After a prolonged period of stabilisation 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.
“Put your cookies in the bag!” I cried, addressing the group of pint-sized chefs gathered before me. Peering up at their towering teacher, their collective eyes shot to the assembled ingredients and they burst into action. “Put your cookies in the bag!” repeated Nini, performing the task herself for good measure.
It was the last week of February and another Saturday English zone at school. Somehow, we’d broken the attendance record set by last year’s Halloween event, with mums, dads, toddlers, aunties, uncles and confused looking grandmothers stuffed into every available crevice.
“Beat the cookies!!!” I ordered, swinging my rolling pin. “Beat the cookies!!!” followed up Nini and the place exploded into a cacophonous orgy of legitimised violence, until each child’s bag had been reduced to a grisly battlefield of crushed crumbs.
“Pour the crumbs onto the big plate!”
“Cut your bananas in half!”
“Dip your bananas in the yoghurt!”
“Roll your bananas over the crumbs!”
The table was an unholy mess by the time we’d finished. There were crumbs in Tina’s hair, bits of banana squished into the floor and globs of yoghurt splattered all over Happy’s sweater. But it all had been worth it because the parents seemed happy and the kids were delighted with their so-called Banana Lollies, which Nini collected and loaded into the kitchen freezer to set.
Happily for me, banana and yoghurt shrapnel proved to be about as dramatic as life got at school because finally things had settled down. S was content with her classes at Easy English and I was enjoying the freedom that my peace agreement with Trudy had brought. Working away in our separate schools, we taught our classes and continued to explore Beijing as much as we could in our downtime.
In March S and I finally got round to checking out the famous 798 Art District, a vast red-brick compound of art galleries, studios and craft shops located in the hard-to-reach neighbourhood of Dashanzi in the Northeast. Converted from an old industrial complex of disused factories, we enjoyed a fascinating morning discovering 798’s many quirks. Proudly celebrating the area’s communist roots, we read the Maoist slogans decorating studio walls and posed for photos with uniformed statues of stern, square-jawed workers.
There were open-air sculptures of snarling wolves, a harrowing installation about the effects of smoking on the human body and a fun exhibition of colourful droog-like beings inspired by A Clockwork Orange. In between, we joined a sizeable gathering watching a talented sketch artist at work and stopped at a charming little music café for cake and lattes. 798 had so much to offer we could have easily wiled away the entire day, but of course we had to be back for our afternoon classes.
In early April I managed to get a ticket for the final of the China Open Snooker Championships. I’d been a big snooker fan since I was a kid, but had never seen a professional game live. Securing my seat online for a surprisingly reasonable 610 RMB (£50/€60/$63 back then), I shuttled myself off to the less-than-glamorous-sounding Beijing University Student’s Gymnasium for the game. The final that year was between China’s most celebrated player, Ding Junhui and veteran Welshman Mark Williams, a former world Champion who hadn’t won a major tournament of any description in four years.
It turned out to be a far bigger event than I’d been expecting. Milling about outside the arena, I caught sight of a TV crew interviewing fans and a few beer tents with people messing about on snooker tables. Posters of Ding were plastered all over the place, while a giant information board detailing all the tournament’s games proved so beautifully incomprehensible I simply had to photograph it for my own amusement.
Inside, the seven and a half thousand capacity arena was dark and atmospheric, my tenth row seat affording a great view of the spot lit table. From what I could see there were very few westerners in the audience to cheer Williams on, though I did find myself sitting next to a German man from Berlin called Andreas. “I zink Villiams is ganna kill him” he predicted with a dry chuckle.
When the players were introduced there was an almighty roar for Ding, the home faithful whistling, whooping and drumming their hands on their seats for a solid minute. And sure enough, being on home turf seemed to spur Ding on as he made a strong start, rushing into a comfortable 3-1 lead in the opening hour. Ding was like a robot: stiff, unsmiling and totally focused on the table at all times. In contrast Williams looked tired, lacking in confidence and frankly a bit bored if his long yawns and glances into the crowd were anything to go by. It was 5-3 to Ding when the game stopped for an interval and Andreas and I made a dash for a nearby restaurant to order beer and dumplings.
