Sunday, May 3, 2009

Holiday Highlights

This week I worked mainly from home as the school had an Arts/Sports Festival. They put on a good show and I even took part in the staff relay race. Despite my team only having one man as opposed to two, we still managed to win the race! The next day, my thighs were rather sore and I only ran 100m.
Friday was a Bank Holiday (Labour Day) and so we head off to Ping Liang which is about 3 hours away by bus. Just outside the town there is rather an impressive mountain called Kong Tong Shan. Where we live is not too green as there is very little rainfall and so it was great to see so much greenery. The mountain is also a Mecca for Buddhists and Taoist and so there were lots of temples. We stayed the night on the mountain with some monks which was quite an experience. Let’s just say it was rustic! A fun weekend!
Rustic! rustic! I'll say. Well let's go back to Sunday (26 April) to give you a fuller picture of our week. Despite noisy neighbours we managed a lie-in before catching up on 'paperwork' , and household chores, etc. The best bit of the day was 'Fajitas' for tea. I say Fajitas, we found a tortilla of sorts in the supermarket and cooked up some veg in authentic 'Old El Paso' spices to fill 'em - mm mm.
10 am Monday morning brought a meeting with the boss to sort out details reference the impending training sessions. However meetings in China are invariably well punctuated with interruptions - this one was no exception; should have lasted a half hour, we finished at 12! The remainder of the day was pretty standard: Bin jia cai (sort ot vegetable sandwiches) for lunch, work in the pm and a Chinese lesson after tea.
Tuesday: long day working (honest)
Wednesday: as above (stir-fry for tea)
Thursday: no change (it's all work, work, work)
Xing qi wu: May day/labour day, call it what you will, it was a holiday. Twas an early start with a swift stroll to the East bus station (meeting Kiko our aid en route) to negociate a price for the ticket to Ping Liang, a town/city about 3 hours away to the East. After settling on 80 kwai (8 quid) for all three of us we were on our way. The bus was like an engine driver's armpit which caused me unusually a bout of travel sickness. A bag of vomit later I was fine and ready for my Chow Mien lunch.
The reason for venturing to Ping Liang was an attraction called Kong Tong Shan. This is essentially a mountain upon which are numerous Bhuddist and Taoist temples. The journey to the temples was a hot, dusty and winding set of steps past purveyors of all manner of souvenirs. This neverending upward hike included quite a few enthusiastic Chinese parties at times almost insisting on that we were become a part of their photo albums (I think I'll start charging). Eventually we reached a temple which had accomodation for visitors. Kiko did the negociating and we were allocated beds for the night, with tea and zao fan (breakfast to you) all for 30 yuan each - a veritable bargain!
Tha rooms, next to each other, were basic but functional. Kiko and Sabine shared one. I shared the other with an elderly, snoring monk. Mind you, this was the least of my worries as far as being able to sleep was concerned; other monks (and monkesses??) seemed to spend the dark hours talking and shouting about I don't know what (cause I couldn't understand). To top it all, at 5 am a very brave monk started braying the living daylights out of a gong-like container as a signal to something or other. Anyway that was it for shuteye. The one suprising thing which helped with my comfort, was an electric blanket. No hygenic toilet or sink in sight but an electric blanket - oh yes (as Churchill would say).
Saturday: We missed breakfast despite arriving at the 'canteen' at 7.30. We munched on some bin zi and xiang qiao (bananas) instead. Following a few photos of a friendly monk we headed across the landscape to visit the Bhuddist half of things. One thing I learned was that Taoist monks have long hair contained under their headgear, whereas the Taoists shave it all off (whatever lights you candle).
More photos and step-climbing ensued before we headed back down the mountain via a different route to catch a taxi back to Ping Liang town. The taxi ride left us a little short of our intended destination so we walked part of the way. A pleasant suprise was a park-cum-advanture centre full of Chinese enjoying themselves. Refreshing as we'd thought they were always working.
We made it back to the bus station, bought our tickets home and boarded a minibis/people carrier. After half an hour we pulled over and were transferred to a single decker (apparently our tickets were the 'cheaper' ones, hence the switch) - this is China... The remainder of the journey was as sticky as the outward trip but the consolation was Jackie Chan movies gratis. Needless to say we slept well Saturday night.

