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January Archive

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Booking our Holidays

Being of Scot ancestry, Neil is always keen on maximising any return on a minimum investment.  In the case of our holiday planning, the only way to justify the several hours spent trawling the web looking for suitable flights and accommodation is with that wonderful satisfaction of having adopted the good old Kiwi DIY (Do It Yourself) approach.

China has a well regulated air transport system.  We understand that the government sets the "full price" fares and "fuel surcharges" in addition to the airport construction levies and departure taxes.  Regrettably they have the policy of showing the airfare only that then gets increased with these extras.  While we can see the merits of this, we'd prefer the recent NZ approach of showing the complete price including all these in the initially advertised price. 

To our knowledge, there are no bricks and mortar booking offices in Jurong so we booked on-line. Both of the sites we used have Chinese and English language versions.  Huaxun International Transportation Service Co., Ltd (or was recommended to us by a friend. eLong is listed on the NASDAQ and is partly owned by Expedia and also recommended to us.  Both had identical prices and flight availabilities and because 9588 didn't offer return bookings in a single step we booked our out & return flights using both vendors, just for the fun of it.

eLong offered return flight and hotel bookings and the added "security" of not using on-line credit card payment. Instead, their call centre rang us back to take these details and emailed a confirmation and authorisation letter to be printed, signed and sent back along with photocopies of ID and both sides of the credit card. Flights are not confirmed until this procedure is completed. All fine in principle but hindered by the fact that we don't have a fax machine and the email service via our ISP in NZ is still very slow, possibly due to the undersea data cables damaged in the Boxing Day earthquake. Unfortunately, some of the email was caught in our ISP's SPAM filter. We are fortunate to have purchased a Canon scanner and inkjet printer all-in-one (complete with Chinese instructions and labels) so we could get a signed document in a form to email back. Unfortunately, the first letter they sent us was in Chinese and we didn't understand we had to also send the Passport and Credit Card copies too.  After another phone call and some more emails, printing, signing and scanning we were ready to do battle with the Microsoft Fax console and send the fax from our laptop. After purchasing a local China Telecom Mobile calling card and more battling with the Dialling Options we finally managed to send the first page of the required documents back before the card ran out of money and the call was disconnected.  Today, armed with a fresh "dian hua ka" calling card we succeeded in sending the fax and getting an SMS confirmation of the bookings. Except that the SMS contained Chinese characters and these all come up as boxes on our old mobile phones. Which is OK because we can't read Chinese anyway. But the flight numbers and passenger names were in alpha numeric characters and we got the general idea. Whew!

It turned out that 9588 was definitely the easier choice as the credit card payment is completed online through its secure site. A confirmation email arrived very quickly afterwards. The relative length of these two paragraphs is in direct proportion to the effort and time to make a booking on each system!

Our hotels were booked on-line where possible but the Disneyland hotel bookings are done over the phone (18 minute call to Hong Kong) and we needed to spend 15 minutes speaking with the Thailand Accor reservations centre to complete their bookings as we hit a "brick wall" in their online reservation system. Memo to Neil: next time you set up a domain name for email, make sure it is short, easy to spell out in the phonetic alphabet and preferably a real word from the English language (like snap, clear and possibly maxnet)...  Oh, and pick up some shares in China Mobile please.


Kindergarten Visits

Today Mr Zhang, the Director of the English Department and some other JSAFC staff took Sam, TJ and Neil to visit 2 nearby kindergartens (each about 20mins walk away).  The idea was to see if they would be suitable for Sam to attend, probably only for the mornings (0830-1050) rather than the whole day (finishes at 1630). The children at the second kindergarten were having lunch at 11am when we visited.  It was rice and meat and provided by the school. After lunch they have a rest/sleep in the upstairs loft in their classroom. Neil & TJ found it very interesting, Sam was not so sure about it all.

Clothing Factory Visit

On Saturday we visited a local clothing factory that produces about 10(!) 20' container loads of clothes for export every month. There are about 400 staff there.  Neil met one of the office/sales ladies on the bus to Nanjing before Christmas and she offered to take us for a factory tour. As a result of some lost emails it has taken a while to make contact and arrange the visit.  The factory was fairly new and conditions were very good with air-conditioning (for the summer heat), good lighting and plenty of space.  Not a stereotypical China factory.  They have a big burner to produce steam for the dozen or so guys in the ironing room: it was very warm there! The offices and work areas were all spacious and comfortable: a lot better than some of the NZ factories Neil has worked in over the years.


