So long, and thanks…

It’s 04:30, which means I’m wide awake and starving, it being lunch time in China.

My luggage is still piled up in the hall – I got as far as hanging up my 3 now-very-crumpled suits before I gave up.

Anyway, I thought I’d take this chance to say thanks (and well done??) for reading this, even if you only read it occasionally. It’s been great fun to write and will serve t remind me of the great year I’ve had when I’ve forgotten everything (so next week then). I’m going to see if I can get it all printed up into a book just for my own sake as a nice little souvenir, but I don’t know how possible that is.

Some final words – everything I’ve written is obviously my own impression of a very small slice of a very big country, so i make no claims for it all being accurate. Although I’d argue all of it to the death. China can be hard work sometimes but I can honestly say I’ve loved it, and it will not be the last time I love there, or the end of my studies of the language, which is fun in the same way unravelling a very long, tangled piece of string is fun.

And finally – I’ve confirmed it; the sky is definitely lower in England. Must be the curvature of the Earth.

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Shanghai Pudong Airport

Wrote this earlier but couldn’t get online to put it up, so here you go:

I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Pudong airport (espresso for 20p? Yes please… I’m going to be twitching by the time I board the plane in an hour or so. One down…). I haven’t updated for a couple of days because we’ve been on the move almost constantly it seems – we left Koh Tao on Friday for Bangkok, and got to our hostel (which was really nice – highly recommend Cozy Hostel if you’re ever passing through Bangkok) at about 22:00 after walking an hour across the city because me and Stu were too tight to pay for a taxi (and wanted to abuse the opportunity for street food on the way). I personally really enjoy walking round strange cities rather than getting the metro or taxis etc, as you see lots more – not sure Stu agreed with this though, especially as we had our bags and it was over 30 degrees with humidity equivalent to a sauna even that late at night.

The next day we went to the MBK centre, which is kind of half shopping centre, half market, munching on some little sandwiches from a street vendor for breakfast. I wasn’t buying anything, but Stu wanted some shorts so we looked around a bit. He found some he liked but was fairly reluctant to try any on as apparently he’d run out of clean underwear and therefore wasn’t wearing anyway, but the stall owner seemed to find this hilarious and she encouraged him to rub his privates all over her nice merchandise anyway. (3 espressos…). Did a bit more browsing then headed over to Lumphini park to look at the massive lizards that I saw last time I was in Bangkok.

We grabbed a snack – Chinesey beef stew with noodles – from a street restaurant as we were heading back, then found a soup noodle place round the corner from our hostel where we tried a couple of bowls of thick rice noodles with pork and pak choi, in a soup with egg broken into it, which tasted great. Ordered in the normal way – had a nosey at what everyone else was having in the restaurant then pointed. By this time we were dangerously dehydrated so we thought it best to head back to the hostel and have a beer on the roof terrace before heading out to dinner in the Silom district of Bangkok, where we met a Dutch guy who we’d been diving with during the week in Koh Tao. Chicken massaman – lovely. (Ooh, they do banana cake here as well – better have another espresso to wash it down). We wandered round a nearby street market that turned out to border the slightly less family-friendly streets of Bangkok (girlie bars and dodgy massage parlours), giggled a bit at the signs for ‘Special testicle massage’ (yes, actually) then went for another beer in a restaurant because it started chucking it down. All in all a very relaxing day.

I have to say I’m really upset to be leaving China – it still hasn’t completely sunk in that I’m finished with my year here and heading home. To control my grief, I’ve made a list of things that I won’t miss about China, followed by a list of things I definitely will. Some of these are cultural differences. Some are not.

Things I won’t miss about China:

1. Spitting/hocking up phlegm. This is disgusting.
2. Shouting ALL THE TIME, especially on public transport.
3. Driving – it’s very tiring to have to treat every excursion onto the road as some sort of mediaeval combat. I have been hit by a car, have hit several cars on my bike as they’ve pulled in front of me, been run over by ebikes… It fast became common enough that I barely think of mentioning it.

