Soggy Sunday

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Soggy Sunday in Shanghai. Looking out of the window, the tops of the buildings in Pudong – the newer area over the river from downtown Shanghai – have disappeared under clouds. Normally they disappear under smog! You have to put up with very heavy pollution in China’s cities. They are so large, growth so uncontrolled that it has got out of hand. Slowly the government is realising the need to do something but they’re not sure what. They are rarely indecisive – 20 new airports, 100 new universities, an Olympics and they are in their element, but this has them stumped for the time being. In general, in all areasw, they are starting to say that they need to slow down and deal with some of the implications of the huge changes of the last 5-10 years. In Higher Education they have moved from 4m students in 2000 to 23m now but they have started to worry about quality and are putting the breaks on.

My second city was Beijing. No chance to look around. Flew in, went to the hotel, attended a banquet there, attended a conference there, andslept there. The only time out of the hotel was a reception at the New Zealand Ambassador’s house. Although in the middle of Beijing (another 20m+ city) it was a peaceful oasis with a reception held on the deck, with tables and chairs in the garden (recently delivered from The Warehouse by the look of it) and – surprise surprise -Cloudy Bay and Withers Hills wines. No complaints about being forced to drink here. The food was also resolutely kiwi, a buffet with lots of salads and plates. We weren’t asked to bring our own but I kept expecting the Ambassador to get out the barbie! The reason we were there was a meeting of Chinese and NZ universities. A pleasant evening because the heat and humidity disappeared.

Beijing is very grand in the centre, with huge boulevards, huge buildings, huge everything. Built to remind you that it is the capital city. Though we passed by the Forbidden City and taianaman Square that was all I got to see and 36 hours later, I was on my way to Tianjin.

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In Shanghai, with some spare time at last, and the hotel has a very sophisticated online service so at last I can do another blog. Staying at a very posh hotel – Le Royal Meridien – overlooking the centre of Shanghai and the Bund from the 43rd floor. At the moment can see all the neon lights of Nanjing Road including an electrified flashing seven story high Coca Cola bottle – this is modern China. When I came here in the mid-90s the top shop was Number 1 Department Store and they had just opened the first fast food outlet – KFC. Now you walk outside of the hotel and there are people sitting on the street outside Costa Coffee, and Nanjing Road – the main shopping street – is partly pedestrianised with every Western shop you could think of. The millions of bikes and very few cars have been replaced by millions of cars and very few bikes. Old Shanghai is still around but everywhere there are huge new buildings going up of every shape and size. Even the less modern cities such as Tianjin – where I’ve just come from – are seeing developments you would never have imagined ten years ago – for example new waterfront apartment blocks being sold as ‘New York’ and ‘Down Town’ apartments. Communism and capitalism seem to be mixing very well.

Shanghai is the fourth city in seven days. The first was Yantai, one of China’s small cities (1million, as compared with Shanghai’s 20+m). Much cleaner, surrounded by sea and mountains, less busy and quite pleasant. The city is in Shandong Province which is very prosperous and is China’s only internationally recognised wine growing district. When we had lunch (think 25 different dishes) at our partner institution we were given a large amount of their best red cabernet sauvignon and it was excellent. Shandong is far enough North for drinking to be a compulsory part of business development, so lots of food and drink and toasts to the Partnership, The Future, The President, the Pro Vice Chancellor, China, New Zealand etc etc. After lunch they decided to take us to the wine museum where we had a wine tasting with Riesling, Charonnay, another Cabernet and brandy. And then in the evening another banquet! Further toasts and speeches but I made a major error. When the President raised his glass and said ‘Bottoms Up’ I responded ‘Bottoms Up’ forgetting that this means I am supposed to enter a drinking competition and need to empty my glass (and the 15 after it) in one go. I didn’t. A major no-no. I was deemed important enough to be forgiven but lost about 10 points in manliness and status. However, while I’m bad at drinking (by Chinese standards) I’m good at making very long and flowery speeches praising China, the President, the Future etc etc so gradually I redeemed myself. The food is truly fantastic, beautifully cooked and artistically presented: Pumpkins sculpted like dragons; ice fish covered in all sorts of sea food, pigeon with the head artfully sitting on the side of the plate looking at me. All the heads (fish mainly) have to be directed towards me as the guest of honour. I pointed out that I lived in a vegetarian household (at least for the humans) and they gave me looks of sympathetic pity, but nearly half the dishes were actually very tasty vegetable dishes. Most of the last six days have included at least one such banquet (except at the New Zealand Embassy) but as we moved away from Yantai, the drinking calmed down, so obesity and not alcoholism is the issue. We were just two days in Yantai and it gave us a different, less crowded and noisy view of China. Next stop was Beijing, but that’s for the next blog

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Now I’m in Shanghai I’ve got some time (it’s the weekend) and my notebook is working at last so I’m trying to catch up, city by city. It’s all a blur – 4 cities in seven days but each city is very different. China is changing so much it is hard to keep up and compared with when I first came here in the mid-1990s, you could be on a different planet. I remember coming back from a trip about 1999 and telling people it was scary how much change there was, little did I know. I can remeber the first fast food store opening in Shanghai – KFC – now the streets of the cities – and not just Shanghai – have western stores of al sorts

The current situation

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My translated proposal regarding the future of the paths was put before the local council, at their meeting last week, by Kostas Skouras, the political representative for the KKE party. By the time they got to my item, it was 1.30 in the morning! I sat in the small public gallery section of the Town Hall meeting room, together with a small group of others who had items on the agenda. The mayor responded by agreeing to my proposal and before I knew it, they moved on to the next item. However, I still had no idea of when they were going to give me workers or indeed what had happened to the funds that I had been told by Mrs Mimika Rekka were available for this project. Although Mrs Rekka was present at the meeting, she made no comment whatsoever, even though she had set up the initial meeting at the town hall last March, during which I chose 4 routes to be cleaned. In the meantime, a volunteer and myself have cleaned a long portion of trail in the Potami valley, in our spare time. A regular update and images were sent to Mrs Rekka during that time, again without response.
The walking season is almost over and it is a crying shame that local authority has not taken advantage of my offer to project manage the clearing of the most popular trails. After twenty years of doing it myself, together with the occasional volunteer, the situation has become such that I cannot continue. Meanwhile, my Skopelos Trails book is selling well.

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I’m playing truant from the most boring conference in the history of conferences even taking into the account its in Chinese and English. I don’t even get the chance to see Beijing as tomorrow I’m off to Tianjin. We came from Yantai which is by the sea and, according to the Chinese is a very small city of just a million people! However it was much cleaner and tidier than normal. Because we’re doing business people keep feeding us banquets with 20 or so dishes, as well as trying to force large quantities of alcohol down us. All part of a business partnership apparently. I of course have been resisting. In Yantai they were overwhelmingly hospitable because the President wished to repay Ann and me for having him to afternoon tea when he visited Auckland.

I’m going to keep blogging even though I have to do it on a chinese site so I keep guessing which button or icon to press. I just hope that when we move from Beijing, some of the technology starts to work.

Cute pictures!


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In the middle of technology nightmare. No Blackberry, no laptop. A PC in the hotel business centre that is only in mandarin and a hotel telephone line that won’t do international! So this blog is my last chance. Here’s trying!