Archive | July, 2012

Sky’s took a turn since this morning – I think it’ll brighten up yet

31 Jul

Even a Chicken Feet’s King can change his feathers in “fowl” weather

I’ve told at least eight people the same tedious anecdote in the past four weeks. My Grannie, I begin, likes to recite very long monologues by Marriott Edgar, along with the requisite silly northern accent.

One such monologue is called Three Ha’pence a Foot. It tells the story of a building contractor called Sam Oglethwaite who is asked by a chap called Noah for some wood to build an ark. Sam demands a price of three ha’pence a foot; Noah only wants to pay a penny a foot; no deal is struck, Noah builds his ark with different wood… and then the floods come.

At the climax of the poem, after 40 days of rain, Noah sails past Blackpool, the only place in the world where there is still dry land – “And that were on top of the Tower”. Noah calls out to Sam, whose chin is still just poking over the surface of the water: “Now what’s the price of yer maple?”. And then comes the rousing finale…

“Three ha’pence a foot it’ll cost yer,

And as fer me,” Sam said, “don’t fret.

The sky’s took a turn since this morning;

I think it’ll brighten up yet.”

“And that!” I say triumphantly to my thoroughly confused, thoroughly bored listeners, “Is what I say to this bloody weather!”

In case you’re wondering, it’s been raining a bit in Beijing. On Tuesday 10 July, as I was sitting in my Chinese lesson and salivating over the prospect of a Roast Leg of Mutton dinner with Mum and Sam (who were sportingly visiting the Roost at the time), the sky darkened. At 7 o’clock I gritted my teeth and marched through the hutongs from Gulou to Yonghegong. A sense of rising panic was obvious from the people, the cars, the bikes, and in the air itself. It was what you’d expect the last few moments before the Rapture to be like.

As I stepped into Wudaoying Hutong, about five minutes from Yonghegong subway where I was to meet Mum and Sam, the heavens didn’t just open – they erupted.

Yet the ankle-deep paddle through the street, the rolled-up trousers and destroyed loafers of one Tom Hale who had thought he was in for a nice dry dinner, were nothing compared with what was to come. On Saturday 21 July, at around 12.30pm, a dense cushion of smog that had been choking the city for a couple of days suddenly converted itself into a storm on a scale unseen in Beijing for 61 years. Lightning flashed within the fog cloud; thunder rolled incessently; rain gushed down the streets.

Paddling through 798 in the earlier hours of That Rainy Saturday

Sam, Mum and I had been in the 798 Art District on that day. The downpour had started pretty much the moment we arrived. After about three hours of sitting in cafes saying, “I think it’ll brighten up yet,” we fled into an unlicensed cab. The rain cascaded all night long. We waded to a local restaurant for dinner.

At least 77 people died that day, and hundreds of businesses and homes were destroyed. As the puddles were gradually sandbagged up, one thing became clear – Beijing’s authorities suck at dealing with rain. An excellent piece in China Daily featured the stories of four people who had seen the storms at their worst, including 17-year-old Hou Shuai, who lost her father, and Qiu Yan,  the wife of Ding Zhijian, who drowned in his car on the Second Ring Road. Qiu’s story was particularly harrowing; her husband had tried to contact emergency services as his car was gradually submerged, only to get the busy tone every time.

Since then, official weather forecasters have pulled out all the stops, predicting torrential downpours any time the air smells damp. For a week or so after Saturday’s storm, workers were allowed home early if the forecast was bad.

Last night, the promised deluge came again – ironically a day earlier than had been forecast, so that I ended up cycling home from Sanlitun through a river, stopping at Yashow clothing market on the way to buy a pair of shorts to replace my poorly chosen white (now see-through) summer skirt. Once again, the streets were flooded and everyone appeared shocked. Once again, no one was prepared.

We have been told to suspect a hell of a lot more of this shitty weather throughout the “summer”. In the days immediately after that Saturday, I admit that I panicked along with the rest of them, cancelling plans left, right and centre to huddle in my flat with a bowl of soup and watch for the storms that never really came.

Now, however, I find myself slipping into Sam Oglethwaite mode. It is 16.42 hours on Tuesday 24 July, it is raining Cs and Ds outside, and I am about to pick up my raincoat and Chinese books and cycle to Gulou for a Chinese lesson.

