Sunday, November 27, 2005

This feels like the first day since I've been here that I can really sit back and relax. I've nothing planned, no ancient temple to see, no strange food to sample and no cycles to be run over by. This is lucky as I'm feeling pretty shattered after a superb but hectic week which has seen the social dimension of my life here improve
dramatically. This has both good and bad sides and I'm sitting here nursing a slightly sore head after an excellent evening yesterday, but more of that later. Currently the temperature still hasn't dropped as expected but I'm sure it soon will and I'll be interested to see how warm the flat stays when it does. The heating here is either on or off. I don't mean there's a switch in each apartment and no temperature control. Around the first week of November, the government decides it's now cold enough and switches on the every building North of the Yellow
River. It's then turned off again when it's warm enough. This seems to work OK but for those just South of the yellow river including Shanghai it makes for a perishing winter. Ironically, those in the colder areas have a much easier time of it.

Having had three weeks of blue skies, the fog and smog seem to be creeping insidiously back in and it's becoming more as I'd been led to believe before leaving. This is matching my current mood pretty well, not a bad mood just a little foggy.

Some strange events this week in China with the reported benzene spill in Harbin some way North East of here leaving three million with no water. Undetermined how it will take to clear up but it's a pretty big catastrophe.

After busy evenings on Wednesday and Thursday, Friday was kept free to prepare for my talk on Saturday morning. This I did by going to the gym on campus which is about the most rickety gym I've ever been to (though not the worst I've seen, see below). I had a conversation with the lady at the desk in Chinese where I managed to say that I wanted to use the gym and hand over the money at which point she kept repeating something which was clearly very important. I've still no idea what it was and eventually she gave up trying. About half the machines are broken in some way so anything which requires any stability I shall not be using for fear of getting seriously injured. Perhaps this was what she was saying. Anyway, after burning off at least a dumpling and a halfs worth of calories I called it a day though shall be returning to try and counteract the truly excessive meals which I seem to consume twice a day, every day.

Saturday morning arrived and I gave my talk which was a little over an hour and a half which is the longest seminar I've given to date. This was a compromise between the two hours plus they regularly have and the one hour which I feel is already too long to concentrate for seriously but long enough to be able to explain a topic in rough outline. They seemed to understand the English if not the physics as I gave them a whistlestop tour of string theory, part two is next week.

In fact, somehow (more through accident than design) I'm about to become their English teacher as I volunteered to give them English classes every Wednesday evening. Their reading and writing is extremely good (probably a lot better than mine)but a lot of them are very unconfident when it comes to speaking so I'll try and boost that over the coming weeks. I told them that I've no teaching experience so hopefully it won't be a waste both my time and their's.

After the talk and free lunchboxes for all I took a walk to Tsinghua university which is a twenty minute stroll from our department. On the way I stopped at a department store to buy a mobile phone which was a bit of an ordeal but I'm now connected via one of the many phone companies which are really different guises of China Mobile. It's strange, in this big, official department store the dvd section was clearly full of fake copies. I knew that they were cheap and easily obtainable here but wasn't aware quite how big the market was.

Tsinghua university is about 100 years old and one of the top universities in the country. It has apparently got around 4000 foreign students though the number of Westerners appeared to be a lot fewer. The campus grounds are really very pleasant and there's a studious but happy atmosphere which reminded me a bit of the Stanford campus which I had a chance to visit briefly a couple of years ago.

This gave me the opportunity to get the camera out and get some photos of campus life.

There were lots of people doing exercise on the campus including these skaters who distinguished themselves from English skaters and skateboarders, that practice in the street, by actually being able to do some tricks without falling over every time. (Note that while the generalisation that all Chinese are short is incorrect, there are some very tiny people who are regularly crushed by energetic teenagers).

It appears that Tsinghua has its own version of muscle beach, it's actually a huge outdoor gym but this is a typical example of some of the equipment which was genuinely in use.

This sculpture was sent by a group of Tsinghua alumni from another province. Not sure who or what it's supposed to be but I thought it looked kind of interesting.

