Friday, February 24, 2006

Gadding about

I had never been to a "tea house" before, I hadn't realised they were so different.

My friend, Charlotte, and I were going out for lunch together, and wanted something close to where I work. Well, there is one nice restaurant just down the street, but it was totally packed. So we looked around, and there, just over the street, was this upstairs place, called Shui Xiang Cha Lou ...

As we climbed the steep stone staircase there was a strong smell of incense - my friend momentarily thought maybe we had walked into a temple instead of a restaurant. Inside it was a bit dark, with old wooden floor-boards and dark wooden furniture. We were met by the usual bevy of eager waitresses, and we saw that there was a buffet style meal. Charlotte inquired and found that we could have a meal for 48 yuan, so we agreed and we were taken to a table. We left our coats and went to the food bench. There we collected a tray each and a series of tiny plates and bowls which we filled with local delicasies, and so we headed back to the table.

On the table had been placed various little bowls of nuts and seeds, and a cup of tea each. So when they came to ask us what tea we wanted, we said we were quite happy with what we had been given. Oh, no, they explained, that is your welcome tea, and it is free. The food is also free. But you must buy some tea!

So we looked over the list, and sure enough, the cheapest cup of tea was 48 yuan. So we chose a cheap cup of tea each and got stuck into our little bowls of food. The tea arrived in a drinking glass - it always amazes me, this Chinese way of serving hot tea in a glass with no handle. It was green flower tea - it looked like there was a round clod of grass floating in it. But it was very nice, probably the nicest green tea I've ever tasted. And the food was ok. And the place was interesting. I recommend the "tea house" experience, though its really good to have a Chinese friend with you - this place was not really set up to accomodate western tourists.

Peter and I went to Lake Tai (or Tai Hu) today - about time, after being in Wuxi for nearly six months. Getting there was quite easy, we caught the number 1 bus at the bus stop closest to our apartments, and when it stopped and the engine was switched off, we were there.

We paid our 70 yuan, and were told (in English) that the price included the bus ride and boat ride. "Yellow bus", a pointing attendant told us as we went through the gate. We climbed aboard - mmm, padded seats. That's unusual! The bus took us to the end of the peninsular known as "Turtle Head Island". We followed the crowd - there really weren't any recognizable (English) signs other than "toilet". Well, we stopped there, and when we came out the crowd had moved on and we weren't sure quite where to head. There were some boats, but we didn't know which one we should go to. Then we saw an entrance sign (yeah, in Chinese, one of the symbols we can read ...) and an attendant quite a distance from the boats. We showed her our ticket, and she tore a chunk off and pointed to where there were several boats. As we got closer to the boats another attendant pointed to one of the jetties. As we walked down the jetty and looked enquiringly at a group of attendants another one was pointing to the right boat. You see, international understanding.

We went across to the Fairy Islands (I think) and wandered around. One of our students had told us there were monkeys here, but we didn't see any. It was pleasant, very Chinese. We bought some corn on a stick - it was that or tofu, there didn't seem to be anything else available other than some expensive-looking restaurants.

This was rather interesting:

What do you reckon about those chains? Well, as we got closer we realised there were hundreds of padlocks on the chains.

They all had inscriptions and dates. Some of them were heart-shaped and two interlocking hearts were part of the inscription. While we were there a couple came out of the nearby building and added a padlock to the chain. Sweet, ay?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Ping Pong Telling

You know when the bank closes and they shunt all the customers out and close the doors, but then the bank employees stay on and work a while ... Have you ever wondered what they do in there?

I always thought they counted money and stuff like that.

No, they don't. They shove a table into the middle of the big open space, and put a row of those "Next Teller" notices across the middle of it, and play table tennis.

As seen in Wuxi Construction Bank after hours.

Bus Antics

Travelling around by bus is always a bit of an adventure from the beginning when we wait with the crowds at the stop, to clambering on, getting there safely, and getting off again.

A bus driver approaching a left-hand turn - always a difficult manoevre in China - got over excited when he saw that the lights were about to change against him (traffic lights here have a countdown in seconds so you know when to make that desperate dash). Lucky for him the whole left side of the road was momentarily clear all the way up to the road where he would turn left. So he planted his foot, tore off up the wrong side of the road and spun the bus at speed into the street on the left. Somehow he didn't roll, but realising he was going rather fast he stood on the brake and brought the bus to a screeching halt just around the corner.

An older gentleman, one of the many on the bus who were standing up and clinging desperately to the high handles, was facing the back of the bus and the force of the turn flung him helplessly onto the lap of another passenger. A woman was thrown forwards so that her forehead was pressed hard against the side window, and it took a few moments for her to be able to stand upright again and check whether her head was bleeding because it obviously felt like it should be.

