Handan & Zhengzhou
Funny how this should become the soundtrack immediately after the last blog where someone taught me how to play the intro on a guitar. I promise that it wasn't planned this way.
After Pingyao I wanted to go to Handan, which isn't a great distance to the east. But, there are no direct trains or buses and buying connecting tickets is all but impossible so I stopped off overnight. Perhaps the most interesting part of this was an evening meal in a Korean restaurant. I asked for a juice and the waitress told me they had "Grapefruit . . . or mango . . . or melon . . . or peanut, but that's hot". The final option was clearly the most intriguing and it was pretty much as described when she brought it to me. Tasted nice but little bits of nut kept catching in the throat making me cough. .
Taking the next train to Handan was a four hour ride in a typically crowded train with seats. I don't think I've ever seen an empty seat on a train. I was in soft class (the name for first class), but it's still five seats wide and the backs are still vertical. The only difference between this and hard (second) class is that a rough cover is thrown over the seat and they apparently don't sell standing tickets, although the carriages are still filled with standing passengers.
One odd thing I have often seen is that one of the duties of the train staff is to act as sales people for odd items. I don't mean trolleys of food and drink, although those are on sale also. One of them will walk into the carriage and begin a long monologue, including demonstrations where possible, to sell people such items as chiropractic footsoles. On one occasion, the girl pulled a thread from a dishcloth she was selling, set fire to it, then invited me of all people to smell the smoke. Apparently this proved something important. What I find even odder than the whole sales pitch, is that they seem to do a good trade. The Chinese passenger are usually greatly impressed and interested by what is on offer. Most of them will at least carefully examine the stuff themselves and lots of them also go on to make a purchase.
On this occasion, they were selling children's toys and the big attraction was a modern equivalent of the old Rubik's Snake. As the woman in front of me bought three (three!) of them, the man next to me tried to tell me something about them. I managed to convey the message that I remembered having one when I was ten years old. This information was passed on to the woman and one of the snakes was passed to me to enjoy and relive my childhood. With a little recourse to memory, I was able to build the ball-shape out of it, to awed gasps around the carriage from the Chinese who seemed have have never seen a Rubik's Snake before, much less the magic I had just crafted with it. I was asked to repeat the trick twice more during the ride and the woman's friend spent half an hour trying to make it herself. She was 95% complete but couldn't finish it and kept trying to give it to me to do for her but I refused, wanting to let her have the satisfaction of doing it all herself. When she finally managed it, I gave her a round of applause which the others around us joined in with.
Arriving in Handan, Jon met me at the station. I had planned to stay for two nights, but he now told me that a group of them were planning a night out at the ice rink on Thursday, so I agreed to stay an extra night. With this in mind, we went to the ticket office and purloined me a Friday ticket out of town to Zhengzhou before riding a taxi to the school.
Jon works as an English teacher to teenagers along with four other Americans. All of them apart from Erin, who I had also met in Mongolia and Beijing, have apartments within the school buildings. Once at the school, we dropped my bags off and arranged to meet up with the others to take a taxi ride to a restaurant. There's a bit of a situation going on with one of the group who now blanks half of the rest of them when they see her, so there were only four of them and me tonight.
The other two, Laura and Matt, haven't been at the school for as long as Jon and Erin. Matt enjoys his self-appointed tagline of 'The only Matt that matters'. The others were keen to encroach on his territory describing themselves as 'The only Jon that jives' and 'The only Laura that loves'. Matt was quick to object to the alphabetical failings of these new titles. "That doesn't work!" he complained, "There's no 'jive' in 'Jon'!" and, more controversially, "There's no 'love' in 'Laura'!", which drew mock horror and disapproval from everyone else around the table. Back in Jon's apartment we watched a DVD. Bulletproof Monk was selected as it looked so bad we could all have a laugh at its unintentional naffness, and it didn't disappoint.
On Tuesday, after I had enjoyed a long lie-in whilst Jon taught his morning classes, he came back to cook us pancakes and we rode some bikes across to a local park. After walking through admiring the goldfish and the little temple, we found our way into Handan zoo. Speaking to people in China, it appears that their zoos compete against each other to see which can be the most run-down and depressing. If this is so, then Handan's zoo must surely be a front-runner for the overall prize.
A small selection of leopards, cheetahs and lions who have had the misfortune in God's lottery, sit in tiny cages with bare concrete floors and rusted bars. Alternatively, they can go into a concrete room, but neither are big. I'm sure these creatures weren't designed to endure this sort of cold either. Every one of them we saw was pacing along the bars of their cage with a super-quick speed in a manner that suggested they were keen to pick up a shotgun and go on a murder spree through the local shopping centre.
The zookeeper came over for feeding time, bringing with him a mangy-looking poodle-like dog. We joked that the dog was going to be fed to the leopards. Then, considering the prospect further we agreed that, although it was unlikely, we both had to concede that it didn't feel like a total impossibility. I think this tells you everything you need to know about Handan zoo.
There was an option to pay another Y10 to see a panda but we declined, going off to see some Chinese teenager trying to encourage a camel to spit by aiming several exaggerated spits back at it first. Regrettably, he wasn't successful.
Afterwards we cycled to an IT mall to meet up with Ross, who is an English teacher from Australia at another school in the city, and his Chinese wife. The four of us then made our way to a restaurant where Erin, The Only Matt That Matters and Laura completed our group. They always socialise together and make a great group, full of on-going in-jokes and teasing of one another. Walking out we were peering into the tanks of fish, swimming around waiting to be pulled out and cooked. Everyone else peered through the glass on the side. I peered into the open top when a fish jumped out, giving me a shock as it splashed water all over my face. You think it'd be grateful I didn't order the fish casserole!
