Some insights into Chinese culture

In my second blog about working in China, I talked about being glad that I had not worked in an ex-pat bubble and had been exposed to Chinese ways of thinking and doing.

My colleagues used three Chinese words to try to help me understand ways of doing business and Chinese parents and their decisions. It was a privilege to be able to talk openly and honestly about these things, and to grapple with the assumptions and different world views we were trying to bridge that meant we often talked past each other. I don’t claim to have ‘got them’ but will share my best understanding thus far.

关系 (guānxi) – relationships, connections

I reflected on the contrast between New Zealand and China, and how these affect relationships. New Zealand is a relatively young, small country, in which everyone can link back to when their ancestors moved to New Zealand, with most families including someone who recently immigrated. China is the largest country in the world, with 5,000 years of continuous history, during which most families had little contact with the outside world.

Chinese people view their guānxi as an asset and carry a classification of their connections in their heads. In the inner circle is family – which is much smaller than it used to be as a consequence of the one child policy. The next level out are classmates. Someone explained to me that classmates are the next closest and trusted because you form them when you are younger and more pure, before you are out for what you can get in relationships. Then, you accumulate other relationships, including work ones, through life.

In New Zealand, we also grow networks over time, and have friends, family and ex colleagues that to varying degrees we feel we can ask for help. It is also a form of classification that we have unconsciously learned to create while growing up and would find hard to explain to others.

Kiwi connections are relaxed because we are a tiny country and assume two degrees of separation i.e. if I know someone who knows someone who knows someone, you probably know them too. Plan A for kiwis is use your contacts, but Plan B – search out the right person, get in touch and trust them to be as nice as you are – is a quick back up. It may or may not work, but what the heck?

By contrast, cold calling is almost impossible in China. My colleagues searched for any possible route into an organisation rather than contacting a stranger. Our career counseling process included contacting people doing the job of interest to interview them, and my colleagues couldn’t believe that I suggested contacting strangers to do that. (Without this step, I never would have got my first job back in the workplace after being a full time mum for ten years.) In China totally different rules apply to those outside your circles. This explains how rude Chinese people seem to Raymond and me when queuing at tourist attractions, at the same time as our Chinese friends seem so generous and kind. I can understand that it is too overwhelming to be nice to 1.4 billion people, and that blocking strategies would have evolved in a large hierarchical country over 5,000 years. In contrast New Zealand has evolved ways of relating based on egalitarian beginnings and everyone relatively recently arriving with limited connections and needing help from strangers.

Chinese classification of relationships is more complex than ‘can approach’/’can’t approach’. It seems to be a ledger determining the extent of giving and receiving. The type of connection, such as closeness and hierarchy, affects expectations and the amount of debt or credit within each interaction. One needs to be careful of going into debt too much, which is why ledgerless, or at least less ledgery, family and classmates are preferable. Again, this makes sense in a place with more people, longer history and more hierarchy, but the thought of it made my head hurt.

Also, word of mouth recommendations carry more weight than makes sense to me. I listen to the advice of those I know, but also assess how broad their experience or knowledge is before deciding how much notice to take. One colleague explained that the credibility of any other form of information, such as what is on the internet, is so low, that a trusted person’s limited experience seems the best option, and has done so for generations. An example was my friend, Juānzi’s decision to use a student recruitment company in Shanghai to help her son apply to universities in the US. The company is three hours flight away and there are many local choices, but one trusted friend’s positive experience made the decision easy for her.

面子(miànzi) – face culture, reputation, prestige

Juānzi most frequently explains  differences we notice when talking as ‘China’s face culture’. At its most simple it is about looking good or the right way to others. In New Zealand we also care about how we seem to others, but it does not drive everything we feel, think or do in the same way. This face culture seems to link back to the complex web diagram in every Chinese person’s head with the ledger balance by each persons’ name.

King talked about a low, or high level of anxiety, in terms of needing to perform that he remembers starting his first day of school. I used the phrase ‘having a knot in your stomach’ to reflect what I thought he was describing. He is a very high performer who seems very confident and, partly because he has been influenced by western education, willing to be different. He then frequently referred to ‘knot in your stomach’, including telling me that every parent as well as every child has this all the time, because of the tremendous pressure to be seen to be doing well.

When we talk, Juānzi views aspects of miànzi as a negative thing – ‘sad, but true’. But she has to work within it. She is worried for her son because she knows this is the culture he will find when he returns from America, and wants to help prepare him to succeed within it as much as she can. This is even more important when she only has one child.

功利 (gōnglì) – utility, material gain, pragmatism

My colleagues used gōnglì when talking about how Chinese parents choose an overseas study option for their children. (I wrote this then realised I need to explain to Western readers that parents choose for their children, even if they are young adults going to university. Parents will consult their children to varying degrees.)

For a while, Xiăoméi, my business partner, and I would talk about parent choices and she would say – ‘Chinese parents are pragmatic’. In the context, it didn’t make sense, because it seemed to me that they were being the opposite – making decisions that were driven by brand rather than things I would consider pragmatic, such as low cost, high quality to cost ratio, or ease of access. Later, King, my philosopher colleague, used ‘pragmatic’ to translate gōnglì and I realised this is what Xiăoméi had been talking about. As King tried to explain to me what it meant, we decided to use gōnglì in future, rather than try to use any English word. Nothing quite seemed to capture it.

My best attempt is making choices for what the greatest benefit will be – which is a form of pragmatism. However, because the benefit is framed in guānxi and miànzi, it doesn’t ring true for me. This manifests itself in an obsession with rankings, because other people care about rankings, so you get significant benefit in going to a country/school/university with high ranking. It is not so important that it is actually good, it is important that others think it is good. Each generation is more knowledgeable about what really is quality. King and his parents had to decide how much to take into account his grandparents’ views, while relatively uninformed. They wanted to be able to proudly tell their friends what their grandson was doing.

In one conversation with King, I said ‘but after your get your first job, it doesn’t even matter what university you went to’. He said ‘It is different in China. When you are 50 years old, you might still be being introduced as “This is King and he went to Berkeley”‘. I laughed and said ‘In New Zealand that sort of introduction at 25, let alone 50, would make everyone feel so awkward’.

My Australian cross-cultural psychologist friend directed me to a website which summarises a cross-cultural guru called Hofstede’s research on cultural differences. It has an interactive tool with which we can compare countries’ cultures using six dimensions. Here are the results for China and New Zealand.

NZ China

You can see that the two countries are significantly different on four of the six measures – no wonder it can be challenging here.

I have talked about the individualism versus collectivism when describing guānxi and miànzi. The power distance was another difference that meant it took my colleagues and I a while to stop talking past each other.

China is an inherently unequal, ranked society, and people believe this is normal and acceptable. At the beginning of working together, Xiăoméi would ask me if the school I was talking about was ‘a good school’. I would say ‘they are all good schools’. Then a few weeks later, we seemed to have the same conversation.

Eventually, I understood that in Chéngdū, at the end of primary school all students sit exams and are filtered into middle schools on the basis of their marks, with the highest scoring students going to School A, the next highest to School B and so on, until the poor old lowest achievers are put into School Z. This process is repeated at the end of middle school, so everybody knows that those attending the high school, ‘Chéngdū Number 7 ‘, are the best students for their age in the city of 14 million people (or have wealthy parents who got them in via another route).  So, Number 7 School is ‘the best’. Students bus all across the city to attend the school that fits their academic ability. About 12 years old, they usually live Monday to Friday in hostels on site to avoid long travel days, and to attend lessons in the evenings.

Xiăoméi, and subsequently my other colleagues Juānzi, King and Kathy, eventually understood that students usually go to the school near where they live and so has competent and less competent students. In cities, schools end up with differences based on the socio-economic status of the area in which they are based, but the quality of teachers is comparable. In fact, the government gives lower decile schools extra funding to try and reduce inequities that come from this difference and legislates so that popular schools cannot select more able students.

