Dipping my toe into politics

Last month was an interesting time to be a kiwi living in China.

Back in New Zealand, there was an election in which no party had a clear majority. New Zealand First (or was it Winston Peters?) held the balance of power, to decide whether New Zealand would have a centre left or centre right government for the next three years. He/they leaned left and now there are going to be all sorts of policy changes after nine years of centre right government. My heart and mind is more left than right and has a greenish hue, so I support many of the new directions planned by this three party coalition.

But I am left wondering if there isn’t a better way to choose leaders and run a country.

At much the same time, China held its 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China – a five yearly event. More than 2,200 representatives met in Beijing to approve the Party plan for the next five years. These representatives were selected throughout the year before the Congress. Apparently, for this Congress, they worked to increase the number of ethnic minorities, women and peasants attending – laudable, but it suggests under representation of these groups previously.

I am not sure how much the delegates can influence the outcomes. I think their role is more to take it back home and extol its virtues. But, I am impressed by how each plan is developed. A drafting committee works with investigative research teams to develop a ‘report’. The draft report is then reviewed by party groups, government institutions, the Army, various large organisations, retired party elders, various forums, leading specialists and other political parties. (Yes, China actually has nine parties, not just one as I thought. The Communist Party is by far the largest, with 85 million members. The next biggest party has half a million and the smallest has only about 30,000.)

President Xi Jinping’s more than three hours long opening speech for the Congress was titled “Secure a decisive victory in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects and strive for the great success of socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era”. TV commentators on our Chinese English-language TV channel unpicked the speech and discussed terms such as ‘moderate prosperity’ and ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. I don’t know exactly what is in it, but the descriptions on our English news channel, and related discussion with Western and Chinese commentators, suggested policies that support what matters to me, and seemed both forward thinking and common sense.

As we watched the news, we were struck by the ability of the Chinese government to plan long term and make things happen. In the last thirty years, they have lifted 800 million people out of poverty – yes, 800 million! Okay, things were pretty dire, and definitions of poverty vary. But it is still 70% of the world’s poverty reduction over that period of time. And they know there are 70 million still to be lifted out – part of the next plan.

Living here, one cannot help but be struck by how rapidly China is moving from being a developing to developed country – in some ways already more developed than New Zealand. China’s long term plans for poverty alleviation, education, health, environment, economic growth, infrastructure building etc are transforming China so quickly. They do not rely on market forces, or individuals making wise choices, and don’t need to convince everyone what a great idea it is, so they can make rapid progress on many fronts. For example, on environmental issues, they are mandating electric vehicles, rapidly moving to use solar and wind power, and reducing deserts at the rate at which they used to be increasing.  Similarly, the government can act quickly to hinder property speculation to ensure affordable housing, and prioritise investment in agricultural innovation to be able to feed its people – 21% of the world’s population, with only 9% of the world’s land. Even in the 15 months, we have lived here, we have seen mind-blowing infrastructure development in our ‘tier 2’ city.

In his speech, the President also positioned China, as a strong, rich nation (now with the world’s second largest economy, on track to become the number one economy) as a responsible global power committed to tackling shared dangers such as climate change.

It is easy, as a westerner to feel nervous of China seeking growing international influence. But our TV commentators – two Westerners and one Chinese – commented that we are nervous of China being like the US or the European countries when they were the most powerful countries in the world. In my lifetime, the US has dominated using a bully model, and insisted on countries being like them. As the ex-Australian ambassador interviewed said, that works well for countries like Australia that already think like the US, but it hasn’t worked so well for others. The Chinese guy interviewed quoted a Malaysian leader saying that Malaysia is not nervous of China. Six hundred years ago, when China was powerful, they forged a relationship with Malaysia ‘based on mutual respect and trust’, unlike Great Britain. They trust them to do the same this time.

 

Of course, I know we do not have the whole story. The news in China is controlled, and tends to catch people being good. So we see examples of policies working, innovation and success. It has made me realise how much New Zealand’s news is trivial or focuses on negative and sensational things – catching people being bad. Neither approach is ideal, whether needing to be ‘interesting’ to sell news and increase ratings, or limiting news to a sanitised selection of things that are going well.

Living here has really challenged my assumption that democracy is best. Democracy now seems so inefficient. Every time a new government comes to power it has to undo some of what the last regime put in place, and return to priorities from the last time it was in power. And, so much time and energy is devoted to convincing the country that one’s ideas are best. I wouldn’t mind if I felt we were all voting based on a solid evidence base, a deep understanding of each party’s policies and selfless consideration for what is best for New Zealand. But, none of us do. Living outside New Zealand for the recent election, I wanted to understand what each party’s policy was. I found a good site that pulled together what each party said about its own policies. But, I confess I found it too much to digest. And I have a relatively high capacity for reading lots of text, and had more time than usual to research because I was not busy looking after children, or parents, or working full time. Instead, most of what people think politically, comes from preconceived ideas and sound bites shared through various media.

During New Zealand’s hiatus waiting to see who would lead the country for the next three years, one commentator suggested that National, the centre right party, and Labour, the centre left party, could consider forming a coalition. I thought, wouldn’t that be amazing? Imagine if they could work together to research what works well and then negotiate solutions that New Zealand could follow for decades and implement really well.

But, they can’t because they have a brand to maintain – what I now think of as the biggest weakness of democracy.

Brand development and maintenance, and the associated marketing, determines the outcomes of elections. Parties cannot afford to agree with other parties even if it makes sense. Next election they will lose support. The Maori Party in New Zealand seems to have been a victim of brand erosion. They opted to work with the centre right party to achieve something, and, in the recent election, lost the support of their traditional voters who saw them as giving up on their ‘brand’.

I have never really understood how the Westminster system, in which an opposition party’s main job seems to be to find fault with everything the other party does, can be a good thing. If we worked like that in families, organisations or business, nothing would ever be agreed or get done. Negotiating until we find win-win solutions makes it possible to work with others. I think select committees are supposed to help achieve this, but I don’t know enough of what really goes on in them to know if this ends up happening. If it does, it is certainly not obvious to the average person voting by brand.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the openness and transparency of New Zealand, and the freedom to say what you think. Those adjectives do not describe China, even with anti-corruption initiatives underway. And China is particularly vulnerable to ‘problems with leaders’.

It seems to me that everyone wants similar things, whether in New Zealand or China, left or right leaning. We want respect and valuing of all human beings, the ability to work and provide for ourselves and those we love, a safety net for whoever who is in need, a healthy economy, an environment that we would want our grandchildren to live in, education that empowers people and prepares us all for the future, a health system that means we are all looked after, affordable housing etc. Our differences are more about how we believe it is possible to achieve them.

In a brand free world, it seems more possible to take the time to work out solutions together that could last. I wonder if, as the pace of change accelerates, it is more or less important to think long term. In one sense, it seems less important because things will change in ways we can’t predict anyway. But in another sense, I suspect we lack the luxury of having time to take cheap shots at others to score political points, and the inefficiency of changing back and forth may matter more.

Now that I am challenging my assumptions, I dream that New Zealand could apply global (or is it western?) social science research about what works well in businesses, organisations and families and replace its 1800s designed Westminster system with a 21st century political environment focused on win-win, evidence-based solutions.

‘Chinese characteristics’ – mutual respect, being fair and balanced, and win-win co-operation – combined with the innovation, pragmatism, openness and transparency on which we New Zealanders pride ourselves, might help us get there – but, alas, probably not in my lifetime.

 

 

 

 

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Warm tips for travelling in Chinese holidays

Among Raymond’s colleagues, the standard recommendation when talking about traveling during Chinese national holidays is to travel out of China because of the crowds. With the growing middle class in China, popular tourist spots definitely get crowded when a billion people are all on holiday at the same time. But, as for teachers worldwide, our holidays tend to fall when others are on holiday. And we want to explore as many as possible of the beautiful places in our adopted home.

