weejay


All paid employments absorb and degrade the mind.


Hanoi
weejay
It was a full day's journey to get from Sapa to Hanoi - the first hour on the back of a motorbike and another 12 sitting on a bench on a very slow train. The carriage was near empty for most of the journey, so I was free to stretch out, read books and listen to Adam & Joe podcasts. Later a number of people got on, slept under the desks and took surreptitious photos of me with their phones.
Why I should have been such a novelty is something of a mystery, as Hanoi was very much set up for tourists, having as it does the only hostel in the country, down this little alley in the old town.

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As far as hostels go, it had moreorless everything right - free breakfast, clean, social dorms, a dvd room and a decent bar - and by rights I should've had a great time there, but somehow it was only ok. Getting off the backpacker trail a little had been exactly what I'd needed, perhaps because I'm a little too old for places like this now. Everyone was between 18 and 22 and every night everyone went out to a small club with rubbish trance music and an Irish bar. I had fun, but I could've been anywhere, and the people I met might as well have been in Rome or Madrid. Nothing against them, I just felt very little in common, and If I ever for some reason really want to hang out with Australian teenagers at an Irish bar I can do that in the UK.
To be fair the Irish bar did charm me by playing the whole of Pulp's "Different Class", and then starting on "Freaks". Now that's something I never expected to hear in Vietnam.
The biggest night out was when a lot of us went out to watch the football. There were another ten or so Liverpool supporters there, so it was a good environment to watch the action, though even worse than it would've been when they lost. One American guy got a bit carried away - he was shouting "Lampard's a fucking twat!" at the TV from the start of the match, probably because he'd somehow got the idea that this was the correct thing to do.
After the game I walked the block or two back to the hostel and was ambushed by a couple of ladies of the night on a motorbike. They ran up behind me shouting "You wanna come lady bar?" and it was a second or so before I realised that they were putting their hands in my pockets. It only took a second to fight them off, but when I got back I found that my locker key was missing, went downstairs, woke up the reception staff to get another copy, then found I'd left the original in the lock before I'd gone out in the first place.
Anyhow, in the few daytimes I managed to get around the city, especially the old town, which all looked a bit like this.

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The hostel was near to this very un-Asian and not very inspiring cathedral. How it survived the war I don't know.

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Close was a famous lake where locals go to sell photocopied books to tourists. I bought "The Sorrow of War" and had a look around the small temple on the island. It was rammed full of tourists, but inexpensive and pretty.

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I didn't bother going to see Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum - I've seen enough preserved communist leaders' bodies now - and instead went way out of town to the 'Ethnography Museum', which turned out to be something of a anthropology & linguistics treat and just up my alley. Besides a decent-sized museum there were authentic replica houses from a selection of the hill tribes that live in te country. All were good, but this Cham community house has to take the prize.

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Under the house teams of Vietnamese and Chinese played tug-of-war.

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The only other thing to note about Hanoi is how completely apeshit insane the traffic is. Everyone has a motorbike and there are no rules about how you drive them.

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Crossing the road can be a bit of a challenge - the secret is just to walk across slowly, watching the bikes move out of your way. If they were cars this would be a terrible idea, but bikes are more manouverable and you can be sure all the drivers have their wits about them.

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Sapa
weejay
Getting from Jinhong (in China) to Sapa (in Vietnam) was a small nightmare. Jinhong is near the Burmese and Laotian borders and people often use it as a first stop in China, or a last stop out of China. Nobody goes from Jinhong to Vietnam. Why? Because it's a fundamentally ridiculous idea, apparently. Fortunately a woman at the cafe, armed with bus schedules, helped me figure out what to do. I caught a sleeper bus the next day to a small city in the middle of nowhere. I hadn't know it was a sleeper bus or that it would take 16 hours - I was expecting about 6 for the distance traveled, but hadn't reckoned on the roads being quite so bad. The next morning we arrived in the middle of nowhere and I got my bag from the storage compartment under the coach. It was covered in a foul sickly-smelling substance that I've never smelled before in my life and (unfortunately) will never be able to forget. The smell accompanied me on the 5 hour bus journey to the border town, through an easy border crossing and appalled a legion of Vietnamese men on motorbike taxis on the other side. They drove slowly down the road shouting at me as I found that the only bank in town was shut and the bus station was existent only in my imagination. Then they changed some money and sold me a ticket to Sapa for three times the price, which was still only 3 quid.

