Tag Archives: China

More visa chaos…I hate to say I told you so!

I was woken up at 8am on my day off by my teaching assistant banging impatiently on my apartment door (anyone who knows how much I like my sleep, will know that this is starting badly!). “We need to leave urgently, you have to go to Son Yuan to get a new visa. Today!”.

So after the last debacle (where there was opportunity to extend the visa for the length of my contract, but no), I was less than surprised that this had been left to the last minute, but even I had not anticipated what a convoluted and chaotic 48hours I was in for.

I will only preface what I am about to tell you with NO-ONE TOLD ME ANYTHING and, as you know, I don’t speak Chinese. So, here’s how it went:

Jumped in a taxi to Tanggu station at 9am on Thursday with as much stuff as I could shove into a bag (and the emergency Snickers my flat mate threw at me as I was running out the door), for the train to Beijing. No train. Taxi to the Chingway in Tianjin, 45 minutes away (which I could have caught from my apartment at 9.30am and been there for 10am).

Arrived in Tianjin at 11.15am. Another taxi, this time with an incredibly dodgy driver and some other random old man with intensely bad breath. To Tianjin Railway Station for Beijing train. Stuck in traffic due to a burst water main.

Got to the station, purchased tickets and unsubstantial snacks for lunch and transfered to Beijing South. Caught another two metro trains to Beijing main station and made the 1.15pm train to Chang Chun by the skin of my teeth (with a sneaky MacDonalds to boot – which is a blessing as it turned out to be an eight hour journey!).

Late night arrival in Chang Chun to meet my boss (grateful for the deserted train station experiences of the Trans Siberian to stop me from freaking out). No boss. Instead, a nice Chinese lady who lived in St Helen’s, but was visiting family in Chang Chun, collected me in her brother in law’s car and drove me to a hotel which wouldn’t accept foreigners, so drove me to another dodgy looking backstreet hotel which was Korean and “safer”.

At 10pm I lay on my bed, in the hotel I didn’t even know I was going to be staying in, starving but too scared to go out (as even St Helen’s lady said it wasn’t safe and she used to live there), a little bemused and grateful for the Snickers!

At 6.45am Friday morning, I flagged a taxi (using the Chinese instructions given to me by the nice St Helen’s lady) to a Lake in the middle of nowhere, where she would pick me up again. Ding Ding (yes, as in bell), my bosses driver turned up out of nowhere, as did St Helen’s Lady and her sister, Meow (yes, like a cat), with a picnic breakfast. The four of us set off on the three hour journey to Son Yuan.

Approaching 11am, after passing fields of sunflowers (singular trip highlight) we arrived at the toll near to our final destination only to get stopped by police for not having any registration papers (bearing in mind we are in the brother in laws car, with a random driver). After several frantic phone-calls we abandoned Ding Ding with the car and got picked up by the school minibus.

At the school my boss didn’t even say hello, just told me to go “with him” (a guy I’d never seen before) to the Police Security Bureau (PSB), where I had two photos taken, handed over my passport (despite much resistance), all the while being interrogated by an aging and partly deaf American who wanted to quiz me about working for my boss’s school. To say I was a little fractious would be an understatement.

Back to the school for 3pm where I was accosted into taking PR shots to publicise the school. I was then left to my own devices for three hours with nothing to do except be invited out to dinner by a Chinese Army Major who showed me his thesis on Ancient Greek Military Strategy – “It is in English”… I was rescued from this surreal scenario by the nice St Helen’s Lady, Meow and Ding Ding with the car released from police custody and another three hour drive, back to Chang Chun.

Following an inspirational and insightful conversation with Meow, Ding Ding and I were abandoned at a petrol station, got into another cab which drove us into the dodgiest place I have EVER been, to get me a ticket to the overnight train from a guy in a thick gold chain and a blacked out Audi. Money and tickets exchanged, just enough time for a  McDonalds (yes another one)with Ding Ding – eaten in the painfully uncomfortable, yet polite, silence that only two people who don’t speak each other’s language can achieve.

