Today, the 1st of January 2018 is a public holiday in Lanzhou.
Lex and I went for a walk, crossing the main road bravely – there was not a lot of traffic, perhaps people were at home with their families.
Not everyone was at home though, because, although not crowded, there were quite a few people in the park across the road from us.
We found the main entrance to the park, clearly marked by large sculptures and many references to the Olympics.
The trees and bushes are mere twigs at this time of year. I am already looking forward to Springtime here when no doubt buds will burst forth from every branch.
In the meantime, we have to make do with pots full of brightly coloured cardboard flowers!
We strolled along the pathways next to the wide fast flowing Yellow River. Today was one of the clearest days we have experienced yet here in Lanzhou.
We stood on the banks and looked over at the dry empty hill behind the high buildings. Across the river, a child was skimming stones.
Here and there along the path elderly men were walking alone, stopping every now and then to do exercises. They clapped their hands together or swung their arms. Other older men and women were walking together, sometimes backwards, listening to music on their phones, or chatting.
There were people on outdoor gym equipment, partaking in an exercise routine under the open sky. Families, usually consisting of three members, Mom, Dad and child, were out and about enjoying the day together.
Lex and I walked for a long time, eventually crossing the road on the pedestrian bridge and walking home.
On this first day of 2018 I opened my phone to messages from our children, Jethro and Georgia – our 6 o clock being their midnight.
Happy New Year
Happy New Year
A few minutes ago Lex and I stood on the balcony at the end of our passage and looked out over Lanzhou. The Yellow River slipped slowly by over the road, not very far away.
Beneath us, on a partly demolished piece of land men were working, unloading boxes from a truck onto a few three-wheelers – pilling boxes onto their ‘bakkies’. Their loud voices carried up to us where we stood in the cold air on the 11th floor.
We sipped green tea and nibbled on Oreos – yes- exactly the same, except for the packaging.
Back in the flat now Lex plays Joni Mitchell for me and I watch our photos of home sliding by on the flat screen. For a while, we could be anywhere. Right now.
But we are here.
We chat over our computers, reading messages. No teachers have yet returned. Today is a public holiday. We are beginning the day slowly.
Last night we sat up and talked about the miracles of the last year, and especially the last 6 months. Starting with the fires, moving on to when we lost our jobs when British Academy closed down, through the offer of work in Lanzhou – how that came to us and stuck with us until Home Affairs eventually (after 14 weeks of waiting!) granted us our unabridged marriage certificate.
Last night and this morning we are grateful.
We are here in this flat, having left all behind – our house and home, our children, our friends, my mother, our country, and for me right now, my suitcase, within which are some items that I have held onto for over 25 years. Items with a memory and an identity. Mine.
I remember the devastating Knysna fires of 2017 – and all the heroic people who lost everything in a moment. Everything. And it was not by choice. My heart understands a very little bit more.
New beginnings are strange things. Tremendously exciting and yet relentlessly confusing. A little like China.
We decided, Lex and I, a while ago, not to spend too much time looking back. I do believe that all the worlds’ sacred texts warn you against that. And anyway, the past doesn’t really exist, does it?
The past is just a memory, that we are free to rewrite any way we like – as a tragedy, a comedy, a hero’s tale, a victim’s melodrama or (my favourite) as high adventure!
A solution to all always presents itself if we can only keep calm and carry on – as the old wise poster says. There is not enough room in this blog to list every extraordinary solution that has come rolling in towards us over the last year. I can only laugh out loud.
Lex and I look forward – but not too much. Next thing you know I’ll be writing stories in my head that may or may not come true.
There is the sound of a dog barking plaintively on the wasteland below.
There is a smudged line of tall buildings standing on the murky horizon.
There is a door opening close by.
The lift goes ping.
My phone reveals a message from a new friend, saying that she will see me tonight.
Joni plays that warm chord, my favourite song.
Another very small ‘naartjie’, still with stalk and green leaf attached.
I peel it and it is very, very sweet on my tongue.