Sunday we took it easy: a bit o shopping, carrot and pumpkin soup and Pirates of the Carribean 3 before bed. Catch you'all next time.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Easy week... for some

I have had a bit of an easy week this week as my school has had an exam week and therefore most of the activities that I do on a daily basis within the school have been postponed.

The good thing about this is that I have had the opportunity to visit other schools in the area. On Wednesday, I met up with another Chinese teacher in the town called Paula (most Chinese teachers who teach English give themselves an English name) and did some team-teaching.
It was good fun; the lesson was well structured and the kids were really responsive, if not a little shy at first.
Below are some students taking part in their compulsory run around the playground during their break.

Later on in the week, I got to go to some of the rural schools to see some demonstration lessons and to see what impact VSO has been making over the least couple of years. The feedback sessions were very formal and almost like a press conference with lots of photos being taken and the local dignitaries being present. They were tiring days but very interesting.


This week also saw me also run my first 10K. It’s only taken me about 20 years of half-hearted running to achieve this. For those of you who know my thoughts about running, believe me, this is an achievement for me. It also happened quite unintentionally. 8am on a Sunday morning and only because I couldn’t sleep because of noisy neighbours. So thank you noisy neighbours but please, let’s try and remember what Sundays are really for!!

Started Running also this week. The gives me a bit o jip but I hope this will dissipate ate time passes and the miles, sorry, yards increase. Returned to the man with strong hands on Tuesday. He administered the same Punishment sorry, treatment as before but I'm doing something wrong as I still suffer with it some days.
On Wednesday and Thursday I travelled to a few schools in and out of Xifeng with a previous volunteer and a researcher from the London office. We were gathering information regarding future possible work in Qingyang. Thursday also brought together two other volunteers from Qingyang, Jane and Susan. We all gathered to discuss ideas relating to the possible research and other topics.
Friday was another busy one: we were up early to travel to schools in Dongzhi for demonstration lessons and associated feedback sessions. Of course this included the obligatory meals out.
Yesterday we had an easier day. Tortilla brunch followed an extended snooze before a stroll up town to the Xinhua bookstore to purchase some DVDs. A quick shopping spree for groceries took us to up to teatime after which we watched a couple of movies before zeds.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Another busy one

Another week has gone by. We had another Chinese lesson and make a bit more progress. There are definite signs of improvement, but we still have a lot to learn. I am trying to get fit and so have started running. The most convenient place to run is at the college over the road. The only disadvantage is that when I time it wrong , I end up running when the students are on their break. My red face and the fact that I am running around a playground gives them pure entertainment value. They shout words of encouragment like "Hello, pleased to meet you" and " I love you!". I also had my haircut which was quite a scarey experience. I went with a Chinese friendand told her that all I wanted was a trim. The hairdresser (who looked like a 70's football player) performed the task like Edward Scissorhands cutting off quite a bit more than what I wanted. He kept on asking if I wanted a fringe. I kept on repeating no, but it didn't stop him from asking. He then tried to get me to have perm. All I wanted was a trim........

Saturday was Phil's birthday and so I will let him tell you about that.

Saturday? Birthday? Oh yeah. We and a few friends gathered for a meal at a restaurant up town in the evening. Even Mr Liu, my boss, stopped by for a short time to give me a gift of a painting of his own - he's quite a talented artist in his spare time. The food was a tad heavy, it being made mainly of flour and starch. The best bit was the birthday cake, cream-fest!. Although, the 'friends' smearing it all over my face (see photos) and insisting this was a traditional Chinese custom was a little disconcerting... I remain unconvinced.

Sunday started with me teaching a teacher to tune his guitar before working through a couple of songs. Following a spot o' lunch we headed via taxi to a place where cars take you to Qingcheng (it's like a car station, there are a number dotted around the town, each with a different destination). In Qingcheng we met up with Jane ans Susan at #1 Middle School. Jane had organised some training for a select group of staff from the school. We were there to add a little moral support and lend a hand where needed. The day went well and laid the foundations for the conclusion next week - good luck Jane! The day concluded with, yes, you've guessed it, a meal out. We headed home after this for a well-earned session of shuteye.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The weekend away

Hi Folks!