So, we are learning to enjoy holidaying in the beautiful places that we most want to visit, while sharing them with thousands of others – not how kiwis are used to enjoying beauty.

So, what have we learned, and how did we apply this on our recent trip to 張家界 (Zhāngjiājié) aka Avatar Mountains?

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Expect crowds

A year ago, on our first trip to a national park, 九寨沟(Jiŭzhàigōu), I was momentarily overwhelmed by the number of people. I was fine fighting my way through the crowds at the turnstiles and to get on the bus to go up, but once we got there I couldn’t cope. This was not rational – if lots of people are getting on buses, they will all be there when we get off. But, I had to throw off decades of experience of national parks being places of tranquillity as well as of beauty.

So the first thing I did differently was to expect crowds.

Stay as near as possible to the scenic spot

One thing we did well this trip was to stay at a small guesthouse just inside the west entrance to the park. From here it was a five-minute walk to the bottom of the 杨家界(Yángjiājié) cable car, where a couple of walks began and we could catch the free bus to the east. This meant that each morning, we could start early before the crowds began to arrive in cars or on the buses. It was also nice at the end of the day to catch the cable car down and not have to navigate more crowds to get ‘home’.

We also enjoyed the relative tranquillity of staying in a small settlement of only a few houses. The disadvantage was that we only had that guesthouse as an option for meals, but it simplified things and the meals were pleasant and reasonable. You can see in the photo below the simple environment in which our host family catered for the 20ish guests.

Interestingly,  being limited to only true Chinese food for four days meant that our first visit to McDonalds after 15 months in China was at the top of a mountain in a stunning national park. We had walked for hours, it was drizzling and cool, and, as we walked past, we both thought that we would love a burger and chips aka comfort food.

Book tickets ahead of time

National holidays are not the time to be flexible and decide as you go what you will do and where you will stay. We booked our accommodation and transport well ahead of time, although this was not straight forward.

We wanted to catch the sleeper train there and back, but missed out on tickets both ways. A month before travel we could buy the tickets with our preferred app Ctrip, but sleeper train tickets were already sold out, as I found out too late when I was poised ready to buy tickets the second they became available. So we flew there (just over an hour), and caught two 6-7 hour day trains back with an overnight stay in 宜昌(Yíchāng). Catching the train was certainly an experience, and good for blogging – time and content. But we need to find out how to book sleeper trains before they become available! Or we might fly – not even double the price, and a tenth of the time.

We first used Ctrip to book our accommodation too, but then a friend found lower prices on another western accommodation booking site, so we cancelled and used that site for both our accommodation options. However, when I rang our place in the park to ask them to organise a taxi from the airport to their hostel, the woman commented that our prices were cheaper than their national holiday rate. I agreed to her higher price because it matched our earlier deal, seemed fair, and I didn’t want them to be upset before we arrived. Later that day, our second accommodation option cancelled because of ‘special circumstances’. I wonder if this could be loosely translated as ‘we could sell your room for a higher rate’. I suspect Ctrip with its China focus has a mechanism for increasing the prices during national holidays, so will use it for future bookings.

We could buy tickets to enter the park easily enough. Following the recommendation of our place in the park hostess, we booked tickets for a show on our third evening, which was just as well because the large theatre was packed. And, an earlier showing was leaving as we arrived – some things bring home how many people are in this country.

She also suggested booking tickets for 天门 (Tiānmén) Mountain for our fifth day. This is a popular tourist spot near our second accommodation in 張家界 (Zhāngjiājié) town. We were not ready to make that decision on day one, never quite got around to deciding while we were with her, and then missed out on being able to go up in the 天门 (Tiānmén) Mountain cable car. We opted not to spend most of the day winding up into the mist and back down again on a bus, deciding instead to visit the canyon and glass bridge a couple of hours away. But those tickets were also sold out. So we caught the bus to the museum in 張家界 (Zhāngjiājié) town, but couldn’t find it, even after asking some locals. As a last resort, we just relaxed, which means Raymond went for a run and read, and I had a snooze and revised Chinese.

Dithering and national holidays do not go together.

Accept the process

The good news is that the infrastructure here is designed for thousands. As in 九寨沟(Jiŭzhàigōu), we were so impressed by the wide paths that wind through the beauty and cope with the crowds, and the many free buses ferrying people between attractions. We are experts at waiting our turn to take photos that make it look like we are the only ones there.

We stick to the paths, follow the signs (or ask for advice), and wait patiently in line to get on and off the buses. Sometimes we asked the friendly guides controlling people getting onto the buses which one goes where we want to go by pointing at the map, or where the walking path we want to go on starts.  Sometimes we worked it out ourselves and got it right and other times we went solo and got it wrong. Twice other passengers helped us out. Three times I asked the bus drivers for help. Two were very helpful, said to sit immediately behind them, and then told us where to get off. The third told us to get off immediately.  I think he knew he wasn’t going where we wanted to go. However, when I tried to clarify to be sure, he did that thing one does with people you believe don’t properly understand you and increased his volume – a lot – loudly shouting 下车(xiàchē), ‘get off the bus!’ – so we did.

Interestingly, it is more similar to being in a New Zealand national park than you might expect. There, one also needs to stick to the paths, follow the signs, and sometimes ask for advice. The difference is that there are no buses, guides, crowds – or shops, including MacDonalds and KFC, and monkeys, and the paths are not made of stones. I imagine it must freak Chinese tourists out.

Enjoy the path less traveled

One of the highlights of our trip was the morning that we chose not to take the 杨家界(Yángjiājié) cable car, but walk up instead. Only one other group of four was on the path for the first two hours of this walk. It was beautiful, especially because it was below the ever-present mist so we could see the stunning scenery.

Down below, there were no famous tourist spots with eloquent names such as ‘Ape afraid to climb cliff’, ‘Cat fishing’, ‘One step to the heaven’, ‘Waterfall from the sky’, ‘Regretting meeting late’, ‘Golden tortoise in the mist’, ‘Pigsy looking in the mirror’, or, my favourite, ‘Splitting mountain to save mother’.

It was easier to make this decision when the weather was so misty that the views from the top were not so stunning. But it is part of our evolving strategy to avoid the Chinese crowds who seem to prefer the famous over the serene. We can enjoy the latter while fitting in some of the former as well.

Connect with people

Rather than seeing crowds of people as a nuisance, I am learning to see them as an opportunity to connect and better understand China.

At our accommodation, we chatted with half a dozen Irish students, and four Italian students. Having just read that China is now the country with the third highest number of international students, it was interesting to put faces to the statistic.

Despite our small guesthouse being full of westerners, we were usually the only foreigners in a place. So, we stood out, children tended to stare, and parents often encouraged their children to say hello/practice those English lessons they are paying a fortune for. On this trip we developed the habit of being the first to say ‘hello’ to any interested children, which led to several fun conversations with families. One family adopted us walking along Golden Whip Stream. I had a fascinating conversation with the mum about her family’s perception of China. She had good English and works for a company doing business with European countries.

She said they are very happy. The first reason she gave was that she believes China does not have the unrest that other countries have, poignant given that we were walking together just after the Las Vegas shooting. The second reason was that their government is good at getting things done. The latter comment resonates with me. The pace of change here, just since we arrived, is mind-blowing. Democracy certainly has inherent inefficiency. In New Zealand, elected representatives spend about one sixth of their time in government convincing voters that their policy is best in the hope that they will be re-elected. And it is difficult to implement long term change projects because governments are only sure of being in power for the next three years. Also, evidence-based policy is not necessarily the one that appeals to voters, and democracy can be overly influenced by selfish voting. And then, as we are seeing in New Zealand, a party with seven percent support can have a disproportionate level of influence. I have heard that the Chinese system allows grassroots influence through local party groups feeding into higher level groupings all the way to the top. I am sure this system is not perfect, but living here challenges my assumptions that democracy is best. As well as the greater efficiency my ‘mum’ mentioned, China seems to have a baseline view of each human life mattering, a view that seems to be increasingly at risk in western capitalist democracies. I still believe democracy has some advantages, but more clearly see its disadvantages too.

