We played spot-the-cats at this semi-derelict crazy-golf ground on our walk round Taoranting Park yesterday with Hongyan and Bailing. In this picture alone you can find at least 8 of the stray cats that live in the park.
This is Freda with Hongyan and Bailing by the lake, now partially frozen over. I've always wanted to skate on a frozen lake but it will take a sustained drop in temperature to render this safe for Robin Cousins.
After our walk and a fabulous lunch we headed back to the Li-Bai household to play. We made a variety of books and pen pots, played chess, pinged Barbie dogs, watched cartoons and tortured ourselves on Hongyan's electronic massage chair. Freda had the remote control and thoroughly enjoyed tipping me up and down as the hidden robotic fists kneaded my back. It was hard to drag ourselves away and Freda didn't get into bed until 9:30. Just as wel we're studying at home these days with a flexible timetable!
Toffeed fruit on sticks is a Beijing speciality and this was one of the best we've ever had. Freda was on the look-out for toffee apples yesteday but the only ones we came across were on display, unwrapped, near a string of small butchers. I later wondered whether I'd been over-cautious and promised her, "the next time we see some, you can have a stick, whatever..." The next time was as we emerged from the Metro, as a man passed on his bike along the busy, fume-filled street, with a full display of toffeed fruit on his rack. Even Freda was put off those and agreed to wait until something more hygienic came along. These were worth the wait -  the toffee had set but was still warm as the lady lifted them from the drying tray to put in her glass cabinet [a good sign] and the bite-size crab apples were succulent. Freda's teeth got an extra scrub that day!

Nearing the end of her tether...
We have both good and bad news, depending on where you live. The good news is that the local Simao doctors are pretty good at dealing with basic gastric problems. If you're worried about having some nasty intestinal bacteria or tropical disease, best to visit Simao's ren min yi yuan (People's Hospital). The bad news is that we had to travel several thousand miles to discover this. Fortunately for us VSO medical insurers paid for the 400 RMB consultation fee. The good news? The Bayley & Jackson paediatrician (who shall remain anonymous, thanks to the face mask) knows of a gastroenterologist who has a clinic at the even-more-expensive Hong Kong International Hospital. We have a 9 o'clock appointment, which means joining the tens of thousands of commuters on the Beijing Metro.

The consultation was interesting. I guess my last encounter with B&J left me slightly sceptical of their general professionalism. Given that it was 18 months ago, however, I was hoping things had changed. Only slightly. Although I was reasonably happy that this was a doctor (the last person I saw was a private practitioner who was forced to squeeze into a white coat for appearances) we spent an hour going in circles. I presented all of Freda's symptoms and tried to avoid mentioning any of our own specific ideas/concerns. Who am I to say? As it happens, given the fabulous advice and support we have had from VSO London Medical Unit and another UK doctor, it seems I was better equiped to guide the consultation than I thought. In fact, after 45 minutes I ended up whipping out an email with the information on the basic tests for coeliac, basically a gluten intolerance. I'll give you some snippets...

[after 20 minutes of describing the symptoms and Freda's medical history]
Doctor: Over the last 3 months, while Freda has had diarrhoea, has she ever had a fever?
Lesley: No, never.
Doctor: Really? Are you sure? No fever?
Lesley: Really, it's always the first thing we check. No fever.
Doctor: That's strange.

Doctor: Has Freda been innoculated against TB? It's not done in many European countries but in China we give it to babies.
Lesley: Yes, she was innoculated in 2005, just before coming to China. I believe we refer to the vaccine as BCG.
Doctor: Freda, I need to see your arm. Can you take your top off. [Inspecting the arms] I can't see a scar here. Are you sure she's had it?
Lesley: Yes, in 2005. Her sister's vaccination site took several weeks to heal and she has a big scar but Freda had no local reaction, it healed quickly and left virtually no scar.
Doctor: Mmmm. Where did she have it? Is that the scar? I can't see a scar. So, did she have it?
Lesley: Do these symptoms really fit TB? Apart from the diarrhoea, tiredness and mood swings, she's been well. I didn't realise TB presented itself like this [i.e. no fever, no bloody phlegm, no cough (since the Spring).
Doctor: Well, if a child has diarrhoea for this long, we have to consider some special diseases....