Enough complaining, though - it was all worth it to get to Sapa. Sapa is a small town almost at the top of a mountain inhabited by a mixture of hill tribes who survive almost entirely on the money made from tourists who come to see the views. And oh what views. The rice-terraced mountains slope away under the town, rising up to form gigantic mountains on the near horizon and falling down into lush valleys a mile below.

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My daytimes were spent touring the area on the back of my hotel proprietor's husband's motorbike. The first day was overcast. This would be a problem elsewhere, but in Sapa it means that you can watch the clouds moving around on the mountains underneath. When you descend a little you can watch while sheets of fog move over and past you. Often you can see the wisps of air vapour move past your face.

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I could wax poetic for a while, but the pictures are much better.

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I'd like to also mention the great food, the astoundingly good guesthouse where I had a room of my own for $6 and only saw one cockroach, my favourite tribes the zao (whose women have shaved heads) and the h'mong (who are called the 'miao' in China) and this rope-bridge to nowhere.

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Xishangbanna
weejay
As I left Lijinag Mama Naxi packed me off with a selection of fruit and a bag of lavender and sent me with one of her drivers to the bus station, where I got on the sleeper bus to Jinhong. Sleeper buses seem to be a phenomenon confined to Asia and are exactly as you might expect - large coaches full of beds instead of seats, usually on two levels. I managed to get one of the worst spots - in the middle, at the front, on top - which meant that I was forced to watch the movies since the TV was directly in my face. Fortunately they showed Happy Ghost 2, one of the most entertaining things I've seen in years. When we stopped to use the toilets I found out what the bag of lavender was for.
We got to Jinhong at a stupidly early hour and everything was closed. It's the capital city of the Xishangbanna region, where a host of different ethnic minorities live, none of whom seem to be particularly Chinese. The city has an air of Laos and Burma about it, and is noisy and hectic in a laid-back, tropical way - a description you wouldn't find, say, anywhere else in China.
After an hour or so things started to open and I found a place that rents out bamboo huts on stilts. My room-mate was an Israeli girl who turned out to be a Mossad officer on a year-long break. After a long afternoon kip I spent the rest of the day hanging out with her at a cafe, avoiding controversial conversation topics.
The next day I had the place to myself and went off on a bike trip recommended by a travel cafe. The route wasn't particularly interesting and led to a "hot spring" which seemed to be more like a large outdoor swimming pool full of stagnant water. Inside there were a few people who studiously ignored me. I lay on the grass and read my book, then cycled back. I took a different route and found some fairly nice scenery.

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On my final day in Xishangbanna I went on a tour of the area with two middle-aged Austrian lesbian women I'd met at the cafe. I had to get up at 7, which was not as unreasonable as usual due to the heat. Of course the weather took a turn and it immediately started raining when we reached the countryside, but then miraculously stopped when we got to the market.

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(Austrian women on the right there)
The rest of the day we went to see a fair few tribal villages a couple of tea factories and a temple. The view from the mountains was just immense.

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...and in the villages our guide just let himself in to Dai houses as if he owned them. I suppose he's been doing these tours for long enough that he doesn't need to ask any more.

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The best thing was probably the temple. It was a proper Burmese-style one, all gold and sloping roofs. Since Burma's off-limits for this trip at least it was my only opportunity to see what a strange and fascinating place it is, and somewhere I'll have to go when the political climate is better.

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Last were the tea factories, where we tried endless pots of puyi tea, the local variety that is prized all over China. As far as green tea goes it's about the best I've tried, with a warm, sweet aftertaste. Actually we drank far too much of it, giving me the jitters for the rest of the night but thankfully allowing sleep.
The next day was supposed to be my last in China but it ended up not being. I'll come to that later, though.

Lijiang
weejay
On the advice of Dylan from the hotel in Dali I saved myself a couple of quid by getting the bus to Lijiang from the side of the road instead of booking it through an agency in town. That's how I came to spend most of my afternoon sitting between a dusty road and a building site and most of my evening sitting on the one remaining minibus-seat, in the middle, at the back, having to grab strangers' shoulders and knees whenever we went over a pothole to avoid being thrown down the aisle. That day I'd been reading about a particularly nasty bus crash in South American, and sure enough twenty minutes into the journey we passed the scene of an accident where a bus and taxi had collided head-on.
Much as I like complaining, though, that's pretty much where it needs to end, because there's nothing bad to say about my four days or so in Lijiang. The first thing I did when I got there was to get completely lost, which in most places would be a negative. In Lijiang Old Town it was a pleasure. The mass of little winding passages and canals seemed to be exactly designed to give me that feeling of being thrown into an alien world which most travelers are looking for in one way or another.