Beijing cannot cope with the rain. Beijing hates the rain. I hate the rain. But I love Beijing, and I’m only here for two more weeks – less than, in fact.

So fuck you, weather. Literally come hell or high water, I’m going to enjoy my last weeks here.

In any case, the sky’s took a turn since this morning. I think it’ll brighten up yet – and I’ll be hanging onto Blackpool Tower till it does, not budging from three ha’pence a foot.

PM Two-Point-Perfect

18 Jul


How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Smog

The beautiful sunrise over Chaoyang District         (22 February 2012)

The alarm twitters, calling you to another glorious Beijing summer’s day. No need to tweak the curtain back, no need even to open your eyes. The moment your brain swims into semiconsciousness, you know this is going to be one of those days that Beijing does best.

Even as you like back on your pillow, you can taste the cloying haze saturating the air particles, feel the slight dull ache deposited in one corner of your skull and the heaviness in your limbs that has no intention of shifting. You take a shallow breath of the delectably stagnant cocktail of fumes, dust, fog and heat… and up you get.

Smog, pollution, wuran, 污染… whatever you call it, if you’re a resident of one of one of China’s cities or anywhere within 100 miles of one of them, you’ll be familiar with that stuff that makes everything go brown.

Oh yes, it was terribly exciting when we were told that Beijing was going to switch from measuring PM 10 particles – ones that don’t really do much damage – to the genuinely poisonous PM 2.5 that pretty much every country had been publishing for donkey’s years. But surprise surprise, those Chinese government official  PM 2.5 ratings turned out to be miraculously lower than those of the US, with even ratings of over 200 (considered “very unhealthy” by international standards) marked as “lightly polluted”. The Chinese government did its best to stop the US embassy publishing pollution ratings taken from embassy soil in Beijing, but to no avail.

All this bureaucratic brouhaha is a load of hot air for us Peking plebs – quite literally. All we can do is content ourselves with reading and writing endless blog posts about how we are shortening our lifespan by x number of days, smoking the equivalent of a sixth of a cigarette a day, and increasing our risk of every nasty lurgy by the simple act of breathing.

Only today, a well-wisher posted a link onto my Facebook wall (not that I use Facebook EVER in China, good God no, perish the thought):

“How to handle bad air days”

Now, it’s been nearly a year since I planted my Chicken Feet in the ‘hood of the King. Around 36 cigarettes-worth of breathing later (possibly a few more considering the reported PM 2.5 around Spring Festival), I feel I am pretty good at “handling” the ol’ smog in my own special way.

A big part of my defence mechanism is, of course, to flee the Metropolis on a regular basis. Hence I am currently sitting in a squishy armchair 3,600 meters above sea level in the Meili mountains, Yunnan province, where the air is so goddamn pure it’s almost exhausting to breathe it.

In between sips of ginger tea and awestruck glances at the tremendous panorama outside the library window, I found myself idly clicking on the aforementioned link. How, I wondered, did my personal p0llution survival mechanism measured up to the advice from PureLiving China, China’s “leading indoor environmental health and safety consulting firm focused on advising our clients on air and water quality, mold, and lead exposure issues”?

Well, for starters, they didn’t mention retreating to expensive eco-lodges. Fallen at the first hurdle, eh guys…? How about the rest of it…?

1. PureLiving: Close the windows and doors as much as possible

Chicken Feet’s King: Err… windows and doors wide open 24/7, so that a flood of filthy rainwater coats the floor every time we are graced with one of those Beijing thunder-/dust storms. Too much air-con never did anyone any good. And anyway, ayi will be in on Sunday.

2. PureLiving: Use your air particulate filters

Chicken Feet’s King: Air what-nows? I’ve just spent 250 RMB on a blender to make smoothies; what on earth makes you think I’m going to fork out for some claptrap plastic steam-puffer?

Plus those things look very dodgy. At best they resemble a malformed elephant. At worst – well, one friend of mine stopped using his after his girlfriend christened in “The Vagina”. I wouldn’t want people spotting such a contraption stationed in my bedroom beside my copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, now would I? I’m a good girl, I am.

3. PureLiving: Avoid vigorous exercise outside until things get better.

Chicken Feet’s King: Depends what you class as “vigorous” and “exercise”, dunnit?

A 45-minute power-cycle to a Chinese lesson with the PM 2.5 at 280 isn’t really exercise, is it? It’s a mode of transport, and you’re far more likely to catch something on the subway.

That said, a bad air day can provide a great excuse not to clean the flat. They do say that housework is a “great workout”. Definitely leave it till tomorrow.

4. PureLiving: Check air quality websites to monitor the situation

Chicken Feet’s King: Definitely agree with this one, with the addition of the word “incessantly”.

Both my work PC and my laptop have shortcuts to the Air Quality Index website from the US Embassy in Beijing. Checking it has become something of an addiction. I do try to ration myself to six refreshes a day.

The Fresh Ideas app: Taking a pic of an iPhone screen isn’t easy, but you get the gist of the hilarity

Then there’s the piece de resistance of panic-mongering software, which I naturally downloaded onto my iPhone the moment it came to my attention. The Fresh Ideas China Air Quality Index app compares the Beijing US Embassy PM 2.5 rating with the official Chinese one – and it’s a great party piece. Flash the picture showing “US EMBASSY – 280 – HAZARDOUS” (with an icon of a chap in a face mask) above “CHINESE GOVERNMENT – 50 – EXCELLENT”, and watch your guests’ faces light up with delight as they phlegm into their handkerchiefs.

5. PureLiving: Let your friends, neighbours, and school administrators know

Chicken Feet’s King: Again, thoroughly agree, and again, would like to extend this to let everyone know – everyone – all the time.

Sharing is caring. And sharing your misery and woes about the smog is the best way to show how much you care about your fellow Beijingers.

This brings me in rather convoluted fashion to the point expressed in the subtitle to this post… How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Smog. Bet you’re glad you hung on this long to hear it, eh? No one builds suspense like Chicken Feet’s King. And so here it is…

Thanks to pollution, Beijingers never lack a focus on which to vent their gripes and grumbles. Work getting you down? Pissed off that every taxi driver has driven past you after noticing you’re a foreigner? Let it all out on the smog.

Once you start doing this, you realise that, in the same way as you can blame everything bad in Britain on the government, so too can everything in a Chinese city be blamed on “bad air”.

Traffic particularly bad on the way to work? Train delayed? Mulit-vehicle pile-up on the Second Ring Road? It’s no one’s fault – it’s just the smog.

If you just can’t face practising Chinese characters, it’s not your innate laziness or lack of intelligence – it’s just the smog.

If you overeat and knock back eight 540ml bottles of local beer despite having a huge lunch, it’s not your fault. Bad air always makes you hungry. Your lungs have to work harder to process the oxygen, don’t they? Once again – it’s just the smog.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t rain – that always clears the air.

Not quite Shangri-La

17 Jul

Yunnan + Instagram = holiday snaps to die for

Shangri-La is a dream… every man must find his own Shangri-La…

This is what everyone from hotel manager to tour guide to the Lonely Planet itself tells you from the moment you arrive in Xianggelila airport, aka Zhongdian, Yunnan province, aka – since it was renamed in 2001 to attract tourists – Shangri-La.

Chicken Feet’s King certainly had a dream of Shangri-La. Indeed, it was such a convincing dream that a large portion of the family flock agreed to tag along. Despite surviving the ravages of Beijing winter and poor-quality Shanghaiese food, The Mother sportingly sacrificed her sanity a second time round, bringing with her The Bro in all his public-school, hair-flicking glory.

It should be said that the egg of the Chicken Feet’s King-style Dream-Of-S-L had not been laid in anyone’s mind by James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, which describes Hugh Conway’s mythical earthly paradise. Rather it was Dan Frost, London’s finest fringe theatre critic and a China veteran to boot (read his blog here if you don’t believe me), and his wistful reminiscences of his trip to Zhongdian that ended with three words: Yak Steak Burger.

And yet, when those guides, hoteliers, et al speak of The Dream, there is no hint of “wist” in their words. They use it as a bit of a get-out clause. They know that, while Shangri-La is nice, it isn’t quite everyone’s paradise.

Naturally, the Curse of the Dragon yet again plagued Chicken Feet’s King’s progress from Beijing to Yunnan. Our transfer flight from Chongqing to Xiangelila was delayed by two hours, then the pilot decided to ground us in Kunming airport while a thunderstorm raged.

Better four hours late than never, we arrived in Shangri-La, only to be told by Shirley the Guide that the government had requisitioned all the rooms in our hotel and we had been shuffled elsewhere for the night

But as always with the Curse of the Dragon, everything turned out fine.  The Songtsam Retreat turned out to be a swanky posho place. What with the squishy king-size beds and eggs-your-style brekkers in the morning, it would have taken more than governmental requisition to mar my first night’s sleep in Shangri-La.

Unfortunately, due to the Lonely Planet’s “WARNING” about the dangers of altitude sickness at 3,300, I managed to mar it myself. My hypochondriac imagination concocted loss of breath, feverish sweating, extreme panic that hadn’t thought to bring air tanks and a gas mask, and the general idea that I was definitely dying from lack oxygen.

Amazingly, I survived. I awoke to weather cool enough that you wanted to wear jeans but warm enough for a cardi, and flickering between beautiful sunshine and the odd refreshing trickle of rain. The Guide, The Mother, The Bro and I drifted slowly and gently round the sites of Zhongdian and its environs. It was relaxing, utterly unpressurised… and still missed the head of the Utopia nail by a good few centimetres.

Close to Paradise… just not quite (Lamuyuan lake)

The Songzanlin Monastery was beautiful outside and in, but felt just too touristy to live up to its sobriquet of “little Potala Palace”.

The Old Town of Shangri-La itself (which we were taken too after an uninteresting, greasy lunch in a deserted, musty restaurant called ‘Guizhou Flavor’ chosen by The Guide) was certainly not as Disneyfied as Pingyao. Often it was very charming, proof that foreigner-tailored doesn’t always have to entirely spell swindle.

When The Guide insisted on a visit to the Shangri-La Association of Cultural Preservation, I reacted with “Urgh, God, one of those places where they make you watch a crone weave three inches of cloth then try to force you to buy a carpet”. But it turned out to be a really impressive NGO, a school and an unpretentious little shop. I quickly recanted my callous cynicism.

For the most part, however, the Old Town was little more than a fairly quiet, fairly unexciting backpacker post, replete with those quirky wooden signposts promising “Free Wi-fi”, “Coffee” and “Western Food” in various garish shades of Comic Sans MS.

There was the usual town square with its obligatory kebab- and earing-sellers.

There was a fairly interesting Buddhist temple atop a hill in the centre.

Yaktually, it’s pretty tasty

There were an awful lot of shops selling the same Tibetan knives, scarves, bowls and yak-based goods.

Our slow “introductory walk” around the town with The Guide on the first day would have been time enough to spend in the Old Town, but we ended up with an entire afternoon on day two to spend there by ourselves.

We arrived at around 2pm. The whole town had suffered a power-cut, apparently a common problem in this area.

By 4 we were trying to decide between a cold beer accompanied by the deafening grind of an electricity generator, or a warm beer in a generator-less cafe but where it was at least quieter.

By 6pm (two warm beers later), we were ordering food out of boredom in a youth-hostel-cum-caff, surrounded by Scouse gap yearers comparing their blisters in loud voices.

Shangri-La wasn’t bad by any means. One or two moments did cause my heart to catch in my throat at something close to bliss.

Walking around the Lamuyuan lake just beneath the monastery, especially early in the morning with geese calling, the smell of wood and incense burning, and a not unpleasant tune plinking out from some electronic music box that almost sounded like a flute, was terribly uplifting. So too were the two novice monks comparing iPhones inside the Monastery itself.

Ambrosia of the Gods with a side of chips and ketchup

And Dan Frost’s fabled Yak Steak Burger was very nearly heaven between two slices of sesame bap. Just not quite.

After two days in Shangri-La, I felt refreshed, but cleansed only in the sense that the Beijing smog in my lungs had been replaced with fresh (though thin) air.

As our gloriously named driver “Mr Big Fish” set a course on the potholed road to Benzilan, I held on to the Dream.

My Shangri-La is still be to found somewhere in this famously spiritual province of Yunnan.

Next stop: Benzilan.