Holidays in China

 人山人海   People mountain, people sea – old Chinese saying that conveys the general meaning of overcrowding.

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A surprisingly orderly passenger procession at a railway station somewhere in China during the October break. (Photo courtesy of http://www.news.cn)

The National Day holidays followed the Mid-Autumn Day long weekend which itself was hot on the heels of a two month summer holiday. This bunching of holidays is a matter of culture and history. An inconvenient grouping as the following 13 weeks are free of any breaks whatsoever!

The People’s Republic turned 69 this year and the entire population was given a few days off. It was time enough for many to travel the country on planes, trains, and automobiles.  Airports, railway stations, and highways became jam-packed with people and property.

It happens during strategic times of the year – usually during holidays. It’s awful. People complain about holidaying with 1.4 billion other people. However, there is a typical saying long-suffering Chinese like to use when faced with difficulty:

那, 没办法méi bānfáthere is nothing to be done / can’t be helped / sh*t out of luck

It’s nice to get away sometimes. We decided to head to Hong Kong for a couple of nights. It was only a couple of hours away. If we left before October the 1st then we’d beat the crowds – it made sense right?  Um. Not really. It turned out that 50,000 other people had the same idea and were also trying to enter the Guangzhou East Railway Station on September 30. SWAT team police performed random checks on citizen’s ID cards as a precaution against possible terrorism.

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And there were the ever-present queues to face in order to enter the station building. I thought of the following:

创造文明广州 –  chùangzào wénmíng Gǔangzhōu – Create a civilised Guangzhou (a popular slogan used by the government in recent times)

The lines, easily 100 people in length, converged into a narrow, flimsily-erected entrance way. Like liquid passing through a funnel, a dance of sorts occurred as people were pushed forward, on tip-toes, towards the departure gate. You wouldn’t want to trip.

A young man knew I was travelling with my family. He’d seen me talking to them. My kids look like me (no rude comments please). This loving family bond did little to dissuade him from pushing me out of the way to get through the gap first. This created a little hole in the queue which was exploited by a crowd to my right. I was now ten heads behind my wife and kids.

There was an x-ray machine that picked up my fingernail clippers and a fruit knife tucked deep in the bowels of our suitcases. Due to these dangerously violent items, we had to register our names and relevant identity numbers. Safety first.

Then the real fun started.

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We could have been at Live Aid or some other enormous rock concert such was the size of the crowds inside the station. There was no David Bowie, Queen, or Phil Collins – only loudspeakers and surly security guards. They called our train. The crowd was jammed like sardines into a small pen. You wanted to move forward but there was nowhere to go.

In many countries, this type of environment, a pressure-cooker if you will, would have led to fistfights but the Chinese took it in their stride with tolerance. A moment-capturing photo would have been good for this blog but nigh on impossible to take in such a squash. Hands and pockets would never be able to meet.

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A civilised scene. Picture courtesy of Xinhua.net

There was a small parting of the sea (thanks Moses) and we surged forward. Then came the mad scramble to reach the platform. People threw manners and caution to the wind and leaped down stairs and escalators to try to win the coveted title of First Passenger on the Train. No idea who got that title (or what they won for being first).

On the train

Everyone knows that there are too many people in China. Standing-room-only tickets had also been sold to accommodate the sheer numbers going home. These seatless passengers stood in the doorway and unintentionally blocked those entering the train with seat tickets. Suitcases were lifted into overhead shelves. Attendants told us to take these cases down again. They were dangerous apparently. Where could we put them?  There was no answer to this silly question. The cases (not just ours) sat in the aisle and incurred the wrath of those who passed. Miss K copped a flying cell phone from the passenger behind. He leaned over her, resting his large bulk on the back of our chairs.

Is this yours?”  I asked in Chinese, holding his phone.

Yessee, yessee” He replied in English, snatching it back.

“You’re welcome.” I replied, my sarcasm lost on this young gentleman.

He stumbled off the train, but not before his bag walloped the heads of several unfortunate passengers sitting in aisle seats.

The train was 30 minutes late arriving in Shenzhen, though it must be said – the carriage was clean and very modern.

More queues, pushing, shoving, dashing, sweating, and occasional swearing continued till we reached Hong Kong. It was a nice holiday and the local Hong Kongers were by and large polite despite the huge influx of tourists. We thought the suburb of Sha Tin might have provided a break from the crowds but that too was swamped with Mainland tourists. Still, the hotel was nice and we even got an upgrade to a very large suite when our neighbours decided to hold a large, raucous wedding party at 9am the following day.