When researching different education systems, I uncovered another example of New Zealand’s commitment to equity. All eight of New Zealand’s universities are ranked in the top 500 in the world, even though the highest ranked only sits at 81. The next highest percentage is Australia (50%), with UK and Canada both at 33%, and USA at only 25%. Rather than make one university exceptionally good, New Zealand makes them all very good. Even though I worked in the sector, I never knew this, and wish the New Zealand media, when reporting, were more informed about how the country compares to the rest of the world.

New Zealand’s education system is far from perfect, and I support recent moves to restore the emphasis on equity that has eroded. However, living in China helps me appreciate the quality and access that is there, and the lifestyle choices that flow from this. The first time I talked to a Chinese student about his weekly timetable, because I was trying to find a time to meet regularly with him, I was moved to tears. I could not believe that this gorgeous young 14 year old got up at 6am to leave for school at 7am and did not return home until 9pm, and then had classes in the weekend. Because New Zealand children do not need to compete from their first days in school, and their parents do not need to worry about their exact position in exams before they turn ten, families can have fun together. Also, a New Zealand person can make poor choices when young and get chances to turn their lives around throughout their adult life, through access to education, and a culture that does not label you forever based on performance in your teens.

My journey working in China has helped me reflect on how a country’s size and history leads it to where it is today. As with anyone, understanding their perspective helps me to be more respectful of differences that initially may seem rude, inconsiderate, foolish, ineffective or just plain incomprehensible.

Hofstede also gives me insights into how Canada’s culture compares to New Zealand’s and China’s.

NZ China CanadaCanada is clearly more similar to New Zealand than China is, so things should be easier. However here in China, we have learned the hard way that relating to colleagues from other English speaking countries exposes cultural differences that come as more of a shock, because others look the same, speak the same language and seem to have the same heritage.

And, while living in Canada, in my new job I will also be working in Africa, the Pacific, the Caribbean and Asia – more cultural learning ahead!



Working in China # 2 (Terry)

I was surprised to realise that it is nearly 18 months since I first wrote about working in China and some of the challenges I was facing. So much has happened since then, but I was too busy living it to blog about it. Most notably, I have left Brightsparks and am moving to Canada for my dream job at the beginning of October.

Before I move countries, I want to try to capture some of what I learned and experienced working with others to try to start a business in China.

If I could go back in time, would I do it again? Probably not, because I was without income for two years.  But, I learned lots about business, Chinese ways of thinking and myself, which is priceless, and I have made some special Chinese friends, also priceless.


Let’s start with me – what did I learn about myself?

  • I can be naive and overly optimistic, which I was in deciding to do it and who to do it with. We were the right team, but I was slow to admit to myself that my partners were too focused on their other business for Brightsparks to be likely to succeed. Optimism and a willingness to take risks has taken me a long way in work contexts, but I need to be better at assessing when it is time to say ‘no’ and ‘enough’.
  • I can persevere when things are tough and push myself on with minimal support from others. I already knew I was like this, but this role required it at greater levels, and I did it. In part, I achieved this by finding others for support, and connecting strongly with them, which I was able to do across cultures.
  • I am much more dependent on others in a cross cultural context, because I do not speak the language or understand the culture – obvious but a deep lesson after living it for 18 months. I was able to find New Zealand partners, write marketing materials and develop the website. This is when I wrote my earlier blog. But, I could not translate the marketing stuff, develop a detailed presentation informed by Chinese thinking, make local connections to organisations, students and families, or present in Chinese. Although, I was excellent at being a white face! In New Zealand, I have always felt that, if necessary, I can learn and give something a go to make things progress, especially tapping into my network for support, advice and help. I still had my virtual network in New Zealand and Australia for general support, but for day-to-day operations details I had nobody, except my too busy Chinese partner, and staff from her other business with whom I struggled to communicate. Then, later, with bilingual colleagues, I realised how much I can never truly understand Chinese thinking.
  • I find cross cultural learning fascinating. I worked for eight months with an ex student of Raymond’s who is a philosopher at heart. He and I had fascinating conversations about Chinese ways of thinking. My ex-colleague and now friend, whose son is 19 and studying in the States, helped me glimpse how she and her friends think, especially about education.
  • I have such strong ‘kiwi’ values, especially about equality and access to education, work-life balance, and selecting on the basis of my holistic assessment of quality. This is at odds with ‘Chinese’ values of wanting ‘only the best’, being strongly influenced by  brand, face culture (a specific form of caring what others think), and a work ethic for children from a young age that made my eyes water the first time I met it.
  • I like innovating. for example, I really enjoyed working with my cross cultural psychologist friend in Australia and local Chinese staff to develop, test, and refine a China appropriate career counseling process.
  • I like motivating and influencing, and am happy to present things in which I believe in their most positive light, which has a sales element to it. But I don’t like real selling, especially, when, as noted above, I struggle with the values of those I am trying to sell to.
  • I had some hang up, possibly related to pleasing my entrepreneurial dad (who has been dead for more than ten years), of wanting to start my own business. I have now got that out of my system and am content to work for others for the rest of my working life, while still seeking roles that allow me to use the entrepreneurial spirit he passed on.
  • I love the stimulation of working, problem solving, and socialising that work offers. I do not want to retire for a long time yet.

What did I learn about business?

  • It is harder being small and not well known – again obvious, but much more pronounced in China than New Zealand. I was not prepared for the difference in others’ view of me, moving from representing a reasonably sized educational institution to being part of a small unknown start up. Although, here a white face gives you a definite in – sad but true. I was also unprepared for how unknown, insignificant and lower quality New Zealand’s education system was perceived. By many measures, this perception of lower quality is not accurate, although the New Zealand media’s focus on what needs to be improved means kiwis don’t always realise this.
  • Take time to assess potential business partners against specific criteria, trust my instincts more when things seem not to be working out and be willing to say ‘no’ sooner.
  • The right strategy is hard, especially in another country, and there is a tension between being flexible and being distracted. China is definitely the land of educational opportunities. Our first focus was student recruitment, but we experimented with several side lines – English language teaching, study tours in New Zealand, study the Western way training, and immigration services – none of which got off the ground. My local advisors believed in each one, and each time were able to articulate China specific reasons to convince me. And, because I was in another country, I was not sure of the best strategy, unlike New Zealand, where, rightly or wrongly, I can be quite opinionated on what I think should happen.

What did I learn about Chinese thinking? – too much to add here and the subject of my next blog.

And the friends – a definite highlight of my time working here, and also the subject of another blog (spoiler alert – I plan to blog about our wonderful Chinese friends after we go to Raymond’s friend’s wedding next month).

As I said above, if I had my life again, I would probably not choose the same path. Fortunately,  I live in the future much more than the past or even the present, so will not spend any time regretting my choices, and will take the learning with me into my next work adventure.


Big hairy audacious problem

When we decided to move to China, I would never have believed you if you had told me that the most challenging thing would be getting my hair done. But, two years in, I have decided it is. Fortunately, I am not as worried about my appearance as some. Unfortunately, I am too vain to let my hair go grey. This was true in New Zealand but is even truer here, where men and women die their hair, usually jet black, until at least 80. I already look older than my years with the wrinkles of my Irish descent skin ‘kissed’ for decades by New Zealand’s sun through ozone free air, and am not quite ready to have others assume I am more than 80 years old.

When we first arrived, finding a hairdresser was my top priority, because we had been traveling for six weeks and I was already colouring in my grey stripe with a crayon from my New Zealand hairdresser. I have already blogged about our amusing and highly memorable experience trying to communicate then.

