Alongside the Annapurna’s.

There were two options available, one starting at a low elevation and requiring many hours of upward trekking, one starting with a vehicle-assisted head start near the middle of the hill with a few hours less. Because we were paying for a three-day hike through the Himalayas, a worthy accomplishment for future dinner table discussions, my friend Jenny and I decided that the full experience would require the full amount of trekking, and so opted for the low elevation start point. After an intense six days in the savage belly of Kathmandu, a three-day trek, we figured, would help scrape off the intense hustle and bustle cityscape skin that clung to us.

 

Waking early to start day one of our trek we were greeted by the not so gentle taptaptap of rain on glass panes. We knew we were travelling through Nepal during the monsoon season, but had been very lucky over the first week and thought that perhaps clear skies would follow us on our next journey. The car ride to the official start point was about forty minutes long, with threats of a real downpour ever looming in the grey horizon. Thankfully the moment we exited the car the grey had lightened to a foggy white haze, and we set off on a gravel road cut raw against the muddy hill.

 

I had never trekked before this moment, which was evident from the gigantic bag I had strapped across my shoulders. Years of being too scared to travel without every and all medication on my person’s had become my voice of reason inside my head when I chose to bring my massive pack back from Kathmandu, but with every step it was clear that I had made a very bad choice. Thankfully Jenny, a skilled trekker herself, offered to swap her backpack for mine when seeing my hands swell from the combination of high altitude and limited blood flow going to them. I am quite indebt to her for that, as I don’t think I could have survived the following 72 hours without her help. While the initial sense of failure and disappointment did set in, it was quickly disposed of when the fog cleared a triangular patch of sky, and we managed our first glimpse at the Annapurna’s. Ice and rock stood boldly, and the promise of a more majestic view was given to us if we pressed onwards.

 

It was cooler in the higher altitudes. Our maximum height for the first day was to be about 2,000 metres above sea level, not high enough to give anyone high altitude sickness (you need to be about 3,500m for that to potentially set in), but I definitely felt the effects of being pretty unfit. Waves of nausea and dizziness moved through my head and rested behind my temples, before leaving me to focus on keeping one foot in-front of the other.

 

As it became cooler, the jungle started to come alive. Squirmy masses of small, dark bodies started to wiggle their way out of the mud and across my boots.

 

Leeches.

 

Our guide, Raju, a man who had lived and breathed these mountains for more than 15 years, reminded us that a leech bite is neither dangerous, nor painful, but that didn’t quell our initial panic as they found their ways into our socks, our shirts, and our hair (they live in the trees as well, and when the rain falls, so do they). One settled against my hip bone and promptly bit into my flesh. Their bite feels like the most intensely concentrated itch you could ever feel, but trying to scratch them off was difficult when their bodies stretched to insane lengths while their sucker mouth stayed glued to you. Circular holes punctured my hip and feet as they writhed themselves against me. To combat these vampires of the forest, we tied small cotton bags filled with salt to one end of some scavenged sticks, and wielded our sticks of doom in defense. Salt is a natural deterrent to these slick suckers and they quickly started dropping off and pseudo-cart wheeled away.

 

We passed through and became part of many ephemeral moments. Cheeky monkeys scampered across grassland with stolen corn from the farm swelling out their cheeks. Sunken rice paddies glinted blue and grey reflections like jagged uncut jewels that had rolled off the table and settled back in the soil. A brilliant flash of white gave away wild deers that retreated into dense bush. We stopped for a quick snack at the home of one farmer, who allowed us to buy water and rest in her outdoor terrace before continuing up.

 

As we came closer to Dhampus, the first of two camping points we could settle into for the night, we took a vote (more like I complained enough) and decided that after five and a half hours fighting gravity we deserved a lengthy break. Dirt road became stone stairs, and we hauled ourselves over the rocky border and into the small hillside retreat. A few hundred people call this place home we were told, and glimpses of daily life could be seen by the open windows, beaten driveways, roaming chickens, and one watchful black and tan patched dog who kept to my side while we explored further into the town trying to find our resting spot.

 

A turquoise painted room with two beds and a sparse, dusty bathroom at the bottom of a hacked out area of grassland was our guesthouse. Cracking open its door for the first time in months we dropped our bags and dressed into warmer clothes. I fell into an exhausted sleep, the type where you don’t remember your head hitting the pillow, and awoke a few hours later to Jenny sitting cross-legged on her bed drawing hyper-coloured pastel scenes of different things we had seen in Nepal.

