Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Where was I?

I have had a few days away from the UK. Guaranteed everyone will have heard of where I am but it wasn't quite what I expected to find in this particular city.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Very quick passing reference to football

This is word for word of the local paper's verdict on our captain's performance on Saturday:

Ten times better than any other game for the club. 5/10.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Funny Jimmy Bullard

VERY funny Jimmy Bullard.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Silk and stuff

We visited a silk factory whilst we were in Shanghai. Silk has been produced in China since around 2700 BC and played a major part in the economic and social development of the country as traders took the Silk Road all the way back and forth between China and Europe. We saw evidence of European traders as they were depicted in frescoes from around 600 AD which we saw whilst we were in Xian.

That was a bizarre episode as we were at the Shaanxi History Museum but instead of going round it as we had kind of supposed was what we were there to do, we were taken through it, out a back entrance, down some steps, past the service areas underneath the museum, and finally into a basement that only permits visitors by appointment to see this very rare and delicate collection. The frescoes from the tomb of Prince Zhang Huai were fascinating depicting for example the Chinese playing polo,

and also hunting with their tamed pet leopards sitting in baskets behind them as they rode their horses. Photography strictly forbidden but well worth checking out on the net.

Back to silk. Our guide showed us the whole process of making silk from the silk worm cocoons* onward to the finished products and in particular to the rugs. The woman we saw at her loom had been making silk rugs for the past 22 years. The detail in these rugs was extraordinary and although I have seen it with my own eyes it is still impossible to believe that these beautiful carpets are made entirely by hand. A 6 foot by 4 foot rug would cost (with discount at factory prices) from around £450 for a fairly basic pattern, which was about £150 more than the weaver we saw earns in a year. Not good.

The scale of the construction going on in Shanghai is impossible to describe, but when the Chinese decide something is going to get done within a particular time scale it gets done within that particular time scale (see the preparations for the Beijing Olympics as one example). Next year Shanghai hosts the World Expo Exhibition** and is busy transforming the city ahead of that. Just one example: The Bund is down by the river and is a very popular destination for tourists. The local government has decided that given the massive influx of visitors expected for next year (70 million of them) The Bund will not be wide enough to accommodate all the tourists who will wish to stroll down it. Solution – widen the pavement all the way across the road, and build a new road underneath where the current one is. And that is exactly what they are doing right now. There is not a shadow of a doubt that it will be ready on time.

Most of the workers in the construction industry, like the weaver mentioned too, are migrant workers. In the Chinese context migrant means they come from further west in China and they are paid a pittance in what ever work they do. Exploitation of the workforce isn’t confined to capitalist countries.

* Countless silkworm cocoons in China but none go to waste. Any that aren't used in the silk industry get eaten. I still haven't got on to the subject of food have I? Some interesting little delicacies we came across, that I must remember to mention soon.

** Worth checking out if only for the fascinating 'Announcement on the Solicitation of the Third Round of Catering Service Providers for the Public Areas of the Site of Expo 2010'. Those Chinese love their short snappy titles.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Martin mentioned the lack of reports about NTFC. mother always told me that if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. So with apologies to my mum, here goes.

As some of you will know we were relegated last season. We would not have been relegated if the players had collectively given a toss, but they did not and last May I was feeling like this about the team.

I fully expected if I am honest that anger and depression would have worn off by the time the new season started as with each new season usually comes new hope, but at the start of this season all I had seen was 3 out of our 4 decent players leaving - and no one inspiring coming in. Specifically no new goal keeper came in and we kicked off this season as we had played most of last season with a young and obviously* not yet ready for league football keeper, and a 16 year old reserve.

I missed the first few matches anyway as I was away. I missed our next one at home as I chose to go and see Reidski instead. I decided I had better things to do of a Saturday afternoon to go to the following match which was away at the mighty Burton Albion, but I have to say I did confidently expect that we would win that one by a margin of at least 5 goals. My son went. At quarter past three when we had been playing for all of 15 minutes I checked my phone to see as I did actually say to Reidski at the time, if we were five nil up yet. There were three texts from my son waiting to be read. The first one said 'Oh god - now it's 3.' It was only when I saw the other two texts that I could fully grasp the fact that it was 3 - 0 to Burton. I texted him back and said 'Please tell me you are joking.' He wasn't. He doesn't joke about anything that serious. We had conceded 3 goals in the space of the first ten minutes.