But I literally think that’s it – just those three things.

Things I will miss:

1. Food. It’s amazing, and cheap, and unbelievably varied. There is more variety in this one country than there is in the whole of Europe, and none of it is like any Chinese food I’ve ever eaten in England. Will have to resort to making my own dumplings.
2. The language. Chinese seems to have been invented specifically in order to make it impossible to learn. It started off well – each character has an individual, specific meaning, which makes the language very accurate. Unfortunately you need to know at least 2 000 characters to read a newspaper. Even more unfortunately the human mouth can’t make 50 000 individual, specific sounds, so most of these characters sound very similar but are pronounced in different tones – which is great if you have a mouth like a harpsichord, but not much use to anyone else. Nonetheless, I literally love Chinese. Learning it is an incredible challenge, but it’s great fun. I’ll miss it.
3. This isn’t something I’ll miss, just an observation – the sky is higher in China. This is a scientific fact, I’ve just measured it with a ruler. I don’t know how this works, but the sky is really really high here.
4. The people. If we ignore the ones who are spitting, screaming, and running me down, Chinese people are incredibly generous and patient. They put up with my terrible tones when I’m talking, and if I don’t know a word will happily give me 27 different synonyms, all of which I also don’t know.
5. Excitement. Life in China can stressful and frustrating, yes, but it’s never boring. Something that should be incredibly complex will be surprisingly simple, then you’ll try and buy a bus ticket and will get interrogated by the police. Mental.
6. Being special. China’s great for your narcissistic side. In China I get told I’m handsome, and strong, and that I have beautiful eyes. By men. And it’s not weird. I’m taller than everyone in China, and when you go into a bar everyone looks at you like you’re some kind of celebrity, then they give you a drink. It’s a bit weird, yes, but being a foreigner in China has its advantages.
7. Prices. Life in China is unbelievably cheap. Everything apart from computer stuff, which to the contrary of what I was expecting, is more or less western prices.

I’m going to stop there, because it’s time for me to board my plane. Thankfully I think I’ve had enough coffee to make sure I spend the first couple of hours unable to sit still, but after that I should collapse into a coma which will make the 12 hours after that pass smoothly. Hopefully.

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Leaving Koh Tao

We’re leaving Koh Tao today to head back up to Bangkok. It means we’ll have all day tomorrow to look around Bangkok, eat lots of street food, and relax before we fly back to Shanghai on Sunday. Plus I think I should probably stop tanning now, as I’ve gone an alarming shade of orange. Probably that factor 0 tanning oil I’ve been using…

I went for 3 more dives yesterday, a couple in the afternoon and another night dive. The afternoon dives were great – one the first one we dropped straight down from the boat and pretty muich bumped into a big sea turtle, which waqs just finning around unconcerned by us and generally just looking very graceful. Didn’t like it when I tried to ride it like a horse though.

I was hoping to see some sea snakes but unfortunately there weren’t any about, just lots of other brightly coloured fish and some incredible coral formations, with a few little swim-throughs through the rocks in some of the deeper parts.

The night dive was even better than the last one I did. No current this time, and we went further out to sea so could go a lot deeper. The sea was pretty rough and choppy so it was a bit bouncy getting over to the dive site, but as soon as we sank under the waves it was incredibly calm. We went in at dusk so it grew dark as we were diving, and when it was finally completely black lots of big fish came out to play – two enormous hunting barracuda followed us around a bit, chasing the fish that they could see in our torch lights. Great fun.

Better go, as our boat to the mainland leaves soon. My bag seems somehow to have expanded while we’ve been here so I had a bit of trouble repacking, and I’ve managed to slice a big chunk out of my finger as I was trying to force my toiletry bag in, slipped, and rammed my finger straight onto my razor. I ran around for a bit dripping blood all over the floor, the beds, down my arm etc… then ran it under the tap for a bit, put the chunk of flesh back where it should be and put lots of medical tape round it. Shame we’re not diving today though, might have seen some sharks this time!