For the first nine months, things were reasonably straightforward. Every three weeks, at this salon, the same hairdresser mixed the colour, similar enough to the colour my New Zealand hairdresser had used that I didn’t notice whether or not it was different. And every six weeks she cut and blow-dried my hair in a semi-predictable way, again similar enough to what I had arrived with that I felt relaxed. One time she was not there and I left with a different style, but had a good laugh with Raymond, and then she was back and things returned to normal.

Until one day I went to this salon and the door had a lock across it. Through the window, I could see that all the hair salon specific equipment was gone, leaving rubbish and a concrete floor. My heart sank – I needed to train up a new hairdresser.

My number one criterion was that they were within walking distance of our apartment. One of Raymond’s colleagues was getting her hair done by the English speaking wife of a teacher at another international school. She is the librarian at this other international school, but does hairdressing as a hobby. And they live in the same apartment complex as us. I messaged him to see if she could do my hair, but they were busy and I decided I wanted flexibility more than being able to communicate easily – I am not sure that I would make the same choice now.

So, I went in to the blingy hair salon close to our apartment. The manager sat down beside me and used Wechat to ‘chat’. He found out what I wanted for my hair, as well as all about my country, family and work. He totally charmed me, which led in to the sales pitch. If I bought the VIP card for 5,000 (NZD1,000), I could get a 60% discount. I did some sums in my head and thought that we would easily spend that much in the next 2-3 years and ‘what a bargain’. So, I agreed – and who doesn’t want to be a VIP customer?

I left looking like the picture below – after blow drying the style felt more boofy than I am used to, but it is always different after I do it, so generally happy.

Three weeks later, I went back and had a different hairdresser (890) mix the colour for my hair. As the colour was going on, I felt it was redder than I remembered, but decided to go with the flow. I was right, in one foul swoop he had undone months of incremental lightening by my New Zealand hairdresser. So, before my third visit, I messaged my charming manager to see if he was there to help me return to the right colour – maybe even introduce some crazy system where they keep a record of it like the earlier salon had. It turned out that he had left to set up a new salon, which he suggested I might go to instead – if only I wanted to travel an hour each way to go to the hairdresser. Then he organised for my first hairdresser (826) to do it again. But 826 didn’t remember it accurately, or maybe it was just getting more obvious how dark it was, and it was still too red and dark.

So, the next time I took King, my 18 year old male bilingual work colleague and friend, an ex-student of Raymond’s, who fortuitously lives in the same apartment block. I also took a picture from my New Zealand hairdresser of what she used. I wanted a lighter, less red colour and foils because by now it was so dark. It turns out this is not a concept that translates easily, especially because my young male friend did not always know the Chinese, let alone English, hairdressing terminology – although he knows more now. And it took so long, because King’s crash course on hairdressing took time, translation is time consuming, hair dyeing takes longer here (not sure why but it does), and they insisted on doing the foils after dyeing rather than simultaneously like my New Zealand hairdresser does. When through King, I suggested the simultaneous method, 826 replied that foreign hairdressers often do things the wrong way. Taking so long meant that everyone else had gone, and I still hadn’t had it cut. King, 826, the dyeing-hair-washing minion and I were the only ones left. I would have to return the next evening for the cut. When I saw the brilliance of my foils, which were done vertically not horizontally, giving a less natural look, I thought I might also ask him to re-dye it the next evening. In the end, I decided it wasn’t so bad, that I didn’t want to spend all that time again, and to live (laugh) with it.

By this time, I was wondering about other options – but decided against it for two reasons. Firstly, I still had most of my one thousand dollars left unspent. The 60% discount does mean this three weekly service (adventure) is very cheap. My first hairdresser charged close to NZD100 for dye and cut, whereas, this salon is only about NZD30. Secondly, apart from the inflexible English speaking option, I would have to train up any new hairdresser, and I had at least part-trained these ones.

My next couple of visits went reasonably well, accepting that my hair was now a darker colour. But the next time I needed a cut I was annoyed after having my hair washed to see 826 just beginning to cut someone else’s hair. After all, he knew I was there – dyeing takes over an hour! When I later communicated my disappointment via WeChat, he told me that the other woman was a pre-booked appointment, so we agreed the process for booking. Simple things that seem so easy when you speak the language and have grown up with the processes, but not when you don’t.

My next visit, as 826 had suggested, I messaged him the day before to make an appointment. However, when I got there, he wasn’t there. When I asked for him, the young welcoming woman seemed embarrassed. I have not seen him again, so maybe he left or was fired. (When I messaged him, he said he was sick.) I was frustrated, because I thought I was following the system and still it wasn’t working. The young welcoming woman got the (new) manager to come and talk to me. First he talked to 890. I think he was asking 890 to do my hair and I think 890 said no. Maybe 890 was busy with other customers, maybe there was loss of face with my choosing 826, back when I hoped that would solve the colour issue, or maybe he just doesn’t like me. I don’t think 826 liked me – he had seemed disappointed to see me when I arrived, even though once he took his photo with me. So, the manager organised 802, who I warmed to immediately because he smiled.

802 dyed my hair and the manager blow dried it for me. Below, you can see five screenshots of my communication using wechat with the manager. I use the translate feature, and can also read many of the Chinese characters which helps more than trying to listen to them speak. But the translation is not always accurate.  It took all my self-control not to laugh out loud when he sent me the message in the last screenshot below.

So, 802 became my ray of hope. Three weeks later when I booked an appointment beforehand, he was there. When I arrived, he smiled. He took over half an hour looking at pictures and colour samples, and chatting via WeChat to try to understand the colour that I want. He seemed to remember my alternating dye only, cut and dye system. And, when I stood up too quickly after my cut and felt faint and tripped, he treated me kindly like his mother, or maybe grandmother.

During our long wechat chat, after I wrote to 802 that my colour was lighter, the translation of his reply was ‘the colour is more pronounced than last time’. I then wondered if this was a clue to a possible cultural problem behind all this. In China, most women my age dye their hair jet black, and it is younger women who have light colours. I may be wrong, but I wonder if these young male hairdressers think that I should go with a more natural (dark, actually black) look, and not have such an unnatural (brown or even blonde) look. I tried to tell 802 that in the west women my age go lighter because they think it suits older skin more and contrasts less with the grey. I showed him some pictures from the web to reinforce my point.

However, even after the long chat, 802’s colour was still not right. Mixed with the various treatments from beforehand, it was close to what I wanted but my roots were far too reddish orange, and ominous for the future. I decided to have another chat to 802 when I went back.

But, a few weeks later, when I messaged him to book my next appointment, he apologetically told me that his mother was unwell and he would be away for the next month. Back I went, with my Chinese friend who was staying with us to help communicate what I wanted. Mystery number hairdresser welcomed me, sat me down, listened to my friend and began. It was no longer orange but back to being too dark. It is also getting shorter each cut, which some people have commented on positively.

As for me, I have given up on having strong views about how I want my hair to look and wait for the surprise. When I return to an English speaking environment, I will try to influence things again.

Silk Road adventure

We have a spreadsheet of places we want to visit. Now that we have seen the most famous places, top of the list was two cities on the Silk Road – 敦煌 (Dūnhuáng) and 张掖 (Zhāngyè), the latter being famous for the 丹霞地貌 (Dānxiá landform).

There are no direct flights from 成都 (Chéngdū) to where we wanted to visit in this more remote part of China – you can tell it is remote because there are cities of fewer than 4 million (one New Zealand). So, we flew to Urumqi (English transliteration of its Uyghur Arabic name), spent about five hours there and then boarded an overnight train to 敦煌 (Dūnhuáng).

Urumqi is significantly further north and west than 成都 (Chéngdū). It is half way across the Eurasian continent, so one of its claims to fame is that it is the city furthest from any ocean. Another is that it is the capital of 新疆 (Xīnjiāng), the largest province by area in China, with low population density, and mountains and beautiful scenery. It also is the site of political unrest due to many different ethnicities wishing to be independent of China. When we arrived, we were immediately struck by the number of guards with guns.

