Friday, February 18, 2005

Cracked Head

Don't you hate it when you know something bad/stupid is about to happen, and no matter what you do you can't seem to stop it?

Just outside our place there is an old water-pipe sticking up in the air, all old and supposedly blocked off. Well, it started to leak a bit, all of a sudden. We saw it when we came back from Beijing, and it looked so pretty - there were icicles and stalagmites and stalactites all over the nearby bushes from the spray as it froze.

Well, that was all well and good, until the leak got worse, and it was squirting across our driveway ... and then of course the water on the ground froze, and it was very very slippery.

So we went out in the afternoon, and came back after dark. The pipe was still spraying across the road which was totally awash - and frozen by now - and it was pitch black. Peter and Bea headed out carefully into the icy section, and I took a tiny step and then stood still, waiting to think what to do and how to approach. The ground under my feet, I suddenly noticed, sloped gently downwards. All of a sudden my feet just went off by themselves. I fell flat on my back like a tin soldier, hands still in my pockets! Peter turned around and said, "What are you doing? Come on, get up!" But I didn't think I could. I felt the back of my head, and I had a huge (instant) lump.

So he helped me upstairs. I pointed out that I needed ice and there was none in the freezer. "Ha. Ha." he said and headed back downstairs to fill a tea-towel with ice and snow. And I sat there with it on my lump for hours.

It seemed like I was looking through a sheet of broken glass, the light reflected and sparkled off the jagged crack across the centre of my vision. I was relieved that that slowly cleared after the first hour or so.

I went to bed, but stayed sitting up because I have heard that with concussion you have to stay awake so you don't fall into a coma and no one knows. I found I was falling asleep sitting up, so I gingerly lay down. It was like diving headfirst into a deep abyss, spinning all the way. I sat up again, and started vomitting.

Poor Peter, he stayed awake most of the night, he was so worried. So was I, and feeling so grotty. In fact I haven't been out of the apartment since - a week ago now. The bump has gone down, but I have a real sore spot on my skull still. And I still feel nauseatingly dizzy whenever I turnover to the right in bed, or turn my head the wrong way when I'm sitting up. But I'm much better. I have had a heavy cold, too, a reaction to the bump, I suppose, and that is almost gone now too.

We are tired of snow. Its very pretty, but cold and uncomfortable. Yesterday, again, it snowed and snowed, and I watched it through the window. Our CNN weather forecast email service says it will be 16 degrees on Monday. We are finding that hard to believe as it hasn't been over 2 degrees for weeks. They also reckon it will be -13 degrees tonight, which is also unlikely as it generally goes down to -5 most nights. I think they make up these figures for fun and don't believe there is anyone out here actually reading them!

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Hamster Down the Drain

Maybe we were just really tired, I don't know. We just didn't shut her box, and off we went to bed. Later in the night I got up for a drink and noticed the lid off her box. I peered inside - sure enough, no Happy!

Ok, I thought, I've done this before! I pulled the wood panel off the wall, sure she would be tucked away inside there like before - but no sign of her, it didn't even look like she had been there. I tried the other wall, nothing except a plastic bag in there - vaguely wondered why there was a plastic bag, but not worth spending time over.

Then I noticed the kitchen door was open. Had I just opened that when I went to get a drink? Could she be in there? I took a quick glance around the kitchen, noticing the open pipe-hole (drain) in the floor next to the sink ... surely not? I put a plastic washing-up bowl over it to make sure she didn't go down it while I continued to look.

Back in the lounge room, searching in vain, suddenly I heard the wash-bowl on top of the drain hole bouncing around. I ran into the kitchen and picked up the bowl just in time to see her tiny pink stub of a tail disappear back down into the murky depths.

I had read that with Russian hamsters, who are great escape artists, what you do is lay a trail of peanut butter - which they love and can smell from great distance - and book-steps up to their box, which they hopefully then fall into and cannot climb back out. I found a stick of wood which I lay from the drain up to the top of her box, coated it with peanut butter, and sat down on a chair in the kitchen to watch and wait.

