love…..
We were bundled into a waiting taxi and whisked off.
Now, you see, this is the way China often treats its foreigners – like royalty – or perhaps it was simply Ganesha again – finishing off what he had started the previous day… and seeing us happily home!
Last week we set out to see some of the Buddhist temple sights in Lanzhou.
We had been wanting to visit the famous Steel Bridge – historically the Zhongshan Bridge also called the first bridge over the Yellow River, lies at the foot of Bai Ta Mountain. In the year 1907, the Qing Government began to build this first iron bridge over the upper reaches of the Yellow River. All materials, even the rivets, were transported from Germany to China using ships, trains, carts and any other means possible. The bridge was completed in two years, and named ‘Lanzhou Iron Bridge over the Yellow River’.
As it was around the time of New Year our visit coincided with the bridge being strung with great clusters of red lanterns the entire length and breadth of the bridge, spanning the Yellow River.
On the other side, from the river bank, we could look up and see our destination, high up on the mountainside – the White Pagoda.
It stood up there, appearing as a tower-like structure, whiteish in colour.
We crossed the road and began our ascent.
Although at this time of the year Lanzhou does have visitors – family visitors visiting their families – the old temple terraces of Lanzhou were relatively empty of other people.
We started with the lower temples and stairs. We were struck by the beauty of their structures, and L took a lot of photographs while I wandered beneath their curved roofs and perched on the low benches, and gazed out over the slow river moving along its icy banks.
We moved up the mountain slowly, taking each flight of stairs at a steady pace. The higher we moved, the more temples we encountered. Some were bigger, but they were always arranged as a courtyard, with many doors leading to rooms housing various statues. The statues sit in their dim chambers, glowing in candlelight, surrounded by great arrangements of big artificial flowers in front of mural painted walls.
Mostly there is a large bell close by, which I suppose only the monks can strike with the long tree trunk attached for the purpose.
The air is pungent, filled with the heady aroma of burning incense – some sticks are always alight and burning, stuck in a trough of sand, standing at angles, some a shocking pink, or a striking blue or a vibrant mellow yellow colour.
The statues sit aloof behind their green stable doors, untouchable, with a large padded kneeler in place for followers to kneel on or say their prayers.
And so we progressed upwards. The city spread out beneath us and we could see its high buildings stretching far into the distance.
Eventually, we came to the Pagoda itself, built in the 13th Century it stands alone with all its many Buddhas looking out from their many alcoves, all ringed around, layer upon layer up into the sky.
I like it immensely and L and I wandered around it. It stands so silently and still, and it was there that I felt moved to buy a three pack of pink incense ( it is an honour system, trust that payment will be left) and I lit them from the flame always burning there and planted them together in the sand, and prayed for my loved ones, and then left the rising fragrant smoke to carry those prayers up and up into the air all around.
L and I stopped at a little curio shop and bought cheap jade and other mementos for special people back home.
We took our time descending, passing more folk making their way up through the slowly warming up day.
A few days later we went on another expedition.
This time we visited Five Springs Park which lies in the northwest part of Gaolan Mountain. In the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.- 24 A.D.), a famous general, Huo Qubing, was dispatched by the Emperor to go on a punitive expedition to the Hun people, a minority group who lived in the northwestern part of China at that time. Since the troops had travelled from Chang’an (now Xian ), General Huo and his soldiers were exhausted when they arrived at the foot of Gaolan Mountain. They couldn’t find any water nearby, so General Huo forcefully jabbed his horsewhip five times into the ground. Abruptly five springs spurted water into the air. Thereafter the locals called the mountain the Five Springs Mountain.
We took the no 18 bus all the way to where it stops and then turns around to go back the way it came.
We could see some ancient Chinese structures clinging to the cliffs ahead of us.
We made our way to the entrance of the Park, stopping to stroll into a shop selling large statues and filled to the brim with other objects such as drums and huge gongs, one of which was being purchased by a couple of monks when we were there. The shop was filled with the sound of Buddhist chants which were for sale in CD format. We bought a long 21 flag string of prayer flags to take home one day, to hang up in our courtyard, where they can flap and whisper out their Chinese prayers and fade in the sun along our African stoep.
The bottom reaches of the Park contain a zoo, which we avoided, and large basins of brilliantly coloured artificial flowers. The incongruously raucous music from a nearby funfair beat its way to us as we discovered two of the magical springs. Some of the ponds were still frozen over but people were still seen filling bottles from the springs trickling steadily out of the rocks.
We walked on by and began to climb up the mountain, and were passed by a monk, walking, self-contained, his loops of prayer beads passing through his fingers one by one.
There were many stairways leading every which way up the steep hillside. We zigzagged our way up, stopping at the many temples as we went. We came upon a beautiful arched bridge, spanning a frozen waterfall, and we crossed it, me struggling with vertigo as I did so.
The temples near the top were strung with many colourful rows of prayer flags, fluttering in the very bracing breeze.
We found some metallic painted prayer wheels in one temple and ran our fingers over them, sending them spinning. At another rather busy temple there were 4 walls of golden prayer wheels and we followed the red arrows, guiding us along them in the correct direction. They turned slowly and heavily behind us as we passed.
At that temple there were a number of monks, crossing the courtyard very rapidly, heads down and disappearing through doorways hung with heavily embroidered cloths.
A big golden and shiny Buddha sat in his glass box there, grinning fatly, and it was there that Lex caught a monk in his shot as he passed behind the box, and he raised his hand at us and smiled.
From the highest reaches, we looked down over the ancient curved rooftops of the temples, decorated with small bells and metal dragons, and gazed at the new, very rapidly growing city of Lanzhou. It was very peaceful, with a closed up monastery clinging precariously to the dry hillside behind us.
We found the sites of the other Springs, one of which apparently reflects the full moon perfectly in its well of water at a certain time in the summer.
Well, after what seemed like weeks of preparations Chinese New Year has come and gone.
The street decorations have been going up from the end of Christmas, gradually filling the bare trees with illuminated hearts, butterflies and flowers.
Bridges spanning the streets are decorated with huge flowers, Chinese writing and images of athletes, animals and, of course, dogs.
Parks are filled with huge bright brilliantly coloured satin covered sculptures which glow in the dark when they are switched on.
Up the road from where we live there are a couple of environmentally friendly sculptures outside the large CHINA TOBACCO factory and its corporate buildings.
