Sunday, April 30, 2006


West Lake

A former colleague of mine is on the first leg of a round the world trip (see the PhilLee link to the right) and is currently in Beijing.

Now whilst I'm using the medium of blogging to highlight some of the differences between China and the UK - I'm certainly not doing so in any attempt to 'bash' China - I love living here and want other people to like it too. However, I feel a blog that simply says 'went to Starbucks. Had coffee. It's just like the west' wouldn't get even the scant readership that I currently have. People don't want to know what I do and how it's exactly the same as the mundane life I led in the UK. If anything, I guess people want to know what's different, what made me laugh, what made me cry (metaphorically of course, ahem), etc.

Whenever people, particularly our clients, come here we do our level best to promote China and particularly Hangzhou as a generally fantastic city and a great place to do business. The stuff about traffic, people making their own ladders, differences in taste, etc. are all things that add local character to China and are the sorts of things I think people are interested in reading about. Every time someone comes to China and talks about people trying to beg from them, ripping them off, selling them endless fakes, and, even more depressingly - the story that Phill and Lee document. It really makes me cringe that some of the locals are letting their side down by giving visitors to this country such a negative perception when China really has so much to offer compared to so many countries.


Hangzhou Taxi

So, tried to go to the hospital to get my leg checked out. Rather than risk driving, we tried to get a taxi but, being a bank holiday week the road-side was covered with people waiting for taxis and all the taxis were already in use.

The problem always seems to me that the taxis are too cheap - at 10RMB (69 pence GBP) for the first kilometre and 2RMB per kilometre thereafter - and the people in Hangzhou are too affluent, so there simply aren't enough taxis to go around, particularly at weekends. It's one of the reasons why having a car is so great!

While we were standing there, some kind chap on a bicycle handed me a copy of More magazine - the local listings rag.

Taxis are a subject of many a conversation, largely because everyone here has stories of being in taxis whilst they're being written off, drivers not knowing where they're going, drivers falling asleep whilst moving, being too longsighted to read addresses or undoing people's seatbelts when they've put them on because they're affronted that you think they might crash.

Interestingly, the magazine contains a taxi survey - an survey of 10 consecutive journeys worked out averages as follows:

Distance: 9km
Hailing Time: 2min (clearly not a Sunday afternoon!)
Lane Changes without Indicating: 11.7
Horn Honks: 5.4
Journey Time: 20 mins
Stopped Time: 2.5 mins
Fare: 26RMB

That's probably a fair average. Certainly some are worse than others and the peak was 23 horn honks and 22 lane changes.

I was just reading on New York Hack that New York taxis are safer than regular car drivers which would certainly seem to be the other way round here. It's not that the taxi drivers here are poorer drivers but the aggression with which they drive would mean that any accident would be that much more severe. Virtually every accident you see involves at least one taxi. I guess the fact that so many are also poorly maintained with bald tyres, broken wheel bearings and so on doesn't help matters.

It's odd. Whilst I'm typing this, that I'm beginning to miss the cut-and-thrust of travelling by Hangzhou taxi.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Health and Safety - 2

Man. Hole.
Roadworks present an interesting twist on the way they're done in the UK. For someone doing something in the middle of the main road, there would be barriers with lights, probably a small tent, warning signs at least 100 yards way, etc. etc. This example shows a cone which, is still better than some of them I've seen - the worst used a single brick in front of the hole - surprised the hell out of the taxi driver who was transporting me when a head appeared in front of his car but he ably swerved round it.

Man. Hole. Arm.

Investigating the hole a bit more closely showed it to be occupied as the next photo shows. I still don't fully comprehend why people aren't as concerned about their own welfare as I would be in their situation.

Anyone who spends a lot of time in China will see so many occasions when people are needlessly putting their life on the line like this.

Man. Hole. Arm.

The scariest have been things like watching people smash up a wall with a sledgehammer whilst they're standing on the wall and with people people oxy-acetylene cutting above them spraying them with boiling metal.

Even simple tasks like cleaning windows can't be achieved without some degree of life-threateningness.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Tom Baker - Confirmed Weird

Well, as if proof were needed, this is definitely another thing that clinches Tom Baker's position as one of the wierdest and funniest people on the planet.

I picked this up in Singapore a couple of months ago but have taken the chance of being sofa-bound to read it. OK - it's semi-obviously a kids book but I'm a huge Tom Baker fan and thought it worth a read and, it was.

It would be easy to imagine that the book came from an inspired thought whilst the author was down the pub and upon returning that the whole thing was poured onto the page in a single, mad sitting. I know nothing to compare it to, although I don't make a habit of reading kids books. The sort of people that read kids books (e.g. Harry Potter) but feel the burden of shame for doing so and wish to pay top dollar for 'adult covers' on the books will be relieved at the discreet cover.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Babylon 5

Babylon 5 is now available on DVD - and by Babylon 5, I don't just mean the series, or the films, I mean the whole shooting match - even the follow-up series, Crusade!

Much like my post about podcasting, it's odd when you're cut off from quality media in your own language. OK, films are available, one-way-or-the-other but you don't always want to watch feature films. Sometimes you just want television and radio programmes.

Now I probably shouldn't be getting too excited about this because I've seen most of it before but it's just too exciting. It's a really well put together set and well worth the money for 41 DVDs.

