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Beijing - language lessons and train away

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Soundtrack: 'Teachers' - Daft Punk 

A couple of journals ago, I began by explaining an odd photo from a previous journal.  However, I then ommitted to explain an even-odder picture from that new journal!  During my first visit to the football, there was  middle-aged Chinese man sitting next to me with his son.  The people here have very little body hair and my hairy arms and legs are often the source of much fascination.  Despite the fact that we had not spoken before then, he couldn't resist giving my arm hair a little stroke.  I laughed and pointed out the legs which he duly stroked also.  I decided that this moment needed a photo by Chris refused, explaining afterwards that the whole thing "weirded me out".  So, I took the pictures myself.  The man was by now a bit reticent to put his hand back on my leg so I had to drag it back myself for the photo.  Possibly this now seems even odder than if I had not explained the picture at all? 

The morning after the closing ceremony, I sensed that Beijing may have lost some of its welcoming friendliness.  Maybe I was just in less of a party mood myself, but the flow of exchanged "hello"s had definitely ebbed a little.  Before my first language lesson beginning after lunch, I went to buy some chocolate to give my brain energy to concentrate.  I am so used to being in the UK where major supermarkets give over an entire aisle to chocolate as well as another to crisps, where smaller shops and petrol stations give over half of their shelf space to chocolate and where no office is complete without a small mountain of chocolate close at hand and/or people bringing back large bags of doughnuts every day to share around.  Imagine my surprise then, to discover that it was actually very slightly difficult to find some.  Not big difficult, but I had to ask where to find it in a mini-market of just 10 metres-square.  I have probably offered some to about a dozen people since then, all but one of whom refused, most citing their weight or health as a reason not to touch the stuff.  Conversely, many of them smoke like chimneys, so I guess it's all just swings and roundabouts. 

My lessons were in a big, long room on the first floor of a motel-like building.  It was a bit like an intimidating job interview when I walked in for the first time where Erin Chen, the woman in charge, and my teacher were waiting for me at a table at the far end of the room.  Teacher was introduced as Su Shan and after I had signed a couple of pieces of paper and coughed up the readies, we began. 

Chinese characters are represented in the 26-letter Latin alphabet we are familiar with by a system called Pinyin.  First of all I had to learn to pronounce the different vowels and consanants, which is still the bit I struggle with the most.  For example, the third group of consanants all sound the same.  EXACTLY the same!  I was made to read this list over and over until I got it right but I had no idea what i did different that time, but something must have worked because I was then allowed to move onto getting vowels wrong.  Vowells can be pronounced in one of five tone variations (rising, falling, steady etc).  These are the sort of emphasis we put on different English words without thinking too much about it, but in Chinese a change in tone changes the word into a completely different word.  A questioning sound is like a rising tone so when I was trying to guess the word I was supposed to say to Shan, I would often say it in this tone as I instinctively said it in a way to ask if I was correct, which meant I was saying completely the wrong word. 

I went back to the hostel afterwards to try to spend the evening re-reading what I had 'learnt', but found it hard and it only got harder when I drank more beer.  Readers with a good memory may remember me mentioning a German called Klaus in my room in Irkutsk.  He was cycling from his home in Frankfurt to the Eastern Chinese coast.  Imagine my surprise when he wandered into the bar that night - "I know you!!".  I turned to two Swedes behind me to tell them of his quest and they replied "Oh, we know about you, someone was telling us all about you last week".  He wasn't staying at the hostel, but had wandered in off the street looking for a bar to drink in.  It transpired that he had been staying at the hostel above mine in Ulaan Baatar as well. 

Tuesday's lesson began with a review of the previous day where I tried not to disappoint teacher too much.  Afterwards I found her walking to the bus stop in the same direction as I was walking to the metro.  She told me the words for bus, metro, taxi etc on the way.  Little did I know that these would turn up in tomorrow's review session! 

