The Silk Road: Day 6 The Great Wall in the west and our minor celebrity status

We have reached the western end of the Great Wall and spent the morning exploring the last fort. The whole wall was finished at different times and this section was completed in the 1600s. The wall is over 10,000 miles long and I had imagined it as being a continuous line but that is not so.

The original sections were actually early city walls over 2000 years ago which the first Emperor joined together. Various dynasties continued construction but as you can see from the map below it was a haphazard affair with bits of wall all over the place.

Different sections of the wall use different materials and building techniques. Around Beijing the wall is made of stone and this is the image of the wall that most people have in their minds.

(Photo from a previous holiday in 2017)

The western section of the wall which we visited today was all made from clay and has a completely different feel to it.

Interestingly, we learned that the clay was made using the water from sticky rice which is glutinous and dries hard when mixed with sand.

Inside the fort was an old chapel area that now housed the statue of a famous general. Note the red face. Red denotes loyalty. White faces mean cleverness or trickery and black means justice.

The fort once housed 20,000 soldiers as well as locals who came in from the surrounding area so it must have been congested. This is the square where they all camped.

This is a stage where performances were held. Just look at the height. Apparently actors were quite lowly in society and they would wear long robes with platform shoes. This was because it was quite unlucky to see their feet during shows!!! Its a good job that doesn’t apply to theatre today.

The tour was fascinating as we learned about military strategies and local customs. For instance this staircase was climbed by soldiers using the steps but the generals rode their horses up the slope. It was quite steep so would have been lethal in the winter.

Throughout this whole trip we have been the only non-chinese people wherever we have been (except one hotel where we bumped into a group of teachers from a school in Shanghai that we knew. Basically they were traveling a similar route to us just a couple of days behind) apart from that we have been the only westerners.

While we were touring the battlements our guide was approached by a reporter who asked lots of questions about us. It turned out that some party officials were also touring the fort and they had a whole retinue of people with them. Being the ONLY foreigners there we had attracted some attention.

Here you can see them, the officials are in the blue shirts.

At one point their group walked past us and we waited to let them go. On the whole the men themselves ignored us but the accompanying photographers were another matter. Whenever they could they took our pictures and most of them had professional long lenses.

Our guide told the reporter that we were from Shanghai and we weren’t sure whether they were pleased to see tourists again or xenophobicly upset that we might have reimported the virus! We have witnessed locals deliberately putting their masks on when we board shuttle buses. And entry checks to all the attractions have been way more stringent and lengthy for us than for anyone else!

Interestingly she also told the reporter that we were all from England. She felt that it was safer to say that than to admit that some were Americans. I don’t think that my colleagues were too impressed with that!! But these are strange times we are living in

At one point we gathered for our customary group photo which our guide took.

Along came a guy with a camera who stood next to her and started snap snap snapping away. He was like the paparazzi!!! Our guide is only small but she really told him off and said that he should ask first. He stopped but by then he had his shots. We have no idea what is going to happen to them or if we are going to appear in Chinese newspapers, magazines or what!

Someone else approached and wanted our names. He wanted to use us in advertising for the fort but our guide sent him away. What an experience it was. We were conscious of being photographed from a distance too and in a small way we got a taste of what it must be like for the rich and famous.

Some other interesting things that we saw included this replica of 5000 year old cave drawings

The lovely names

And the unusual arrow tips

But the best sight was the guy at the gate dressed ready for battle.

I would not have liked to get on the wrong side of him!!!

The Silk Road: Day 5 The Rainbow Mountains

Once again the Rainbow Mountains were never on my bucket list primarily because I had never heard of them but they are gorgeous and I am so glad that I have had this opportunity to visit. Each day this tour gets better and better.

The whole of the Gangsu has province area is a huge geopark. 145 -100 million years ago the area was subjected to a pendulum swing of climactic conditions veering from extreme humidity to ice ages. The earth swung from being covered by ocean to rivers and back to ocean again resulting in striations or layers in the rock of different colours.

Over time the water levels dropped and the tectonic plates shifted making what had previously been horizontal layers now appear in vertical or diagonal patterns. Wind and water erosion has worked to create some unusual rock forms

In the morning we hiked along and up a Rift Valley formed by ice. Again it was strenuous simply because of the altitude but the views at the top of the climbs were worth it.

From here (below) we were standing in rocky, arid desert but looking back down the valley towards snow-capped mountains in the distance. Apologies for the phone mast but I could get rid of it.

Here is the camel

And these two are known as the man and woman

Thus is the magnificent Eagle’s head

And strangely since we are in China this was called The Louvre.

The flora was sparse but interesting. This plant is cut by shepherds and sold to pharmacies. It is used in Chinese medicine to create the sweet coating around bitter pills.

And this is a goji berry bush which I have never seen before.

There are snakes here so we kept to the paths and also rats. This was a new word for my vocabulary

I am not keen on heights but I pushed through and was very proud to have made it to the top of here

The Rainbow Mountains are sometimes known as The Painted Mountains and some pictures on the internet are photoshopped so the actual colours are not as vivid but they are equally beautiful.

This geological feature was largely unknown until 2007 when a Chinese filmmaker used the location as a film set. This film was popular and the public have flocked to the site ever since. This is the noodle shop built for the film. I think it is great that a film has generated a tourist industry.