The shops became crowded with red Chinese New Year decorations. Every shop featured its own red lantern on the street outside, and each lamppost was hung with 4 lanterns each.
The doors of nearly every shop and house featured red banners pasted on each side, on the lintel, as well as a red diamond shape stuck in the centre.
EverBright – our friendly bank presented us with a Chinese New Year pack, and under the guidance of Vicky, our source of all information, we stuck the banners provided around our own front door – and Vicky ensured that all the Chinese writing was the right way up. Good Luck! Good Luck!
Everything at New year is basically about Good Luck, abundance and prosperity. Who doesn’t need a little or a lot of some of that for 2018?
We bought a fish ornament (more good luck) with 3 bells attached from one of the New Year stalls. I was tempted to buy red lanterns and hangings and lots of ornamental dogs -in the end, we did buy little Kuala ( Happy –快乐 ) to add to our collection.
We awaited the eve of 15th February (New Year’s Eve) and headed out in the evening on a later bus to find ourselves a celebratory meal. It was immediately obvious to us that things were not as they usually are on the streets of Lanzhou. The streets were empty, the bus was empty and…. The restaurants were ALL shut!
New Year’s Eve is a family affair in China. Silly strangers us – what kind of restauranteur would be found in his restaurant on New Year’s Eve, when there was family to be with who had either travelled far to be with him, or perhaps he had gone far away himself to be with family elsewhere?
The previous days are spent cleaning in China and no cleaning or taking of medicine is done on New Year’s Day – lest you take some of the Old Year stuff into the New Year, or might be ill all year…
The street cleaners had been sweeping the streets even cleaner than usual and great packs of them had been seen dusting every railing along the main freeway.
So…hungry and alone L and I wandered through some lonely but beautifully lit streets….and then we saw them…groups of families gathering on the pavements, some carrying trays of cups and teapots and small oranges and alcohol and piles of yellow rice paper money.
They gathered in the dusk and made little fires right there on the pavement, setting the imitation money alight and splashing alcohol and tea and other things into the bright flowers of fires blossoming under the illuminated trees and streetlights!
Some research about the making of the fires explained about ancestors being honoured and symbolical offerings being made and it being some ancient Buddhist /Chinese practice….whatever…it made a beautiful impression on us and we strolled among the people as they solemnly went about their rituals. We kept to the shadows and took a few photos from a respectful distance.
We noticed that the street cleaners were still out and about as well, faithfully sweeping up the embers left behind from each departed group. In the morning no ashes were to be seen anywhere.
Hungry as we were we eventually spied a KFC and our rumbling tummies led us to its lemon lit front door. Inside we found some groups of teenagers (avoiding that traditional family gathered around a table somewhere, with rolling eyes and sighs – like teenagers everywhere?)
Our waiter spoke good Student English, the Chinese delivery guys carried big takeaway boxes on their backs and came and went in their cool biker leathers, coming and going on their motorbikes. Was there a Grandad somewhere who preferred a KFC burger this New Years Eve?
L and I sat in the window and devoured our burgers and chicken pieces. Like all Western food in China – the food was the same but different to KFC in South Africa (much spicier in Lanzhou)
We provided some entertainment for some families walking by – oh look in the window – some real Westerners eating some real Western food!
We smile and wave!
Replete, we found a bus – suddenly panicked that they might not run late this New Years Eve. The bus driver definitely drove faster through the empty Lanzhou streets – he wanted to get home (of course he did!)
At midnight we ascended the stairs of our empty building and stepped out onto our icy roof. We were not disappointed. For a few days already our sleep had been disturbed by the sound of crackers going off.
Now the skyline of Lanzhou was being lit up by some dazzling displays and sparkling shower shows of starry fireworks.
They popped and exploded and showered down between all the high-rise buildings all around us. They lit up the many bridges and were reflected in the dark waters of the night time Yellow River.
We watched it all for a long time. None of the photos really capture the magic and eventually we gave up – I was getting cold and thinking of all the scared dogs of Lanzhou – oh well – it would soon be over and it is going to be a glorious year for them – this 2018 – Year of the Dog!
A Muslim friend took us out one day to experience them at a Muslim Restaurant, assuring us that this was the restaurant that provided the best beef.
We followed him around the Restaurant, moving from counter to counter, being handed a platter of thinly sliced beef, then a couple of dishes of vegetables (chunky chopped cucumber, pink crunchy radishes and bright orange cabbage in a vinegary dressing), and finally large bowls of soupy noodles ( L chose the spicy one – great spoonfuls of red chillies were ladled into it).
We found a place at the communal tables and sat down. We picked up slivers of succulent beef with our chopsticks and dropped them into our bowls of noodles. The beef softened and we shovelled them into our mouths along with the long strands of noodles which we bit off. It was all pretty delicious. In between mouthfuls, we ate the fresh cold vegetables.
A young lady waitress came and befriended us. She was a student she told us and this was her family’s restaurant. She communicated with us in a mixture of English, Chinese and German. We sort of figured it out. Sweet girl!
L and I appreciate being shown around but there came a day when we ventured into a Chinese restaurant on our own.
We could have gone to 26”pizza. But where would have been the fun in that?
We chose the Restaurant for it’s Union Jack seats which we could see in the window. It seemed popular and the photos of dishes in the window looked good, reasonably priced, and so we went inside.
The menu did not feature a word of English. We tried to use our Chinese translation app. It wasn’t very helpful. No one in the Restaurant could help us, but I liked the traditional Chinese pictures painted all around the walls. I liked the big front doors painted brightly, featuring fearsome Chinese warriors and gentle watercolour scenes of the countryside.
We pointed out two dishes and they arrived. They turned out to be two HUGE platters, one with lamb ribs, very crisp and juicy but covered in red chillies. The other was what had looked like chicken in the photograph but turned out to be something… which we never figured out…but there were also peanuts and such an immense amount of chillies that even L could not manage it.
Oh well, we called for COKE, which we assumed was an international word. It isn’t.
We got a coke in the end, and we were gratefully able to wash away some of the burn.
A week or so later we visited another Muslim Restaurant with the same friend and our Chinese speaking Romanian, who could translate!
The food, delicious roasted lamb shanks and a platter of sweet and sour chicken, a fresh salad and some spicy potatoes was wonderful.
The whole meal was washed down with a tea consisting of dried dates, dried litchis, dried flowers (not sure which), lots of green tea leaves and a lump of sugar crystals. Our large glass mugs were continuously topped up with warm water. The tea improved with time.
