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Greg & Karen's Life Adventure Karen and I, in love, in life ; following our bliss

DATONG to HONG KONG and back

CHINA | Friday, 6 May 2011 | Views [657]

                                    DATONG to HONG KONG and back.

So I`m sitting here in a small but delightful guest house room with all mod cons, including wireless internet; with time and opportunity to further narrate our tale. The guest house is snuggled between other similar 3 storey apartment buildings around the shoreline of a boat-crowded bay at the village of Yung Shue Wan on the Island of Lamma; a 20min ferry ride from the southern side of Hong Kong Island. What, I hear you ask; are you doing back in Hong Kong ? and what happened to China? ---- And there my friends is the start of a long story.

                At Datong airport that first morning, we waited and were finally met and driven straight to the University by our liaison staff person Jackie, who spoke excellent English. It was still Winter back then and the surrounding hills were barren and brown, the countryside dusty and the air hazy brown. The airport was tiny compared to most we had seen, but was only three years old; the city in the distance we were told was also being rebuilt and was bristling with new and partially constructed high-rise apartments. We turned off a major six lane highway, lined with newly planted trees; into an enormous assortment of University buildings which straddle this road. Our apartment turned out to be in one of the oldest blocks, fortunately on the ground floor. To our surprise, it had been recently renovated for us with a king-size bed, mostly new appliances and it was much larger than we had dared hope; given many of the horror stories on the internet.

 We were whisked off to a banquet lunch with the Foreign language department staff, to experience our first taste of `famous Datong food’. The conversation was easy as most spoke English well and we were given the `guests of honour’ place at this huge round table with equally large `lazy susan’. Well the beer flowed freely and plates of  beautifully prepared food just kept  on coming – we were overwhelmed by this sumptuous meal and warm welcome to Datong University.

                They assigned us three students to facilitate our lives; two girls, Fiona and Sunshine and a lad called Alex. The next day they showed us around the Campus, the Language building where we would teach and the many restaurants, shops, grocery stores and markets; spread all over. There were two other English teachers at the Uni; both American and both really glad to see us, as they had been picking up the slack from the previous American couple who had left at the end of the last Semester.

 Over the next weeks we settled into a routine; Karen teaching mostly in the mornings and I, in the afternoons from 2.30 to 6.30 – weekends are free and we have 22 hours actually in class teaching 1st and 2nd year Uni students; mostly girls – I teach spoken English to English Majors and Business Majors, while Karen teaches history and culture of English Countries.

We cook for ourselves, spend most of our time preparing lessons and re-searching `online’. We bought outside broadband and a wireless router and now have a large office set up with three networked wireless computers – how cool is that.

At the first opportunity, we headed into this city of 4 million people; just 3 km down the highway, over the newly constructed river  channel (still dry), one of four, beautiful new bridges, past dozens of high-rise residential buildings in various stages of construction; wrapped in their cocoons of bamboo scaffolding and green shade cloth; past remnants of the historic earthen city wall, past the completed Western ramparts, battlements and towers of the new city wall  and into a chaotic, bustling conglomeration of glitzy, department stores, small gaily dressed shops vying for attention, people clamouring all over, noise, traffic, bicycles, scooters, old  women with hand carts, impossibly pretty girls also vying for attention and  everything that makes China such a wondrous assault on the senses.  We love it all and our two delightful girls protect us like mother hens,  from the sudden holes in the pavements, the silent threat of electric scooters behind us, cars approaching from the wrong direction as we cross against the `don’t walk signs’ and other assorted perceived dangers as we negotiate this tangled humanity.

At the present  centre of Datong city ( the plan is for the University to be at the centre in 5 years time) there stands a marvellous bronze statue of a mounted Mongol warrior  in `Red Flag Square’, but no-one seems to know who he is, although there is a verbose plaque in Chinese below. Not far from here is the newly re-constructed `Hua’an ‘ square, outside the original `Hua’an Temple’; with magnificent reproductions of this traditional architecture and a beautiful entrance gate of heavy timber unlike any I have seen so far. This leads on to a new pedestrian only, street complex with fancy shops and restaurants, fringed by newly made areas of traditional `Hutongs’; the old Chinese residential houses, often with common walls and narrow winding alleyways.

