I cannot describe quite how awful the air is today. I’ve never been in one but it’s pretty close to how I’d imagine a sandstorm. Since I found myself chewing my way to classes after lunch I have finally succumbed to buying a face mask from the campus supermarket. They didn’t have a huge offering and initially I thought I had stopped at the knickers section by mistake. The masks for girls were lace undies in pink, nude and black. The plain offerings could have been made from y-front offcuts. Frankly I don’t fancy covering my mouth with either but since needs must I went for the y fronts. I have no further comments.
Yesterday I was walking on snow-sprinkled astroturf, today I nearly combusted in just a long sleeved top and my new Tsinghua hoodie. I should have listened to advice not to exercise in heattech thermals but prior to today it has been freezing; thank goodness I didn’t wear my long johns too.
I took a little trot around the northern half of the university, located in part in an old Qing dynasty pleasure garden. The campus is completely self contained and has quite a jumble of architecture dating from the Qing through to the more recent Concert Hall built in honour of the school’s centenary in 2011. According to the blurb I’m housed in the most modern dorms on the campus; the whole north eastern area is residential and a little bit council projecty but softened by a healthy distance between buildings and proximity to the sports fields.
The Qing garden’s heart is a lake with an island in the middle and pagodas and pavilions scattered around. A beautiful white hump backed bridge spans the water on the north side and a classical stone walkway crosses to the island on the west. At the weekend the ice between the two was dotted with skaters and the pagoda on the island housed a group learning a dance routine. Winding from north to south through the ancient park is a river with carved stone walls and long stretches of pedestrian and cycle paths running alongside. The waterways are peaceful and will be quite lovely when the green starts to come out in spring.
The birds seem to like it here already. We have everything from sparrows, sorely missed in London, to magpies, for whom the reverse is true; these lot seem to be a particularly vocal tribe and have reps posted outside my window. I also spotted a flock of unidentifiable birds rustling about in the denuded shrubbery by the river today. They were similar to a magpie in form but with quite different colouring of grey bodies and bright blue tails. Will take suggestions from the ornithologists out there.
Running west seemed to take me into increasingly dense smoke and I naively thought I must be venturing too close to an incinerator at burning hour. When a group of rowdy students chased me from a pagoda lookout it spurred me to head home towards cleaner air. Wishful thinking that I would evade what was evidently an atmospheric change: within fifteen minutes we went from glorious blue skies to choking yellow smog.
Intending to finish my run with a lap of the track I returned to my local football field to find it divided into numerous mini-fields with mixed games underway. Wednesday afternoon seems to be sports practice worldwide with China no exception. On the encircling running track male students in electric blue tracksuits kept pace in ordered formations of ten or so yelling “one, two, hai!” at random intervals. Undeterred, I slotted in in front of three bunched groups. There’s nothing like the sensation of being closely pursued by thirty young men to motivate a bit more speed and distance than planned. I managed a lap and a half of pacemaking and retired while I could still breathe, leaving the boys chugging around quite unperturbed.
It is fair to say that life in a Chinese university seems a wee bit more regimented than it was at Cambridge. Classes are convened with school bells, albeit gentle ones in our International students faculty, and punctuality contributes to one’s end of term result. My BA was slightly exceptional in that we couldn’t really afford to skip sessions: if we missed a lecture we might learn how to talk our way into a train station but be stuck without the language to buy a ticket; or worse never learn to distinguish the difference between hemp and horse. Classmates taking more familiar subjects could easily skive off for a term as long as they handed in their essays and read enough to pass their exams. Attendance and respect remain integral in Tsinghua’s system.
Today I walked back from our first formal schoolday across the snow-sprinkled plastic football grass. Two rows of students stood on the halfway line with slightly bowed heads and their hands behind their backs while a coach gave them the start of term pep talk. The football sat some distance away from the group and it didn’t look like they were going to get anywhere near it for a while. I thought this was a one off but my route takes me between the basketball and tennis courts and as I approached I noticed more of the same formations. I didn’t get close enough to hear whether or not it was a universal spiel but each coach was in full flow as I stopped to take photos and still going when I looked back 5 minutes later.
Our University spirit is Actions Speak Louder than Words, our vice chancellor (or some such official) told us at our three hour induction on Saturday. As well as the big cheese we had presentations from the International Students Office, the Head Librarian, the student rep from the Buddy System, the Psychological Counselling rep – excellent English but that he struggled a bit with “psychological” – and a lady who took us through the system to choose elective courses online in painstaking detail. A number of the systems are only in Chinese characters and around the room I heard the electronic click of smartphones taking “notes”. I was one of the few dinosaurs with a pen and paper and I couldn’t keep up; how on earth can you write down all the menus and information contained in a screenshot anyway?