Back in our seats for the final session and it felt like Williams had been eating some magic dumplings of his own! Flamboyantly smashing home several key shots, he racked up three frames in a row to secure a 6-5 lead. And although Ding managed to win the next one to pull even at 6-6, this proved to be his last frame of the night. From there on Williams was unstoppable, scooping four consecutive frames to win 10-6 and be crowned the 2010 China Open Snooker Champion. Soundlessly punching the air as a somewhat subdued applause rippled around the arena, Andreas turned to me and grinned the most German-looking grin I’d ever seen: “I vas wrong!”
April proved to be an amazing month for S and I and our Beijing adventure. Firstly, her parents came to stay for a week as part of an extended tour around the country. So pretty much all our free time was spent ferrying them around the sights, from the traditional Han Dynasty delights of The Drum and Bell Towers to the frenetic hustle and bustle of Sanlitun, with its branded boutique, trendy cafes and gastro bars. Together we wandered the old hutongs, revisited Behai Park and sampled the culinary delights of Ghost Street, with its rows of red lanterns fluttering seductively in the evening breeze.
With S’s parents moving on to the next leg of their trip, our spare bedroom had barely been empty for a few days when our old friends Steven and Vicky arrived for a seven-night stay as part of their honeymoon. And so we were back to running around the city again! In addition to all the usual haunts, this time we made an effort to seek out some lesser-known spots, such as the ancient Cow Street Mosque, Beijing’s largest place of prayer for residing Muslims. It was completely deserted, which gave us ample time to explore its two-storey pagoda and wander through the courtyard and gardens.
Among the Arabic signs, carved dragons and colourful roof gargoyles, stood an amazing little sign that forbade us to “put on the short tutu or clothes illness enters the temple”. Luckily, we’d all left our tutus at home and our visit passed peacefully without incident.
At long long last, after much deliberating and several failed attempts due to the obscene queues, we finally got round to checking out The Forbidden City, one of Beijing’s heavyweight attractions. Joining the throng of bodies outside, we filed through The Gate of Heavenly Peace, past the armed guards and under the disapproving ubiquitous stare of Chairman Mao. Trumpeted as the largest palace complex in the world, the sheer scale of the place felt suitably stupefying. Home to several dynasties of Chinese emperors, we made our way through the numerous gates, squares and courtyards, popping our heads through a few ceremonial buildings as we went.
The architecture was every bit as impressive as we’d expected, with each new balcony offering up handsome stretches of symmetrical wooden roofs, their orange-yellow glazed tiles providing an eerie contrast to the thick, grey smog of the afternoon sky. This struck me as a typical Beijing sensation, a Beauty and the Beast kinda vibe that felt somehow uplifting and unsettling at the same time.
By now we were right into the heart of The Forbidden City and crossing the five marble bridges that spanned The Golden Stream. And then we came across The Three Great Halls, where the Chinese literally fought each other for prime viewing spots behind the security barriers. A lot of the men elbowed each other to get ahead, while a belligerent old lady simply charged at the people in front of her, head first like a human battering ram!!! Some of the younger, slimmer girls ducked and dived under the sea of bodies, skilfully coming up for air in a choice front row position. All the while I stood photographing the people around me, taking advantage of the freedom to get some great shots.
In May we ticked a monster item off the bucket list with an ambitious ten-kilometer trek along a challenging section of The Great Wall. There were a whole host of routes to choose from around Beijing, from the charmless tourist-infested kitsch of Badaling, to a number of more rugged, isolated routes further out. In the end we opted for a hike that took us through the Jinshanling segment, boasting some of China’s most impressive Great Wall scenery. Booking a minibus through our old friends at Leo Hostel, we headed out in a small group of ten, including S and I. It was an interesting collection of people, including a young couple from Singapore and two very sexy twin sisters from Colombia.