In consideration of your valuable time, Life in Lifts will spare you the gruelling details of our trip back across the border two days later. Rest assured it was not without its challenges!

Thanks for your support. It has been great to see readership from around the globe including some of the African countries. You’re welcome to leave a comment below if you so wish.

 

 

Lifts: July Digest (China edition) – Curse of Horace

Life from Southern China’s most beautiful elevators

It has been a while since we wrote about lifts.

There has been little to report from Block Six during June. People had behaved themselves during the month of June. Dogs, mattresses, kind old ladies, angry old ladies,  household refuse, and schoolkids have gone about their collective business in an orderly fashion. Lift C’s advertisement for square dancing finals – a shared first prize of two million RMB was the only peculiarity, till last week.

Here goes:

Pigeon Face (and Son)

They’re at it again. Is it possible to be any more annoying?  Horace (a seven-year-old boy) and Mrs. Pigeonface  (his mother) are inventing new ways to bother others.

Just shut the bleedin’ thing

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Lift B (the middle elevator) has a door closing issue – a disease known as Shutting Hindrance Impediment Termination (or S.H.I.T.). The close button needs to be pressed and held for a minimum of five seconds to successfully shut the doors. Horace pushed the button for a duration of three seconds, and repeated this action not once – but five times with predictable results.

Ten bad-tempered people were squeezed into the elevator and in beast mode. The doors opened, an old man entered and Horace pressed the “shut door” button for three seconds – VOILA!  The doors opened again. The lift remained motionless and the attraction of a Korean soap opera (downloaded to a mobile phone) rendered Madame Pigeonface inoperative. Passengers sighed loudly, a final act of protest before the remaining veneer of civility gave way to explosive language.

Horace, you need to press the button for five seconds. Your mother hasn’t taught you to count but trust us on this one. She’s living out vicarious moments in suburban Seoul – you’re present – in the here and now!  The penny dropped and we reached the first floor after a ten-year journey.

My wife found the whole experience amusing. Luckily for Pigeonface and Son, she wasn’t in a rush (Hell hath no fury like a Cantonese scorned).

Stopping

Horace my boy, what better place to stop and slowly tie your shoelace than in the doorway of a big apartment block during rush hour. Forget the fact that there are acres of space both inside and outside the door. Forget that the seven people behind you are also trying to exit the building. Forget that anyone else on earth exists…..

Follow the leader

Last week Miss K, my eight-year-old, and I saw Mrs. Pigeonface and Horace on the way to school.

Groan.

What are they going to do now?  Nothing surely, they’re on their way to school. What can they do? One could make up an exaggerated story for the purpose of a blog but this is China. One doesn’t have to look far for inspiration. We passed them on a pedestrian crossing and tried to get out of their orbit. Quickly.

Miss K and I walked and talked. We discussed the usual things – her classmates, exams, the weather, changes to the neighbourhood (a new gym had opened, the newsstand now sold princess stickers, no that arthritic dog did not look cute, why were those men still drinking out the front of their restaurant at 7:45am?) when we heard little footsteps right behind us. Was it an assailant?

It was Horace. He was walking so close behind us that his nose was touching our backs. Mrs. Pigeonface was 50 metres behind. We looked at him angrily but this didn’t seem to register. I said something rude in English (which he wouldn’t understand) and this privacy pestering continued for the next five minutes. It took forever to shake him but his fitness wasn’t up to ours and he tired on the home stretch.

Having dropped Miss K at school, I mustered my worst stink eye (an American term?) to aim at Horace (who was yet to reach the gates). No use, he’d fallen in love with a large snail traversing a gutter and was single-mindedly following its progress.

Grandma’s fans

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It was a “Hello Kitty” fan

Elevators are wonderful repositories for germs and bugs. It’s not unusual to be coughed or sneezed on (inside a lift) during a typical week. Spare a moment for Mr. Hill, a long-suffering Canadian, when an old lady liftgoer (mouth uncovered) coughed four times and then shared these germs with several flicks of her fan.

Lip smacking good

Poor Mr. Hill also had to tolerate the loud despatch of a banana in the same lift. There is nothing quite like the sound of someone chewing a banana with their mouth wide open. Slow, deliberate, masticated chewing. The devourer’s glee. The observer’s misery.

Coming up in future posts: product packaging, security guards, exam time in China, and tone deafness!

Behind The Wheel: Driving China Mad

Would you like to drive in China?

 

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Hours of fun in the Guangzhou sun!

 

Oh you would, would you?  Well, here’s a brief guide to life behind the wheel….