The hall of some 500 foreign students had been called to order with a loud bark of “attention please!” from a mild looking girl. Probably not the way you would hush a room where most of the students came from but it worked as a shock tactic. There followed a mishmash of University cheerleading and basic survival skills; from the glory of our school and its alumni to a warning not to open the door to strangers.
This was delivered by the head of safety and security, a slim and gently spoken man with a beautifully dry delivery, from whom we got a good half an hour of similar top tips. He talked us through everything from visa transgressions and dire warnings about drugs and the death penalty to an admonishment not to smoke in bed “because it is a bad habit” and not to fight with a drunken man “because it is pointless”. Although the Chinese have “a long tradition of drinking alcohol” the school authorities must have learned from experience that we foreigners aren’t too good at it. He was at pains to put distance between the university and our behaviour should we be stupored enough to climb into the Ministry of Affairs, as one student did last year the night before he was due to fly home. Said student obviously missed his flight and our safety guide concluded, apparently without irony, “I don’t know what happened [to him] in the end.” The younger students laughed uncertainly.
I bought some incense the other day and am most disappointed that along with cigarettes we are forbidden to light anything in our rooms even when not in bed. Sensible I suppose given the weather here is so dry that your room could go up like a tinderbox. It feels a little unfair though that throughout the city they were allowed to set off several tonnes of gunpowder over the weekend and I can’t even mask the smoke with a tiny bit of my own.
Today is the Lantern Festival, the last day of Chinese New Year and for good measure Chinese Lovers’ Day. The school told us in our briefing yesterday that there would be a lantern show today at Yuanmingyuan, the old Summer Palace, just next to our campus and thinking this would be an (evening) event worth seeing I arranged to meet a friend there before sunset at 5:30pm. We bought our tickets to the park as the office shut for the night and they closed the gates behind us. That seemed a pretty ominous sign that not much was happening inside and we proceeded to wander around the bleak winter landscape hoping that there would be more to it than just the strings of unilluminated red cloth lanterns hung between trees around the lake.
Needless to say there wasn’t. I had obviously forgotten that the most hyped event/view/scenic spot is usually a damp squib. Saying that, it is of course possible I got the timing all wrong but in any event we gave up on the park pretty swiftly and went for a consolation dinner nearby. If you’ve read my food post you could predict that from a culinary perspective even that didn’t achieve the intended purpose.
As we left the restaurant at around 7pm and headed back to campus beside the 6 lane highway, a few clusters of fireworks fizzled in the distance, blending with the hazy neon lights. Being a bit of a child about fireworks I was disappointed not to be closer up but we stopped by the streams of traffic to admire for a moment as some paper fire lanterns drifted overhead high in the sky. Then as I walked further along the main road I realised things were just warming up. Localised firework displays began popping up behind every other building while groups of people lit massive piles of firecrackers in the bicycle lanes. Think bonfires along the outer lane of Park Lane and you get the picture.
One family had a smouldering heap of ash at the mouth of a side road around which drivers were steering without a hint of irritation while the son leapt about with a mixture of glee and fear as his father lit little whirling dervishes of gunpowder in the gutter. On the next pavement another family had tied their firecrackers to the base of a tree and watched through plastic protective goggles as they exploded next to the parked cars. All between and behind the buildings more rockets were going off. In appreciation of all of this and in spite of the thickening clouds the full moon managed to put in a jaundiced appearance.
I toyed with the idea of stopping at Starbucks at the crossroads before campus but I’m rather glad I didn’t: as I entered the university and looked down the long tree-lined lawn to our Soviet style main building, our fireworks display – which they hadn’t thought to mention yesterday – was beginning. The huge facade of windows reflected showers of light while the unyielding concrete bounced sound all the way down the faculty buildings lining the avenue. Not being in the Zone of Quietness, where car alarms are verboten, a number began to shrill with the first burst. Those that hadn’t already triggered went off with the third round of rockets: single coloured lights that rose halfway up the building then detonated with a white flash and a thunderclap. The reverberations sounded like a heavy mortar attack.
