Greeting from Home of Taichi 2


It is going well so far, although I am not training so much today as I injured my foot. We are meeting lots of interesting people with amazing Tai Chi skills though and the food is fine. They make very simple meals. Rice, rice porridge, steamed bread, noodles and a few vegetables. Some people think it’s boring, but I enjoy it.
Quite often people come up to me and start speaking Chinese. I feel quite rude not understanding them, but they don’t seem to mind. Today a man took five long minutes to get me to undestand “which country are you from?” It was quite a relief to finally understand – ah! 英国!英国!It is one thing in the classroom, but with all the different accents and how fast people talk in normal conversation, even the basics are quite difficult at first. Every day I learn some new words 🙂

Greeting from Home of Taichi!

Paul, one of the students in our Chinese course, is sending his greeting from a village in China!


Well, I survived four days in 北京 and today I travelled 800km to the Tai Chi school (thank goodness for the bullet train!) You can see where I am if you put this address into Google Maps: 河南省温县陈家沟村.
We travelled there via Zhengzhou (on the train) and Wenxian (on the bus). It took longer to get from Zhengzhou to Wenxian than it did to get from Beijing to Zhengzhou!
It is quite basic here, a bit like camping or joining the army 😉 but the people here are very friendly and they can speak a bit of English, so we should be alright. We think we might stay for three months, but we’ll see how it goes.
Send a 大家好 from me to my fellow students in your class.

A Chinese Alphabet


Both article and photos by Alison Minns. Alison is one of the students in our Chinese course. She went to visit China earlier this year and had an amazing time. She passed HSK Level 2 and Oral Chinese Level 1 last year.2014-01-26 06.58.19

Of course, there’s no alphabet, as such, in Mandarin, but here is my English take on the Chinese alphabet describing Explore’s January 2014 Harbin Ice Festival trip which coincided with Chinese New Year.

A got us off to a flying start (!) on our first night in Beijing when we trooped round the corner from our hotel to see the Acrobats. The balancing acts were impressive, but we were riveted by the team of 6 daredevil motorbikers cycling in tight loops inside a giant metal ball. Daring, difficult and distinctly dangerous!

B is for Buddhism. We visited (sometimes with the group, sometimes individually) several Buddhist temples and pagodas, marvelling at a variety of Buddha statues and the rituals of bowing, drum-beating and making offerings. Our clothes reeked of incense – a fragrant lingering reminder of devotion and tranquillity.SAM_7715

C is for Cycling and Climbing. There was plenty of opportunity for physical activity on the trip. We climbed the Great Wall, and cycled atop the city walls of Xi’an. This was a 14k ride (flat but with uneven ‘cobbles’ so you had to ride cautiously: ‘Road bumps. Please take careful and ride slow’). There’s a 60 year age limit on this activity so I lied about my age, miraculously rejuvenating myself by 5 years. The cycle rickshaw ride round the Beijing hutongs (narrow alleyways) and the sampan trip round Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour were more restful – someone else did the steering and navigating.

D is for Beijing Duck which we sampled in Beijing, of course, and Dim Sum, which we sampled in Hong Kong. By the latter stages of the holiday we were (fairly) well-mannered and very adept at spinning the Lazy Susan to home in on our chosen morsel.

E is for the Eighteen of us in our congenial group – An Iraqi, a French lady, an American, and the rest Brits. We joked that we would have no problem surviving in a crisis, since amongst our number were 3 doctors, a psychiatrist, a pharmacist, a dentist, a solicitor and… handy for the overnight train to Harbin, two train drivers, a ticket inspector and a signal woman. Luckily we were not put to the test!

F is for the Forbidden City. We were spared visiting all 1,000 or so rooms, concentrating on a few peaceful courtyards, once the confines of concubines, and also, bizarrely, the home of the Qing Dynasty Imperial Telephone Bureau, staffed by telephonists in pigtails.SAM_7032

The Great Wall has to feature as my letter G. Against all advice, I took the steep steps, rather than the cable car to the starting point, but did feel self-congratulatory when I strode out along most of the walkable section at Mutianyu. It’s a relentless up and down but the views from the lookout points are spectacular and one marvels at the conception and execution of such a massive project. We were blessed with a clear bright day and very few other visitors.

H is for Hotpot – a typical dish which is not without its challenges. Each person has their own cooking pot on a burner, selects their choice of ingredients from the Lazy Susan and cooks it in the bubbling water. There was the inevitable rivalry over how long each person’s flame lasted (‘June’s flame’s gone out’ cried her partner in some dismay), and deciding on whether to hard boil or poach one’s egg proved a bit of a culinary teaser. Good fun, though!

I has to be for the Ice and Snow Festival of Harbin. The giant candy-coloured ice palaces, buildings and monuments were themed on Italy this year, so we circled an ochre-coloured Coliseum and crossed (gingerly) a humpy, icy, multi-coloured Rialto Bridge. In the parks we tried out the ice slide (slippery and scary and thankfully short), snapped away at the chunky snow sculptures carved into cute shapes and admired the intricate carving of the glistening ice sculptures – a marlin, fish, dolphins, and of course horses, since it was soon to be the Year of the Horse.   2014-01-27 03.58.51

J is for Jiaozi – the delicious plump dumplings that were popular, as were our group favourite – buns filled with crème pâtissière.

K is for Kuaizi (Chopsticks), which we managed with aplomb (usually), and we even got to compare the various merits and manoeuvrability of different types (plastic better than wooden, long better than short). So expert(ish) did I become, I was flummoxed to be confronted with a fork in a restaurant in Hong Kong.

