Sub Zero Adventures – a short story from China.

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After a happy, prolonged period of stabilization and life-altering romance, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and travelling.

Waiting for the hangman’s noose to be tied around our necks was driving S and I crazy. After our showdown with Tracy, all we could do was get on with our classes and wait for EE to make contact. We had no idea what Maggie was gonna do. Would she summon us all for a god-awful meeting? Would we perhaps be relocated to another school? Or maybe we’d just get straight out fired!? I had no idea in which direction the pendulum would swing and the suspense was killing me. We hadn’t seen much of Tracy in the week since the shitstorm. Keeping a low profile, she seemed to be consciously minimizing her dealings with us. If only Water, the school Judas, had followed suit. I was so disgusted with her I could hardly make eye contact, but of course she continued to sit in on my lessons, stinking the place out with the stench of betrayal. 

Delighted to be at The Bird’s Nest.

Determined not to let recent events destroy our Beijing experience; S and I kicked off 2010 with a fresh resolve to enjoy our free time to the max and explore as much of the city as we could. With freezing temperatures and a record snowfall, China’s capital was a real winter wonderland that January. Jumping on the subway at Shangdi, we zoomed off towards Line 8, the shiny new Olympic line. Our destination was The National Stadium, affectionately tagged The Bird’s Nest due to the nature of its twisting interlocked sections of exposed steel. Shrouded in thick, evil smog, it looked menacing as it came into view, like an alternative Death Star grounded on some poisoned planet.

Inside The Bird’s Nest.

Happily for us, the atmosphere inside the stadium proved anything but sinister as locals and tourists alike frolicked on the pitch, transformed into the ultimate snow theme park. Grabbing two spectator tickets at the turnstiles, we took our place in the stands and soaked up the atmosphere as below kids built snowmen and daredevil teens whooshed down man-made slopes on their sledges. Elsewhere, there were snowball fights, ice-skating, snow tubing, a maze and a giant live action game of table football.

Rockin’ The Chair Sled.

A few days later we hooked up with Richard, Marisa, Marc and Amy for an afternoon at Behai Park, where the lake had frozen over. It was madness on arrival, with hundreds of people skating, tottering around and falling on their asses. But the most curious sight on offer was what can only be described as the Chair Sled, a rusty contraption that came with a couple of poles used for propelling yourself forward. Whoever invented this bizarre vehicle was clearly doing well as the chair sled was everywhere, despite looking like something you might find lying around a junkyard.

The Summer Palace in winter mode.

But the highlight of these sub-zero adventures came with an unforgettable morning at The Summer Palace. We’d already seen the joint in its natural setting the previous July, shuffling around among an obscene tidal wave of tourists. But our visit that crisp January morning was incomparable! The entire lake had frozen over and there was virtually no one around, save for a handful of locals and the odd gaggle of entrepreneurial fishermen cutting holes in the ice.

The views across the lake, an endless vista of sun-reflected whiteness, were incredible, and for an hour or so we completely forgot about our troubles as we strolled around our own private wonderland. On the way back down to the entrance gates, the perfect morning was topped off by an impromptu concert of traditional Chinese songs, delivered passionately by a group of women.

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“Leighton, we need to talk,” announced Tracy one morning. She was standing in the doorway nervously, the weight of the world on her shoulders. I called S over from her classroom, wondering what on earth Tracy would come up with now. “I have talked with Maggie,” she said, clearing her throat. “I think we need make a new start … Leighton I don’t want you leave!” This was a pleasing and surprising development! Oh to have been a fly on the wall during Tracy and Maggie’s conversation; to know what exactly had changed Tracy’s opinion so dramatically. I was so relieved I was barely listening to Tracy, who was now assuring me that I’d have “full control” in the classroom, that from now on there’d be better communication.

S and I were so busy grinning at each other we were oblivious to the almighty flipside Tracy was about to hit us with. “But you know…. I still don’t have enough students and the money I pay EE is so much,” she continued, choosing her words carefully. “I am thinking about this for a long time and unfortunately I cannot continue with two teachers”. There was a deafening silence as the implications of this revelation sank in. “I’m so sorry!” said Tracy, leaning forward, “But Maggie says she will find S a new school, please… don’t worry!”