One of the UK papers reported last week that the government here had requested people to hold back on firecrackers this year due to the pollution impact. As it happens I heard a fair bit of noise last night too which might explain why it was so grey and the air a bit more acrid than usual this morning. The addendum to that dictat is that after tonight it will be illegal to set off firecrackers, presumably until the next festival, so everyone has to set off everything they have before the night is out. If the noise outside is anything to go by then the government’s pleas fell on ears that will be even more deaf by tomorrow morning; it sounds like we’re under seige. Glad I have a pair of earplugs.
Another aspect of China that has changed markedly since I last studied here is, of course, the road usage. I remember taking a school trip to a model village in Heilongjiang in a minibus over twenty years ago. We travelled down a four lane motorway complete with painted lines and crash barriers and empty but for a bicycle coming down the middle of the opposite two lanes.
By now most people have read about the clogged up ring roads around Beijing with cars almost parked bumper to bumper at rush hour. I saw a great aerial photo once of a logjam at a roundabout where the vehicles were practically climbing over each other. Not one could move since they had all tried to find a space through which to manoeuvre their way ahead and the end result was total standstill and several miles of tailbacks. I never did read how they resolved that one but I haven’t seen many roundabouts this time.
While it seems that selfishness might have been behind this stalemate, actually the normal traffic rules, if they can be called such, allow for surprising fluidity and tolerance of fellow road users of all different persuasions; drivers here really aren’t that pushy. It’s possibly just that the teaching, according to the wonderful book Country Driving by Peter Hessler, doesn’t offer them much in the way of useful road awareness to augment what they might have learned on a bike. Practical application doesn’t allow for learning by example either: while the wide avenues of Communist city planning seem prophetically designed for automobile usage most local drivers are still pretty young in the skill.
I try not to venture off campus too much because I enjoy the calm and peace of a relatively car-free existence. It reminds me, particularly in our shopping area, of how Beijing used to be before four wheels became good and two wheels bad. Here, like any UK university campus, the bike is king.
The first time I ventured out onto the real roads in search of my Scotchbrites I was quite intimidated by the four lane urban highway which passes our main gate. Back in Harbin days, when the traffic consisted of large articulated public buses (mayor Ken’s inspiration), so-called “bread vans” (minibuses) and swarms of bicycles I realised on experimentation that pedestrians actually seemed to stop traffic. Somehow if you stepped into the road, the metal sea would part and you would emerge unscathed on the other side. Maybe that was because motor vehicles were relatively unusual and hugely outnumbered by biped propulsion, with bicycles naturally more respectful of pedestrians (unlike in London).
Now, however, although the reverse statistic is true on main roads, the same rules still seem to apply. Everyone takes the Frogger approach to road crossing, albeit aiming to step between the cars rather than over them. As far as supremacy on the roads is concerned it still seems that while four wheels are good, two legs are better. Don’t worry though, I always make sure I have a shield of other pedestrians upstream from me just in case.
I have little recollection of eating in the student canteen at Heilongjiang University in 1992 but it must have happened at least a few times in the three months I was there. By contrast however I do remember a number of meals cooked by my Korean roommates in a tiny electric frying pan. If the mass market food I have eaten on this visit so far is anything to go by then it’s no great surprise that I don’t really remember the last extended period. Please don’t get the impression that I don’t like Chinese food: I love it. And in many ways it doesn’t even matter how low end it is; as my gap year travelling companion will attest I have tucked into many unidentifiable substances all around the country.
So what’s my beef? It’s the lack of variety of convenient food, most notably for the solo diner. British food has thankfully improved immeasurably over the last few years, granted off a low base. Perhaps one of the advantages of having had such a rubbish cuisine and being a small island proximate to the gourmands of all nations across the Channel is that once transport and means allowed we were expansively inclusive in our adoption. That and of course the fact that we had a global empire which, among other things, was more to our culinary advantage than it was to that of those we colonised. So quality issues aside, many a London caff will offer a pasta, a curry and rice, a salad, baked potato and sarnies at lunch time.
China being the Middle Kingdom and the centre of Asian civilisation, depending on your viewpoint, has coopted few other cuisines into the mainstream. Yes there is a huge difference between dishes from Sichuan, Hunan, Guangdong and countless other provinces no doubt but for the palate accustomed to a variety of carbohydrates we’re talking variations on a theme of rice or noodles with more or less chilli.
