The Lunar festival in China lasts for 15 days and finishes today which means that everyone goes back to work tomorrow and hotel prices stop being triple the normal rates. So Shifu, Leping and XiaoMa invited me to join them on a weekend break to Shaoxing, a town located about 3 hours drive south of Shanghai. A last hurrah before we go back to school.
Our first stop was the Orchid Pavilion (although it was the wrong time of year to see any of the actual flowers) which is known as the holy land of Chinese calligraphy and has a calligraphy museum.
I wondered why this place should be so special for calligraphy and discovered an interesting tale. In 303 AD the Shaoxing area was a hotbed of culture and full of the intellectual thinkers of the day. One such was Wang Xi zhi (pronounced Wong she jer) a poet who owned some land around which he build a goose pond. Much of his calligraphy was influenced by the geese who have long, slender, curvaceous necks but who remain proud and upright. He became very renowned for his artistic style.
One day Wang invited some poet friends over for a party which involved drinking games. The games went like this: everyone sat on either side of a winding stream.
A cup of wine was floated down the stream. Whoever it floated to either had to make up a poem on the spot or drink all the wine. As you can imagine everyone got very drunk but that night from the 41 guests 38 amazing poems were produced.
It was decided to bind these poems into an anthology and as host Wang Xi zhi had the responsibility of writing the preface. I mentioned before that he and his guests were plastered but nevertheless he took up his brush and ink and in his cups he penned a piece that was absolutely astoundingly perfect in terms of both words and brush strokes.
No one has been able to better the piece then or since and even he couldn’t replicate it when he sobered up the next morning! It has become known as the best example of Chinese calligraphy ever and Wang Xi Zhi, the master craftsman. I guess the moral is that you can produce great work when you are drunk!
The piece of writing was handed down through several generations of his family until in the Tang Dynasty there were no more heirs and it was gifted to the Emperor (first husband of my namesake Wu zhi tian) who thought it was so amazing that he challenged people to copy it. Then he requested the original be buried with him! It hasn’t been seen since.
It was interesting to learn how generations of calligraphers were taught the art. They used water on slabs of stone to perfect their technique and it took 18 vats of water before they were every permitted near paper and ink!
The museum showed the evolution of chinese characters from the old flowing script to the more boxy, angular style used today. I think that I preferred the softer characters as they seem to have more energy and vitality to them.
The museum was set in beautiful grounds at the foothills of a mountain range. so we enjoyed some walks in the winter sunshine (It was about 1 degree out of the sun)
We had a chance to do some writing ourselves.
Unfortunately during the cultural revolution the stone with the name of the site inscribed on it was damaged
Fortunately the locals at the time realized how precious the stele (stone carving with the preface on) was. So they covered it up with boards. They painted party slogans over them and pretend that there was an outbreak of an infectious disease in the area. That kept the Red Army away and the stone has been preserved.
We each had an opportunity to catch a cup in the stream and say a poem.
I know several but I was told ‘short’ so I recited a bit of Australian doggerel which no one around me could understand anyway!
Apparently this game has been replicated in countries around the world amongst the literati.
Shifu bought us all a HuLu, gourd which represents the Tao with its smooth bell shape. It has a heavy bottom which balances in the earth. It expands like our dantien where our energy circulates then bulges out again to be our heart before sending the qi out to infinity. It is hollow and was used to store medicines to help people. You just hold it in your palm and roll it around, like a stress ball.
After this visit to the symbolic culture of ancient China we moved to our hotel where we were greeted at the door by a service robot who asked if it could help. (we were good)
We were well and truly back in the 21st century! China is a country of surprises sliding seamlessly from deep cultural resonances to state of the art modernity.
The next morning was Sunday 18th December, World Cup final day! I did watch the final in my hotel surrounded by some very enthusiastic Ecuadorian supporters who VERY much wanted the South American team to win; it was Argentina all the way. The celebrations after the penalty shootout finished were loud and long and raucous.
I made my way to Yana Cocha that afternoon. Yana Cocha is an institution that Inigo works for. It is a place which cares for, manages, protects and rehabilitates victims of illegal wildlife trafficking in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Yana Cocha receives animals brought in by staff from the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment, which have been confiscated from illegal trade, or donated by their “owners”, who had raised them for various periods of time as pets. These animals are first evaluated by specialized and experienced staff to see if they can be returned to their natural habitat, but if not, they are given the best conditions to live, as close to their natural habitat as possible.
Inigo was there to receive me and showed me to my accommodation. My first night was to be in the shared cabins used by the volunteers and as I was the only male volunteer at that time, I had the place to myself.
Inside the cabin were six beds, with one made up for me. For the rest of my stay I would be in a separate cabin normally used by the park’s vet but she was leaving in the morning to return to Spain. Inigo also showed me the toilet/shower block used by the volunteers. Whilst pretty basic it did have hot water…usually!
There is also a communal dining area for the volunteers with Wi-Fi access, the only place in site where it is accessible. Three meals a day are provided Monday to Friday and the volunteers make their own provision for the weekends. They can order food in, go out and eat in the town or they can cook basic items in the kitchen area of the communal area.
I think at this point I should pass on some information about the volunteers. They come from all over the world to spend as much time as they are willing to pay for (approx $180 per week for board & lodging); one week; one month or in some cases three months. This is usually arranged through companies in Europe or the USA that specialise in placing people for this type of activity. Others book directly with the park. Many of the volunteers were backpacking around Central and South America and stopping off here to break their journey and learn about animal conservation. The day to day interactions between the volunteers was conducted mainly in English but outside the park it was Spanish all the way.
Inigo had secured the position of volunteer co-ordinator after spending two weeks as a volunteer earlier in 2022 through Kendal College. He had been working here for four months by the time I arrived. The park is owned by a single family and the day-to-day management is under the control of a lovely chap called Raul, a native of Barcelona who has an academic background in animal conservation. He is also married to one of the park owner’s daughters.
On the Monday morning I found out what is required of the volunteers. A 7.30 am breakfast followed by a run down of the days’ duties. Depending upon how many volunteers there are at any time, they are split into teams; for this week as there were only a few of us, teams of two. Each team is assigned an animal group for the day who they will have to feed, clean out if required and in some cases engage with the animal to prevent loneliness and promote activity. My first day was spent under Inigo’s wing.
I had monkeys and nocturnals. Generally feeding is done twice daily and cleaning once. The work starts in the cutting room where the food is prepared. Each animal in the park has a daily food schedule based on the animal’s age, size or specific needs. In the cutting room we prepared the fruits, seeds, meat etc to each schedule and went out, prepared buckets in hand to meet the animals.
The monkeys round involved squirrel monkeys, spider monkeys and chorongos (better known as woolly monkeys). To get to the squirrel monkeys involved taking a raft over to their island.
The chorongos were wonderfully playful and clambered all over us.