My new friend also said how her father only survived because his mother sent him and his older sister to live with her parents, but his six or seven (nobody knows now) other siblings died of starvation. Her dad tells them off if they complain and reminds them how bad it used to be.

Lining up to catch the cable car down to our accommodation, I used my relatively recently acquired skill of positioning my body so that people cannot push ahead of me in the queue. It took all my skill to keep one woman, who we nicknamed ‘pushy’, behind me. So, Raymond and I were both amused when we ended up sitting in the same small cable car with her and the other four of her family. I said ‘hello’ to her child and we started talking in Chinese, and found out they are from Chengdu. Suddenly, she was not ‘inconsiderate, pushy old woman’. She was ‘fellow grandmother and shared city dweller’. The power of connection.

People watching is fun too

We never get sick of people watching and it is more interesting with crowds. It is entertaining enough in one’s own country, but even more so in another culture. Some of the highlights from our 張家界 (Zhāngjiājié) trip are

  • The shoes women wear. I know the paths are paved and there are buses everywhere, but some women were on the 1-3 hour paths wearing higher heels than I wore to Aaron’s and Sally’s wedding. We saw one woman obviously in discomfort with relatively normal shoes, and another with very high heels choosing to pay the men hovering with sedan chairs to take her down. The sedan chair didn’t look such a safe option to us – the chairs were old and rusty, and we saw a cast off with one of its bamboo poles broken – presumably while someone was being carried down a near vertical slope in it. If I was the sedan chair carriers, I would look at footwear to see who to target. I did feel that a number of people looked askance at my tramping shoes, seeming to think ‘I can’t believe she is happy to be seen in public wearing those’.
  • Propensity for guided tours. We are fascinated by the fact that Chinese, who speak the language and can read all the signs, like to travel with a tour guide. There were flag waving guides everywhere. By contrast, Raymond and I, and other foreigners, who are in a perpetual fog, travel alone – relying on advice in Chinglish and piecing together the puzzle from snippets that various westerners have written online. I talked to my English speaking new friend about this. She said ‘It is also our first time here. We do not know where to stay or what to see, so it is easier to have a guide organise it all for us’. We walked with their group for a while and she told me what the guide was saying. The main value add seemed to be having stories of what the shapes of the various rock formations could be anthropomorphised to be. We are happy with our system.
  • Three acceptable activities on a train trip – watching videos, eating and sleeping. Raymond and I stood out with our blogging and book reading – yes a physical book.
  • Standing seats. On our first train trip – slow train, hard seats, 45 kuai (NZD9) for five hours – our seats were in a row of three facing three others. We had numbers 26 and 27. While we were putting our suitcases up on the luggage rack, a young woman sat in number 27. I said ‘that is my seat’. She pointed to number 25 which was free and better because it was by the window and had a little table, so I sat there thinking we were swapping. Then she moved to sit by her friend and a young guy sat in 27. We will never know if he was the real 25 or had bought a ‘standing seat’ which is where you can stand or, if you are lucky, grab an empty seat. The two guys first sitting opposite us also seemed to be standing seat people, because one got evicted by a couple who got on later, and the other moved to 25 when it became free.
  • First class travellers. On our second train trip – fast train, 350 kuai (NZD70) for seven hours – we splashed out on first class tickets, so the only standing passengers I saw were at the end of the nearest second class carriage by our toilets. Our seats were in a row of two with a power point, foot rests, reclinable seats, hook for hanging coats, convenient deep pockets in the seat in front of us and little tables hidden in our armrest – luxury! The first class carriage seemed a popular choice for mothers or grandmothers sharing one seat with a child. They filled the gap created with no standing passengers, taking their little darlings for a stretch.

 

Live with imperfection

It was disappointing, because of the weather, to not see the park in all its glory. It was disappointing, because of the crowds, to not travel on the longest cable car in the world or see the stunning canyon. I would have preferred not to have the guy opposite me smacking his lips quite so loudly while he was chewing on whatever he was eating. Some of the toilets could be cleaner. But if that is all we have to complain about, things are not so bad. We are having such an adventure, and feel so privileged to be seeing and experiencing all that this amazing journey offers.

 

 

Learning Chinese – 12 months

I am now six months further into my Chinese language learning journey than when I wrote Learning Chinese – six months. When I reread my six months post, I thought ‘oh, how discouraging, not much has changed’ because I would use similar words to describe my situation

  • most of my Chinese lessons speaking Chinese with grammar or culture in English
  • people tend to understand me, but I don’t understand them very well
  • I still tend to remember the pinyin but struggle with which is the correct tone
  • I can read some characters but not most of them
  • I can write characters that I know and copy those I don’t know neatly (more neatly than locals, in the same way that my written English is almost illegible to other people).

But I have improved in small ways

  • The sentences that I use and understand in my lessons are longer, more complicated and more frequently accurate
  • People understand me better than six months ago. When I give our address to taxi drivers, I don’t need to ask if they understand because I know they will. If I know all the words and have my sentence structure right, locals just reply.
  • I understand more than six months ago, even if it is still not very much. Sometimes, I can pick out tonal differences and I can understand numbers at the market or shopping. When people speak to me, my mind sometimes works out what they were saying a few seconds (or minutes) later. I know some words immediately but my poor brain keeps whirring – assessing the context, filling in gaps, determining the missing words and which sounds and ones they might be (sometimes needing to look them up in my dictionary) and then working out the whole sentence. This does not make for flowing conversation, but I can now stretch to mini conversations with those willing to practice.
  • Compared to six months ago, I know the pinyin and tones for more words and can read and write more characters.

So my overwhelming sense is ‘slow and steady’. I need to persevere and trust the process. When traveling, dining and shopping, my language learning is encouraging. In these situations, I am tending to speak in Chinese even if locals speak to me in English. Their English tends to be a similar level to my Chinese. Both sides have stock sentences we can say effectively, and we are both excellent at understanding our own language. I feel most discouraged at work when I am part of natural conversations and understand virtually nothing.

One encouraging thing is that I now have a base to which it is easier to add new bits. The sounds are all familiar so that I can recognise the difference between ‘zh’ and ‘j’ or ‘z’ and ‘c’. This means I can look it up, and can have a go at guessing what tone was being used, so I can learn for next time. I can remember place names easily because I have the bank of sounds to call upon. When I read, I can sometimes work out from the two characters that I know what the word might be. I break characters down into primitives in my mind so can write them quickly to work out what they are.

We are now confident that I can work it out if we travel to remote places. Last year, in the national October holiday, when we went to 九寨溝 (Jiŭzhàigōu) National Park, I researched places to stay with English speaking staff. This year, as we plan our trip to another national park –  張家界 (Zhāngjiājié or Avatar Mountains) – it is all about location and value for money.

How am I learning Chinese?

Much of the ‘how’ is the same as six months ago. I still have online classes with Tutorming most week days before I go to work, use Pleco dictionary to look up things wherever I am to communicate and keep stuffing new things into my brain, and am using the Heisig ‘develop stories using primitives’ method to learn the 3,000 most frequently used Chinese characters (nearly a third of the way).

However, as I have continued to research and talk to others about what they find helpful, I have found three new activities and resources helpful.

Firstly, I have worked on improving my pronunciation by reviewing several resources intended to help English speakers pronounce pinyin. My Chinese teachers are the best at saying things properly, but they do not always know how to help me say things better. They say it again to help me and I think it sounds the same as what I am saying. An English speaker recommending a similar English word, or saying ‘put your tongue here, not there’ is a good supplement. Some people say you need to get your pronunciation right early on so you don’t develop bad habits. I agree that would be great, and I did try. But given that I am where I am, I find when I go back to these resources one bit of theory sticks and I can work on that, whereas working on all the sounds at once was too overwhelming. Also, I can know where to focus my improvement because my teachers point out something or a local struggled to understand me say a specific word. I can go to my Pleco dictionary too and listen to it over and over again to try and understand where I went wrong.