Welcome back to this weeks busy instalment of our life in Qingyang. Well, Monday was the last day of the Tomb-Sweeping holiday so we had a lie-in. Eventually, after a wash 'n' brush up we headed up town to the big veg market again - this time to actually buy some produce and practice our bargaining skills. The sights to be witnessed would make a 'Weights & Measures' man's hair turn blue! Steams of unidentifiable blood running across the 'paths'; raw slabs of meat languishing on tables with the stall proprieter sat beside them smoking; troughs of live fish waiting for customers to select them and be bashed on the head before having their scales removed with a wire brush (the fish, not the customers...); etc.

Later in the afternoon, I arranged to visit a masseur as my lower back had been giving me some 'jip'. After a short wait I was asked to lay prostrate on the bed nearest the window, with my underwear half-way down my posterier, whilst the masseur did his thang. He palpated, rubbed and generally manipulated my lumbar region for 25 minutes. I'll tell you what, he 'ad strong 'ands and no mistake. At points I felt more pain that I'd walked in with. Anyway he was give the requisite 20 yuan and the day after I felt a whole lot better.I'm returning for another session soon so watch this space...

Tuesday morning was filled with chores. Lunch was a lavish Chinese meal in a flash resaurant as it was my boss's birthday (Mr Liu). In the afternoon Tina, Emma and I visited a local school, where Jack (a teacher trained by VSO volunteers to train other Chinese teachers) works to meet some teachers I will work with and also to give a couple of classes of students the opportunity to practice their English via a Q&A session. It seemed strange being greeted and valed by raucous applause; I felt a member of Take That. It was mentioned early in the visit that we may go for noodles afterwards, not just any noodles though, Peng Yuan noodles! We did. Just along the road from the school was a noodle restaurant owned by a relative of one of the teachers at the school. So we obliged by paying a visit and having some of these 'special' noodles. An hour and 6 bowls later we left!

The midweek trip for Mr Liu, Tina and myself was a visit to Qingcheng. The school is one that has a resident VSO volunteer; Jane. So, suprise, suprise, we all, including the school head and other associated dignitaries, went out to lunch. Another bountiful affair at a high class hotel it was. I had my first taste of bai jiu (lit: white alcohol) which is very akin to vodka in appearance and strength but much sweeter (and some say with a fishy taste?). The deal turned out to be 'lets's get the foreigner leathered'. Almost each one of the assembled made an occasion out of walking around the (large circular) table to toast to my future association with them/their school. The toast was preceded by Gan bei! (down in one) so despite the food I began to feel the effects. Fortunately the meal ended after my 12th so the foreigner wasn't leathered but 'on his way'. The afternoon saw us visit three local schools to check their progress etc. (Mr Liu works for the area education bureau which oversees the administration of all schools in Qingyang), so I took it easy to say the least.

The next day (no I didn't have a sore head) Mr Liu had arranged a meeting which included local teachers, heads, vice principals etc. to discuss education training but I knew nothing of it until that morning and assumed there would be about six of us, not 30! That's China... Anyway, following the meeting Mr Liu took a few of us for lunch, which was nice.

Sabine and I, the NVs and a select bunch of local teachers were invited to Jack's new flat for a meal. This wa a nice occasion and gave us a chance to see how the typical Chinese family lived and meet Jack's wife and son. Jack's wife is a fantastic cook but the curious thing was, she stayed in the kitchen throughout the meal, producing exquisite dishes for us all. We felt guilty but this is the Chinese way.

Friday was only half-filled with work. After starting to plan the future training course then lunch we left for a weekend in Xian (the old capital of China) with Tina. After a pleasant but hair-raising at times car journey we were deposited three hours later on the pavement outside our destination: The Han Tang hostel. Once booked in the three of us took advantage of our free beer before wandering through the Muslim area only a fe minutes away. This is crammed with tiny stalls selling everything from bone hair combs through Mahjong sets to finger paintings. The streets are also lined with purveyors of traditional Chinese fast food; much tastier that Burger King.

A Western breakfast was chosen by us all on the Saturday morning (eggs (with chilli), crusty bread and a 'real' coffee). This set us up for a busy day begining with a walk around part of the wall which surrounds the city (see photo). The afternoon saw us searching for 'Western' items; books, food, etc. in Wal-Mart and the English book shop following a mian tiao lunch. Late in the afternoon we met Vadna and Rita, two other VSO volunteers, at the Shuyuan hostel and swapped stories for a while. In the evening Vadna, Tina Sabine and I went for a meal to fill up and practice our food ordering capabilities. We ate well so something worked.