The spider monkeys liked to engage with the volunteers but we had to be very careful when working with them. They are very strong and can be unpredictable so we were not allowed to be in their enclosure with them and had to ensure that they were secure behind a locked gate before we could enter their feeding enclosure. The spider monkeys in the park were a family consisting of two adults and their offspring, a two-year-old and an infant of four months old. The adults had been rescued from a circus where they were ‘trained’ using electric shocks and suffered terribly. Raul had nursed them back to health and with the children arriving things were going well; until the week before my arrival. The male adult became sick and within 24 hours had died. An autopsy showed no signs of attack by another animal; his stomach did not have any undesirable foodstuffs in it (a possibility as visitors sometimes try to feed the animals). It was thought that some form of toxicity was responsible; maybe from a poisonous insect or possibly a poisonous frog. It was a real shock to the staff. The next problem was the female adult. Rosy, was still nursing the infant but the loss of her mate hit her terribly and she would not engage with staff; she would not eat despite everybody’s best efforts. Rosy died of grief the second day I was there. Whilst this second tragedy hit everybody hard our efforts now had to be to take care of Juanita, the two-year-old and Lpecita, the infant. Lpecita was taken into the quarantine area where she could be fed and kept warm overnight. (We may have been on the equator but at night the temperature can sometimes drop to 10 degrees C and babies can die of the cold). Also, Juanita had no experience of caring for an infant and could easily be too rough and hurt Lpecita.
Ayla with Lpecita in the quarantine area.
Each day I experienced interactions with the many animals in the care of Yana Cocha; mammals, birds, carnivores. I think my favourite was Yala, an Andean Fox who was so happy to see the volunteers each day that she became like a puppy, jumping up on our backs, demanding tummy rubs and kisses. Yala was also in need of activity so we would run around her compound letting her chase us so that she did not become too sedentary.
My other favourites were the toucans. Yana Cocha has three, one of them, Tuco, is a real naughty chap who will try to bite you every time you enter his enclosure but he was a real character (fortunately toucan bites do not hurt).
The interactions with the animals were wonderful but we were there to work so at the end of the day the cleaning of cutting room, the chopping boards and feeding buckets had to be done.
It wasn’t all work though, one evening the kids (my term for the volunteers who ranged in age from 19 to 37) decided to go out clubbing in town. The local town, Puyo, was a $3 taxi ride away. If, like us that evening, there needed to be multiple occupancy of the taxi then the Ecuadorian solution was a taxi pickup truck, with 4 people inside and as many as you could fit in the back (not sure this was strictly legal in Ecuador but it’s what happens). The evening skies turned amazing colours.
Puyo is a town with a population of 36,600 and does have its own pub/club area. We started off with shots in a bar called Leprechauns (the most unIrish, Irish bar I’ve ever been to) before getting our groove on in a club called Mambo.
It is many years since my clubbing days and I’m pretty sure I was the only pensioner in there! But it was great fun and to my surprise I was able to get up for the 7.30 breakfast call the next morning.
My final Saturday was Christmas eve and the owners asked if we would like to go to their other site called Tamandua, which was an ecolodge set in 70 hectares of primary Amazon rain forest that was also used as a release site for animals that were deemed suitable for returning to their natural environment. We would travel there in the afternoon and stay overnight and have a Christmas day breakfast there. We would also experience the release of a three toed sloth back into the jungle. Most of the volunteers said yes (it was going to cost $40 each) and we bundled ourselves into another pickup taxi for the hour’s drive to the lodge. We could only get to within 1 km of the lodge by vehicle so we walked the extra distance. The setting was spectacular and the views stunning.
The lodge only has electricity between 6pm and 10pm so after that we had to make do with firelight until the early hours of Christmas morning.
Unlike my fellow travellers I managed to get up early to watch the humming birds visiting the flowers and bushes around the lodge (unfortunately they were too quick for me to get any good photographs of them). After breakfast we assembled for the release. Inigo took us into the jungle a short distance from the lodge and scouted out suitable trees on which to let our sloth go. Finally he was satisfied and we brought the basket to the tree and opened the cage door…our sloth was having none of it! It took nearly a half hour of coaxing and tipping of the basket before it decided to grab hold of the tree trunk, but once it did it was off, up into the canopy like…like someone who had all the time in the world.
All too soon it was Monday morning and I had to say my goodbyes to Inigo and the volunteers. I was full of admiration for these intrepid travellers who with varying degrees of Spanish had been jumping from country to country with confidence and a desire to find out what was over the next horizon. I was also full of admiration for Inigo who had taken on this job 9000km away from home with scant knowledge of Spanish but has thrived. He organises the volunteers’ daily duties, acts as a right hand to Raul and obviously cares very much for the animals in his charge. His understanding of Spanish now is also impressive. I would like to thank him and the rest of the volunteers I worked with for their understanding because despite my thinking that preparing and distributing food to the animals would be fairly easy, it is in fact very physical and early in the week I was exhausted by the end of each day. By my last rounds I found it much easier but I could not have done it without everyone’s support.
On leaving Yana Cocha I once again undertook the 5-hour journey by taxi to Quito. This time in daylight in a car whose brakes worked (thankfully) … but the driver still drove like a man possessed. I had booked an hotel in the Centro Historico area of Quito, the capital of Ecuador and it is regarded as the least altered and best-preserved city centre in the Americas. It started out as a conquistador town called San Francisco de Quito in 1534 with many buildings from this period still there today. The area while being the home to many thousands of locals is very much a tourist destination with many bars, cafes and restaurants to be found. The position gives quite wonderful outlooks.
The city of Quito sits at nearly 3000m above sea level, the second highest capital city in the world. This means that altitude sickness can be an issue for sea level dwellers like me. I did not suffer from any sickness fortunately but even walking up small inclines caused me to get short of breath and when I decided to walk up to the Basilica del Voto Nacional that was on the top of a steep set of streets, my lungs really struggled to catch a breath (I needed a 10 minute sit down before I could continue). A strange experience even for a seasoned traveler like me!
One thing to note from my time here was the security situation. All around the Centro Historico was an enhanced police presence; there seemed to be police officers on every corner. At one point I was approached by a lady from the tourist police who asked where I was from and advised me to stay within this area as it was not safe for tourists if they wandered into adjacent districts.
Was this area safe due to the large police presence, or, was it so unsafe that it needed a large police presence. Maybe both were true. Comically, on my last day I saw some police officers doing filming on the street. I stopped to watch and one of the officers approached me and asked if I would do a piece to camera with them. I of course agreed and three takes later it was in the can. I was told it would be uploaded onto the Policia Nacional Facebook page the next day. It appeared five days later, but my part was cut. Maybe my passing resemblance to Walter White from Breaking Bad had something to do with it.
I spent three nights in Quito and used it to relax, sit in some lovely cafes and watch the world go by. A great ending to an unforgettable experience.
For additional information about Yana Cocha go to:
Lisa has asked me to be a guest contributor so that I can tell the world about my adventures in the Ecuadorian jungle during Christmas 2022.
As a bit of background, I returned back to the UK from Shanghai in the summer of 2022 just as our youngest son, Inigo, took off to Ecuador to take up a position as volunteer co-ordinator at a wildlife conservation park in the Amazon jungle. I invited myself to join him for Christmas! (I did ask his permission). I flew out of Manchester on the 17th Dec via Amsterdam and arrived in Quito, the capital of Ecuador at 4.15 pm.
Inigo had arranged a taxi to pick me up from the airport but there was no one with my name on a board at arrivals. Dang! Once on the airport wifi the taxi driver contacted me, in Spanish, to say he was there but he still did not manage to find the pale, white bearded foreigner standing by the only Christmas tree in arrivals for over twenty minutes! However, we did eventually meet up and he took me to our taxi; a small but seemingly reasonable looking Chevrolet.
My opinion changed rapidly as soon as we began to move and came to our first junction (still in the airport car park!) The brakes screamed as metal on metal tends to! Oh Lord, what have I let myself in for? He drove for about fifteen minutes and then took me into what appeared to be an industrial estate of some kind, pointing to the front of the car and explaining something to me in Spanish, which I do not speak! A few turns later he drove into the forecourt of what looked like a car workshop, leapt out of the car and went deep into conversation with a man who was under the bonnet of another car in the yard. Returning, he gestured to me to get out of the car as the mechanic was going to change the brakes. Phew!
The car was put on a lift and the front wheels removed. Excellent I thought, this will calm my nerves, new brakes. The old pads were removed and the mechanic’s wife sent off to find new ones. A ten-minute wait until she returned but apparently they did not have any of this type in their stock! The worn-out pads were put back on the car. Gulp. My driver shrugged in the way that only Ecuadorians can, got back in the car and off we went again.
The journey should take between four and five hours Inigo told me and we were only thirty minutes into it. By now it was getting dark. On the equator, the days and nights are generally of the same length so sunrise and sunset don’t change much throughout the year. Inigo had told me that Ecuadorian taxi drivers are by nature somewhat reckless in their approach to driving and my driver was no exception. He drove fast; very fast; around corners, overtaking, any gap he thought he could squeeze the Chevrolet into. I know that UK roads are poor with rough surfaces and potholes, but, when Ecuadorian roads have potholes, they can be like mini ravines in the road. All the drivers weave across the road to miss these holes but sometimes they miscalculate; my driver included. Going around some hair pin bends he hit a huge hole in the road; bang, the car lurched to the left and we came to a stop. Driver gets out, goes to the front driver’s side wheel and slams his hand onto the car wing. We have a puncture. There were actually two bangs at the time so I feared we had lost two tyres but fortunately it was just the one. Time to change the wheel. My suitcase out of the boot and spare wheel out. I think at this time I should tell you that the darkness was total. It was pitch dark. Our car had its lights on and hazards too but they seemed inconsequential in the all-consuming blackness; until the lorries came. The road we were on was not a major road; just an ordinary two-way road but still a much used artery for freight and every thirty seconds or so a lorry would come at speed from behind us or towards us around a bend. I felt somewhat exposed holding a phone torch over the driver as he changed the wheel in the middle of the road. I wasn’t sure that I was going to make it to Puyo…
But we did it and got on our way. After another two hours we drove into what looked like a pit stop. A petrol station on one side of the road and a row of small shops and cafes on the other side with lorries and coaches parked up nearby. We drove off the road into a gap between two properties (at this point I honestly thought the driver was taking some sort of back route to avoid a police checkpoint) but he did stop; it was a 24h tyre shop. Explaining our woes to the mechanic, once again the car was lifted up, this time to check that the rear driver’s side tyre hadn’t in fact been damaged by the pothole and to replace the damaged tyre in our boot. We once again had five functioning tyres for our four wheels. Did I mention the brakes weren’t working properly, yes all through this the sound of metal on metal was the background to the journey. Still two and a half hours driving to go!
The rest of the journey was pale by comparison; excessive speeding, overtaking on blind corners, skirting around bits of missing road, all this was now just commonplace. Finally, we approached Puyo, the town where I was to spend the night in a local hotel before joining Inigo:
My driver did not know where the hotel was. He had multiple attempts to punch the address into the Satnav on his phone (whilst still driving of course) but could not find it. He resorted to phoning a friend. A result; he now knew where to go so at about 11pm we pulled off the road into the hotel. Fortunately, I had told them I would be arriving late so there was someone there to meet me. My five-hour trip cost me 100 USD (Ecuador uses US Dollars as its currency) and my relief as I fell into my hotel bed was overwhelming. At this point I realised that my jaw was aching; for the whole trip I had been clenching my jaw and only once I relaxed did I feel the pain!
This Christmas holiday I have had the pleasure of attending a winter Taiji retreat on Chonming Island once more. It is my happy place as here I can both relax and feel energized at the same time. With covid sweeping the land our numbers were depleated (only 3 of us) but it made for a small intimate group with many opportunities for learning.
The weather was freezing cold but in the winter sunshine we had some bracing but enjoyable outdoor training sessions. We do all resemble the michelin man as we layered up!
I loved the early morning practices. It was so invigorating to do my early wake up exercise as the sun rose across the lake.
On this retreat we completed the Qi Gong (working the energy) exercises that we began in October. We also did some early evening Zen meditation walks (in the dark so no photos). This started off being very hard as I discovered a weakness in my left ankle which made me wobble and lose balance whenever I stepped out on that side. This weakness on my left side is actually an industrial injury! From the library!!
From years and years of shelving books, with a heavy pile in my left hand I would take a book from the top of the pile and twist slightly on my left knee and ankle to put it in the right place on the shelves. I had no idea that this twisting was happening but it has resulted in my joints being out of alignment and the meniscus in my knee becoming worn. As a result I find that some of the movement I need to do are difficult because of this weakness. Amazingly, the Zen walking for half an hour each evening had a noticable strengthening effect. I am going to keep it up now that I am back home.
In the afternoons we used the little house by the lake for theory and philosophy talks. This time we learned about the 5 Elements theory of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water and how they are inter-related with supporting benefits and limitations and how they are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
We also unpacked this interesting ancient chinese picture:
It is mounted here on royal yellow to show that it is a special and significant image. The drawing was made many thousands of years ago before modern science but it depicts how the energy (qi) moves around the body, to which organs and in which order. When people have emotional problems such as fear it is the result of an inbalance or blockage on one of the organs (or systems of organs) and conversely, if there is too much of a certain emotion it can cause damage to that organ. Anger, for instance is associated with the liver and spleen. Fear in the heart and Lungs.
We practiced some different stances for our daily meditation. This one is called Fu Yang where the hands rest below the navel over the ‘Qi Ocean’. This position helps the energy to circulate.
We also did some excruciatingly difficulty kneeling meditation. This is where I was painfully aware of my injured knee and could only manage 7 minutes tops (and even that was with a support like a cushion between my bottom and my heels). The kneeling position stretches out the damaged area of the knee and is a good way to help it to heal. I need to build that up and do ore of it regularly at home. That will be a good New Year’s resolution for me.
It was very very cold so some days we practiced inside the little house by the lake. Used mostly for local Party meetings we are allowed to use the space because we don’t disturb it too much. It does make for a meeting room with glorious views.
One of the benefits of advanced level Taiji is that you can understand your own body better and use your qi to help heal yourself or correct imbalances and as a result of this retreat, I know that I need to do more work on my lower body. If you can do it, using your own Qi is the most powerful and effective way of healing, much better than pumping the body full of drugs as we are used to in western medicine. They might be a quick fix but they cause other side effects or problems too. One of the Milun students based in Beijing has recently had COVID with extremely bad headaches. She used the Qi Gong breathing exercises to help manage the pain. She was able to make the headache disappear for a short while and when it came back it was reduced. Another Taiji student with COVID was able to direct the Qi to her throat to help ease the discomfort from coughing.
In my weekly lessons I have learned the full 57 movement Taiji routine to quite a high level and feel confident in moving the energy anywhere around my body. I can do the movements quickly and slickly or super slowly (which surprisingly is quite a work out) I have now moved on to learning The Fan.
This is a whole new ball game and I am back to beginner level. This routine is a lot more energetic with kicks, spins, balances and deep stretches. AT THE SAME TIME you have to manipulate the fan (& not drop it!) It is not easy! For many weeks I dropped or threw my fan around the room as I attempted to flick it open. I abused my first fan so much that it broke and I had to buy another one! I was a complete novice again. It was very humbling.
In the olden days the fan was in fact a weapon. Made of bamboo struts and silk, each spoke could have a sharpened point behind the fabric which when opened could be used to slice someone’s throat open. A skilled practitioner would look respectful at the court as no one could tell if his fan was weaponized, but be able to defend himself if needed or mount a surprise attack.
I am getting the hang of the new routine now so Shifu used his creative photography skills to make a little video of some of the beginning moves.
I wobbled a LOT on my leg lift in the beginning but my right knee has strengthened with the practice. The fan makes a wonderful noise when you flick it open which you can’t really tell on the video but it is like a whip crack in the air. We were blessed with glorious sunshine that day for the filming.
In other news I am taking an online Traditional Chinese Medicine course so that I can get certificated in some of the therapies. This means that I will be qualified to practice back in the UK when I return home. The first module I am taking is a threapy called GuaSha. You use a board to scrape or ‘comb’ along the meridians and this can help improve circulation and assist the lymphatic drainage system to move along to improve health. Sometimes if there is a problem deep red marks or Sha show up which usually disappear in a couple of days. By the end of the course I hope to be able to spot simple diagnosis and you can refer people to be seen by their doctor.
So far I have learned beauty treatments for the face and therapy for the head, neck and shoulders. Being an online course I need volunteers to practice on at home. Under Shifu’s guidance I was able to improve my skills in these areas on the other delegates.
We always eat extremely well on retreat but it is all organically grown, whole foods so I didn’t mind treating myself.
All too soon it came to an end but I do benefit from these intensive retreat days and feel that I have grown and developed my skills by the end. The more I learn the better I will be able to teach when I return.
Those who have been following my blogs (or even just the news) will know that China has had some pretty restrictive Zero covid regulations in place for the past 3 years. Living here has meant that we have felt very safe from COVID-19 at a time when other countries have struggled with rising numbers of cases and fatalities. We watched from behind our bamboo curtain as the rest of the world has valiantly done battle and largely accepted covid into everyday life. Vaccines such as Pfizer and Moderna have proved themselves to be 90% effective where vaccination programmes back in the UK, for instance, commenced with the elderly and most vulnerable. Even today most people have had a 4th ‘booster’ shot.
China, on the other hand took a different approach and used their own SinoPharm and SinoVac preparations (which have proved to be only 70% effective) and targetted the working population. Most of us have had 3 shots now. But children and the elderly remain largely unvaccinated. I am not sure exactly why but many old people have refused to get the vaccine. Perhaps they have had poor experiences of previous vaccinations. I know of at least three 70 year olds who claim that their underlying health conditions mean that if they have the vaccine they might have heart attacks. I have no idea how such mis-information is spread in this age-group but this is a very real fear (or an excuse?) I do find it strange because we are in the sort of country where if the government tells you to do something, then you just do it. China is known as the ‘country of good boys’. So clearly there has been no government directive or it WOULD have happened.
While the rest of the wold has accepted COVID and opened up, the strict Chinese Zero COVID policy has put us all under considerable pressure. Shanghai endured the 2+ month lockdown in the Spring and we taught most of the last semester online. Many cities around China have faced a same fate. International travel is still restricted, flights are easily canceled, quarantine facilities have sprung up like weeds, which can cater for 5000 people at a time, all equipped with heat sensors which can detect changes in your body temperature in case you start to develop a fever. Quarantine for travellers has ranged from 21 days to most commonly 10 days. Some quarantine camps are converted shipping containers with a bed, a sink and a toilet (no curtain). These are excessively hot in the summer humidity and freezing in winter. One of our teachers became a ‘close contact’ simply for being in the same restaurant as someone who later developed the virus. She spent a very uncomfortable week in one of these ‘cans’.
On the plus side we have been mask free at school for 3 years and I don’t think that until now, I knew anyone who actually had the virus. We were all trapped in a gilded cage. Safe but still stuck here. Life under zero tolerance became sort of ‘normal’ . Of course we heard about cases of sporadic compound lockdowns, horrific quarantine centres, chemical spraying of apartments of those infected etc but I personally wasn’t subjected to any of these things.
We were however very closely monitored. It was a true Big Brother move as we were all required to present a ‘green’ code to enter pretty much anywhere, the metro, shopping malls, school and even the local supermarket. To get a green code you needed to return a negative PCR test.
Mass testing has been happening since the summer and it has become almost a daily routine. Booths were set up around the city (often with very long lines)
Our compound offered testing several times a week. School specially trained staff so that as we all entered the compound we washed our hands, had a throat swab and then went off to work. What this is costing the planet in terms of single use plastic I dread to think. Interestingly the testing company is owned by a relative of our esteemed leader here… so no vested interest there then!!!
Wherever we went, we scanned an access code on our phones so that if a case did appear everyone who had also been at that location was deemed a ‘close contact’. Going out anywhere was like playing Russian Roulette. You never knew what was going to happen. But, we got used to it and we scanned and scanned and scanned. It became the new normal and we did it automatically. Our local supermarket did close down at one point as a customer tested positive but fortunately I hadn’t shopped there that day, so I escaped.
Schools are actually under stronger restrictions than other places and we had to show a negative test withn 24 hours just to access the campus. Anyone else also had to prove from another tracker that they hadn’t left Shanghai in the previous 48 hours. Woe betide if your code turned red!!! The government swooped down and carted you off. They knew before you did. As covid has mutated the virus is less deadly and the majority of infected people were asymptomatic. I felt that the fear wasn’t so much of getting the virus but of what happens to you if you did. School advised us to have an emergency bag packed ready and they gave us a list of supplies to take with you.
The message from the government was that COVID was still deadly and they were imposing all these restrictions to protect the population and largely, people believed it.
Then came the fire in the locked down apartment building in Urumqi killing 10, when the rescue services could not get through the physical barriers surrounding the compound and were delayed for 3 hours. This event became a tipping point and it has been fascinating to watch events unfold. It was history in the making. Many, many people had been suffering the lockdown restrictions with insufficient food or medical supplies. Many more lost their jobs as the economic impacts of the restrictions hit home. Itinerant workers in lockdown were impacted particularly hard and there were instances of people scaling fences to escape from being locked in their factories. It was becoming more and more difficult to impose strict lockdown in some places.