And these prayer tags were uplifting

We went to three different locations where the views were panoramic.

Nature in all its glory

The Silk Road: Glurting

One of the highlights of this trip is the overnight stay in a Yurt. A whole new experience for me and I was very excited. Another tick on my bucket list.

We arrived late at night after a drive so bumpy that it added 500 steps to my Fitbit count!!!

The arrival was spectacular and the mountains were lit up specially for us.

The Yurt itself was comfortable and akin to ‘glamping’ so a colleague coined the phrase ‘glurting’. This one is ours. M6 was quite appropriate we thought.

As in a campsite there was a central shower block which was clean and had lovely hot water. But the toilets…

Ok so I need to tell you about the toilet situation on the Silk Road. It hasn’t always been easy. The predominant type is the squat which is challenging for us westerners who do not that the practiced thigh muscles and who are used to sitting. Anyone thinking of visiting needs to be aware of this.

Very often we have found toilet blocks which had the seat symbol on the door and our hearts were gladdened only to find that the desired . stall is locked!!! We were told that they use those cubicles to store the mops!! I went into one facility which was huge and had 8 seated stalls and ALL were locked. Also toilet paper is a rare commodity and we all had to buy extra packets of Handy Andys and regularly scavenge napkins from restaurants. If we find toilet paper anywhere it is a cause for rejoicing. And I won’t mention something of the smells…, you have to take the rough with the amazing on trips like this. I will just say that it is not for the squeamish.

At our Yurt site we had a toilet block near to us with one western style toilet which was broken! The other was at the other end so quite a trek! In the end I was so tired that I slept right through the night.

Breakfast was inside the giant Yurt but as you can see we had the place to ourselves.

The Silk Road: Day 4 China’s Grand Canyon

We traveled by high speed train from Xining to Zhangye. It took 2 hours and unfortunately it was late evening so we couldn’t see anything from the windows.

It was quite a palaver getting into the station as the government has new tracking regulations which seem to apply only to foreigners. An official wrote down our passport number, visa number and telephone number. It was a fairly labour intensive task but we got through in time to make the trip

Exiting the station at the destination was another lengthy information gathering process which also included finding the latest stamp in our passport for them to check, before we made it exhausted and travel-weary to our hotel. At which point we were told that we needed to show our negative nucleic acid test results which none of us had because we had been told that we didn’t need them!!! It was a tense time not knowing if we had a bed for the night and we all had to pfaff around downloading a separate QR code and filling in details online and then Kevin & I also had to find our quarantine results certificate from back in April which fortunately we had pictures of on our phones. It was a HUGE relief to fall into bed that night.

In the morning we visited a 900 year old monastery.

Very few structures remain from this period because successive dynasties burnt the buildings to the ground as they didn’t want the people to remember the old ruler and the the Cultural Revolution finished off what was left.

In the case of this temple there is an enormous reclining Buddha inside with Chinese features so it escaped destruction.

The surrounding compound was beautiful though.

There was a man writing poems on the pavement outside.

Our next stop was supposed to be another monastery which had been been constructed Petra-like into the rock but apparently they had decided only yesterday that all foreigners needed to show negative test results before being allowed in. We think that they heard we were coming!!!

This is a model of what we SHOULD have seen.

But instead we drove out of the city (Zhangye) and what was quite incredible was that it was all urban building as you would expect, then we went through a tunnel and came out the other end to this…

It was almost as through we had gone through some sort of portal and emerged in another world!

Lunch was interesting. We all ordered short noodles but when the bowls arrived they were way too salty. We have noticed here that the dishes are loaded with MSG and they even have bowls of it around for you to add your own extra! MSG doesn’t have the bad press that it once did but even so we tend to steer clear of it and in fact most of us were unable to finish the noodles.

Fun fact: you can get MSG from bananas

At the entrance to the canyon was an enormous prayer flag tent but this one was in Mongolian style. You can see the difference in the shape. It looks like a hat.

In actual fact were were close to the border with Inner Mongolia. When I was a child Inner and Outer Mongolia seem like the farthest away and most inaccessible place in the world. I had no idea that one day I was actually be here.

Then on to the canyon. This was simply stunning. The whole area was a lake in prehistoric times and the colors were muted but like nothing we had ever seen before in a landscape. It was almost like being on an alien planet.

Our American colleagues assured us that it was just like Arizona.

We were high at 2387m which meant that even short climbs left us quite breathless.

One of the really annoying things about China is their need to pipe music into all scenic spots. We speculated that it’s because they don’t cope well with silence but we don’t know for sure. It’s very annoying though as the beauty and tranquility were a little spoilt.

I was delighted that there was a good path with a sturdy guardrail but even so I didn’t go too near the edge!

Some of our group did an extra hike which involved climbing this ladder up the rock face

So I opted out of that.

All in all the day was amazing. The terrain was so unlike anywhere we have been before.

Once again thanks to colleagues for their photos some of which were better than mine.

The Silk Road: Day 3 Qinghai Lake

The Qinghai Province in Central China is a meeting place for Mongolian, Tibetan, Muslim snd Han Chinese cultures. Driving through the vastness of the grassland plateau I could just imagine Genghis and his marauding Mongolian hordes cantering through the region and how terrifying their presence must have been to the nomadic tribes.