I could hear her all over the place in the drain pipes. What if she follows it all the way down to the ground floor and into that deep watery hole outside? What if she's not back by morning and I want to have a shower? Could she show up in the bathroom drain? I tried to follow the sounds, but couldn't work out where she was.

If only I could make her smell the peanut butter from down there ... I got my hair drier and blew hot peanut-butter-flavoured air down the drain. No reaction.

After two hours of useless silly ideas I decided "that's it, she's gone", and went back to bed to wander through endless weird hamster-hunting dreams. I woke up at first light thinking "that's it, she came back!" only to remember that was a dream too. I wandered into the kitchen - nope, no sign of her back in the box. Maybe she doesn't even like peanut butter, after all she's Syrian not Russian.

Would I dare to have a shower? Which drain would she be in by now? I sat down to have a cup of tea and mourn the loss of my little friend.

Then I heard a rustling in the plastic bag behind the wooden wall panel. There she was, silly thing, trying to make a nest in a crackly plastic bag instead of her own warm box. She used to be a golden colour, with a white saddleback stripe. Now she was drain-sludge grey! I wonder how long it will take her to lick her colour back?

She stood tall on her tiny back legs to sniff at my hand as I reached out for her, unafraid as ever. Glad to see me? I don't know. Not fussed apparently. I was certainly glad to see her.

Tuesday, February 8, 2005

Have Hamster, will travel

Hey, don’t you just love holidays? Of course, Australia’s holidays are over and everyone is back at work, but we are just in the middle of it.

Today is "New Year" here. Firecrackers have been going off all night. Everyone visits their family and gives presents.

We have just returned from a trip to Beijing and Qingdao. Bea has been really sick for a few days, but she finally seems a little better today. I am so relieved, because I was beginning to think we should take her to hospital, and Chinese hospitals are really scary places.

All of the foreign staff here decided to take off for holiday at the same time, so I couldn't ask anyone to mind hamster "Happy" - I had visions of coming back to find her cold and stiff (dead) and smelly. So I took her with me. Sounds simple if you say it quick!!

I crocheted a little bag to pop her little cage into, so I could walk nonchalantly into hotels and onto trains...! I made a nest for her (in the cage) out of a cut-down Pringles-type tube. And I enclosed the cage in a custom-made cardboard box, and put the whole thing into my little bag.

The thing went really well, at first. She (oh, yes, now she's bigger she's obviously a girl) slept quietly for the first train trip, 8-hours to Beijing. Then we booked into a 4-bed dormitory in a youth hostel. Each bed had a big wooden locker - which looked like an ideal place for a hamster to live. I put her cage in there, open, locked the door and went to sleep on the bed directly over the locker. I was so tired that I didn't pay much attention to the sound of workmen hammering and sawing and dragging stuff around ... somewhere. But it kept Peter awake, and he woke me up. Of course the wooden locker acted as a great sound magnifier of Happy's activity. I thought she would just want to run around (they apparently run about 8km a night), but she had decided to remove everything from her cage and build a nest in the corner of the locker, and then set-to chewing and gnawing at everything. She had made quite an impression on the corner of the locker door.

So then I put her (and her nest) back in her tiny cage, and sat it on an easy chair where it would be quieter. I fell back into bed listening to her scritching around in her cage ... and suddenly realised she had gone quiet. Sure enough, there she was running across the chair. Opening a cage is hamsters'-play, apparently. After that I tried putting various things on top of the cage so she couldn't open it. A jar of honey we had just bought seemed like a good, heavy, option - until I awoke again to the unmistakable sound of honey-jar smashing on floor! I had to creep down the hallway to find a mop in the cleaner's room and get it all cleaned away while the world slept.

Then we went on a sleeper-train to Qingdao. We had "hard sleepers", six tiny bunks in each cabin; bottom, middle and top on each side of the room. All very squeezy, and no chance to give Happy a run. She was a bit upset about this and chewed away the cardboard box around her cage almost completely, and even managed to chew a hole in the crocheted bag.