Secondly, a friend introduced me to the Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series. I gave up on Chinese language children’s books quite soon after my last blog post. They are intended for people who speak Chinese but can’t read. The Chinese Breeze Graded Reader Series are for people like me, who can read but not speak Chinese. The first books assume you know 300 Chinese characters – most of which I do now. If they use words outside those 300, they write it as a footnote with the pinyin and English translation. The stories manage to be interesting for adults – so far, a murder mystery, kidnapped children, challenges of being conjoined twins, and the romantic dilemma of a software engineer developing the first Chinese software in 1988.

Reading these books has helped me reflect on how much I learned English through reading. I tended to think I learned it all from my parents, but I realise devouring all those books (we did only have one TV channel that started in the afternoon) helped so much. I am reinforcing existing knowledge, picking up new language structures, and gaining new vocabulary. For example, ‘policeman’ has cropped up a bit, given kidnapping and murder themes, and was useful when our regular driver asked me what jobs our sons do. I could say ‘My younger son wants to be a policeman’ just like that.

The best thing about the series is that each one comes with a CD with a slow and normal speed soundtrack. I have copied them onto my phone, and now I listen to the slow audios of these books whenever I walk somewhere on my own, such as to and from the bus. Listening continues to be the weakest part of my language learning and this has helped so much. One day I hope to graduate to normal speed.

Thirdly, I have discovered Anki – a flashcard software system that uses ‘spaced repetition’. I really wish I had discovered this much earlier on, but at least I have found it now. This is thanks to an opera singing polyglot – Gabe from Fluent Forever. He has developed a system that really rang true for me when I tripped over it a couple of months ago. I was realising that I was struggling to revise all my vocabulary, and for the characters I was good at revising, my revision did not take into account that I knew some really well and others not so well. I was going through them just the same whatever category they were in. Enter Anki!

Anki is free (for Android and Windows) or cheap (for Apple) software that you can use to make flashcards for anything. Once created, it gives me the cards to review at shorter or longer intervals depending on my assessment of remembering it as ‘again’ (I can’t remember this), ‘hard’, ‘good’ or ‘easy’. I can create cards on my computer, revise them on my phone, and everything I have done syncs up to the cloud and back down to each device (I know baffling you with technical jargon).

And people have created all sorts of cards already. I downloaded over 3,000 pre-made cards for my Heisig method of learning characters. Fluent Forever offers a free template relevant for languages such as Chinese with characters, and a set of pre-made cards to help me with Mandarin pronunciation for only $12.

This pronunciation guide shows me that I can differentiate between most Mandarin consonant and vowel sounds, but am terrible at recognising tone differences. However, the guide gives me the chance to keep revising these differences until I can spot them. It is quite magical to not hear a difference, then be able to, and then wonder how I ever missed it and not be able to imagine thinking they sound the same.

The second thing I like about Gabe’s method is the idea of using pictures for flashcards so you miss out the translation step in your brain. Again, because I have been at this a year, I can see how much better it is when I operate like that, and that it is desirable to remove the English step if possible. So, I am in the process of developing vocabulary cards for about 1,000 words. Gabe recommends 650, and my friend’s professor has a list of the 1,000 most commonly used words. I naively assumed the 650 would be a subset of the 1,000 – not so. So, I have developed my own list, based on both of theirs and things I have wished I could say while I am here. I am now creating my own cards using the free template from Fluent Forever. Gabe also recommends including personal meaning, so they are quite fun to develop, and revise with pictures of special places and people dotted through. Example card for ‘dark’ being created below.

ank eg

I can revise most of my flashcards on my daily bus trip to and from work, and, if need be, finish up any last bits at home. (Example screenshots from my mobile phone below.)

The third thing Gabe suggests, which I will do once I have my 1,000ish initial vocabulary cards made and being revised, is grammar/sentences flashcards, again using images rather than English. I will be able to get sentences and key grammar points from revising my lessons (I confess I am falling behind on revision of my lessons, with all this cards focus). I have already captured some of these in my book of notes. Now I want to be able to remember them. Making grammar cards is one of those things that as soon as I read it, I thought ‘that is obvious, why didn’t I think of that?’

The final thing that I am experimenting with (again from the famous Gabe’s book) is mnemonics to help me remember tones. Specifically, I have assigned a tone to each of my four children and am now linking the relevant child into my stories for characters when I struggle to remember the tone. So for  委 (wĕi, committee) I had a story of women (lower primitive in the character 女) bringing their paper bag tree (upper primitive 禾) fruit tarts to a committee meeting. Now I have added the image of Andrew (my up and down/third tone child) sitting with the women on the committee who were comparing their paper bag tree fruit tarts – dishing up his tart, which is of course agreed to be the nicest by far. This sounds very cumbersome when I describe it but is surprisingly effective when I picture it.

You may be wondering how I got to paper bag tree for a primitive – not Heisig’s idea. He uses wild rice for 禾, but I got that confused with another primitive 米 ‘rice’ that he also suggests, so I changed to ‘paper bag tree’. We went camping at the same time as I was getting confused between wild rice and rice, and from the bus I noticed trees with paper bags. I think they were covering fruit. It seemed a good alternative, and has worked well. It illustrates how I take others’ systems and make them my own, and how a stupid idea is often more memorable than a sensible one.

Another new thing is trying to talk with locals. When I am in Chéngdū, I have weekly lunch with Veena, a Chinese colleague who wants to improve her English. This has been a bit helpful for Chinese learning and lovely for getting to know someone at work. However, I think we have been too back and forth between Chinese and English. A few weeks ago, I met a Chinese woman who has lived in Sydney for five years. She said that she and her language partner found it helpful to speak in one language for half an hour, and then switch to speaking the other. This forced them both to push through communicating whole ideas in their difficult language each session. I will suggest that to Veena going forward. I also feel ready to retry connecting via an online site called Language Exchange, with locals who want to improve their English. I tried late last year, but when we met it was hard work when we used Chinese and that language partner did not seem keen to continue. Several have approached me online so we will see how that goes.

So, the last six months have been a lot of learning, and learning about learning, particularly taking from others’ experiences and finding what works for me. I continue to make progress and am reasonably encouraged. I still feel discouraged when I think how far I have to go to achieve my goal of conversational fluency. It helps to remind myself how little I used to know, and that I will definitely know more if I persevere than if I give up.

And think of all those neuronal pathways I am building to offer alternative routes as my brain starts losing some of its existing ones.

Ten things I love/hate about you

Recently we passed our one year anniversary of being in China. It has been interesting to welcome the new teachers to Raymond’s school and realise how different it is to be returning rather than arriving.