It was Genghis, however who unified the warring tribes and laid the foundations for the development of The Silk Road.

And it is Marco Polo who really captured my imagination on his voyages along The Silk Road. How intrepid those early explorers must have been to travel for years and years in such inhospitable terrain and unforgiving climate. What took us five hours on a fast road in a reasonably comfortable van would have taken those caravans months. They too didn’t know the language and had to eat strange foods not to mention navigate in unfamiliar territory.

Polo wasn’t too complimentary about the people of Xining in his diary. He called them ‘idolaters who are fat with small noses and black hair’ He also noted that they practiced polygamy.

Today the rain held off while we visited the enormous Quinghai Lake. The red building out in the water is a disused torpedo testing site.

The lake is salt water, and only one species of fish can survive here. They are called yellow fish. During Mao’s revolution in the 1960s when famine gripped the country the local people survived by eating these fish. Today their descendants come and feed the fish to say thank you for keeping the people alive and to give something back to the fish.

Modern Chinese people have a growing penchant for photography, in particular posing for pictures. It is a national craze and wherever we go girls (usually) are beautifully made up and we see them striking pose after pose. It is more than just a selfie affliction, it requires a willing (usually male) photographer but on occasion we have seen whole photo shoots with lights, silver screens and the works.

Here at the lake being a beauty spot the management clearly knew their clientele and had provided a range of props to assist the narcissistic populous.

It is really quite fascinating to watch. Never has a generation or country been so totally obsessed with recording themselves.

We decided that if you can’t beat them, join them. So we had s group picture by the scooby-doo mobile

The Silk Road: Day 2 The Grasslands

An early start this morning as we needed to drive for 5 hours through the grasslands of central China.

It was quite an amazing journey over two mountain ranges and across a vast empty plateau. I have to say that I am extremely impressed with Chinese engineering. The road was a four lane highway for the first two hours with long tunnels through the mountains, crash barriers and a central reservation (unlike the road trip in Nepal). I felt so safe. Even when we left the main road there were no steep precipices, hairpin bends or stomach lurching drops. No, this was an extremely pleasant ride through beautiful scenery and I did not have to shut my eyes or clutch the seat once!

We were high though. For much of the journey we were above the tree line and at one point we reached the dizzy height if 3817m, which is approx three times the height of Ben Nevis.

As you can imagine the air up here is pure but very thin. The temperature was only 20 degrees but it is easy to burn so we all had to be careful.

Along the route we saw this temple which is the former site of the Tibetan sky burials.

The corpse is left on a platform for the eagles to eat. Apparently if the birds eat you all in one go then you were a good person and will go to heaven. If they don’t then you are destined for one of the hells. Given the roads and the growth in tourism the site for sky burials has been moved as it needs to be in a more remote location.

The terrain is very rugged and reminded me of parts of the Lake District but on a much larger scale. The main farming is sheep and Yaks which grazed freely over the steep slopes.

We did get to see this white Yak close up. These are called ‘pretty girls’

In July the region hold horse fairs and we saw lots of these hardy looking animals as their owners showed them off.

Actually we are extremely lucky to be visiting now as the whole region has summer for only 30 days a year. The rest of the time it is cold and last year it even snowed in June!

In between the mountains was a vast plateau which stretched for miles and miles. It wasn’t windy for us but it is obviously a natural wind farm and we passed hundreds of turbines. I have never seen so many all in one place.

The Mongolian and Tibetan tribes who live here are semi nomadic as the government provided winter housing for them but they live in yurts for the rest of the year. We saw several pretty tent structures nestled in the hillsides

All over the landscape are dotted the colorful prayer tents

The flags have different prayer meanings.

White = peace

Yellow = good harvest

Green = good marriage/fertility

Red = long life

Blue = health

I think it is wonderful to stand near the top of the world amongst so much prayer.

The main crops grown at this altitude are wheat and Canola, from where we get the oil. The canola fields were in flower and provided a stunning photo stop.

Great for a group shot. The air was heady with the perfume from the flowers and the fields almost vibrated as the bees worked hard. We had to be careful when going amongst the flowers.

Lunch was a massive bowl of lamb noodles soup which the locals eat for both lunch and breakfast. For the evening meal they have lamb noodles without the soup!!! Not a lot of variety but it was tasty.

Then it was on to Chaka which in Tibetan mean Salt Lake. It is incredible that this country 2000km away has such an influence here. It would take 32 hours to get there by high speed train!

This salt lake was formed when all the present continents of the earth broke up from the giant Pangea continent approximately 200 million years ago.

It is an area of outstanding natural beauty with some amazing reflections.

The lake covers 40 square miles and it has been used to produce salt for over 3000 years and is still going.

During the 30 days of summer this is a popular spot for photography and girls pose in red dresses on the salty crust.

There are gigantic salt sculptures

And peaceful walkways

This was not a place that was on my bucket list because I didn’t know that it existed but I am so glad that we have visited as it is one of the unsung wonders of the world.

Thanks to the group for sharing their photos with me.

The Silk Road: Day 1 Kumbum Monastery

We are so very fortunate that we are COVID trapped in a country that we haven’t yet explored much, that has so much culture to see and which has the virus largely under control. This has meant that during the summer break we have been able to take advantage of a trip along The Silk Road.

