Lesley and Tina on the road.
Forget the award, the greatest excitement over the weekend was my cycle trip from Pu'er (aka Ning'er) to Simao (aka Pu'er) with Tina on Saturday. Ali and I first cycled part of this road, from the Simao end, in 2005 in our early explorations of the town. We got caught in a huge downpour and were glad to have our newly-purchased capes. The capes, now well-worn, made another appearance on this trip. Within half an hour of leaving Pu'er the drizzle started. It was actually a great relief, keeping us cool as we began our 60km journey through the mountains.

Our stats were similar to Ali, who cycled it the week before [see previous blog entry]. The bus driver was completely unperturbed at having to load our bikes on the roof at the crack of dawn. Tina's first few minutes on the bike weren't a great success, crashing twice in the bus station alone. She thought her brain was playing tricks on her then I noticed that the handlebars had twisted round. This caused much amusement for our spectators. We grabbed some water and snacks, finally setting off at 8:30am.

A cool ascent in the rain.
As Ali said previously, the old road is one of four generations of routes through these mountains from north to south. With all the traffic sticking to the more direct route in the valley before, the journey was very quiet - the odd motorbike and local buses running between Pu'er and Tongxin. The surface was, at best, slightly bumpy tarmac, deteriorating into rough tracks where there had been landslides or subsidence. With 18 gears and sturdy tyres, our bikes are perfect for this kind of terrain. It's funny to think we used to do these trips on single-speed flimpsy bikes with the children on the back!

Tongxin noodle shop.
We followed in Ali's footsteps, stopping for (an albeit early) lunch in Tongxin at 10:30. Given that we'd been up for five hours we were needing it. We brought our bikes in from the rain and were given a very warm welcome by the locals, who spoke with a strong local dialect. Luckily I could pick up the key words and we muddle our way through a conversation together. Unfortunately the other visitor in town [a van driver, sitting opposite Tina] was less pleasant company - slurping his noodles, spitting on the floor and smoking in our faces. Don't be tempted to think, "that's just the way it is in China". The four customers at the other table weren't displaying the same habits. Very often, when one questions someone about customs and etiquette, they share similar values. It's just people are less likely to say something here. It's really not good to 'lose face', nor to be the kind of person who causes another person to 'lose face'. So people do what they can get away with. He got away with it. Returned to his van, blew his nose, threw his tissue out the window and drove off. We took some photos and promised to return in the near future with some prints.

A Simao gardener hosing us down.
From Tongxin onwards we faced the gradual climb over the mountains to Simao. Ali had kindly provided us with two maps - the first was a detailed one of the route, marking all kilometre markers, villages,  bridges, big landslides etc. The second was an altitude profile. I had decided to keep the second one hidden from Tina, as it looked somewhat daunting. I almost wished I hadn't seen it myself. Our main ascent was from just over 1,100m to 1,700m, with gradual reprieves along the way as the road wound round round a stream recess. We slipped into first gear, and remained there for the best part of two hours, stopping for the odd gulp of water and to take photos. On entering the city we found a friendly gardener who said he'd hose our bikes down. I offered to do it ourselves but he was reluctant to hand over his hose!

It was fabulous being up high in the mountains, something I really miss here. I also miss cycle touring, so on this trip we promised ourselves we'll do more. The next trip will be a two-day journey to Jinghong, where we can enjoy a dip in the outdoor pool when it's over.

Have a look at Tina's blog for some more photos and tales!
Receiving my medal in Kunming, 2007.
Zhang Fei called from the Foreign Affairs Office today, when I was in the middle of a discussion with a College leader about the lack of support for our BE work - it seems that the College is struggling to find someone who can 'officially' work with us in the Teaching Development Centre, aka our office. The support is there, but it's off the record. The age-old battle to fulfill the aims of sustainable development continue. Very disheartening but not the first time I've been there.

"I have some good news for you", said Zhang Fei, "You have won the China National Friendship Award." Chen Yong thinks I may be the first person to win it from Yunnan Province. I couldn't speak, from a mixture of shock, disbelief and a whole range of other emotions. I still can't talk about it without choking up. I thought of Oscar-winners breaking down on the podium and being slated for it later by the media. Of course I was elated, but a few hours after receiving the news I felt overcome by another strange emotion, the strongest of all - relief. It's like an enormous burden has been lifted off my shoulders - the burden of wondering whether I'm doing the right thing, or whether I should really be here. My first thought was, "someone must be on my side."