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Within a week S had left Enlightener and found herself stuck in limbo for a bit while EE worked out what to do. She did a grand job of putting a brave face on things, but of course it wasn’t easy. It had been fun working together, not to mention super convenient with the school right on her doorstep. In the end she was placed at a language institute called Easy English in the nearby Wudaokou neighbourhood, just one subway stop down from Shangdi.

While S got to grips with her new teaching job, my Enlightener schedule was heating up with what Tracy called The Winter Intensive. Chinese New Year was coming, which meant a ten-day holiday! But first, my normally cushy teaching schedule was about to be transformed into eight teaching hours a day for ten days, with only one day off in between! It seemed like a crazy system, but with a holiday waiting at the end of it all I knew I just needed to get my head down and push on through.

Max hilarity.

Tracy pulled out all the stops to pile as many students into the winter intensive as possible. In the mornings I had a reading class with Max, which was always fun. He was very into the books, especially the creepy tales. There was one in particular called Strange House that had him howling with laughter as he talked me through what the little girl saw as she walked from room to room. “Leighton, look! … Twenty dinosaurs dancing!!! Ha ha!!! … Oh!!! Sixteen sharks shouting!! Haaaaaa!!! Fourteen crocodiles creeping!!! Wahaaaaaa!!! Wahaaaaaa!!! I’d never seen anything like it, Max literally lying on his back clutching his ribs, tears of laughter pouring down his face as he muttered away to himself in Chinese.

10My favourite intensive class comprised of Tracy’s son Harley, his friend Tom, a chunky boy known as Monster Frank and Becky, a timid mouselet of a girl who spoke so softly I could hardly hear her most of the time. I gave them geography sessions where they learned astonishing things such as what Europe is, how long it takes to fly from Beijing to London and the names of the U.S. states. We played phonics games together and learned how to tell the time. In a bid to get them to memorise all the major body parts, they made giant, colourful creature posters before labelling the legs, arms, feet, eyes, ears and so on. The boys all drew hideous drooling monstrosities, while Becky produced a cute self-portrait that she was clearly very proud of. Towards the end of the intensive, Tracy started badgering me about clothing vocabulary. “Harley knowledge of the wardrobe very poor!” she grumbled, “please can you help?” And so I wheeled in a suitcase of my wares and we had a big dress up session. “Monster Frank, put on the green and white sweater!” “Harley, take off the black and grey scarf”.

Bond and I.

The toughest intensive class involved Tracy’s nephew James, an eighteen-year old boy who; I was warned, “Really dislikes English!” Despite the fact that he could hardly string two words together, Tracy insisted we work from an upper intermediate Trinity course book. From lesson one it was obvious he was completely out of his depth. “What’s your name?” “I fi thank you”. “No, your NAME, I’m Leighton, and you?” “Me nay is James Bond,” he answered with the straightest of straight faces. Without consciously trying to be mean, I found myself openly scoffing at this before realising he wasn’t joking. Ridiculous English names in Beijing were nothing new, but this one really took the biscuit.

Bond at the Board.

Over that nine-day stretch James and I had two hours a day and it nearly killed me. There were so many misunderstandings, even to the most basic of questions and exercises. His pronunciation was so poor at times it rendered him incomprehensible and he had zero capacity for remembering new vocabulary or verb conjugations. On so many occasions I had to resist the urge to say “We meet again Mr. Bond”, or tell him that page 35 was “for your eyes only”. This was just as well, as he wouldn’t have understood anyway.

Manga Bond.

Making little to no progress was exhausting, but slowly we did build up a camaraderie of sorts. Through long, painfully confusing conversations I learned that he wanted to be a policeman and that he was a fan of Kung Fu movies. “I love Orry Hebber!” he told me one afternoon. It took us ten minutes of farting around on Google for me to realise he was talking about Audrey Hepburn. I also discovered that Mr. Bond’s main passion was art and that he had a special talent for Japanese Manga. Each day he brought me a selection of his sketches, which were really impressive. He also revealed how his mother was forcing him to learn English and that she disapproved of his artistic side, calling it “a waste of time”. In our final lesson together, he gifted me a drawing he’d done the night before. It was a Manga version of himself looking sharp in a tailored suit. He even signed it James Bond in his squiggly handwriting.