Some Concordia teachers who are China-bound have got together to do a private tour and we jumped at the opportunity. I apologize in advance to all those of you reading this who are stuck somewhere and unable to travel. The picture above is the seven of us.

Our trip begins in Xining in the province of Qinghai in Central China and we boarded an early morning flight from Shanghai. The airport was surprisingly busy and the plane was full. We had to have a green health code and wear masks (although I’m not sure this woman fully understood the reason!!!)

I had read that flights would resume but without catering so I was delighted to be served a sandwich and a yoghurt.

Xining is approx 2200 meters above sea level which meant that oxygen levels were lower and I could really tell every time I climbed a slope or set of stairs. As our guide remarked it was ‘hard breathing’. The area also has its own local cuisine which is noodle based because they grow wheat here not rice. It is also very meat heavy as the high altitudes mean that they need the protein.

Here you can see a girl wearing local traditional costume

On landing we went straight by van to our first destination, Kumbum a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery.

The weather was 14 degrees and raining which was actually a relief after the extreme humidity of Shanghai.

The monastery has been there since 1577 and contains Lamas, which is the Tibetan word for monk. In essence is is a Buddhist cult and whilst it adheres to the main tenants of Buddhist faith there are many differences. For instance monks can marry, acquire wealth and even have chauffeurs!

This monastery is famous for its 8 stupas.

Inside was the most beautiful teaching hall where the novice monks learn from 6-8am

The hangings are beautiful colored cloth which wasn’t glitzy and gaudy. There wasn’t gold around every corner but instead prayer wheels and I felt a sense of spiritual peacefulness. It wasn’t so much a tourist attraction as a house of religious instruction. In fact, if the boys from aged 10 and upwards fall asleep during the teaching senior monks wake them up with a clip round the ear from behind!

The buildings and courtyards were painted bright colors and we saw laypeople praying what is a grueling devotion which involves standing, kneeling, prostrating on the ground then kneeling and standing back up again. They are supposed to do this 100,000 times during their lives.

It made me exhausted just watching them but I was SO impressed with their core strength. Apparently you have to finish this devotion off when you retire so some of these people were not spring chickens.

The most unusual part of the complex was the Butter Statues exhibition.

Yes these displays really are constructed from butter. It is Yak butter which they also use to make smokeless candles, but here they mix it with wheat flour and minerals to make a paste that they can then model with. I was impressed.

We were conspicuous as the only non-Chinese people in the place. In fact someone in our group was approached by a local who joyously said ‘are they letting you in again?’ We had to disappoint him and say that we had come from Shanghai. He thought the borders were open to tourists again…

It was a long day and as our guide said, it was winding and clouding so we all got a little damp but we thoroughly enjoyed it.

An upgrade.

When we set foot in our Phoenix Mansion apartment for the first time on 30th July 2019 I knew immediately that I didn’t much like it. I was tired after a long flight and I hoped that it would grow on me.

The block is about 25 years old and looks unmaintained in all that time. Our apartment is on the 3rd floor (2nd floor in Imperial measurement as they call the Ground floor 1st floor!) It was just not quite high enough to escape the mosquitos.

The inside is light, clean and the building commands a high rent in such a prime Shanghai suburb HOWEVER there were several things that I knew were issues . Shabby just doesn’t cover it and compared to both our apartment in Bangkok and with my colleagues in other complexes here I wasn’t happy. So as soon as I could I applied for a transfer to a newer, more modern place.

I should at this point state that some of our staff actually like it here particularly as they can have their dogs and the lady who represents the management is very nice and efficient so sorts out all issues promptly. And it’s very spacious for Shanghai, Chinese friends who visited commented on how large it was for two people.

We have thoroughly enjoyed our first year here and we made the best of things at Phoenix. The sense of community was great.

On the plus side it is a serviced apartment so a couple of ladies appeared each Monday morning to have a quick whip round with a mop and bucket. They also provide us with fresh towels each week and clean bed linen once a month. Very nice, thank you. In the weeks in between we washed the set of sheets that we had. I felt a month was too long to go between changes of bedding!

But here the list ends.

The downsides severely outweighed the positives…

The most important problem was that there was no disabled access. In fact the entrance to the block looks like this

Six steps.

Oliver and Steph plan to visit and there was no way we could lift Steph in her chair up and down all those every time we went out for the day!!! We would all put our backs out. And in this close up you can see the state of some of the treads.

Our new place is newer so is ramped and access isn’t a problem.

Next come the lift and public spaces. There are no doors to the building so the Entranceway is very dusty, smelly and when it rains becomes lethal with standing water. The lifts are minging, to quote a Lancashire phrase, and one is like a padded cell as it is used to transport any construction whenever an apartment is renovated. There is no separate service elevator. This results in a dusty smell not unlike a building site. In our building the padding is also ripped and the whole impression given is ‘uninviting’

Once you arrive at the third floor you step out of the lift into semi darkness. I think it is a deliberate attempt on the part of the management to save money on lighting but honestly we struggle most days to see the lock to put our key in the door!

There is a stairwell which I refuse to set foot in!! It’s the stink which puts me off. Right opposite us is the ‘rubbish’ house and you can imagine what that smells like …

Most days the fire doors on every level are propped open (as you can see here) so with our fire warden hats on we were singularly unimpressed with the basic safety! No one else seems to care and we didn’t even have smoke alarms never mind a Carbon monoxide one in the apartment (until we kicked up a fuss).

