Saturday, May 26, 2012

Yonchuan Local

This weekend started off well on Friday night with a trip to the gym with fellow foreigners Tyler and Fimo followed up by a food crawl around Yongchuan and Fimo's birthday cheesecake to finish.
Saturday morning was a slow start, but we came to the decision that it was too nice outside not to do something. One of my Google Earth researched routes which we hadn't yet done was the full length of Tea Mountain ridge. The roads were either vague or non-existent on the map, but I dropped some waypoints on likely looking things from the aerial photos on Google Earth and copied them onto the GPS. The slog up the dirt road to the ridge  was strenuous as usual and slippery from overnight rain, but saved us paying the entrance fee to the park. Living in China does seem to breed thriftiness. We followed the paved road, past the apparently never-used "Jade Corridor" tourist path, complete with never-used teahouse and scenic spots. There were frequent inspirational signs to keep us entertained though, including "Leave behind a clean environment, take away happiness". For once a Chinese translation that actually seemed meaningful. The path came to an abrupt stop rather short of the point at the end of the ridge I was hoping for, so we backtracked to the last intersection. On the way we met a huge group of Chinese hikers wearing suits and carrying umbrellas who we didn't pass on the way out. I've no idea where they came from. We elected to take a look along our other option: a dirt road which promised to lead along the ridge. Pushed on by the sense if adventure, were soon splashing and slithering out way in the right direction. The ridge as punctuated by derelict and burned out old factories, with occasional farmers to seemed to have adopted the land. It was all slightly spooky and the feeling of being in a place unseen by foreigners was upon us. We get that feeling quite often in the YC countryside. Eventually the road started snaking its way down through the bamboo towards the paved roads in the valley below. We appeared from the woods onto a brand new concrete road which led us through villages and sprouting rice fields back towards YC. It's taken us all year to figure it out, but I feel we have now truly conquered both of Yongchuan's "famous mountains" both vertically and horizontally by a combination of bikes, hikes, and trial and error. Who would have known life contained such peculiar kinds of fun.

Today is a different kind of adventure in YC as we've visited our usual street market for vegetables and had our hair cut by the local pompadour-wearing Chinese fashionistas. I don't think I've ever had so much hairspray applied to my head, or been quite so bouffant... but I do have shorter hair, which is a relief.

Monday, May 21, 2012


I am done with marathon running. No doubt this will turn out to be a lie but today at least, it's over. I've never had ambition to run marathons, but a combination of living in China (the land that outdoor recreation forgot) and Lina pining for the thrill of the race meant I found myself running in the Hangzhou Marathon last year. Overall I would file that experience under "things that I'm glad are over".

Hangzhou Marathon, which took 3 hours and 53 minutes but felt like a million years.
Fortunately, my experience in the Chongqing Marathon earlier this year was a much less grueling one. This may have had something to do with only running half of it. Chongqing's marathon was a clear winner from the human perspective with enthusiastic runners and crowds. However, the course almost exactly resembled a straight, flat line (with a fiberglass mountain and aliens at one end). Not thrilling.

The Chongqing Marathon, which I ran half of in 1 hour 40something . I forget.

This weekend I was again on the start line of a forty-two-point-whatever-it-is kilometer race. We'd made an epic journey from YC to the Beijing countryside with Matt and Elaine on Friday night (and part of Saturday morning), only to prise ourselves out of be a couple of hours later to head for the start line. In contrast to Chongqing the crowd of competitors at the Great Wall Marathon was almost entirely foreign. This race seems to be more of a tourist-circus than a serious competition; a marathon with no Kenyans in it can't really be serious right? The setting was very pretty though and I was encouraged by rumors of hills and unpaved roads. The elevation profile certainly looked promising...

There's a marathon in them there hills

The marathon keeners were out in force in the start area and I felt conspicuously ordinary among superheroes adorned with Bat-Man utility belt, iPhone cyborg attachment, and beeping heart-rate monitors. One particularly high-achiever had solar-panels on his backpack. I'm not joking, but maybe he was. If he was joking, it could have been the world's first incidence of "ironic solar-panels". Solar-panel man, I salute you.

Once the marching band, government officials speeches, and general chutzpah was out of the way the race began. We were in the second wave of runners (which turned out to be the cause of an unfortunate incident for Lina). We set off up the road, up and down steps, along the wall, down some more... and then into the road. We all delivered a hundred high-fives to the local children, including one enterprising pair who had covered their hands with dirt for comedic value. The high-point for me was a long downhill section on a rough old farm track where I was for once able to take advantage of being a crappy road-runner but not so bad on uneven surfaces. Skipping my way through the loose stones, I got told to slow down by one of the marshals... which made me feel like I was doing something right. Finally, it was back up and over the wall. Stricken athletes sat recovering on the steps like spandex-packaged gazelles with their heart-rate monitors reporting that cardiac meltdown was imminent. I lumbered my way up and over, though my heart-rate monitor was reporting that it was time for beer and a pizza followed by a lie down. The last five kilometers down a hill on paved road were rubbish and killed two of my toenails, which are now going to fall off. Poo. I found some enthusiasm left to poach a few places and run the last kilometer into the finish. 