So it seems a good time to summarise the year with a list of ten things I like and ten things I do not like about living here. In no particular order:

I like:

  1. various transport options. I like having buses, metro and rental bikes to choose form for any route. It is wonderful not having to know the timetable for, or having to run to catch, the bus or metro, because I know another one will arrive within five minutes, if not sooner. Some locals run, which fascinates me and shows that we are all products of what we experience as normal. They should never move to New Zealand.
  2. living in such a technology rich environment. Chinese have apps for everything. Our favourite apps that make such a difference to our lives here are:
    • Alipay, to scan a barcode with our phone and pay for everything however big or small
    • Pandabus, uses GPS to works out where in the city or country we are and then tell us what buses are nearby and their routes
    • Beaver Home, means I can book and pay for beauticians to come and offer a wide range of beauty treatments in my apartment
    • Mobike, enables us to unlock one of the bikes dotted all over the city, ride it for as long as we want, automatically pay a small fee (20-60c), and stop paying as soon as we lock it.
  3. shopping at the market where fruit and vegetables are seasonal, and we interact with human beings each purchase. After a year, we are still to settle on regular places to buy our pork and vegetables. For other things, our regular suppliers, primarily selected because of their friendliness to struggling foreigners, are
    • hardware store couple
    • potatoes and kumara man
    • several fruit women – none of them have everything we like
    • walnuts and fruit woman
    • the chicken lady, and the duck man
    • peanuts and oatmeal young woman
    • biscuit and cake couple who bake our Saturday morning tea on site.
  4. our slower pace of life. Most evenings, Raymond and I sit out on our balcony, in sleeping bags in the cool months, enjoy our beautiful  view over the (man-made)lake and river, people watching in the park and talking. I am working part-time, and he has small classes and doesn’t manage lots of football teams. And apartment living doesn’t take much time.
  5. learning Chinese. I have always wanted to learn a language. I was good at languages at school and have sometimes regretted that I did not continue with that part of my academic study. So I am loving tapping into this side of me and it is so obviously useful. I am particularly enjoying learning the Chinese characters, which, at the beginning, I assumed I would not do.
  6. making new friends. We have met some lovely people, both local, kiwi and from other parts of the world. As in New Zealand, we click better with a subset of those, and have forged some fun, deep connections. The transient nature of ex-pat lives means they tend to be open to socialize with us, but locals are harder to get to know well, With both ex-pats and locals, there are cross-cultural aspects to navigate, and it is always nice to meet up with kiwis.
  7. being half way between the two places where our children live. With two daughters in London and two sons in Wellington, it is nice to be able to travel north or south to meet up with them. Last Christmas, we met the girls and their partners in Germany, and this Christmas plan to meet them in Russia. We couldn’t do that if we were still in New Zealand. At the same time, we have been able to go back to New Zealand twice. Raymond’s school gives us one trip, and we have made the most of the new super cheap flights direct to Auckland.
  8. being able to travel. As well as being half way to Europe, China in particular, and Asia generally, fascinate us. We enjoyed going to Laos and Vietnam this year, and are loving traveling in China. As my Chinese language grows, and we build our knowledge of how things work, we can travel more like locals, on trains and buses, and selecting accommodation on price for quality rather than having an English speaker. This then helps keep prices down. I have planned out our next two longer holidays with fascinating trips and there is still so much more to see in China.
  9. new experiences every day. After a year, we feel like we have only just begun. Just this week, I have been out with a colleague twice for lunch and had two types of food I have not had before – one was some Korean dish, and the other a very fine pancake with egg swirled on it, and a chicken, lettuce and crunchy things filling. Even when we do things we have done before, they can be new experiences, like taking our kiwi friends to have hot pot and being the experts rather than the trainees, or going to the large shops in town and taking a different route which means we discovered a lovely tranquil temple environment.
  10. feeling so alive. Linked to number 9, we are continually being surprised, amused, challenged, or a mixture of all three. Just as a day in Wellington can include four seasons, a day here often includes a full range of emotions.

I don’t like:

  1. struggling to communicate at work and play. As my Chinese improves, the play part is becoming less frustrating. Now I can usually say enough to shop and travel. However, at work, my language is woefully inadequate. After 12 months, I tend to sit in a meeting where Chinese is being spoken (entirely reasonable given where we are) and only understand pronouns and conjunctions – “We … but she can … New Zealand … and they … so … .Yes.” This is solid progress compared to a year ago, but does not give me much more information.
  2. being so dependent on others at work. Right now this is my biggest ‘hate’. When Brightsparks began, I could work relatively independently, and only relied on my business partners with their good English – strategizing, developing our services, writing marketing materials in English, working with the English speaking web designer, and connecting with NZ institutions. Our next steps involve working with local staff to translate and do graphic design of print materials, researching the Chinese market, and communicating with Chinese partners and customers. I cannot do this because I do not read, understand or speak the language. My partners and staff in their other company are there to help but I have to wait for them to fit it in between their paying work. I am used to being able to solve problems myself and really struggle with this one.
  3. not earning money yet. When I decided to start Brightsparks, I did not think everything would take so long, but it has – see above. We have set ourselves a financial target for the middle of next year, so it is early days yet. Raymond and I have food on the table and a roof over our heads, and can still travel. But, our anniversary of being here has amplified this aspect, and I am still working it through.
  4. missing friends and family. I miss our special people, especially not being there for our granddaughter’s milestones. Although, technology really helps. I feel like we are keeping up with family developments, and it can mean that we all share thoughts and pictures with one another that we might not know about if we lived in the same city.
  5. grey skies and pollution in winter. People who leave Chengdu often say they are leaving because of the cold, damp, grey winters where your first activity in the morning is to look at the air pollution level on your phone. I was relatively protected from this last winter because I ended up being away for eight weeks. But it does affect you emotionally. At the moment, the sky is often blue which is a frequent topic of conversation.
  6. taking half an hour to find something to watch on TV. We haven’t really mastered movie watching here. We have cable option which is very cheap and ahs one English news cahnnel, one English move channel with titles in Chinese so it has toahve started to know what it is, and many back channels which change their content regularly. A decision to ‘watch TV’ means clicking through these back channels to try to find a movie that we might want to watch. Our pattern is that we decide we want to watch TV, I start clicking while Raymond cooks dinner and hopefully I have found something by the time he is finished. Sometimes, we then start watching only to find 20 minutes in that we need to pay to watch it. We have just worked out how to do this on Alipay which is very simple, and nto that expensive.
  7. vpn and slow internet. Our internet speed in our apartment is not that bad, but once we use vpn it slows right down. And western countries tend to be so Google, Facebook and YouTube dependent. Quite a few websites are Google based in how they work. In the west, you don’t notice because they just work. I have learned that if the circle keeps spinning, the site probably uses some Google system as part of its functionality. We tend not to miss the actual apps because now we use Chinese alternatives. But sometimes we can’t, such as watching our children’s ultimate games live streamed or recorded, from Europe and Australia. Watching our boys play in the Australian Nationals, I coud see the comments about the end of the game when I still had ten minutes left to watch. While Raymond was in New Zealand, to view Marah’s recorded games, I watched a minute, reviewed Chinese for ten minutes while the next minute downloaded, then repeated. And slowness over vpn makes it difficult to use sites like Netflix. Luckily, we like sitting on our balcony too.
  8. things can be so far away. We have shops, restaurants and our market nearby and friends in the same apartment block. However, anything else tends to be ‘miles away’, as you would expect in a city of 18 million people. We have two responses to this – ridiculous optimism, where we underestimate the travel time by about an hour; and reluctance, where we wonder if it is worth it, and consider sitting on the balcony instead. We have a few routes that we know well and can predict accurately, but off those routes, we can still get hopelessly lost and double the time. And even when we map it out well and go straight there, an hour can have flown by because it is just a long way away.
  9. crowded metro and buses. We live half way between the centre of the city and the southern extremity,  next to a park. So, most of the time, it doesn’t feel like we are in a city with four times the population of New Zealand. However, when we catch the metro, it does. Most times of the day or night, it is crowded, often claustrophobically so. I have no idea where all the people are going, but it can be hard to handle for a Wellingtonian. We often take the bus because it tends to be emptier, but occasionally buses get incredibly crowded too. I  think the bus is full and then ten more people squeeze on.
  10. only being able to think of nine things I don’t like – not such a bad thing.

 

端午节 Dragon Boat Festival

It is now four weeks since Dragon Boat Festival and I finally have a chance to blog about it, before the memories fade completely.

端午节 means ‘double fifth festival’ and is so called because it falls on the fifth day of the fifth month. However, the date follows the moon driven Chinese calendar so this year it fell on 30 May. Raymond had four days off school – Sat 27 May to Tues 30 May.

Saturday we blobbed as for any weekend, went out for dinner with a couple of kiwis from one of  Brightsparks’ partner schools, and packed for our first ever camping expedition.