Inside the apartment there are also some issues. Let’s start with the mould on the bathroom window. It’s a big problem in Shanghai at this time of year but it can be managed with good ventilation. Kevin worked hard to keep the air circulating but even so this is what happened. Not great for respiratory health.

And in the grouting of the bath

Note also the plug. This didn’t work, rendering the bath unusable as a bath. We complained and a fix-it-up chappie appeared and changed it from a rapid loss of water to a slow but steady one… so not great as baths go.

Each apartment is privately owned and decorated/renovated by the owner so they are all done to a variety of standards. Here is the standard of the grouting in our bathroom.

Not a great finish there.

The windows overlook the refuse sorting area for both Towers and several locals come each day to sort through the rubbish. In typical Chinese fashion they shout to each other while doing it and the noise can be quite disturbing.

The windows are all single glazed and ill-fitting. During the winter temperatures drop and there is only one source of heat in the entire space. We called it the ‘monolith’.

It also doubles as the Air con in the summer. There is an additional A/C unit in the bedroom (but no heater) however, it feels as though that hasn’t been serviced in years as it barely pumps out any cold air at all. We sweat through each night in the summer humidity. Well, at my age, I do anyway.

Finally the kitchen. Built for occupants of hobbit proportions it gives us taller people back ache when we spend any length of time doing food prep.

Here you can see the standard height of the dishwasher as compared with the units. It doesn’t seem like a big deal but after a while you really notice it. And a double sink but no draining board!

So we were DELIGHTED when a place became available in Green Court Serviced Apartments. A smaller unit but more modern.

Here is the compound

Dotted around are these delightful reading statues (which are right up my boulevard)

There is even a water feature and outdoor seating area.

We are in Block D and just look at how wonderful the lobby is

We get a smaller table but that’s fine. Its modern.

And the kitchen and bathroom are a joy to behold.

We have a wrap around balcony

With a nice view of the Catholic Church

But my favorite part is this enclosed balcony space. We call it the ‘Day Room’. The rug needs a clean and we will purchase some more furniture but it will make a very nice relaxing place to chill out. Possibly it will be even TOO hot in the sunshine.

But what spectacular views

Moving went very smoothly. You don’t realize how much stuff you have until you need to pack it up!!!

And we hired some local help…

Fortunately it is only across the road so he didn’t have to pedal far. Don’t worry, they had a van as well.

We had been running our food down to make the move easier but I was so tired/hungry/happy that I ate an entire tub of ice cream… oops!

It turns out that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks!

As a teenager my career goal was to be a teacher, actually a High School RE teacher but whatever, teaching was something that I thought I might enjoy. During my third year at university I came to the realisation that my hearing was going to be a problem, Back then I didn’t have my trusty hearing aids and I struggled with hearing in general. I knew that it wasn’t fair on a shy child asking a question if I couldnt hear them properly. So I gave up on that idea and turned to librarianship instead, which as anyone who works in the profession knows, isn’t as quiet as everyone thinks!!!

In actual fact librarianship did satisfy my ‘educator’ needs as I have spent much of my career teaching library skills to various levels from Toddler through to Masters students. I am even quite happy standing infront of groups of adults delivering papers at conferences or running training sessions but one thing that I have never done is be a classroom teacher.

So, when students began to return to Concordia this summer there were some tongue-in-cheek comments about me helping out with Grade 4, but in actual fact they were well covered and I just went in to deliver sessions on Primary and Secondary Sources. (I should point out here that all school libraries are closed by government order. Staff can go in but no children. I have to go out to them).

Then to everyone’s surprise the government announced that Grades 1-3 could return at the beginning of June (in Imperial that means Years 2 – 4). Our school starts the year early (mid August) so finishes earlier than most on 10th June. In normal circumstance this would be wonderful as we could all start the holidays when the prices are still cheap. Starting the kids back then hardly seemed worth it for what would effectively be a week but there was considerable merit in allowing the children to come back to see their peers and experience some sort of closure of the school year. Parents too were VERY keen that we do this. I got the distinct feeling that there were many frazzled people out there.

In our Elementary Division we have 21 classes across four grade levels and a number of our teachers were stuck abroad behind the international travel ban. They are desperate to get back to Shanghai but are unable to do so. So a general draft went out and it was all hands on deck. Administrators, principals, spouses with teaching experience and yes even the school librarian was called in.

It was a MASSIVE amount of work to design arrival and dismissal systems, lunch and recess (break) schedules as well as ensuring that lines of children stand 1m apart or sit separated at desks. All for one week. The management worked flat out to arrange everything so that it was compliant with the strict government regulations. Here, although things are relaxing elsewhere the government holds schools to a higher standard so, for example while the wearing of masks is no longer compulsory on the streets, it is for us in school.

I was allocated a Grade 2 class and had 12 children. Some of the class were also stuck abroad and they continued with Home Based Learning, but some parents elected not to send their children in and one was recently returned but in quarantine. I would guess that across all the classes we had approximately 2/3 of the children back. For my friends in the UK Grade 2 translates to Year 3, so bottom of the juniors and for readers outside education, it was a class of 8 year olds.