I got on the 10pm train without a passport (knowing that I couldn’t get through Beijing without one) to be met at 8am on Saturday morning in Beijing by the over-friendly Frank (another friend of my boss), who was meant to buy me a ticket with his ID, but he didn’t bring it. He did however buy me a KFC breakfast (savoury porridge) and offer to take me back to his house so I could shower, rest and spend weekends with him whenever I wanted…er…no thanks, Frank.

To cut a marathon 48 hours short…I politely declined Frank’s further offer of lunch and an afternoon at his apartment, waited until 6pm to get a train ticket that didn’t require my passport to purchase, returned to my apartment at 9pm on Saturday evening to a frantic flatmate – exhausted but safe and having seen another part of China (albeit one that I could have probably lived without and could have been avoided!).

Moral of the story…sort out your own visas in advance and always expect the unexpected!

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It’s good but it’s not right

Roy Walker’s classic quiz show catchphrase “It’s good but its not right” from the classic ‘80’s TV show of the same name, gets a regular outing in Asia, particularly China.
From the “Spoony” shoulder bag of the loveable, black and white cartoon dog and “Boos” the well-known men’s aftershave, to the comedy translations found on signage, there isn’t a day goes by without reading a slogan or phrase that leaves you in stitches or just plain confused.
There are a couple of entertaining books by Oliver Lutz which epitomise the Chinese command of English, known as Chinglish and, from my travels in Asia and Singapore (where they prefer the phrase “Singlish”), I’ve picked a few of my own favourites…menus and public signage among the best.

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The most revolting sounding meal was possibly “Deer meat soup added liquid feces in intestine” – not surprisingly came with the disclaimer “Bitter Taste”! A close second was the alternate option of “Deer meat salad soaked in liquid feces in intestine” – seemingly the less bitter option as no tasting notes with that one!
My personal favourite was a Thai restaurant, where due to my hatred of all things Coriander, the mains included “Lamb and corianger”, which Thai food gave me repeatedly.
It’ll be a fascination of travellers forever and the mistranslations will no doubt continue to cause a titter or two, but for now hope it’s given you a light-hearted look at what a confusing place the world can be – even when it doesn’t necessarily need to be!


Vexed, lies and Red red tape

My declaration...!

Despite giving my passport to my ‘employer’ to get a work visa two weeks prior to its expiry, I found myself sitting at the Personal Security Bureau (PSB) in front of a stern but friendly enough immigration official questioning my intentions for the following 30 days.

‘Why do you want to stay in China?’, ‘What is your schedule for the next 30 days?’ ‘You have already been here for four months…that is enough for most travellers, what is there left to see?’ Hardly the entrance exam for Cambridge is it? And, under normal circumstances his questioning would have been a breeze.

However, the small flaw was that I didn’t really want to stay, my remaining schedule was teaching business English to Chinglish speakers who didn’t want to unlearn the mistakes they were fluent in. The only reason to stay was for the money and to work…but I wasn’t allowed to say that, as I was ‘working’ for a corrupt, unscrupulous liar who wasn’t true to his word on any of the things I had been originally told.

It turns out his usual Government contact who passes visas for him was on leave, so we had to go through the ‘official’ channels, which meant concocting a story of how we knew each other and what delights I had planned in TEDA, Tianjin and Tanggu for the next month (and if you’ve been to any of them, you know that is a tall story in itself). He came out of his interview saying under his breath ‘You know Peter, an old colleague of mine, he is your friend, we are friends.’ And then, in an audible voice “Your turn to go and speak to the immigration officer”

The preceding two days I had spent going from one branch of PSB to another, been ushered into a car with three Chinese men and driven around the city trying to get a residents permit, been forced to open a Chinese bank account whilst photocopies of my bank details, passport and most important travelling documents were strewn around willy nilly and given to complete strangers without explanation. At one point four people were all telling me conflicting information (in Chinese) on how to complete a bank form and telling me that I could withdraw my money (or not) in a number of different ways…so I dealt with it in the mature, calm and collected manner befitting such a situation and burst into tears!

