Time Zone Shenanigans (and a Wedding)

Early in the month of November, I took three days of emergency leave. There wasn’t an emergency; there was a wedding. But I didn’t have wedding leave. So, it was emergency leave that I took.

It was a crazy five days (the three days bracketed the weekend). I flew home, taking off at around one on Thursday afternoon. I had had the good fortune to be able to book direct flights to and from Heathrow from Shenzhen International Airport. Due to time zone shenanigans, after a fourteen-hour flight, I landed on Thursday evening. The flight had been normal-ish but Shenzhen air has a grand total of six films available. Five of them are Chinese, and on of them was Dutch. They did have four episodes of a David Attenborough documentary (my diary is annoyingly sparse on the details) and four episodes of Spy-Cam. I’d finished them all by half way through the flight.

By the time I made it across London, I had no idea whether I should be awake or asleep, and my nagging suspicion I’d had since I’d woken up that morning that I was getting a cold seemed to be confirmed.

So of course, I had approximately, not enough sleep. Because by the time I went to bed, my brain thought it was time to get up, I slept poorly. Plus, I’d forgotten how cold England was, (it still being around 25-30 degrees daily in China) and had had to forage around in the middle of the night for a pair of socks.

The next morning, my cold did seem to have abated slightly and I was hopeful that it would be a mere sniffle rather than the full-blown craziness I’d already experienced twice since the beginning of September.

Sean and I made our way to deepest darkest Dartmoor, with a quick stop in Exeter to say hi-bye to my brother (in case I didn’t see him that weekend at any other time, and since I wouldn’t be back in the UK for nearly two years if all went well), and pick up Lewis and Heather’s wedding present.

That night was great. I drank Strongbow Dark Fruits cider and played games with my closest friends, some of whom I’d not seen for a long time, and by the time I went to bed, my brain was so exhausted, I was completely befuddled. I had a few jokes with Alex, who had flown in from Philadelphia and was experiencing jetlag in the other direction, as to what day/time/country we were in, over the course of those few days.

I slept beautifully, right up until about 5am. Then I woke up with a raw throat, and a dripping nose. And I knew that on the day of the wedding, my cold had fully arrived.

I made an emergency trip to the village shop that stocked essentially very little, although there was just about enough to supply me with Lemsip and we all got ready for the wedding, dolling up in our Saturday afternoon best.

The wedding itself was beautiful and I may have shed a tear or two. It may have also been my eye watering from the fact that I felt like I was dying, but who can say? We stepped outside for a very chilly couple of photos, and I was pleased and gratified that the Hobbit House pictures were the first on the list. Plus, it meant I could get inside and to the mulled wine more quickly.

I spent so much of the day feeling so ill, that I mostly drank J2O rather than alcohol and I think I drank my weight in it. I also confused many people with my Lemsip as they thought it was a funky cocktail. If only. I did have a wonderful day, even if I couldn’t fully enjoy the beautiful English food, having lost my appetite. But at least at this wedding, I can remember the best man’s speech better than the one in August!

I’d spent the morning talking about how I could curl up in a corner and have a nap if needed because jetlag, but what actually happened was that the playlist was chock full of Certified Bang-gers™ so despite the cold, I danced the night away and had an excellent time

Carriages were at one, and once we got back, I would have headed to bed, except for the fact that for the wedding I’d got talons, and I couldn’t remove my contact lenses with them. Matt was my hero, and helped me out, and then I cried as I said maybe goodbye to everyone. I was being picked up earlyish in the morning by my parents as I was flying out the next day and I wasn’t going to see them in the flesh possibly for a very long time, and I wasn’t sure if they’d be awake in the morning, as the party seemed to be ongoing in the garden.

The next morning, I was once again awake nice and early, and it turned out I had very little voice. I felt better, but I’d spent all night singing along to the Certified Bang-gers™ which had left me with a croak. I had enough time to pack up my belongings and sort out what I was leaving with my parents when they deposited me at the airport, especially as they were to be giving me plenty of stuff to take back with me.

My parents got lost picking me up and typically there was also no signal in the village that we were next to so it was a bit of an ordeal to get them to the right place, but eventually we managed it. I had no time to get upset as I said goodbye as their being lost had delayed them and we were on somewhat of a limited timeline, if I wanted to see Benedict (brother) and Becci (his girlfriend) before they had a llama experience.

We linked up with them and headed up Dartmoor for a romp around the Tors, and although Benedict and Becci weren’t geocaching at the time, we found a number of caches, which was exciting and we explored the remains of a medieval village that had survived up there when they were all but cut off from the world.

After a quick hot chocolate, and a quick lunch for the B’s, they set off for their llama experience, and we set off in search of a roast lunch. We didn’t have to go far, and it was delicious. And my last real English meal for a long time. I can get Western food here, but it is rather limited and won’t ever compare to real English food until I get back to England.

Then it was time to go to Heathrow. My adventure was over. I had yet another long flight, with a suitcase fully stuffed with my mum’s added extras and I still managed to forget things, as it was a little manic getting everything ready at the airport.

On Tuesday, five days after I’d left, I was back at work, and it was like I’d never left, except that the dry air of the plane had left me with actually no voice, and I couldn’t teach at all that day, as I could not speak above a whisper. I was also completely confused as to time it was and what time-zone/country I was in.

“Welcome to China!” – Parental Panda-monium

After altogether too much holiday, including a surprise week off (explanations and details to follow in the next post) we had yet another holiday at the beginning of October. In this holiday, even though it was a mere month after the kids came back to school, we had week off for the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. This was an important year, too, as it was the seventieth anniversary of the founding.