What was interesting to me was the attitude of young people. When the protests started in Shanghai last month, it was among university students. These youngsters had never really experienced the harsh cruelties of an authoritian regieme, indeed they had lived peacefully during the economic boom time for China. But suddenly here was covid and the zero toldrance problems and their patience was wearing thin. I did hear from some of the older generation, that they believed the protests were organised by westerners because they didn’t think Chinese would know what to do. But the truth is simplier. Media here is censored and propaganda is tightly controlled. But with the modern growth in online social media reaching a global audience many young people nowadays do have access to news sources outside China. To access facebook, Google or anything else you need a VPN or Virtual Private Network. These are illegal here but all the foreigners have them and the government turns a blind eye to us as they recognise that we need to keep in touch with folks back home while we work here. What surprised me was how many young chinese nationals also have access. They were seeing the news about what was happening elsewhere in China from western media and it quickly became apparent that it was difficult to control.
I thought that the China had a few choices 1) clamp down hard as they had done in the past. Most of the senior government are older men who are accumstomed to managing political problems in this way. Maybe they could stamp the protests out with harsh measures and fear.
2) There could have been an upswell of feeling against the government. Rebellions often start when enough people feel desperate and we were maybe reaching that point.
Things began along the lines of option 1) In Shanghai youth were targetted by the police and they were asked to hand over their phones. If a VPN or a reference to Urmqi was found anywhere, the young person was carted off (who knows where to …) Police searched youngsters in the main city centre and even on the metro trains. I have a friend who’s son was sitting on a train when this happened. His view was ‘why should they ask for my phone?’ He hadn’t experienced the atrocities witnessed the older generations so his attitude (like others) was more brazen. He did have Facebook on his phone but he quickly deleted it. In the end the police didnt approach him as he was wearing his grandfather’s coat and he hunched himself down and they passed him by. He dodged a bullet there and his mother was greatly relieved.
A few days after this incident the complete U turn on covid policy was announced by the government. No more track and trace. No more scanning QR codes. No more mass testing. It was very swift and very surprising. They have gone for a 3rd option in this unexpected move. We seemed to have swung from one extreme to another almost overnight.
Now COVID is sweeping through the population like wildfire. Most people I know have got it and it is now more a question of when rather than if you will get it. Schools closed and local children are doing distance learning until January 17th which is when their Chinese New Year holidays begin. Our school managed to limp on to the end of term but teachers and students were dropping like proverbial flies. The rules are now that if you test positive then you need to stay home for a week and test on days 6 and 7 but even that is subject to doubt as I also read that symptomatic and mild cases can continue to work.!
Many people are very scared, especially after having COVID built up in their minds as such a big, bad monster. The streets and shops are eerily quiet. Partly because so many are indoors nursing their headaches and coughs but many others are just too scared to come out.
This morning, we came back from the Taiji retreat and it felt like being in an episode from a dystopian movie. For starters all the staff in our hotel were sick (we were the only ones staying there) and the manageress had to serve breakfast. Then the roads were empty for way longer than we expected. It was eerily deserted.
Can the country manage? Well, it remains to be seen if the virus is weaker now and the population bounce back and begins to get herd immunity. Or the health system really will buckle and collapse as the unvaccinated elderly succumb to the virus. Another big change is that the daily statistics of cases are no longer published. So we may never really know what happens next.
What we do know is that you cannot buy paracetamol or cold remedies for love nor money at the moment. In the west the panic buying was toilet paper, here it’s strepsils!!!
Back in 2017 when we departed the UK for our extended working adventure we packed up our house and put it on the rental market.
It was a mammoth job decluttering and the local charity shops did very well out of us. Even so we still seemed to have a massive amount to put into the lock up.
It was weird emptying the room and making the property ready for someone else; yet not having sold. But we knew that it was the best thing to do. We didn’t want to leave it empty for several years when it could deteriorate with no one living in it.
It took a few months and a rent reduction but we managed to get tenants in and all was well. The agent did annual inspections and the rent was paid on time. We were not worried at all about the house (which was a relief)
Time marched on and in 2019 the tenant moved on and in a short space of time a new one was found. Again all was well in the landed of rented property.
Then again in 2020 this family moved on and another family moved in. This time a single father of 5 children. It is a 5 bedroom property so ideal for them. Near their school and relatives. All was good.
But as with most things in this life, all good things must come to an end. In the summer of 2022 both Oliver and Hanifa got married and Kevin returned to the UK. Inigo got a job in Ecuador and I had signed on for another school year. Travel in and out of China was precarious so we decided that Kevin would return and open up the house. Do any jobs and make it ready for my return.
So we gave the tenant the 3 months notice that we were required to. Kevin flew home and stayed with my mother to attend the weddings. Then on the 30th June when he was preparing to get the keys the following day he was informed that the tenant would not be moving out because he had nowhere to go!
Now I do feel sorry for the guy, being a single father of 5 cannot be easy but even so, it is not his house. We worked many years to pay for it. It’s ours. And we wanted it back. We were always going to return at some point and need the house back. We were not career landlords who buy up property to rent out. It’s our home.
Kevin had to go to court. This took time and money and a hearing date was set for 1st September. All this time he had to stay living out of his suitcase at my mother’s place. Fortunately she was able to accommodate him otherwise we would have had extremely large hotel bills!
At the hearing the judge awarded in our favor and said that there was no legal reason why we couldn’t have the house back. Phew! That was one hurdle overcome. But the tenant was given the maximum amount of time to vacate (because of the children); 42 days. Kevin still stayed with my mother which was not at all part of the original plan.
Six weeks later and the tenant STILL had not vacated the premises. He wanted social housing and needed to be at the top of the waiting list. For that to happen the council needed bailiffs paperwork. So back to the court Kevin went. More time to process more paperwork but at least the council paid the legal fees. All this time we have also been paying storage fees when we shouldn’t have.
Eventually on 8th November, over 4 months after he should have moved back in, Kevin finally got the keys. It was such a relief. But what did he find inside…?
Given how difficult the guy had been we weren’t sure what to expect. You hear tales of tenants trashing places or stripping all the fittings. Our house has some original Victorian features which are irreplaceable and wouldn’t be covered by any deposit.
In actual fact the place had not been deliberately damaged, thankfully. But we have found a lot of water damage. The walls are extremely wet and there is damp in the ceilings and internal walls. It looks as though the heating system has been leaking. This is a big and expensive problem. Who knows, if we got the house back in July could we have saved some of the damage? We may still need to replace the heating system.
In addition to that the basement floor needs to be replaced, as do some of the utility room units. The decking outside is rotten and the Ivy at the front had had a growth spurt and is damaging the brickwork.
Having an ‘old’ house was always going to be expensive but this is more than we had anticipated. So, I have signed on for another year to help defray the costs!
I understand that there have been abusive landlords in the past who have taken advantage of their tenants and since we left the UK the law has changed to be more in favor of the tenant. As a result fewer people are putting properties on the rental market and some renters have used the Stamp Duty holiday to sell their properties. In addition many expats are returning home after covid and like us, wanting their property back. So this has resulted in few homes available to rent.
We were unfortunate with our experience but we will definitely not be renting our property again.