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When I'd asked for directions enough times I finally found what turned out to be one of the best hostels I've stayed in - Mama Naxi's Guesthouse - and headed for bed. Every night was an early sleep and nobody seemed to bother getting drunk. There just wasn't really any need.
The next day I went out with Carla from Argentina to take a look at the lake, which provides one of the most famous views in China. It was a cloudy day, so the mountain in the background wasn't really visible. Still, it's improved with a few flowers in the foreground.

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On the second day I joined a few other people from the hostel and cycled out to a Naxi village about 10km away.

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There wasn't a lot of difficuty finding it, but a morning's cycling was tiring, so we ended up hanging out in a cafe for a couple of hours.

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The village is famous for being the home of a particularly renound doctor. We found him pretty much by accident, but within a minute he'd lured us into his house to insist we read articles written about him in the western press, one by Michael Palin who apparently featured him on his 'Himilaya' series.

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Amanda was feeling a little ill, so he prescribed her a bag of grey powder to drink with hot water and told her the most important thing was to be happy.

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After we cycled back she gave it a try and immediately became a lot sicker. Mama Naxi said that everyone goes there and gets the same bag of powder. Ah well.
The next day was my last full one, and I spent most of it hanging out in cafes, reading and writing.

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In the evening I went along with the same crew, plus a guy from Shenzhen called 'Echo', to see the famous Naxi orchestra.

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Traditional Chinese music was wiped out everywhere else in the country during the cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s. Naxi musicians hid or buried their instruments and used the opening of China in the 80s as an opportunity to form a band.

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The music was decent, the long speeches in-between maybe a little less so, but it was a good thing to have seen. The next day I left, along with most of the other people I'd met, who were mainly going north to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge, which is something I'll have to save for another time. It'll be a good excuse to come back to this wonderful little city.

Butterfly Deathcamp Themepark
weejay
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Dali
weejay
Arriving in Dali I couldn't help thinking "What a dump." The dusty dirtiness, the urinal-grey-tiled buildings, the aggressive taxi drivers... All seemed calculated to induce a feeling of weary disgust.
Judging a city by its bus station is never really fair though (Prague's, for example, is one of the most godawful holes in the world) so I jumped into the first taxi I saw and handed the driver the address of my hostel.
Over the next half an hour or so I slowly came to realise that I hadn't been in the old city of Dali at all, but in Xiaguan, the dilapidated capital of "Dali County." I suppose this is probably what it's like being a backpacker in the UK. The second thing I slowly came to realise was that not only was Dali a good distance away, but my hostel was a fair bit further than that. In short I ended up paying about 50 kuai, which when I think about it is only just over three quid, and felt like a bit of a fool when I realised there was a bus available for 1 kuai.
The hostel I stayed in was a refreshingly old-school hippy-ish sort of place - the kind that should be everywhere but inexplicably isn't. The dorm was in what looked like an old shed, beds were 10 kuai a night, everything was on the tab, payable whenever, and there were all sorts of proper travellers to hang out with. The best perk of the place, though, was the close vicinity of Erhai lake. Apparently you're supposed to pay to get on the pier, but I don't remember anyone asking me for money, at least no more than usual. I may have just walked past them, thinking they were selling something. Which they were, I suppose.
Anyway, take a look at the lake. You must admit that it's simply stunning.

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This city itself wasn't too bad either. The top end starts well with an impressive, if fairly standard, old gate...

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...and for a few streets everything seems to be about right, with a fair few straight-cut cobbled pedestrian streets with tasteful shops along the side. Perhaps being English immunises you from being impressed with cobbles and tastefulness, but all the same there was a calm, relaxed air to the place, miles away from the hecticness of "walking streets" in Guangzhou or Beijing. A few streets down, though, and the whole place seemed to be one big building site.
Back at the top there were a couple of narrower passages with fairly decent cafes and women in traditional dress trying to sell grass to occasional foreigners. Come to think of it, there were surprisingly few foreigners around, especially considering this is supposed to be a famous backpacker hangout.
The lack of tourists became especially clear when I decided to take the cablecar up the mountain. It was a fair twenty minute journey to the top, but I saw not one person coming down the other way. It was a perfect day for it anyhow, and after a half-hour walk along the pristine mountain pathways I decided to jack it in and spent the afternoon lying on rocks, reading my book and looking at the scenery below.

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Altogether, then, the city itself didn't make much of a mark on me, but the hostel, the lake and the mountain are all the kind of slow-paced getaways that China seems to lack, on the whole, and it's certainly somewhere I'll be going to again.
There was also a very strange daytrip I took, but that deserves an entry of its own.