Sadly, there is one downside. I've started watching this as I'm sofa-bound with a crippling pulled quadriceps muscle injury in my right leg and I've realised that one of the discs is missing and one disc is duplicated. My appeal to Amazon (who sent me the 41 disc set from the UK) to send only the missing disc has fallen on automated ears who have dispatched a whole new set of 41 discs out to China. They're paying for all the postage so there's no quibbling but points deducted from Amazon for lack of a personal customer experience.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


Originally uploaded by Ambling Sheep.
The pace of construction in China is simply relentless - in the UK you might see one or two buildings going up in the average city. It's no surprise to anyone who lives in China to hear statistics about China being the largest importer for Steel and Concrete in the world. I've also heard the the lifespan of a building in China is about 15 years which is far removed from the figure in the UK.

As there are new buildings being constructed on two sides of our office that seems quite plausible. Things just move so fast. I've been to shops that were in full operation one day and come back the next to find that they've been demolished.
Bamboo Scaffolding

It would seem likely that a fair amount of the steel imported goes into the production of scaffolding. There must be millions of kilometres of scaffolding in China. OK, some buildings still use Bamboo scaffolding but only for short buildings.

The biggest drawback because of the constant construction is the constant presence of dust in the atmosphere. Park outside in a light rain and your car is immediately covered in grey blotches. To keep the dust levels down there are trucks that drive around playing songs like 'Happy Birthday' and 'The Holly and The Ivy' whilst washing road, cyclists and pedestrians at the same time. So - if you're outside and hear music coming towards you - run!

Monday, April 24, 2006


Pizza Hut

I have suffered at the hands of my cleaner before - she volunteered to pop to Pizza Hut to buy a pizza for me. I asked for Pepperoni.

When she returned I thought the pizza smelt a bit odd before I even opened to box. She then explained that the salesperson had suggested that their new 'special' was even tastier than pepperoni so she'd bought that instead. Turned out to have slices of eel on it.

I was reminded of that this morning when I woke up dreaming of having a 'Stuffed Crust' pizza, only it wasn't stuffed with cheese but instead they'd wrapped a whole eel into the crust. Not a great way to wake up.

There are a number of 'speciality' pizzas here though that seem designed for the local market - as you certainly don't find them elsewhere. Trout pizza - for example. I had a tuna pizza the other day that was covered in crab and, like a lot of other things, loads of 1000 island dressing.

I think the show-topper for me is still 'Starfish Pizza' - a pizza covered in small, whole, brightly coloured starfish. I'm shuddering slightly at the thought of it.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Driving in China - The Countryside

Sunday was the office field-outing to Qingshan Lake and the source of Taihu Lake. More of that, later (and there are photos here).

This entry is just focusing on the journey and, for you dear reader, a better chance to get a view of things in China that you wouldn't see that often back home.

The journey was off to a reasonably bad start as the main road was being renovated for, at a guess, 25km. Still, I had P, D and M for company so it was enjoyable anyway. Never seen so much scaffolding.

The road leaves Hangzhou and heads west-ish through mostly fields, villages and farmhouses. I'm still struggling to understand why, given the fact that the existing road was bordered mostly by nothing much, that they have gone to the expense of starting to build an elevated road above the existing road, rather than make the existing road wider and flatter?

You do encounter some interesting travelling companions on the road - the truck pictured above was carrying bamboo poles that were twice the length of the truck.

The next truck was carrying twice it's volume in cardboard. Other trucks not pictured were piled a metre above the height of the truck with rocks, chairs, you name it.

Clearly it's not too good an idea to stray too close to the edge of the road as it appears, here, that this truck simply caused the edge of the road to break away with disastrous consequences to truck, driver and their load of rocks.

On route to Qingshan Lake we did stop and ask for directions and were directed off the lovely new freeway onto a small lane which soon became a dirt track. When we asked again we were told by a man on a bicycle that he'd go down this even smaller lane. Good job I bought an SUV. Ploughing on down through thick mud eventually brought us out at... the freeway.

The last picture, on the way back, actually shows the signposted road from Lin'an to Hangzhou - for some reason the road was again replaced with potholed dirt track for quite some period.

Incidentally, I repeated the 'Shoe shine' joke in the car only to be thumped by D who thought I'd said chu sheng - a nasty Chinese insult. I will keep trying the phrase 'Shoe shine' on other people and report back any interesting findings.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Fifth Fun

Fifth Avenue is a slightly bizarre 'Western' restaurant with many interesting characteristics such as the food, the menu, the service and the music. It does seem to have become slightly more 'ordinary' recently as a result of them removing the 'wedding march' from the lunchtime music and getting rid of the fake leopard.

One of the funniest incidents is documented on Troubled Diva (#2).

As it appears to have been getting a bit too ordinary it's nice to see that they've done it up a bit with chintzy cushions and antimacassars. I guess it beats trying to clean the macassar off the cushions...

On the way back we were chatting to our new visitor, M, and I spotted that there was a shoe-cleaning chappy standing behing M trying to get his attention. Clearly M has been studying some Chinese as I said "Shoe shine" to which he responded "you're welcome"...

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Is it me...?

Or are people getting shorter these days?

Monday, April 17, 2006

Missed Opportunity?

I can't help but think that we missed a good business opportunity here...