A lie-in preceded another scrummy breakfast (and Sabine's last coffee for a while) and a second trip into the Muslim district for a gander, gifts and grub for the return journey. We said our farewells to Tina at 2.3oish and set off homeward, arriving in Xifeng at 8pm. A quick trip to the supermarket for supplies and a take-away (Chinese for a change) was all we could muster before some well-earned shuteye.

Tune in next time for further tales from the unexpected...

Regards Phil & Sabine

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Hi Folks! - doesn't a week pass quickly?
Tuesday - had a lie-in (because I could...) before trotting off for a walk, Sabine was working. I wandered through town, receiving more stares than you could shake a stick at although I'm beginning to purposely not look at people (unsociable?). Eventually I arrived at a large bookstore and perused the with English books for a while. I also discovered later (always the case) that they sell DVDs that contain a few films together at a very reasonable price - might nip back when circs allow.

It was Bin zi and noodles for lunch. Supprisingly I'm not tiring of these staples.. yet. It's also good language practice buying lunch when the NVs aren't around.

Met up with Tina, an ex-volunteer, for a visit to a comfortable tea house across town in the late afternoon. Twas a nice joint - the only place you can get yourself a real coffee apparently. After a few refills of my Chrysanthemum tea and some sunflower seeds we left to meander homeward. Sabine and Kiko, one of our NVs, were ahead of Emma (the other NV) and I and met acouple of voluteers working for an Aussie volunteer org. I say met, this was after they had watched them dancing for a few moments. Yeah, apparently a group of locals just turn up each evening at about 7pm and strut their stuff, in a 'middle of the road' sort of fashion (not literally), just on the pavement. The volunteers said it's a change and it helps keep them active - can't argue with that.

The evening ended with all enjoying Beef noodles (except for Sabine, she had veg noodles) for supper. We couldn't find any tak-away food outlets near home as our area of town was devoid of lekky (they'd turned us off to do checks or something of the sort). Anyway it made for a pleasant end to the day.

Wednesday saw us (Emm, Kiko, Tina and myself) take a bus to Heshuei to visit Susan, another VSO volunteer in the next county. Susan lives in the school, sort of in her office-cum-flat. She enlightened us with a quick tour, accompanied by Jester, her Chinese colleague befwe were treated to a long hot pot lunch in a local restaurant. Hot pots are brilliant. Everyone has an individual pot of (eventually) boiling 'soup', hence hot pot. The centre of the table, where invariably sits a lazy susan, slowly fills with a profusion of dishes, including tofu, thinly sliced raw beef and a variety of veg, etc. You then simply cook your own food; transporting whatever you fancy from the table to your pot. When it boils, you eat - simple (and tasty). After saying our goodbyes, and after advice from our hosts, we decided to hire a car for the return journey (easier on the posterior and quicker). On the way back our driver stopped at a house to collect some medecine for someone further along the road. Seems strange doesn't it? but that's just one of the quirky things particular to China.

Decided to analyse the evaluation reports from our first training session on Thursday. I met Emma at the Teacher Development Centre (TDC) at 9am and we pottered through this and some other jobs. The afternoon saw me visit the laundry and pick up some shopping before Sabine and I had our first in-placement Chinese lesson with Kiko. We combined it with our evening meal in a noodle bar nearby as the heating in our block has now been turned off. It's usually warmer out than in during the daytime!

Xing qi wu (that's Friday to you) signalled the beginning of Tomb-sweeping holiday. Although it signalled kitchen-cleaning for me (well someone has to do it!). Nevertheless, after this and some paperwork, I met Tina and Emma for a stroll up through the market. I say market, it's actually quite a large labyrinth of streets and alleyways, each seeminly themed; each street or part thereof sells different products. There's a furniture part, a stationary part, a bridalwear part and so on. The best bit for me was the large covered meat 'n' veg market. Its roof (well actually it only really consists of a roof and stantions) resmbles that of St Pancras station in London! There was strange looking machine at one corner, rather like a metal cylinder about 2 foot across with what looked like womens' hair curlers attached to the inside. Any road up Emma explained that it is turned on before a live chicken is dropped/thrown in and duly has its 'coat' removed and unsuprisingly its life terminated at the same time, it's another world...