After another lengthy lie-in, I was up in time for Jon to cook lunch (rice porridge with cinnamon). He then took me along to his three afternoon English classes, for which I had prepared the night before by selecting the best and most interesting photos from my trip thus far. In each case, we went to a classroom where sixty or more teenagers were waiting for a forty-minute lesson. Jon spent a couple of minutes introducing me and then I stood up and showed everyone the pictures, talking about the stories behind them.
Depending upon how long it took me, I then filled out the rest of the time by answering questions, either about the trip or in general. Once again, their first response to hearing that I was English was the old cliche of 'English gentleman'. One student asked me to explain why the English men were gentlemen, which wasn't easy. Other than that, it was the usual mix of 'What was your favourite place in China?', 'Tell us something interesting about England', 'How much money have you spent travelling?', 'Are you married?' (cue giggles), 'Do you have a girlfriend?' (cue more giggles) and 'Do you like Chinese girls?' (cue a crescendo of giggles).
After that, the four teachers took me to dinner to a restaurant where we had a private room booked (unless we were lucky and it was free - it wasn't clear to me). Here, we were joined by Lishy, another American teacher in town. She taught at a different school but had been in contact with Jon via the internet for some time, even though this was the first time that they had met.
Erin left us after dinner as she didn't feel well, but the rest of us took a taxi to the ice rink. I have to say, this was the emptiest rink I have ever seen, but Jon told me afterwards that he had never seen it so busy, a fact he put down to its recently reduced prices. I've skated a couple of times in the last year having never really done it before. So, tonight, the improvement continued. I began by tapping the side with my arm all the way around whilst skating freely, if not gracefully, by the end. Getting better does mean I fall over more though. When I was awful, I was never more than a desperate lunge away from the side wall. Once I was more capable, I would be too far to avert disaster when I lost balance and often concentrated less as it mostly became second nature.
All back to Jon's flat afterwards, we put on some Christmas music, decorated a little tree and ate home-made cookies which he brought to us fresh from the oven. We took a couple of pictures of ourselves, one of which I showed to my mum on the internet afterwards. My hair isn't properly long yet, but it hasn't been cut for six months and I must look different because her immediate reaction was one of confusion that I was showing her a photo of five total strangers. It was only after a second look that she realised it was me in the top-right.
The final day in Handan, Jon took me to lunch with Nick, one of his students who we teased about a girl from one of his classes who he clearly fancied but was far to shy to speak to her. Coincidentally, Erin and Laura walked into the same little cafe shortly after we arrived, so we all ate together while Nick asked detailed questions to try to work out how he might be able to afford to continue his future studies in the US.
Jon had had two more classes the next morning and invited me to perform twice more before I left. In retrospect, the decent thing to do would have been to have accepted, especially as declining meant he had to spend time that night making his own photo selection to give them a similar lesson, but I am ashamed to say I succumbed to the temptation of another morning in bed.
After riding the bus to the station, I waited for my train. I was booked onto a D-train, which I had not been on before. To the Chinese, they are ultra fast and ultra modern. Other than the fact that they're new, they're nothing that you wouldn't expect from a European train and the speeds (max 100mp/h) are hardly fast, but compared to the seats and speeds in all the other trains, this was luxury. The three hours had gone by before I realised it and I was waking up and hurriedly dashing off the train in Zhengzhou in no time.
I needed to change here to get a train to Hangzhou, but the Chinese train ticketing system meant I couldn't buy the second ticket until I arrived here, so I had planned to ride the next night and meet up with Mingyan, a girl who had worked in the Beijing hostel during the Summer but who now lived in Zhengzhou. First I had to find a bank, which is no fun with my bag at the moment, loaded down with too many books from my last visit to Beijing. This accomplished I bought the train ticket and found a hotel for the night. I tried to find an English bar from my book for dinner. I got there but it was crap and sold no food anyway, so I found myself once again in one of these posh coffee establishments.
In the morning, Mingyan agreed to meet me at 09:00, then 10:00, then 10:30 and finally, after her bus was delayed, 10:50. Quickly, she headed off clothes shopping, with me in tow. First into an alleyway market, she busied herself in a basket of knickers before holding up two pairs for me to inspect; "Which do you prefer?". "I don't know!!! I don't even want to think about it!" I cried, trying to find a blank piece of ground I could stare at. She assured me that they were for her little sister, but I still don't think that my style expertise qualified me for this. Next up, we were in a little boutique where I was expected to make a useful contribution towards a pair of boots. When I was called upon again at another market stall selling scarves, I dared to suggest an item that I thought was nice. "That's obviously no good" she laughed. I laughed back, trying to pretend that I had only been joking.
With the clothes shopping behind us, she suggested that I try a common Chinese sweet. I have seen these things on sale at countless shops and stalls all across the country, but assumed they were little meatballs on a stick. I was right about the stick, but otherwise totally wrong. They are infact soft, red fruit or nut things, about an inch across, covered in clear toffee. Dubiously, I began pulling these eight balls off and eating them. They weren't great, but I have to say they were much better than they looked. I could probably learn to like the even more if I ate them more often, but I chipped a tooth on this occasion and would rather not risk a repeat.
We bought a cheap ice cream each in KFC and then sat on their seats for two hours chatting and watching the dodgy-looking guy at the next table who was clearly looking for an opportunity to pinch something from a coat pocket or a handbag. Afterwards it was off to a proper restaurant for dinner before collecting my bag from the hotel on the way to the train station. On board the train, I climbed up onto my top bunk and began the overnight ride to Hangzhou.