[After 45 minutes, more perplexed]
Doctor: Well, Freda's weight is normal. She should weight about 26 kilos by this age and she weighs 28, which is unusual for someone who has had diarrhoea for so long. So, what is the diarrhoea like?
Lesley: Water
Doctor: Really? Like water? And does it have anything special in it?
Lesley: Apparently undigested food. Fairly typical, acute, diarrhoea.
Doctor: And how often does she go in a day, 2 or 3 times?
Lesley: About 5 to 6 times?
Doctor: Really? Freda, how often do you go a day?
Freda: Well, about 5 or 6 times, it depends. Sometimes more.
Doctor: And it's diarrhoea?

[And so we went on, round and round in circles. I was beginning to doubt my own sanity, judgement and memory.]

Lesley: Freda's symptoms have been much worse the last 3-4 months but she has had similar symptoms for years, now that we think about it. Each time she's been unwell, however, we've been able to find other reasonable explanations so we never made any connection.
Doctor: So, when did it start?
Lesley: Well, if what I said is true, I can't remember. She could have been like this for years but we thought it was 'normal'.
Doctor: So, before you came to China, how often did she go to the toilet (No 2) a day?
Lesley: I can't remember, that was four and a half years ago. Had I realised at the time it was significant I would have counted, but I didn't. All I am sure of is that there are certain patterns....
Doctor: So you can't say how many times she went to the toilet before you came to China.

[55 minutes into the consulation]
Lesley:....and that things are worse now. We've had to take her to the hospital twice this term  for a saline drip...
Doctor: Oh yes, because you were worried.
Lesley: No, primarily because we couldn't rehydrate her orally, she was losing too much liquid.
Doctor: Really, so you needed a drip?
Lesley: Yes, she was dehydrated.
Doctor: Oh, I see. So she really did have diarrhoea?

Lesley: Can you test for gluten intolerance here?
Doctor: Yes, we can run several food allergy tests, like beef, fish, eggs and so on.
Lesley: What about for gluten - I believe the test is for specific enzymes [showed email]. Could you please check.
Doctor: [after calling the lab] No, we can't do that. I think you'd better see a doctor in the UK.


You think that was long-winded? That's not half of it. Sorry to off-load. I need to rant to someone. I must finish by saying, however, that I am EXCEPTIONALLY grateful to VSO for bringing us to Beijing to find a doctor. If I'm a little frustrated it's as much as wanting a reasonable service for VSO (given that they are paying) than for ourselves. I shall remain optimistic, however,  about tomorrow's consultation. The other good news is that whatever is wrong with Freda, she's thriving on her gluten and dairy-free diet. Regular as clockwork, perhaps for the first time in her life. Yes, really.....

B&J's 'small children's play room.'
Receptionist: Hello. We have a small children's play room. Would you like to see it?

Freda: Hey, mum! Does she mean a playroom for small children, or a small room for children to play, hee hee hee?

Receptionist: It's this way....

Freda and Lesley follow in excited anticipation.

Freda: Ha ha! I guess both are right.

Freda boarding the 1st plane, to Kunming
Freda and I had a civilized start this morning with a 9:20 am departure from Simao airport. It didn’t stop her and Edie getting up at a ridiculously early time. At 6:20 a.m. I heard them laughing and giggling in Freda’s bed then the debate started over who would have custody of Fuzz (aka Freda’s Tamagotchi electronic pet) for the next week. Freda won and Fuzz is having a holiday in Beijing. I hope his electronics can survive sub-zero conditions as he joins us in the wintery capital. It snowed heavily last week, apparently a result of some more cloud seeding. Why? Some government officials fancied a few days off work and thought road chaos and powercuts would be the perfect excuse.