This nomination came about because two years ago the College secretly put me forward for the Yunnan Friendship Award, given to 'foreign experts' in recognition of their contribution to the development of Yunnan. I was one of ten to recieve the award, the others all men, working in a variety of fields including education, scientific research and engineering. I was also the only British representative and had to run out the hour before prize-giving to buy a new black velvet skirt because I was also going to be the scruffiest of the bunch. To be honest, I didn't realise how much it meant to me until the moment the medal was handed over and the Vice Governor looked me in the eye and shook my hand. It's the first time I've had a medal placed over my head. It's a strangely emotional experience. Goodness knows what's going to happen when I have to shake hands with the Vice-President of China. Maybe Chen Yong was joking about that. Surely it can't be that big a do?

Prize-giving photo with the other winners and the Vice Governor of Yunnan.
Edie with her new deskmate.
It's Teachers' Day [another of China's unique 'festivals'] and the girls skipped off this morning with a handmade card for their Form Teachers and a box of Scottish shortbread for the others. Edie informed me that the teacher thanked the children at the beginning of class for the first round of gifts, adding: "Please don't give me any more gifts. The best gift would be for you to all behave well in class." At this point Edie realised she had in fact forgotten to give Mrs Zhou her gift. As she handed it over to her teacher she said: "This is from my mum." As Edie said later: "Well, I couldn't give it to her after she said that!"

All Edie's classmates had a deskmate reshuffle today and this [above] is her new study partner. We've yet to find out his name but so far Edie's happy with the choice.

'Looking busy' in the office.
A lot has happened in our working lives the last few days. After several years of negotiating with the College to have a Teaching Development Centre, we have finally been given an office on the ground floor - in the heart of College affairs. This morning alone saw at least four new visitors step over the threshold - technicians, teachers, administrators, leaders. It's becoming a hub of activity. Yesterday I spotted our Director of Foreign Affairs, Chen Yong, approaching the office. "Look busy!" I said to Tina, although we were in fact beavering away. Tina laughed, reminding me that people rarely look busy. When I arrived in the Education Bureau in Jingdong Mr He was usually checking his stocks and shares while the others smoked and chatted. The feeling that we 'should' be busy, whether we are or aren't, alone represents a particular work ethic.

As well as being invited to stock up with whatever resources we need, technicians arrived this morning to set us up with internet access [above photo]. The thickness of the walls prevented them from drilling through an extension from the neighbouring office. Instead, we have a cable coming in through the window, which now only just closes. Luckily the barred window will prevent an intruder getting in.

There is also good news on the creative front. I have been offered VSO funding to produce the book I have written about our month in Jingdong. We are currently in the process of proof-reading and formatting. We have employed a Grade 2 art student to design the cover and improve the lay-out. Although I'm nervous about making my ideas and experiences public, it is a good opportunity to let people know more about this work and life in China.

Lesley clocking up lengths of the 18.8m pool

Surviving the first few weeks of the new term has involved a big team effort - getting out of the house, reaching the school by bike, struggling home again for lunch, back to school, back home again, not to mention work in between. There have, nevertheless, been many pleasures woven into our new routine. Discovering the mid-week oasis of the Garden Hotel's indoor pool has to rank as one of the highest. We used to go there a few years ago but at 2yrs old Edie could barely cope with the low temperature. We have also taken until now to find the quietest, cleanest times - being able to chat to the attendants in Chinese now helps. Tina and Lesley go every Wednesday before reflexology and we have a LEAF family outing the odd lunch break. This involves extra energy expenditure of course, but it's worth it. Feed tiredness with exercise, that's our motto!
Ali sporting his new cycle gear on R213.

I achieved an ambition-of-sorts this weekend - to cycle the 58km stretch of Route 213, between Pu'er [the old one] and Simao. Route 213 runs nearly 3000km from the northern city of Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province, to Mohan on Yunnan's southern border with Laos. In between, it passes through many places we've visited in our China travels: Langmusi and Songpan (on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau), Wenchuan (famous for its 2008 earthquake), Chengdu and Kunming.

The main obstacle in the past has been the lack of a decent bike with gears. These days we've just been waiting for a window of reasonably dry weather. As it happens the extra preparation time has allowed a few more gadget developments - cycle gloves, woven panniers attached with meat hooks and, the piece de resistance, a foldaway umbrella hat. Testing out my new "san mao" was the main reason for this ride...with overhead midday sun for most of the year an umbrella hat is definitely a useful addition to the Tropical Cycle Tourer's kit. Not so handy on the high-speed descents though!

The route itself was fairly uneventful. Starting in the rain at Pu'er bus station (km marker 2640) I had to rope in some Middle School kids into helping me extract the bike from the bus roof rack. The weather soon improved and it was a pleasant ride down the "old road" to Tongxin (the epicentre of our own earthquake back in 2007) and the crossing of the main road. Lots of muddy surface here due to the construction of the new expressway.