Imagine, it's 1998 just before the World Cup. Wouldn't this have made a great brand for bathroom products. You could even get Fat Les to endorse it...

Softball - Practice 1

We're organising an inter-company softball tournament at the moment. It's proving quite interesting. There are a few hurdles to clear:

1) The local sports field (belonging to the Technical University) is simply awful. It's covered in bits of rubble and part of it is covered in clover nearly a foot high.
2) Very few of the staff know how to play
3) I haven't played for 20 years

After the first practice, I have to say I'm struggling with the fact that I'm hideously unfit as well. I certainly ache today after only a few hits and a bit of running about. Hopefully things will improve...

The staff that came showed some promise though so hopefully we'll be able to have a decent match in a few weeks.

Here's some useful vocabulary.

softball 垒球 lěi qiú
softball field 垒球场 lěi qiú chǎng
infield, diamond 内场 nèi chǎng
outfield 外场 wài chǎng
fair territory 界内地区 jiè nèi dì qū
foul territory 界外地区 jiè wài dì qū
foul line 边线 biān xiàn
base lěi
home base 本垒 běn lěi
first base 一垒 yī lěi
second base 二垒 èr lěi
third base 三垒 sān lěi
home plate 本垒板 běn lěi bǎn
pitcher's circle 投手圈 tóu shǒu quān
glove 手套, 分指手套 shǒu tào , fēn zhǐ shǒu tào
mitt 合指手套 hé zhǐ shǒu tào
bat 球棒 qiú bàng
mask 护面 hù miàn
chest protector 护胸 hù xiōng
helmet 护帽 hù mào
softball player 垒球运动员 lěi qiú yùn dòng yuán
pitcher 投手 tóu shǒu
catcher 接手 jiē shǒu
fielder 守场员 shǒu chǎng yuán
baseman 守垒员 shǒu lěi yuán
shortstop 游击手 yóu jī shǒu
outfielder 外场手 wài chǎng shǒu
batter, hitter 击球员 jī qiú yuán

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Racist Airline

According to the Chinese Government only 53% of the population speak Mandarin Chinese. The remainder speaking various dialects.

This morning we got up and headed to the airport. It was a lovely morning and the drive to the airport went smoothly. After the hideously cramped journey we had on the way down, I asked if we could have an exit row.

Seemed like a simple request and there was a list, in English and Chinese, of the qualifications to sit in the Exit row - usual stuff about being physically capable, able to hear, able to unsterdand (sic) instructions. We were told 'no'. When I asked (in Chinese) why not, the answer was 'Foreigners are not allowed to'. When I said this was ridiculous she said it was company policy.

Now, given that almost half of the population of China don't speak standard Chinese, and they print the instructions in English and don't mention a requirement to speak Chinese what other conclusion should I draw other than the fact that either the woman on check-in or China Southern Airlines or both are, actually, racist.

So as to avoid causing a fuss and risk embarassing E I let it lie. Clearly I'm no Rosa Parks.

Food bad. Flight bumpy including constant rolling from side-to-side during both take-off and landing. After all that the legroom was better on this plane (A320) than the way down (757).

The landing typified landings on internal flights in China. I don't know what it is but the second the plane touched the ground you could hear the rattle of seatbelts being unclicked all round the plane whilst the plane is still under reverse thrust.

Still - it's good to be home.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Canton Fair

Well, it's an interesting experience. I mentioned before that this is the 99th fair, didn't I. One might be forgiven for thinking that they might, therefore have a fair amount of practice and got the whole thing down to a fine art, mightn't one. That would be a mistake.

EW and I queued for four, yes that's right, four hours to get inside. I had a preprinted letter of invitation but had to queue to get my badge, because that's easier for them then posting it out.

The queue was that bad that fights broke out twice. It was a complete farce.

By 2pm when we finally got inside we were completely exhausted.

There were, to my surprise, almost certainly more people from South Asia and the Middle East than anywhere else. Now queueing is not, in my experience, a strong point for the Chinese generally but these guys made the Chinese look just like the British with regard to repect for the queue. I was pushed, jostled, queue jumped and had to at one point actually turn round and yell at the people behind me who were actively shoving me into a group of stationary people. At one point a guy jumped over the fence trying to bypass the queue altogether. One of the security coordinators ran to him and shoved him back over the fence and was rewarded with a loud cheer and a round of applause from the queue.

There were crowd control measures... There was a barrier that they used to stop too many people from getting into the formal queueing area. Except that it was manned by 5 or 6 60kg security guards who couldn't stop the surge to get the barrier back in place.

The organisers should be ashamed of themselves. People could easily have been hurt or killed in that situation.

Even inside the badge-issuing hall (which took us 3 hours to get that far) we had to queue in several places and a young girl on the tannoy kept shouting in a frightened tone "keep in order! Don't push!" which didn't do anything to help.

First order when we got inside was to sit down and have a coffee. Appallingly they wanted 1 RMB (about 7p) when E asked for a napkin! I also had a single cheese sandwich which, when it came I found they'd made using 5 slices of bread.

The show itself was less interesting than I'd hoped. EW put it down to the places most of the people had come from - I saw people from India, Pakistan, Honduras, Panama, Columbia, Mexico, Iran, Syria, Saudi and so on (everyone had their passports out to register) which did probably mean that people were after lower-tech products than if it had been mostly Europeans and North Americans.