The time in Qingdao was easier. We had a nice big hotel room, and I had a chance to put her in her wheel and give her a run-around each night. (Her wheel is totally enclosed, so I can't leave it for her to get in and out of.) Then we had another sleeper-train ride, Qingdao to Zhengzhou, 2.30pm to 8am. That wasn't much fun for any of us!

Zhengzhou is a really grotty place at the best of times, but it never looked so good as when we arrived back here on Monday! It is snowing again, so it actually looks fairly pretty for now.

Here at our apartment I have adapted a big, strong cardboard carton for a play area for Happy. I inserted cut-off Coke-bottles into the sides that she pops in and out of like tunnels. I was sitting here at the computer after the others had gone to bed half-listening to her scritching around in her box and ... yep, suddenly realised it had gone all quiet. She had somehow climbed right out. I found her near the desk, looking like a tennis ball with ears - her tiny feet were so cold when I picked her up. She is very tame, and was quite undisturbed by her little adventure.

The next night I left her in the cardboard box overnight, and got up about 4.30am for a drink - peeped into the box and couldn't find her. I discovered the neat, round hole she had chewed right through the side of the box. Then I heard a tiny noise in the corner by the huge split-system air conditioner. Remembering how one of the college classrooms had been evacuated after a mouse had made a nest and been incinerated in (causing a bad smell) one of those ... I got straight to it then and there with a screwdriver and took the front off the thing to look for her. I couldn't find her in there, and then I heard a noise behind the heater - in the wall. There is an old, defunct radiator system throughout the building, and the radiators are hidden behind wooden paneling, with a slatted section that easily pulls out. Sure enough, in behind the radiator in the deepest darkest corner ... I could see her dark little eyes and her twitching whiskers.

Peanut butter almost enticed her out; she came halfway, and then changed her mind. I went to find a broomstick to poke her along a bit, and came back to find she'd gone ... she was just exploring around a bit. And I reached in and picked her up. She seemed glad enough to see me, quite unperturbed by yet another adventure.

I was just relieved to put the panels back on the walls, screw the front back onto the heater, and fall back into bed! No more cardboard-box play times!

But, back to our trip and how the rest of the family fared!

I was amazed how homely grotty old Zhengzhou looked after ten days traveling...

Beijing was like a money pit. We stayed in a Youth Hostel because it was the cheapest place we could find - 50yuan per bed per night in a 4-bed dormitory. We were in a fairly new place, actually the "workers stadium" - they have rooms on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th floors all around the outside of the stadium. We were on the 4th floor (no elevator, or course) looking out over a frozen lake. Everyday they used a steamer-thing (or something) to make a smooth circle on the ice, and people would ice-skate and stuff. One enterprising gentleman had made these skating seat things (see Bea on ice picture) which you could hire for 10yuan and push yourself around. Not as easy as it looks!

The Youth Hostel arranged tours, and you could put your name down for it and their guide would pick you up at the door and look after you. We went to an acrobatic show one night, that was good. And then we decided to try their trip to the Great Wall. Of course, there are many parts of the wall you can visit, and this one was chosen for young hikers! We drove three hours north east of Beijing, and they dropped off the hardier walkers at a village where some guides would take them on a 9km walk of the wall, parts of which are quite crumbling and decrepit. The rest of us took the "easy" way, they took us to Si Ma Tai village where we walked a section of the wall and waited for the others to join us. I didn't expect it to be so steep, and the steps varied from a few inches wide (too small for you foot to sit safely on) to several feet wide, sometimes shallow, sometimes so tall you needed hands and knees, and tipping forward, back, sideways ... It was quite an experience, and very, very cold. Three women showed up to "help" us, quite annoying really, having someone holding your hand when you are trying to climb. We should have been less polite, of course, we just put up with them. And then at the end they wanted us to buy their souvenir goods. Understandable - I am sure their story about being poor farmers who have been in brought for three years is quite true.