Kunming
weejay
After leaving Yangshuo I finally got to go somewhere new. The sleeper train was easy and fairly pleasant this time - I shared it with Tabitha from the hostel in Yangshuo, and a few Chinese people, including a local travel guide who gave us some partially correct information.
After a good sleep (for me at least) we were in Yunnan, China's wild south-west.

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On first viewing Kunming looked pretty much like any other Chinese city, which is to say not particularly inspiring. After dumping the bags and having naps we tried to have a better look around and didn't find much apart from pretty decent dumplings and a couple of unusual pagodas.

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After an evening playing pool and a morning spent sleeping I took an afternoon to have a look around. Kunming has a reputation as a pleasant enough city, albeit one with nothing much to see, and the reputation seems to be pretty much deserved. There was a fairly nice, fairly small museum, some shops and cafes, but not much that you couldn't see elsewhere.
On the plus side Kunming is comparitively clean and has a much slower pace to most of China. The view from the hostel balcony at night was quite nice too.

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After a night out with some cool hostel people at a standard shit Chinese disco and another long sleep, that was my two days in Kunming finished.

Yangshuo
weejay
The journey to Yangshuo was all too familiar - the same uncomfortable hard-sleeper where they locked all the toilets at midnight, the same unwelcome 7am arrival in Guilin and the all-too-familiar bus to the town itself. Last time I did all these things I got pretty sick (with giardia, I think) and my body somehow decided the same circumstances called for the same symptoms to repeat themselves, though in a thankfully milder form. It was all I could do not to be sick all over the bus.
Still, I wasn't anywhere near as ill as the last time, and the town looked as awe-inspiring as ever.

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I spent the first day or so lying in bed, trying to get better. I was in Lisa's hostel again, and possibly in the same room too, but this time things seemed to have slipped a bit. The sheets were damp and the room smelled mouldy. Other than that it was much the same as before, only a lot quieter. It was nice to see these two again, especially, even if Jackie tainted the reunion a little by presure-selling me some sunglasses.

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After I got better there was some time to cycle out of the town and see the usual bits of dramatic scenery, particularly Moon Hill, a large karst mound with a thousand steps up the the stange circular hole at the top. It's a stunning sight, but one I'd like to see in the summer when there's a little less haze.


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In the evenings I again repeated myself by hanging out in the Balcony Bar, who served me potato salad and onion soup, the only foods I seemed to be able to keep down. I also met a few people of course, though not nearly so many as last time as the town seemed to have surprisingly few travellers this time. The only people I spent any time with really were my room-mates Tabitha from the US and Lisa from Norway.
To be honest this particular visit wasn't exactly the height of excitement, but that's not really how Yangshuo is supposed to be anyway. Though I was sick it was still nice to be in a quieter place, with decent food, places to unwind and beautiful scenery to look at every now and again.

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Beijing to Hong Kong to Zhuhai to Guangzhou
weejay
Every one of my trips has a first memorable moment. In '02 it was sleeping in Birmingham Airport, in '05 landing in the stunning delta at Faro. Last year it all started in Zhuhai, watching Brandy have her contacts fitted and buying a turtle for a girl who never contacted me again for some reason.
This year's travel begun with a sad goodbye to Veronique at the passport control, followed by a 25 hour train journey to Hong Kong, most of which I slept through. I'd had a total of 8 hours sleep in the previous three nights.



The point of coming to Hong Kong was very much chores rather than pleasure, so it was fitting that I was greeted by grey skies and English drizzle. The following two days were very busy indeed, but too boring to recount. In short I learned that

* You can't open a bank account without proof of address, no matter how hard you try.
* Storage depots in HK are money-grabbing bastards, just like the ones in the UK.
* South-East-Asian visas are very easy indeed.
* Tiger Airways are perhaps the least helpful airline in the world.
* I.P. Phonecards are a scam

...and many more even less interesting things.
I did at least get to take the double-decker tram everywhere.



I didn't meet anyone interesting while in HK, but I did at least meet one of the most stunningly dull men in the world. Most Germans I've met over the years have been nice, interesting, arty Berlin types, but this guy could be enough to undo years of goodwill. Here he was, in Asia for the first time in his life, refusing to go to any restaurant except McDonald's because "the food doesn't look like the Chinese food at home" and he was "happy with the Chinese food in Germany," and constantly complaining that he "didn't understand why it had to be different." On my last night there he told me he was off to have a beer and then look at the red light district - just to look, you see, not to buy anything of course. He then came back at 3am, five hours past his usual bedtime.