Here four generations of road are squeezed into a strategic pass. The ancient tea horse trail (cha ma gu dao) is barely visible, a narrow flagstoned path which climbs steeply to the high forested ridges. Next, the "old road", the one I am travelling, ancient tarmac, hugging the contours of the hills and climbing to a high pass surrounded by tea fields. Then the current Route 213, all cuttings, embankments, and rather elegant stone and concrete arched bridges - soon to be superseded. And finally the brash new expressway. Mountains have literally been moved to create this monster, with its enormous cuttings, stilted carriageway, bridges and, rather poignantly I thought, a tunnel straight through the hill which the cha ma gu dao winds its way over. There was much to ruminate on as I slipped down into first gear, put on my san mao, and wound my way up into the long and beautiful wooded valley which the "old road" utilises in it's ascent to the pass at Zhala Yakou.

The effort was worth it and in another hour I was back home in Simao (km marker 2698).

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The Waiban Ladies and Ali.
Ali cooked up a delicious Thai meal for our friends in the Foreign Affairs Office - otherwise known as the Waiban Ladies. Zhang Lingyu [right] spent nearly a year in Thailand, teaching Chinese and learning Thai, and was impressed by the authenticity of Ali's dishes. While she scoffed the Thai green curry with aubergines, Zhang Fei [left] and Mrs Gan [centre] stuck to the dishes more similar to Yunnan cooking. Lesley was heartbroken when they said they were too full to try her pudding. When the Banoffee pie came out of the fridge, however, they soon changed their minds.

It was a lovely evening. These women really make us feel at home in Simao and we know we can always turn to them for help and support. What's more, they're keen to keep our eat-our-way-around-the-world evenings going. They voted for Italian next. We'll have to see how Tina (half Italian) rates the authenticity of that meal!

Edie doing her homework.
Edie returned from school yesterday with three pieces of homework: (1) Practise reading the pinyin on page 7 of her Chinese book; (2) Pay attention to her habits e.g. no dropping litter, wash hands after going to the loo etc; (3) [this is the best one] Wash her parents' feet. Very Confucian. As I was about to wash them anyway, I decided to do Edie a favour and allow her to score full marks! Mmmmm, a lame excuse for exploiting our children?

Not content with 10 hours cycling this week, I joined Tina for a trip round Xi Ma Reservoir, ending up at the new College campus North of town. There's still a lot of work to be done but with a 1,000 strong building team they are optimistic that the bulk of it will be completed by the 1st of November. That's when the Grade 3 students come back from their teaching practice and move in to the new dormitories and classrooms.

As we were wandering around in the mud we met two friendly site supervisors who whisked us off to observe the European centre-piece, a 43 metre high clock tower. The battery hasn't been put in yet but it looks grand. I asked what strength of earthquake the buildings were build to withstand. Mr Duan [left] said, "Any". I was surprised and responded, "Really? Even magnitude 10?" "Yes, no problem" was his confident conclusion.

Sadly, what was "boring" about Freda's homework today wasn't the tasks themselves, it was her homework tutors' inability to help her understand what the task actually was. They had worked themselves and her into a complete state.

From Monday to Friday we pay a 2 students (one a day) to guide Freda through her homework. She can manage most of it herself, but occassionally comes up against a new word or character in the questions - true of the Maths and Chinese exercise books. I supervise homework that doesn't require great Chinese and the tutors pick up the other bits and bobs. They don't have to teach her or give her the answers, just check that she's doing what she's meant to do. Sounds simple.

When I returned from my short bike ride with Tina I found the homework tutors in a pickle and Freda crying in her bedroom. It had taken them an hour to convey the meaning of two comprehension questions and the last exercise was apparantly too difficult to explain. Remember this is Primary 3 Chinese. What could be so hard? Freda had to write a sentence that included the following words: "From time to time.....from time to time....from time to time...." For example, from time to time it rains, from time to time it snows, from time to time it...." and so on. The students hadn't thought of checking a Chinese or Chinese-English dictionary (for the meaning of 'shi er', ie. time to time), nor of giving Freda and example. Finally I asked for a direct translation of the instructions and extrapolated from there. As it happens, this is usually what happens - Freda translates word for word and with a bit of lateral thinking the two of us work out what to do. 

We are delighted that these two, lovely, flexible and studious young students have accepted this part-time job. Nevertheless, the events of this week's homework sessions has highlighted so many other issues - our students' inability to think for themselves without a teacher at hand, their insufficient teaching skills (they are English teaching methods and will soon be let loose in a classroom), their basic communication and language skills. So far Freda's had A+ for all the homework she's done by herself, and mistakes in that supervised by a tutor. We'll see how it goes but if it carries on like this we'll have to re-think our strategy. Either that or accept that this is another opportunity to help improve the skills of two future teachers. If this results in Freda hating homework, however, even I'll have to say no to that.