With Kevin back at home this summer and travel severely curtailed, I decided to dedicate much of my free time in Shanghai to working on my Taiji. After all I had hours and hours to do it.
In this, my second year of learning Taiji, I have also been learning to teach the basic moves to others and since September 2021 I have taught a few of the teachers on campus after school. It is my retirement plan ambition to return to the UK and teach the skills that I am learning here. I believe that there is a growing interest in the west, in ,health benefits of Taiji but there are a limited number of good quality teachers. I regularly see requests on Taiji and QiGong Facebook sites for ‘in person’ teachers. My Shifu has students all over the world who would normally travel to see him but who now have to make do with zoom only classes. Many are based in Europe and would maybe come to see me for a lesson.
During the lockdown period I also taught a few online classes. My Ayi was lonely and cooped up in a one bedroom apartment and the lack of daylight was affecting her. I taught her some exercises and she very much appreciated the chance to get some good quality exercise in a confined space.
Taiji was a sanity saver for me during the lockdown period as I was able to stretch out my shoulders between zoom sessions and do longer meditation in the afternoons (as I was not commuting). Once we were permitted outside in the compound I would practice in the grounds as often as I could and attracted quite a bit of attention.
Several of the Chinese ladies who live here saw me practicing and asked me to teach them (the irony of me teaching Taiji to the Chinese was not lost on me!) For a while at the beginning of the summer I had some quite large groups which gave me a different experience of teaching.
This is because teaching Taiji is not like teaching other exercise regimes such as Yoga or Pilates. Each person has their own bone structure and their own posture problems so each student is treated individually. After the group warm up exercises everyone progresses through the routine at their own speed and people manage some moves more easily than others. I discovered that groups of about 6 are ideal if you want to be able to give everyone some individual attention.
Teaching is an excellent way of consolidating your own learning and I have had so many health and well-being benefits that I want to share them with others. Doing Taiji and meditation has helped me to keep calm during some stressful times and helped me to cope with the stress of missing the family weddings.
In our modern, highly pressurized and over-stimulated society we have, in the most part, lost the ability to be still and calm and at peace with ourselves. We no longer commune with nature or regularly rest our minds in our busy world and this can contribute to anxiety disorders and depression. Meditation is a marvelous antidote to that and even if you are not depressed or anxious it helps you to keep your life in balance. But meditating can also help with a while range of healing. For instance digestive problems, migraines or painful muscles will all benefit from regular good quality meditation.
The school of Taiji that we follow is called Nei Gong which translates as ‘inner energy’. This includes the principles of Nei Dan which is all about using your inner energy for healing. It translates as ‘inner medicine’. When we have unblocked our meridians and can feel the qi moving inside us it is possible to use these balls of energy to help fix internal problems, even to rejuvenate cells and keep you looking and feeling younger. I would qualify this with the need to practice every day. As with any discipline the more you practice the more proficient you become. But the joy of practicing Taiji is that it feels SO good once you reach a high enough level.
My visa at the school stipulates that I cannot have a second job. The government is quite strict about this and no teachers can do private tuition, for example. So I am in a position where I cannot accept any payment and all my lessons are currently free. This is probably a good thing whilst I am still a novice teacher.
It is very interesting though to see how some people value the free lessons and come as often as they can whilst others don’t bother. I have observed that people attend more if they are paying. Shifu says that it is human nature to be inherently lazy and to want good results with minimal effort. Modern society is certainly very fast-paced with lots of instant gratification. He says that a high percentage of people who try Taiji quit at the beginning. Another high percentage finish after 6 months and only a small number of people persist with learning for over a year. I am extremely fortunate that two of my students are long- stay and both can now feel the qi. I am very proud of them.
In the summer months I taught outside every morning between 8-9am. Not too early as it was the holidays and people wanted a lie in but early enough to miss the heat of the day. It was extremely humid and we sweated buckets, but in actual fact sweating is an excellent way of getting rid of toxins from the body. Too much air conditioning, although comfortable, can actually damage your joints and lead to problems such as stiff or painful shoulders or knees.
Correct posture is fundamental to achieving health. Without good posture our meridians are blocked, our internal organs get squashed and our joints suffer. Many of us feel aches and pains as we get older when we get out of bed each morning. I used to, but now that I am standing, sitting and walking better I get up completely pain free. I don’t suffer from stiff joints at all. Another example of Taiji’s rejuvenative benefits.
Milun Summer Camp 2022
Given the travel restrictions in place, the annual summer camp in Chongming Island was greatly reduced. Not only were the international folks prevented from coming (again) but this year Shanghai quarantine rules made it impossible for even the Beijing people to attend.
So it was just four of us Shanghai students plus Shifu’s family which made it a much more immersive experience. We did have some day visitors a couple of times, which was nice.
This year we practiced a lot outside and learned some new morning exercises called ‘clapping’
This highlight of the camp for me was learning some TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) techniques during the afternoons such as Maaxa treatments, qi massage and cupping.
I was also asked to give 4 talks which were zoomed to the students who were not able to join in person. I was talking to people of many different nationalities all over the world. I spoke about my Taiji journey, my meditation journey, a brief analysis of the similarities and differences between God and Dao and the study of some Chinese characters using picture imagery.
Shifu didn’t let up on the practical side though and we trained hard on the applications and the routine learning new movements and deepening our experiences of the qi.
My life has changed. I no longer need caffeine to wake me up or to keep me going through the day. I no longer crave alcohol to help me relax and enjoy myself. I go to bed early, even if it means being a party pooper and I generally get good quality sleep, which is a huge bonus these days. I rise with the dawn (or earlier) and exercise to energize myself for the day ahead. I feel that my life is simpler and more balanced.
Being a Shifu has taught me a lot. Taiji is like an onion with many many layers. You cannot learn all the techniques, philosophy and wisdom from books alone. You need to feel and experience all the sensations and watch people around you in your daily life. And if I have realized one thing from being a (junior) Shifu, it’s how much that I still have to learn…
With Kevin back in the UK, to attend significant family events, I spent my first summer alone in a foreign country.
At that time the UK was struggling under a heat wave for a couple of days but I can report that Shanghai too had unusual weather patterns. For a record 49 continuous days we had temperatures in excess of 30 degrees and very often they were in the high 30s. Factor in the humidity, and the ‘feels like’ was over 40 for all that time. It was very hot and sticky. Not at all comfortable but on the plus side we did at least have air conditioning, although I tried not to use it too much as an excess of cold in your joints can do damage. (Taiji tip)
The good weather back at home did mean favorable conditions for both weddings. Congratulations to Oliver and Steph, Hanifa and Alastair. I was extremely sad not to have been there with them but their special days went well.
How did I get on? Well, I stayed in Shanghai. Many colleagues took themselves off to Sanya to lie on the beach but I didn’t fancy that by myself. I didn’t go very far at all on my own. Just a solo bike ride to a nearby shopping mall was a big adventure for me. I bought a brilliant bike from one of the departing teachers (thank you Tory) and this has given me great joy (& exercise).
I joined a few bike rides around Shanghai with a group of staff from school. We would set off at 6am, largely to avoid the heat of the day and we’re back by 9am. We cycled along The Bund a couple of times
And even further afield we went to Dutch Town one day, a suburb of Shanghai with a very slight feel of the Netherlands
Just these two things! This was nice though because it had been on my bucket list for a while. No need to go back. I’ve done it now.