As we flew in to Urumqi, we could see why, over the 5,000 years of China’s history, fewer people have chosen to live here. Brown, inhospitable looking plains extended in all directions, and in the distance low mountains rose sharply from the plains with higher snow-capped mountains behind. However, Urumqi, with its proximity to Europe has been important on the Silk Road for centuries. Clusters of apartments rose from the plains, initially looking like small hills with sharp cliffs, until our plane got low enough to see what they really were. We wondered what the four million inhabitants do for a living.

We arrived planning to catch the airport bus into town. I ‘knew’ from the web that it went to the south railway station, stopped in the city and cost 15元. But it turns out that the pace of change here is such that I cannot trust the advice of earlier travelers.

In my best Chinese, I told the person at the airport information desk that we wanted to catch the bus to the city centre. I thought we would need to buy bus tickets there because elsewhere we have been caught out not buying tickets prior to getting on the bus. He connected us with a man who walked us towards the rather obvious bus. I said to Raymond ‘We could have found this ourselves if we knew we did not need to buy tickets beforehand’.

Our new guide introduced us to a man who did not offer us bus tickets, but invited us to pay 150 元 for a private car to the city centre (triple the going rate). I told him that I knew from the web that we could catch a bus for a fifth of that and turned to get on the airport bus instead. It started to move, so I jumped in front of it. I have never risked throwing myself under a bus before, but I was annoyed that we might need to wait 40 minutes for the next one because of locals trying to rip us off. Fortunately, the bus driver stopped. I told him that we wanted to go to the city. In Chinese, he told me they were only going to the station, then repeated ‘station’ in English to be sure I understood. I said ok and we hopped on. I knew Urumqi now has a new train station and thought let’s just go to that one, where we can confirm that it is the one from which we need to catch our train that evening, and then work out how to go into the city.

As we got on, nobody seemed to want us to have a ticket – oh well, let’s not fight it. Then, off we went, until after a few minutes, we stopped at another place, still part of the airport. Here, the ticket man got on and we paid our 20 元. We continue to learn to just go with the flow!

We did go to the new train station, confirmed this was where we needed to come back to and caught a taxi to the new museum. Oh, that’s right, museums are closed on Mondays. Plan B, let’s go to People’s Park. We caught a bus to near this park, and looked for somewhere to eat. It turns out Urumqi is not like 成都 (Chéngdū), where one only has to walk for a few minutes before finding someone selling food. We don’t know, but wonder if this is because Urumqi is less affluent, and because 成都 (Chéngdū) is famous across China for its laid back, enjoy life attitude, and for having been the  food basket of China for thousands of years.

It was so hot we could not face walking to the Park, especially because the route had hoardings up for construction work, so we thought we would be unlikely to find a place to eat.  I had read about the International Bazaar being a good place to visit and having a food court, so we hopped on a bus to go there. When we arrived, we did not find the impressive entrance of the online pictures, but scaffolding everywhere. We got directions from two shop assistants, but never managed to find the fourth floor with all the food places, so headed back out into the sun to continue our hunt for a cool place to sit and eat. Still no luck.

Plan D – let’s hop on another bus to the People’s Park and just buy drinks and street food and sit in the shade people watching. We got to the Park ok, but even there, nobody was selling food. This is so different from 成都 (Chéngdū)! We sat out of the sun in the beautiful surroundings, on the seat a friendly old man had pointed out to us. We ate the few things we had brought with us to empty out the fridge at home – apples and several days old cupcakes. I also found an ice cream seller in the children’s playground area. We sat in the cool talking about whatever we saw – a squirrel, women sweeping the grass, and different faces.

Urumqi has over 40 different ethnicities, one of which is the 汉 (Hàn) who are over 95% of China’s population. As we sat in the Park, and as we walked and bussed around Urumqi, we were fascinated by the different faces we saw. We are very used to 汉(Hàn) faces, even though there is a lot of variety. Urumqi faces looked more European. On the bus, the messages were in three languages – Mandarin, English and the local language, which sounded very different, more clipped. Looking at this third language on the street signs, the script shows its Arabic origins as fits a city that has long been key to China’s connection to the outside world.


Back to the new station, which is massive, shiny, modern, and efficiently manages large numbers of passengers. It is one example of the significant investment clearly happening in Urumqi. Everywhere we went we saw construction projects happening. We are used to construction, but it seemed more intensive than in 成都 (Chéngdū). We assume this is part of China’s One Belt, One Road policy.  We had burgers and chips for dinner because, by this time we both felt like Western food, then on to our train.

We shared our four-bunk room with a Chinese woman. Our first interaction was Raymond and I both failing to work out how to open our shared jug for hot water. She worked it out immediately and I said in Chinese ‘clever’. I then told her our names, which began a nearly two-hour conversation in Chinese. She mimed a lot, spoke slowly, repeated things if I didn’t understand them, and we used my translation app. But it was one of my more ‘it really is worth learning Chinese’ experiences. The highlight was when I overheard her on the phone telling her husband that she was with a foreigner who knows lots of Chinese. We learned about the pressure she and her seven year old son feel with the demands of education, and how the pressure is greater than what her older son faced twelve years earlier. We talked about her older son studying sport at university, and how Chinese people, especially her in-laws, tend to not value such learning. We also discussed Chinese people’s obsession with money, and the challenges of being a Hàn married to a husband from a different ethnicity and religion. Very special.

Out the window, as we talked, the scenery was flat and brown with wind farms stretching into the distance. When we woke eight hours later, the scenery was just the same, illustrating China’s commitment to environmentally sustainable methods of power generation. I continue to wonder if a non-democratic socialist government that can insist on adherence to long term changes – such as change to sustainable power, stop using coal for heating, use electric cars – is the only solution to the environmental challenges of our planet. I am not sure what levers democratically elected governments alternating between left and right wing policies can implement to motivate private individuals and companies to make the necessary decisions to get us where we need to be quickly enough.


After a good night’s sleep, we arrived at 敦煌 (Dūnhuáng) station. Our friendly sleeping companion helped us get on the bus to the 莫高窟 (Mògāo Grottoes) ticket office, which is out of the city, close to the station. Serendipitously, the young Chinese woman (‘call me YY’) we sat next to in the back seat was going to the same place, and she had just returned from living in New Zealand for eight months, so we had lots to talk about and she had good English. Although, it turns out that even if you speak the local language, you may get off at the wrong place. As suggested by the bus ticket woman we all got off at what turned out to be the show, but not grottoes, ticket office. Once YY had clarified this, we followed her back across to where we had got off the bus, and shared a car to the correct ticket office. The Chinese tickets were all sold out, so it was nice that we were able to help her by asking if ‘our friend’ could join us in the English tour later that afternoon. We then had lunch together, enjoying recommended local dishes, and shared a taxi back to the entrance to the grottoes (by the show tickets office).

Our first activity was to watch a movie dramatisation, with English audio, of the time of the Silk Road and the monk who, about 360AD, had a vision of a thousand Buddhas bathed in golden light at the site, inspiring him to carve the first cave into the long sandstone cliff rising up out of the desert. Second, we watched a digital introduction to the inside of the caves, explaining some of the Buddhist art within them. Finally, we got onto buses, drove to the caves and met our English speaking guide who led us through eight of the 492 caves.

莫高窟 (Mògāo Grottoes), or Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, are situated along the Silk Road, at a point which has long been strategically important for trade, religion and culture. Initially, the caves were simple places for monks to meditate and worship. However, over time, wealthy families, merchants, military officers and women’s groups sponsored more elaborate caves with artwork and statues, giving the legacy we enjoy today. The statues and paintings span 1,000 years of Buddhist art, from the 4th to the 14th centuries. They give insights into life in China over that period of time, and the evolution of Buddhist art. The art integrates influences from Hàn Chinese, Indian, Turkish, ancient Tibetan and other Chinese ethnic minorities.