In the evening I went to join Christian and Wang for dinner.  Stefan was only in town on a short holiday so he had already left to take a look at Shanghai before going home.  Christian had overspent his budget so we took the cheap option of eating at Chez Wang, who was kind enough to cook me up some vegetables.  Christian collected me from the station for another ride on the back of his bike.  On the way he told me of an uncomfortable experience he had had since saw each other last.  Apparently, two weeks after he had had his hair decorated, Wang decided that the price of Y600 (forty five pounds) was excessive and had called the police.  A deeply-embarrassed Christian was dragged back to the hairdressers with five policmen to investigate.  An investigation that concluded that there had been no wrong-doing.  He said he must have apologised to them five hundred times during the ordeal.  Later this night, the word 'awkward' came up in conversation and he asked me what it meant.  I wasn't sure how to explain it but eventually said "You remember your experience going back to the hairdressers?  That was awkward". 

Also during the evening, we were talking about Chinese stereotypes of foreign countries.  Not for the first time I heard both that English are very good gentlemen and that the French were very romantic.  It's nice to be thought well of, but aren't these a bit 19th-century?  Also, I discovered that the Germans have a stereotype of the English being very boring.  Well, if that isn't the pot calling the kettle black, I don't know what is!!!

I was ten minutes late for Wednesday's lesson.  Shan was always keen to adapt lessons to my needs, for example teaching me early about restaurants and how to handle the vegetarian situation, so this meant we began with a ten-minute practice in how to say "You are late", "I'm sorry I'm late", "Don't be late tomorrow" and "Don't worry, I won't be late tomorrow". 

Afterwards I went to a large shopping mall on the north-west of town.  It was full of hundreds of shops and stalls selling electrical and camera goods.  Staff called out to me wherever I went and followed me right behind my shoulder into other shops trying to get me to go back to theirs.  I had come looking for a small laptop, having tired of the inconvenience and cost of finding an internet cafe everytime I wanted to log on or copy photos.  I picked up a small ASUS EeePC for Y3400 (two hundred and fifty pounds) which was probably not the best or the worst price I could have paid.  It couldn't play big games, but it has 30GB hard disk, a built-in webcam and allows me to surf freely.  Best of all, it's only about 9" by 6" and pretty light so easy to go travelling around with. 

Thursday's lesson for which I was on time for, moved on to shopping in general, including a limited amount on bartering (IE: how to say "That's too much").  It also included shopping for items in different colours.   They were not such difficult words to to master but I stupidly asked what 'purple' was as it wasn't in my textbook.  The word, 'zise', was a nightmare to wrap my teeth around but having been told what it was, I was repeatedly asked to recall it and repeat it in our exercises.  There's a moral in this story somewhere.  Afterwards I tried to go looking for a couple of things to send home with limited success and then headed back to the hostel to try to revise some more of my text book. 

The final lesson on Friday whipped through how to buy a train ticket, which I needed to do the next day, and how to tell a taxi to turn left, turn right etc.  When it was over, a weight seemed to lift from Shan's shoulders.  Oddly, I never saw her looking half as happy as she did at that moment.  She later asked me to never tell anyone that she had been my teacher, such was her pride in my performance. 

I had planned to spend Friday night with Christian before he flew out of the country, but he had zero money and had to be up early so we called it off.  Saturday I had some errands to run, posting used books etc back to the UK and buying my train ticket.  It was good to be able to get rid of the weight of five books from my backpack but I had already built it back up with four more from the Foreign Language Bookstore on Wangfujing, a place I had assumed would have a poor selection but was actually excellent including, surprisingly, a book on the history of brainwashing and nations' uses of it. 

At the train station I carefully practised reciting my request for a soft sleeper to Urumqi on Monday evening.  The woman kept telling me 'no' and trying to sell me a hard sleeper anyway, but I couldn't understand why.  I certainly knew that soft sleeper berths existed.  Rather than buy something I didn't want I decided to go away and try and find out what the problem might have been.  Tickets go on sale about four days in advance and I was later told that they often sell out so this is probably what happened.  I went back a day later, earlier in the day to hope to be one of the first buying for Wednesday.  They were sold out also so I just bought a hard sleeper for then instead. 