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Koh Tao II

It’s our fourth day back in Koh Tao now, and I’ve completed my Advanced Open Water dive licence. I’ve done 5 more dives and it’s been awesome – the first day I did dives working on buoyancy control and underwater navigation which was great fun, especially navigation. We practiced navigating in a simple square with our instructor, then he took us for a little wander through the reef and left us, telling us to make our way back to the boat on our own using our wrist compasses and a little pencil map drawn on a slate that was clipped to my vest. We managed pretty well, getting more or less straight back to the boat which is fortunate, because if we’d messed up we’d have been heading straight out to sea.
The second day’s dives were even more fun – in the morning we dived down to the wreck of a Thai Navy ship which was sunk recently in about 30m of sea, 30m being the limit of normal diving and where ‘tech diving’ begins. It was amazing – we sunk down into the blue following a buoy line which led to the nose of the ship, not that we could see it by the time we got down that far because visibility was down to about 2m on the sea floor. We sunk down into the squelchy, slimy silt and played a couple of number games to see how much me and Mike, the guy doing his advanced course with me, had been affected by Nitrogen Narcosis, which can hit when you dive a bit deeper. We’d played the same games on the surface and we both struggled a bit more at the bottom than we had at the top, but nothing too substantial so we were fine. After that we went to explore the wreck, working our way round the hull mostly by touch as lots of the time I couldn’t even see the tips of my own fins. If we’d been fishi spotting it would have been annoying, but the terrible visibility gave the whole thing an awesome, creepy atmosphere, so I thoroughly enjoyed poking my head into all the hatches of the 49m ship, playing with the still-working controls that moved the main guns, and generally loving life.

The second dive that day was just a nice saunter round a little coral reef, where we saw loads of cool fish, but this was kind of overshadowed by our 3rd dive that day – a night dive. At 18:30 we got back on the dive boat and headed out to a dive site on the edge of the bay, arriving just as it hit dusk, so we got kitted up and jumped into the water straight away, torches clipped to our vests to help us see when it got pitch dark. There was a strong current heading out to sea so it was pretty tough going to swim over to the buoy line that we were following down, and the current was just as strong when we were at the bottom, only 10m down this time. It was the most challenging dive I’ve done yet physically, as you couldn’t relax – a moment’s distraction by a nice shiny fish meant you were swept by the current into the person diving next to you, or into the big rock that you hadn’t noticed before but now that you looked was particularly well covered in sea urchins. It was still great fun, and after 10 minutes underwater we were swimming round in blackness, with the only lights being the thin little beams from our hand torches and the phospheresence coming from tiny little plankton that glowed every time they were disturbed by our swimming – all in all, pretty eery. We saw loads of parrot fish, porcupine fish, trigger fish and stingrays, and lots more things hiding under rocks only visible when their eyes reflected our torch light. We were warned not to point the torches at any particular fish for too long, as there’s usually something higher up the food chain waiting around to snap up some well-illuminated dinner, but I didn’t see any examples of this. Not that I was trying, obviously.

Stu did his first couple of dives yesterday and really enjoyed them, and has two more this afternoon, so I guess I’ll just work on my tan while he’s on the boat. We have 3 more full days here after this so we’re going to look into doing a couple of extra dives to some further-afield dive sites if we can, but nothing definite planned yet. It still hasn’t quite sunk in that I’ve pretty much left China yet – I’ll have one more night on the 10th in a hostel in Shanghai, but that’s going to be spent mostly working out how I can turn my 34kg bag into something a little more manageable.

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Happy birthday CPC!

Have just been into town and collected my passport, which much to my relief has a nice big shiny new residence permit in it, valid until the 13th July. Lovely. After that I went to sell the ebike then got a taxi back to my flat to do the bare-minimum-required cleaning before I hand the keys over later today.