We don’t go to Restaurants that often, perhaps once a week. The Chinese food Restaurants are very, very cheap. The lamb shank meal was expensive and cost us each about R45,00 (under $4)!
Normally, over the holidays, we have been eating our daily meal at the canteen in the Wanhua building next door. They invited us to join them for lunch over the holiday season, and so we do. We are the only teachers there.
We pay a small amount with WeChat and sit down with the workers there, some in blue jackets, some in red, some in suits, some in designer coats. By the vast majority of them, we are now hardly noticed.
The lady in charge is helpful and friendly. Her English is a whole lot better than just about anyone else we have met.
Most days a trip to the canteen is enough for us, or sometimes we buy a few containers of food and take it back to the flat to be heated up and eaten later.
We sit around our table with our bowls and red chopsticks and dip into the containers of tofu, or noodles, rice or beef with lots of red peppers.
It feels as good as any restaurant, with the sun streaming into the room, our favourite photos turning around on the flat screen and some soft blues playing.
We arrived here in Winter. Ice and snow still lie in shadowy corners that the sun does not reach.
The Spring Festival holiday is already underway.
Red Lanterns have been strung up everywhere. Other decorations have been put up all over town. Christmas decorations still have not been taken down. They are blending in well. We are experiencing a bumper amount of bright and colourful decorations all over the place.
The Chinese New Year celebrations will burst upon us tomorrow.
We are looking forward to that.
2018 is the year of the dog.
L and I have our two yellow dogs, Tao and Bao but we miss our dog, T-spoon.
She died shortly before we left South Africa. She was very old, and it was probably all for the best, but we think of her often. Her photo comes up on our flat screen, and when we see it we pause to gaze at her, and we mention her briefly.
T-spoon played an important role in our lives. She kept us fit because she needed, and loved her walks three times a day. She was L’s therapist – as he stroked her body, squashed between him and the seat of the armchair, I could see the stress of the day leaving him.
I have always been aware that Dog and God have more in common than the same letters…
There are dogs all over Lanzhou.
A lot are feral and I worry about them in this cold weather. I have seen food left out for them and have also seen them eating the snow left on the ground around the trees. I look away when I see one or two of them trying to cross the roads. So far they have all made it to the other side.
I have seen a lot of other dogs as well, pampered poodles mostly, out walking with their owners, complete with jackets and little booties.
In celebration of The Year of the Dog L and I fancied and bought the little red paisley dog, with gold stitching that we saw for sale in Vanguard the other day, amongst all the other New Year decorations.
Red is a good colour in China. Lucky.
For now, there are big pots filled with a huge amount of artificial flowers – but people have told us that when the holiday is over there will be buds on the trees. Spring will have come.
I have been thinking about that a lot lately. About how silently the bare trees stand now, while all that Spring colour and energy is gathering inside them, ready to burst forth. Waiting.
Waiting has been a theme of our lives for many months now. We have been living and moving from one Waiting Room to the next.
But I am aware, that within all the waiting there was also so much life.
A hidden life of learning and stretching and moving and knowing. Even within our own bodies, during all this time, there has been so much growth.
Seasons come and go, of course, and my face in the mirror shows me that my springtime and summer have passed for good.
I think the risk is that during the second half of life we can miss the signs. We might feel that we will now remain in a kind of winter – and it is there that the story will end.
But that, I am realising, certainly does not have to be the truth.
L and I had felt the deep stirrings of new life within us for quite a while before we acted on it.
Before we came to China.
Before we embarked on what we call our second journey.
It happened just when we thought we might put our feet up, and stay slumbering in the silent snow of our lives, most certainly with a dog on our laps.
Make no mistake – that thought does hold a certain appeal. Especially on those tired days…
But the sap within us is powerful and rising. It is unstoppable. It makes our pulses race. It pushes us on. It fills us with excitement. And hope. And life.
This journey at this time in our life isn’t about status or achievement or in order to add anything to our CV.
It is will help us financially, yes, but deep within us, we know that we are answering a much deeper call.
A call to adventure.
A call to flower.
A call to learn and live a new thing.
Our search for the perfect cappuccino has often pushed us out, onto buses and pavements, quite often in temperatures as low as – 20.
Early on in our stay in Lanzhou, the word CAKE stood out for me – often the only English word I could read amongst all the other Chinese shop signage.
I never associated CAKE with China. But I was wrong.
We were treated to our first cake after we had only been in China for a couple days. It tasted good but it was the way it was decorated that really impressed me.
Later we explored the shop that had supplied the cake for ourselves. The shop is called ‘Holiland’ and both the shop’s contents and its displays have amazed and amused us ever since.
I have yet to find out which occasion would warrant the purchase of the ‘booby’ cake – but there is always at least one displayed at ‘Holiland’, iced and ready.
When you do buy a cake you are also given a slim gift box of noodles to take home. It’s just a ‘Holiland’ thing…
We have enjoyed cake in other places, namely with a cappuccino on the side.
Coffee bars have become our favourite place to hang out, whether it be 501, Starbucks or Caffe Bene.
I am writing this whilst sitting on a large squashy leather couch in our favourite (thus far) coffee bar – Caffe Bene.
One of the reasons that I think we like it is because we can catch the no 88 bus just outside the school, and then go with it over the Yellow River, which is wonderful. We can look down on the icy brown river, sluggishly moving through its icy banks, flanked by bare trees on either side. We can get off the bus very close to Caffe Bene and be inside its cosy warm interior within a matter of minutes.
All the coffee bars which we have visited thus far have a few things in common:
– They are all really big and can seat a lot of people
– They just about all feature the Union Jack design on either chairs or tables
– They all serve excellent cappuccinos, fruit teas and juices
– Most of them serve slices of pizza
– Waffles are also popular
– They all serve CAKE
– No one minds how long you stay – all day if you like…
Right now L and I have been here for about one and a half hours. Our laptops and books are all spread out over our low kist-like Union Jack coffee table. There are electric points at most of the tables here and our cell phones are plugged in to charge. There is excellent WiFi.
You are also allowed to smoke inside the Coffee Bars in China. I, personally, quite like that fact…
The ceilings are often high and there doesn’t seem to be much smoke hanging around. Maybe they remind me of another time when I was young and everywhere I went I remember as being smoky. Anyway.