I was more than happy to be flexible and to help in this situation but if I am honest I was a little trepidatious. I had more than one night of insufficient sleep! On the plus side I knew the children from their weekly visits to the library and they all knew me which really helped. On the downside I had never before had to keep the same group of small people occupied for a whole school day.

As it turned out I needn’t have worried, the teacher that I was subbing for was so supportive and helpful. Each day I had a carefully planned out schedule with suggested activities but I had the opportunity to change or amend it if I wanted and as my confidence grew I did in fact do a couple of different things. Every afternoon we would meet after school by zoom and go over the plan and collaborate on it. Each morning she would zoom into the classroom and greet the children which they (and she) appreciated. It was quite emotional for her seeing someone else in her room with her group of children and I wanted to support her as much as she did for me. We ended up with a whole class international zoom on the last day where everone was able to say good-bye. Some children are repatriating and other are leaving to go to other schools in Shanghai so it was an emotional time.

Unlike normal school, each day was heavily structured around handwashing and one of the other Grade 2 teachers had put together a series of 20 second video clips of songs to help the children with the timing, but mine ended up watching the screen more than washing their hands. Hey Ho!

On day one the first thing that happened was that the children were given a safety briefing by the Principal. He said that they could ask their teachers if they had any questions. Back in my room I got

  1. Can we still play football?
  2. Miss, I have new braces…

And so the week went on from there…

We made good-bye cards, thank you posters and the children had time to be creative. The whole class went off twice each day, once to their Mandarin lesson and once to either Art, Music or PE which gave me a breather and chance to set up anything I needed to or to disappear down to the library to catch up on a bit of that work which still needed my attention!!! My two library assistants were brilliant at running not only our library but also the Middle and High School space as well as books in quarantine. I dashed in to put together the bags of books requested by parents each day and met with designers as we also plan a summer library refurbishment…

Back in the classroom, I did have to do some teaching; geometry and bridge design – both of which I had to quickly bone up on the night before!!! Bridge building has never been a particular strength of mine. The children had a STEM activity to build a bridge of 50cm which could support the weight of a small wooden block, using only material which I provided (or rather quickly scratched around to find). They achieved this with varying success but all enjoyed the activity. I read The Twits to them throughout the week and I thoroughly enjoyed the quiet reading time (it was bliss!)

Geometry was actually great fun. After discussing the names of multi-sided shapes and learning that a million sided shape is called a Megagon (thanks to Kevin for unearthing that fact) we made various shapes using geoboards (which I did not know existed before this) and finished off with me demonstrating the strength of a cardboard cylinder by balancing books on it (thanks to Martin Holbery for that suggestion). You can take the librarian out of the library but…

No one cried until one lesson when two girls were in floods of tears AT THE SAME TIME, one had been scratched by a boy as they both grabbed for the coloured pens (although I couldn’t see any mark) and the other had argued with her friend over what to draw. It was at exactly that moment that the Principal walked in to check how I was doing! Would you believe it!!!! I felt dreadful about all the tears but he was fine and said that I had seemed to be coping with it. Not a single person cried after that either. At. All. What are the chances that he would walk in just at that moment!

I cannot lie, it was an exhausting week. I probably worried more than I needed to and slept badly as my brain was fizzing about whether I had everything ready for the next day. Being a sub I didnt have a bank of tried and tested activities that I could pull out of a hat at a moment’s notice if things went pear-shaped. I also wasn’t entirely sure where everything was in all the cupboards and didn’t really want to root around TOO much.

The kids were great though and at the end of he week one of the girls said to me, “If we get COVID-19 again next year and have to do home-based learning again and then come back to school at the end of the year again and our teacher is away will you be our sub please?” Bless. I had obviously made an impression.

The school year finished on Wednesday 10th June and I waved everyone off only to turn around and go to a planning meeting for our Summer Program. Most schools in Shanghai are offering some sort of Summer School or extended learning activities. We were asked to volunteer (technically we are on holiday) and we get paid extra so I decided to help out once again. Kevin and I cannot leave Shanghai without going through a 14 day quarantine on our return so we are basically stuck here. I might as well earn a little more and build up our ‘Travel-Again’ kitty.

We have a bank of outside vendors such as Mad Science in and there is a range of options open to the children such as Basketball, Coding or Around the World geography

I was asked to help with a Reading & Writing Program for Grades 1 and 2 (7 and 8 year olds) which was taught between the English and Mandarin teachers. There were 6 of us, three Mandarin and three English speakers. We each had a group of approx 12 and we decided on themes together. We each taught for half the morning and then swapped the children over so they got the same or similar things in both languages. Each day has a fun, creative activity and then one day focuses on reading and the next writing. I said that I was happy to help so long as someone tells me what they want me to do. I will just do it. This seems to have worked OK.

Our themes were great Chinese Inventions of Dumplings, Chopsticks, Paper and Kites. The children modelled dumplings and set up a shop with signs and menus etc. They painted using chopsicks and cotton wool balls, built chopstick towers, made and raced paper aeroplanes and constructed Paperbag puppets after reading The Paperbag Princess, decorated and flew kites.

Paper plane competition

The summer school was slightly more relaxed than regular school e.g. no uniforms, no reports back to parents, no marking of work but teaching 3 hours straight with no TA assistance is tiring. Particularly when it rains and everyone stays inside. I learned very quickly to DREAD wet weather.