That obviously had to be an aberration. I went to the next game and I took Reidski with me. We both wished I hadn't. We were played off the park at home by Barnet whose wage bill is £500,000 less than ours is. There was not one single positive to take away from that performance except that it brought to a close Stuart Gray's time as our manager.

Saturday saw us under a caretaker manager taking on Notts County who have come into loads of money this season. A lively start saw us go 1-0 up. Hooray! although that elation was subsequently somewhat dampened by us then conceding 5 goals.

Suffice to say that the football team previously referred to as MY team still have quite a long way to go to reclaim their hold on my heart. Last season I won money on our relegation, and I am seriously considering placing a bet right now on us going down to the Conference at the end of this season because we are seriously poor right now.

* Obvious to everyone that is but our then manager.

It will be a relief to get back to talking about China after that little lot.

Monday, September 14, 2009

On anything but China.

Sorry but there is still loads I want to write about China, but I realise I have scared most of my visitors off by going on and on about it so I will try and come up with a post that doesn’t descend into ‘And whilst I was in China....’

There’s been lots going on since I got back. On the bank holiday Monday a group of us sprung a surprise on our wonderful friend Anne (the one who paid for us to go to China. So far not a great start to the Not Mentioning China resolve but I think it did need to get mentioned there). Anne was 50 the other weekend and had organised a party, but we wanted to do something for her so we got a private room in a restaurant down in London to which she was lured under false pretences. There followed much piss taking on issues as important as hair styles Anne has worn, and outfits she has been seen alive in (some rather serious crimes against fashion were recalled), but mainly it was a very emotional day. I’ve known Anne for over thirty years, and all of us have been through so many ups and downs, but above all that we have had so many laughs. Lots more laughs were added that day.

As for her party itself: Well in many ways it was simply wonderful. More champagne than I have ever seen in my life and a chance to catch up with people I don’t see so much anymore. Rather unfortunately for me though I must have been exuding my ‘I am a social worker’ radar as when ever I asked anyone how they were I didn’t get the much desired ‘I’m absolutely fine thank you’ response. Instead I got the full uncensored version of everyone’s own version of a Mid Life Crisis. It was all rather depressing !

The day we came back from holiday (where was it you went again Jane?) was the day my son’s A Level results were out. As we arrived back late in the afternoon he had no way of getting them that day, but he went on the internet on his phone after we landed and was able to see that he had got his place at the university he wanted to go to. He was so overjoyed that he cried. Seeing him cry, plus the realisation that he really will be leaving home in October, made me cry. Seeing me cry made me daughter cry. My eldest son who is not leaving home managed not to cry but instead started planning how he was going to re-arrange his bedroom now he will finally have a room of his own.

Reidski and I have had some lovely times together as usual. I still can’t believe how lucky I was to meet him through blogging of all things. We get on so incredibly well. Anyway, on Saturday we went to see Richmond Fontaine in Bedford and I loved them. I hadn’t seem them before and didn’t really know what to expect whilst Reidski spent much of the concert chatting away to them so intimate is he with them and their sounds. This most have been rather irritating for anyone there to listen to their music as opposed to their chit chat with some Scottish geezer but no one complained (not audibly at least).

We spent the night in a hotel where there was a wedding party in full swing. I sort of wish I had the descriptive powers to pass on to you the sheer horror of the frocks on display but I don’t really want to illustrate the full dimensions of my snobbery. Let’s just say tight fitting, revealing, day-glo colours and tattoos and draw a veil over what the women were wearing 

Bedford has a very significant Italian community and we had the most fabulous meal before we went to see R.F here which if we had eaten it in Italy would have provoked months of ‘You could never get that standard of food outside of Italy’ talk. The following day there was an Italian Festival going on, complete with naff singers in white suits, waltzing grandmothers, lots of Italian motors and a splattering of Juventus football shirts. It was fun.

Much to the envy of my kids Reidski has done the almost impossible and got us a couple of tickets to see Jay Z at this one off gig in Camden. My kids pointed out that I will most probably be the oldest person there. I will try not to mind too much.