The first time we ordered a piece of cake (to share) at 501 we were each given a little black plastic fork as well as two sets of silver crockery. Later we were offered hot water from a silver jug, and when we nodded the young waiter poured the water over the foamy dregs of our cappuccino! Yet another lost in translation incident!
At 501 you are given a Teddy Bear when you place your order. Teddy then sits with you to be collected when your order arrives.
Youngsters arrived in groups into 501, boys mostly, to sit with cell phones and cigarettes and chat over bottles of beer. The music was mostly rap that day, featuring very unsuitable English words. The F-bomb and rude names for women were really not properly understood I believe, and the music was shrugged off, along with the ash from their cigarettes, flicked into coffee grind filled ashtrays.
On our first visit to a Starbucks we ordered a slice of cheesecake (cheesecake is popular), only it was not cheesecake that arrived. We had been so confident of our order that day – the Chinese boy with blonde streaks in his hair seemed to understand our English so well!
We bumped into our sweet Chinese fixer that day – which was like a miracle – to bump into one of the few people we know amongst the teeming throngs of people in Lanzhou.
It was snowing that day as well, and L took a wonderful photo of 2 monks, asking for directions, from the icy Starbucks doorway.
But the no 88 bus Caffe Bene remains our favourite.
As I sit here there is a hubbub of Chinese voices around me. The music here is mostly bluesy, or old 1930s jazz, sometimes with the raw touch of a Janis Joplin standard.
People are working on laptops, sometimes chatting, looking up from cell phones, laughing with red lip-sticked mouths, flicking their long dark haired fringes.
The people next to me order a pizza, it may have a sweet potato topping, or beef, or something fruity.
Maybe L and I will negotiate something plain – a Marguerite?
Anyway, we will probably be here for hours yet.
Like everyone else.
We have been in China for just over one month – during which time we have met people, travelled around Lanzhou a little, participated in a concert, sorted out visas, residence permits, lost suitcases, found suitcases, done medical checks, wrestled with the Banking System of Lanzhou, organised bus tickets and food cards for the canteen and finally been successful in using WeChat for just about anything.
All of these procedures took time for us to organise.
We also spent days in the Foreign Teachers office, navigating our way through curriculum and learnt our very first (very few) words in Chinese – 早上好.
We settled into our spacious flat, sorted out our water cooler/heater, cooked on our hot plate, bought our wok and pot set, purchased some crockery and cutlery (no ‘normal’ knives yet). We bought some cushions (online from Tao Bao, of course) some featuring the Union Jack (of course) and others the Tree of Life ( to go with the random tree painted on our bedroom wall by a previous American teacher) and figured out all the Chinese instructions on all the various gadgets.
We learnt to live with the large section of van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ which is painted on our lounge wall – also by some random American teacher…
We mastered the canteen, gained some skill with chopsticks (including the correct and well-mannered way in which to eat with and abandon them – never leave them pointing upward like two incense sticks!)
We now recognise most of the dishes served, and we know which ones we like and which ones we dislike, but we still cannot eat a drumstick or a plate of prawns without using our fingers – a skill which the Chinese people do possess.
We can ride some of the bus routes confidently and find our way to Wumart (like South African Checkers), BHG (like South African Pick n Pay) and Vanguard (probably up there with South African Woollies).
We know that there are really only about 4 types of cookies on the supermarket’s shelves that we like and enjoy and that yoghurt is mostly of the thin and drinkable variety, except for one brand, which our fridge is chock-a-block with. We also know that it is very, very difficult to find good cheddar cheese or any cheese for that matter (a particular hardship for me), and Marmite is nowhere to be found, which breaks Lex’s heart.
We know which bread to buy, but mostly we don’t bother, and that butter is imported and very expensive.
We know that face creams nearly all contain whitening agents because we also know that often West is seen as Best, and we know that we know that that is definitely not always true.
We have found out, to our extreme cost, that deodorant is also almost impossible to find, and when it is, it is very expensive.
All these things are true for Lanzhou, which is a small city in China. Small, that is, for China, as it still has roughly the same population as Cape Town.
Lex and I have no Chinese at all, and the vast majority of Chinese here have no English – but that does not stop any Chinese person from speaking to us rapidly and fluently as if we understood every word.
We also know that we constantly give people reason to stop and stare at us, and parents explain what we are to their little children. May we be the first non-Chinese people they have ever seen?
We have been told that people stand up for us in buses because we are Foreign and not because we are ‘old’. We do not understand why this might be so.
Anyway, there are also so many other things that we encounter all the time but still do not understand.
And now it is holidays, and all around us our Western friends have left, some to New Zealand, some to India and some back to South Africa.
For the most part, we are alone in the huge school building.
We knew it was going to happen and we were not sure how we would feel. And now it is upon us.
Our colleagues were not gone long before they began posting pictures of themselves back in their home country.
There was one of a young man, who posted a picture of himself, sitting astride a classic motorbike back home in Mumbai, with a piece of a wall and a distinctive Indian door in the photo behind him.
Others sent a picture of themselves (tall South Africans smiling into a sunny day) standing on a hot Karoo lawn with a large shady tree and a white homestead glowing behind them.
I pour over typed messages from our beloved children, far away in South Africa. I look at their dear faces, frozen in time in the few photos they send, interspersed as they are with the occasional video chat, done as best we can while the VPN rises and falls.
I try to make calls to my extraordinary elderly mother, often without success. Does she not hear the phone, or does it not ring? I try to hide my frustration listening to it ringing on and on, while I stand at the window, watching the snow fall.
The doors to the flats of our fellow teachers have been sealed with strips of white paper, on which something is written in Chinese script. What does it say? Gone away, gone away…
The passages of the school are all empty and silent.
Snowy pathways outside have been swept clean and there are no footsteps, apart from the little prints of a child’s that I saw one day, leaving the path and making little crisscrossing running footprints in the snow.
I know the little boy who made him. He is a grandchild of one of the cleaners.
I have spotted him often – sometimes wailing over his lunch because something was not to his liking, or trailing behind a cluster of chattering women as they sweep and mop, and once, at the concert, with his own yellow toy dog dangling from one hand by its red thread, wearing a jersey with the words ‘I’m happy’ stitched across the front.
I miss everybody.
But so far we actually do feel pretty good on this 4 week holiday.
Lex and I are each others’ best friend.