After the 14th century, Islam grew in influence in the region, sea trade took over as the main trade route, so 敦煌 (Dūnhuáng) became depopulated and forgotten by the Chinese rulers and the outside world, and the caves were abandoned except for an occasional pilgrim. During the early 20th century, while clearing centuries of built up sand from the caves, a Chinese Taoist, 王圆录(Wáng Yuánlù), discovered a large hoard of manuscripts in a walled off cave. At that time, Chinese officials were not very interested. However, since the late 19th century, Western explorers had been interested in the ancient Silk Road. So, between 1907 and 1924, China lost most of the manuscripts, some of the best textiles and paintings, and some statues and sections of murals to Hungarian, French, Japanese, Russian and American explorers. We could tell from the guide’s stories and the show that we later went to, that having these treasures stored in foreign museums is a source of great sorrow to modern China, who has tried, unsuccessfully, to get them returned.

Certainly, I thought it was sad to be in the cave and see a section of a mural gone and a statue missing, so that Harvard University can have them sitting in their museum. It is a sign of how attitudes and the balance of power is continually changing. China had other priorities at that time, like surviving attacks from Japan and stronger western powers, and feeding its people.  However, now China has the strength and resources to try to understand, value and share its rich history, in a way the West had the luxury of doing 100 years earlier. The fact that the Chinese tickets were sold out (visitor numbers are limited to 6,000 per day), shows that growing numbers of Chinese people want to visit the caves and understand their past.

We were not allowed to take photos inside the caves, but when we later visited the museum, were able to photograph replicas of the inside of the caves and these photos below give an idea of the ancient Buddhist art we saw.

We then settled into our hotel and walked to the night market. We bought some street food and a bag of the most delicious tangy, dried apricots. To us, the most notable thing at the market was the large numbers of stalls selling all sorts of dried fruit – showing a greater Middle Eastern influence than we see in 成都 (Chéngdū), away from the Silk Road.

The next day was a relaxed start. We both slept in, suggesting our sleeper train sleep had been more broken than we realised. We planned our day’s events and found a place to eat brunch. We chose noodles, even after clarifying that the meat was donkey. It tasted surprisingly like beef, but the cold sauce and meat and cold plate meant that the noodles quickly became lukewarm – not our favourite meal. Because of the drier, cooler climate in the north of China, it is hard to grow rice, so wheat products dominate. While in the region, we only ate pancakes and noodles.

Then we caught the bus to the edge of the Gobi Desert, where we rode camels, visited 月牙泉(Yuèyáquán) or Crescent Lake and climbed 鸣沙山 (Mīngshā Shān) to join all the other tourists to watch the sun set over the desert. Unfortunately, with the clouds, it was not very spectacular, and we were one of the last to walk back down, still enjoying the slowly approaching darkness then the lights sparkling below.

Our last day, we visited the museum, as always fascinated by such a long, rich history and the rise, fall, and rise again, of this part of the Silk Road. 敦煌 (Dūnhuáng) history began 3,500 years with the first group of people settling and starting farming on the oasis. In 111BC, the then Emperor intentionally established it as a place of trade and military presence, and brought people from other regions to live here. It is where the most western part of the Great Wall was. To guard this remote section of the wall, all 23-56 year old men had to be a soldier for one year. They also had to farm so they could feed themselves. They received training in both skills and were rewarded financially for merit. A key part of their military training was how to operate a signal fire system used along the wall, using different techniques for day and night time signalling.

I found it interesting to learn what was being transported along the Silk Road in the early days. About 200BC, China was exporting silk, spices and paper, and importing woollen and linen fabric, horses, metal, jewellery, coloured glaze, plants, medicines and spices.

Eight hundred to one thousand years later, during the 唐代 (Táng Dynasty), China’s golden age, was the most prosperous time for 敦煌 (Dūnhuáng). It was a cultural centre of language, literature, art, music and dance. However, as sea routes became the preferred method for transporting goods, the city became less important. Another eight hundred to one thousand years later, for a couple of centuries, the 明代 (Mìng Dynasty) didn’t even bother to have administrators based there. The city administration was re-established after the 1700s, but it remains small by Chinese standards. Now, the city’s 200,000 inhabitants mainly keep busy servicing the nine million tourists that visit each year.

Our last activity in 敦煌 (Dūnhuáng) was to return to the Mogao Grottoes site to watch a show. It was powerful, but difficult to follow at times with no or limited Chinese. We love dancing shows, but this was more of a play than the promotional material led us to believe. At the beginning, we were introduced to the key players on the Silk Road in a powerful way that, even without Chinese, we could understand through the costumes and how they acted. Next we saw a powerful dramatisation of the selling of the manuscripts by the monk who found the Library Cave. The stage setting was a whole room in which several hundred theatregoers stood watching different actions at different times happening in different places. We stood at the back to avoid pushing and shoving, but when the next action was behind us, we became the ‘front’ and others moved to be near this front. I struggled with the inconsiderate pushing of a small number to be at the front each time.

The last straw was when staff gave us verbal instructions in Chinese, we both monitored others’ actions to work out what to do and lined up behind others, but were then stopped from going with them into the same room and directed to join another group. To me this second group seemed larger than the one from which we had just been rejected, so I felt that we might face similar treatment. I went up to another usher, saying ‘I don’t understand’ in Chinese and realised I was crying. She was helpful but not particularly so. It turned out that we were allowed into that room with that group, where we were treated to yet another powerful drama. The play began below us, visible through the glass in the floor below us, then changed to be above us, visible through glass above in the ceiling that moved up and down, and then changed to be still above us but on a platform that went right around the small room. The setting and costuming were amazing, but it was hard not really understanding the story.

After that, we walked through the rooms of each of the stories that other groups had been watching and into the main auditorium where we watched the final play – again many powerful items of dancing and special effects, but wasted on us. The show ended up being a mixture of upsetting and enjoyable. I would not recommend it to non-Chinese speakers, but it was definitely an amazing spectacle and we have never seen anything like the physical space created for the show. China seems to be innovating in theatre in a similar way and scale to what we see in architecture and infrastructure.

Then on to the sleeper train and on to 张掖 (Zhāngyè),. This time we shared a cabin with a dad and his 11 year old son, who both had the chance to practise some English before we all feel asleep. We were woken at 1.30am, got off, were picked up by the car I had arranged through the hotel, and travelled for an hour to our Yurk tent accommodation.

The next day we marveled at the 丹霞 (Dānxiá) natural wonder – yet another secret that we only discovered once we lived here. The pictures tell it all.

Back to 张掖 (Zhāngyè),where we caught another train to 兰州 (Lánzhōu). We ‘enjoyed’ another transport drama getting from the train station to the airport, but this blog post is already very long, before arriving safely home.

We are so glad we did this trip – it helped us glimpse what a variety of Chinas exist in this vast, fascinating country.

Lanterns, dinosaurs and salt

One of the special things about Chinese New Year is the stunning lantern festivals. One of the most famous is in a town about an hour south of us – 自贡 (Zìgòng). We had heard of it as a famous dinosaur site, so decided to go the weekend after Chinese New Year to kill two birds with one stone.

With our new relaxed approach to travel in China, we did not purchase tickets ahead of time. I researched the right station from which to catch the bus and early Saturday morning we set off. We went by metro, then hopped on some shared bikes and cycled to the bus station – except we couldn’t find it. I brought up Dù, the Chinese equivalent of Google maps that I now use, checked, and we cycled back to where the pin was. Oh, it is a public bus stop with a similar name, not the large intercity bus station. Hazards of a novice Chinese reader!