 

We dressed and went for a more in-depth exploration around the village. My token dog buddy accompanied us for most of it as we caught sights of serene villagers hard at work re-grassing the hill, taming wild chickens, and manning derelict storefronts that kept the necessities of life close at hand for the hillside populace. At the top of a small hill that rose in the centre of our stay area we looked out over Dhampus, and stared begrudgingly at the grey blanket of cloud that covered what we knew to be one of the most beautiful sights on Earth. Turning our backs to this frustration we finished our walk and made our way towards the central guesthouse that also held a kitchen and dining room inside it.

 

Raju met us for dinner not long after at the dining room/kitchen space. He sat down with a dusty bottle of alcohol filled with a cloudy mixture, which did not match the dark rum description half scratched away on the label. “It’s raksi”, he said, “the unofficial drink of Nepal.” I swirled a little around my mouth, a velvety malt-infused taste reminiscent of watered down baijiu swished through my teeth and over my tongue, before it slid down my throat. We ordered curries and soups and breads to break and share between ourselves, Raju’s friend Prim and Prim’s company – a young twenty-something Chinese girl who had decided to travel around Tibet and Nepal alone on the backs of various motorcycles before settling down to rot behind a nine-to-five desk at a bank she was well overqualified for.

 

The night dug into our souls as we sat and ate and drank and smoked around the table. The cook came out to join us and spoke remarkable English; living in England and training there will do that to someone. Prim pulled out a tinny set of portable speakers from his backpack and plugged his phone into it. Nepalese pop music became the background noise, which was turned up at an equal rate the Raksi bottles were being drained. It wasn’t too long until we all abandoned our seats for hand twirling and swaying shoulder-to-shoulder and dancing together.

 

When the music skipped to something a little more relaxed we sat back down to rest, elbows propping our languid heads up while conversations oozing drunken energies and slipping over essential grammar connections washed over the table.

 

Suddenly Raju, with his back to all the windows, sat straight up and in a moment of clarity whispered to us “the Annapurna’s are out”.

 

Clambering to the rooftop on stairs that had nothing to hold but the promise of broken bodies should one step wrongly, we threw the door open and made sure to not walk upon any of the rusted metal poking out of their concrete clusters before gazing towards the eastern horizon.

 

There, lit by the infinity above and a full moon untouched by cloud, shone the Annapurna’s.

 

Prim and Raju started to holler praise to Shiva, Jenny gazed in sweet, silent happiness, and I swear that time itself stood alongside me and held its breath. Everything from this moment was both too fast and too slow. Dappled moonlight dressed the mountains as ice cut silhouettes of each peak broke the night like glass shards. As forever ticked down to reality I knew that many minutes had passed me by, and I was ready to return to the confines of the dining room. Before turning back I watched the zig-zag of a firefly, a creature I had come to know only from fairytales, dance between electric lines, an artificial brethren of sorts.

 

With hearts glowing, we bid our company goodnight and settled into our beds, basking in the last of the twilight as we lay down for a deep, deep, sleep.

 

 

 

E.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Goodness gracious Great Wall of China.

I wasn’t going to become that foreigner who lived in China for ten months without visiting the Wall. The amount of ridicule I would have had to endure back home would be enough to build a gigantic wall of shame. So, with time running out and one more holiday to celebrate (China you really do enjoy your holidays) I along with Lisa, Dan, Ollie and Lucy set off to Qinhuangdao, Shanhaiguan and the most eastern part of the Great Wall of China.

Our first train ride was an eight-hour chug through many small towns and one or two larger cities. I was in charge of ticket acquisitions, and in the days previous I thought I had purchased sleeper tickets for the rides there and back. There are many different tickets you can buy for trains here, some are seats (hard or soft) sleeper beds (hard or soft) and, if you’re lucky, a dining cart table on some of the more expensive trains. We were all looking forward to lying down in a bed, playing cards, reading, and nappng away the eight hours ahead.

Plot twist: I purchased seated tickets. Whoops.

(Travel companions are all still talking to me at least).

We passed the time playing cards and napping in obscure origami inspired sleeping/crouching positions. We arrived ~4pm, caught some cabs after fighting with multiple drivers about the exact location of our hotel, and made it to what is definitely in my top three of hotels to never stay at again. Kirin Hotel, nope, just nope. Lisa had some professional students living in Qinhuangdao who after being contacted by her were far too cute in wanting to take us out to dinner. I can still confirm that Beijing Duck is one of the best Chinese dishes you can have (duck skin and sugar, mmmm). The night ended with us all playing Articulate, a game where you describe a word without saying the actual word. It’s highly addictive and a great way to kill an hour or two.