The mayor of Datong has, in only three years in office; facilitated an incredible renovation of this once small, backward city – they are in the process of levelling everything within the old city walls and re-building it anew; they plan to route part of the Yellow River through the city, to completely re-construct the historic city wall ( 30ft high, 12 ft wide ) and to turn it into a modern metropolis and tourist attraction based on the historic sites of the`famed `Yungang Caves’ and the `Hanging Monastery’ of Henshan Mt. We have yet to visit these places but intend to do so during the Summer Holidays with friends.

It is synchronistic that it was a series of photos of the Hanging Monastery which first piqued our interest in China, since our placement here was a totally random event.

Since then, we have visited the city several times and  found it and the life here to be fascinating, both for it’s diversity and opportunity. We were recently invited to be guests of honour at the opening of a new `top’ kindergarten school; with associated fireworks, stage-show, music, and showcasing of the innovative `themed’ classrooms. After which,  we were treated to a  `Datong banquet ‘ with the family – a delightfully  informal occasion where we were treated as one their own. Karen has agreed to teach there for an hour a week but I didn’t think it was quite my style; sitting on a little stool playing with six year olds, if you can picture that.

                Eight weeks slipped by in this way while we waited for the Uni to organise the paperwork for our work visas, for which they had originally planned for us to return to Hong Kong. We were starting to get somewhat nervous when we were handed our passports and requisite documents and asked when we would leave for Honkers. Hurriedly arranging work for our students, we flew to Shenzhen via Beijing; just inside the Chinese border from Hong Kong;  stayed there the night and walked over the border the next morning. Well it’s not quite that easy – first we take the metro to Luo Hu and exit  China through their immigration wall; then cross a no-mans land over the river and enter Hong Kong through their immigration control – catch the train to Kowloon ( about 45 mins) walk for 20 mins to the ferry terminal and take the ride to Hong Kong Island; finally a well trodden path to the Chinese Visa centre; only to find that it’s now closed for lunch until 2.00pm. No problem, we’ll be back then to lodge our application; only to find a queue stretching along the street and around the corner. Ok, we’ll go for a walk and come back later, only to find the queue still stretching around the corner and it’s 3.30pm – hey guys, you’re not even going to get in by 5.00pm from there!

This was just the start of our unbelievable visa journey; so I’ll just summarise: Arrived early next morning, made application and now needed medical reports; trekked around the city hospitals but to no avail. Returned to hotel in Kowloon to check internet, found you only need a medical if staying more than one year- ok we went back, only to be assured that we must have medicals and would need to get these in China (for C…… sake)

So we went back to Shenzhen on 5 day tourist visas, found a hospital that did these exams and within 2 hours had completed the process;  and process friends is an understatement. There were 40 to 50 people requiring examinations that afternoon and we were grateful for the help of some who showed kindness and understanding to the two `laowai’ foreigners, trying to negotiate this quagmire without the language. The ECG took just 3 mins, the blood work about the same,  quick X-ray, abdominal ultra-sound, dental exam, ear, nose & throat exam; I kid you not; the paperwork took longer than the check-up: but here’s  the kicker – it takes 6 working days to process the results and of course, we only had a 5 day visa – you guessed it; back to Honkers until the 9th ( another week & half from Uni ) and that friends is why I’m writing this in a village on Lamma Island today, Friday the 6th May.

                Now I don’t want you thinking that we don’t appreciate this enforced holiday as some of you might just fancy a week on a semi-tropical island with no cars, cheap sea-food restaurants, long hikes along the coast to relatively deserted sandy beaches, warm waters and nothing pressing to do but planning  what to do. Trust us, we are loving every minute of it.