End of Semester: Holiday Time!

It is currently exam time and the semester finishes on 28th January February Oops, sorry. TJ has already completed her exam marking and is tidying (and re-doing, and re-doing) some of the outstanding administration for her classes. It is unfortunate that these requirements were not detailed at the start of the semester: it has taken the faint glow of success away from a job well done. It is small consolation that she will be better informed for next semester's classes.

Having been reading the "Rough Guide to China" and the Lonely Planet "China", we left NZ armed with a great itinerary of sightseeing plans. These included:
However, the realities of day to day life, some experience of bus and train services and the legends of mass transit at "holiday" time, coupled with budgetary restraint that rivals Dr Cullen, have diminished this list to the point that we  need to return to this country as tourists, one day when we're older. Much older.

Instead, we've decided on a fiscally restrained "quality rather than quantity" itinerary that Sam (and therefore his parents) will enjoy rather than endure. So, we've been thinking about how to spend the next 6 weeks until classes resume on 5th March. We'd previously struck Harbin and Huangshan off as potentially unsafe for children (possibly of all ages) whose stubbornness, rather than DNA test, clearly proves they are Allisons (and/or Fosters). 
The original plan has been whittled back to "doing Hong Kong well" rather than a whistle-stop tour of southern China. There is Honk Kong Disneyland, Ocean Park theme park, shopping, amazing night lights shows and Chinese New Year Fireworks that should keep us amused and our pockets well drained.

With a lack of local English speaking booking offices, the internet is the most valuable resource we have. From the info we've gathered so far, it will be cheaper to fly to Shenzhen or Guangzhou and cross the border to Hong Kong by train or ferry rather than fly directly to HK from Nanjing.  Fortuntely, the broken Taiwan data cables do not affect local download speed.

Nanjing Expedition

About 10 days ago we went to Nanjing and conducted a weekend reconnaisance mission.  Having faced a dearth of information about Nanjing when we arrived, we were fortunate to meet Hilary who taught us about the various bus routes and supermarkets and western shops that would be useful for us. 

Neil has begun writing an "Expat Engineer's guide to Nanjing" and is documenting these points of interest and the public transport routes to get to them.  We did not have any hotels on our list of useful locations so we stayed at the Jinjiang Inn near the Zhonghuamen bus and Metro station and the Chuan Jia hotel near Xinjiekou (the centre of Nanjing). At about RMB160 (NZ$30) per night, these are a 2 or 3 star hotel with linoleum floors, aircon but no minibar or refrigerator. They are comfortable and suitable for us westerners looking for budget accommodation.  Both have Suguo supermarkets nearby for buying the breakfast essentials like milk and fruit to supplement our cornflakes.  We've now got two semi-budget chains to choose from: Jinjiang Inn and Super 8.

We also took in some of the night lights in central Nanjing and treated ourselves to a Pizza Hut dinner. We also went to the zoo.  It occupies a mountain (big hill really) towards the north of Nanjing and has a mix of old style "caged exhibits" and newer style "park settings" for the animals.  We saw a panda and a red panda as well as an elephant, giraffe, wolves, hippo, tiger,snow tiger, panther,  ...

As well as enjoying the zoo and a visit (or two) to the McDonald's restaurants, Sam was delighted that he could meet up and play with his American friends.

We went shopping at the "9 Dragons" shop that we'd been told about recently.  It is relatively small by Nanjing standards as it is only 4 storeys high.  What it lacks in outward stature, it makes up for by having a good range of clothes including some "Label bargains ;)".  TJ bought a lightweight reversible dress jacket (NZ$18) and Neil got a goosedown jacket/parka for a whole NZ$72.

Xinjiekou Lights

1912 Area Lights

1912 Area Lights

Xinjiekou Fountain

1912 Area Lights

Yowd-zah, My Youzi!

Youzi ("yo dzih") is the Chinese grapefruit. They range in size from about 5" diameter through to maybe 9" or 10". This sample is an average sized one and weighed 2.2kg.  The packaging includes a dark yellow cellophane wrapping that masks the true colour of the fruit.