At the end of the day though I had some ideas, a couple of CD-ROMs (probably the most useful thing) and a clearer understanding that it's probably not worth coming back. Another bonus is that I do now have a Guangzhou Starbucks mug.

Friday, April 14, 2006

We're off to Guangzhou!

I'm in Guangzhou for the 99th Chinese Export Commodities Fair. So far it's been relatively traumatic just getting here.

My trip, with EW, to Guangzhou coincided with YY's parents returning to Lanzhou. As luck should have had it our flights were only 15 minutes apart. Sadly it didn't go anywhere near the plan. The Guangzhou flight was supposed to leave at 4.40 but was delayed, allegedly to 6pm but actually took off after 7. They didn't say how late the Lanzhou flight was going to be but was obviously a bad sign when they took everyone off to a hotel. So much for us helping YY's parents on their first ever flight - their's eventually took off after 10pm, 7 hours late.

The airport cafe has, incidentally, the most expensive coffee I've ever seen. There was a big ad for Brazilian coffee on the table for 122 RMB per cup. That's 8.60 GBP!!!!

My flight with China Southern Airlines was unpleasant. Completely full, very cramped seating (made worse by the git in front insisting on reclining his seat despite my legs being in the way), unpleasant food and useless staff. The staff disappeared for ages after serving the food, the last act of one stewardess was to plonk a coffee, that I hadn't asked for, down on my table and wasn't seen again for 30 mins - probably because of the turbulence that started almost as soon as the coffee arrived. It was a complete relief to disembark.

Oddly enough it hadn't really occurred to me that people here would speak Cantonese. I don't understand why I didn't realise this given that it should be blatantly obvious.

The hotel did something to me which I always find irritating - you queue at reception to check in (in this case wondering why the guy in front was being checked in by no less than 6 staff) and eventually get to the front only to be told ' we're giving you and executive room. Please go away, find the exec lounge and queue there to check in. Why can't they check you in where you already are! Still, it's got its own Starbucks so I'll let it off.

Hotel restaurant was hideously expensive (although comparatively better value than the airport cafe) and not terribly exciting. Hope tomorrow is better...

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Strange Sights - Archive Event (2006/01/11)

Answers on a postcard (or as a comment on this blog would be nice).

I'm in the car and we've stopped for some inexplicable reason just after
the motorway toll booths that herald your arrival in Shanghai.

Just glanced at another car alongside us in time to see the following:
-the driver gets out and opens the rear passenger door
-he reaches in and pulls out a full carrier bag
-as he closes the door some water slops out of the bag
-he then pops the bonnet and pours the contents of the bag into the

Where do you start with the questions trying to work this situation out?


I've heard it said that in a city with a lot of high-rise buildings that advertising on the roof of the vehicle is a good idea. I assume this guy heard about that but it's a shame he didn't have a step ladder so the phone number gets more and more stretched as he got further away from the doorway he was standing in...

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


One of the popular foods, amongst Chinese and Ex-pats alike is 'hotpot'. Last night we went to 川味观 (Chuan Wei Guan) - an extremely popular restaurant in Hangzhou.

In case you don't know '川' in the title of any restaurant means that the style of food is from Sichuan (四川) province (probably better known by the spelling Szechuan). This typically means a very spicy style of food.
Now, I've had something similar to hotpot in the UK before but there are some major differences.

First - arrival - you need to be there either at 5pm or after 7:30pm if you don't want to wait - the reason for this is that people here eat like clockwork. Lunch is around 11:30am, tea is around 5:30pm. For most westerners this works out just fine as typically no-one wants to go out to eat until about 8pm anyway. However, I was with my wife and the folks so, 5pm it was.

Second - The Pot - Filled with two soups - one bland, one very spicy. Legend has it that the soup is many years old, i.e. they top up the vat of soup every day with more ingredients. One can only hope it's not true.

Third - The Ingredients - you select your raw ingredients. My favourites are beef, lamb, chicken, spinach, mushrooms, potatoes, nian gao (rice things) - you get the picture.
Other popular ingredients (with the folks, not me personally) are shrimp (live - before they go in a pot of boiling chillis), congealed duck blood, cow stomach, pig brain and snails.

As yet untried ingredients include tendon, hand-picked fat and pizzle (which is exactly what you think it is).
Highlight of yesterday there was also a plate of eel tails (with bloody stumps where once there used to be more eel) which lay uncooked on the table for a good 20 minutes at which point one of them started flapping about on the plate... Gack!

Oh, and they do non-hotpot dishes too. Here's one I've not tried...

The Honda Accord...

On a recent road trip, EW explained that Chinese people have a very dim view of BMW drivers.

In addition to BMWs, he also suggested that Honda Accord drivers were held in low esteem. And I can understand why.

How people are attracted to a car in such a way that they drive in the same, shocking, way I can't quite imagine. I think the only similar view people have of a single vehicle in the UK would be that of the 'White Van Man'.

Honda Accord Man in China is definitely an observable phenomenon. Taxis aside (definitely a few blog entries there) Honda Accords make up a very large proportion of people performing dangerous, aggressive maneouvres.

Incidentally, the VW Bora is, apparently, considered to be a girls car over here. Is that true in the UK?