The government here is still extremely cautious about covid. While the rest of the world has accepted living with the virus, China still has a zero tolerance policy. Now, though any outbreaks are tackled locally. What we still have in place however, is the mass testing. We have been tested every 2-3 days all through the summer and we have heard that this will extend to the end of Sept. You have to show your green code to get in anywhere, particularly the school campus but even the local corner shop! Testing has become a part of life.
I have had to cope with leaking in the kitchen and a cockroach infestation. Well two cockroaches but that is two more than I really wanted sharing the apartment with me. The complex management came and put down what they called insect killing medicine (which is an oxymoron if ever I heard one)
And a change of address. This one is interesting because old Chinese superstition means that they don’t like the number 4. The word for 4 is very similar to their word for death, so it is an unlucky number. In our building there was no 4th, 14th or even 13th floors (just to hedge their bets with western superstitions too) the government told them that they had to put all those numbers back in. So mid July I went from being in apartment 901 to 801 overnight. What was frustrating was that we were all required to go through police checks all over again because clearly I was a responsible citizen when I was living in 901 but dodgy once I became 801!!!!
Fortunately I have good friends here who let me join in with some of their family trips where we visited local parks and the zoo
Xiaoma has adopted me as his grandma and calls me Nai Nai. I call him Sun zi which means grandson in mandarin. We had a great time in the summer and he even came over for a sleepover a couple of times. He was very good and read lots of superhero books in mandarin that I checked out from my library. It’s a useful collection to have access to!
We went to the Shanghai beach (which isn’t anything like beaches back home as it was all highly regulated where you could and couldn’t go). But the water was very warm. We invented a game of bucket frisbee!
And I played lots and lots of mahjong. I even started a mahjong group to show other teachers how to play.
There are about 12 of us who are beginners and who play sedately and carefully. We only do basic mahjong with no gambling as the rules for scoring are very complex. I didn’t realize but each city has their own rules and the game is played slightly differently in various parts of the country (just to add another layer of complexity!)
I was doing very well until the point when I found myself playing against our head of HR and he father when I went to e Taiji summer camp. Then the game became fast and furious and quite a different beast!!!! That was a night I won’t forget.
On one trip we visited a museum and I learned more about my (new) namesake Wu ZeTian
This formidable lady was China’s only legitimate female Empress. She lived between 624 and 705 which is the Tang Dynasty. She is described as being strong, charismatic, cunning and vengeful. Like many strong leaders she trampled on others to get to the top including, some say, her own children and husband. It is true though that China benefited from her leadership and effective governance and emerged at that time as a major world power.
I was around to help onboard the new teachers as they began to arrive in the city and that was nice, particularly as I had been a pen pal to one of them. And of course, I practiced my Taiji every day. But more of that in another blog.
For now, we are back at school and that has been another adventure because my colleague in the middle and high school library decided to return to the US at the end of the school year. She was worried that we would spend the bulk of this coming year in lockdown and she wanted her teenage son to have in-person schooling. The school decided not to take up her offer of running the library remotely and instead asked me to help cover. They used the opportunity to do a restructure and I am now Head Librarian. My work load has increased dramatically but we are recruiting and in the meantime I have some help from a new PE teacher (also called Lisa) who is working towards her library qualification and has been freed up a little to help me out. Between us I think we should just about manage… but it’s going to be a busy year!!! With the amount of work I have been bringing home it’s just as well that Kevin isn’t here.
And on the home front Kevin has had his own adventures. He was expecting to move back into our house in July but the tenant refused to go. He said that he didn’t have anywhere to move to! He is a single father with 5 children and while we did feel sorry for him, it’s still our house. After a bit of failed negotiations we have had to go down the legal route and go to court for an eviction notice. It is fortunate that Kevin has been able to stay living with my mother because if that wasn’t an option we would have some huge hotel bills!
We are told that it is very rare for this sort of thing to go to court but I have to say that it has put us off renting out property ever again.
All that and Inigo departed to begin his new job in Ecuador.
My libraries are all ready (just about). The new books are cataloged, processed and out on display. We are good to go.
Whilst Shanghai slowly returns to normal it is still being extremely careful. Any resurgence of the virus and compounds are locked down again on a case by case basis. Mass testing still happens and it is fair to say that the whole city is being very cautious.
For us it is the summer vacation time but few teachers have left the country. Some intrepid folks have gone to other provinces, notably Sanya which is like the Costa Del Sol of China. They have to quarantine for 7 days on arrival but think it is worth it to then spend the rest of time there. A sunbed on my own is not for me. Instead Shifu and Leping were kind enough to invite me for a mini break in Songjiang
Just two nights and three days away in this Shanghai district which is an hour’s drive from where we live. Songjian is the place where Shanghai first began as a small fishing village which grew into the metropolis that we know today. It is the root of Shanghai and a fascinating place to visit to learn about local history and culture.
Fascinating fact: Shang means up and hai means ocean. The modern name that we know so well comes from ancient fishing terminology for returning from below the ocean to the land with your catch.
I had long wanted to visit this site just from the interesting shape of the buildings which I had seen in photographs.
In 1958 workers were digging the area in preparation for a river diversion when they uncovered this archeological site of a Neolithic settlement. The museum recreates the dig
Well designed exhibits create a feel for life at that time from one of the early fishing boats which gave rise to the community
To the houses they constructed
The bulk of the museum is underwater and the whole experience was fascinating. China is one of the places where early man first settled into communities and began farming/fishing. The museum then traced the development of civilization here up to the present day.
Also at this location was a Buddhist Temple and a Taoist Temple.
We visited an ancient garden which once belonged to a government minister in the 1600s (Ming Dynasty). The centre of the garden is a beautiful lotus pond full of enormous flowers.
I particularly liked these unusual doorways shaped like a vase. The word for vase in Mandarin is ‘ping’ and the word for peace is also ‘ping’ (different character but the same sound) so this means that the homeowner wishes you peace as you enter.
Beyond the entrance is a fan shaped aperture because in Chinese culture you do not see everything immediately, some things remain hidden until you reach them.
There was a covid case that day in Songjiang close by and the result was that most people stayed at home. No one wants to be sent to a quarantine facility! But we were already out so we soldiered on and had every attraction pretty much to ourselves which made for a much pleasanter experience. Normally these gardens would have been heaving. it was like having a private tour.
No visit to Songjiang is complete without seeing Thames’s Town. This is the Chinese attempt at creating an ‘English’ zone. Well, I guess that we all have China Towns so why not.
There was even a church
It was such a cute effort but definitely not really like being in the UK because the humidity made the temperature feel like 44 degrees which is totally unrealistic for home.
The did have a pretty amazing bookshop though. I am always a sucker for a good bookshop
Even the restaurants were empty. This was where we had our evening meal. It was an old country house that had been brought to Shanghai, reconstructed and preserved. It was a beautiful and atmospheric setting.
Any tourist can visit temples, gardens, museums and bookshops but for our next stop we did something completely different. Leping had booked Xiaoma and me in to make rice cakes.