So, already on edge, a little fractious and mortified with myself that I didn’t have the strength of character to say ‘stick your job up your…’ and walk away, when the immigration officer said “So how do you know Mr X?” and “What are your plans to invest here?” and the lie fell out of my mouth I felt corrupted, unclean and very alone – not my finest hour!

After waiting a few minutes I was granted a 30 day extension. It all turned out more than OK in the end, but a lesson to anyone else thinking of teaching English in China – check out your visas, get honest recommendations about your employer from other teachers in advance and if you are not comfortable, don’t be afraid to move on!


Teaching in TEDA(ious)

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Tianjin Economic Development Area (TEDA) is not in Tianjin, nor is it 29 minutes by bullet train from Beijing as I was told when I accepted the job (whilst standing outside Hong Kong Botanical gardens in the pouring rain!).

TEDA is an hour Chingway ride to Tianjin and half an hour from Tanggu (rough looking Chinese town) where you can catch an hour fast train to Beijing if you can bear to wait in the queue for over an hour and watch the Chinese chavs fight the customer service rep to get a ticket.

Attractions comprise of a man-made beach, a man-made lake, a lame botanical garden, a park, two shopping malls, a library, two supermarkets (including a TESCO) and several seedy entertainment centres (laughingly called bathouses in an attempt to hide the hookers and legitimise the business in the eyes of the Government). It is a new and affluent place, built for growth and where McDonalds deliver!

The weather is grey and oppressive. Pubs (if you can call them that) are expensive and full of lonely Western guys looking for a Chinese wife or bored, desperate expats unable to find much else to do but drink themselves into oblivion. So, what exactly kept a single, white, female entertained in TEDA for nearly four months…?

Well, there was tutoring the Governor of TEDA’s four year old son – one to one – five days a week. Five hours a day of playing shop, make-believe cinema, watching Peppa Pig, learning the names of fruit and veg, making pop corn, going to the park, playing bubbles, finding fun ways to remember new words, playing cars (or more accurately car crash) and having an absolute ball!

Then there were the evening and weekend classes, teaching business English to senior Government officials, public servants and middle managers of petrochemical companies who didn’t want to unlearn their poor pronunciation. They did however display an unparalleled enthusiasm for role play, debating, asking bizarre questions which regularly blind-sided me, such as “Do you believe that the world will end in 2012?” from the lady who couldn’t even pronounce her own job title! And, the students in my Government class were amazing. I only hope that I taught them a fraction of what I learnt in return.

Oh and there’s my surrogate Chinese family too! I ended up privately teaching the daughter of ‘Great’ (the guy who came to fix my internet). For three months, two nights a week, I taught the beautiful Emily at their apartment and was overwhelmed with hospitality, kindness, iPhone translations and mountains of food (and leftovers) from duck neck to shrimp brains and everything in between!

Last but not least there were my incredible flat mates who waxed lyrical with me about everything from communism to cartoon fights, cooking to quitting and talked travelling tales from around the world into the wee small hours (when we weren’t having a movie marathon!). Thank you guys!

I never intended to spend so long in China, but TEFL jobs are very easy to come by (standards and conditions vary) and the longer you spend there the more complex and fascinating it becomes.

I can honestly say, as much as there were a few “what the hell am I doing here?” moments, it was an emotional, exhilarating, exhausting, infuriating and incredible experience that has left me wanting more.


Hong Kong highlights

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I LOVED Hong Kong. Despite a traumatic arrival, it was a place where acquaintances became life-long friends, I was re-energised to tackle the world and, above all, I had a really, really great time.