Two days in we went for our first walk on our own, down Nanbinhe Middle Street.
We crossed over a footbridge quite a way from the school. We did not dare to cross the very busy dual carriageway road. The bridge took us to the Yellow River. There is a park along the banks, but we could not get to it as there was a wall that we could not find our way around. We will find an entrance next time. The river was grey and the trees along its bank bare and stark. Some snow still lay along the path.
Everywhere there were cleaners, dressed in bright orange overalls – cleaning roads, sidewalks, rubbing down railings, sweeping snow up with wide brushes, some made of branches and twigs, whilst others used mops that were purple in colour, or bright green.
I braved the use of a public toilet along the road. The man in attendance waved me towards a stainless steel door and I went through into a small stainless steel room. A comforting voice greeted me once the door shut behind me – Ni haw – she said, followed by some other reassuring words. The place was spotless, the bowl in the floor frothy with white foam. The voice spoke again when I opened the door to leave – perhaps she was commending me on my first visit to a Chinese loo…
We did approach a taxi on our walk
– we suddenly thought of visiting Starbucks, but we were unable to make ourselves clear – next time we will get that Chinese app to work!
We felt very hot as we were walking – seemingly much hotter than the Chinese whom we passed, who were togged out in furry hoodies, long coats and boots.Due to my suitcase still being lost I was dressed in Lex’s clothing, from head to foot, and I felt like I could have shed at least two layers of clothing and still been warm enough. Strange.
We returned to our cosy, no, hot, flat and were thrilled to find that we had read the instructions on the washing machine correctly and my few bits of clothing had been washed!
We cooled off, with our bare feet against our warm tiled floor, and drank a sweet date flavoured yoghurt drink, before settling down for the afternoon.
The next day we braved the No 32 bus for a journey to the shops on our own. We climbed aboard, but there was only a card machine and although we waved some yen at the driver he, in turn, waved us to a seat. We never paid for our bus ride, but cheerily chorused – She she – when we disembarked.
We had been told to count five stops and then get off (in order to find Wu-Mart) but the Wu-Mart side street was nowhere to be seen, and so we began walking.
I felt invigorated by the bracing air and we crossed the road ( how brave we were) and walked along, passing many little shops.
Each shop intrigued me and the desire for Wu-Mart Supermarket began to wane.
There were pastry shops next to convenience stores filled with an assortment of things. There were upmarket restaurants sitting cheek by jowl with eateries in which Chinese families could be glimpsed seated at the back of dim interiors. There were clothing shops – I noticed them…will my suitcase ever arrive?
There were noodle shops and butcheries, with pigs hung out in the open. There were colourful fruit and vegetable stalls, and a hairdresser snipping a neat glossy bob for a young lady seated in the window.
Shop fronts were strung with large red New Year lanterns.
In the end, we did find Wu-Mart – after the 6th stop, not the 5th. We wandered around the supermarket for hours this time, examining everything. Every now and then I entertained myself by trying to mime a question or two with the shop assistants. Sometimes I was successful, sometimes not.
We caught a taxi home as we had parcels and no bus card. It was expensive. Maybe we were ripped off, maybe not, but she got us and our parcels safely home.
Our first two days in the school were busy. There was much to be done.
Firstly – we had to repeat all the medical checks and a police check that we spent a huge amount of time and money doing in South Africa.
This time, naturally, we could not do them alone. A young Chinese woman from the school was assigned to help us get through all the details.
It was just as well. It would have been impossible without her.
From the very first I thought of Lex and I as her children, in a way. For a day she, almost, led us by the hand. She became a sort of mother to us. We followed her, we obeyed her every word, we struggled to understand, but did whatever anyway…
We arrived at the Medical Clinic place at more or less the same time as a large group of men, who were, we were told, having to go through a bank of medical checks before being sent off to Nepal.
We waited. We were stared at (we are now used to this – it has become our normal).
The brilliant orange fish circling within their deep blue coloured tank were a welcome distraction.
