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.
Ali with the tailor and his family
It turns out that it's quite a prestigious affair; this going-to-the-Great-Hall-of-the-People-to-receive-the-Friendship-Award business has taken over our lives the last week. It seems that nothing in Ali's wardrobe would even have allowed him into the hotel where we'll be staying in. After trying to borrow and buy locally, we opted to have a suit made - a traditional tang zhuang style. Over the last few days we have also had to buy black shoes, a few shirts, a couple of ties and a tank-top (cheaper than a jacket). Amazingly enough, he's delighted with his new outfits and says he's going to dress like this all the time. Miracles do happen.

As for Lesley, she's had her own begging and borrowing to do but still has to go smart-shoe-shopping in Kunming as nothing in Simao fits her BFG-size 39 feet! The last few days have taken on an added frenzy due to work pressures. Lesley's been putting in solid 12-hour days at the office - enabling her to finish off the training materials (manual, workbook and resources) for the up-and-coming Team Leader-Trainer Training course that starts the first day back after the holiday. She's also been running round like a headless chicken doing all the admin work - getting name lists from the Education Bureaus, fighting with them to stick to the requirements (i.e. send Team Leaders), translate the lists, book hotels, finalise the budget proposal and get the funding promised from VSO, etc etc. The good news is that Hou Wanxia's role in the TDC should be formalised in the next month or two, which will increase her presence in the office. With our departure set for an hour and a half from now, Lesley is relieved to have printed the final draft of the books for proof-reading.

Now we just have to pack our glad-rags into cases and head to the Capital - the Provincial Capital that is! We are spending a few days in Kunming with Paul and his girlfriend, Ava. We've been looking forward to meeting her for a LONG time and Lesley's hoping to recruit her assistance to find some traditional Chinese shoes that will pass the dress code.

Lesley in Xi'an
I don't have any fabulous photos from my recent trip to Xi'an. The main reason is that the 3-day workshop itinerary was jam-packed. On the one morning we hoped to cycle around on top of the old city wall, it was pouring with rain.

Besides the interesting and active session plans organised by the PO and volunteers, the highlights were: Getting together with all the Basic Education volunteers currently working in China, including the new arrivals; having time to get to know other volunteers better (at previous conferences, with larger groups including our local partners, there hasn't always been the same chance to talk); the kindness of other volunteers regarding my Jingdong book and my Friendship Award; hearing from Hongyan that we'll be staying in a 5-star hotel; trying out new food dishes, typical of the North but rarely on our table in Yunnan - most of them containing enormous quantities of garlic; wandering around the Muslim food and craft sector of the old city and chatting over beer in a bustling restaurant; a corn seller and other locals on the street sorting out what bus we should take back to our hotel after our night out; the bus driver taking a wrong turn [perhaps following another route] and the other passengers sorting him out; our journey back home - we were delayed from Xi'an and nearly missed our connection to Simao. They held the plane up and we were escorted to it in a little van with a flashing light. All very exciting.

The lowlights were: Not having enough time to catch up with people, knowing that it will be a long time until we meet again; the smoggy, noisy, horrible walk with Tina on our first afternoon - we both returned to our room smelling of pollution and fighting off a headache; always having garlic breath; gradually losing my voice - although I'm sure everyone else was pleased.

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Freda, Magda & Roise, Longtang Temple.
It wouldn't seem right visiting a town without also finding its temple. Magda and Roise, two of the graduates we visited in Changning (2 hours from Baoshan by bus), were delighted to take us to Longtang Si, 10km out of town. Both of them had visited the temple before, Roise's last visit being only a few weeks before, when she prayed for success in her teaching exam. Although Magda and Roise were excellent students and did very well in their PIE teaching practice (2 months in rural schools), they failed to make the grades in the County teaching exams. They have both been working as teaching assistants - same work as teachers for a fraction of the pay (400-600RMB a month) - and are now looking to get a better job.