After being put in touch with an old school mate through a mutual friend (Facebook does have some benefits), a suggested catch up for coffee turned into two weeks of home comforts, family feasts and an expert expat take on the best of Hong Kong that I will never forget.

There was so much to do and such diversity of culture and landscape… Whether it was tasting life as an expat in Sai Kung or bunking down with the backpackers in Causeway Bay, I could wax lyrical about Hong Kong all day long, so here’s the condensed version…

Hong Kong Island…

Vibrant, bustling and cosmopolitan – a rich blend of Asian alley ways, western consumer culture and corporate skyscrapers.  Whether it’s brand name shopping, top notch cuisine, an evening’s entertainment, a visa run or a walk along the waterfront, you’ll find everything around Causeway Bay, Central and Wanchai.

Lang Kwai Fong and Soho, in and around Central/Mid-Levels (ingenious escalators), are the places the rich kids hang out. It ain’t cheap, but so many great spots to soak up the after work drinkers vibe, sample menus from all over the world, take in the antique streets and meandering markets. You’ll also find Asia’s first comedy club – which is a very entertaining night out indeed!

For a unique experience, the funicular tram up Victoria Peak is fantastic way to see the city and beyond. Not to mention the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co restaurant at the top (which fellow Forrest Gump Fans will find fabulous!), that has some of the best views over Hong Kong from its bar. Nearby, the Zoological and Botanical Gardens offer respite from the tourist trail and is home to many plant and animal species.

Happy Valley Races are a must for any racing fan (or horse racing virgins). At HK$10 for a ticket on Sundays and Wednesdays, it’s a great night out on the cheap and you might even get lucky backing the winner!

In the south, a short bus ride to Stanley, passing Repulse and Discovery Bays on your way, is a relaxing way to escape the city, check out the market, get some beach action and see a slower side of Hong Kong life.

And that’s just the Island, I haven’t even got started about the other stuff!

For a more authentic Asian experience, Kowloon offers up even more delights – from the Rolex and Gucci lined Nathan Road and the infamous Chungking Mansions (where I had the best curry ever – thanks Jordan), to the markets of Mong Kok and Temple Street. There’s also a LA style ‘Avenue of Stars’ with a free light show every evening that illuminates Hong Kong in musically accompanied neon lights!

Over on Lantau there’s the Ngong  Ping 360 cable car taking you to the Big Buddha Temple (and that is one massive Buddha)and an illegal drive (apparently you should have a permit) takes you to the quaint and quirky fishing village of  Tai O.

Towards the New Territories there‘s the lesser known, but fascinating Ten Thousand Buddha Monastery in Sha Tin and for a bit of nature there’s the  beautiful Sai Kung Country Park.

Then there’s the food, the trams, the Star Ferry and so much more…take your walking shoes, extra memory cards and go and see for yourself!

Dedicated to Family Atko…you are the best and I can’t ever thank you enough for making a good trip GREAT x x x


How not to arrive in Hong Kong…

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The general consensus on the best (and cheapest) way to get from China to Hong Kong was the sleeper bus to Shenzhen and then on the MTR…”It’s really easy and low cost. So straight forward you can’t go wrong.” Yeah right!

Collected at 8pm from Monkey Jane’s by a tiny Chinese lady in a pink and white golf buggy, we travelled the short distance to Yangshou bus station and the sleeper bus.

From the outside it looked like a luxury coach. Inside was lined with three rows of stainless steel bunk-beds with thick fleecy blankets. I’d never been in a bus with beds before – an ingenious design, but pretty cramped for anyone not of Asian build. Any luggage not stickered and stowed underneath detracts from bed space, as I found when I tried to pack boots, backpack and both legs into the tiny foot well!

Wedged in, I curled up to watch Jackie Chan’s “First Strike”. Managing to get a few hours sleep in between noodle stops and fretting about where to get off, I shivered my way through the night (the blankets do take up room, but don’t put them on someone else’s bed as you won’t get them back!)