Work has been tough recently. Far too many intensely complicated scenarios that I am trying to juggle. Though nothing was as bad as Saturday afternoon when I found myself scouring woodland to locate two kids aged 5 and 6 who had done a runner from our annual Family Day. I really wasn’t too sure how exactly I was going to explain to their parents how I had succeeded in mislaying their children –although thinking about it, as the children in question were so particularly badly behaved, their parents may have considered I had done them a favour. But talking of work my lunch time is up so back to the coal face of human misery I go. It’s just like Anne’s party all over again, but without the champagne.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Keeping the Red Flag Flying There

Shanghai girls – high achieving, hard working, high earning, high maintenance and high spending. Our (female) guide in Shanghai described how they always eat out and spend loads on fashion, make up, and personal grooming.

Shanghai boys – the opposite to the above.

Shanghai boys are said to make the best husbands in China.

Shanghai girls are said to make the worst wives.

In spite of living in a very 21st Century city some old habits die hard in Shanghai – not least the one that means men have to provide totally for the woman upon marriage. And pity the totally laid back Shanghai boys who finds himself landed with one of the driven Shanghai girls. The boys are considered to be the best husbands in China because they never argue with their wives – in fact they tend to be afraid of them. One of our guide’s married female acquaintances was displeased with her husband for some misdemeanour and made him spend an afternoon kneeling on an old fashioned wash board. We found it bizarre to say the least that he accepted this punishment, but China truly is another country.

Something else we found odd about Shanghai was that feng shui is still taken very seriously indeed by the inhabitants. There was a long article in the Shanghai Daily News when we were there, talking to young women who swore that the good fortune they had recently achieved had been done to consultation with feng shui masters. On the other hand there stands behind a temple which we visited, a testament to what happens when the feng shui exerts a negative vibe. We visited the Jade Temple and behind it is a tall and very modern apartment block of flats – all of them unoccupied and likely to remain so. Apparently one of the worst things one can do to disturb the feng shui positivity is to look down upon a Buddha. When people first moved into this apartment block there were numerous reports of ill fortune befalling the residents, and the net result of them all was that everyone in there moved out, and no one else is prepared to risk the wrath of Buddha by moving in. Mind you – looking at this photo of one of the Buddha’s there, one might understand a certain reluctance to annoy him further!

Shanghai is an incredible city. It contains areas known as ‘concessions’ that were once enclaves for foreign nationals which were so apart from the rest of the city that they would even have their own electricity supplies. There is a French concession which is street after street that looks just like Parisian boulevards, and The Bund by the river which was the British concession area. It was a strange experience to walk along it next to buildings that would not be out of place in the City of London. One especially amazing building there was the former HSBC building – now the Shanghai Pedong Development Bank building. One is not allowed to take photos inside of this building, and this picture I found does not do the ceiling justice but will give a good idea of how elaborate it was.

During the Cultural Revolution when such a ceiling would have been under threat from the Red Guards the bank employees covered up the ceiling so that it would hopefully escape being vandalised and it remained covered up and forgotten about until fairly recently.

The only things that suggested that these various buildings along The Bund were not British were the flags flying above them all. Or at least those flags suggested something to most of us.

By the time we visited The Bund we had been in China for 9 days. It was therefore slightly embarrassing for us all when one of our party turned to our guide and asked her what exactly all those red flags signified?

Obviously there are limits to how educational travel can be!

Isn't my 18 year old son gorgeous, and how lucky was he to celebrate his birthday in such a fabulous and exciting city?

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Three Gorges

We had a leisurely journey on a cruise through the Three Gorges on the Yangzi river. These are – as it says on the tin – three gorges through which the river passes in fairly rapid succession, but the scenery is simply breathtaking as the river is cut through mountains that instantly rise to 1,000 metres and more.

So leisurely was our boat trip that it is hard to imagine how come the Tang poet Li Bai (AD c.712-770) wrote of the waters through which we passed that they were as ‘A thousand seas poured into a single cup.’

Before the 20th Century rugged mountains would have virtually isolated Sichuan province from eastern China if it hadn’t been for the 400 mile stretch of water down which we travelled from Chongqing to Yichang, but it was a very perilous journey. As the river narrowed to pass through the gorges, so the water turned to vicious torrents.