And no one even turned to look. The person who suddenly had a man on their lap did not turn their head. No one looked at the woman who had banged her head, only the smudge on the window paid attention to her plight. No one said anything. Life continued as if nothing had happened.

Monday, February 13, 2006

The End of the New Year

Last night was the end of the Lunar New Year, and here in Wuxi it was definitely time for fireworks. Actually there have been fireworks going off sporadically day and night for weeks, but last night it was the grand finale. Everyone was out there lighting fireworks and enjoying everyone else's display. We wandered the streets, stopping here and there to avoid the kind that shoot small missiles, or just to watch.

In one narrow street there was a group letting off fireworks on the sidewalk - just small ones. Then they decided it was time for a bigger one, so they placed a carton in the street - this was a box about a 60cm cube. Someone lit a fuse and then stood back as it shot round after round into the air; there were at least 100 firework tubes in the one box. As the smake drifted away they brought out a bigger box, this one about a metre cube. As they took the top wrapping off we could see that there were not as many tubes in the box, maybe only about 60, but they were much bigger. They lit the fuse of this one, and this time the fireworks were shooting so high in the air that we had to step right out into the street to see up into the sky where they were bursting.

I am sure they let off big fire-works in Perth. But we are not allowed anywhere near it. It is so much more fun being close - even if the loud bangs are a bit deafening.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Chinese New Year in Australia

We met up with our friends who had been in Wuxi with us in Perth to celebrate Chinese New Year at the Jade Dynasty Chinese Restaurant in Perth's "China Town".

Walking around Northbridge and looking at the shops with Chinese writing and seeing signs of fireworks having been let off in the streets was a confusing feeling as we were just getting used to being out of China for a while. It was a big restaurant with about 300 patrons, many of them children, most of them Chinese. We were part of a group of 11 and our table was right up near the red-curtained stage, so we knew we were in for a treat.

A few minutes into the meal, after the first one or two courses had been placed on the lazy susan in the middle of our large table, a group of musicians took there place on the small stage with drums and cymbals. The drumming started and everyone waited eagerly. Soon we caught sight of a number of brightly costumed lion dancers coming in through the door of the restaurant.

There would have been about eight of them, maybe more, all different colours. Inside each costume were two young dancers, one for the head and one for the hindquarters. The head was proportionately large for the body, with huge eyes and long-lashed eyelids that opened and closed. The front dancer held the lion's head high above his own head and worked the eyes and the large flapping mouth.

The restaurant patrons, especially the children, had little red envelopes that they were putting money into. As the lions danced around the children would put the red envelopes into the lion's mouths. But the game was for parents to lift the children high on their shoulders so they could hold the envelope as high as possible and tease the lion to come up and get it. The head dancer would then have to climb onto the hind dancer's shoulders or head to reach. The dance progressed and as the children were lifted higher and higher the dancers became more and more acrobatic. One young lady (in her 20s maybe) at a table near us climbed high on a table and teased one of the lions mercilessly. With one gulp she was 'swallowed' as the head dancer suddenly popped the head of the costume right over her and took her inside.

Once or twice we were able to glance under the dancers' costumes and noticed the young people working and sweating there - bearing in mind that it was a hot summer's night in Perth. Some of the young people were of Chinese origins, others were not. At one stage we were beginning to feel concerned as some of them looked so distressed with the heat. And then we noticed one of the lions had collapsed on the floor. But as we turned around we soon realised all of the lions were sinking to the floor, and the parents were lifting the children onto their backs.

And all the time the drums and cymbals played on with only slight changes in rythm to indicate a new phase in the dance. Finally the rhythm changed and the weary dancers worked their way back through the restaurant and out the door.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Back Home in China

Back in our comfy little apartment after a whirlwind two weeks in Oz.

I can't get over how easy the travel was. Nothing went wrong. No delays, no lost luggage, I didn't get vacuumed for gun-powder-residue even once, and Peter walked through the security doorway without setting off any alarms.

The hardest part was the three-hour stopover in Changi airport, Singapore, coming and going. Mind you, they try to make it very pleasant - they certainly have beautiful orchid gardens and plants on display. But the best thing about Changi?

mmmmmmm! aaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!

The free leg massagers. We noticed one of these on the way to Oz, and sat down for a good squeeze - we couldn't believe no one else was using them, there had to be some reason, like someone would come along asking for money or something.

On the way back we went looking for them, and at first thought they had been removed. Then we saw this one trying hard to hide behind a pillar. After five hours in a plane seat (and not looking forward to another five hours) the squeezing and vibrating was sheer bliss and relieved our aching legs.