Around 4.30am I was ushered off at a desolate bus stop under a flyover in the middle of nowhere. I had seen signs to the port (you don’t go there apparently) but none to the railway station (as I had been advised to go to). I asked the three other non-English speaking passengers how to get to Hong Kong…nada, so I flagged a taxi and hoped like hell I would arrive at some kind of border crossing!

Driving through the pitch dark (and reportedly dangerous) streets of Shenzhen with a driver who could not understand me, my dictionary or my guidebook, I was totally aware this was the most ill-considered stage of my travels to date (despite having it all written down and even seen iPhone maps of how much of a smooth and easy station transition it is!).

Thankfully we arrived at something that resembled an immigration checkpoint. As I passed through Hong Kong side I realised  I was at the wrong place (the one you don’t go to) and the promised ATM and money exchange didn’t exist, so I couldn’t “just hop straight on the MTR” as I had only Chinese money; the trains were not yet running and no-one could tell me how to get where I needed to go.

I got on a shuttle bus to another bus station, then caught a second bus and then wandered around with all my kit for an hour looking for the MTR.

With no cash, mobile, knowledge of Cantonese, English speakers, cashpoint, nor useful map and it still only 5.45am I was starting to panic (as well as turn puce from the heat and the weight of my bags). From out of nowhere a well-dressed Hong Konger appeared and asked me where I needed to go. He packed me onto the right bus, spoke to the driver and gave me 35HKD to get on with my trip, accepting nothing in return.

Twenty minutes later I was at the MTR station, ticket in hand and en route to my new destination – exhausted, panic subsiding, adrenalin pumping and amazed at the kindness of strangers.

That unknown man is an absolute legend…wherever and whoever you are, THANK YOU from an eternally grateful traveller.


Enough to make me sweat…

Deodorant...apparently!

Despite being in central Shanghai – one of the most cosmopolitan and forward focussed metropolises in the world, finding basic toiletries such as deodorant was somewhat of a challenge. 

Antiperspirant, it seems, is not a common item in Shanghai, even in the most Western of stores. Having searched every supermarket, Seven Eleven and Family Mart in a three subway stop radius I found an old skool glass bottle of Nivea extra perfumed, whitening roll-on in Carrefour (highly unsuitable for a backpack that gets thrown from the top bunk of a train on a regular basis). And, despite my lack of deodorant, I refused to pay 50 Yuan (5 quid), as I’d already been fleeced for a tenner the previous week buying a razor.

So, I finally plucked up the courage to go into the pharmacy and ask! How hard can it be? Armed with my Mandarin- English dictionary, I approached one of the maroon smock wearing ladies for help. Actually, she got to me first and spent the next two minutes following me round in an uncomfortably close manner, trying to assess whether I was about to rob the place or perhaps hoping I’d buy everything that my roaming eyes stumbled upon.

After a couple of minutes of unsuccessfully reading the Chinese labels that lined the aisles and not being able to spot anything obvious, I put my new shadow out of her misery and got out the dictionary to show “deodorant”. To my horror the word was not there, but by then it was too late, I was in the hands of not one but six mature, maroon-clad and well-meaning pharmacy assistants wanting to assist.

Did I mention that no-one spoke English and I cannot speak Mandarin? So, in trying to explain my requirements I ended up acting out applying deodorant and miming “no smelly armpits”, to which they all squawked in agreement about what I needed, handed me a white, blue and yellow box and ushered me to the payment desk.

After parting with 14 Yuan (about £1.40), I returned to class with my bottle of liquid, detachable spray nozzle and what looked like ear drops. I asked my Chinese teaching assistant what I had just bought  – she had no idea! We looked through the items, instruction booklet (which had some drawings very similar to the mime I had just performed) and deduced that I had been given something for body odour – which I should not use under any circumstances!  

The experience alone had been enough to bring me out in a sweat. So, if you’re travelling for a while in China, take your own toiletries!