As Freda remarked on the plane, "It's a long way to go to see a doctor" - a taxi, two planes, two trains and 20-minute walk brought us to the hotel. Tomorrow we have another 20-minute walk to the clinic where Freda has a date with a paediatrician. I suspect we'll be having a few tests done - I say "we" because I know that anything Freda has to have stuck into her will be a test of my creative parenting. She's already decided that even if she does have a gluten intolerance, she can still eat chocolate. Given that so many of her favourite foods (yoghurt, milk, bread) are currently on her forbidden list, I'm relieved to find something I can offer as a reward.

Our hotel room is very untypical of Chinese standard rooms as we know them - no white tiles or white linen in sight. Infact, as well as floral bedspreads we have two vases of flowers. They're artificial but I think that can be forgiven given the climate. It does help explain why all the Beijingers on the flight were laden with large, gift-wrapped bunches of flowers from the Spring City of Kunming. Time for bed. Given that I went to bed last night feeling thoroughly miserable and anxious about this trip, we're in relatively good form. This is thanks mostly to Freda taking everything in her stride as usual. I've got a splitting headache and still a heavy heart but we've travelled several thousand miles for a long-awaited consultation so that's something to feel pleased about. Fingers (and toes) crossed... 

Our home-from-home in Central Beijing, courtesy of VSO medical insurance.
Lesley launched this week's activities with a reception at the Great Hall of the People. The Hall is the same age as the PR China, built with a strong Russian influence. It was wonderful to walk on the red carpet and listen to the military band, though the reception itself was like a wedding without a bride and groom.
Today got off to a sticky start when Ali arrived at Kunming airport to discover Freda and Edie had tickets but he didn’t. It seems that in some pre-departure changes in Simao Ali’s booking was cancelled. Fortunately people are realising it’s not a good time to be travelling to Beijing and the flights are very quiet. From tomorrow some of the main tourist attractions will be closed in the run-up to the National Day celebrations so unless one of the lucky ones with a special pass – THAT’S US!!! -  you might as well stay at home and watch TV.

Lesley visited the VSO office and spent the day arranging childminders for Freda and Edie over the next few days. They will be living it up in the hotel. Believe me, that’s a luxury. Our suite is more luxurious than our Simao flat and the meals. Well, let’s just say the tailor was wise allowing an extra inch in our newly made clothes!

The programme for the next few days is:


a.m. “Expository Meeting” – apparently a speech from the Bureau (not sure which), probably all the rules and restrictions for the coming days.

p.m. Friendship Award Ceremony at the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square

eve. Photos back at hotel with Freda and Edie!


a.m. Free (to recover from the fabulous breakfast of cereal, croissants, bacon, fresh fruit juice, real coffee etc etc

p.m. State Leaders meet Friendship Award winners and spouses at the Great Hall of the People, followed by National Day Banquet, same venue


a.m. Military parade on Tiananmen Square with State Leaders

p.m. Some other even on Tiananmen Square (all very secret at the moment; ‘no need to know’ basis)

eve. National Day Evening Party on Tiananmen

Offering us help with Freda and Edie are some VSO friends – Kruti, who works as a volunteer in the VSO Programme Office; Eilidh (from Kingussie!), who works as a volunteer with a small human rights organisation in Beijing; Wang Yanhui, the VSO Programme Support Officer for Basic Education. Thanks to their support Ali and I can take part in this special programme of events to celebrate 60 years of the People’s Republic of China. Whatever one’s political orientations, this is an historical moment.
Lesley getting through her ironing for the week in our small apartment on the 10th floor of the Beijing Foreign Experts' Mansion, a stone's throw from the Olympic Plaza.
Ali and the girls with Lisa, Howard's driver.
After a lazy morning around the flat we were treated to Howard's driver, Lisa, to take us on a few errands, involving visits to China Eastern airline office and Beijing railway station again. This time we were refunding our rail tickets and are now returning to Simao the day after tomorrow. Complex decision-making processes - don't ask!