Woke up to day two and rain.
Disappoint.

We hunted out some coffee/breakfast at ol’ reliable McDonalds and then went to the bus station. Bus number 25 or 35 will take you from Qinhuangdao to Shanhaiguan in about half an hour. We got off and purchased tickets to the main attraction and the highlight of my post – LaoLongTou aka Old Dragon’s Head. Its name comes from the extension into the ocean, which is meant to represent a dragon’s head drinking the water. For more information about this specific part of the Wall this link here is quite good –

http://www.travelchinaguide.com/china_great_wall/scene/hebei/shanhaiguan/laolongtou.htm

Emotional summary – BADASS! I’m really jealous of countries whose history extend into the four digit category (silly New Zealand, you aren’t even 1000 years old) and seeing such magnificent structures from time periods my country doesn’t know is really rad.

The first part you could walk around consisted of a lot of rooms dedicated to the soldiers that would have worked and maintained the area. Many grain storage shelves and weapons get appreciated here. Then, through the final room, we gazed across and saw a magnificent stone maze just sitting before us. Naturally we filed into it and proceeded to race around for half an hour. Part of the Wall ran alongside it, so there were a lot of Chinese watching us get lost (we asked for their help in exiting, they helped by getting us even more trapped >__< ).

Finally, we walked up a ramp towards the main temple and the first sighting for me of the most eastern part of the Wall, Laolongtou. Completing the final step I looked out, followed the dragon neck towards the head, to be met with a beautiful sand barge beached up alongside the freakin head. China, what were you doing parking a boat there, honestly. However it didn’t cull the excitement I felt and I am very happy to tick the Great Wall of China off my list of viewed badassery, especially a non-traditional part of the wall with great constructional history and restoration. Now the next goal is to go to the most western part of the wall.

For the remaining day in Qinhuangdao Dan, Lisa and I met up with Agata, a lovely Polish girl who transferred from Shijjiazhuang to Qinhuangdao. We went to Beidaihe by bus and walked along the beach. I do not like beaches with fences, or ones with a fee to actually set foot on it, however that is China for you and we obliged. It felt calming to touch something that wasn’t gravel and concrete though, and we had a great time splashing and walking barefoot (even got sunburnt, whoops).

The sleeper train for the ride home actually was a bed; only it was 8-9 feet off the ground with a pathetic excuse for a safety barrier. But Lisa and I talked ourselves into a sleep coma and I ended up having a reasonable rest, much better than the stupid Kirin Hotel.

As I am in China another year I need another epic monument or five to visit. What would you suggest? Do you think the traditional tourist ones are the way to go, or is there some interesting place you’ve heard about that would be worth checking out?

E.

For everything else, there’s Mastercard.

When I came to China the process of legally entering the country, with the intention of working there, went like this –

1. An invitation letter/working permit from your employer was to be delivered to you (at the 11th hour I received mine and drove straight to the Chinese embassy for same day visa processing).
2. A medical check-up to the standard the Chinese Government wanted has to be performed (even though you are to have another one when you land in China anyway).
3. An up to date passport.
4. $200 NZD.

The first visa was relatively easy to acquire. You enter China with an ‘L’ visa, this is the tourist visa, and you have one month to change it to the resident visa or ‘Z’ visa. Your employer should help you with this and should pay for it (my school asked us to front the money which would then be added back to your pay at the end of the month, slightly annoying process but it meant less paperwork for them and in China that can mean a lot of time saved).

One small annoyance was that the new ‘Z’ visa expired after six month, whereas my contract was for a year. The official reason I was given was that Hebei, the province I work in, has very strict visa rules (especially pertaining to foreigners). My guess is that it’s easier for your employer to have a lot of leverage over you if your visa is so short and requires continuous renewing.

This leads onto my second (well, third) visa acquisition, the reason for this post, and what has been a huge headache for the past month.

Your visa is aligned with your employer, which makes sense, as they are the ones who employ you and house you in China. My first and second visa was with my former employer, Shijiazhuang Foreign Language School/43 Middle School. At the conclusion of one years work they offered us another contract. Before signing it I explicitly told the Foreign Affairs office that I had been looking for other work and that the visa paperwork should be a more open process so that, if the situation arose, I could pay for the current processing and transfer it to a new employer should it be needed.