The days start slowly and we begin with our meditation time together. We do our yoga stretches.
We eat fruit and drink warm water.
My favourite snack is now a Chinese one – it looks like parrot food, but when you crack the husk the kernel is salty and almost roasted in flavour.
We pass the days reading and writing and later we download and watch BBC series.
We cannot travel because our passports are with Home Affairs right now. We’ll get them back in a couple of weeks.
We have Chinese to learn, blogs to write, novels to finish, websites to organise and books to read.
We have Lanzhou to explore, parks to stroll in, cappuccino Cafes to discover and temples to visit.
We have people to watch and be fascinated by. Loads of them.
For a few days right now everything can wait.
We are resting and, well, just being.
We have time and we are grateful.
L was in need of a haircut.
As it happened, one of our friends mentioned that he planned to stop off, on our way to the grocery store, in order to have his hair cut.
We asked if we could tag along.
The hairdresser that had dealt with our friends’ hair before, was no longer there. His shop was closed, with a sign on the door that we could not read or understand.
Never mind – another hairdresser salon was spotted, just a couple of shops away.
We all trouped in.
Inside the shop was neat and clean and stylish. All the hairdressers were men. Some were very young and very fashionable (one young man sported a mop of purple hair…) Some were dapper in tight-fitting suits with highly polished pointed shoes.
The whole place was run by a woman, who chatted away to us in Chinese, nodding with understanding when we pointed to the two grey-haired men with us.
– Yes. Yes. –
She understood and welcomed us all in.
First, the mens’ hair was washed, and then they were shown to two black leather seats, side by side.
The job was done, hair was meticulously clipped, cheeks were shaved, eyebrows were tamed. The clipping and combing continued for quite a long time.
Both men seemed happy enough. Both received hairdo’s that were short and featured an interesting horizontal line above the ears.
Our friend was finished first and after a moment of incomprehension paid the requested amount for his haircut.
– That’s a bit steep –
We all muttered a bit.
Well, it is rather an upmarket salon, we reasoned.
When L was done and it was his turn to pay he opened his wallet…
– No –
We understood them to say
– It has already been paid for –
– Oh –
We smiled, with the new understanding that the price had already been paid for both.
Very reasonable after all.
Two very satisfied customers.
One thing we have noticed though is that since his haircut, people don’t stand up for L in the bus as often.
I wonder if it is because he has less white hair peeking out from under his cap.
And his beard is shorter.
Ah – perhaps he has become younger!
On Saturday we set out to go shopping. We had no real plan, apart from a visit to the bank
We wandered past Wu-mart and kept walking, and around the corner, we came upon a market.
The market ran down both sides of a side street. It was full of people and ran along the street for quite a long way.
We decided to venture down it.
There were many stalls, all very interesting and different from the markets that I know.
There were stalls selling fish. The fish were kept alive in big red square baths, with fresh water being pumped around them as they lay there twisting and flicking their tails. We did not buy any, but if we had, our fish would have been killed, scaled and gutted for us while we waited.
There were live chickens being sold. They were kept in wire and steel cages, from where they were taken out and weighed for customers. I didn’t wait around to see whether they were killed and cleaned then and there or not. We had to move on
The narrow walkway not only catered for pedestrians but also for three-wheelers and motorbikes and bicycles, all moving up and down, shopping and making deliveries.
An old man sold an assortment of brushes from his bicycle parked in the middle of the road.
The fruit and vegetables were very fresh and crispy and brightly coloured. They were all set out in rows and were very cheap, but as we planned to be out for a while we did not buy any.
There were also tables groaning under bags of spices, loads of chillies, chopped finely or roughly, piles of a yellow powder (surely it was turmeric), dried green herbs (which ones?), and a pile of light pink powder (no idea what that could be).
I recognised piles of cinnamon bark, bundles of bay leaves, clusters of star anise and bunches of fresh coriander. I guessed at what other powders could be, but it didn’t matter, as I wasn’t buying.
What I did buy was ginger. I wanted a piece so that we could cut off thin slices to put in the hot water that the Chinese serve to you everywhere and which we have started drinking as well.
Anyway – I gave too much money (it wasn’t much) and ended up with 5 huge pieces of ginger!
Shopping from markets with no language is an art that I have yet to master!
We bought some crispy little round pastries to nibble on. They tasted of oil, but they went down well, as we ate them, strolling along in the icy morning.
There were a lot of meat stalls, with the meat lying out on open tables in the freezing air. They seemed to be sold as large chunks of meat, not cut into steaks or chops or cubes or ribs. There was not much pork for sale, we noticed, as most of the stallholders at the market appeared to be Muslim, with the flat planes of Mongolia carved on their faces.
We stopped at a stall where a man sold piles of green tea. We did not have a container in which we could carry a small amount, nor do we have a teapot or a strainer. The man at the stall had a little English, in that he could say ‘Green tea’ and he gave us permission to photograph his stall, although he himself moved out of the shot.
We were beckoned over by a lady selling tofu (a lot of it is served to us in the school cafeteria). She was selling from a large bucket of chilli tofu (her husband knew the word ‘hot’) and another bucket of plain tofu. She gave us a little taster of each and so we bought a square – not so much because we wanted it but because we felt obliged to her. We did not pay much for it, and I carried it in my coat pocket, wrapped in plastic, for the rest of the morning.
We strolled on and the row of market stalls ended. We found ourselves in a rather dilapidated part of town, filled with workers, trucks and impatient men on 3 wheelers. There were little warehouses everywhere and towering flats above strung with ropes of black cable and windows caged in with bars.
I saw a small Muslim restaurant in which I glimpsed groups of smoking men talking and eating together around smoky tables.
We emerged back out onto the Main Road, having walked in a loop. We wandered into a health pharmacy, looking for some basic medication. L used our Chinese/English app to describe what we needed, as well as to read the packaging. We got what we needed, and amongst much smiling and reading of cell phone scenes, we paid and left.
Crossing Chinese roads no longer phases us, apart from the very real danger that we might look the wrong way for oncoming traffic.
We started feeling a little concerned about the tofu in my pocket, and so we headed home.
When we were asked to participate in the New Year Concert we were told that the Foreign Teachers contribution had already been choreographed. In fact, it had already been performed before, once, at a Sports meeting, I think.
L and I were shown the steps. It was a line dance, Western in theme. I supposed the Wild West idea was chosen because we are sort of Western.