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Buses and Trucks

The picture below is of fairly typical bus behaviour here - and I guess it's not that different from Liverpool in that respect where the buses are, to my mind, the most aggressive and homicidal in the UK (which is odd because the Liverpool taxi drivers always seem much more courteous than other places)... There are several places where the bus routes are organised so that there's a bus stop mere metres before the bus route turns left, which leads to acts like this. So, this is how we sat for an entire turn of the lights up ahead waiting for the left filter to come on to enable the bus to move.

The most bizarre way I've seen this sort of thoughtlessness manifest itself was on the way home last week. A policeman had pulled up an articulated truck for some infringment and neither policeman nor truck driver seemed at all concerned that the truck was stopped diagonally across three lanes of traffic. Even the cacophony of infuriated taxi-driver's horns went unheeded.


And here we are up-to-date:

How cool would it be to go to school in a castle? Well the kids that go to Song Town HuaMei School can do just that. I'm told it's one of the best schools in the area. Is that helped by the fact that it's built like a castle and sited right next to a theme park?

We send the brightest and the best (and many who are neither bright nor good but who's parents have bucket loads of cash) to esteemed insitutions which are housed in historic buildings.
Imagine how much more other kids might enjoy going to school if we themed the schools - none of this City Technology College stuff - what about the City Technical Citadel or the local Grammar Fortress?

Monday, April 10, 2006

Cultural Differences

There’s always a lot of talk about the cultural differences between “westerners” and Chinese. In this context “Westerners” is, as far as I can tell, a euphemism for anyone who is from Europe, North America or Australasia.

Now this can be irritating at times – most English people don't like to be thought of as being the same as Americans any more than Scots like being referred to as English. There are clearly a huge number of differences between the average Brit, American, Aussie or Canadian but our cultures are similar enough to be lumped together because they are all quite distinct from Chinese culture.

One of the key things (and the topic for today) that makes us stand together and, apart from the Chinese is that we (OK, middle-class people like me) don’t know the value of money. To put it bluntly, we’ve had it so good for so long, comparatively, that we’re quite wasteful with our cash. For the Chinese, things are clearly changing rapidly and it certainly appears to be for the better, but there are still an awful lot of people for whom recent memory is filled with hard times and this still encourages a strong sense, on average, for prudence. For Brits, the real hardships are further in the past so some of this sense still exists in the pre/immediately-post war generation but the 60s changed a lot…

I think an example will help here.

Last weekend, PL and I went up a mountain – you’ve already seen the pictures. When we came back down we were walking along the road we thought would take us out of mountains and back towards the car until suddenly we came across 飞来峰 – a nice park that is just outside Linying Temple. When we got to the gate a security guard stopped us. We explained that we were walking and that we just wanted to go through and out. We were told that would cost 35 RMB (about 2.50 GBP) so what we need to do was retrace our steps for 20 minutes then we’d come across another road then, presumably, another 25 minutes to get back to the other side of the park. Walking through the park would take 5 minutes to the other side. We explained that we’d been walking for more than 4 hours already and wanted to get out quickly and were repeatedly told that retracing our steps would be quick. Not quick enough for us though so we paid the 35 RMB, each, and went in. I’m pretty sure we were getting a look of shame from the guard at the idea of paying such a sum of money when there was a free alternative but my calculation is the cost for getting in and the time saved equates to 3.75 GBP per hour – that counts as worth it in my book.

This idea of fixing problems by ‘throwing money’ at them is fairly common behaviour for a lot of people in the UK. I’ve heard many a lament about how hard it is to get a plumber, gardener, etc. at all in the UK – particularly in affluent areas like Cheshire. The number of people wanting to do this kind of hard, physical work that people don't want to do for themselves is on the wane. The country has virtually full employment and even kids don’t want to mow lawns for pocket money because the work is too hard, and presumably means tearing themselves away from their Playstation. This is why the increased, legal, immigration of people to do these jobs is, in reality, essential for the UK. Compared to the UK, the number of people here who would like the opportunity to be paid to do these jobs (OK, I don’t have a lawn) is, simply, staggering. Another example:

When I shipped my stuff over from the UK, the one thing that was deemed most humorous was my 24V Bosch Cordless Drill as being ‘of no use’. I didn’t get it at the time and tried to explain what it was for only to get laughed at again. Now I’ve come to realise that, if you want to drill a few holes in the wall to install something you can simply ‘get someone in’ – and this typically means having to wait up to 30 minutes from when you made the call to when someone comes round with the appropriate tools – often mounted on a specialised rack they’ve built on their bicycle. Coming from the ‘you kids don’t know you’re born’ generation in the UK – we can often think that spending 200 quid to buy a tool to fix the immediate problem on the assumption that it will come in useful in the future makes perfect sense. To most people here an expensive tool like that isn’t a simple tool – it’s a career.

The ‘you kids don’t know you’re born’ generation is currently growing up here and there are plenty of them too. There are many people around driving flasher cars than I. There must be customers for the new Lane Crawford department store where all the shops are of the ilk of Gucci, Prada, Versace and the like – not that you’ll catch me shopping there. And I recently applied, and was rejected, for a credit card because of insufficient income. However, for most people here this wealth is much more recent phenomenon than for us Brits so people still know the value of a kuai. I think I have an even better example to show how this can manifest itself.