Mad, crazy, exasperating, liberating, corner-cutting, speeding, texting, laughing, traffic  jams, more traffic jams, swerving, braking, swearing, sweating, time-wasting, dangerous, good highways, pot-holed roads, wobbly cyclists, cyclists heading in wrong direction, red light runners…..

Another of the Life In Lifts breakout blogs – this is a blog about the wonders of driving in China. I swear I’ve sworn more on the roads here than at any other stage of my life – including my student days at Paraparaumu College. Driving in China will set you up for adventures in “tamer” places like New York or London. San Francisco’s convoluted one-way streets were a breeze after I’d mastered driving here, though Vietnam and India might be a little trickier.

Getting into the heads of the other drivers is an essential part of driving here. What reckless thing are they going to do next?

Oh my, the road narrows ahead to a single lane and some lunatic is about to overtake you on the wrong side of the road?  Let him (yes it’s always a him). It’s not worth the  wreck. You’ve got a green light? Congratulations, how long did you wait?  Ten minutes? Great, now prepare to be ambushed by at least three cyclists and a couple of scooters  who will unfailingly cross your path. Red lights don’t count for two-wheelers here!

There’s too much to cover in a single blog and this is only an introduction to the life of a foreign driver. Let’s start by highlighting a few of the peculiarities of driving in China.

Toddlers on Laps

Yes this happens, more than you’d think. Grandpa (or Dad) drives somewhere with a two year old on his lap. It’s all a big laugh as the kid fiddles with headlights, indicators, and  the steering wheel – while the car is in motion. Very cute. Not.

All Day Rush Hour Traffic

Guangzhou isn’t the only Chinese city with traffic jams, Beijing and Shanghai have their moments too. Anyone from a big city will regal you with tales of woe and go. Guangzhou seems to have particular places that are always jammed up. I know, I used to live in such an area for 13. Long. And. Tedious. Years. It shouldn’t take two and a half hours to drive  a 10 kilometre distance but it has been achieved (more than once). Sometimes late at night too. Please plan accordingly. Avoid Fridays.

Seatbelts

What are those?

Driver Courtesy

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Merge like a zip. The graceful art of coming together in a union of vehicles, effortlessly and harmoniously to enter highway on-ramps, avoid roadworks, or circumnavigate accidents and broken down trucks. I once tried this approach and was rewarded with a….

Truck-n-trailer

A car that piggy backs another. A small gap in traffic can be exploited and a waiting car doth not haveth the same level of acceleration / pick up as a car in motion. The act of allowing another car into a space ahead is rewarded with a 5 minute wait and a bellow of horns from vehicles behind as you wait for 20 aggressive piggy-backers to pass. A downside to this (or upside if you’ve been wronged?) is the occasional nose-to-tail accident.

Wait at Green Light Day

Green lights are a free for all, except on Wait at Green Light Days (which can be a monthly, weekly, or daily event depending on your luck). Light turns green and car sits there motionless. A gentle horn beep from cars behind might waken the driver but they’re probably engaged in something funny on their mobile phone. Can’t you wait till the next green?  They’re busy!

A Dollar Each Way

Taken from the betting option at the horse races. You put a dollar on a win and a place. It works the same for lane changing here. Can’t decide which lane to drive in?  No problem, take the dollar each way approach and drive down the middle of the dividing strip and enjoy both lanes!

Indicator Lights

Driving instructors are said to discourage students from using their indicators as these encourage other drivers to speed up and close the gap. Why on earth would you let fellow drivers know your intention to switch lanes? They’ll do everything humanly possible to prevent you entering their space!

Life in the Fast Lane

It is a curiosity to know why the lanes are divided into fast and slow. No-one pays the slightest attention. The impatient BMW will clock up speeds of 120km per hour in a cycle lane while the ever-reliable Nissan Sunny potters at 25km p/h in the fast lane.

Highway Exits

Has no-one told drivers here about the sheer stupidity of reversing on a highway just because you’ve missed your exit?  There is little more terrifying than driving around a highway bend at 90km p/h to discover a car reversing towards you!

Pedestrians

The bottom of the transit food chain, this category has no rights. Your footpath can be used by a driver whenever he / she (again, usually a he) feels like it.

Parking

This photo should sum it up:

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Um, how am I supposed to get into my car?

 

Oddities

Everyone and everything gets to play on the roads here. They have their own rules and it’s our own laziness for not bothering to learn them!

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 I’d stopped to let him take his merry time. Good thing there wasn’t an emergency.

 

And thus ends an introduction to life behind the wheel in southern China. There are many amusing road stories to share but it is “beyond the scope of this article” to expand on these at this time.

Thanks for reading.