We were to perform the dance against a backdrop of a dusty street in a Western Town.
L and I were willing, and we did our best to learn the steps, after a fashion…
Tao Bao is an online Chinese store ( from which, we have been told, you can by ANYTHING) and it was from Tao Bao that we received our costumes, one red Stetson, one red bandana and a black t-shirt each.
L and I did not sleep well the night before – I kept doing the steps over and over in my mind. I woke up that morning to the sound of L practising his steps in the kitchen. He didn’t look very well over breakfast.
We went to the auditorium at the requested time. We seemed to be early – Chinese time and Africa time have a few minutes in common – and all of us Foreign Teachers sat in the chairs that had been assigned to us.
As we entered we had to sign in at the door and as a reward (I felt anyway) we were each handed a small yellow cuddly dog with red stitching. L and I immediately named our two identical dogs Tao and Bao.
The stage was trimmed with huge clusters of colourful balloons. The Chinese teachers began to arrive, and some were in evening gowns fit for the Academy Awards. There was no red carpet, but there was plenty of red everywhere else.
The show began and all the Chinese staff had obviously been working very hard on their performance pieces. We had heard a little of the rehearsals taking place in various classrooms (they had been loud and vigorous – and sometimes a little off key)
The stage was backed by a very big screen and the show went on for over three hours. I had no idea that the staff of our small 300 pupil school extended to nearly 150! And everyone had participated in some way.
All items were in Chinese, except for the backing soundtrack of a couple of the dances, which was American pop or rap.
There were little dramas (skits) which we could get the gist of, but obviously, the humour was mostly lost on us.
There were classic pieces, a kind of Chinese opera and a very dramatic piece about China, that was very emotional, and even I found myself feeling quite stirred and a touch patriotic!
There were many awards given out, which were received by great big groups of people.
There were many speeches, and, sitting in the front row – a place where us Foreign Teachers often seem to end up – we appreciated the few sentences of English spoken in amongst the Chinese words.
We were item number 14 on the agenda, and we had not watched many of the performances before we realized that our piece was probably not quite up to the rather high standard set by the Chinese teachers.
Our turn did come eventually, and we got up and did it. L and I were in the back row and the bank of balloons thankfully hid our footwork from the front row of viewers. We were also positioned behind our more experienced (and talented) co-workers, who have quite a flair for dancing, as it turns out.
I missed a good deal of the moves, and I glimpsed L going off at a bit of a tangent during the middle bit. We both recovered and ended more or less where we should, and when we sat down we breathed a huge sigh of relief.
The program continued for a good while after our set, and I think I enjoyed it more because I could relax.
During the concert, a character in one of the little dramas started throwing red envelopes, with gold writing on them into the auditorium. We got one and inside we found a one yuan note. Our first red envelope which is apparently the traditional way of gift giving – and the money inside is essential!
During another performance, very small goodies were also thrown into the audience. I caught one – it was a little piece of tofu – vacuum packed!
After the performance, we all moved to the dining hall for lunch. Buffet style, the food was definitely of an American flavour and the hall was decorated with New Year decorations. Happy New Year! (Again)
The tables were decorated in the centre with fruit and carbonated drinks and cans of beer.
We took our platters and helped ourselves to the food which was, unfortunately, a little cold – the concert had gone on a bit – but we dished up French fries, fried chicken, fish nuggets and an assortment of salads and vegetables.
When we were done the toasting began, which involved groups of people moving from table to table saying: 新年好, or in English: Happy New Year! And raising tins of beer or paper cups of Coke or Fanta.
Groups of people circulated and eventually, I could say ‘Happy New Year!” in Chinese. I have now, of course, completely forgotten the words, which happens to me quite a lot. I find the particular tones used in the Chinese language so hard to remember, but I do keep on trying.
We left the dining hall with bananas and nectarines stuffed in our coat pockets for later – that was our last meal from the canteen. Everyone was leaving for their long four week Spring Festival/New Year break. Except us.
In our flat, we sat one dog on our bed (Tao) and one in the lounge (Bao, or Bow wow wow). They are to be our company for the next four weeks!
Later all teachers were summoned down to the Finance Office and we were given cash for the New Year (in China, I have realized, Good Luck and cash are inexplicably linked).
It has not been easy to sort out our finances in Lanzhou.
Organising our finances is very important to us, mostly because we are foreigners, and, like most foreigners here, we need to send a fair portion of our hard earned cash home.
A couple of banks had been introduced to us by others, and we expressed an interest in them, but our little Chinese fixer ignored our requests and took us to a couple of other banks instead.
These were banks which we didn’t think would be able to help us regarding transfers, and online banking and a handy little WeChat app.
Everyone in China uses WeChat. And so do we, now. There are 3 or 4 WeChat groups that we are required to belong to within the school (English teachers, Foreign teachers, Happy Family(?), and a social group called Maki Saki – only South Africans will understand that one).
WeChat is also invaluable when it comes to paying – you can pay for just about anything with your WeChat app on your phone here – groceries, coffees, restaurants, online shopping (TAO BAO- an online store where you can buy ANYTHING, but we need a Chinese person to help translate) and taxis. We were feeling left out. We wanted to be able to use WeChat too.
For a few days it seemed that getting organised at the banks was going to be an impossible task, but, eventually, at one of the small banks we were taken to, we were both issued bank accounts, and money was deposited.
We became brave (read desperate) enough at venture out to the bank alone on a Saturday. It was the fixers’ day off.
No problem. We decided it was time for us to use our Chinese translator app . Which is what we did.
L spoke into his phone as he stood on his side of the glass partition, and held it up against the window to show the bank staff the Chinese words that appeared on the screen.
The two sweet bank personnel did their best. They answered our enquiries by using an app of their own and showing us their English translation.
On both sides of the glass, there were many smiles and a little laughter.
We all understood each other a little, but even so, after a while, we had to be told to come back on Monday.
A sweet bespectacled Chinese man in the foyer of the bank had enough English to help us locate the English button on the ATM, and we could at least check our bank balance.
So we went back on Monday – this time with our fixer with us.
The bright youngsters at the bank looked up at us and smiled. We greeted each other – they tried some English words – we tried some Chinese.
It felt like we were friends. They certainly were very helpful.
Today L went forward first, sitting in the comfy black chair in front of the glass, into which a shiny little speaker was set. He came away gleeful and hopeful.