I have watched, on a windy day, a man on a bicycle struggling to ride against the flow of traffic whilst carrying and 8’ by 4’ sheet of hardboard. I started thinking that I couldn’t even imagine how he had ended up in this, positively life-threatening, situation. Then it dawned on me – the reason for this isn’t that our thought processes are fundamentally different. It’s that we’re not starting from the same point. Assume, for ease, that we’d both cycled to B&Q on the same windy day and realised that we needed to buy a sheet of hardboard. Our thought processes would start from “How can I get this home?” but the assumptions and caveats that go along with that are:

Him: I need to get this home. I don’t want to spend any more money than I already have.

Me: I need to get this home. I don’t want this to be hard work. I’m happy to throw money at it if it makes the problem easier. I don’t want this to threaten my life in any way.

So, he carries it on his bike and risks being blown into the path of a bus by the strong, gusting winds. Meanwhile I’ve paid the shop to use their home delivery service and quickly cycled home.

As more and more people have the means to think as I do, clearly more and more people will start taking the easy option. Increased wealth is, as we know, not all good news. People will undoubtedly become more accustomed to the easier life and become lazier and suffer a different range of social issues but it is, without doubt, better than poverty.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Linying Temple

It did cheer up enough to get out, although it was still quite dark which did impede decent photography. Still, a few choice pictures from today attached.
I have to say that visitors to the Buddhist sites in China seem to fall into the same 4 categories I have devised when witnessing people in churches and cathdrals.

1) The Genuinely Devout
2) The I'll pray to anything if it will help. Is this ashtray holy? Best pray to it anyway to be on the safe side.
3) The I don't really believe in this but think I should keep my hand in just in case
4) The Tourists

As always I'm in camp 4.

I understand and sympathise with the campaign JP advertises over on Argy Bargey but it's hard to argue that religions don't have their place when it comes to funding and constructing great works of architecture though.

It does occur to me that Buddhist sites must be particularly prone to being burnt to the ground by the amounts of incence that people burn and wave around. Windy days must be a particular problem. Fire hoses and extinguishers are in evidence more than you'd expect for China!

Spring is Here

Yesterday it was glorious but I had things to do and a lunch meeting to have, making today the last weekend-day my in-laws are in town. Typically, as we'd planned to take them to Linying Temple, it's pouring with rain so we're stuck inside.

This makes it an appropriate time to sing the praises of podcasting.

I've often wondered how much we 'entrepreneur' ex-pats (those who came to China, at least in part because of the business opportunities - as opposed to the 'flake' ex-pats who came to China because they were trying to avoid getting a job in the their home country or indeed simply trying to avoid their home country) survived without the tools we have at our disposal today.

Internet Banking - It's a godsend - I can only assume that people had to do all this by telephone and post in the past - and keep much better records than I endeavour to do.

Imported Food - The 'Shanghai Shopper' supplies all those things you can't do without (and a fair few you'd probably be better off without) - of course the most vital of all the imported goods is cheese.

Restaurants - There are now a wide range of foreign-food restaurants in Hangzhou- significantly more than when I first came here 3 years ago. Still notably lacking a Mexican restaurant though hence the irregular pilgrimages to Zapatas in Shanghai.

And finally podcasting. Now I'm told that, thanks to the deliberate break up of the BBC into all sorts of separate companies, the BBC doesn't own the copyright on much of the material it broadcasts so live transmissions are licenced, as are the "Listen Again" broadcasts that you can access via a streaming feed but you can't record or make copies. This makes "Listen Again" not particularly useful when you'd most like to listen to the radio in the car. Now we have podcasting there are a small, but significant number of Radio4 programmes available to download to your iPod and then listen to in the car so now I have the joys of the Today Programme to listen to on my way to work (OK, it's not the whole programme and it was broadcast the day before but it's a start) and joys such as From Our Own Correspondent. The list is still getting longer but won't be complete until it also encompasses Home Truths (albeit David Stafford doesn't match the legend that was John Peel) and I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Rules of the Road

Driving in China is, it would seem fairly likely, a topic that will crop up here regularly. The key reason for this can be summarised in this extract from the Wikipedia article on Chinese Rules of the Road.

"Compared to the western understanding of right-of-way, which refers to the legal right to proceed forward in a vehicle without fear of being found at fault for causing a collision, right-of-way in China means, for all intents and purposes, that the person who is in the way (first) has the right. In practice, this translates into motorists and cyclists turning or merging straight into the path of other traffic believing that the onus is on the other person to avoid a collision."

The above statement is absolutely true and it is the guiding principle of driving.

Changing Lanes - This is customarily achieved by getting your vehicle slightly ahead of the vehicle in front of the vehicle in the next lane and then just manoeuvering. No use of indicators or mirrors is required - in fact our company car driver tips the rear-view mirror up to the roof to get it out of the way. It has been explained by JM, as 'Schools of Fish' - a good analogy. If the car to your side moves, you have to move to accommodate it. Any problems you cause to the vehicle on your other side are entirely the problem of the car that's in the way.

Emerging at Junctions - I still haven't got this fully sussed but people routinely merge into the traffic flow by just emerging and hoping not to be hit. This even works if you are turning the other way and need to cross the other flow of traffic. Oddly enough this leads to a reasonable number of T-bone accidents.