A bit later we arrived at the hard-to-miss-if you-get-anywhere-near-it bus station, bought tickets and got on the bus. The driver agitatedly came down to tell us to put on our seat belts, given that we were obviously ignoring his clear instructions. I heard him ask if there was an English speaker, but to no avail. However miming worked fine, and we were off. A couple of hours later, we arrived at the 自贡 (Zìgòng) bus station. We picked up a Dìdì (Chinese equivalent of Uber) which has become our transport option of choice since they made an English version. It is so convenient. We can make it clear exactly where we want to go without having to say it accurately, and it is automatically paid through our mobile payment app 支付宝 (Alipay).

We checked in to our hotel and caught the bus to the dinosaur museum – a bit later than we planned, but not having a proper lunch caught up the time we lost detouring to public bus stations.

There were lots of families at the museum – interesting for adults and good for children. The museum is on one of the 40 sites in 自贡 (Zìgòng) where dinosaur fossils have been found. It seems that they have so many they can leave a space with untouched fossils to show visitors what it was like.  We learned about (and I have now forgotten) the location of dinosaur fossil discoveries across China and the world, and the reason the region has so many well-preserved fossils in many sites. We also went on the 360 degree virtual tour through ancient dinosaur worlds – scary with a bit of nausea thrown in – amazing given that we were all sitting in an auditorium looking at a screen and hardly moving.

We then went to the lantern festival. It was SO crowded. We are getting used to crowds but this took being crowded to a whole new level. (As an aside, we are becoming Chinese in that if we are the only people somewhere, we think we must be in the wrong place, and we decide routes based on the number of others doing the same thing). But it was stunning – I felt like I was gorging on visual brilliance. With the crowds, we had to walk slowly at everyone else’s pace, and take it all in. The photos do not do it justice.

Something we noticed all around 自贡 (Zìgòng) were leaves out drying wherever it was possible to put them. When we got back to work, Raymond asked his colleague, who is from 自贡 (Zìgòng), what these leaves were and why they were out drying. She said they are dried and then used for local ‘sauerkraut’. Interesting!

Sunday morning, we visited the Salt Museum. This was one of those experiences where the place you had not heard of turns out to be the highlight of the trip. I think Raymond read every single English word there. It is a beautiful old building (built in 1736) used by salt merchants during the hey day of salt production in the region.

It turns out there are three methods of salt extraction. Sea salt accounts for most of China’s salt production (70%), with well salt contributing 20%, and lake salt 10% (estimated at a paltry 1,000 salt lakes!). The first method has been being used for 5,000-6,000 years, but is not so useful for inland regions like 四川 (Sìchuān). A few thousand years ago the other two methods were developed. The 自贡 (Zìgòng) museum focuses on the evolution of well salt production – a fascinating story of technological innovation.

Part of the 自贡 (Zìgòng) geology that means dinosaur fossils last so well, is ‘abundant salt brines’, a legacy from a change of sea level. This seems strange for a part of the country so far inland, but it was 200 million years ago.

Much more recently, during the Warring States Period in China (just over 2,000 years ago), people started drilling wells to get brine, building on other well drilling techniques dating back 4,000 years. 李冰 (Lĭ Bīng), who built the Dūjiāngyàn irrigation project I have already written about, is credited as being the ‘father of well salt production’. He was obviously quite an innovator.

During the 宋代 (Sòng Dynasty) – 960-1279 AD, salt drilling gave the world percussion (cable) drilling, which is now used worldwide in oil drilling. In the 明代 (Míng Dynasty) – 1368-1644 AD, they developed ways to maintain and repair the wells, and fish out fallen objects. Many of the bamboo items on display in the museum were different versions of technologies to achieve these – evolving as each person was able to build on the ideas of those who had gone before them. The local geology means that natural gas, coal, oil and other minerals are often found near the salt deposits. During the 清代 (Qīng Dynasty) – 1644-1911, as technological advances enabled deeper wells, new innovators devised techniques to use the natural gas they found to concentrate and purify the brine. They also applied principles of hydrodynamics to transport the brine using interconnected pipes and pumps.

And, of course, salt was taxed, from as far back as the 唐代 (Táng Dynasty) 618-907 AD. Because the region was so rich in salt, the salt tax, which was much higher than the land tax, made this region quite wealthy.

Even though I am terrible at remembering the details, I am fascinated by the interplay between geology driving innovation and then this driving economics – especially here in China where it has happened over such a long period of time, and I haven’t learned about it in history at school, or while reading Eurocentric books.



Guìlín (桂林) and Yángshuò (阳朔)

In February, we celebrated our second Chinese New Year. Our first Spring Festival we went to Laos for the two week holiday, but noticed many special things in China before and after our holiday. We experienced many of these again – the red and gold decorations everywhere, the crowds leaving the  exhibition centre near us laden with treasures, Raymond’s work dinner with 红包(hóng bāo) aka red packets, various Lantern Festivals (we plan a visit next weekend), and firecrackers upon firecrackers. However, as when you travel a road for the second time, our second experience of these things was less dramatic and more familiar. ‘Oh, look they are putting up those red decorations everywhere.’ ‘That’s right, I remember it was really crowded at the Exhibition Centre last year.’

Another difference this year is that we ignored the dominant ex-pat thinking that says we need to travel out of China during the world’s largest human migration. Instead we headed to the last major tourist destination in China that we have not yet visited. (For kiwis, this is our last ‘Queenstown’ or ‘Rotorua’. Next we will start exploring the equivalent of the Wairarapa and Marlborough – some of them already in our holidays spreadsheet as we have started asking locals for suggestions.)

We had heard about 桂林 (Guìlín) before we arrived in China, from a German friend who said it was the highlight of his Chinese tour. Also, we knew that it was geologically similar to Halong Bay in Vietnam , but on land rather than sea, and we had loved visiting Halong Bay. And it is only a two hour flight from ‘home’. Raymond also wanted us to blob a bit during this holiday, so on the Wednesday we flew down to 桂林 (Guìlín = Cassia bark tree forest).

After picking up our bags at 桂林 (Guìlín) airport, we went outside to travel into town to our hotel. As at any airport in the world, we were accosted by taxi drivers wanting us to choose them. However, in China, we are now armed with Didi – the Chinese equivalent of Uber (they actually bought out Uber, so have a monopoly here). Its two advantages are that it is cheaper than a taxi, and the technology communincates better than my Chinglish. Didi brought out an English version in the last 12 months so we use it when public transport is not so convenient. In 成都 (Chéngdū), we can click on ‘Pin is accurate’, and the driver does not ring us up to clarify about where to pick us up. Unfortunately, it was less straight forward at the airport, because he couldn’t come to where we were waiting. Once we realised, we went in the direction the Didi software seemed to be directing us, until the blue dot jumped making it clear this was not the right way. He rang, I answered and spoke to him in Chinese. He seemed to understand me, but such understanding was not reciprocated. He tried to speak more slowly, I understood some but not enough to be really helpful. So, plan C, I grabbed a passer-by and asked him to help us. He chatted to our driver and then told us to wait there. Of course, while waiting I spotted the car with the right number plate parked a couple of hundred meters in front of where we had started. But we then had to wait until our driver went into the airport, came back out and saw us. Then we were away.

Each time, my language is a bit better and gets us a bit further. But it is still a long way from giving us anything like a normal experience.

Our first impressions of the city were that is a bit dilapidated. However, after settling into our hotel, we walked over the nearby bridge, along the walkway by the river as it was getting dark. It was beautiful – absolutely beautiful. 桂林 (Guìlín) is famous for the cormorant fishermen, and it turned out they were ‘fishing’ (waiting for tourist boats) right by our hotel.