When it was my turn he moved and sat on some seats behind me. I could see that he was intent on his cell phone. Did it all work?
I sat in the comfy black seat. The sweet lady teller worked away on her computer.
I received a few very pretty Chinese messages on my phone. In between the picture writing, I could pick up some Roman Numerals, my ID number…
On the little screen pad in front of me on the counter, I punched in codes as I was instructed and pushed the little green button…
And then I moved back and waited in the waiting seats where I have waited before. I watched the new advertising video on the big flat screen mounted on the wall.
I enjoyed it – I had seen another advert at least 20 times before – during my other visits – when I had also waited. Waited and watched the staff employed in the bank.
– Nee how –
to the security guard, with military hat, grey uniform and wide white belt.
– Nee how –
to the cleaning lady as I move my feet so that she can mop the floor…
– She she –
to the bank assistant as she brings me a paper cup full of hot water from the water dispenser
And then a victorious little cheer from L beside me
– It works!-
Everyone was happy. The two sweet faces on the other side of the glass broke into happy smiles. There was a chorus of…
– She she –
(from us) and thank yous as well – just in case we had said it wrong.
A thumbs up, a wave, a…
– You are welcome! –
said bravely by the pale young woman – it was the most English she had ever dared to say.
We like our new small and friendly bank. We like our new young smiling friends behind the glass.
Ever Bright Bank.
On the street, the signage is in purple.
We like that too.
A day later, just when we thought we were done with the Ever Bright Bank, for the time being, a contingent of 7 bank employees arrived at the school. They had come personally to help sort out our online banking issues. We met in one of the meeting rooms but soon moved to the foreign teachers’ office when all the men and women poured over L’s computer and we observed from the outside while the room was filled with the sound of many voices talking together in Chinese – dedicated to solving our problems!
This took service delivery to a whole new level! Talk about personal attention!
Everybody seemed quite happy and excited – perhaps they were all learning something new whilst helping us.
Unfortunately, after all that, our problem was not solved.
We appreciated the effort made by all.
Oh well – back to the drawing board.
Everything about it is so foreign – buying it, preparing it and eating it, both at home and in restaurants.
I have started to call our lives in Lanzhou – FULL IMMERSION – as life here is so totally different, so very intensely Chinese.
An English teacher friend just returned from a long weekend in Shanghai. She said she loved it. There is a lot of English there – she said. She also mentioned the beauty of the city, the buildings and the architecture. She mentioned hearing the English language being spoken everywhere. She even mentioned that she had found a bookshop that sold a wide variety of English books!
L and I are glad to be in Lanzhou. We like the fact that life is very unplugged from the West here. As a result, we are being driven to learn to speak a little more Chinese, and we are learning a lot, both about China and about ourselves.
But we have pencilled Shanghai in on our calendars…
Last Friday night a couple of the other foreign teachers cooked for us. We lapped up South African curry and rice (with tomato and onion, banana and cucumber sambals on the side.)
A young Indian teacher also contributed to the meal, making us delicious Basmati rice with spices. He also made us ‘Chicken 65’, which, we found out, is a type of spicy chicken nugget dish, served with a coriander dip. A wonderful multi-cultural meal!
Meals like that one do a lot to assist with the reality of FULL IMMERSION!
The other thing to do, we discussed, with our friends, who have been here a lot longer than us, is to find a way to lift your face up from under the water every now and then – so as to breathe a little familiar air occasionally.
With this idea in mind, we travelled out with them on Sunday morning. Firstly, we met some friends of theirs, gathered at a meeting in downtown Lanzhou.
Lanzhou, I am told, contains about 7 universities. This means that a large percentage of the population here are students and lecturers. And it is within these communities that one encounters more foreigners.
We have already met a couple of foreign students. I think that they are impressive, because, although most are postgraduate, in order to study here, they have all spent a year studying to read and write Chinese, before they launched into their further studies! As a result, there are a bunch of Americans, Romanians, Indians and Africans who I have now met, who can speak, and write pretty good Chinese!
Meeting with them to make friends and to chat about life in Lanzhou ( a couple of American doctors have been here for over 11 years already!) was like a breath of fresh air.
After the meeting we ventured further into Lanzhou, catching a No 118 bus, which we had never done before.
Our destination was ‘Charlie’s Burgers’.
The exterior gave a hint of what awaited us inside. It was bright and fun! The interior downstairs was cluttered with huge lollipops which hung from the ceiling (and a Christmas tree with lights on – still in the corner – the Christmas decorations are kept up for months…)
We were warmly greeted by a young Chinese waitress, in a checked red shirt and Stetson, who spoke to us in rapid Chinese.
We followed her up the yellow pumpkin lantern lit stairs (décor left over from the Halloween festival…)
We were shown to a table and given four very large, very English menus. I felt a strange sense of relief begin to flow over me. All was so familiar, there was even American music playing!
Held within the large menu were large glossy pictures of an assortment of burgers. Most of the hamburgers were quite normal, some had a distinctly Chinese flavour, but all came with fries, and we even ordered cokes!
We were issued silver knives and forks to eat with! Our orders were taken by a waitress who continued to speak to us in fluent Chinese, even when it became very apparent that we could not understand a word. Never mind – pointing to the pictures made our orders clear enough!
As I waited I glanced around the room and was entertained by some of the signs around the room.
‘Charlie’s burger join us for happy’
‘We want you smiling’
As we waited we were incessantly served hot water from a waitress, who circled around all the tables with a jug.
In China cups of hot water are given to you everywhere – even in the queue at the bank!
The meal arrived and it was as yummy a burger as I have ever had. The cokes were good too, only recognisable by their distinctive red and white colours.
We moved on from there to a very posh mall – think Sandton or Cavendish – filled with designer shops spread over 4 or more floors. We were in search of coffee!
We found Caffé Bene and walked into its dim interior. The tables and chairs were filled with Chinese people, who were just about all on cell phones. Not much conversation was happening, and in many ways, it all felt very familiar as well. Apart, that is, from the menu blackboards, which were covered in pretty and intricate chalky Chinese letters.
There were a variety of cheesecakes behind the glass in neon-lit counters. There were perfect cappuccinos, with delicate hearts drawn in the foam. We sat on comfy chairs covered in Union Jacks. There were design references to steampunk here and there. There was a picture of the New York skyline on one wall. There was a repetitive Calvin Klein advert being shown on a large flat screen. The models were Western and sulky and far too skinny. Perhaps I could have been anywhere.