The water levels were far lower before any dams were built, but it was also extremely rocky, and in fact to navigate the Three Gorges needed the assistance of men known as the river trackers whose job was to help haul the boats through the gorges with the aid of ropes. For some of the biggest ships up to 400 men would be involved in trying to get the ship safely through the gorges. The dangers presented by the waters gushing through the gorges defeated the attempts of the Japanese to pass through them during the Second World War and attack Chongqing.

After the war work was done to smash the hazardous rocks and as water levels have risen the raging waters of the river have been calmed. Trackers are no longer needed on the main stretches of the river, but do continue to work in the tributaries. Inevitably this is now mainly to satisfy the tourists.

The trackers used to work in the nude because for one thing if they wore clothes they would get wet, and probably didn’t possess a change of attire anyway. The other thing was though that the ropes would rub the fabric of their clothing and cause terrible sores, so they always stripped off for work. So as not to offend the sensibilities of we precious tourists they now wear shorts but continue to be bare chested. We did travel down one of the tributaries called the Shennong Xi, on first a smaller boat, and then on one rowed and later, as the water got shallower, pulled by the boat men. There are many such trips available but although the boats are all the same size the number of people taken by the trackers in each one depends upon nationality. Chinese people travel 15 to a boat, as opposed to 9 Americans. And yes – that is down to the ‘small’ matter of size. (13 of us on ours).

The youngest tracker currently working on this stretch of river was 17 and the oldest was 84. One of the men rowing our boat was 68. He had the most incredibly muscular frame I have ever seen. All the trackers come from farms up in the mountains. As if it is not enough to spend your working day rowing and pulling along boatloads of tourists, we were told that to get to these boats they hike between 2 and 3 hours, and then after they finish they hike back to their homes again. They are renowned for their longevity, and I can’t say I am surprised. Though not exactly a relaxing life that they lead!

Along the Shennong Xi there are caves in which are visible from the river three hanging coffins. These were left by the Bai people who were the earliest Sichuan people, some 2,000 years ago. They are high up the cliff face because they believed that the closer a deceased person was to heaven the better their chances of getting a place up there. I did see these coffins but capturing camera on a moving boat proved well beyond my ken.

But as for the scenery?

Words fail me, but thankfully my little digital camera where that was concerned certainly did not.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Relocation, relocation, relocation

Our river cruise down the Yangtze took three days. On our first day we were taken to a Chinese village to meet some of the residents there. The first family we met had a house with a basement, a general store at the bottom and three bedrooms, a lounge, bathroom and kitchen on the top floor. They had lived there about two years. Previously they had lived in another village but that village no longer exists due to the Three Gorges Dam Project. This project which was completed at the end of last year resulted in the water level through the Three Gorges rising an incredible 140 metres. The family we met were not the only people who had to be relocated – not by a long way. Some 1.4 million people have had to leave their homes, often where their families have lived for generations, and move to new locations. Entire cities were rebuilt higher up the river banks.

This family had the choice of a number of possible locations and had a fixed sum of money as compensation and towards building costs. They chose their preferred spot and constructed their present home. She described a great deal of grief when she and the residents of her previous village were called to a general meeting and told by a government official that their entire village would be destroyed. It was 7 years after they first heard about these plans that they actually moved which is a long time to have something so major hanging over you. She said however that having moved, and being able to open their shop, they were happy with how things had turned out for them.

We then walked through the village (If you find this tourist please take care of her. She is from deepest Northamptonshire) to see how the original villagers lived. Slight difference. I did take some photos of the inside of this home but as there were no windows they came out too dark to illustrate their living conditions, but let’s just say they were basic. Some of us thought we were in a shed, but it was the bedroom.

The stuff on the ground in front of me is the corn drying.

The closest sweet building is the communal ‘washroom’. Very picturesque but you might not necessarily chose to live there yourself. We asked the old guy who was the senior member of the household if he felt any resentment towards the ‘in-comers’ who had all mod cons and resettlement compensation. He said not at all as he remembers the days under Chiang Kai-Shek when he was forced to flee his home over and again. Now he is happy to have a place he calls home.