Although initially reluctant to be driven around the city we soon appreciated the advantages - an air conditioned, comfortable, effortless, door-to-door service in a hot, bustling city. We did relieve Lisa of her services, nevertheless, ahead of schedule. She dropped us at a small stretch of restored Ming Dynasty city wall, where we viewed a small exhibition of paintings, sculpture and photograhps of historic Beijing. 

Lesley and the girls on the city wall
This small section of the wall, about 15m high was restored in 2002 and runs for about 2km. Along the side of the wall is a small park with soft, lush green grass, unlike anything we get in South Yunnan. After visiting the wall and museum we wandered back through the park to pick up the Metro back to Wangfujing, where we met Noreen and a fellow hosteller, Steinove.

EAF with Noreen and Stein.
As we left the Metro the heavens opened and the rest of the evening was spent sheltering from rain. The thunder and lightening were spectacular, the worst passing as we ate noodles in an indoor food market off Wangfujing road. The Lonely Planet describes this area as, "a bright and cheery corner of restaurants and stalls overhung with colourful banners and bursting with character and flavour, fronted by an ornate archway." The archway was there, but the ambience was somewhat lacking. Probably better on a DRY summer evening.

Noreen and the Wonder Donkey in Beijing's Dongyue Temple
After a jet-lagged night I slept in for my 10 am rendezvous with Noreen, fellow VSO volunteer now working in Gansu, on our first morning back in China. Dongyue Temple was the perfect place to sit and chat, in the shade of the cyprus trees. It was also reassuring to discover, thanks to the ticket inspector's handy gadget, that I haven't developed a fever, these days taken to be indicative of swine flu. I was allowed to enter.

After a couple of hours of catching up and hatching a travel plan, Noreen stroked the Wonder Donkey for good health and fortune, and we left.
Lesley and Edie standing in line for tickets at Beijing Central railway station
We've decided to head over to visit the eastern end of the Great Wall, at Shanhaiguan (literally translated as 'mountain sea pass'), where it apparently snakes into the sea. I'm not sure if buckets and spades will be in order but we're looking forward to exploring a new area. It's three years since our visit to the Great Wall at Jiayuguan, in the sparsely populated desert of North-west Gansu. As Beijingers head to the seaside for the weekend I think we're in for an altogether different experience.

With Noreen and Edie there for moral support, ticket-buying was a doddle. We opted for the male vendor in the end, after an off-putting first and second interaction with a woman who refused to make eye contact as she barked the train information out over her personal, loud, tannoy. In our experience of bus and railway stations, the men are more patient and friendly. Today was no exception. We leave Beijing on the 14:08 express train the day after tomorrow. Any earlier and it would be standing room only - not a pretty sight.

Ali and Freda paid a visit to a local deli this afternoon, purchasing ingredients to cook an Italian meal at Howard and Lin's flat. Although we all climbed into bed at a fairly normal hour, it was a strange night - Freda talking in her sleep ("No mummy, it's too embarassing to do it here.") and some kind of explosion that shook the building at 2:30 in the morning. That's slightly alarming when one's on the 25th floor.

Time to brave the heat and head out for some breakfast ingredients. With the heavy smog and lack of direct sunshine it's apparently cooler these days. I'm already missing the fresh air of Scotland and the clear skies of Yunnan.
The view from Howard and Xia Lin's flat.
We are all back in China after an uneventful flight, staying with Howard and Xia Lin, whose driver kindly picked us up at the airport. No quarantine, no throat and ear inspections, no luggage hiccups. Amazing really. We're all struggling to stay awake, keeping busy with showers, emails and snacks! When we're fully awake Ali and I will make a plan for the next few days and the rest of the holiday. Scotland already seems like another world away - peace and freedom to wander (fairly) unscrutinised.