Raymond is on holiday in New Zealand as I write, but has promised to blog next week, before we both go to Vietnam, about his work experiences in China. However (spoiler alert), I can tell you that he is finding new opportunities for professional development stimulating and enjoyable. One of those new things is being part of the team introducing the Duke of Edinburgh (D of E) award to Lemàn.

Raymond and the other two members of the D of E team had organised this camping trip to check out a possible location to which to take the students. I along with sundry other camping-interested staff and various significant others tagged along for the experience.  As always, not speaking the language introduces challenges and the teachers need to go with a local guide for ease and safety, so she also was being checked out. This is about taking 20 students away overnight, with the aim of stretching and developing but still bringing them back alive.

So we got up early Sunday morning and headed in on the metro to where we were all meeting the van, setting off from town about 8am, aiming to stop for lunch on the way and, based on it being a four hour trip, arrive early afternoon. Lesson #1, do not travel during a national holiday. Our 4+1 hour trip doubled to ten hours.

Initially, we made good progress, but the first clue things would take longer was when the off ramp we wanted to take was closed because of work being done in a tunnel on that road. So, we, along with all the other people who would have preferred to go that way, inched forward, eventually coming to a stand still. We played cards, talked, joked together, and people watched. Some people got out and stretched their legs, or took their children for a stroll. One elderly woman found the wait too long, and climbed over the metal railing beside the road to relieve herself behind her daughter’s strategically held umbrella. It turned out we were merging from one lane to two, to go through another tunnel which was also being worked on – not while we were going through, but the big earth moving equipment sat there meaning no vehicles could go in the right hand lane.

After we were through the tunnel, the traffic moved well. Our next delay, close to our final destination was when a couple of guards stopped us to check our tickets for the tourist area we were heading into. Our guide, a petite young woman, who much of the way had been snoozing up the front by our driver, was very impressive the way she stood up to the three men in uniform. She insisted that we were not going as far as the area for which you need tickets, so should not pay for them. The stand off continued for a while, ending with a compromise where she bought some tickets that we did not need, and they did not insist that we purchase the full number.

 

So, we arrived about 6pm. We explored down by the river, then all chose flattish spaces without rocks to put up our tents, and gathered firewood for our campfire. We drove in the van back to the nearby village to eat dinner in a small local restaurant, with meat hanging overhead and the warmth of the big wood oven heating the room. Back to our campsite and toasting marshmallows over the fire, before all heading to our tents to sleep. It was surprisingly comfortable with just a thin bed roll between us and the ground. The grassish plant was quite spongy and added softness, and we managed to avoid the stones – and snakes! Coming from a country without snakes, Raymond was a bit startled when a student found, and shared, a massive snake at school. It made him rethink camping in China – but so far so good.

 

Raymond and I were first up (mainly because he felt a bit nauseous and started the day throwing up – we never did work out why, as everyone else was ok), and we enjoyed a brisk morning walk along the road before the others got up. Then we all packed up our overnight homes and returned to the village for breakfast. Afterwards, our hosts brought our horses and we set off up the mountain, some walking and some riding. Raymond still wasn’t feeling 100%, so he walked the whole way, and I was feeling lazy so I rode the whole way. At the top, I still got enough opportunity to exercise to enjoy the stunning views of the valley and snow covered mountains. We relaxed up the top for a while, then meandered down the hill before rejoining the horses for the final flat section, and back to the village.

 

Lunch was Sìchuān Hotpot – a mild version for we westerners at one table and a spicier version for locals at the other table. Hotpot is very popular over here in the south west, and the ultimate in Sìchuān food. It is like a spicy fondue. You have hot oil and chillies in a large centrally heated container on the table. The restaurant brings finely sliced meat and vegetables, which you pick up with your chopsticks and put in the shared vat until they are cooked, then pick them out and eat them. As you might imagine, we novice chopstick users sometimes lose our treasures or cook them for longer than we need to while we fish around for where they might have gone. One of our group does not like any spiciness. Our guide said that she could do what locals do with children – have a bowl of hot water by her plate and wash the spicy oil off the meat and vegetables. She did this until her water turned red, replacing it with clear water as required. I asked when locals introduce their children to the hot spicy food. “At least by four years old, because they need to eat in the cafeteria when they start school.” When eating with locals, we have learned to say that we don’t like hot food. If we say, as we did at the beginning, that we like a bit of heat, they provide food that we think is really hot. If we say, we don’t like it hot, we get food that we think has a nice kick to it.

(To give an idea of hotpot’s popularity, I recently took a kiwi visitor to the Tibetan Quarter. We wanted to try Tibetan food for dinner. However, all we could find were hotpot restaurants full of people. We finally found a Tibetan restaurant with a couple of customers but nobody appeared to serve us. Eventually, we made do with steak, and fish and chips, in a restaurant that turned out to be less Tibetan than it looked from the outside.)

Back in the van and a six hour trip back. The same tunnel was a bit of a bottle neck and we slowed down as we got near the city, but it was not nearly as long as our journey there.

Tuesday was the official holiday. Like me, you might have thought that this festival would include seeing dragon boating. Possibly there was some happening, but we never heard of it. Our only festival specific activity was eating 粽子(zòngzi) – pyramid-shaped dumplings made of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. We had both been given them from our workplaces, in their not so traditional vacuum sealed plastic wrapping. We looked on the internet to see how to cook them, using our steamer that we bought for making steamed dumplings with the dumpling casings we see at our local market. Zòngzi were okay – glad we tried them, but won’t rush to buy them. I did wonder if little children remember them fondly because they are little parcels tied up with string and have different fillings so you don’t know what will be inside them – like my memory of my grandmother’s Christmas pudding.

 

Raymond’s school also gave us a salted duck egg, another festival delicacy. Our egg was salted by being packed in damp, salted charcoal, which we had to chip off. We read online that salting it not only preserves it, but is a way to disguise the strong duck egg smell – not in our experience! I nearly threw up when I breathed just after the charcoal came off, and Raymond, who is usually more willing to give things a go, rejected it immediately.

 

So, our first dragon boat festival was interesting and pleasant, but did not remotely resemble the images, based on our daughter’s dragon boating in New Zealand, that my mind conjured up when I read the words on Raymond’s school calendar.

We have been here almost a year. It has gone so quickly. We have experienced the full cycle of festivals, seasons, and events. So much seems normal, so much still to learn. What surprises are in store for us in our second year?

 

Roller coaster low

Last week on Wednesday, about ten months in to our adventure, I hit a low and I don’t fully understand why. It came out of the blue and this blog is written on Thursday  – me processing what was happening inside me as part of helping myself through it. I needed to wait a couple of days to post it.  I wanted to provide the context of my Working in China #1 post, which I was part way through writing. And  it seemed prudent to check I had not written things I would later regret when I felt more positive – but no editing, this is how it was.

roller-coaster

Symptoms

The last few days I have been fragile and getting weepy at everything – Sally sending a link to their beautiful wedding photos from February, mothers day messages from my children, a messaging conversation with my son, my business partners postponing a meeting, the air conditioning not working at work and struggling to find a fan, a Chinese colleague not able to understand my English then telling me not to use my Chinese to talk to him, being alone in my office because my colleague is away, Raymond being caring, Raymond not being caring, my Chinese friend postponing lunch, still working on Brightsparks marketing materials after six months.

Reasons

I think it is harder than I admit to myself to navigate the various things I am having to navigate while we are here. My strength is that I relish taking on new things, attack them with vigour, am quite self-motivated, and persevere when they get difficult. My weakness is that I am not good at reading signs of stress in myself or being honest with myself when things are difficult. Weepiness is the only way I realise it is happening.

I had already admitted to myself a couple of things were a bit tricky for me at work – working across cultures and language, and starting a business from scratch.  Last time I set up a company, I had a partner with similar expertise who was also a good friend, a few big jobs to start us off, and a wide support network, some of whom were also starting out on their own. And I knew the language and all the rules, so I could work quickly and efficiently on my own or with others. This time, I am the only one with the specialist knowledge of New Zealand education, so I need to work at a level of detail that I find emotionally draining. I am still building my network here, so my fewer connections are not so able to offer ‘help, I am struggling’ support in the way my New Zealand colleagues who were also friends could. Some of my colleagues do not have good English, and understandably, they have other priorities. And I don’t know the language or rules.