I could go on at great length about the potential advantages and disadvantages of this massive Dam Project but one thing will for ever stay in my mind.

The weight of millions of tons of water behind a dam can increase the chances of an earthquake. Critics of the project raised this many years before the project actually got underway but the authorities were convinced that this was not a threat.

On May 12th 2008 there was a massive earthquake. You will recall the images from newspapers and television at the time. The earthquake was in a province the Yangtze river passes through.

Official figures (as of July 21, 2008) ) state that 69,227 are confirmed dead, including 68,636 in Sichuan province, and 374,176 injured, with 18,222 listed as missing. The earthquake left about 4.8 million people homeless, though the number could be as high as 11 million. Whether or not the Dam had anything to do with this horrific disaster the fact remains that as we looked out of our boat and down at the waters we would see, floating along, shoes. Lots and lots of shoes. Shoes that belonged to victims of the earthquake.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Chinese family life.

As a change from 'What I did on my holidays' here follows some more of what we picked up about the Chinese way of life.

It was very noticeable in Beijing that family groups often comprised more than one child who looked so alike that they had to be siblings. This we were told was because wealthy families do not have to adhere to the one child policy at it means they pay more in taxation, but that they can afford to do so. However, in central China it was a different story and the one child policy has been stuck to very strictly. With an aging population though inevitably there will be problems with the policy because the younger generations are expected to support their parents who can retire from the age of 50, and increasingly their grandparents as well.

In rural areas the government has allowed some flexibility in that if a farmer’s family has a daughter first they can have one more child in the hope that it will be a boy who can in due course take over the farming of the family’s land. Even in Shanghai – no ones idea of a rural area – the district government is saying that if a couple are both single children themselves, they can if they wish have a second child.

We met a woman on our boat who had triplets – two boys and a girl Result!

But what are the impacts of the one child policy on Chinese families? One of our guides had previously been a teacher of teenage kids. He quit because the behaviour of the children was so appalling – he said they were all so exceedingly spoilt. He went on to say that he himself had been totally spoilt when he was a child. He told us about a trip he made with his parents to Beijing when he was about 8 and he saw his first McDonalds. He could see all these children inside playing and he desperately wanted to go in and eat there. His mother pointed out that he couldn’t possibly be hungry because they had only just had dinner. He then proceeded to make the fuss to end all fusses and his indulgent parents caved in and he got his first ever Happy Meal. He didn’t touch the food as he was indeed not the slightest bit hungry, but he treasured the free toy for many months after the visit.

Our guide in Shanghai described the single children as generations of Little Emperors and Little Empresses. All completely and utterly indulged by their parents. BUT these children are also put under intense pressure to succeed because they will be expected to take care of their parents as they go out to work.

The pressure begins at kindergarten age where there are actually examinations for entrance to the best ones. Children of 3 years old are expected to know a minimum of 500 Chinese characters and to have some English.

In Shanghai the district authority recently put out a survey to see what it was that teenagers in the city felt would most improve their quality of life. 87% said ‘More sleep’, and they weren’t asking to be allowed to stay in bed till mid-afternoon. They spend all day at school and are given masses of homework on a daily basis. When they leave school they often get sent to Children’s Palaces – places offering extra curricular activities like music lessons, dance, art etc – and these places also give the kids homework. Our guide said that it is generally accepted that school students in the city will be doing homework till 2 in the morning, and will be up for school again five hours later. They also have activities at the weekends. She said the local authority recognises there is a problem with the physical condition of especially the young men – they are so busy with academic studies they do not get out to play sport or exercise and are a weedy bunch. What our guide said was that they were faced with increasing numbers of young people with very high I.Q’s but very low emotional intelligence at socialising just doesn’t happen. They start work and have no idea how to relate to colleagues.

Whilst all this pressure seems very unfair on the young people there are reasons behind it . As I already mentioned, the expectation on young adults is that they will support the older generations in their families (two families assuming a couple get married). The parents of people like our guide, Mira, have suffered extreme hardship during their lives. Mira was a child in the 1980’s and has always lived in Shanghai. Her family lived in one room three floors up in an apartment block. They had no kitchen and no bathroom. Chamber pots would be taken each morning to the nearest public toilet and sluiced out there. When they had a bath, heated water would be fetched from the ground floor of the block and carried up the stairs where it would be emptied into a tin bath. Afterwards the water would have to be carried back down again. This though was no hardship compared to what her father went through.