Right Not To Be Killed - Cyclists are, without doubt, the bane of every car driver's life. They routinely exercise the fact that they believe you are not allowed to kill them as the means of getting around faster. This manifests itself in a variety of ways. Cyclists will emerge from side roads with no visibility straight across major roads with the traffic in full flow and not even put their hands on their brake levers they are that confident that you must not kill them. I have even been on motorways at full speed in complete darkness to find a mother and small daughter, in dark clothes, with no lights (these are also a given) cycling two-abreast towards is in the fast lane. I keep imagining that Darwinian evolution would have reduced the number of occurrences of this behaviour.

Conflict Resolution - Mini-gridlock situations are very common and routinely require the intervention of third parties to resolve them. For example, I have been walking past a nearby hotel and seen a situation where one car was trying to get out of the car-park and presumably got the the entrance just before a car who was trying to turn in. Neither car could move because the other was in the way. The situation then escalated because more cars arrived who wanted to get in. Pretty soon you had 10 cars trying to get in. The whole lane leading into the hotel was completely blocked with cars trying to turn into the hotel or get past them. Still there was the one car trying to get out, beeping furiously at the 25 cars before him to get out of his way because, of course, he was thre first. Eventually someone from the hotel appeared to demand that the bleeding obvious happened and he reverse out of the way.

I could go on. I've been caught (not when I've been driving) by gridlocks that only involve us and another car. My favourite being the five-minute stand-off with another driver when the only thing preventing progress was a small wicker basket. Eventually we were saved when someone moved it out of the way...

Zen-like Calm - The one problem I face constantly is that I get routinely riled up by the actions of other drivers because inside I expect people to drive as if we were in the UK. Now, I know that there's no point because the other driver won't have any thought that I am being inconvenienced in any way. I routinely see people getting cut up and forced to slam-on-the-anchors with nary a beep or a snarl or a gesture. The sort of thing that in the UK might see people storm out of their cars and drag the other driver through the window of their car - so it's certainly not all bad here!

So, time to go and hit the road...

Friday, April 07, 2006

Health and Safety...

Hopefully this will become a running theme in this blog - anyone who's been here knows it crops up in conversation a lot. This of course implies that I'll keep this blogging thing going but from the little feedback I've received I've concluded that at the moment I'm doing this as much for myself as anyone else.

The photos I took this morning of the guys repairing our air conditioning are fairly typical with regard to worker's attitudes to health and safety. That is they only appear to care for their personal safety when they've been instructed to.

To whit - the two guys working on the unit clearly didn't have a ladder long enough to reach the unit so they improvised (something people are far better at doing then I ever would be) but by tying two ladders together. Now I don't know how differently a bamboo ladder and an aluminium ladder would bend under pressure but that's really putting a lot of faith in one's ability to tie a knot.

One saving grace is that one of them is wearing a safety harness, presumably because he's been told to do so. Admittedly it's a belt so, if he did fall backwards off the ladder and it did break his fall, it would probably also break his spine. Still - no need to worry about that - if you look at the first picture it's fairly obvious that the end of the harness is dangling behind his left leg.

My Chinese teacher mentioned today that there are always two or three window cleaners killed in the city every year. I wonder why...?

A Trip to the Gym

No, really. Anyone reading this who knows me will think the title of this entry is a fabrication but it's true. Albeit sporadic.

The gym is superb - best I've ever been to in terms of the things that matter to me, that is it has a huge number of cardio machines, doesn't stink of sweat and it's not boiling hot because the air conditioning works and is switched on.

It does have one disconcerting feature, which is the large number of male customers who, despite signs warning that Hairdriers are for Drying Hair, insist on standing in front of the big mirrors in the changing room with one foot up on a stool, hairdrier in hand and... blow drying their gonads. It certainly makes one grateful to have short hair that dries quickly as those hairdriers have been in many a crack and I, for one, will never touch them.

So, this trip was the first time that I've driven to the gym and I don't think I was really ready for the tyranny of the parking police. As you arrive outside these white-gloved fellas stand to attention and use still, slightly bizarre arm movements to make it clear that you should drive in the direction that you're already driving.

Parking outside was not possible because all the spaces were full so I went into their underground car park and, more of less straight into a space. This prompted a security guy to come hurtling towards us from the far end of the car park and, oddly, he bypassed me on the driver side of the car and went straight to PL who'd just got out of the passenger side. The guy was fairly animated and we started off with a 'I can't understand you defence' but when he starting drawing in the air his meaning was fairly clear. He wanted me to turn the car round.

I looked down the line of cars and most, but not all, had been reverse parked. Unfortunately I appreciate I am in a minority here as most people seem to reverse park all the time. I'm not a huge fan of reverse parking - even more so here because security guards like to help you by standing somewhere where you can't see them and shouting 'dao' (reverse at you) while you hope you're not running them over. He explained that he was very sorry but could he trouble me to turn the car round. I asked why but he didn't answer. I then asked if he just wanted me to turn my car round because it would look better that way and he confirmed that this is why. In an underground car park. I did huffily oblige because the guy is obviously just following orders but I still don't understand the orders.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

A Visitor Calls

We have a visitor. You'd think I'd know who he was but I'm not quite sure - suffice to says it's "Some old fella" from my wife, YY's, hometown. I remember seeing him at my wedding but as most people from YY's hometown don't speak English or Mandarin Chinese I don't really get to know people when I'm there.