SAM_8123L is for Mr Liu who served us the most delicious lunch in his modest house in a Beijing hutong, under the watchful eye of a china bust of Mao, two furry tigers’ heads and a deer head, lanterns and kites, wicker cages, and other eclectic paraphernalia. The highlight of the visit was Mr Liu’s irrepressible vivacity and his off-beat humour. Mr Liu raises crickets (for wrestling, rather than eating) and he introduced us to his prize insect, Tiger – a fearsome black brute. We saw the minute food dishes the crickets eat from, the goad with a mouse whisker on the end, and their sad little coffins. Really! We also met Mr Liu’s dog, Momo, his mynah bird who greeted us with a cheery ‘ni hao’ (Hello), not to mention his wife (the gifted cook).

M is for Mandarin. After many years of studying Mandarin I found to my utter delight that I was able to say simple sentences… and be understood (occasionally). I found the replies rather impenetrable! This has provided an incentive to learn more (and visit again). And talking of language, the Chinglish notices provided much amusement: ‘No touchy’, ‘Take care of your treasures’, ‘Don’t fall down’, ‘Gods homeware’.2014-01-26 08.44.00

N is for Noodles (why does much of this article refer to food?!). Ollie our guide introduced us to his favourite (simple) café in Xi’an where we tried but failed to eat elegantly flat cut noodles preceded by wonderful crunchy flat pancakes containing mashed pork. Basic but tasty.

O is for Ollie, our indefatigable Chinese guide who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure all ran smoothly. We learned so much about China from him and he seemed particularly to enjoy sharing his love of his home town, Xi’an with us. Thanks, Ollie!

P is for the New Year’s Eve Parade in Hong Kong. We had good seats and were each given a goodie bag containing, amongst other small gifts, a tiara complete with sparkling lights and ‘title’ (Princess for her, King for him). The parade consisted of floats and acts from around the world, including, bizarrely a brass band from the Netherlands who somehow managed to play their bulky instruments whilst cycling.

Q is for Queues and crowds. These were a somewhat unwelcome feature of the Parade, the Fireworks (to bag a place Ollie advised us to be there at 5pm for an 8pm start), the cable-car trip to Victoria Peak, the Hong Kong metro, and Beijing Railway station (where the whole of China seemed to be on the move for New Year)… but Ollie rose to the challenge and kept a watchful and protective eye on us.

R is for Red. Cheerful crimson was everywhere from lanterns strewn in the trees lining the streets in Xi’an to lucky New Year couplets pasted on doorways to ‘hong bao’ (red envelopes containing money). We each received a ‘hong bao’ from Ollie as a traditional New Year gift.

SAM_6946S is for Snakes, Silkworms and Spiders. Not only did we see how silk was made (with an opportunity to ‘help’ make a silk quilt, as well as purchase silk shirts and scarves), but some of us swallowed our pride and sampled silkworm kebabs (sweet, with a slightly chewy carapace) and sea snake (salty), in the Beijing Night Food Market. This was adventurous eating, but all of us baulked at swallowing the spiders.

T is for Thermals. Harbin was cold. Very cold. But the lack of wind meant it didn’t chill to the bone. At the fantastical ice palace complex the thermometer registered minus 28°. We all wore thermals and layers and I found thermal mittens over e-tip gloves kept my hands toasty. None of us was intrepid enough, however, to emulate the hardy swimmers of Harbin (many of them Russian) who plunge (bravely but briefly) into the icy waters with a cheery wave to the disbelieving onlookers. The pervasive smog caused partly by the appalling traffic (Beijing has 6 ringroads), was a trifle alarming, though none of us suffered any ill effects and the grey/brown skies and watery suns were actually poetically beautiful.

U is for Underbelly. Ollie not only took us to the obvious (and wonderful) tourist sites – the Forbidden City, the Olympic Bird’s Nest Stadium, the Great Wall, but also introduced us to small, unpretentious places to eat, lead us into the vibrant Muslim quarter of Xi’an (a must at night), and let us loose in the Night Food Market. He let us be independent if we wished and fend for ourselves. I particularly enjoyed sharing a compartment in the Beijing-Harbin overnight sleeper with 3 Chinese (admittedly, one of them was Ollie) and attempting very short and stilted sentences in Mandarin.

V is for Victoria Peak, the major Hong Kong panoramic viewpoint. Having braved the queues for the cable car, we relaxed at the summit and snapped away at the skyscrapers below. The buildings also look great at night.

W is for the Terracotta Warriors. It’s hard to believe the dusty warriors were once painted in vivid colours, but they are still stunning, scary and unnerving, so lifelike are they. The sheer scale of the soldiery is extraordinary and the visitor only sees a fraction of what still lies buried. Awesome is the only word to describe the scene.

X is for ‘Xin nian kuai le’ – (Happy New Year in Mandarin). During the Hong Kong Parade, our intrepid group proved its mettle by actively and gamely participating in the shenanigans. Showing off, I wished the crowd ‘Xin nian kuai le’ into the mic. Others of our number danced. We were each rewarded with a Year of the Horse calendar.

Y is for Yuan, the Chinese currency. China is still a cheap(ish) tourist destination (once you get there) and there is a wide range of souvenirs to weigh down your suitcase. Be warned! 2014-01-26 10.07.23

Z is for Zhongguo (China in Mandarin). If you have the money, have a spirit of adventure and are prepared to be flexible, then China is for you. The Explore Harbin Ice Festival trip certainly packed a lot in. There was something for everyone, from culture, to physical activities, to sightseeing, to fascinating food… I loved it all (even the tea, which I can’t abide at home but loved the pu’er tea I was introduced to at a tasting session!), but… Harbin was my highlight.


ni hao from China!

Teachers we sent to work in China say “你好”! They enjoy teaching the children and exploring the nearby places. Some of them visited Guilin, Vietnam and Hong Kong during the Chinese New Year break last month.

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