When all was done in HK I took the usual boat back to Zhuhai. After the passport control woman took ten minutes to examine my visa with a magnifying glass and quizzed me about what I'd been doing in Mongolia I was free to enter the equally drizzly city again.
A couple of hours later I met Doug and Jeremy in a cellar-style wine bar. They jammed on the piano and guitars and we chatted about old days over a free bottle of wine.



A little later my old Chinese teacher Anny turned up with her Italian boyfriend. Great to see her too, of course, but there was no sign of Brandy or Amanda. Still, it's not a bad place to meet up, which makes it almost unique in Zhuhai.



After we'd finished there we left Doug and his wife (!?!?) behind and moved on to the other halfway decent place in the city, Live Bar, to have a few beers and try to play the dice game. A little later Brandy turned up from Guangzhou with her new boyfriend. From that point it all got a bit drunk and messy. A sleazy guy we used to work with turned up and decided to kick one of the feral kittens across the floor. What a twat. That was the sign for me to go and sleep on Jeremy's sofa.
After very little sleep I was off round Zhuhai for a fairly boring day. I'd meant to go up to Guangzhou with Brandy but couldn't get through to her as (I found out later) she'd lost her phone. At 4pm I was on my way to the bus anyway when I bumped into Amanda. Over a coffee I reprimanded her for being impossible to contact and met some nice new TPR teachers.
I got into Guangzhou fairly late, and went to find a youth hostel as i still couldn't find Brandy. The next day it was fairly hot, so I went for a wander.



Guangzhou isn't really anything special, so far as I can see, but unlike Zhuhai it does at least feel like real southern China. There wasn't anything I wanted to do particularly, so I just let myself get lost for a while before getting back to the train station to catch my train to Guilin for travel proper.

Winter in Beijing
weejay
Apparently there was a fair bit of snow in China this winter, but you wouldn't think it living in Beijing. Though the temperature ranged from nippy to sub-zero there wasn't any more than the briefest of light dustings. It was so dry that I got little static electric shocks from everything metal I touched, so dry that my hands and face went red and started flaking. It's a wonder that people ever moved here at all. That it's the capital city for a quarter of the people on the earth just beggars belief. There are no animals, no birds and barely any plantlife. There's not even a river of any note. Maybe this all sounds terrible, and maybe it is, but despite (or maybe because of) this I somehow love it here. My last week in Beijing saw the first rain since the week I arrived in September, so perhaps my experience is tainted by the time of year I was there. Still, cold, dry and windy really seems to suit the place.



As for the blizzards and related chaos of the Chinese New Year, the first I heard of them was from the UK, such is the bubble that we keep ourselves in. A fair few e-mails arrived that week asking how I was coping. Only this (and also probably common sense or something) explained why I had been unable to buy any train tickets the week before. The videos I've seen of Guangzhou train station, never exactly my favorite place, look like something from another continent or another world. For the record day-to-day China is a pretty tame and inoffensive place, especially the middle class towerblocks and English schools of Chowyang.



Back in England talking about the weather usually means there's not much else going on in your life. I wouldn't say that's true - it's just hard to get a little perspective on the last few months. With 29 hours of teaching every week I got into the kind of steady routine that blurs the memory - up until 3 or 4 on the computer or watching downloaded sitcoms with John and Aaron, waking at 11, cycling into work, teaching all afternoon, dinner at the Xi'an restaurant, teaching again until 9, cycling home, etc, etc.



To be fair there was the occasional shake-up that added a little spice. The most exciting thing to happen was in January, when a new manager informed all the teachers (via an e-mail from the next room) that in order to "improve our standards" ten of us would be arbitrarily fired at the end of the month, based on our student evaluation results. Fortunately this new policy proved to be so disastrous that the resultant backlash produced a quiet, pleasant work environment - for the teachers at least (this kind of treatment is normal for Chinese employees). It can't last, but since I'm out of the place it's no longer my problem. The classes themselves were bearable, somewhere between a chore and a pleasure. In the evenings and on Saturdays I got to teach the highest level, which is a lot more enjoyable than either the lower level grammar-and-vocabulary stuff I'm used to or the higher level business classes, which I find very very dull.



Perhaps the best thing about living in Beijing was meeting Veronique. The biggest regret is certainly leaving her behind. I know we'll meet again someday. It's just a shame there were so many reasons for me to leave Beijing. At least it will make for more interesting pictures and writing.

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