Well I did get another job, at Kede College Art Institute in Beijing (and quite frankly one of the coolest employment opportunities I have ever had). Did my soon-to-be ex employer follow up with my initial requests? Hahaha, nope.

‘Apparently’ there is no paperwork that allows transference of ‘Z’ visas between different employers in China. Your visa is important for another reason, it’s the dates that you are legally allowed to be in China. My plane tickets had already been bought and paid for so 43 Middle School knew my leaving date (24th June) and knew my visa date expiration (15th June).

In a perfect world the scenario would’ve gone like this –

1. Erin gets a new kick-ass job.
2. 43 Middle School extend the working visa for eight days to cover my legality of leaving China/give me time to pack my things.
3. Z visa transference to kick-ass job in Beijing.
4. Sweet mental bliss.

In reality here’s how it went –

1. Erin gets a new kick-ass job.
2. 43 Middle School outright pulls my passport from the visa paperwork.
3. 43 Middle School says you have until the 15th of June to acquire an ‘L’ visa or you cannot live at the school anymore (huge hassle as I finished work on the 14th, not a lot of time to pack).
4. Kede College need me to sign the contract asap (travel to Beijing, sign four contracts, ask what paperwork is needed for them to start the ‘Z’ visa, siphon it via multiple emails).
5. Travel to Shijiazhuang police station to start ‘L’ visa process.
6. Need photocopies of my passport.
7. Travel back to school for it.
8. Need photocopies of my working permit.
9. Travel back to school for it.
10. Need bank statements.
11. Travel back to school area for it.
12. Need a release letter from 43 Middle School.
13. Travel back to school for it. (I love how the school neglected to tell me this part for the entire process).
14. Need photographs at a specific size of 48x33mm.
15. Collect all my strengths and deliver it to the police at the nth hour of processing application delivery.
16. Have a friend collect it for me the next day as I had to work.

However all is well now, and I can stay in China for another eight days before I vamoose back to New Zealand on the 24th June. Getting back in should be relatively easy, but I said that once before. Hope this information helps some of you who are considering moving to another country and need visa work for it.

E.

NanSanTiao.

NanSanTiao is a fantastical commercial wonderland. Located near the main city centre on ZhongShan Lu it is a collection of, at last count, eight warehouses. (However this is a guesstimate, I still have no idea how deep the rabbit hole actually goes). It is well known by the locals and foreigners as being the place to go for the cheaper side of China.

From the outside it all looks rather inconspicuous. There are many small stores lining the exteriors, most selling drink tumblers, the rest selling cleaning equipment. The street that dominates NanSanTiao is forever packed with cars, tuk-tuks and people. Sometimes the crowd can be overwhelming, but you can navigate yourself around if you follow the one golden rule that is never stop moving.

The main entrances to the warehouses are covered by plastic air shields that distinguish these tunnels from the myriad of shops around them. There are some warehouse signs such as ‘Make-up hall’ and ‘Gift hall’ atop the buildings. These give you more a sense of direction, rather than an indication to what’s inside.

Heed the warning: Enter these warehouses at your own peril. Many wallets have entered armed and prepared for battle (haggle), and left the arena spent.

The Game of NanSanTiao has two rules you must obey if you are to be successful*

NanSanTiao has everything you thought you’d never want (and maybe some things you actually want). Considering a fake iPad? Done. Maybe a large golden statue of Mao? Step right in. Discovered that you must have a large glass Chinese cabbage put in your display cabinet? You have come to the right place my friend.

You will never find what you actually need. Ever.

*success is a lie. So is the cake.

Types of warehouses/shops/items you find in NanSanTiao –

Three storeys of shops filled handbags, purses, wallets, travel bags.
An outside market for bedding, blankets and foam.
A shop dedicated to selling tinsel for those all year round purposes.
Wedding bouquets to make your eyes bleed.
Two floors of stationery stocked with so many pens you could have one for every day of the year.
Derpy dog statues, along with derpy Buddha statues.
Penis lamps.
A store for fruit sealed in glass bottles, complete with wraparound mirror display cabinets for that added WTF.

However tucked within the chaos you will find some beautiful little treasures. There are one or two decent art shops that sell paint, charcoals and paper. I bought my latest handbag, a green giraffe inspired design, from the depths of the bag warehouse (after many, many trips). And again, thanks to Ollie (my favourite coffee enthusiast), I have found a remarkable little shop called Otai that sells Kopi Luwak coffee aka catshit coffee. It is the most delicious little blend and I will be sure to buy it all out before coming home so you folks in New Zealand can experience it.