It was an 80-mile drive from the centre of Beijing and our bespectacled eighteen-year-old driver did his best to keep us entertained along the way. “He who has not climbed The Great Wall is not a true man! – Mao Zedong!” he announced dramatically, turning briefly from the steering wheel to wink at me. “You know, wall so big, they use one hundred cubic metres of rammed earth to form original core,” he shouted, “but later they realise bones of dead workers also good!” I guess that wasn’t exactly what the labourers had had in mind when they were offered the chance to “be a part of The Great Wall effort!”
Eventually arriving at a deserted car park, we stepped out into the cool morning air to be greeted by towering green hills and the cheerful sound of birdsong. “This is the path!” said the boy, pointing towards an ascending forest trail. At its entrance stood a large vertical stone inscribed with Jinshanling in golden lettering. “I will meet you in Simatai!” he told us all with a grin. “Drink lot of water and take care along the way, some parts are very crumble! Happy hiking!”
We wasted no time in setting off, making our way up the snaking path until the car park had been reduced to nothing more than a small hand-sized rectangle. After a while the route levelled out to the entrance of Zhuanduo Pass, signalling the official start of Jinshanling. There was an audible sigh among the group as the wall came into view, a twisting grey form as far s the eye could see, dropping slightly here, rising sharply there, winding around a dramatic portion of jagged mountain.
Knowing it was going to be a long slog, we took it easy that first hour, chatting to our fellow hikers and soaking up the views from a few of the many watchtowers. The Colombian twins caused much hilarity when, quite unexpectedly, they whipped out a cardboard cut out of their father’s head and shoulders, asking us to take a photograph. “Is his dream to see Great Wall!” laughed purple sweater twin, “now we can tell him he was here with us!”
The further we walked the steeper it got, the lush green mountainous terrain becoming more and more breathtaking. At some point the path descended into little more than treacherous rubble, followed soon after by an absolute beast of a staircase. It virtually killed us to scramble our way up, while at this point the group had become so scattered we could pick out the little dotted forms of the others both behind and ahead of us. Happily, the way levelled out for a kilometre or so and we could get our breath back. There were few people to be seen, though we did come across a Chinese man leaning against a section of the wall soaking up the views. He was wearing a military jacket of some description and gave us a sagely nod as we passed, not a care in the world. A little while later, we met a plump and somewhat comical woman selling cookies, water, beer and I Climbed The Great Wall T-shirts. She was an contagiously jolly creature, chattering away to us in Mandarin with regular bouts of booming toothy laughter. And she didn’t seem even slightly discouraged by the fact that we clearly weren’t going to buy anything.
The final stretch to Simatai saw us cross a long wooden bridge, hung high above a gorgeous river of deep green. It was a fitting finale to one of the most memorable experiences of our ten months in China. When we finally reached the car park we found our guide slumped in the minivan, feet up on the dashboard, playing Angry Birds on his phone. “So… how does it feel to be a true man?”
Our time in Beijing had flown by so fast that before we knew what had happened it was the end of May and we were talking about the future over breakfast. Trudy had already started making noises about employing me directly after my contract with EE finished. She seemed excited and the contract she had in mind sounded quite lucrative. I was open to the idea, but S really had her heart set on going home to The Netherlands. “China has been amazing!” she said, squeezing my hands with homesick eyes. In all fairness this had been our agreement, a one-year adventure and then back to Europe to settle down.
And so it was agreed: we’d give notice at our respective schools, hit the road for one final period of cross-country travel and then destination Amsterdam. It felt both exciting and a little sad that our Chinese escapade was drawing to a close. Putting together a three-week travel itinerary that included Pingyao, Xian, Guilin, Yangshou and Hong Kong, there was still much to look forward to in our final month. It was the beginning of the end… in so many ways.