Her father was a student during the Cultural Revolution and was thus ‘encouraged’ to volunteer to go and do labouring work so he could appreciate the life of the Chinese peasants. He and his friends went to the province of Xinjiang which basically is as far away from Shanghai as they could have got without leaving China. It was a three day and night train journey to get there on a train with no seating, let alone toilet facilities. Upon arrival they were allocated space in what she described as barns for their living quarters and they were set to work on the land. There was a basic problem with the land in that it was on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert. Nothing could be cultivated there by experienced farmers so a bunch of students from a huge city were always going to struggle. He worked on the fruitlessly on the land for some 7 years before getting a job collecting firewood for the horrendously bitter cold winters (averaging -11 to -22 centigrade) ,from out in the Takalmakan Desert. This must have been fun.

Taklamakan translates as "The Desert of Death", "The Desert Into which He who Enters Will Not Return", "The Abandoned Place".
One of the largest 'shifting' deserts in the world, it once formed the greatest obstacle to be found along the Silk Road and fearful Caravaneers of old would skirt its edges, to the north or to the south, as they transported their wares from oasis to oasis and on to Khotan, Kashgar or Chang-an.

He went in a horse and cart – six hours into the desert and six hours back – every day for three years – on his own. Mira has asked him before how come he didn’t go stark staring mad doing that and his answer is that he knew he was so much better off doing that than he had been in the fields so he counted his blessings.

So anyway – no wonder he wants a bit of comfort in his old age.

Mira also told us displays of affection between parents and their child are very rare. She said she loved the way we kissed or hugged our children. This may also be a throw back to those raised during the Cultural Revolution as loyalty to the Party had to be placed above loyalty to the family and in fact for most of the week even senior Party officials lived apart from their families. Individuals feared being denounced if they were seen to be too affectionate to family members - even to their children. Saturdays were the day when a married couple could be together and the euphemism for making love in China is still 'Spending a Saturday'. I really don't know how though anyone could 'grow out of' being affectionate to ones kids.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

And so to Chongqing.

A small municipality with a population of a mere 33 million people.

It sounds beautiful. A city in a sub-tropical temperature zone on the river Yangtze and so mountainous that no one in Chongqing rides a bike. In fact when students from Chongqing go to university outside of their home city the other students laugh at them as they have to learn to ride a bike for the first time in their lives. Public transport in this city includes monorails, funicular railways and chairlifts.

Well it might very well be very beautiful but one will never know on account of this.....

It is so foggy (not to mention the pollution) that the residents of the city hardly ever see the sun, and visitors do not get to see the mountainsides at all.

Chongqing was the capital of China during the Second World War. This was an act of tactical genius. The city was the western side of the Three Gorges on the Yangtze which at that time was an extremely hazardous river and was very difficult for the Japanese to penetrate through. There were no roads over the mountains so the only other possible way to attack the city was by air but it is so bloody foggy the Japanese fighter pilots couldn’t find the place, let alone successfully bomb it.

Much as I would love to sing the praises of this place our few hours in the city before boarding our boat to take us down the river do not count as the highlight of the trip, but I am nevertheless not likely to forget that day in a hurry. In each place we visited we had a different guide. Our guide in Chongqing was called Jackie (English version of his name). Anyway, my middle son was getting on really well with him and the two of them were chatting away nineteen to the dozen. We were in what had been the headquarters of the joint American and Chinese war effort. I was looking at some photos from that time and asked Jackie a question about one of them. He answered the question and then had one of his own for me: “Do you remember the war?”

It was one of those moments when your brain can’t quite process what someone has just said to you as it is simply too dreadful to comprehend. Apparently I stood there with a stunned and horrified expression on my face as I tried to manufacture a reply that was politer than “Fuck right off” when I realised my son was bent double with laughter. Jackie’s question had been instigated by him, and carried out with panache by his accomplice. Revenge will be mine when he least expects it.

So here is downtown Chongqing – yet another place with massive investment pouring in.

But I have to be honest - the best part of our day in Chongqing was the moment our boat set sail and we left the place!