We had arranged to meet up with a couple from the TEFL course in Beijing, in Hong Kong city during this time, so we caught the ferry to Aberdeen, the other main settlement on the south side of HK Island. A very pleasant trip was crowned by the picturesque entrance to a crowded harbour, surrounded on all sides by tall high-rise buildings and jammed mostly with moored fishing boats and modern versions of sampans, plying for customers. We wandered the streets for a while and out of curiosity, climbed an immense stairway to `heaven’; for this was a might too close to heaven – the entire hillside was covered with concreted graves and beautiful, memorial shrines – I mean it was concreted over entirely. We figured this served two purposes, as we meandered along  the pathways;  primarily a sensible use of the land  but also a great way of stabilising the hillside in heavy rain. I mean you don’t want a cemetery sliding down into the town, now do you! They’ve done this on the other side of the mountain as well – Hong Kong residents have been buried like this for ever along the sides of the hills flanking `Happy Valley’ -  I’m not kidding - that’s really what it’s called.

 There are about 5,000 permanent residents on Lamma Island, spread amid half a dozen villages. Many are ex-pat Brits from Honkers, ageing hippies and refugees from English countries who find the lifestyle agreeable. Many ethnic Asians also have their home here and many still work in Hong Kong and commute the cheap 20 min by Fast Ferry, to Hong Kong.

 It is a favoured place for day-trippers from Honkers and the sea-food restaurants draw many from the mainland to this slice of old Hong Kong; the ingredients for your meal are proudly displayed live, in tanks beside the canopied, waterfront dining areas; replete with large round tables, revolving centres, crisp white tablecloths and traditional ambience.

Tomorrow we head back to Shenzhen to pick up our medical reports;  to the `My Little Hut’ hotel in the central city area, where we have stayed twice already. It’s close to the Metro system and the new  `Dongmen Markets’ which are a dis-orienting maze of tiny stores, glitzy shops, department stores, McDonalds, KFC and every other conceivable enterprise. We were there last during a holiday, and the mass of shoppers was exciting and oppressive at the same time; a cacophony of loud music, canned advertising and strident  voices  but thankfully off-limits to the constantly `horning’ cars streaming by outside.

We had not expected to like Shenzhen as our `Lonely Planet Guidebook’ did not paint a particularly rosy  picture of this `Border town’; on the contrary, we found it to be one of the cleanest cities yet visited; a  safe-feeling, modern,  well laid out city with impressive architecture and vibrant people with an optimistic air; many in the rest of the world might envy. 30 years ago, Shenzhen was just a sleepy fishing village and today, it  is home to 14 million people riding the new Chinese wave of prosperity.

We walked for many miles through the city central and took a train out to the tourist suburbs hosting attractions of immense grandeur,  style and innovation. There is the `Window on the World’ set in hundreds of acres featuring scale replicas of most of the recognised architecture; A whole theme park based around a Russian `Minsk’ aircraft carrier;  full sized examples of ethnic villages found in China as well as many other, themed amusement parks.

Again, we walked for miles, eventually finding our way to a local market situated on the entire ground floor of a residential block in the suburbs. Karen shopped for a work blouse and I waited;  much later I was struggling to ascertain the direction to the nearest Metro in my fledgling Chinese when a passing young man called for us to follow; he was Taiwanese and worked with his mother in their import business; he led us to the train, shook hands and was gone – very typical of the way the Chinese people relate to us here in China. In Datong, we are a novelty and curiosity in the streets; often people will stop, turn around and just stare brazenly at us and you can always catch them watching if you look up quickly. We have become used to being celebrities now and just smile right back at them.

                Monday, after obtaining the requisite reports, we cross back into Hong Kong and again apply for our work visas;  by paying a rush fee, we should be able to return after lunch on Tuesday and catch a train to Guangzhou ( old Canton) from where, next day; we plan to fly straight back `home’ to Datong and the classroom. Fingers crossed!  

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