Since Richard is home for half-term for 3 days, Dad suggested (a fine idea!) that I should let everyone know a bit about what I have been up to over the last 7 weeks and how my future plans are developing, since I am now planning on staying in China for a while longer. But this time I promise it WILL be a short one (not least because I don't have much time to write)!!!


Study etc

In a nutshell, the Mandarin study is still extremely slow going, still a lot of fun, and I am definitely improving massively! I am immensely grateful to Beijing taxi drivers for letting me practise on them. I suppose that in theory I now can read close to 400 characters, but that is rather too hard to believe. Let's just say that I'm approaching the 'basic conversation' stage....

And I can still be seen in the swimming pool three times a week - 40 laps (1 km) without stopping? peuharh. Also, my first course of Taiji finished (the most basic, slow-moving, hand-waving variety) and I thought my martial arts career was temporarily stayed. But, PHEW, the teacher has agreed to continue teaching me and another barmy woman (Zhen Dong is Japanese. She is studying Chinese in order to be able to understand their movies) that is happy to get up before 6 am every weekday! So now I am learning how to do the sword-brandishing version of Taiji before it becomes too hot every day (it is getting really hot). I have to assume that my balance and co-ordination are getting the training they missed out on as a child, but I am still no ballerina.....


Outside Yuyan Xueyuan (as my university is generally known - this means language institute, and is the old name for BLCU)

Slowly but surely I am making some real friends in Beijing, but I have to admit this has been a bit difficult (not having met soul mates in the university)!! It is probably a good experience for me as it is the first time in my life that I haven't been handed a plate of lovely friends. But things are picking up, and many of the Westerners here are interesting and fun. Last Saturday I went to an absolutely amazing party (organized by ex-pats, word of mouth sale of tickets) - an all-nighter at Simatai, which is one of the most beautiful spots along the Great Wall near Beijing. The party was in a fairly basic hostel laid along terraces in the hillside just under the Wall. The best setting ever. It was good to find a few people there that I hadn't known would be. And it was incredible to come outside again at 8 am after my 90 minutes kip to eat two rounds of breakfast and to find the sun risen up above the ridge and beating down. Sadly though I haven't actually got all that much t! ime for socialising (and spending too much time with expats burns a big hole in my wallet....) - first because of the amount of homework I really should do to cram characters and vocabulary into my noddle, and second given that I have now got TWO (extremely) part-time jobs!!

One job is to contribute reviews of restaurants in Beijing to a content-provider called (having figured last year in London that to be a food critic has to be a cushy job). So that one is purely for interest, not money (it pays next to nothing, and no the meals are not even free) - but I am happy to spend the start of my next career at the bottom of the heap! Next year, who knows - Vogue? the Times? The Good Food Guide??? The second job is to provide English conversation coaching to employees at one of Hewlett-Packard's offices here in Beijing two evenings a week. That one starts properly the day after tomorrow, with me assessing everyone's current level, using a test of my own devising. Although strictly English will be spoken during the sessions, I see this job as an opportunity for me to get to know a few more Chinese people and to get the start of an idea of how business is done in China.


The Dog-Eating Experience

I suppose it had to happen. A couple of you got a version of this in e-mail already, but I think it warrants some space on the website, so here goes:

We got a whole week of holiday around the time of International Labour Day at the start of the month. So I went off on my own to the cities of Nanjing (which means 'southern capital', and is, among other things, where Sun Zhong Shan (aka Sun Yatsen) is buried), and Suzhou (famous for beautiful gardens and silk production). Since the whole of China was on holiday, there was a bit of a rush on train tickets - and I couldn't get one. So I decided to test out Chinese 'sleeper buses'. The bus' interior is converted into two 'storeys' of beds, no corridor, 5 people in each row. So not a lot of space to move. I was content as I had a good book to read and I was by the window too (which opened). But I was definitely hungry and needing a stretch when we stopped after 6 hours or more (unlike Turkey, where the shiny buses stop every couple of hours...)