The Great Wall was a fun race, and a good high point to end my brief marathon running career. I'm now going to take up darts. 

Beijing Great Wall Marathon, which took 5 hours and 18 minutes and felt like  it.

Monday, May 7, 2012

High Season

The past week has been our last school holiday in China. One of the perpetual gripes of teachers is that although they get long holidays, they're at the same time as everyone else's and high season prices. This year working as a fake teacher  I have been able to experience this frustration for myself. I can confirm for all the "you guys are so lucky getting so much holiday, I only get two weeks" crowd (whom I will probably reunite with soon) that it is a bit annoying having everyone else on holiday at the same time as you.

What happens when everyone in China goes on holiday at the same time? This. 
A tourist, briefly escaping all the other tourists
Despite being outnumbered millions to one by Chinese tourists and outgunned in the matching hats and flags stakes, we set out to do battle with Beijing and Xian's sights as a united gang of five family members. Thanks to Peter's arrangements we were staying in hotels with a level of quality far loftier than we're used to, including the novelty of English speaking front desk staff. This was a great novelty though I'm out of practice asking for help with things as I usually can't understand the answer, no matter how helpful it may be. We tackled Beijing's greatest hits of commercialised history, including the Forbidden City, Great Wall, Temple of Heaven, and Summer Palace. Most of these were like a combination of Disneyland China (actually soon to be built for real, apparently) and feeding time at the zoo. It was very illuminating to see the true scale of some of the Emperor's paranoia and enthusiasm for giant monuments to themselves at the expense of the people they ruled. The rise of Communism in China suddenly made a lot more sense to me. Fortunately, the massive redirection of China's resources into the Emperor's private city and summer resort didn't go to waste and it's all there, complete with instant noodle vendors for all of China to enjoy... and they certainly seem to enjoy it.

Possibly the best street musician ever
The previously forbidden city is now open for business
Temporary art
At the other end of Beijing's tourist spectrum, we did a little exploring around some Hutongs (narrow streets) in the Drum Tower area. If I was to find myself back in Beijing I would definitely investigate around here a little more. We are some kind of non-barbecue street food, that we thought might be barbecue, but turned out to be cooked in broth and then have spicy sesame sauce put on it. Yum. We also accidentally had some dumplings in an award-winning dumpling restaurant. Cheap, and also yum.

We are Family
Lina fails to convince the crowds that she is  one of the guards
I felt rather under-gunned in the camera department next to this guy
"Photos that make me look taller: Part 1 - The Summer Palace"
Kunming Lake in the Summer Palace
The Beijing Olympics site was a typical vast paved area with no obvious purpose, but the "Birdcage" stadium was a great place to photograph... including a brief but satisfying pitch invasion that we performed when someone left a gate open.

Lina's brief pitch-invasion at the Bird's Nest.
Our second stop of the trip as Xian to see the reassuringly-expensive Terracotta Warriors. The warriors are of course stratospherically hyped, but I enjoyed the trip and learning that they are only a sideshow to the main event of the first Qin Emperor's (unexcavated) tomb.   Our guide managed to unravel some of the significance of the characters we saw in the Big Goose Pagoda on the way back... which has baffled me in every other Buddhist sight we've seen.

HDR fun with the warriors
I'm not sure what the message here is?
One of the highlights of the trip for me was visiting the Muslim quarter and Great Mosque hidden away in Xian's narrow streets. The mosque was peaceful and had a real feeling of age to it, which can be rather lost in the ultra-restored historical sites which are common in China. We ate some hand-pulled noodles and lamb soup with thick bread, which were really tasty and got us away from the tourist prices and hassles for a while.

Muslim quarter, outside the Mosque
Peter makes a new friend
Mosque pagoda painted ceiling
"Photos that make me look taller: Part 2 - Xian Great Mosque"
Worth mentioning was the fabulous swimming pool at our hotel. Well, technically it was the fancier neighbouring hotel's pool, but we were allowed in. Not only was this the first time I've seen a non-toxic looking pool in China, but it had a bar in the pool. Yes, actually IN he pool. You could sit on an underwater bar stool and lean on the bar. Genius. I didn't actually buy a drink as the prices were a bit too luxurious for me... but it was nice to know I could have had a beer between laps if I wanted.

An abundance of photos can be seen here. Finally, I leave you with some of Beijing and Xian's greatest public information signs: