Friday 26th October:
A very early start collecting Mike at 5pm in Fulwood. Check in, boarding, flight to Zurich and transfer to Beijing flight couldn’t have gone smoother. Swiss Air very efficient and excellent service on the plane. The flight to Beijing “began” around 2pm European time (1pm GMT & 8 pm Beijing). The adjustment in time zone over the flight was unusual to say the least. The actual fly time was 8 hours (very fast) with tail winds pushing the Airbus along at 1000 km an hour. Zurich to Beijing then of course being a distance of 8,000 km or 5,000 miles.
Saturday 27th October:
The flight arrived in Beijing around 5 am Beijing time (10 pm the night before GMT). Again Swissair was fabulous with excellent service and surprisingly very good food. Entertainment came via the in-flight movie Men in Black 3. The rest of the time was spent trying to salvage some sleep and correct the loss of time occurring because of the time zone change. On arrival the huge scale of the airport was the first sensation with a roof stretching as far as the eye could see. After a short wait for our visa to be checked it was off to find a Taxi. If we had let it the Taxi found us with over enthusiastic drivers spotting our wide-eyed novice tourist appearances despite attempts to play cool and act as if we had seen it all before. With determination and an uncomfortable level of ignorance shown to the eager taxi men we found the advised “B” symbol taxis and paid 280 Yuen to transfer in a journey of around 40 minutes. The immediate view from the backseat indicated that Beijing was huge but, on the surface, looked like a large European city with good highways and large tenement blocks in the suburban districts. The Hotel Jingtailong International is certainly well located being 20 minutes’ walk from Tiananmen Square via an avenue of department stores, food outlets and nick-knack shops dedicated as “The Emperors Avenue”. Confusion abounded at reception with the language barrier proving too much for ourselves. Progress was eventually made after drawing 2 stick men to represent my and Mikes arrival and then several other stick men to represent the arrival of other UCLAN delegates later the same day and Sunday. Finally a call to Feixia Yu’s mobile revealed she was already in the hotel. She came and generously offered her room for a brief sleep before we could breakfast and find our own rooms. We ate at 9am. My plate had bacon patties, a boiled egg and noodles. Because we were at the end of serving there wasn’t much left but breakfast will be an interesting experience. I managed chopsticks wanting to get some practice in prior to visiting a tea house later in the week.
After breakfast we headed out with the intention of reaching Tiananmen Square to have a nosy around. Before long we found a few interesting back streets where the noise level and number of people buzzing around picked up pace. So much to see! “China Town” but this time totally authentic with the noise and bustle just as you might expect it. Many of the stores are of course targeting tourists and a little hidden market was full of store holders pointing out their wares quite assertively. We avoided the temptation to buy tat and headed for the Square. The day was surprisingly warm with temperatures around 21 degrees. Tiananmen Square is huge and surrounded by busy roads with people jostling across wide pavements. We witnessed an arrest of a street trader with a pain clothes policeman unceremoniously dumping a man (see picture) in a mini police wagon in front of gawping tourists.
After this brief excitement we headed under the subway where the increasing presence of security was apparent. Once across (under) the busy road the vastness of Chairman Mao’s mausoleum became apparent and thousands of respectful Chinese were flowing out of its huge doors. Just sitting back and looking around, although you could spot the odd westerner the several thousand tourists were predominantly Sino-Asian almost certainly on their first visit to Beijing. For the most part their dress was very western. Between the mausoleum and the entrance to the Forbidden City is a huge space- the square itself decorated by a huge potted plant of imitation flowers. Other than for colour I have no idea what the significance of this was. Photos in front of Mao’s visage will prove good bragging snaps on Twitter etc.! By this stage we were ready for coffee and shamelessly headed to Starbucks for a seat in the sun. We shared our place with an entertaining Canadian couple over on business with the University. After a restful half an hour we headed back to the Hotel for some much-needed sleep but not before nearly being stung for 50 Yuen for chopped sausages. Mind you it looked more appetising than the crunchy locusts and assorted creatures on sale via another traders stall!
In the evening we went out to eat with the intention of finding authentic China town food. No problem there as there are literally hundreds of places all begging you to eat.
Chopsticks were the only implement we had and both of us had fun trying to master the Chinese cutlery. It’s amazing how quick you learn when you are hungry! The evening finished with a walk up to the Heavenly Gate opposite Tiananmen Square and Mao’s tomb. A young (and it turns out Buddhist) couple were keen to talk and practice their English with us. Sadly we had to part after 10 minutes of friendly chit-chat where they revealed they had travelled 13 hours from Harbin north of Beijing. Temperatures in that part of Northern China are supposedly -3 degrees, a far cry from the current balmy Beijing.
Sunday 28th October:
Awake at 6am. I can’t sleep although another couple of hours would be good. China TV (CCTV…sounds even more “Big-Brotherish”) is a mix of propaganda, public health warnings, bizarre game shows and natural history programmes. There seems to be an obsession with big cats with real life Lion King style rolling documentaries on one channel. The public health warnings make sense with friendly cartoons giving reminders about sedentary lifestyles and electrical safety. Why have we stopped doing this in the UK? Just watching a rolling news bulletin, although on the surface it appears to be live news with ALL world events, you can’t help thinking that somewhere there is some strong editing taking place. Having tried (several times) it has now become clear that both Twitter and Facebook are blocked. Whilst bemoaning the fact I can’t Tweet the Facebook blocking technology should be imported to the UK!! It will be interesting to see how the Communist regime copes with advances in technology for China is clearly at the forefront of most everything. The suppression of social networking sites solves the immediate problem of the quick sharing of information but surely the fact that it is possible to email sort of negates the point. On the street it would be hard to spot the difference between western cultural images of a mix of wealth evident in the department stores and poverty among the street cleaners and “volunteer security” people (all male on reflection). Are the swish stores for show? Having said that we did see a Porsche on our way from the Airport yesterday and so perhaps there is more public wealth among ordinary Beijingese than is evident at first sight.
Breakfast was great today. Feixia joined us chatting about School exchanges, the political scene and whetting our appetite for Chengdu. At the end of breakfast the waiters, waitresses and maître-d were given a pep talk from their boss. Feixia fixed it for us to have a photo with some of the team.
After breakfast we took the bridge across to a covered market which, by our standards, was huge. The store keepers were no different to those you would find in Blackburn or Preston though-real traders out to make an honest living. We were both tempted-myself by a £75 IPhone clone (looked very good actually) and Mike was on the lookout for cuff links since his still lay in his drawer in Fulwood. Another day maybe with Yuen kept in pocket. After a little deliberation it was off to “The Temple of Heaven” is the centrepiece of Tiantan Park a huge space of spirituality, leisure and general homage for locals and Chinese tourists. Dating back to the Ming Dynasty the Temple lies at the very centre of the park and is a fabulously attractive circular Pagoda towering above the trees. Views from the temple showed the vastness of Beijing with discernible mountains in the far North West.
Around the park were hundreds of locals engaged in various activities including music, dance, flag waving and a game of “Keepy-Uppy” played very skilfully with a kind of large shuttlecock. In particular those taking to dancing in the park were clearly experts and in competition with one another. In extreme cases male and female dancers were dressed for the occasion in a sort of Strictly Beijing way. Everyone was clearly having a great time and it would have been easy to join in had we had female accompaniment.
Further exploration revealed other historical monuments with a spiritual focus. The hundreds of “pilgrims” were clearly enjoying the October sunshine and the civilised, clean and orderly atmosphere made the whole experience very enjoyable. All we were missing was a picnic! At 4pm we met up with the rest of the group. Some had only arrived a couple of hours before and so a trip out was possibly the last thing that they needed. We headed off to the 2008 Olympic Stadium site so as to visit the “Birds Nest” and “Water Cube” stadiums.
This meant a minibus ride across town and it was at this point that the real size of Beijing became apparent. We travelled for around an hour in heavy tea-time traffic-but this was Sunday. Apparently on Saturday and Sunday 100% of cars owners are allowed to be on the road. Cars have somewhere in their number 1 to 6 and from Monday through to Friday some numbers are not allowed out on the roads so as to avoid congestion. How these people then get to work is anyone’s guess?; having said that public transport connections are fantastic with a mix of Taxi, bus, bikes (mopeds and pedal power) and the ubiquitous “tuk-tuks” which, at the press of a squeaky horn, carve up even the most stubborn of crowded walkways with ease and.
Another noticeable feature evident on the roads and at crossings are the number of pedestrian marshals with red flags. Apparently these people are the unemployed forced into some kind of work for nobody is allowed not to have a job (why can we not do this back home?). They do their work stoically although 3 or 4 hours of this every day for a few months would probably drive the individuals into some other real employment.
The Olympic site-like Barcelona and London are, is very impressive with lots of architecturally inspiring buildings dotted around the district in which it is situated. The Birds Nest stadium is amazing at a distance and no less inspiring close too. We arrived at 5.30 and so caught it in the late daylight. Within half an hour the stadium lights were on with the Nest in an orange glow and the Water Cube in deep sky blue.
The evening finished at The Jade Palace International Hotel with a meal of 8 courses which tested the stomach of a few of the party. I thought it very good but the sizzling Catfish was too much for some.
Monday 29th October:
Today heralded our first visit to a school. It was the Dongfangdecai School which altogether has 3,000 students. On the campus we visited there were 800 students aged 15 to 17 and these students have passed sufficient exams prior to entry so as to study a course with a vocational slant. Pupils are seen wearing track suits and in some cases casual dress. The school has “City Level Teachers”, “District Level Teachers” as we’ll as higher paid “Academic Leaders” drawn from the Chaoyang district of Beijing. The Principal is called Wang Biao and his Deputy is Tang Hong although in the absence today of Wang the “Party Secretary” Geng Qihua is running the show. Geng is obviously the Big Cheese around here taking easy control of the meeting. He is a warm, kindly and very likeable man with real presence. He clearly has a great deal of wisdom as a man of around 60 years should have. It is very interesting to see that unless a question is directed at Tang, Geng answers but he is charming-even through an interpreter. The role of Party Secretary is an interesting one; he acts rather like a cross between a Governor and a permanently in situ Ofsted Inspector checking that things are done in the right way. The political implications are obvious with education an important preserve of the Communist Party. Tang is clearly a studious man having worked his way up to the level if an Administrator. They clearly run a clean and efficient school which appears to be well equipped.
The school day begins at 7.30 for many students who are eager to study until the bell goes at 8pm. Lessons are then 8 to 12 with lunch from 12 to 1.30. The next bit wasn’t clear but it sounded as if there was a type of siesta time until 2. Lessons then recommence and end at 5pm. As at the beginning of the day many students stay behind to keep on top of homework with some working as late as 9pm. Beijing society and I suspect the Chinese as a whole are extremely hard-working with these habits picked up at school. I asked about the use of Technology and a VLE. Although they don’t have this the pupils, staff and parents have access to a Smartphone “App” which act as a conduit for information. Pupils appear to follow a curriculum not unfamiliar to British students but it is hard to assess the depth of learning. We weren’t introduced to any pupils and this was a slight disappointment. In amongst sporting style activities they have a uniformed celebration with marching dressed in typical military regalia. Pupils are apparently keen to be considered as good people. They don’t have RE lessons as such but study world religions in History. The schools behaviour policy is not unlike our own but you sense that there are fewer “naughty” children to deal with. The intensity of study means that the school has two psychologists/counsellors who apparently get plenty of referrals. It is rare for children to be sent to the Headteacher and it is seen as a sign of weakness in the teacher if this happens. Should it happen too frequently the teacher is likely to lose their job but not before a system of CPD support has been tried?
After leaving the school I was feeling a little ropy and started to worry about tummy pains. I didn’t eat lunch. Even now, with every meal including breakfast being formal it is too much and I don’t think the food suits me. The thought of this all week fills me with horror. The afternoon was planned around a visit to Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City. Having visited the square last Saturday Mike and I were quite blasé about the square but excited about what lay behind Mao’s portrait. There was some excitement in the square with a change of guard and what we believed to be provincial Chinese wanting photographs with white British people. Great excitement when their furtive attempt at a snap was made into a true photo by showing acquiescence to the plan.
By this stage my tummy was turning a little and my legs had no energy with 2/3 miles walking through the gardens and courtyards of the Forbidden City to negotiate. It was a sight to behold and although I missed some of the historical notes you knew that you were in a great place with an incredibly history dating back to the Middle Ages. The courtyard floors alone are 15 layers of stone thick to stop marauding enemies potentially tunnelling into the City which back then was home to 20,000 Pekinese (that’s people not dogs!) the ruling Emperors had to rule with a rod of iron and some of the stories were cruel but legendary and something the Chinese are generally proud about. The City is surrounded by a huge moat as wide as Eton Dorney and encircling the full extent of the City which is 940 m long and 240 m wide. To get a further concept of the space excavated, the soil was taken half a mile away and place on what must have begun as a mound but is certainly a hill of considerable height. This is shown in the picture. The various gardens, concubine residences and temples make or a very interesting experience. Unfortunately for me I had now developed the shakes and was concerned I may vomit. My problem was that I didn’t know where I would do it since everywhere was so clean. After a very uncomfortable hour I made it back to the coach and subsequently the hotel where I went straight to bed leaving the other to go out to a Tea House. An extremely uncomfortable night followed. A can of coke from room service helped a little. Two Ibuprofen helped further and amazingly I awoke feeling tired but not too bad. The terrible aching had stopped. Thank goodness!
Tuesday 30th October:
Today we visited Beijing Jinsong Vocational School, made it to The Great Wall and still had time to take an amazing Acrobatics/Juggling show. My tummy was suspect and at the end of the day the second meal did for me. Because I had eaten so little I tried more food; however, around 10pm it came back to haunt me. With the greatest sense of nausea I can remember. I now have a fear of the restaurant scene which is clearly part of this week (2 times a day)and almost certainly Chinese food when I get back to Blighty. I wish I could say I felt better for eating less but I feel truly rotten.
The Jinsong school is a very high specification vocational school in the hustle and bustle of Beijing not too far from the centre. (Beijing’s metropolis proportions make it hard to assess distances accurately for you can drive miles in any direction and not escape high-rise apartments, banks, hotels and other monumental buildings. Having said that Tiananmen and The Temple of Heaven Park are huge oases of space and an escape from the soaring splendour of the high-rise concrete). The value of Jinsong School is reportedly 32million-a fact which should have tickled the conscience of Michael Gove during his evidently much celebrated visit here a couple of years ago.
In the same way as yesterday we were ushered into an impressive board room but this time with more urgency. The Principal was again absent leaving Jinsong’s Party Secretary Mr Xiou and the Vice Principal Mr Wang to play host. Again us was evident that Xiou was the boss and the absence of name cards and ‘first names’ further suggested an ethos here which spoke ‘smart & efficient’. Mr Xiou was younger than yesterday’s political master Geng and had only been appointed a couple of years ago. The concept of a board room is something very infrequently seen in British state schools – possibly more akin to a historical opulence sometimes evident in the Independent Sector. Why not though? It is impressive with the 80” TV screen a perfect means of communication and the leather executive seats and modern mahogany table the kind of setting our Governors should be able to enjoy.
The school specialises in Catering & Beauty, Hotels & Tourism, and has Music Production, Business and Computing faculties as well. 70% of the students come from Beijing with the rest from provincial areas or in a growing number of cases from abroad with Finland sending several students. This campus concentrates on Catering and Beauty and is breathtakingly impressive with facilities akin to 5 star spa/salon areas and highly equipped kitchen areas designed in such a way that the observation of T & L and the delivery of information to students is accurate and efficient. The kitchens have clear glass on the corridor sides. What is evident inside though is that a TV monitor displays the teacher who also wears a microphone so that he is always heard.
As for the rest if the facilities in the school, the photos speak for themselves. This is obviously a showpiece school. The pupils were very friendly, engaging and being more mature up for some fun with boys winking at the female members of our group and the girls pretending to match fake nails to my chubby fingers. The staff were equally relaxed with several of the male “grooming” staff like mini Gok’s- all tightly packaged, bouffant hair and attitude with it. What is unmistakably though is the pride they have in their school; they know they have the best facilities in China. A young girl showed us an automatic hair washing machine-one of only 2 in China where clients lie back and enjoy a 25 minute massage, shampoo, condition and rinse prior to their next auto-pamper with the spider-like massage machine. It is evident from the streets that the Beijingese enjoy fashion, like to be different and are prepared to spend money on the whole scene. This was a shock but you can see it-particularly in the 15 to 30 age group. Obviously Beijing will be at the forefront of fashion in China but you can’t help thinking this will spread. These micro-experiences give a little insight into the larger picture when comparing to the UK. The people here work phenomenally hard, they appreciate the value of being well dressed, you rarely (if at all) see any people who are obese and they appear to be committed to their country understanding their place as citizens who have a duty to serve. The laws regarding 1 child per family originally passed so as to restrict the birth rate growth (980,000,000 people is a large burden for the rice fields and the fuel industries) ironically mean that each child us a celebrated only one given the right amount of attention and opportunity to make god in life. The rate of growth is hard to appreciate but the fact that there is a waiting list of 1,000,000 for a new car in Beijing alone gives an idea! All in all, our visit to this school was illuminating and one can imagine the impact on learning for children who have access to such exceptional technology.
Our trip to The Great Wall was punctuated by a stop off at yet another restaurant-this time with a shopping facility attached. I wasn’t able to eat much but managed an ice cream trying to keep up my energy levels. What can be said about The Great Wall? 5,000 km long celebrated by tourists as an unbelievable feat of ancient engineering but remembered by the Chinese as the largest cemetery in their country with bone fragments adding to the variety of building materials used across its full length. By all accounts there are 5 aspects of the wall which act as tourist magnets. This section was certainly impressive with a precipitous rise in the first section leaving everyone breathless. For myself I was at this stage really struggling with my tummy ache which presented its own challenge to me before I was able to set foot on the wall. Eventually after an embarrassing 20 minutes I felt able to make tracks although devoid of the type of energy I would show on a set of steps anywhere.
The scale of the wall is immense and we were only touching its hem. This particular section is very steep at the beginning and those with any infirmity or of a certain age would not be able to negotiate it. The wall is punctuated at regular intervals by crenelated look out points and those with energy were involved in a competition to see how many look outs could be walked. I and a few others managed 4 (which incidentally was high enough) but Mike managed a lofty 7 taking him well beyond any casual (or for that matter earnest) tourists. The view from look-out 4 was magnificent giving a vista of the surrounding mountains and hazy Beijing in the distance. There was just time to return to the bottom and grab a coffee. I was relieved that my nightmarish start had not haunted me again at station 4 for only The Lord knows what I would have done if the same problem had arisen!
The return journey to Beijing was relatively peaceful. We speculated what lay behind the facades of some of the outpost villages which gave the impression of an old Western Filmset – all fur coat and no knickers. The ruling party, knowing that this was a tourist run, have almost certainly spruced up some of the shanty style housing and stores with brash shop fronts in the same way you see new business spring up in Cyprus. Am I sounding cynical? Not sure but there have been so many truly impressive things on show why not?
Wednesday 31st October:
For me, Wednesday was pretty much a write-off taking the decision to stay in bed and recover from a very dickey tummy.
Mike and the gang had a very interesting day:
Wednesday began with the usual battle through the Beijing traffic before we finally arrived at Beijing International Studies University. BISU specialises in overseas students and in appearance and feel was not dissimilar to many UK institutions. We each had the opportunity to observe a lesson (mine was in fact a tutorial presentation by two students from Vietnam) and a tour of the extensive facilities with our student guide Alice who along the way provided us with some interesting insights. Her perspective unsurprisingly was somewhat different from the more traditional Liang. Alice’s desire to be an individual and to enjoy life to the full was certainly more in tune with students at UK Universities. Her dream was to go abroad to improve her English and ultimately to be a teacher which is seen as a great career option in China and yet another indication to us of the esteem in which education here is held. A little different perhaps was her view that former Chinese leader Zhou Enlai was her all time hero and that she wished young Chinese men were more like him! Affording such cult status to political leaders is not something I suspect is common amongst our young people. Once again our hosts were exemplary in their hospitality and treated us to a sumptuous meal provided by the University’s own caterers.
Next stop was the Lama temple. This beautiful complex of temple buildings belongs to the Tibetan branch of Buddhism but was apparently fortunate to survive destruction in the Cultural Revolution. Liang carefully explained that Tibet of course was simply a province of China and that the only issue was with the Dalai Lama and his followers who sought to break away. It clearly wasn’t appropriate to put her on the spot by querying this interpretation. For me the colours, artwork and statues displayed here were one of the highlights of our visit. In particular the experience of walking into the final temple and being confronted by a towering 18m statue of Buddha carved out of a single piece of wood will live with me for a long time. I was also struck by the reverence shown by the many young Chinese as they privately and quietly conducted personal acts of worship, kneeling, lighting incense and praying. Although we had seen no evidence of religious worship or imagery in schools religion is clearly still a presence in Chinese society. The worshippers at the temple were largely young professional people.
We all took lots of photos in the autumn sunshine before heading the short distance to the Confucius Temple. Confucius’ thought stresses ethical, moral and social values and these still underpin much of Chinese culture today. (Confucius would be mentioned a few times the next day in debates about the future of education in China and in the need to uphold these traditional values whilst embracing change.) This visit was also a reminder that we were in china under the auspices of the Confucius Institute which I believe aims to promote Chinese language and culture, and to facilitate educational and cultural exchanges. Whilst this temple was not as extensive, colourful or popular as the Lama Temple its hidden and quiet spaces under ancient cypress trees were a real delight from the usual Beijing crowds. Confucius says ‘Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.’
Next stop back to a busy Beijing high street and a rendezvous with Phil outside McDonalds!
A brief stroll to the shops at 2 pm preceded a taxi trip to meet up with the rest if the gang who by this stage were visiting a shopping precinct. The taxi ride itself w further proof-if any were needed-of the friendliness of the locals. A young driver who, with two friends, had watched my struggle of 20 minutes offered a lift. Knowing the fee to be 30 Yuen I stuck to my guns having been offered the ride for 50. No problem, lift sorted, but the journey lasted a full 30 minutes when 15 would have usually have been sufficient. The traffic was awful but my cheerful driver stuck determinedly to his volunteer task and he got me to my rendezvous point within the appointed time.
40 minutes strolling past food street vendors did nothing to settle my stomach and tails from iron built colleagues of bullfrogs, scorpion, starfish and snake delicacies were enough to put me off the planned meal that night. I’m not ashamed to admit at this point that all I wanted was a McDonalds and Liang kindly sent a waitress to the local McD’s to collect some fries. A pity they were freezing when they arrived (the Lord strike me down for being ungrateful). An uncomfortable day ended reasonably early as our troupe planned to pack for the following day’s journey to Chengdu
Thursday 1st November:
We needed an early start as our flight to Chengdu was leaving around 11am. Fortunately the traffic on route to the airport was not so bad allowing us to make it with comfort. We said goodbye to Liang our guide who certainly had taken her job seriously keeping us informed every step of the way. Her views on all things China were very traditional and you could tell she was steeped in a strong belief of the communist systems which had served her well. She was clearly a hard worker herself and spoke of her 5 homes ( we assume flats) as it was also traditional for families to build up a portfolio of property so that any family need could be catered for. It was little wonder then that High Rise apartments were springing up all over!!
Once in Chengdu (an uneventful flight of around 3 hours but with lovely food) we were taken straight to the Caihong Primary School of Chengdu where we were greeted by a group of children dressed in Halloween outfits including masks. They sprung out of side doors “Trick-or-Treating” and we were able to satisfy their demands with ready sweeties. It was also moveable that a large group of parents (virtually all female) had taken the trouble to greet us also and enthusiastically said hello as we walked into a large courtyard play area. We were then treated to a group of warrior young men who practised their Kung-Fu moves on us and this was immediately followed with a Tai-Chi demonstration from a large group of children. Trick-or-Treating ghosts were joined by Pirates, Princesses, Cowboys and Witches in a performance (in English) of a typical Primary School style song. The entertainment was coming thick and fast for the next production was “Monkey-King” from the eager and clearly excited youngsters who had prepared well for our visit. In particular, Monkey-King was presented with the pupils displaying typical Primary performances but with amazingly rounded English accents. The Headteacher of the school then invited us to partake in a ritual tea drinking ceremony explaining the significance of each stage of the event. Although thirsty, my gagging reflex prevented me enjoying the jasmine flavoured brew since the memory of my sickness two days previously was still fresh in the mind.
Pupils were then let loose on us to practice their English and it was astonishing to hear some as young as 10 speaking with some ease. I had twins Mary and her sister who had so far not been given an English name and so I promptly gave her the name Sarah. Kevin who had played a cowboy in the show joined us with his teacher whose English name was Moon. I pointed out my name and she told me in astonishment that she had been given the name by her English teacher “Mooney”! An amazing coincidence.
We were then whisked off to an On to an after school club which had been stated by young entrepreneur Martina who had seen a gap in post school provision for children aged 5 to 11. Operating out of a swish hotel with 4 smallish rooms Martina’s vision was to provide a service where children were not just looked after with games and some learning but that all the learning would be geared to the acquisition of English; with this in mind she had appointed two young people who were the leaders of learning and we witnessed the 10 or so pupils playing a Halloween game of mummies (the Egyptian kind).
After yet another banquet we were taken to our Hotel in the heart of Chengdu City Centre and after dropping off our bags we were eager to see a few sights as the coach journey revealed a vibrant, light sparkling shopping area promising entertainment akin to that of a Leicester Square in London. Whilst the lights seen did not morph into Theatre land, the scale of the shopping area, the Prada, Versace, Rolex and Burberry adverts were sufficient evidence that this was a very well-to-do place and that the Chinese Yuen is being spent on luxury items by a large number of people. I had read that there are one million $ millionaires in China a startling number revealing that there is massive wealth but also that the gap between the richest and poorest Chinese is massive. By all accounts 120 million Chinese live on 10 Yuen a day which is around £1. How they do this although one can be sure there is a vibrant black economy.
Mao’s huge statue overlooking the ostentatious shop fronts was the perfect contradiction already mentioned earlier in this diary. How the new leadership of Xi Jinping (prospective Party Leader) and Li Keqiang (prospective Premier) handle the conflicting messages of Lenin and the desire to be successful and become wealthy is anyone’s guess and the next 5 to 10 years of China’s development will be very interesting.
Friday 2nd November:
Our schedule indicated that it was likely to be a punishing day with visits to several schools and meetings with dignitaries, Headteachers and students. It was totally unexpected to find the first school, all-be-it new and almost certainly “model”, of such high quality. The campus was beautifully designed with courtyard areas decorated by water fountains, flower beds adorning the hotel style reception areas. Anyone with an eye for sport would have their attention drawn immediately to the 3G AstroTurf football pitch surrounded by a modern running track; ironically I had proposed such a model in discussions with Matt Hilton only one week before and the experience of seeing such a set up at close quarters has invigorated my desire to find such a solution for Cardinal Allen. I hope my request that plans be emailed to me is successful for such a facility would transform our outdoor sport to another level.
“Volunteers” for 2 lessons to be delivered to their students were found in Katie Rainbow (Garstang Community Academy) who was to teach a PE lesson and Catherine Edens (Burscough Priory High School) who would deliver English. Although it was not a case of reputations going on the line we were all grateful for their input for it meant we could relax and take photos. Feedback on both lessons was that the students greatly enjoyed the learning and humorous moments were recorded in both.
If we weren’t quite ready to see such outstanding facilities we certainly were not ready for the International Conference Seminar which was being hosted in the school in what can only be described as University standard lecture hall facilities. A few of us were lucky enough to receive translation devices allowing us to maintain an interest in what was a lively discussion on teaching and learning. For those without these same devices the mandarin would have been impossible to follow leaving one Australian delegate who spoke last in English to give a clue as to what was being discussed. The question “What makes a good teacher?” was put to 6 panelists with the first respondent of European (and we later discovered British) heritage. “Stuart” spoke in animated Chinese dispelling the initial expectation that understanding would be shared but his wise words made a good start and placed pressure on the other delegates to come up with their own pearls of wisdom.
For the record this is what they said:
A good teacher is someone who has a good understanding of Global Issues; someone who is totally enthusiastic about the power and lasting effects of teaching; someone who can lead by example and be a witness to their words.
A teacher must love his students unconditionally no matter how distracted or poorly behaved they are.
In Chinese there is a saying that when 3 people are walking together, one of them is a good teacher.
Confucius was famous for understanding the needs of each student; individuals learn differently and so a teacher should take account of each persons needs capturing their individual characteristics.
The best teachers make their students think and ask questions.
There are 4 important things in the life of a child: the environment they learn in; the parent; the traditional school teacher or mentor; the fact that the child is a teacher there self and that they must develop a lifelong attitude to learning.
Teachers should be adaptable, have an open mind and become friends with their students; a teacher must never be superior to their student, serving them and expecting them to become more learned than themselves.
Our meal today always promised something special. Martina’s who had shown us her Psalms School the day before wanted us to feel wanted and so had, at her company’s expense, arranged for us to eat at the same hotel is the Sichuan Education Secretary and the conference delegates. No expenses were spared with Lobster a visibly very expensive serving at around £250 not to mention other delicacies such as Yak and Ducks tongue notably different. Mike, Gary and Karen were not put off by the exotic flavours and everyone else could certainly not go hungry with the amount and variety on offer. A short interlude saw Catherine and myself taken next door to propose a toast with the Minister which was completed with an interpreter, lots of smiles and a few hand signals.
We were to visit two more schools in the afternoon and a meeting with other Headteachers was on our schedule.
At the first school, Chengdu Shishi Union Middle School, we were greeted by around 300 children playing a variety of traditional games in the school courtyard/sports area. Games included Diablo, Hop-Scotch, Top & Whip, Catch-Beads (throw a mini bead bracelet in the air, pick up a second and then catch the first) and the Keepy-Uppy game we had seen in the park on the previous Sunday. I was drawn to this and enjoyed a sweaty 10 minutes trying to pretend I had some skills. Having caught it on my neck & shoulders twice (life in the old dog yet!) the children began to imitate and a crowd formed.
We were taken around the school and shown beautiful art work as well as some classroom lessons taking place around the small campus which was on 3 levels. This was a very successful school by all accounts but it had none of the outstanding facilities we had witnessed in the morning
The school is obviously very proud of its long tradition and origin which is detailed in the photo of one of many large wall plaques circling the school yard area. The fact that we were not greeted by outstanding facilities made the experience more normal and evidence of effective education for children in the Chengdu suburban areas.
Our second school was in many respects similar but had a tradition for teacher training with responsibility for 300 teachers overall. It was again situated in a suburban area although the monstrously tall skyscrapers grouped in 4’s and 5’s only a short distance away suggested that we were still in downtown Chengdu. The fact that the schools boasted proudly of their service to local residents gives an insight into the lives that these children lead. Open space is a valuable commodity here in Chengdu and it is easy to see why the desire to educate children as English speakers is driven not only by the state, but also by schoolteachers and the children themselves who are influenced more and more by western cultural icons. The layout of the school, and it is likely that most schools are similar because space is at a premium, is multi-storey with a large play/sports area and then classrooms back to back in layers surrounding a small courtyard.
An introduction to Tai-Chi was interesting with several of us standing among pupils and learning a few moves. One can sense that done properly the experience would be very relaxing although for me my patience would be sorely tested.
We weren’t ready for the next part of the day which was a full-on and tiring experience. Taken into another board room 10 Headteachers and a variety of interpreters lay in wait. Our impression was that this was going to be a casual chit-chat but it felt more like an ambush with a sales pitch akin to timeshare touts in Tenerife. Each Headteacher had a contract ready for us to sign with the pitch being the establishment of a formal link committing schools to teacher exchanges. Whilst many of us were interested we had not been prepared for this and it became clear that Martina was involved as a broker in the arrangements. I think we could have been prepared for this with more information. Only Catherine Edens and I were in a position to make such a decision anyhow as every other member of our group were not Headteachers. One could imagine the scene back in one of these schools if an individual had succumbed to what was considerable pressure in the frenzy of noise, miscommunication and desire not to appear rude.
Again it has to be said that the children of this school were extremely friendly and polite with classes orderly and animated at the same time. 50 pupils in a space the size of an average UK classroom suggests overcrowding but the discipline and eagerness to learn shown by the pupils largely compensates for the issues of space. The Headteacher I spoke with described his drive to develop peer interaction, peer assessment and move away from the historical didactic model one might automatically associate with teaching large numbers. We did see evidence of this as well in a couple of rooms where humanities lessons were taking place.
The day was not yet over and we were whisked off to another banquet style restaurant meal to sample more of the Sichuan spice. I was still not feeling hungry with the memory of Wednesday still fresh in my mind. I picked at my food sufficiently to taste an ingredient in a dish which I can only describe as the hottest thing I have ever tasted. We were warned that this little red seed like ingredient would numb the tongue if taken and crushed in eating. Indeed it did and whilst it wasn’t something I was eager to repeat quickly the sensation was not unpleasant and much like a cross between having a fizzing sherbet sour and a very hot pepper on the tongue. Sipping beer made it fizz more and only the sweet & sour pork removed the taste.
The last event of the day was scheduled to be a visit to a Tea-house which boasted a show full of traditional Chinese Opera, music, Face-Changing and humour. We weren’t particularly enthusiastic having already been on the road for 12 hours. In contrast to our expectations the experience was relaxing (front row seats in wicker easy chairs and the option of beer instead of tea) and we would have been poorer had we given in to fatigue. All the acts were interesting with the final act in Oliver’s words “a national secret”; he did let us in later to the traditional mask changing dance where several performers pull of nylon coloured masks with a slight of hand not visible to the naked eye. Children have this tradition passed down to them and the most skilled and speedy performers having the opportunity to show off as part of a performing troupe.
Saturday 3rd November:
Sleep last night was very good after an exhausting day on Friday. Saturday was planned as a total tourist/leisure day and ironically we were hoping the weather was a little cooler today since Chengdu’s usually tee-shirt 18 to 20 degrees at this time of year makes the Panda’s sleepy. Hey presto- cooler weather comes and it is cold enough to have to wear a light coat. Considering the fact that Chengdu is closer to the equator than Algiers one would perhaps expect the climate to be even warmer. However, since it sits at around 700 m in the Cuanxi Bazi in the Provence of Sichuan the air is cooled.
The fertile plain is east of the Tibetan region (mountains as high as 5,000m not far away) and understandably an area where bamboo grows in abundance, is farmed and a necessary source of support in the fight to save the threatened species of “Bear-Cat” which is how Panda translates into Chinese. Since scientists were unable to agree on whether this fascinating and world attention holding animal is a bear or a cat it stands alone as the species “Panda”. Chengdu Panda reserve is like most other zoo/safari park set ups with the difference being that other than a lake of ornamental carp and a few black swans the only other animal there is the Red Panda (I didn’t know one existed). It is clear that the Chinese revere the Panda and know the symbolic importance of the black & white logo holding it as a precious commodity. Their generous support for zoo’s worldwide is constantly tested by the halting progress of the captive breeding programme. Just recently there has been several new births but some of these are the result if artificial insemination and not because they have been feeling more amorous.
Our tour guide Oliver (he is outstanding-caring, attentive, knowledgeable and with very good English spoken with a slightly comedic Robin Williams accent) told us a true and humorous account of how the programme scientists use Panda ‘Porn’ to try to get them in the mood but even developments in these methods have enjoyed limited success. There are 300 Pandas here and a further 1600 in the wild. Quite incredibly they are still poached by humans and they also have several natural predators including Wild Cats and Eagles.
Pandas eat between 30 kg to 80 kg of bamboo a day and so many tons is needed to keep them going. Their diet is supplemented by honey (which they love), man-made rice/bamboo burgers and sometimes small portions of chicken. Baby Pandas are lured into eating bamboo by smearing the tender shoots with honey-but only after suckling on milk (from bottles) like any baby. A little known fact is that the Current Emperor of China is the Panda-a status symbol but one underlining their love of the cuddly Giant Bear-Cat. A final little known fact is that because Pandas can only digest 20% of the bamboo there is lots of waste!! Panda poo apparently has a pungent smell-not unpleasant by all accounts-but rich in possibilities for those eager to recycle. Panda poo paper is available to those who know the right sources; what is not apparent is if the distinctive bamboo aroma is left as a reminder of its production route.
After yet another sumptuous Chinese banquet-this time in the gardens of the Panda reserve-our destination was The Jinsha Archaeological Site in Chengdu, the fairly recently discovered ancient settlement evidencing sophisticated Shu communities dating between 1200 BC to 650 BC.
As with most modern Chinese architecture the layout of the gardens and the actual buildings housing the archaeological site and artefacts themselves are stunning examples of innovation. Whilst it was hard to appreciate the importance of the site by looking at excavated sections of mud, as the visit went on it became clear that archaeologists had literally discovered gold as well as many other priceless items revealing a level of sophistication in ancient Chinese history which is comparable to anything in Egypt or South America.
A leisurely stroll around a tightly packed souvenir alleyway of shops was our late afternoon activity. Although most travellers’ cases were already overflowing with gifts from generous school hosts we felt the need to spend more of the Chinese Yuen now that time was running out and an immediate return to these parts was unlikely. I finally discovered the secret of haggling although exactly how I arrived there I will never know; eager to practice I offered 40 Yuen (around £4) for two embroidered bags but was told the price at 25 each was the going rate. Resigned to my pathetic attempt I unfolded a 100 note expecting 50 and two bags in return. Surprisingly the ancient stall keeper did return 50 to me but with 3 bags; I can only think she took pity on my stumbling effort! A treat at Starbucks Coffee house preceded the final banquet for the 7 remaining tourists who would gladly have settled for a muffin to go with the Cappuccino.
Sunday 4th November:
We are now on the last leg of our journey. There is no doubt that we have more than fulfilled the objectives of the visit; from a selfish angle these were principally connected to two things:
The first is the “blue sky” thinking time opportunity around the concept of global education and Cardinal Allen’s British Council “Full International School Status”. How do we use our links with Birla High School, Kolkata and now develop links with schools in China to the benefit of our pupils and staff? This visit has broadened my horizons in terms of expectations for our pupils. The opportunity is there; how can this be balanced against the relentless need to fulfil exam expectations which are bread & butter core issues for us to retain our credibility as a school? The potential for a sustained link to one or two Chinese schools where on an annual basis staff take part in exchange visits would act as a good incentive to teachers who want to broaden their own horizons. The immediate exchange possibilities for pupils to exchange are more limited- not for safety reasons for I have seen nothing which has concerned me other than the sanitary conditions of public lavatories when out on a long trip. The real language barrier for students aged 16 and under will not be solved via the introduction of Mandarin lessons for AG&T students. I think there is greater potential for post 16 students who are keen linguists or who have a clear desire to explore the idea of international study at the age of 18. We could nurture this by developing links with Blackpool Sixth Form who themselves could benefit from the development of similar links. Students selected could be Cardinal Allen alumni who can continue to act in an ambassadorial role for us.
The second really is selfish but I hope that people will recognise through this diary that to see Beijing, Chengdu and Hong Kong as a tourist has been simply sensational. Our guides have given us so much information and the hospitality shown by our hosts has been first class. China is a country of rich heritage, abundant natural wonder and such cultural & political mystery such that a week’s visit only scratches the surface. Its people are courteous, well-mannered (if one can ignore the frequent public “hawking” or throat clearing), hard-working and eager to embrace a more western ideology which one may describe as democratic/capitalist. In Chengdu, Mao’s Marxist statue towers over a beautifully manicured square and gardens facing a shopping complex shaming Leicester Square; for me this is the ultimate contradiction and symbolic of China’s political position in 2012. How does this incredibly powerful nation (it is in an economic “slump” at the minute with growth having dipped to 7% !!) embrace the will of its people to let market forces dictate success and failure? I am not blind to the fact that in the same way a city’s apparent wealth in the UK does not represent the full picture there is undoubtedly incredibly poverty in the vastness of this nation. How long can the ruling party expect the current older generation to cow-tow? The suppression of Twitter (apparently there is a Chinese version “Weibo”) will not hold back the young who will drive new markets and have higher expectations and who will almost certainly want to have greater freedoms when it comes to travel etc. As we left Beijing the 10 year Party Congress was about to start and China’s new President and new Party Chairman have a lot on their hands. It is not surprising that those involved in China’s education system want to establish links with western schools as they see the development of English speaking young people as a necessary element in their nations long-term strategy to embrace a new future.
Our flight from Chengdu to Hong Kong was efficient and without drama. Neither Mike nor I had ever visited Hong Kong previously and so we were both excited despite the lack of sleep and the prospect of much walking during the day. Mike’s back spasm was now into its 3rd day and his angular posture spoke volumes for his stoical refusal to submit to pain. One never quite knows how transport systems work when visiting new places but why we should have thought that things would be anything less than outstanding I am not sure. The wealth evident-even in Kowloon-is striking with towering sky-scrapers dotting even distant shores visible from the airport. As you head into the city via the smoothest train you would have ever been on you soon realise that although territorially you are still in China, it no longer really has the feel of China with the more southerly and coastal position being influenced by an Indonesian flavour. Faces are less angular, softer and a slightly dark colour and attitudes are ever so slightly more “western”.
Our Kowloon Hotel, The City View is just of the famous Nathan Road and a 45 minute stroll to the Star Ferry. After setting down our bags we headed into town in anticipation of some great views. The noise and hubbub on the sidewalk hits your senses with a cacophony of horns, bus & car engines, crossing beepers mixed with the aromas from shops selling all manner of items. Why so many shops? Food, electronics, Chinese medicine, body products, high-class fashion and bag stores proliferate and all seem busy with people eager to buy. The mixture of heat (it was 25 degrees) and fatigue made us thirsty and our goal was a beer on the harbour front.
The view across the harbour to Hong Kong Island itself is breath-taking and this was bore the evening light show which we knew was a treat to be enjoyed later. We hopped on the ferry with the intention of heading up the Peak where we planned to relax with a couple of beers and wait for dusk to arrive. The impression that one was among a forest of skyscrapers and yet we couldn’t see them did not really fit for it was just as impressive to be at the foot of a 120 storey piece of concrete and metal as seeing it at a distance. The designs of each-commission for architects must be rather high-bring their own character to the city contributing to an overall effect which must rank as one of the modern wonders of our world. One could surely never tire of the view from The Peak as you see the extent and power of the skyline from a privileged position. As dusk came each building flicked on its individual light-show; the larger towers seemingly in priapic competition for attention. Amazing! No other words can describe this view which I will remember for a long time.
The funicular tram which had carried us up to our viewing point was no less busy taking people down as it had been carrying us up and competition for seats was fast and furious! Gravity seemed to pull us down more quickly and the sensation of ears popping gave another hint to the heights we had been at. I assume that those living on the top floors of these mega structures get used to this when using lifts on a daily basis?
The walk back to star ferry was again interesting with the same Philippino women we had seen earlier sat playing cards on walkways and in subways; some card games seemingly started early on the Sunday morning were by now getting serious! Our guide-book informed us that this was the tradition on a Sunday. On reflection, where do you go if you are an island inhabitant, have next to no money and want to relax among friends. The cardboard units skilfully created marked the limit for each group of around 6 to 8 women who read, used their laptops, played cards or other games as their Sunday relaxation. They seemed very happy but one could not feel sorry for these women who in their thousands gather on the precinct sidewalks every weekend so as to escape what must be a difficult lifestyle. Another contrast-this time the bling of the towers against the simple and very public pleasure of the immigrant women; these hard-working women are almost certainly responsible for the upkeep of the plush residencies in the high rises around them. Our world at times does not seem fair.
Once back in Kowloon the full light display of Hong Kong harbour was apparent and again this breathtaking view will stay in the memory. By now though we were very tired electing to walk back to our hotel but excited to walk through the busy streets and sample the night scene. Accosted by a street seller we had a nervy experience bartering for iPhones and watches and we were taken to a “shop” 15 stories up and within the property of the “storekeeper”. Mike informed me later that he had carefully assessed escape routes in case things went pear-shaped and I could not but laugh at the salesmanship of our host who described Hong Kong has having no crime. Ah well, presents all now accounted for, we headed to bed with the only headache being the bulging state of our suitcases which were by this stage overflowing with gifts and dirty linen.