We were given one of these at a hotel stayed at in Zhenjiang. Neil enjoyed it and has been buying them ever since. They are very sweet compared to the grapefruit we are used to in NZ. These definitely help him get his "5+ a day" servings of fruit & veges!

Grapefruit   Grapefruit


Jurong Pagoda

The other night we wandered into the city centre to look at the lights on the nearby pagoda.  We can see the top floor or two of it from the road running past our apartment compound.  The lights get switched off about 9pm and the nearby monastery switches its roof rope lights off about 7pm.  We thought it was quite a nice sight and worth the 20min walk (each way) on a frosty evening.

Jurong Pagoda


Hmmm Beer...

As many of you know, Neil is a true Southern Man and is quite partial to the odd drop of that liquid gold known as Speight's Old Dark.  He also doesn't mind the odd Guinness, Black Mac or Monteiths Black. It you really twist his arm on a hot day, he'll drink a Dux De Lux Ginger Tom (a fantastic ginger beer) or a Monteiths Summer Ale (another classic limited release brew).

However, it seems the Chinese palate favours the lager style judging from the offerings on the supermarket shelves from Tsingtao (Qingdao) and the other large brewers. These all suffer from "taste fade": after the initial rush of (few) flavours, it quickly fades out to nothing, not even leaving a bitter after-taste! For the princely sum of NZ$0.50 per 600ml bottle, perhaps Neil gets what he pays for!

On our Christmas trip to Nanjing Neil went to a large RT Mart (supermarket) near Nanjing University for a few ordinary grocery supplies (French bread, NZ butter, milk).  He spied a few bottles of this Shanghai Asia Pacific Breweries "Dark Beer". A single bottle found its way in to the shopping basket and was duly transferred to refrigerated storage back in Jurong. It survived in the insecure storage vault for a week or more before he tore the cap off.  And it was worth the wait (and the extra weight in the pack on the trip back to Jurong).  The taste is very good and far better than the lagers.  Not exceptional like some of the aforementioned Darks, but nevertheless sufficiently good to warrant having enough room in the pack on the next shopping trip to bring back the ubiquitous dozen!  

Most of the beers here are sold in dark green or brown glass bottles but this one is packaged in a clear glass bottle.  What you see is what you get!  Of course, one could choose beer in aluminium (aluminum for y'all from the vowel challenged lands) cans but these are typically very expensive local or imported brews.  I'm not sure I'd favour Budweiser or Heineken over the local brews but their presence may be a triumph of the cancerous marketing from the west over common sense!

Here in China some things are very seasonal. Apart from fruit, veges and feather down jackets:

  • Apparently one should fly kites in Spring.  We aliens will fly them any day we want to when there is enough wind.  
  • With gifts that you take to people you visit there is an etiquette and custom that we'll never learn nor appreciate - partly because nobody explains it as EVERYBODY KNOWS it. (Sounds like a Tui advert to us).  This too is seasonal: we believe fruit is acceptable in warmer times but is too "cold" in winter.  It is more appropriate to bring a fruit tea or "warm" gift.
  • You may recall us saying that Winter started on Nov 6th.  From that date (and not before) you should wear your winter clothes.  We waiguoren will wear clothes that suit the day's weather! And get stared at!
Which brings us to beer.  Often it is served at room temperature (which is OK at the moment because most rooms are not heated, but not so great in the heat of summer and autumn).  At Pizza Hut in Changzhou Neil was asked if he wanted ice in his beer.  Ahh, thanks but no thanks. We wonder if beer also falls into the category of "cold" and therefore less likely to be offered.  Perhaps "warm" drinks like Baijiu (Chinese White Wine, actually a distilled spirit aka Firewater / Rocket Fuel) are preferred? However, "Wo bu xihuan Baijiu. Wo xihuan bing Pijou."  ("I do not like Baijiu, I like cold beer"). And being a southern man who knows what he likes, and likes what he knows, Neil will take the beer thanks. Especially now there's a new favourite Dark!

Hmm, Dark Beer (in a clear glass bottle)


Happy New Year in Changzhou

Our trip to Changzhou, a city of about 3.5M people, was part of our revised New Year holiday.  Other parts of Jurong and Jiangsu had the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday as a holiday but JSAFC had the holiday on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. So our original thoughts and plans for a 5 day weekend were very quickly destroyed. Rather than visiting Yangzhou and then travelling to Changzhou we took a bus directly to Changzhou. The main goal was to visit the China Dinosaur Park - a combination theme park and museum.