One of the problems is that Chinese food is really meant for sharing. Even within what is a broad and varied cuisine (despite my grumbles) you just can’t appreciate it if you’re only getting rice and two veg. Obviously traditionally rice is the poor man’s post-prandial filler, so it’s not really what the meal is all about when you’re eating at home. But that’s not the case when eating out on the hoof. So far out of about ten meals I’ve had five noodles-plus (happy days! I never let myself eat that much pasta at home), two rice-plus and finally, after much searching, some dumplings (yes, Mum, I’ve skipped a couple). That last meal actually completely illustrates the point: my plate of dumplings carried 30 pieces and since I had to have some greens I ended up ordering an entire bed of stir fried lettuces on the side. A bargain at 4 quid but a ridiculous amount of food for one even if I did manage to put most of it away.
It is true that foreigners have stepped nobly into the fast food/single portion market with Macdonalds, KFC and now Subway all as ubiquitous here as in London. But I suppose what I am also feeling quite acutely is the lack of anything raw. A salad would be nice. What is the Chinese equivalent of a chef’s salad with everything raw but the protein element and a complete meal in itself (without carbs, you note)?
Not that I am anti carbs either. It distresses me just as much that it’s almost impossible to find a decent loaf of bread without undertaking a lengthy pilgrimage. I did pop into my local bakery the other day but anyone who has lived anywhere in Asia is familiar with the kind of cotton wool/sponge/air block that masquerades as a sliced loaf in most of the region, ironically with the exception of Heilongjiang where they got a good recipe from the Russians.
One advance since my last sojourn for which I am grateful and amazed in equal measure is the arrival of the local barrista. I found the local foreign students’ cafe quite by chance on day 2 (it helps if you look up for signs; there is way more to life than the ground floor here) and sank into a cushioned chair in a sunny window with my book and a sigh of bliss. It turns out I don’t even have to go off campus for a decent roast either. I hijacked a cardboard cup wielding Chinese student in our faculty supermarket with an excited gasp of “coffee!”. “Oh yee” he said in broadest Strine, “I got it on the second floor. It’s reelly good too”.
With that said, I’m off to the Bean Tree for an Americano. I expect, as with any new job, it is just a matter of time before I have worked out where the locals go for lunch.
Day 5 in Beijing and I’m bundled in my quilt in the corner of my room with the heating turned up to 25. Can’t solely blame the smog for my heavy head, then.
My first four days have been a whirl of astonishment on many fronts. I have bought a bicycle (£15), got a prepay phone card (£4 admin fee, £5 loaded up), got 2GB of data valid for 6 months (a relatively eyewatering £30) and stocked up on towels, a bowl, a miffy mug: all the essentials. I remember when buying a train ticket to Xi’an was a three day mission.
I arrived in Beijing at just before midnight and the coal scent hit me the second I got off the plane in much the same way that diesel smacks you in Delhi. It’s pretty acrid and by day 2 my eyes were stinging as I drifted around the supermarket slightly dazed. Still, there are few adventures to lift the spirits like an exploration of the local offerings of cleaning products, I find. It will be all I can do to stop myself from taking a holdall full of 30p rubber gloves and Scotchbrites back to the UK with me. If the household goods index is anything to go by, it’s about a third of the cost to live here that it is in London.
The lovely cabbie who drove me along the deserted highway and streets to my digs told me that I arrived just in time for the first truly bad day on the smog front. I observed that the English are reknowned for discussing the weather but he confirmed it’s quite an obsession in Beijing these days too, for obvious reasons. He left me at my dorm at past 2am, having steered me around the various buildings I had to visit and waited while I carried out all my check-in formalities, backing away and saying we’d sort out his fare “Next time”. It’s ok: he came recommended through a friend and he knows where I’m staying but I’m not sure you’d get a cabbie in London that hospitable.
The people here have all been lovely. Not just the ones in the dorm, who you might expect to be all smiles, but the ones on the street too. I’ve had conversations with students to fruit sellers about the relative development and wealth of the UK, US and China and they are unfailingly polite and charming about my somewhat rusty Mandarin. Nothing beats the glee of the old geezer who keeps repeating “nihao! Nihao!” when all you’ve done is say “hello”. Infinitely more glee from the lady to whom I shrugged “milule” at the end of a looong dead end road. She yelled at anyone who would listen “lost! She’s lost!”
I remember the first time I started to understand the conversations around me in China. On the bus, on the bicycles swarming past. They were, despite sounding so very alien, exactly the same as conversations anywhere else (and why shouldn’t they be?) “so did you call her?” “What time are you getting home?” “My boss just doesn’t get it”. I had a chat with the lady in the stationery shop (that’s what will be in the other holdall: stationery) about Chinese New Year. It was great, she said. The whole family came and they ate too much. The kids were like little dumplings. Yep, sounds just like Christmas, I said.