I was delighted that mask wearing rules are relaxing too. The children don’t have to wear them when seated at their desks or when they’re outside which is a huge relief to those of us who are hearing impaired but doing our best to help in these circumstances.

Dumpling Shop

Other things that I have learned during my brief career at the chalkface (or smartscreenface)

  1. Teaching requires the skill of leading a line of children down a corridor whilst walking backwards!!!
  2. Children are incapable of walking one behind the other 1 m apart. Seriously it just doesn’t happen.
  3. Social distancing is nigh on impossible to enforce in a classroom.
  4. Just when you want them to settle down to listen to you someone ALWAYS wants the bathroom/a drink of water.
  5. Constantly speaking above a room full of chatter gives you a sore throat.
  6. When you ask a group of 7 year olds to write about why they prefer chopsticks to spoons, inevitably one boy will say that chopsticks are best because can be weapons!!
  7. I suck at remembering names. This is really inconvenient when you need to yell at someone who has not been listening the first 10 times that you said something. To be fair I already knew that I am rubbish at names but when they are wearing masks it is especialy hard. I think it is my advancing old age…
  8. Silent reading is BLISS!
  9. Silent reading doesn’t last for long enough.
  10. When you see a child get an answer right or understand something you have been explaining it is the best feeling in the world.

One of the most fun activities was kite painting then flying. These kite kits were only 50p each including paints and brushes.

I survived. I fulfilled a chidhood ambition of being a teacher. I’m shattered now and can confirm that techers TOTALLY DESERVE their long holidays. It has been good to get to know some of the children a bit better and I might even remember some of their names when they come in the library next year (when the government restrictions get lifted)

What a tumultous and challenging time it has been! And what a way to end my first year in a new school and a new country! But first, to catch up on some of that missed sleep…

Back to school: It’s normal, Jim, but not as we know it.

Wednesday 7th May 2020 was the date that our school was allowed by the government education authorities to resume on campus learning after leaving the premises for our 10 day Chinese New Year holidays on 23rd January. Like the rest of the world we have been in a Home Based Learning Program but ours is about to start its 14th week. This is considerably longer than other countries and the challenges for us are that:

  1. Our teaching staff and 1/4 of our students are spread around the world in multiple time zones.
  2. We had no warning so many teachers are without their resources.
  3. Teachers are exhausted having to learn new technologies on the hoof and instantly convert all their material into digital formats. People generally don’t realise, but I can testify from my personal experience, that to produce a 10 minute piece of video content can take anything up to 6 hours to prepare. This is no mean undertaking I assure you.
  4. Engagement with the provided online content has been patchy. Some children are self motivated and took to it all like ducks to water; some pick and choose what they want to do and others have either chosen not to engage or been unble to access the technology depending on where they are.
  5. Children and staff are all missing each other. Very much.
  6. In common with other countries around the world there is considerable pressure and desire to resume face to face instruction.

But returning to school is NOT a return to how it used to be. We are in a brave new world now with a ‘new normal’. China is one of the first countries to experience this so for those of you not here, this blog outlines how it all went from my perspective:

Our return to campus was eagerly anticipated and long awaited particularly as local Chinese schools were given priority by the government who instituted a staggered return province by province, city by city, area by area. Although we felt that we were ready we simply had to wait for our turn. During the waiting period Admin and Operations staff were extremely busy as all the International Schools in our area were required to pass a grueling three stage inspection.

The government made certain stipulations mandatory for schools and as far as I am aware these changed frequently! Our HR were brilliant at liaising with the relevant authorities and monitoring the ever changing situation. It was not easy from what I can gather. The stipulations included:

  1. A thorough deep clean of the whole campus.
  2. Installation of additional handwashing stations by the entrance.
  3. A controlled entry procedure at the gate including temperature testing
  4. Installation of a portacabin to be used as an isolation unit in the event of anyone becoming unwell during the school day
  5. Procedures in place for dealing with anyone who becomes unwell e.g. isolation/contact of parents/transfer to hospital in private transport
  6. Production of training material for all returning students and staff on revised procedures
  7. Social distancing in classrooms
  8. Student spaces to be disinfected before new pupils enter and a gap of 40 minutes between student groups (which effectively limits mobility between classrooms)
  9. Closure of spaces where people congregate e.g. libraries
  10. Controlled lunchtime procedures
  11. Masks to be worn by everyone all day
  12. No bicycles or scooters are allowed on campus
  13. No parents or visitors on campus
  14. Provision of hand sanitizer everywhere

There may well be more that I am not aware of but these are the basics.

Return was for grades 11 and 12 initially (Years 12 & 13 in UK speak or sixth form for those not in education). And only those who have passed the government health checks.

The following Wednesday Grade 9 and 10 resume, then after another week 7 and 8, finally on 25th May grades 4, 5 and 6 will come back. As our term ends on 10th June the younger ones will not be back this academic year. The government has taken the tough decision that they are too young to understand social distancing and they touch everything too often, particularly the 3-6 year olds!

As a number of our students and some of our teaching staff are still abroad the approach has to be one of blended learning for those year groups who can return. This means that the ‘teaching’ will still be provided by the specialists via online materials and those who are on site will do supervision.