The campus is criss-crossed with little canals which look nice from the picture and though they have elegant willow canopies, the water looks pretty unhealthy and close up they're not as nice as from a distance.

There are a couple of lakes on the campus. The larger one which we didn't manage to find in the hour or so walking around is supposed to have lots of Chinese classical bridges around it but this smaller one was great to see nonetheless. Small families playing, couples sitting about and a guy who looked well into his 90s doing stretching exercises.

Even within the university there are lots of old buildings painted with intricate designs, this one is in a small seating area near the small lake.

We walked into a theatre which seemed to be having some sort of rehearsal. Not sure if this is typical Chinese theatre but it seemed pretty surreal.

This is one of several reasons that the Chinese are generally a very healthy nation. They still cycle a great deal and carry huge loads on their bikes. This is changing quickly in the cities where the number of people owning cars is increasing at an alarming rate. Even though they appear to be everywhere, there are now far fewer bikes than there were just a few years ago. The second hand car market is also beginning to open up here meaning that more and more people can afford cars. With a possible 10 million drivers in Beijing alone it seems that just by removing industry from the city, the pollution is going to get a lot worse before the situation improves. This will be solved temporarily when the Olympics come along in 2008 because cars will be banned in the city!

After the walk and some dinner at our regular haunt, I went out to meet a guy from one of the expat sites. He's from the UK and working at Tsinghua setting up a computer system. It was good to chat for a couple of hours in another great bar. This one's inside a bookshop though the two don't seem to have much to do with each other. I did notice however that they sell second hand English books. The bar also has a very reasonably priced happy hour and the local beers are not bad. The bar is frequented almost entirely by foreigners and I got chatting to some about a Reggae
night held once a month about ten minutes from my flat which sounds interesting. Getting on for ten thirty we walked round the corner and met up with a Mexican friend of the English guy and a few of his friends, a really good crowd. We then headed en masse to Houhai which is another area of more modern bars and clubs and stayed there drinking Sangria and chatting till the early hours of the morning. All of us went back to the guys flat after this to sample some very fine tequila with no resemblance to the ones we are fobbed off with in the UK. I was slightly worried, returning to the campus at four when I saw the gates had been shut, but the security guy let me in, clearly happy to see another human being awake at such an ungodly hour.

So Sunday is planned to be a day of lazing around and recovering before another busy week begins. Before I left the UK, I spent a long long long time copying all my CDs onto my computer. Doing this was one of the best decisions I made before coming out here. It makes life a huge amount more pleasant when I can sit in the office working, with headphones on and listen to something really familiar with associations to the UK. Looking forward to another interesting week.


Michelle said...

what music have you been listening to lately?

Unknown said...

I set up the 5000 or so songs to play on random. At the moment there seems to be lots of Bob Dylan, Bowie, Holly Golightly, Plaid (a UK electronic group), Edgar Jones Jones and lots of jazz. It should be completely arbitrary but media player seems to get into a particular artist and play that more frequently than it should before getting bored and moving on.

Anonymous said...

Bowie?!! Interesting!! That wouldn't be the Bowie CDs you 'borrowed' from me would it??!!!! Plus that photo of the skateboarders is fantastic!!! I just nearly wet myself laughing at the teenyweeny man coming out of his arse!! Lets just hope he doesn't fall backwards cos that'd smart a bit!!! Wheels x

Unknown said...

Perhaps, maybe the very same CDs. Shall see what I can do, send me your address and I'll see if I can get them to you ASAP.

Anonymous said...

After some concerted reading, I am pleased to report I'm now up-to-date with your blog. Very interesting indeed. Shock, no matter how foggy it gets, just remember what an awesome experience you're having. Here's the news from London: Cherry and I have a new (second-hand) hoover. I'd rather be eating sea-horse...

Unknown said...

Well, hopefully, when you get youself over here I can arrange that. Pleased you're up to date and it means a lot to me that people are reading and interested. I am indeed fully aware how lucky I am to be here having this amazing experience. Even when it's being foggy, it's being foggy in Beijing and that's pretty awesome.