We also visited the "Forbidden City", regrettably. It was so, so cold, about -16 degrees and a very strong wind blowing. It was miserable, we could hardly stand up, and all the other (Chinese) tourists were miserable too. It cost us 40 Yuan each, and when we got to the other side we just wanted to get back to the hotel. We tried to hail a taxi, but these motorbike taxi-chaps kept getting in our way, and were most insistent that we went with them. Our motorbike taxis here in Long Hu are excellent, so we gave in - and forgot to arrange a price ahead of time. (In taxis you don't have to of course.) We needed two of them for the three of us, and we seemed to travel a very long way even though we knew we were only about three blocks away. When we got out, they wanted 100yuan ... each! And they wouldn't bargain about it. Peter offered them 20, but they wouldn't take it out of his hand. So he dropped it on the taxi seat and we shot upstairs. One of them followed us, and physically restrained me on the stairs. We argued some more, and he "agreed" to 30, so I gave him another 10 and had to push my way away from him because he still wanted more. It was not a pleasant experience.

We did a lot of walking around – and it was so cold! I found a foreign doctor clinic a couple of blocks away from the stadium, and I went and had my necessary blood tests done - that cost me a week's wages. But they did have a nice (free) coffee and hot chocolate dispenser at the clinic, which Bea and Peter made good use of! And it was so pleasant to talk to an Australian (doctor) and to be treated in the way we are accustomed to. (Don’t get me started about Chinese hospitals…!)

On the last day we had to check out at noon, but our train wasn't until 8pm. So we decided to leave our bags at a left luggage place. We thought the "State-Owned" one would be safest, even if they can't spell! But they wanted 100yuan each. Once again, we had handed over our bags without negotiating first. They refused to give the bags back, but we did talk them down to 40yuan. We then spent a long, slow 8 hours trying to find a warm place to wait for our train.

Like I said, it just seemed like everyone in Beijing has the idea that foreigners are fair game for their money. We were glad to be out of there!

Next stop, Qingdao...

So then we went on the sleeper train to Qingdao. As we were approaching the city, Peter was just commenting that we had nowhere to stay, and no ideas, when a lady came down the train with a folder advertising a particular hotel. We "discussed" with her and were offered two double rooms at 80yuan a night each - sounded good and we agreed. When the train arrived she led us off the train, through a side door into the street and to our hotel right next door - lovely.
We are not sure if the "Tong Da" has any "stars", but it was spacious and cheap. We found that the bed-lamps didn't work because there were no bulbs. In fact, there was only one bulb in the whole room, and the same in Bea's room. Way to save money! And the hot water was great - but only on occasionally. There were towels, well, hand-towels ... we were glad we had brought our own. No fridge (or mini-bar), no water purifier - but they filled a large flask with hot water each day, and bottled water is only 1 Yuan a bottle in Qingdao (not like Beijing!).

We wandered around and looked at the beach - cold, but lovely to be near the sea again. The buildings have a real Bavarian look, strong German influence. There are even a couple of big old churches, apparently still functional. It’s just a whole different sort of place from Zhengzhou.

We were trying to follow our map (all in Chinese) to catch a bus up to a hill where you can get a great view - there's a revolving tower at the top. A young lady stopped and asked to help us. She has just graduated from university and is about to start teaching in Qingdao. She wanted to be our guide, because she was just plain bored. So she went with us and showed us around a bit, it was really great.

We managed to get train tickets to Zhengzhou, despite the hoards of people trying to travel everywhere just before the New Year. We watched people buying these boxes, special things you give as gifts at New Year. And of course fireworks.

Last night (back here in Long Hu) the fireworks went all night, and still going spasmodically today. It really sounds like we are in a war-zone. Sometimes we see pretty displays rising above surrounding buildings, but mostly we just hear loud bangs and pops resonating off the buildings and see flashes of light reflecting off the cloud and smog.

Our holidays are not over yet. Just for now it’s advisable not to travel while the New Year celebrations are on. The weather is pretty unfriendly anyway – it snowed the day we returned, and it’s all murky-looking like its got some more snowing to do. And it’s very, very cold.