But then I would have had to drown out the loud voice behind the microphone outside – directing operations and activities that were taking place in the very large children’s play area, down on the ground floor of the mall. I would have had to ignore all the people stopping in their tracks to look at our strange group of tall South Africans…
Later, at home, I lay down to rest and shut my eyes. Scenes from the day played themselves out behind my eyelids, to a very loud Chinese soundtrack.
It’s a con really, I decided, to think that one can find any place within China that is anything but Chinese.
China is everywhere.
It is strange and other, and I doubt very much whether anything about it (pretend American or not), will ever be anything even remotely near familiar.
At the moment there are only 7 of us in the foreign teachers’ office.
The office is warm, with a view of some of Lanzhou’s new tall buildings. Many of them have only appeared over the last 2 years I have been told. Apparently, Lanzhou is growing at an incredible rate.
I have been assigned to a desk and have been given an impressive array of stationery. I have colourful circle magnets on my filing cabinet and an assortment of pens and pads and little sets of drawers.
I have always loved stationery and it is plentiful and cheap here, because ‘everything made in China.’
The other teachers are finishing the terms’ reports, and observing from the outside (my favourite place to be), I have noted that there are quite a few complications due to a fair number of instructions being lost in translation.
Another factor is that it seems that the children, sometimes on a whim, change their English names. As their English names were never given to them by their parents, they are quite free to be changed. Charles has now become Bob, and Kingsley is now Liam. And the Chinese teachers, whose job it is to translate all English comments, do not know the childrens’ English names in the first place!
I have been trying to do Lesson Plans for the next term, and to some extent, I have succeeded. But it’s strange to be planning for a situation that I have no way of understanding.
The children have already left the school for their break. When we arrived lessons had stopped for the term, but we met many of the children anyway, who were still writing their Chinese exams.
– Hello. Hello. –
The children chorus, with broad smiles, adding
– What is your name? –
We respond with Hellos, and our name, and ask their names in return.
The conversations continue over meals in the dining hall. On the first day, we were handed trays piled with a lot of everything and a plastic spoon.
Since then we have learned. Now we stand in the queue with our empty trays and point to whatever we select. We pick up a set of black plastic chopsticks like everyone else and find a place to sit at the tables.
The food is good, an assortment of stir-fried saucy meat or vegetable dishes.
In Lanzhou, there is always a touch, or more than a touch, of chilli. We ladle a spoonful of sticky rice onto our tray.
There are often white rolls or buns, like dumplings, to be found on the side. Sometimes, hidden within their white softness there is a secret filling.
There is also always a pot of soup. Thin and watery, sometimes containing thin transparent bunches of seaweed or Gojiba seeds or ginger or an assortment of other unknown ingredients, it is to be drunk from small silver bowls.
Much has had to be accomplished in these first days at the school for L and me.
We are driven everywhere by our young Chinese fixer and the drivers employed by the school. We ride in one of two cars. Once the wrong car came for us – wrong because its registration number ended in the wrong number for that particular day. Certain numbers can only be driven on, for example, Tuesday and Thursday and Saturdays, and other numbers on Mondays and Wednesdays and Sundays.
Some of the main streets are becoming quite familiar, and once, when we were out, the car stopped and we were taken for a walk through a part of town that we had not seen before.
I bought two small purchases from a shop filled with cute little typical Chinese design objects.
I bought a mask to wear when walking along the road (but when I tried it on, I did find it to be quite claustrophobic…) and a little ring attached to a sticker to stick to my phone (I have seen many Chinese people using this addition – but I have yet to actually use it…)
They will probably remain in my drawer, as memorabilia of the time spent here.
Back in the office, my thoughts are disturbed by the sound, much like a tune played on a xylophone which signals a change of period.
Chimes are also played – they sound like a Grandfathers clock, with never more or less than 4 chimes.
It’s much gentler than the siren or school bell that I am used to. In fact, here the day starts with a tune, which, L pointed out, is very much like the opening soundtrack to a daily soapie or sitcom. A voice comes in at the end, which encourages the children to make their way to class.
Every now and then music is played over the intercom. Earlier today it was a Christmas song by Justin Bieber. No one seems to know who or why particular music has been selected. It is always English music, and it is called ‘in between lesson music’.
A lot of the words of these songs are lost on the students, but the beat no doubt puts a spring in their step, as they move from class to class.
The various melodies never fail but to put a smile on my face. No doubt the novelty of it all will eventually wear off, but for now, I remain amused.
L and I love coffee shops. In fact, you might say that they are one of the passions of our life.
We weren’t sure whether we would find them in Lanzhou, so imagine how delighted we were when we discovered one in the building right next to the school.
All in all, it is a pretty modern space, the huge office block next door. It appears to be made of glass and consists of many different workspaces. At night it appears to be blue, with long vertical rows of red lights running from the top down to the ground.
At 5 pm most of the office workers leave and I have noted that they are mostly young and extremely trendy.
The foyer is large and airy, with one very high wall featuring what appears to be a vertical garden. I ventured close to it the other day and touched one shiny green leaf. It was plastic.
Off from the foyer, there is a small store, selling all kinds of luxuries. I bought L a ‘Snickers’ bar there ( it was the only kind of chocolate bar in the store) and myself an M & M. There are packets of a Chinese brand of crisps and the ‘Lays’ brand in tubes. The bags that food comes in in China are always like tightly blown up cushions, with very firmly stuck down seams that have to be cut open – I find them impossible to pull apart.
On the other side of the foyer, L and I discovered it – a coffee bar!
The coffee bar is a beautiful space, the walls are paneled with wood and the chairs are large and softly upholstered.
Music – of the kind heard everywhere in China – is playing softly in the background, and hidden lighting illuminates the shelves against the wall. China teacups and teapots glow and shine in the yellow light amongst packets of tea and imported coffee.
We wanted to order something to drink. The woman who was working alone behind the counter could speak no English and the menu was helpful in that it did contain the words ‘Tea’ and ‘Coffee’.
L took a chance and ordered the coffee that was first on the list of choices.
I did the same with the list of teas.
We were both lucky, although I have a feeling that all the choices would have been good.
A light blue steel staircase spiraled up to a second floor. The Chinese lady indicated we might want to go up the stairs. We did so and chose to sit at a table at the window. Outside, snow was falling, but it was snug and warm inside.