I used the cement hut marked with 'woman' character: the usual 6-inch slit above the ground - no pit, but at least nothing to fall into!! The men just emptied their bladders into the field directly. I decided not to wash my hands, thinking they may pick up more germs from the water (in an open barrel outside). The scrummage inside the food hut was in full swing: one shove direction for food (present your chit) another separate push (though all one mass of people) for the cashier, who gives you the chit. I could not string together a request for a 'no meat' platter - and it was not the type of place to start digging around a dictionary!! As an obvious 'big nose' incompetent my tray of food was thrust at me as soon I'd paid up. I pushed backwards and grabbed a stool that a man was idling besides, and said "ni hao" with a proprietorial air as I smiled, picked up the chopsticks and started on my rice. The meat tasted, well, different, definitely not cow!! Some seemed to have a skin a bit like boiled chicken, which I removed. All bits of joint and bone, with meat attached. But (luckily) very tasty slithers of cabbage as veg. I started to dish out my scant Chinese phrases to two men at my table, and relished their admiration at my mere 3 weeks of study (Chinese people are HIGHLY complimentary as soon as you can say ANYTHING). They asked if I liked my food. "Oh, yes, hao chi (tasty)", I replied, politely. I asked if the meat was beef: "zhe shi bu shi niu rou?" - "Oh, no!!" (smile). "So what?" "Gou rou."

Hmmm. DOG. Well it had not tasted great before I'd had my suspicions confirmed, and my stomach palled at the idea of eating any more of it. I nibbled more cabbage, shovelled a bit more rice, and decided to spare the remaining doggie bits, pushing my tray to the middle of the table and leaving my place for a man nearby who was eating on his feet. I hurried outside. Hot air, little breeze - definitely warmer than Beijing at the end of April! A mother on a plastic stool with a small boy and a baby was feeding her son and herself noodles from a packet - wise, given what was available inside! I suddenly noticed two small cages on the ground nearby: one of 7 puppies, one of 2 small dogs. Dinner or pets? For the umpteenth time I told myself I really should not be eating meat at all, and got back on the bus, to lie confined for a further 13 hours.


Summer (and beyond) plans

After being *so* certain that I was going to spend July racing westwards through southern China, Tibet, and Xinjiang back over the Tien Shan to Kyrgyzstan, and to fly back to the UK from Bishkek, about two weeks ago I changed my mind. I had been sent Mary Byrne's wedding invitation to decline, but, fingering it, it just felt too inviting. (Mary it was the way it opened like curtains!!) How often do you get to ride a Sydney ferry to a wedding? And having found out that a single flight from Bishkek to London (bought in China - as I would want to make SURE that I got back to London in time for Anna and Piers' wedding, too!) costs MORE than a round the world ticket that goes Hong Kong, Sydney, London, and back to Beijing again, my decision was made.

So having found that I enjoy learning Chinese, and am enjoying China, I have decided that I can't think of what I would rather be doing with my life for the moment. The prospect of 'proper' employment horrifies. I will therefore be coming back to China in early September to study again, and (even) more intensively. I am not yet sure where I will do it - though the easy option is to carry on here since I know the teaching is good (and the pool is so close by.....). I am hoping that by the end of January 2001 I actually should be able to speak a bit, and perhaps even read the newspaper (I can but hope....) After that, I still haven't got a clue. I'll keep you posted. At least that still means I am close to Xinjiang, Kyrgyzstan, and other places I want to spend more time in!

I am not sure yet if there will be another site update between now and the time I get back to the UK - but some of my Central Asia and China photos will get up on the site eventually....

Just in case there is no interim update, I had better say now that I hope to see as many of you as I can in July and August!!! Let me know where you will be....

Lots of love

p.s. Sarah T, my digestive system has been speeding up and slowing down a bit lately. Not surprising given that I am eating in the 'shitang' (canteen) most nights (40 cents for a big bowl of hot noodle soup) and I have ceased to bother peeling apples all the time. I just keep sipping my weirdy herbal tea and avoiding caffeine......
p.p.s keep those letters and e-mails coming, SVP.....

The tiles on this page are of roofs in Suzhou. |Click here to view the original photo|