NanSanTiao is exactly what you expect commercial China to feel like. A maze filled with sensory overloaded visuals, pulling you in sideways, slantways, longways and backways. I wish I had the words to describe it more, but I cannot do it justice. There is just so much time and so little to do there.
Wait a minute.
Strike that. Reverse it.
Thank you.

E.

Pingyao ready for this?

ImageThere was a short holiday from Monday-Wednesday just passed, so to fulfil the travel bug within some of us expats a party of four ventured out of ‘the Shiz’ to a magical ancient realm known as Pingyao.

 

Ollie, Lucy, Alheli and I were that party. On Monday we set off on the G Train to a city called Taiyuan, which would then allow us to connect and continue to Pingyao. Over the course of the whole trip I think we spent ~30 minutes in Taiyuan, and I can say for sure it is one of those places I would never wish upon my worst enemy. Icky, ick, ick.

 

From there we were hoping we’d get lucky and jump on a bus to Pingyao and arrive relatively safe and sound. Unfortunately the bus was a nightmare to find. We settled on bargaining with a taxi driver who took us there relatively safe and sound (I think there were only two cars driving on the wrong side of the road, and one guy dragging a cardboard box in the middle of the road. Overall for China it was quite tame).

 

We came into Pingyao that evening, and walked down the road towards the walled ancient area we would be exploring. It was a nice transitory action, being able to walk from a modern perspective of China, to crossing into a time-warped land of old but unforgotten China.

 

That night we walked up the main street and found what we thought to be a nice quiet bar to relax in. Chinese music is very predictable though and consists of the same ‘doof doof’ beat, which became far too persistent to allow for relaxing, so the relaxing was resumed when we finally hit the hay and called it a night.

 

 

Day two was our only day for a proper exploration. Waking up relatively early we exited our hostel (a nice, cheap place) in search of some better food than what we could find near us. A hostel named ‘Harmony’ was what we found, and if I ever go back to Pingyao I will be staying there. Finding another hostel owner with the English calibre of that lovely lady owner will be nigh impossible. We then set off to the Western part of the city, which held some attractions but none of the main ones. Upon arriving at one of the temples we were informed we must purchase a ticket near one of the biggest attractions.

 

The mentality of China when it comes to waiting in lines to purchase tickets and other various things is a resounding collective ‘NOPE’. The chaos surrounding the ticket office was comparable to a heavy metal rock concert, complete with some young girl sucker-punching a blow up cow wearing individual. Finally, after many elbows in personal spaces, we collected our tickets and promptly booked it from that area to further continue the travels (the tickets were valid for two days so we explored a great deal of ancient Pingyao).

 

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Pingyao. A walking holiday in relatively fresh air, surrounded by old Chinese culture is just what the brain needed. Pingyao used to be a financial hub as well so I enjoyed knowing I was in an area that helped developed the economical infrastructure of a country soon to be the most powerful in the world.

 

Some pictures will be included to describe what my words cannot.

 

 

E.

A simple plan for planning in China.

Step one: Say everything you are going to do.
Step two: Do the complete opposite.
Step three: Don’t tell the foreign teachers.
Step four: Profit. (Somebody always profits).

I work 27 classes a week, spread across a 25 Junior Two/3 Junior One ratio. By this logic I should have most of my work interactions with the Junior Two department. If anything is to change at the school, then a veritable team of teachers and leaders employed alongside me should be able to inform me of said discussions, yes?

Hahaha. Nope.

If you ever work in China, be prepared to redefine the word ‘communication’.

Usually communication means two parties exchanging or imparting information/news/ideas and so forth.

In China communication is….well…it’s…

We’ve recently had our timetable configured to the ‘summer’ plan. The change now means I start classes at 7:45am, and finish my days at 6pm. This started after our short holiday celebrating May Day (of which another post will be about). I know all of this because I was informed of this time change by one teacher from Junior One, not Two, as I would have expected. And I was informed, by China standards, on time.

Now there is such a thing called time in China. I affectionately label it as ‘last minute for everything’ time. Everything you think is important will be told to you. Just at the last possible second of its conception.

So my short lesson here is: when dealing with China, be prepared to have every conceivable Plan A you could possibly make thrown out the window, along with Plan B, Step Five and Preparation H. You must be able to adjust to this new ‘rush’ rather quickly, as China doesn’t care about that evening coffee you wanted with your friends, or your hair appointment, or if your fish needs watering. China wants everything done on its time, whether you can keep up or not is another story.

 

 

E.