The evening went with a bang as it was Emma's birthday bash. The four of us found a nice eatery and devoured another hotpot!

I assumed the weekend would be quiet but not so on 2 accounts. Firstly, Sabine prised me from my slumber to gain assistance in fixing the bathroom tap - it wouldn't turn off. Ten minutes, a trimmed wine cork and a length of cord later the water flowed no more. Secondly, as it was a public holiday I assumed a slower pace on the street outside. No, nothing had really changed; folks were going about their business as usual. Things did happen for us though. We met Qin Hai Peng or Happy for short (our third part time NV) and his son, Emma, Kiko and Tina for a wander into the country. We caught a bus to the edge of town then walked towards the edge of the plateau where the ground quite sharply drops away into a dramaitc stepped valley. After photos, a 'pineapple lolly' and a dusty bus ride back into town, we walked home for a nap before tea.

Had a lie-in on Sunday as my back was painful (from the walk?). Sabine went for a run. Yes, I know, Sabine... run! in the local school yard and then made breakfast on her return (int she a good un?). At dinnertime we travelled via bus and car to the Northern Grottoes (Beishiku). It's one of 4 sites in China where there are very old (1300 years) statues of Bhudda inside small caverns. No phots allowed (but we sneaked a couple). In the evening Sabine, Emma and I visited Long Dong teacher training college in Xifeng for a wander around the campus.

We rounded the week off with a stir-fry for tea - I still feel full now!

Okay peeps - see you next time

Regards Sabine & Phil

Monday, March 30, 2009

Hi Folks - sorry for the hiatus, we've been getting to grips with our new surroundings and new jobs.

What's been going on?? Well, quite a bit actually. I think the last time I blogged was when we'd first arrived in Xifeng (pronounced: gee-fung). We'd gotten a lift from Xian with Sabine's headmaster and he'd also bought us our first Chinese hotpot. This was followed by an official welcome banquet about 3 hours later! (hotpot again and more food than we could shake the proverbial at).

We've come a ways since then. We've played ping-pong with the local lads (they're pretty good!); bargained at the local veg market; played badminton in our yard; explored the local market (which sells everything) and managed to pursuade Sabine's school to get us a brand new fridge-freezer. Things are starting to become more routine now including buying (healthy) local fast food, using the nearby laundry (all our clean clothes come back smelling of cigarrette smoke!) and of course work. We started work a few days after arriving. Sabine at No 4 middle school; me at the education & research bureau. Sabine has more of a routine as she visits work each day according to her timetable. Her work at present consists of demonstration lessons, advice sessions and lesson observations & feedback. It was a suprise at first: up tp 75 students per class, plaster coming off the walls and toilets where the stench of ammonia almost knocks you over. However, you soon become accustomed and I think the coolest thing is, the signal for the end of first lesson is an instrumental version of How Deep is Your Love.

My work started with visits to a couple of fairly local middle schools (that's for 12 to 16 year olds) to assess the English teachers' training needs and see how Chinese schools operate (one school was quaint: the classrooms had a barn roofs and sparrows flying in and out). With the info gathered, I put together a 2-day training course for all of the twenty-odd teachers, a deputy head and a head. This included sessions on lesson observation, lesson planning and teaching with resources etc, etc. We just finished running this course yesterday - yes, we worked all weekend! Now I'm taking Monday and Tuesday off. Sabine can only have Monday as work at school beckons.

Today we visited Xiao Chong Tong Shan which is essentially a series of tombs. Each seems to house a large Budda accompanied by a pit of sand where either fake money, special paper or incense sticks are burned in honour of the dead. The whole atmosphere was like a carnival with a Chinese theatre, a stage with dancing girls and rock music (The Scorpions) and market stalls everywhere. The whole area is surrounded by deep ravines, some filled with water - good photo opportunities. As it was a sunny day we decided to walk back to the town. It took an hour and a half through the dusty villages but we saw more interesting sights than on the bus on the outward journey.

Well it's time to wash me smalls! so I'll bid you farewell for now

Regards Phil & Sabine