We also did a spot of Crayfishing and to my surprise I actually caught one!!! Technically you could keep them but we didn’t have anywhere to put them so all ours were thrown back… well the ones that didn’t escape that is.
I feel I need to mention the hotel room. It was lovely. Spacious with a loft area for the beds
It was very modern and high tech. There was a computer and you could voice activate the lights and curtains etc but naturally it only spoke mandarin. So I was thinking that I might have to sleep with either all the lights on full or the curtains open!!! My meager mandarin does not cover this necessary vocabulary.
I need not have worried. I had a confident 7 year old who happily operated everything for me (multiple times in fact…)
After all wearing white tops one day we all had red on the next. It felt like being in a family which meant a great deal to me now that I am on my own here. I so much appreciated being included.
This day was the walk up Sheshen Mountain or as I called it Sheshen small hill! Shanghai is gloriously flat (good for cycle rides) and at 100.8m this is the highest point. But when you have lived in the Lake District this is not high at all.
There is an observatory and a church on the top of the hill but both were closed. Interestingly before the nationalist revolution the old emperor realized that China needed to modernize and embrace science and technology so he ordered the building of the observatory and supported astronomers. His mother, The dowager empress held all the power and legend has it that she poisoned her son slowly. They ended up dying on the same day. He first of poison (heavy metal) and she a few hours later of old age, her triumph at getting rid of him was very short lived.
Finally we had a sumptuous afternoon in this exquisite hotel. Again, transferred from its original location this was the stunning house of a Ming Dynasty Prime Minister built with teak pillars and intricate carved beams this was a treasure to visit. So much history was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution that these old buildings are extremely rare. Without my friends I would never have known about this gem.
I had an absolutely wonderful time. Luca and Leping really looked after me so well. We learned a lot, had a variety of experiences and even fitted in some relaxing Taiji
And finally home via the Huangpu river
We packed a lot into just three days and made some beautiful memories. Thank you.
First for the ‘bad’ news. Today was the day that Kevin departed. He has left China.
For a long time it had been our plan that we would return to the UK in the summer to attend the weddings of both Oliver (June) and Hanifa (July) but COVID has well and truely put paid to that. The impact of this virus is immeasurable.
Back in November, thinking that we would be able to return for the summer, I signed on for another year at Concordia. It was the right thing to do with the information that we had at the time but unfortunately China has since deleloped some extremely strict appraches to COVID. Basically a zero tolerance and isolationist policy as well as coping with a severe outbreak inside its borders.
We couldn’t try to book return flights until a couple of months ago. China has a rule that if a direct flight is available then you HAVE to use is for a return journey. This is so that should 5 cases of COVID come into the country on that route then China can suspend the flight for a fortnight. If there were 10 cases then the suspension is for a month. Multiple flights a week got affected by this policy and it makes flying extremely risky, particulalry returning when you have a deadline to be in school for the start of term. Three airlines were granted a direct route to London but then they were cancelled so it never got off the ground.
The other way of discouraging travellers from bringing COVID into the country is to make the prices extremely unattractive. When we looked (and indeed still now) a return ticket London-Shanghai costs £8000 which is just silly money. Especially considering that a single Shanghai – Manchester is only £700. So that was the deciding factor. As the world gets back on its feet and resumes travelling again, China is the odd one out.
So that, as they say, was that. We took the difficult decision that I would stay here for another year and Kevin would return alone. He will go to the weddings and escort my mother, I will attend virtually, by the miracle of modern technology. We are extremely thankful for that. Then Kevin will stay and open up our house, do any decorating or jobs that are needed after 5 years of being lived in by tenants. It should all be lovely by the time I get back next summer.
IF flights return to normal frequency and prices and IF China relaxes its stringent 3 week quarantine rules then maybe next year Kevin can return and help me pack up the apartment. However, so much at this stage is uncertain. He may end up having to stay in the UK for the whole year. We will have to play it by ear.
Throughout the lockdown we were hoping that restrictions would be lifted before Kevin’s flight and we are so thankful that they were. We heard horror stories from people who had enormous difficulty in even getting to the airport: a letter from your compound management agreeing to release you; a visit to a ‘special’ testing site for a PCR; using a specially registered taxi/driver at a cost of about £300 to do a 35 minute trip; long waits outside the airport (sometimes in excess of 7 hours) for the PCR test results to come through on your phone before they would let you enter the terminal; flights being cancelled. The big problem with that was that once you had exited your compound during the lockdown you could not re-enter. This meant that if your flight was cancelled you had to wait at the airport until you could get another which could be days…
Nothing was open at the airport, and it still isnt. There are no retail or food services available. Nowhere to get a coffee. Kevin has gone with a bag full of food including my special lockdown receipe ‘Mango cupcakes’ and an empty flask to fill with water.
The departure day all took a dramatic turn when Kevin, who is usually so calm and collected and prepared misread his airline email at 11:30 and thought that he had the wrong PCR test. He had a 48 hour one but he read that he needed a 24 hour one! With only 6 hours to go before check in he fled off into the city to find a hospital that could do rush results. We had visions of his results arriving late and him missing his flight. He got a new test done but then on re-reading his email saw that it was a 24 hour result IF you didn’t have an antigen test. Fortunately he did. So we could both relax. But the stress was real for a couple of hours!!!
There are very few international flights per day but even so the queues are extremely long and everything takes longer to process.
It is going to feel very strange rattling around the apartment on my own and I am convinced that if I go anywhere on my own that I am likely to get lost! We use a great app here for calling a car, it is similar to Uber but called Didi and its one bit of technology that I do know how to use but when we checked it yesterday my account has been suspended. Just what I don’t need right now. Getting it sorted is going to take a mandarin speaker I think and could be a challenge as new foreign accounts were forbidden last summer as part of a government crack down on the company. I am however, very fortunate to be part of a caring and suportive community at school. I have many friends here who have all promised to look out for me and several of them do speak mandarin.
We are extremely lucky that Shanghai began to open up on 1st June as it has meant that Kevin has had the opportunity to say goodbye to people in person.
He didn’t see everyone but we did manage a fire pit party with the British crowd (it was a bit dark for photos) but the fire was great. And we had a wonderful Indian meal with Lavanya and Pranesh and another meal out with the Taiji crowd.
What will I do now that Kevin has gone? At the moment we can’t travel even within China so as we begin the school summer vacation tomorrow it looks as though I will just be in Shanghai! I am hoping for some bike rides, taiji sessions and a chance to catch up on some reading. It will be a quiet time.
And now for the ‘good’ news! The govenment has recenty issued a press statement saying that there was never a lockdown in Shanghai!!! It’s incredible. Apparently every single one of the compound managements all simultaneously decided to impose their own lockdowns on their residents. Its a miracle how that happened!!! All co-ordinated and everything.
It’s very funny though because I distinctly remember people asking questions about when lockdown would be lifted or when we could walk outside! Our compound management often had no idea and just told us to be patient. At the time it sure sounded like they were waiting to be told. But incredibly, the lockdown never happened. I must have imagined the whole 3 months… For those of you old enough to understand the reference, it is possibly a Bobby Ewing moment.