We thought we were now sufficiently familiar with buses and hotels to not making advance bookings and just turn up.  Usually the buses are not quite full and the tickets being sold are for the next service.  This time the Jurong bus station was very busy and the tickets we got weren't for the next but for the second bus to Changzhou.  We had an interesting 1.5hr wait as there were a few students TJ knew and chatted with. We watched the cleaner walking around cleaning up the rubbish that people drop on the floor or on the empty seat next to them.  There are 4 rubbish bins but people seem only to use them if they are standing right beside them.  The same applies in the streets - we guess the benefit is that it keeps a small army of people in work! Now we understand the Singapore rules of "No spitting, No littering, ...".  In the Jurong bus station, and on many of the buses we've used, "No Smoking" signs are clearly placed.  Unlike many other "suggestions" here, these rules seem to be a guide to the wise but IGNORED by fools.  Neil is looking forward to getting a photo of someone smoking while using one of these signs as a leaning post!

Lots of roadworks that support the new expressways that are being built, some rough roads (which meant we drove on the Left side of the road towards on-coming traffic to avoid the worst potholes), only a moderately comfortable bus and smokers left us not looking forward to a return bus trip.  We saw some of the other buses that ply the Jurong - Changzhou route and we definitely had one of the more comfortable options.

We had not booked any accommodation but this did not prove to be a problem. The first night we stayed in the city near the railway station at the Changzhou City Star Hotel - it was comfortable enough for the RMB150 (NZ$30) incl Chinese brekky for 2 but the late night Karaoke and noisy halls weren't so great. At least Sam slept through it. The bathroom had a bath so that luxury was enjoyed.  In the evening we went out to enjoy the city's impressive laser and neon light shows.

We enjoyed the Dinosaur park - very few people were there and many activities / rides were not happening as a result.  But this meant no queues and it was easy to get a seat to see performances like the trained birds (parrots, macaws, cockatoo, etc).  Neil went on a couple of the rides - a small rollercoaster thing and the big swinging pendulum arm with rotating seating platform.  Most excellent! Depending on the particular location of the rotating platform it was a lot like doing wing-overs in a glider or pulling up and then tailsliding down. Neil is out of practice with this type of motion and it left him with a delayed "greenish tinge" although not sufficient to "re-serve lunch".  We weren't so keen on getting wet in the "boat trip", a single row of seats in a "hollowed out log" that winds though some "caves" on a canal and is elevated on wide conveyors. It finishes with a long steep water slide back into the open. We spent the best part of the day at the park. We we quite impressed with the museum part: we expected boring old-style exhibits but it was quite modern with some interactive exhibits.

That night we stayed at the Oak Bay Garden Hotel next to the dinosaur park.  Depending on which advertising you read it is a 5-star hotel with outdoor pool, golf course (RMB150 green fees), a driving range and is very comfortable. RMB428 (NZ$86) for top floor room with king size bed, bath but no shower, incl buffet brekky for 2.  They had an internal courtyard garden on the 3rd floor and the lifts (elevators) had curved glass windows so you look out on the garden area. They had done their best on a western cooked breakfast menu but the bacon and sausages were cold and they had French fries instead of hash browns.  Freshly cooked eggs and a few danish(-ish) pastries were OK. They also had lost of fresh fruit plus the usual Chinese breakfast options.

We quite liked Changzhou from the short stay we had: clean buses, a Pizza Hut (=RMB28 spaghetti bolognaise, yum), several McDs (for Sam), international school, a big church in the centre of town, huge areas of development, excellent train station on the main Beijing - Shanghai line.  I don't think many waiguoren go there as we got higher than the usual number of stares.

Rather than take the return bus trip to Jurong, we decided to relax on the train back to Nanjing, ride the Metro to Zhonghuamen and then take the familiar 1hr bus ride back to Jurong.  This was sort of an experiment to find out about train travel in preparation for some longer trips.  The Station in Changzhou was great - fairly new and clean and the ticket queues were orderly without people pushing in to the front (like happens in other places). The T series service travelled fast (up to 150km/h), stopped only in Zhengjiang and was very comfortable in "Soft seat" class.  It got the Sam seal of approval and he read a book for much of the trip and therefore it earned the TJ & N travellers tick!

