Friday, November 25, 2005

Posts have been absent for a few days now (some may be relieved), not due to lack of interesting events but through lack of time. It's now 10 in the morning and as I wait for my Mathematica code to run I'm given a few minutes respite. So, where to start?With enough questioning and prodding the visa situation seems to be getting sorted and, though my passport is currently being held at the local police office, I'm promised that I will be fully legal within the week.

Though the people around me are great, have been hugely supportive, offered assistance at every minor obstacle and are genuinely great fun, I've been craving
Western company a little. There are many many thousands of expats in Beijing and over the last couple of weeks I've been scouting the forums and getting in touch with a few people.

On Wednesday night I met up with a former colleague of my father who has been living here on and off for four years now. We met in an area called Sanlitun which is reknowned for being the centre of expat bars and nightclubs. Most of these are vomit worthy with horribly garish flashing neon and very loud music blasting out around the seating areas making any sort of talk impossible. However, we met up at a place called the bookworm and as soon as I walked in, it felt like home. It's wall to wall with largely English language books which one can borrow having payed a fee to join the library service. It's stylish, with great coffee, excellent wine, superb music, poetry reading and live gigs regularly, wireless internet access and a decent mix of Westerners and Chinese. They also serve reasonable Western fare which I'm still not craving but was a nice change. The only problem as far as I can see with this place is that it's also Western prices. Travel there and back and a coffee is around a days wage for me. This unfortunately is not going to be a regular occurrence but I shall certainly be going there for treats as often as I can.

Had a great evening chatting and learning useful hints and tips about life in China and how to deal with the Chinese. Do not ever shout. However irate you may be, shouting will not help you. This attracts attention to the fact that a Westerner is angry at a Chinese person which will cause them to lose face. This is the worse thing that can happen to a Chinese person. From what I've read, crying may work, but never shout. Another interesting tip he told me was that he'd be amazed if I lasted three months without wanting to pull my hair out and get away from it all. Not me specifically, just that this is about the time that most Westerners manage before it all gets to much. It doesn't take long to rejuvenate the enthusiasm for this amazing place but unsurprisingly, things do get you down. He suggested taking off to Thailand for a week when this happens. Without any free holiday time this may be pretty tough but I'll see what I can do.

29th of January is Spring festival, the major celebration in the Chinese calendar, and includes the transportation of 350 million Chinese over a single week. Apparently, somehow it works and China doesn't become the world's largest traffic jam. Not much work gets done in business for about three weeks but I don't think that's the case in academia. Beijing should be a lot of fun then though.

We went to another bar after this down one of the Hutongs which was more of a backpackers place though still Westernish prices. This guy has travelled very
extensively including a few months working in Palestine. Unfortunately he leaves Beijing today to spend some time working in Switzerland and then Bosnia before returning around February. He has a lot of links here and so will put me in contact with some friendly folk. Unfortunately there's a real divide between the normal expat community who are on Western wages and the rest of us who unfortunately can't keep up wallet-wise. It sounds like he has a few other friends in the latter category and there are many local bars which we can afford to go to.

A brief interlude from the evening events of the week for a couple of photos. It's not the worries of visa applications, bird flu, President Bush's visit or the fact that there's a nuclear bunker on the campus that keeps me awake at night. It's the fact that they're building two skyscrapers outside my window. It appears that somehow they figured that the best time for bringing in the Earth movers is between 11 pm and 4 am every night. Earplugs are little help against these monstrous machines but I'm either becoming used to it or I'm now so tired that nothing will keep me awake.

These are the views of the sites from my balcony which are changing impressively quickly but not fast enough for me.

So after an enjoyable night drinking and chatting, Thursday night was another sociable one. I went for dinner with three friends from the office to a Brazilian restaurant. This is one of the most amusing restaurants I've ever visited. I'm not sure in which ways Carnival/Carnval/Carnaval (along with a few other variations which label the menus, neon signs etc.) is supposed to be Brazilian. As you walk in you are greeting by beaming Chinese waiters wearing berets and what can only be described as what I'd imagine was worn in Austria in the mid 19th century, except a bit more colourful. The upstairs seating area is a strange mix of Bavarian style and Latino music along with fake Egyptian artifacts decorating the walls. You then go back downstairs to have the buffet starter which is Chinese food with sugar. All very tasty but with no resemblance to any Brazilian food I've ever had. After this they come round to your table with huge kebab skewers and slice one of thirteen roasts of meat at a time. They continue in rotation with the different meats until you either
collapse or say stop. Anyway, a genuinely tasty meal but in no way could it be described as Brazilian.

I confused my Chinese friends by going to meet up with a couple of other people at 9.30. China is to England as England is to the rest of Europe in terms of going out times. The canteen I sometimes eat in is at its busiest around 5.30 so leaving to meet people at 9.30 is beyond comprehension.

I met up with a couple of German girls who are living in an area around the Drum and Bell tower, which I hope to visit sometime and see the biggest bell in the world (Adam, behave). There are a few more Western style bars around here and after leaving one propelled by the shear force of karaoke blasted at us, we ended up at a lovely quiet bar with comfy sofas, pool tables and reasonable prices, to chat for a few hours. Hopefully will keep in good contact with them as it was a lovely evening and they seem to know a lot of people.

I'd been thinking rather smugly to myself that though the guide books had told me about the ruthless taxi drivers who overcharge the stupid Laowai (foreigners), I'd apparently got away with it...up till last night. Somehow I managed to have some sort of conversation in Chinese and we exchanged words in respective languages. He clearly had only the vaguest sense of where he was going and after I looked concerned enough that we really weren't in the right area, he had a 40 mph chat with a taxi driver in the next lane about which direction we should have taken. Anyway, after half an hour we did find it though it cost twice the price it should have done and according to the mileage on my receipt, we'd done a full circle of the second ring road of Beijing which was certainly not the case. Incidentally, there are now six concentric ring-roads in Beijing and the expansion shows no signs of stopping.

So as I sit here somewhat sleepily and mildly hungover, it looks like the next few weeks should be enjoyable getting to know a quickly growing network of people.

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