Fortunately, for me, we have two apartments at the moment - one occupied by us and, since our visitor arrives, my mother in-law, the other by my sister-in-law and my father-in-law, he's the lucky one to be sharing a bed with our visitor.

There is clearly a strong sense of obligation at work here, which is clearly a double-edged-sword.This means that we are putting him up, even though it appears that no-one that knows him really likes him. It does make me wonder how many more people will come to visit Hangzhou and start by gving us a call? I assume that if he has a bad time then that would reflect badly on YY's parents when everyone is back home, but what is the worst that can happen if he has a great time?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Strange Sights - Archive Event

Incidentally, there are other websites where I’ve seen people expressing the same sort of thoughts as, anyone that has lived here and comes from another culture will have a huge number of, to their mind, weird and entertaining things happen to them – 99.9% percent of people reading them realise that these are just intended as humorous stories, photos, etc. from people that live here and enjoy living in this culture and want to share some of the experiences so, obviously they focus on experiences of note. 0.1% of people don’t see the joke and 0.1% of these people leave horribly abusive comments, accusations of racism, etc. etc. If anyone feels they are likely to fall into this category, please go and read some knitting websites, or something.

One of the points of blogging, to my mind, particularly given the country I’m living in, is to share the, er, unusual sights and sounds – compared to what I consider normal coming from the UK. Going forward I’ll try to be more contemporaneous, but to get going, I’ll post the odd archive article that I’d previously committed to email. Thanks to the way MSN blogging works, there’s no way I can give them the dates of the events but nothing’s perfect.

Interesting turn of events this morning (2005/12/20).

I'm at the Hyundai (no laughing) Dealer waiting, of course, to get my car. I was watching them reverse a saloon car onto their plate glass display plinth. The guy reversing it on decided to gun it just as the front wheels were on the steel ramps. The ramps duly shot away from the plinth, nearly chopping one guy off at the ankles (what is the opposite of “decapitation”?). The front of the car thumped down and the car is stuck, the rear wheels on the plinth, about 20cm high, and the front on the ground.

Hyundai Half on a Plinth

About 25 people have been gathered around the car ever since. Looks straightforward to me. Drive forward about a metre, put the ramps back in, and complete the job. 20 mins on and they've tried lifting the front of the car on by hand (failed to get it off the ground) and now they've just slid the ramps under the front wheels facing away from the car and driven the car up them so that the front wheels are the same height as the back, but a metre from the plinth. Can’t imagine where they’re going to go from there.

In the interim they've simply taken to cleaning it where it is.

Sadly at this point I had to go and pay tax – yes, buying the car you can do by debit card but you then have to take the car dealer, a sheaf of papers and around 3cm thick wad of cash to a small bureau near the showroom. Customary official-bureau processes there too -

Queue at window 1. Give them the sheaf of papers, they return the sheaf of papers and add a new one.

Queue at window 2. Give them the piece of paper you’ve just got from window 1, they swap it for another piece of paper

Queue at window 3. Give them the new piece of paper and the wad of cash, they give you a receipt

Queue at window 1, again. Give them the receipt and they give you another piece of paper, you’re done!

Please bear in mind that the three people sit right next to each other, appear to have the same workstation, etc., etc.

Sadly, after 25 minutes of queuing and swapping bits of paper for other bits of paper, I've returned to the showroom and they’ve actually resolved the situation and the car’s on the plinth. Now I’ll never know how.

Monday, April 03, 2006

A Quiet Walk in the Hills

Went for a quiet (albeit exhausting) walk in the hills with PL, which being China, meant doing so with thousands of other people, most of whom were wearing regular shoes, carrying carrier bags of shopping and, unpleasantly, carring branches of flowering trees that they had snapped off as they passed. I've spoken to a few people about this since and there seem to be a large number of people who find this unnaceptable. Time to introduce the Country Code?
At one point we stopped at the side on a particularly steep climb we pulled off to the side to allow some people to descend. The first people past I assumed to be the father and mother of those that followed and he was the first person to exchange pleasantries with us, which is nice.
30 seconds later his daughter came past and as she drew level with us promptly slipped landed on her arse. The father shouted out "如果看中国的脸你没有问题.一看一个外国的脸就摔了!" (if you'd seen a Chinese face you wouldn't have a problem. As soon as you see a foreigners face you fall down!". Everyone burst out laughing with the exception of the poor lass who was struggling to get up. 30 seconds later the son appears and at the same point slips and falls again. Much merriment from all. For a good few minutes as we carried on up the hill we could hear the father retelling and retelling the joke and laughing himself silly.

Any votes as to what this is? It's in the middle of nowhere. If were were it England (and it had fewer dragons) I'd guess it was a folly. Given it's location, it seems extremely expensive (it's made entirely of marble).

Saturday, April 01, 2006

First Post

I've decided to move my blog over to blogger - at JP's recommendation so you can blame him if it all goes wrong - my main beef with MSN spaces is the fact that people need to sign in with a Microsoft Passport before they can leave comments. So - the next bunch of posts will be stuff moving over. I've only recently started this blogging malarkey so it won't take long...

PL has just pointed out that I can change the dates on Blogger blogs so I have. Everything from 11th April forward will be realtime. Honest