This traditional form of fishing dates back to 960AD. It is not really a nice story and the birds, while looked stunning resting on each end of a bamboo pole, did not look happy constrained to only limited flapping movements tied to the rod or raft. The cormorants are trained to dive into the river to catch fish. After catching a fish the birds return to the boat where the fisherman removes the fish from the bird. The bird is prevented from swallowing the fish by a ring that is placed around the neck of the bird. The bird is rewarded for its work by its owner. In its day, it must have been a clever, albeit cruel, innovation. Many times in our week away, we saw the rafts and fishermen with cormorants on rods, but never saw one with a fish in its mouth.

The next day, we explored the city, starting with a local bus ride out to Reed Flute Cave. My Chinese was good enough to ask an elderly gentleman waiting at the bus stop which way the bus would go, and find out that we needed to wait on the other side of the road. The bus trip was straight forward and we followed the crowds to buy tickets, catch the monorail up the hill and go into the cave. A young man who was in the queue in front of me kindly asked in English if we understood what the woman had been saying. I had grasped some of it – no wifi, can (or maybe can’t) take photos, and would you like to buy these lovely postcards. He clarified that we were allowed to take photos.

The cave was lovely – because of the lighting and its size – similar to the one we visited in Halong Bay. Our young friend confirmed our suspicion that the bulk of the guide’s words were anthropomorphising the rocks around us, and, more importantly, that Raymond was not missing out on any geological information that he would have been sad to not hear. Our new friend was studying at a university in 深圳 (Shēnzhèn) in south-east China towards a degree awarded by a British university. That was why he had good English. We talked about why he had made that choice. He wants to study and live overseas to ‘be free’. When we talked about differences in approaches to study between his course and Chinese courses, he again used the term ‘freedom’. I asked if part of the plan was that his family would live overseas too – he pointed to his younger sister (about 12 years old) and said that it depended on what she chose.

After the cave, we caught the bus back to town and walked to Elephant Trunk Hill. As with the tourist infrastructure at Reed Flute Cave, it looked tired – like it had been a tourist attraction for a long time and not much maintenance had been done. But it was pleasant to look out over the city and then wander around the lake. We also found the place where our cruise boat left that evening, so that we wouldn’t be stressed looking for it later – which was just as well.

We went back to our hotel for a rest and came down to the lobby with plenty of time to get a taxi to where the cruise boat left, but there were none outside the hotel. The concierge rang the taxi company and said one would be there shortly. After a while, she came over and said – it is Chinese New Years Eve, all the drivers are home with their families. By this time, it was too late for us to walk. She pulled out her phone to order a Didi. I pulled out my phone to use our Didi and fortunately there was one car available – all you need. We got there with a bit of time to spare, but it was not the relaxed journey we had planned. It is the only time in 18 months that we have not felt there is spare capacity galore.

The cruise was beautiful – lights, water and Chinese traditional architecture. The photos speak for themselves.

Our third day we took a tour up to 龙脊 (Lóngjĭ = Dragon backbone) rice terraces. Reminiscent of the rice terraces in Sapa, Vietnam. Our tour included a show about hair washing traditions of the local ethnic tribe.

The next day we headed down the river on a cruise. This is where we saw the karst formations like Halong Bay, including the place shown on China’s 20 kuai note. The cruise was very pleasant – very crowded, but we now have ‘traveling in crowd strategies’ up our sleeves. After the Chinese monologue saying ‘nothing much’ according to the young girl with good English sitting next to us, we joined the throng on the outside deck. From here, we could see we were part of a convoy of boats heading down the river – in front of and behind us. However, we went back up onto the outside deck while everyone else was having lunch and enjoyed the tranquility. We also stayed up on deck after passing the ’20 kuai note’ and ‘horses on the cliff’ more famous places, after which most of our fellow travelers went back downstairs.

We had then booked to stay in 阳朔 (Yángshuò), rather than catch the bus back to 桂林 (Guìlín) like the others in our tour. Our guide said that it would be chaotic where the boats arrive and offered to organise a ride for us. I expressed concern at the proposed cost, not fully trusting her to be accurate about the chaos or the possibility of getting alternative transport. Eventually she said that she had arranged a ride at a reduced rate with some others also staying in 阳朔 (Yángshuò). We followed her through what could accurately be described as chaos. When she met our driver, they began a screaming match, ostensibly about our hotel being so far out of town that he could not possibly drive all the way for such a low fare. Then she turned to us and said we needed to give her more money – how could we say no? We will never know if this theatre was a genuine attempt to save us money, or friends working hard together for another NZD20.

So, we, along with four others, bundled into his small van. Maybe he was worth the extra money – for about ten minutes, he reversed, at speed, all the way along a narrow road with a sheer drop to the river we had just left, before getting to the part where he could turn and drive forwards. He dropped us at, well more accurately near, our hotel and drove away, leaving us looking around hoping we were at the right place – which we were – a beautiful place away from the main hustle and bustle, looking down on the river and town. Another enjoy traveling with the crowds strategy.

The next day, we took our hostess’ advice and walked down to the river, caught the ferry across, walked into town, and rented a couple of bikes to ride on the road where no cars are allowed. When we heard of such a road, we couldn’t help ourselves. We slipped onto a kiwi mindset and imagined a quiet space, even if we were sharing it with a reasonable number of people. When will we learn? ‘No cars’ means ‘not many cars’ and there were so many bicycles, scooters and buses. Raymond and I actually lost sight of each other at one point, and then took a while to reconnect because I went ahead, but he thought I was behind him.

We stood with the crowds watching abseiling, looked at the hole in the rock from afar, enjoyed various snacks from the ever present street food vendors, and then took a side road along by the river away from the main crowds. Because we had spent most of the previous day on the water, we didn’t go rafting but enjoyed sitting by the river watching others. A main reason that we can enjoy traveling with crowds is that we both prefer beauty over fame and most Chinese are the opposite.

We then walked to the centre of this small town. We stopped to watch a free impromptu bamboo stick dance. An older woman and her husband sat next to me watching. She asked her husband to take a photo of us together, and then he insisted that one of the dancers also pose with us. We then spent several hours relaxing at the outside tables of a Western restaurant, sipping drinks and people watching. On our way back to our accommodation, we stopped to buy a small twirly toy that Raymond thought would be good for physics teaching. The young girl manning the stall looked nervously at the older woman at the stall next to her and told us a price. Then an older woman swooped in and told us a price four times that, while glaring at the younger girl (her daughter?). I said firmly 太贵了 (tài guì le = too expensive) and walked away. At the next stall that had these toys, the woman quoted us the same price that the young girl had given us (NZD2). I just paid it, no negotiation, as a reward for not trying to rip us off. So she did well out of the whole drama. Raymond was very amused.

Our last day we traveled the other way to a smaller village – very pleasant and crowded, but to us the noteworthy experience was catching the local bus. We caught it from the side of the road near our accommodation, so the seats were already full when we got on. We perched up the front behind the driver, sharing that non-seat space with an older gentleman. As more and more people got on, we moved our feet to make room for their bags of vegetables, and enjoyed the banter and laughter of these older people traveling with us. They seemed relativley poor, with bodies and wrinkles indicating a tough life,  but happy.

That evening, we went to a light show held in a stunning natural amphitheatre – on the water with the karst hills around. To give an idea of how crowded this region is during Chinese New Year, that evening, they offered four shows instead of one – all fully booked. Reviews online have been mixed. We thought that the choreography using lights, the beauty of the environment, water, and large numbers of performers was stunning – sorry, hard to capture in photos.

But we are easily pleased. We continue to enjoy the beauty, hospitality, fascinating differences and challenges (with associated humour) of our adopted home.




Bĕijīng – a mixed bag

We have just spent a week in Bĕijīng.  It started badly with disempowering and scamming, then improved greatly, to be pleasantly surprising and wowing.