Eventually, it was our turn to be dealt with by the group of Chinese women in white coats behind the glass at reception.
We followed every instruction given to us by our sweet young companion. We sat down on command, we leant forward towards the glass – it took us a few seconds to understand that – we had our photos taken.
Upstairs we followed our leader behind a number of light blue curtains. We were prodded and probed, pricked by needles and managed somehow to give answers to an eye test. We peed into test tubes and stood on scales to be weighed – oh no, they did not let me take off my extremely heavy boots!
Everywhere we went we were surrounded by a bank of people in white coats, speaking about us in a language we did not understand! Are we ok? Is there something wrong? What seems to be the matter?
No answer was given, but each step of the way was marked by a little red stamp on our card.
We were driven too and fro in the backseat of a type of car even Lex had never seen before!
From my place there I observed Lanzhou for the first time. I noted groups of orange, yellow and green bicycles that you can hire from some app and pick up and drop off all around the city. I noted the complete disregard for the traffic rules that I know, witnessing three small accidents on the first journey. I noted the quite funky looking masks most people wear when walking next to the main road.
Note to self – to find out where to purchase a particularly fetching black one for myself.
I noticed lots of three wheeler motorbikes that are apparently electric, and have a little ‘bakkie’ behind the driver, often loaded to the gunnels with goods. I noticed great swathes of black electrical wires bunched together around some of the buildings. I noted that there were large signs everywhere and that they were all just about only in Chinese. I did not see another foreigner, and we drove for hours….
And then I reached sensory overload.
We went to the police station.
There was a lonely sort of pug dog sitting in the car park.
It had begun to snow lightly.
Around the corner, down a side street, were two elderly men playing a sort of draughts game on a small table with very big discs of wood.
We came back.
Lex and I were asleep by 6 on that first day, and we slept for 12 hours.
Every now and then I forget that I am in Lanzhou, China.
I look up from my laptop and see our new flat, and I feel a moment of surprise.
This is strange of cause because the smooth tiles have been warm under my bare feet the entire time, and the air has continued to smell oddly smokey – a dry smell that I still haven’t figured out.
It’s – 4 degrees outside, with a very light coating of snow, but our flat is so oddly warm that we are barefoot in shorts and t-shirts. We have even opened our windows, letting in the pungent air, and we are still toasty…
Lex and I have already eaten our first meal, cooked in our new wok and eaten in our new bowls with our new red plastic chopsticks.
Our lips are constantly very dry, as is our skin, but the meal tasted good, flavoured as it was with some flaky ingredient from a packet with a label we do not understand.
It was impossible to find dinner knives in ‘Wu Mart’ during our first shopping spree yesterday. Forks, and large dangerous cleavers, yes, but no knives. So chopsticks it is.
Perhaps there are knives somewhere in ‘Wu Mart’- but how could we know? We could ask no one and all labels and signs in Lanzhou remain a mystery.
As do we. We are a mystery to all who clap eyes upon us in this part of China. I know of 6 foreigners (all teachers at the school- one New Zealander, one Turk, one Indian, one Romanian and us two South Africans – English teachers all…) and have seen no others on our excursions out into the city streets over the last few days.
Those who know me know that I am tall, even by Western standards, so you can imagine how very ‘different’ I am.
As a good friend said to us on the phone a moment ago – ‘let’s face it Michelle, when last did you and Lex turn so many heads?’
It was a whirlwind visit to the shops, and we were rushed through by a fellow teacher who has done it all before, and although Romanian, speaks perfect Chinese. He knew that our taxi would arrive at the designated spot and the designated time and we needed to be there. We were not, and he had to come back to fetch us as there is no parking and he could not linger.
Lingering is an unknown word on the streets of Lanzhou. No one pauses for a second, not even when turning, or stopping, or deciding to do a rash u-turn into the face of on-coming traffic.
Our driver, when he did arrive, seemed grumpy to me. Our Romanian friend assured us that he was simply being funny, and not grumpy. Lex and I felt unsure. Next time we will definitely be on time.