One important point to note is that all the children have the OPTION of returning to school or staying at home and continuing with home based learning from there. As far as the older ones go there has been a good take up as many will be leaving soon but for those in the High School (the 15-16 year olds) numbers who want to return are changing especially now that they are realising what is involved. But really what would you do? For many the attraction of returning to school was the social element but that is no longer what it used to be.

Spaces are being used differently on campus e.g. the library which has had the shelves pushed back and tables installed. Every hour there has been a supervised lesson and the study hall with even greater spacing. It is going to be difficult to maintain the distances once the other students return.

In the dining facilities there are 1 m lines marked out for the queues. Previously there was a good selection of food but this has been reduced to a boxed meal and the choice is either the meat or the veg option and all the cutlery and serviettes are pre-bagged.

The timetable for the day has been re-worked to provide more opportunities for supervised handwashing and controlled access for smaller groups to the playground. Even the lifts have a plastic covering over all the buttons which is replaced each day.

Entry to the campus is very strictly controlled. Only people who have been cleared by the school heath office are permitted to enter and even then I had to provide 4 separate pieces of documentation prior to arrival.

  1. A health declaration form
  2. Proof of the government health tracker showing that I had a green status
  3. Proof that I had cleared quarantine
  4. A signed letter of commitment that I would abide by the new regulations on campus

Each day I now need to log into a School/government website and input my temperature and sign (electronically) to say that I am not displaying any symptoms. This has to be completed every day before 8am including the weekends!

Also if you have a cough caused by an allergy any other condition you have to prove that by showing a signed medical certificate.

Then we have our temperature checked and then we wash our hands. Throughout the school there are thermal imaging checkpoints too.

From the library point of view we are setting up a book drop box at the back gate where families, especially those not coming back at all, can return their books. These books then have to be quarantined and cleaned before we can discharge them from the student account and put them back on the shelves. I had done much research into what the appropriate time is for the virus to live on various surfaces incuding paper and the plastic jackets of books. Library associations around the world recommend 3-5 days of quarantine but the Shanghai CDC are enforcing a much tougher ruling of 7 days and during that time the books must be laid out flat so that the front of the book is exposed to light. They cannot just be stacked in piles or put on trolleys! Then they have to be cleaned with a disinfectant wipe. This is quite an undertaking for us as we have to track which books are where in the process AND find space to lay them all out.

You can see from this example that the authorities here are really taking a belt and braces approach and enforcing perhaps stricter than necessary rules in an attempt to control any further outbreaks of the virus. This is tough medicine but the proof will be in the pudding. With my knowledge of UK schools I cannot see them being able to put even half these measures in place!!! We are extremely fortunate to have domestic staff to clean every class room between sessions and to have a veritable army of guards to enforce entrance protocols. We have thousands of masks ready for everyone to be able to use a clean one each day and we have boxes and boxes of disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer and disposable gloves.

It did feel good through to be able to walk back into the work environment as it seemed very much like a step in the right direction. And not just the fact that I will be less sedentary! I personally have enjoyed working from home. I have prepared and recorded sufficient online content for every grade to last to the end of the academic year if necessary and I have done this in peace and quiet with no interruptions which I have greatly appreciated. I have put in some hours (see previous comment about the length of time each video takes to make) however I have LOVED the fact that I had zero commute and I could operate in an unstructured day taking breaks when I needed or nipping out for a coffee meeting from time to time. Working in comfortable clothes was also a blessing!

The downsides for me have been the continual and probably overuse of the laptop which has given me headaches, poor posture and RSI symptoms in my wrists and arms. I have found the technology curve to be a steep one to climb and most of it has had to be self-taught. Only mere months ago I was blissfully ignorant of Zoom, iMovie, Screencasting, Handbrake, Ensemble, SeeSaw or even some of the WeChat and PowerPoint functions!!! Now I switch between them all  rapidly and fluidly. The journey hasn’t always been smooth though and I MAY have said some bad words in the direction of my equipment when things were not going well… part of the problem is that China doesn’t permit all applications so we can’t use Google or You Tube which is a shame as there is a lot of good material currently being made available…

On campus I am based for now in the Middle and High school library with my team so I am now located next to the tech hub which is a very comfortable safety net so I can relax now on the tech front. Phew!

It has been marvellous to SEE colleagues, albeit in masks, and to have normal conversations. The biggest problem though has been the stipulation by the government that we cannot have the air con on yet. It is not yet the heat of the summer with its soaringly high humidity levels but we are beginning to get there with temperatures between 20-30 degrees centigrade. Already the library space is stifling in the afternoons and wearing the mask becomes sweaty and uncomfortable. The school has replaced all the filters in the A/C system as per government requirements so hopefully we should get some cooler air soon. In the meantime it isn’t pleasant.

Another eerie thing is seeing all the empty classrooms and offices, knowing that the staff will not be back for ages and in some cases due to retirement or new jobs – ever! But their desks and work spaces are just as they left them. Someone will have to go and and pack them up. I have had to go into a few to search for their overdue library books and it felt all wrong. The moral is, I guess that you should leave your desk as you would wish someone else to pack it! Always!!!

This has been a massive learning curve for everyone and it isn’t over yet. I am busy setting up a click and collect library service which hopefully will keep families supplied with new reading material over the next few weeks. Thanks Tesco for the inspiration.

My first year in China has certainly been an unusual one!