However, I have different support here. I have two great business partners with expertise that I can never have to help me navigate China, an amazing colleague who is working for love like I am while we have no revenue, a wonderful graphic designer who is also my daughter to develop our website, and my business partners’ wider team who are researching, translating, applying, and designing, as well as giving me a business roof over my head and standard office support.

I think the straw that has broken the camels’ back is moving office space to be just the two of us, rather than in a larger office with all the other ex-pats chatting around me, followed by my colleague going back to the US for a few weeks. I find people energising, and writing marketing materials de-energising. And, my closest people connections, the conversations through the wall, are in Chinese so I can’t even sneak some energy through eaves-dropping. Above a certain volume, it becomes irritating noise distracting me from my writing.

So I am feeling lonely during the week. Raymond and I are in the groove of arranging social activities each weekend.  These friendships are at the new and exciting stage, which is nice, but different to the comfortable, we have known you guys for years, friendships we enjoy in New Zealand and Australia.

Post weepiness reflection, I think my ‘but I love new things and puzzles’ brain might be a bit worn out too. I am spending every spare moment trying to learn Chinese on top of my work challenges and my ‘moving to a very different country’ challenges. Sometimes driving along on the bus, I say to my brain ‘stop, just relax, don’t keep trying to work out those characters, or what she (the automated woman voice, not the woman in the next seat) is saying’. But, with all the stimuli, it seems hard to turn my brain off.  (Although, generally Chinese language learning is quite energising for me – I have always liked doing puzzles to relax.) Maybe not knowing what is going on is more what is taking its toll. I do like to know what is going on.

And, things are more normal. We have our weekly routine, we are traveling regularly, but spend weekends just blobbing here as we would anywhere. It is good and important to do this, but it might mean less adrenaline to keep me going.

And I miss my special people – say no more.

Solutions

Blog – to help me analyse what is happening, listen to my body, accept I am who I am, remember what really matters to me, and act to achieve that. (Been very therapeutic.)

Use my support network, be honest and ask for help. I have the best husband I could hope for, friends and family here and across the world to call on, others here who are going, or have gone, through similar things – and my belief in a God who is always with me, cares and will listen.

Remind myself most of the work stuff is temporary. My colleague will be back in a week or two, the marketing materials are almost done, the next stage is much more relational, we might be moving offices soon.

Remember what I have achieved, and set realistic goals. Obviously, the timelines for having the materials done, and for being able to relate effectively to others in Chinese were unrealistic. I am making progress.

Embrace the learning – that is a big part of why we are here!

Post-script

By Friday I was much better – blogging, talking to my friend in NZ for over two hours (mixture of laughing and crying), good progress on our partners booklet, lunch and a positive meeting about a new opportunity with my business partners, and Raymond’s support, all did the trick.

Tiger Leaping Gorge and Lìjiāng

Last weekend was Labour weekend in China, so Raymond and I headed south to explore Yúnnán for the three days. We had read of stunning scenery at a place called Tiger Leaping Gorge (Hŭ Tiaò Xiá). To get there we flew 1.5 hours to Lìjiāng (lovely river), famous for its ‘old town’.

To travel in China, we are learning it is easier if we research on the web ahead of time. I think this is useful anywhere, but especially relevant with limited language and so many choices. We are so appreciative of others’ help that I have decided to give a bit more advice when I blog about our trips, to give back to the travel community, and set a few things straight. All those 20 something bloggers who said that the Tiger Leaping Gorge route was pretty easy except for the one hour steep section going up the 28 zigzags were wrong! But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

To go to the airport, we use a ‘black taxi’. I have mentioned Joe before. He is a highly professional, reliable, pleasant driver who many of the teachers from Raymond’s school use. So, when I went down on Friday at 1 pm to meet him, I was surprised to find that he was not there. I wechatted him and said I was waiting. He replied ‘please wait’.  I asked in Chinese ‘how many minutes?’ He said ‘What time is the plane?’ I asked in English ‘how many minutes?’ He replied ‘I am on my way and soon’, followed by another message asking if we wanted to start from our apartment or from Raymond’s school. I said ‘I will take a taxi’, and that is where Joe found me, walking the street looking for a taxi. It turned out that Raymond’s request to pick me up and then go to his school to pick him up, when translated from English to Chinese, asked Joe to pick Raymond up from school and then come and get me. Talk about lost in translation. Joe had been waiting at school, driven the 20 minutes from school to get me, and then we drove back to the school. On the way, as we talked about what had happened, I think he understood that another time (but hopefully we will communicate better next time) he should check before coming to get me, because Raymond could have got in first at school. Luckily, I had just revised how to say ‘first … then…’. And Raymond and I realised that, to minimise confusion, we need to give even simpler instructions – a lesson we thought we had already learned.

We caught our plane, uneventfully, arrived at Lìjiāng airport and decided to get a taxi into town. Our driver was upfront about the extra 10 kuài for tolls – total just over 110 kuài. She dropped us off outside Lìjiāng old town, both miming and talking to communicate that she could not drive us any further, and that we needed to cross the road, walk down a bit and take the first right. So off we went and discovered that this old town part of Lìjiāng is stunning. We loved it immediately. It must be what Chinese towns used to look like, now with a mixture of modern and traditional wares and food places, and lots of travel agencies.

We followed our driver’s instructions, walked along the cobblestones enjoying the ambience, reading the English and Chinese looking for our hotel – Lìjiāng Boutique Rénwén Inn. Because we are such experienced travelers, I had cleverly taken a screenshot of our hotel details. After walking the right hand loop, and not finding our hotel, we searched on Dù, our local maps app, and redid the loop. Ok, let’s try Google maps with VPN. Our various routes had taken us back and forth past a friendly gentleman encouraging people into his restaurant. So our next plan of attack was to ask him if he knew our hotel. He did, so he mimed and talked directions, which then made it a bit awkward when we needed to walk unsuccessfully past him a couple more times – just wave and smile. Plan C, or maybe D, was to pop into one of the many travel agencies. Number 1 was unhelpful, but number 2 was very clever. She rang the phone number and arranged for someone from our hotel to come and get us – highly recommended approach.

We followed our enthusiastic young host in the opposite direction to all our earlier routes, to the left of the main drag and Dù and Google’s suggestions. The name on the door did not match our hotel name. When I expressed concern, ‘chain hotel’ was the answer. It was a lovely little place, and unbelievably good value for about NZD20 per night. We are still not sure what really happened, but were happy.  Our young host and I communicated effectively in a mixture of Chinese and English, and his mum understood me, but I could not understand her.

I had read that tickets for the bus to the gorge tend to sell out so we asked our young host for advice on where to go to buy bus tickets. Armed with our paper map on which he had circled the bus stop and bus ticket sales outlet, we went back up to the main road, where our taxi had dropped us off, to catch a number 2 bus. We waited a while but no buses drove past, so we decided to get a taxi. Using our map, I arranged for the driver to take us, wait and return. Then Raymond hopped in grinning because our bus had gone past while I had my head in the window talking to the driver.

We drove through Lìjiāng getting a sense of the layout of the place, seeing the rest of the old town, cascading down the hill and lit up beautifully in the evening, and wound down the hill through the modern part to the ticket shop. Our driver dropped us off, we walked in the direction he had seemed to point, could not find anything resembling a bus ticket sales place, circled back, rejoined our driver who took us to a travel agent, who pointed over the road. There, we still struggled, and approached some street food vendors, one of whom hopped up, took us a minute further around, and pointed to the ticket shop – with its closed garage door. Oh well, let’s get up early tomorrow.