Our first activity in Bĕijīng was to apply for our Russian visas. In my experience, applying for a visa is one of the world’s more disempowering activities, and the Russian visa process took this to a whole new level. Disempowering factor 1 – we live in Chéngdū where there is no visa office, but we have to turn up in person, so we had to arrange our travel to include a week in Bĕijīng – fortunately not too difficult because we wanted to visit anyway. Disempowering factor 2 – we have to have booked flights and accommodation to get the visa, but if they don’t give us the visa, we can’t use any of it. Disempowering factor 3 – we filled in the online form, and turned up with all our documents as outlined on the website, but felt that the rules about what was and was not okay were being made up as we sat there. Our photos were not on shiny photographic paper so we had to have them redone. New Zealanders don’t need insurance so my person wanted me to change my online form to say that I did not have any. But, I do, I said. I don’t want to lie. I do not understand why we cannot leave it there. Eventually her manager noticed the stroppy woman querying her staff member, came over, and said that while it was not mandatory, I could leave it there. The manager also said, when I insisted that my person go and ask her, that I did not have to redo my online form because the system had added a space in the middle of the six digit postcode on the printed version of my application. Disempowering factor 4 – the prices for New Zealanders are higher than for Chinese people – ‘don’t take any notice of those prices, they are defined by country, yours are higher’. Disempowering factor 5 – ‘we only take cash, and because you didn’t know the price for you is greater, you don’t have enough cash on you. So, off we went to find the nearest ATM. Disempowering factor 6 – because of disempowering factor 1, we can only find out a day before we leave whether or not we have the visas.

Fortunately, we got them yay!


After the visa office, we headed off to the Forbidden City and Tiānānmén Square. When we got there, a charming man came up to us and let us know that the Forbidden City is closed on Mondays for repairs. He invited us to go and see an art exhibition’ for free’. We followed him and saw some Chinese art – which he invited us to purchase. Raymond was tempted, but I said no, we already have to much. He showed us ones he had drawn as a ‘student of art at the university’. He then picked up a brush and drew my Chinese name on a piece of paper, suggested I could have it hung on a silk background. I declined, but paid him for my hand written name – more than it was worth, but not so much that we really minded.

We then continued walking, thinking we would get a sense of the lie of the land for our visit the next day. A friendly voice called out hello and we started talking to a couple of teachers from Xiān – one teaching English and one teaching Chines literature – who were in Bĕijīng for training. A friend who was studying Chinese medicine was also with them. They suggested we have a cup of tea together, and we walked to a tea house. They ordered a few different sorts of tea and we had a lovely time conversing about China and New Zealand. They then suggested we have a glass of wine together for Christmas so we did that – with me starting to feel a little uncomfortable. They suggested a second, but by this time, I was starting to feel quite uncomfortable. I had mentioned to Raymond as we traveled on the subway about our friend Rachel’s Bĕijīng story that she had told us last year when we were in London. She and her friends had been scammed by a tea house thing. I started to think maybe we had fallen for it as well – but how could I think that – they were so nice and interesting, and interested, and they were teachers, and they weren’t from Beijjing, so how could they be ripping us off – or were they?

I was starting to do sums in my head of what might be reasonable, while Raymond was blissfully chatting away in we are all friends mode. We were in a separate room, just us, and we had never seen a menu. They suggested we pay half each, and asked for the bill. It was five, or maybe ten, times the going rate! I queried the amount. They brought out the menu with the exorbitant prices on. As they presented the bill , one of them, continuing the friends’ ambience that had sucked us in in the first place, even suggested we exchange emails.

I was gearing up to resist, but Raymond’s ‘we pay bills’ and ‘they are so friendly’ attitudes were in full swing, so he had paid by the time I decided it was exactly the scam Rachel had warned us of. They then had the gall to suggest we go to the Square together, I told them they had ripped us off and stomped off down the road – more annoyed at myself for being so gullible and slow thinking. It is hard to describe how we were so slow to react because of the clever way they treated us like friends, throwing in a bit of flattery. I also think we foreigners (well Raymond and me anyway) can be a little arrogant and assume people want to talk to us, especially because we have English. So, they played on that too.

By the time we were half way down the road, we had worked out what we should have done – but it was too late. It took all my self-control not to go over and over it in my mind for the rest of that day, and some of the next. Two things helped me – ‘it is only money’, and ‘between the four of them they were not making that much money each’. I moved to feeling compassion for how hard up they must be to have to earn their money that way. But, it hurt for a while – how could we fall for it when I had been warning Raymond as we traveled in on the subway, and feeling betrayed by ‘friends’.

It was so different to our experience with the art guy. He clearly wanted to take our money, but in exchange for something, and it was clear what was going on the whole time. He was charming, but not pretending to want to be our friend.

As soon as we got back to our hotel, Raymond checked with his Chinese colleague and friend from school whether or not we could cancel the payment. We couldn’t. But Damon made us laugh when he said ‘I have told you to be careful., and not trust any Chinese, not even me’. Actually, we are grateful for the many positive experiences we have had in Chéngdū, and our friends like Damon.

Here is Raymond still innocent, walking across the bridge, through the archway onto the walkway where we met our ‘friends’, and, the next day, outside the fateful tea house.

Pleasantly surprised

We were pleasantly surprised by Bĕijīng’s air quality. The government, in its new five year plan, is determined to deal with the pollution in Chinese cities, starting with the capital. An example of how quickly things can happen once a decision is made to change things, they recently turned off the coal fires warming Bĕijīng, and switched to natural gas. It certainly worked. Every day was beautiful sunshine and clear blue skies. Although, we heard that the natural gas supply did not quite meet the heating needs of the wider population, so some rural people in this region suffered in cold houses to achieve the environmental targets.  Another interesting example of socialism, north of a certain latitude (Chéngdū is south of this, Bĕijīng is north of this), the Chinese government provides heating free of charge for everybody during the winter months.

We also found the city very easy to get around on the subway. And, like Chéngdū, it has many interesting places and buildings. I think we are turning into big city folk – we like crowds who you can follow to tourist spots, and the convenience of restaurants, shops and transport being close to everywhere you go.


Finally, we were wowed by experiencing more of China’s amazing history.

The terrain where the Great Wall stands today was first used about 500BC, and further developed a few hundred years later . Its present form was developed about 700 years ago. Iis so impressive seeing it wind up and down over the hills, and to walk on it thinking how long it has been used to defend this empire. And what an engineering feat it was when it was built. Like other great structures from earlier times, I would not want to have been the manual labour, but it is still mind blowing in its achievement.

Then, the history of the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace fascinated us – especially because we both recently read of the Empress Dowager Cixi who influenced China in the second half of the 19th century and the first quarter of the twentieth. She and her sons lived in these two palaces so we walked around the Summer Palace lake picturing her having walked the same path. It was sad to read of how the Europeans destroyed some of the grandeur of both of these buildings in the mid 1800s. Empress Cixi really wanted to restore the grandeur of the Summer Palace – allegedly stealing money from the Chinese navy to do it.

It was moving to stand in Tiānānmén Square. It was quite empty and cold, but we reflected on that moment in history that we westerners remember. The National Museum on the edge of the Square was not so impressive. The building is amazing, but the building’s design seemed to make it hard to find exhibits, and those we did find were not as informative, or national, as others we have seen elsewhere.

We also went to an acrobatic show. It was traditional Chinese acrobatics, such as I remember from circuses coming to Auckland in the early 70s. But, it is always great to see what people can do with their bodies, the total trust these teams have to have of their fellow acrobats – such as when they had seven motorbikes riding around in a relatively small metal sphere, or nine women riding on one bicycle. I was reminded that China is where many of those traditional forms of entertainment began.

So, a mixed experience – a day of humility followed by three days of wonder.