When we went to get a ticket for the bus about mid afternoon, we got a flat/impolite refusal at the ticket office: "mei-you", meaning no buses! Sam was very upset. After some heated exchanges with the able-bodied, well fed & clothed child carrying beggars who are common in the cities, and would not leave us alone while we discussed a plan B, and an offer of a RMB200 taxi ride to Jurong, the bus station staff thought that we were getting too much of a hard time and helped us find out that there were buses (=seats) available the next day. There were at least 3 buses still to leave for Jurong that day and they were all booked. 

We hadn't brought sleeping bags or our city maps  since 
Nanjing was not on our original itinerary and we had planned to stay in hotels.  After a quick failed search for the JJ-Inn, which is near Zhonghuamen, we rang some friends who saved the day and offered us their spare room. Then we saw the Jurong bus packed like a sardine can full of students - there were actually buses running they had just sold all the seats. Despite being full, there was still a queue of nervous looking students waiting to pack in.  Usually you can still get on if you flag the bus down at the side of the road but you may have to stand in the aisle: and the students needed to be back for classes the next morning.  It turned out to be quite a fun night with our friends - the children all played nicely together and we adults had a good yarn.  

The next day as we were leaving the Metro station at Zhonghuamen the Jurong bus was just passing by.  Neil wasn't paying attention and hadn't noticed it but the eagle-eyed ticket man on the bus recognised us and yelled out "Jurong-Jurong" to us. We ran along to the intersection and boarded the bus. The ticket man moved one or two people & their parcels so TJ & Sam could have a seat and we were off home. Neil sat on the engine cover with 3 other guys. No waiting in the bus stations and we each had a seat! PTL for small miracles. Fortunately TJ did not have a class until after lunch so there was no major inconvenience.

Changzhou - Typical Appliance Store Decoration

Changzhou Church

Dinosaur Park Gate

Fun Park Ride - 1

Fun Park Ride - 2

Fun Park Ride - Yee Ha!

Dinosaur Park viewed from Hotel

Hotel Interior Garden from 6th floor

Taiwan Boxing Day Earthquake

We're going to blame the Taiwan Boxing Day earthquake and the severed undersea cables for not updating our site in the last while.  We didn't have any email or overseas internet access for the first four days afterwards and then it started to improve slowly.  Presently, we're up to 56k dial-up rates for international connections but these are intermittent and sometimes it is all 404.  We look forward to full DSL speed (NZ "Jetstream") international data rates returning by 15 January as scheduled. It has been reported here that many people are missing their Instant Messaging services and that up to 10,000 websites were affected because their domain names could not be renewed online. Even in China, the internet is a vital part of people's business and personal lives.

A White Christmas

Sam wanted a white Christmas to remember.  It seemed like a nice idea but the weather was definitely too warm for snow.  We ended up with a fog - white Christmas (see photo of the view from the 8th floor, vis ~150m). Visibility varied during the day from as little as 50m out to a whopping 400m.

We scorned the usual NZ "feast until overfed" approach and had a cheese sandwich for Christmas lunch.  It was rather refreshing to be able to enjoy an afternoon stroll along one of the city wall sections without feeling over-full.

It was strange being in a huge city where Christmas Day was, for most people, just another day at the office. All services (including banks, public transport etc) were operating as normal.

In the evening we went to the Blue Sky's Expat Bar & Grill.  We'd seen their advertisements "A Western Oasis in the heart of Nanjing" and heard they served a great Aussie pie.  We went there with great expectations and were not disappointed as we had meat pies served with our choice of chips (fries to you non-Kiwis) and salad (on the same plate) or steamed vegetables for Christmas Dinner: not a typical Kiwi BBQ tea, but delicious!  We had been wanting to visit Blue Sky's since we found out about them over 3 months ago - it was a special treat to finally get there and have some familiar western food!  Blue Sky's had arranged special fixed menu Christmas lunches and Christmas Dinners and the evening meal was well attended and looked and sounded like a United Nations meeting. We just had a bar meal rather than join their 3 course festivities. Their bar has satellite TV (ESPN was on screen at the time) and a pool table to round out that authentic expat bar atmosphere.  Unlike in NZ, bars and restaurants in China are not smoke-free and this was the only negative aspect of the evening.

White Christmas Fog

Nanjing City Wall
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