And of course – I’m sure you won’t have forgotten – I need to offer some birthday congratulations. Today is the 90th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party, founded in the first meeting of the Chinese Communist Party Congress which took place in a boat on Jiaxing’s South Lake 90 years ago to the day.

There have been lots of signs and stuff up around town for weeks reminding everyone of this momentous occasion, with the hammer and sickle painted anywhere there’s space. Interestingly (controversially) the China Daily – China’s only English language (state-controlled) newspaper – has an article on the homepage of the website today about ‘reasons behind the success of the CPC’ in which the author confesses that the Party may have made ‘several serious mistakes’ during these 90 years. The article’s prompted by a book written by Xie Chuntao looking at the popularity of the Party despite little slip ups, which has caused a little bit of fuss – aside from promoting lots of ‘red’ books in the run up to this anniversary, there’s been a ban since a couple of months ago on TV showing any spy dramas or other programs of the like that might indicate that the government is anything less that a group of jolly nice chaps. (There was also an official ‘discouragement’ on programs showing time travel earlier in the year. ?!?).

The article by Xie Chuntao is quite interesting – he admits that ‘good intentions… were followed by the wrong methods’ before revealing that in the years 1957-1976 ‘one out of four Chinese people often suffered from hunger’.

However, no doubt is left that Xie is merely mentioning these facts to show that the ‘Party is straightforward and objective in its history’, explaining that ‘the Party’s attitude was not to exaggerate glory and not to deny or evade failure as well as to learn from grave mistakes’. Thrilling stuff. Hope I can get hold of an English version of it somewhere.

Right, time to stop procrastinating now and actually get to work tidying. I hope to be leaving Jiaxing within a couple of hours to leave plenty (actually, loads) of time to get to Shanghai, drop my main bag off at a hostel where I’ll pick it up when I come back from Thailand so I don’t have to rush back to Jiaxing then back to Shanghai on the 10th, then on to the airport for our flight at 21:20. We arrive in Bangkok about midnight and leave at 06:00 the next morning on the first bus down to Koh Tao, so if all goes well we should be on the island by late afternoon. Stu’s taking his laptop so expect to hear from me soon.

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Last day

Had my last session at the gym this morning. Oh, and today’s my last day in Jiaxing. I trained with Wang, who I’ve not seen in a while – had a good session, and just to cap things off when I asked if he knew anyone who wanted to buy a push bike he said he wanted a new one anyway, so he’s buying that off me which is great – I was just going to leave it otherwise. Or throw it into a river or something, I’ve always wanted to do that.

I’m meeting him tonight to hand over the bike and go for dinner – we’re going to have da pan ji, a dish from Xinjiang which is essentially just a massive tray of chopped up chicken, noodles, potato and chillis: as far as I’m concerned, the four main food groups.

I’m about to head into town to sell our ebike as well, so by tonight I should have got rid of all the loose ends. Then I just have to repack my big case, see if there’s anything else I can get rid of, and pack up my toiletries and laptop tomorrow morning and that will literally be it. Annoyingly I have almost enough, but definitely not quite enough, space for everything in my bags – not quite enough stuff is left over to make it worth paying for an extra bag, but definitely too much to squeeze in. Not sure what I’m going to do about this.

A quick note on the blog – I plan to write a couple of posts while we’re in Thailand, then I’ll wrap this up before I fly back to England. Don’t think Norfolk life will provide much stuff to write about…

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Penultimate session at my gym here today – very moved about this, as you can guess – and I went for lunch with Hannah and Gu Wen, the Chinese teacher we’ve been having all year. I think I’m pretty much done packing – got to do toiletries and laptop etc still, but I have my main bag packed and (just about) closed.

In an obvious attempt at procastination I’ve made a video of some pictures from this last year – some I chose because of how Chinese the pictures look, some I chose because of what they remind me of, and some I chose just because I like them.

Enjoy – and promise you’ll watch it all.

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