Of greatest amazement to me has been how delighted I am to be here. I’m sure it helped that on the third day the sun broke through the haze and the sky was blue for two days in a row. But each day I smile at some stern looking face and it cracks a smile back, the city becomes brighter and brighter. It more than makes up for the descent of the pall now that we’re all back from the New Year break.
I took a walk through London on a winter’s morning. The sky was British Standard Grey, the air sharp. I had spent a lot of time walking in the city in recent months and had finally fallen in love with the hidden and obvious charms of my hometown. The walk this morning was to be relatively short: from my flat in Southwark, the Borough, to the China visa centre on Old Jewry up by the Bank. It is a walk through centuries of the city’s history and nearly two decades of my own.
Southwark itself is an early entrant into classical literature and features prominently in contemporary historical fiction. One of my favourites is Wolf Hall which opened up a new world beneath the tarmac and mud from Southwark to Liverpool Street and gave new life to the alleyways around Austin Friars.
Shakespeare, Chaucer and Dickens also stomped these grounds. No more than 150 yards from my front door, but hidden behind the 60s monstrosities that now line Borough High Street, is the remaining wall of Marshalsea Prison. The location, approached either across a bleak pedestrianised zone behind St George’s church and through a public garden or from an alleyway by the John Harvard Library, is so hidden and so unexpected I had already lived in the area for a year before I found it by following a gaggle of Dickens tourists. Dickens’ father was imprisoned there for debt and traces of his works from Little Dorrit to David Copperfield echo around the neighbourhood in the names of tucked away alleys and parks.
Five hundred metres further along the high street and two hundred years back in time Shakespeare used to hang out at The George, now famous as London’s last galleried pub. Half demolished, the remaining balcony hangs crookedly over a breeze block courtyard dotted with picnic tables and facing another 60s triumph. The exterior looks so sad that I have not yet managed to venture in.
London Bridge is where my own history first intersects with my winter walk. I used to meet my schoolfriend and flatmate for early career lunches in Hays Galleria, an 80s redevelopment far more funky than where I worked on Cheapside. At that time Shad Thames, just along the river and where I lived 15 years later, was still a backwater of rough east end thuggery, an awkward adolescence between its birth as working wharfland and maturity as chic loft conversions.
London Bridge itself, whose permanent piling is said to mark the birth of Roman Londinium, is ugly grey concrete and famous for being sold to an American who, according to popular myth, thought he was buying Tower Bridge. Its beauty actually lies in its views: southwest to Southwark Cathedral, one of London’s oldest Gothic churches, and southeast to the brand new blazing Shard, Europe’s latest highest residential tower. The Shard is so eye-catching it is easy to miss the less obvious architectural and naval history it dwarfs on the south bank from the Golden Hinde and Shakespeare’s Globe to HMS Belfast, St Olaf’s and the mayorie. The north bank has a similarly broad offering with the Tower of London, the Monument, the Gherkin and now the Walkie Talkie and the Cheesegrater all crammed into the east and a northwestern skyline that includes St Paul’s and the BT Tower.
I have a no texting rule when I’m crossing the river and every time there is something to enjoy. On that particular walk a tug pushed a barge laden with sand and gravel upriver; a reminder that the Thames is still a working river, albeit nothing like the artery it once was. I visited the Tower Bridge Museum a couple of times and found it gratifyingly full of nerdy facts including the alternative design proposals and the number of times the bridge used to have to lift daily for working boats. I seem to recall it doesn’t even lift that many times a year now.
Borough is also a film buff’s pilgrimage destination, with Harry Potter fans regularly coming to spot his Borough Market garrett. Before him and way more cultish was the shoot-out from Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels on Park Street, a Banksy stencil lurking outside the warehouse where two rival gangs blew each other to pulp through the walls. Three years later a scantily-clad Bridget Jones chased Mark Darcy up the same street, catching him buying her a present at the unfeasibly close Royal Exchange. Chances are she would have caught hypothermia if she’d had to run the full 15 minutes it took me to get from there to Bank in the winter.
Arriving at Bank, I turned off Cheapside towards the visa office. As I did so it struck me as particularly fitting that my City career had begun with a graduate training course on Old Jewry. Now, 18 years later and on the same street, I was about to end that career and start something completely new.