On Sunday I planned to go back to the PC shop because I couldn't get any sound out of my new laptop.  On Saturday night I had taken it to The Goose & Duck to surf and chat on MSN while I watched Everton crumble 0-3 to Portsmouth on the big screen.  During the night, the power supply had failed also, although I was unsure if that had been because of the beer I spilt on it.  It had certainly been the cause of a number of buttons on the keyboard failing for a while, but that had cleared up after it dried over the next hour.  Before returning to the shop I had checked to see if it smelt of beer that might have given the game away, but all was OK.  Back in the shop they reinstalled the software and all seemed to work OK.  I fell asleep on the sofa while they fixed it and was out cold for nearly an hour. 

Most of these last days before leaving town were spent trying to catch up on the blog and other such work.  The exception was Tuesday afternoon when my language teacher switched jobs to become my guide and show me around the Forbidden City.  It was full of many courtyards and gateways rather than much else.  I say 'much else' but I don't really know what I was expecting.  It was good enough in its way without ever being breathtaking.  

Late Wednesday afternoon I took a taxi to Beijing West station for my train.  The hard-sleeper carriages were actually quite nice and new.  Probably more so than anything I rode on from Moscow to Beijing, albeit the bunks were stacked three high here and it was all open to the corridor rather than doors to four-bunk compartments.  The train departed on time at 18:44, due to arrive in Urumqi/Wulumuqi in north-west China just before 11:00 two nights later.  I sat by the window initially but the sun soon came down and the view was gone. 

Hungry, I made my way to the restaurant car.  With the help of an English-speaking man at a nearby table I ordered a plate of vegetables and rice but I forgot to explain that I couldn't eat spicy food so it was a bit hot for me, however much I tried to struggle through it.  On my way back through the carriages to my own, a Scottish guy who saw I was western said 'hello'.  Looking around, he was in a group of about twenty youngsters all aged about 17-24.  They had all volunteered to work with a group called Project Trust (were two more-generic words ever put together to make a title?) which placed them at locations in China to teach English to local children for a year.  They had attended a week of training in the UK and some weeks later had flown to Beijing.  After a week there, they were on this train into the great unknown where they would be split into pairs to go to their individuals towns.  They chatted, they laughed and they joked, but there was an undeniable apprehension in the air as they all wondered what they were doing. 

I spent the rest of the evening with them.  By the time I went back to join them the next afternoon, half had got off at Xi'An while most of the rest were going all the way to Urumqi.  Just like the long distance trains in Russia, carts selling snacks and drinks awaited us on the platforms when the train stopped.  I strolled out to inspect their wares, expecting a 10-40min stop as we had had then, but on this train we had just 2mins per stop so I almost didn't get back on in time when I finally made my purchase.  One of the other Scots volunteers was teaching the carriage attendant how to improve her English, but how much help he was telling her that 'river' was pronounced 'revver' etc is a moot point.  How much help he will be to his child students with his broad accent is also a matter for discussion.  Another one from Northern Ireland first revealed to me which side of the political divide he was on by saying that they had to teach "the Queen's English" before going on to reveal the possible difficulty he will have with this by explaining that "as long as we don't teach them slang, it'll be grand". 

I bid them a good night half an hour before the lights went out at eleven so I could clean my teeth and read a few pages from my book.  The next morning I was awoken at nine by the attendant so she could return my ticket to me.  The train made it to its destination almost on time, which was pretty good going for the distance travelled given that there were no long stops built into the timetable to allow it to catch up lost time if needed.  I also thought it was pretty impressive pace to have covered 4,000km, some of it through hills and mountains, in just 40 hours.  Getting off the train I found the Project Trust people and walked with them to the exit where their pick-up was waiting for them.  Then, I set off for the long walk across town to my hostel. 


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Datong, Beijing, Urumqi, Kanas Lake, Kashgar, Turpan, China