We went back to the friendly gentleman’s restaurant and had the local delicacy they recommended – which turned out to be chicken and mushroom soup, but not as we know it – brothy rather than creamy. She had encouraged us to share the smaller serving, which was just as well. The enormous bowl bubbled away on the gas burner on our table and we ate as much as we could, finally leaving half of it behind as we headed back to the hotel.

Saturday morning, we left our hotel at 7am, caught the famous number 2 bus to the shop, where in the light of day we could read the sign telling us the bus ticket place opening hours – 8am to 9pm. We only missed it by a few minutes last night, and an hour to go. Breakfast from our friendly street food vendors and let’s explore the park. A bit after 8am the sole woman employee opened the shop, stopped her sweeping when we arrived, walked behind the counter, started up her computer, was helpful but slow and 20 minutes later concluded ‘no tickets, but you can try the bus station’. What, you mean we could have gone there the whole time, including this morning and last night?!  We walked the ten minutes, found out that the earliest available seats were at 11am, and shared a car to the gorge with a Chinese couple who had got married the day before.

The driver showed us all where to buy tickets for the gorge, dropped us off at the beginning of the high level track, and then took our companions to the start of the one day lower level track.

The first part of the middle gorge walk is a concrete road with large trucks going up and down, and you look across the river to the massive infrastructure project on the other side, which we assume is part of China’s vision for high speed rail over the whole country. Not quite what I imagined when others described stunning scenery, but I am learning to go with the flow (eventually). It started off at a steady gradient, but manageable. Then the concrete stopped and it got really steep with steps winding up the hill – the famous 28 bends – I was glad when they were over. Dotted along the route were men with horses whose English extended to ‘horse’. Bú yào mă (don’t want a horse) I replied, tempted as I was – reasoning that the fact that I wanted one so much was evidence that I should not use one.

Then we couldn’t see the earthworks any more, the path became more undulating, we stopped for drinks and a nibble under the shade of a tree, chatted as we went to a couple of Swedish couples over from Shànghăi, and arrived at the first village.

As we walked past Naxi Guest House, we wondered if our hotel was nearby, four hours earlier than I understood from my web research – how encouraging. Then we came to a sign saying that it was another three hours to Tea Horse Guest House and two more to Halfway, where we were staying – how discouraging, an hour longer than I understood from my web research. But we had plenty of energy, were over the worst bit, and carried on.

Then we came to the real 28 bends – very steep, slabs of slate to walk on, path zig zagging vertically back and forth. Ten minutes walking, two minutes stopping – ‘ we have plenty of time’, ‘it is not a race’. Eventually, I set aside my feminist philosophy and gave Raymond my pack.I found it very hard work.

And then the worst was over. We stopped in the next village for a cup of tea and coffee and got talking to a couple of Chinese from Kūnmíng who had good English (although our conversation began with how good my Chinese had been when I ordered our drinks – instant friend!) They were there with their regular walking group, and talked about how the track used to be dominated by westerners, but was growing in popularity with Chinese tourists. Certainly, on our trip, three-quarters of those we saw looked Chinese.

Refuelled, we continued, but I never fully recovered – not helped by Raymond, Sofia from Kūnmíng, and I taking a half hour detour up a hill instead of along the flatter path, to which we then had to return (hour total). We finally arrived 7.5 hours after we had started, exhausted. We wonder whether the highish altitude affected us more than we realised at the time.

I had read good things about the Ben Li Wan Family Hotel and we were not disappointed – it was clean, our en suite shower was hot and sooooo what we needed, the food was delicious, the staff were helpful, including getting us as many pots of tea as we asked for, and the mountain view out of our room was stunning – in fact so stunning that before I went to sleep, I felt it was all worth it. And this place will forever be special to us – what a place to get the wonderful news that Andrew and Cindy were now engaged.

The next morning, we woke, had relaxed cups of tea and breakfast before setting off about 10am, feeling a bit pressured that as we were only halfway, we might not make it back in time, and thinking that if need be we would have to overnight at another guesthouse and go back to Lìjiāng on Monday.

But by 11.30am we had arrived at Tina’s Guesthouse. It turns out the other ‘half’ is this short jaunt, plus a three hour walk down to Tiger Leaping Stone and back, or other options to waterfalls etc. We decided not to bother – we felt we had seen so much lovely scenery on the way, and our feet were sore. Another tea and coffee and then we found a beautiful spot a few minutes away, and sat by the waterfall there and waited for the 3.30pm bus back to Lìjiāng , where we had already booked a second night at our friendly hotel.

My advice to other over 50s – with reasonable fitness levels but not quite what you used to be – is, yes, do the walk, but stop for your first night at Tea Horse Guest House five hours in, having done the 28 bends but not yet absolutely shattered (and avoid the detour). Then, day 2, leave from there about 10am confident that you will get to Tina’s in time for the 3.30pm bus. And, book bus tickets at Tea Horse. We did get bus tickets at Tina’s but, for reasons we never quite understood, it was not initially straight forward. We never made the trip down to the Tiger Leaping Stone so cannot comment on whether or not that would be worth it, but I would suggest staying a second night/third day to do that.

Back in Lìjiāng , we settled in and then went walking for somewhere to find dinner, eventually settling on a small local ‘restaurant’ with a very friendly hostess. There were only four tables, you could see her husband cooking behind the shelves. Our two key criteria were met – she called out and invited us in, which signals a willingness to work at communicating with foreigners, and there were pictures of food on the walls. We had a wonderful time – nice food, and chatting with our hostess and another older woman dining with her family, who seemed particularly fascinated by us and wanted to chat as much as my limited Chinese would allow. She knew New Zealand – that it is small and has milk.

The next day, we left our larger pack at our hotel and explored Lìjiāng old town. First, somewhere to eat breakfast – using our friendliness criteria again. Pictures were not necessary because we could see it all being cooked out the front. Then, we just wandered. We were entranced by the man making the shawls on his loom so I bought one, later realising that he can’t have made all the identical shawls being sold in every shawl shop in Lìjiāng. We found a place selling coffee to keep Raymond happy, and relaxed there people watching, including seeing how a couple cooked and packaged biscuits. These purple biscuits seemed to be famous in Lìjiāng because they also were being sold everywhere. Having watched the woman rolling out the biscuits pick her nose, we knew one place we didn’t want to buy them from. We enjoyed the ‘free’ (if you don’t count the fee to get into the old town) dancing show, then found the Experiencing Hall of Naxi Hieroglyphics Painting.

The Dongba hieroglyphics are the oldest living form of hieroglyphics, because they are still used today. Historical records show the script was used in 7th century, but it may be up to 7,000 years old. A single pictograph can be used to recite different phrases or an entire sentence. The script is logical – when a symbol is drawn upside down it indicates negation, straight lines drawn between people indicates ‘fight’, entwined lines represent ‘discuss’, and a dead animal is drawn as usual but without pupils in their eyes. We were quite fascinated. Eventually, we succumbed to temptation, and the focused attention of the salesman, to buy a hieroglyphics embroidery to remind us of our wonderful holiday.

Back to the hotel, pick up our pack and out to the airport. We had never managed to find out where the airport bus left from so decided to wave down a taxi. The first one to stop was a minivan already heading out there. The woman asked for 120 kuài . I thought ‘I know we can get it for 110 in a metered taxi’, so said, ‘No thanks, too expensive, I know we can get it cheaper’, thinking she would drop to 110. Next, she offered 70! My best bargaining yet. As we got out and I paid her, Raymond said ‘I think she likes you’ – I guess my amazing bargaining earned her respect.

Certainly, I was very encouraged on this trip that I seem to have graduated from Chinglish to the next stage – Chineglish? I can say whole sentences, effectively communicate on a range of useful travel topics, and everyone seems to understand me. Unfortunately,  they then talk back to me in Chinese and I still have to work out how to understand them.

So, another wonderful holiday, in a place we had never heard of before coming here, would strongly recommend, and which increases our fascination with our adopted country.