Becoming a teacher here is a bit like joining the army. Once registered with a local Education Bureau (usually their home town) they are at the mercy of leaders. Having passed her exam this time round (the prayers worked), I received a message from Roise saying that she had been posted to a small village several hours from Changning. They have no control over where they end up working, though a bit of guangxi (a complex concept that involves 'relations', 'contacts', 'favour') can improve one's chances of a favourable posting. There are ways to move between counties but it's a convoluted process that involves re-taking exams and pre-empting what the outcomes might be. It's much easier to stay at home.

Freda preparing a tofu dish for dinner.
One of the highlights of our time in Changning was a visit to Jiujia village, where Magda is currently living with her boyfriend and his family. We bought lots of vegetables in Changning market and took over the farmhouse kitchen to prepare dinner. Our contributions consisted of lemon cucumber salad, baked aubergine and Freda's ma po doufu (tofu, tomato and herbs). Cooking in a giant wok, solid fuel (logs burning underneath) beats our tiny, ceramic hot plate in Simao. When all the dishes were ready we ate outside, at a small table in the courtyard. With our afternoon stroll around the village and country kitchen experience, this was a very memorable day.

Lesley with the Jiujia foragers.
On our exploration of the village we met these local women who were on their way home after a day of foraging. Their baskets were empty but they were in good spirits, especially after our chat, which covered the usual - age, nationality, salary (in that order). The markets have a lot of wild mushrooms for sale these days but there are a lot of people competing for this valuable source of income. Better luck next time ladies!
Dinner in the courtyard.
Magda [front right] gets along well with her soon-to-be mother-in-law [back left, behind Roise], sharing the tasks of cooking and cleaning. Traditionally girls have been considered a burden to Chinese families, particulary if money is short. This isn't because of sexist misconceptions that women can't work as hard. On the contrary, Chinese women seem to be the backbone of the economy and keep many a family afloat while the men keep their brains afloat, with bai jiu (rice brandy). The main sense of burden comes from the fact that, traditionally, girls are brought up to be 'married out' to another family. They are cared for, educated and then sent off with a dowry to care for a husband and all his relatives. Young women often found themselves 'married in' to a family that treated them as a slave. What's more, if they didn't produce a son within 9 months of being married, they'd find themselves replaced with 2nd, 3rd or 4th wives and concubines. Although much of this has changed, it's still common for newlyweds in the countryside to live with one of their families, to help take care of their ageing parents and take over the farm.
Magda is delighted to have found in-laws who respect her. We also enjoyed getting to know her new family. Magda and her boyfriend hope to get married some time in the next year. Freda and Edie have already been asked to be bridesmaids, if we are still in China.
ELF with their 'Western' breakfast
JINGHONG Our pre-term backpacking trip started in Jinghong, where we 'lived it up' for twenty-four hours in the Banna Hotel. The main draw was the swimming pool [pictured below] but it turned out the room rate included a 'Western breakfast'. As well as having a waitress-served menu including toast, bacon, eggs, coffe and fruit juice (well, orange squash), we were seated at a small table in the corner while the rest of the (Chinese) guests were crammed into a buffet area. By the time we finished our silver service indulgence the rest of the dining room had cleared. Not bad for 200 RMB - that's for four of us!

LEAF at the Crown Hotel swimming pool.
We enjoyed Jinghong much more this time, perhaps because we know our way around and can find everything we need - supermarket, tasty food and swimming pools. What's more, we've found a string of sparkling new hotels with cheap twin rooms (40 RMB) that are clean and central. We'll be heading down for regular weekend retreats. Although it's less than a couple of hours by bus, it feels very different to Simao - more tropical with a strong South-East Asian (and Dai) influence. There are even traveller-types sitting around drinking milkshakes in Western cafes. All a bit surreal coming from Simao.
Lesley and Marissa, Baoshan temple.
BAOSHAN As time was short we flew from Jinghong right up to Xiaguan (Dali City) to leave us with just a 2-hour bus ride to Baoshan. We spent a night there, but squeezed in some sightseeing with Marissa and one of her school friends. The best part was exploring Baoshan's old city park, which covers a hillside on the west edge of town. This temple had been spruced up more than any other I've visited in China. Unfortunately the main prayer hall was shut because the monks, all women with beautifully done-up hair, were out front arguing with builders about pathwork underway. From the temple we even managed to spy on some new army recruits having marching and Kung Fu lessons on an adjacent military exercise ground.