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I was so relieved when the intensive finally finished. In keeping with the wintry vibe of recent months, S and I booked a four-night stay in Harbin, a city in China’s bitterly cold northeast. We’d timed our stay for its famous International Ice and Sculpture Festival, one of the biggest winter events in the world; the ultimate sub zero adventure of them all. The flight over from Beijing was one hour forty minutes and when we stepped out of the airport into the late afternoon air it was minus twenty degrees. Thankfully we were fully prepared, with woollen socks, gloves, scarves, sweaters, hats and long johns.

Sampling the delights of Little Fir Youth Hostel.

We were booked into Little Fir Youth Hostel that first night, but it turned out to be a horrible, horrible place. We knew it was going to be crap the moment we saw the filth-ridden welcome mat at the main door and when the dreadful prison-warden-woman at reception shouted for my ID and argued with S about the nightly rate. Our fears were confirmed when we opened the door to our shitty room, with its broken radiator and dusty floor. My favourite thing though had to be the bed, which had a plastic sheet for a mattress, under which sat a layer of soggy cardboard. Wordlessly, we checked out the following morning and booked ourselves into a four-star hotel on Zhongyang Street, Harbin’s main drag.

Crossing the Songhua River.

This proved to be a fantastic decision, kicking off what would quickly become a magical stay. Heading off for the ice festival that afternoon, we walked down Zhongyang Street until we reached a wide square overlooking the banks of the Songhua River. And… surprise surprise… the entire thing was frozen! Having become quite the specialists in navigating frozen rivers, S and I decided to add one more to the scrapbook and off we went into the almost blinding afternoon sun. It took us half an hour to get all the way across.                  

On the other side, we saw a sign pointing us in the direction of Sun Island, a 3800 recreational zone that housed the festival. Following the route, we crossed a bridge and passed some penguin hedge sculptures and a random but photogenic piano statue. After a while the road straightened out and we were treated to some amazing views of Harbin glittering away in the distance across the river.

16It seemed like we’d been walking for ages and there was nothing to suggest we were even getting close. Turning onto what looked like an infinite one-way road of hanging red lanterns and fluttering Chinese flags, we pushed on as the sun sank into the horizon, darkness rapidly descending. And then the red lanterns flicked on and we could see the humongous form of a garish pink neon archway some way ahead. Closing in, S squealed with delight as she read out the words on the flashing billboard: Welcome to the 11th Annual Harbin Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival!

The pink maze at Harbin’s Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival.

I’ll never forget that evening. It was like being back at Disney World as a kid. Hand in hand, S and I ran through the pink ice maze, so excited we ended up scaring each other silly as we stumbled into an alarming dead-end of snarling ice tigers. Coming out through the other side, we headed straight for the enormous ice-sculpted chessboard, moving tentatively between glacial kings and arctic queens. Elsewhere, there were horse and cart rides on offer, a huge skating rink, ice slides and a five-a-side football pitch with ice-block goalposts.

19And then there were the remarkable sculptures themselves, a breathtaking array of intricately carved formations lit up by multicoloured lasers and lanterns. Designed by local engineering students and carved by around fifteen thousand workers, they really were a sight to behold in a way words and photographs fail to represent. Among the best sculptures, a tightly-knit team of galloping horses, a replica of The Empire State Building, a line of Chinese pagodas and a colossal fairy tale palace guarded by mythical dragons. It was all so fascinating we were actually able to forget about the piercing cold for a bit as we moved from section to section. But eventually the cutting wind became too much and we took refuge in one of the heated tents. Settling down with coffee and pastries, it was great to refuel and feel the blood pumping back into my toes.

20Huddling around an industrial heater, we reflected on what a tough couple of months we’d had, how at times it’d been hard for us to justify what it was we were actually doing in China. But for all of Tom’s bad behaviour, Water’s deception, Tracy’s unpredictability, S’s unforeseen ejection and the general uncertainty of what lay ahead, we knew that it was moments like this that made it all worth it. Downing the last mouthful of my gloriously warming coffee, S and I rose, made for the padded tent doors and disappeared out into the Harbin night.

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