It was in Baoshan that we discovered the first of the holiday's culinary delights - rice noodles with green bean mush. It doesn't sound very good but we lived off this this local delicacy for two days!

Extraction of hornet larvae from nest.

Cabin fever was rising after several days of house sorting, so we headed out to the countryside, destination Da Zhai village. Our main aims were to deliver photos to Farmer Ding and her neighbours, with whom Ali and the girls planted rice in April [see blog archive]. Ali also hoped to recreate a photo of the rice field, four months on.

We got off the bus at Da Zhai Middle School, opposite which there is a small roadside restaurant. While we tucked into two plates of egg and vegetable fried rice (5 RMB each), the owner prepared a dish of hornets (mixture of bees and larvae) for some other customers. He buys the full nests at a market in Simao at 260 RMB per kilo, and serves them up fried for 60 RMB a dish.

'Three insects make a dish', is one of Yunnan's 'Eighteen Oddities' (shi ba guai). This makes reference to the large size of the mosquitoes in Yunnan, as well as the fact that insects feature regularly on the menu. There's a simple motto: if it's living, eat it. Humans are the exception, although folklore (with a hint of prejudice-based scare-mongering) claims that the Wa people living in the mountains west of Simao are head-hunters.

On a school visit in Jingdong recently the driver screeched to a hault before a cobra basking in the sun ahead. The driver's first thought was to flag down a motorcyclist, to whom he inquired: "Do you know how to catch a snake? That one has a lot of tasty meat on it." Similarly, whenever we pass a cow, pig, goat or chicken, comments invariably focus on the quality of meat: "hao chi" ('good to eat') or 'bu hao chi' (not good to eat'). I usually have something else on my mind. In the case of the cobra, I was admiring it's beauty and trying to take a photo to share this exciting wildlife moment with Freda and Edie. Thanks to the local people's zeal for game, the forests are pretty void of wildlife. The up side? Walking in the countryside is relatively safe. I carried a stick with me today, nevertheless, beating the grass in front as I walked.

Ali, Farmer Ding [centre] and a friend.
The fields were thick with crops, through which we waded to reach the right photo spot. The rice is nearly fully-grown, and should be harvested in a couple of weeks. Farmer Ding arrived home with a small banana tree on her shoulder, for pig food, and was delighted to find we had returned with photos. She promised to call us the evening before harvest, so that we can go and help out. We are keen to see Edie and Freda's rice the whole way through the process, from seedling to supper. There's a bit more work to be done before then though.

Ali recreating the original photo where Freda and Edie joined Farmer Ding to plant rice seedlings in April. The crop is now fully grown, almost ready for harvest.
We helped plant the field back in April
Four months later, the crop is ripening nicely
...but now, after unpacking our suitcases, it's unusually full. Today's main activity was sorting out the cooking ingredients, gifts and goodies we brought back from the UK - lentils, broth mix, pasta, custard, breakfast cereal, cup-a-soups, mustard, pesto, trifle mix, herbs and curry spices. It seemed like a lot at the time but given these that items are unavailable here and may have to last a year, it doesn't seem quite so indulgent. 

As we returned for our fifth year in South Yunnan, our luggage capacity was filled, approximately, with: food and cooking ingredients 20 kg, new clothes [of a higher quality and cheaper than in Simao] 20 kg; reading materials 20 kg; toileteries and medical supplies 10 kg; stationery e.g. special notebooks, high quality blank discs, bookbinding paper 5 kg; gifts 15 kg. Hand luggage was extra! 

Needless to say, when we go back-packing we pack thriftily - one rucksac between four with only the bare necessities.

What fills your suitcases when you go away?

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.