Because I would in fact have a whole week, rather than three or four days like most other Chinese holidays, other than the New Year of course, my parents decided that while they probably had had enough holidays for one year, they could also probably do with another, and so they made their way to the modern city that is now my home. But because the official birthday of PRC is 1st October and coincidentally the first day of the holiday, and we weren’t anticipating a week off beforehand, they arrived on the 1st, and got delayed in Beijing while all flights were grounded for the official military aircraft flyby, that coincided with the rest of the parade that showed off China’s military might. This meant that they were delayed landing in Shenzhen, and so we missed the fireworks over Shenzhen Bay, which were, according to Séan, spectacular. Alas, such is life. Instead we had dinner in the hotel, then my dear father fell asleep over a much cheaper bottle of beer, in the street bar just outside the hotel. To be fair to him, they had been travelling for 24 hours, had covered approximately 6000 miles, and then eaten too much food. For once I’ll let him off the hook. And to be truthful, none of us took much rocking that night.

Day 2 dawned bright and early for me (because I’d set an alarm), but as neither of the jetlagged ones stirred, I let them sleep for an hour. Which they then berated me for as we were supposed to go up a very tall building that day and wanted to make the most of the day. I suggested that we explore our closer proximities than the very tall building then, such as the beach, and so, loaded up on an almost full English, and suncream, we headed for the beach, which was just nearby.

We think there was sand there. But honestly, we’re not sure. There were a very very very many people and getting to the sea was akin to an extreme sport. We made it and then, a) being the only white people on the beach, b) being the only people walking while knee deep in the sea (it was warm!), and c) once we’d landed and set up our base being the only people who actually dared to swim without a flotation device, commonly known as a rubber ring, we attracted a lot of stares, and I nearly became the third wife of my dad’s new best friend, aka, creepy green shorts man.

Once we’d finished slow roasting and my dad had made it clear that I was his daughter, not his wife, and that I would not in the near future become the wife of creepy green shorts man, we made our way to look for some lunch.

Tempers and temperatures (Jane Austen’s rejected novel title) ran a little high, and lunch wasn’t quite what we ordered, once we’d found the Chinese equivalent of a greasy spoon and Mother had got her fill of gazing into a squatty potty, but it was decent enough and more importantly, not expensive, especially the beer. I should note that at the beginning of this holiday, while in theory I knew what “two beers please” (I don’t like beer and thus drank my body weight in Sprite) in Chinese was, by the end of the holiday, I knew exactly what it was in practice as well. My parents might even have learned it as well.

After lunch we went for a wander which just so happens to be my parents favourite pastime of holidays. Just having a look around and seeing what’s there and seeing the people doing their everyday thing. It’s not my favourite thing to do but I was with my parents and just spending time with them so I was more than happy to tag along, as I normally am.

Dinner was once again not what we expected. We’d seen a nice-ish looking restaurant – having survived one iffy looking eatery, we didn’t want to push our luck – but it turned out to be a buffet and because we were looking to eat at the scandalously late time of 7.30pm, it was nearly closing. It was a race between us and the staff as to how much we could get on our plates before they took the serving trays away. It was a nice enough dinner, but not exactly what we planned. After dinner we thought it would be nice to go back to the beach when it would be quieter. We were wrong. It was not at all quieter.

Day 2 dawned brighter and earlier as I was not so foolish as to be thoughtful and after bamboozling my father with the speed in which I could call a Didi (Chinese Uber) and have it arrive, we were off to the aforementioned very tall building, also known as Ping. It is the 4th tallest building in the world, the tallest office only building in the world, and has one of the highest viewing platforms in the world. It would have been taller, but something about flight paths and planes and other such minor safety concerns brought its height to below 600m. the entrance to Ping before we even got in the fancy lift was pretty futuristic, even though we are now technically living this future. There were lights that responded to sound, but like fireworks, not clapping to have your bedroom light turn on. There was also a live interactive map of the commercial district of Shenzhen and other gadgety things.

Going up was relatively anti-climactic. We were travelling at 10m/s meaning we reached the top in less than a minute, and all that happened was that my ears popped. You could barely feel it.

At the top, the views were pretty spectacular, although I made sure not to go too close to the edge. My dad was happy to stand on the glass that said “Don’t jump” and “No more than 100kg” and while that meant I was safe, why push my luck? Instead I opted to go first on the VR rollercoaster.

It was one of the scariest things I have done in my life, and I have jumped out of a plane more than once. You sit on a little platform, have a seatbelt and a VR headset. You’re shown to be on a rollercoaster and the platform moves in conjunction with what the headset is showing you. The VR doesn’t look totally real yet, but that didn’t stop me from feeling like I was about to fall when the rollercoaster carriage you seemed to be in looked like it was about to tip off the rails. No matter how hard you gripped the platform you were sitting on and told yourself you were safe, you didn’t feel it. The mind is a powerful thing, but its downfall is that when 2 senses are telling you one thing, no matter how much you argue with yourself, your body believes those senses, and you really think you’re plummeting to the floor.

Photo credit: Sandie Davis

After this harrowing experience and a little bit of tourist retail therapy to stop my hands from shaking, we were on our way to the next place. Except we weren’t. Because I got us a little lost, so we were actually heading in the wrong direction. Who knew that six-month-old memory could be faulty? After several too many false starts, we finally found our way to Shenzhen Museum, via my being convinced for a hot minute that I was in the Matrix, to find it was packed, and had a very long queue. We decided that it was in our best interests to stand in a smaller slower queue to then see that we needed our passports, safely ensconced in the hotel safe for access to the engineering museum, so we gave up museum-going as a bad job and headed for the pub.

I took them to the nearby Western bar that had beer and more importantly, cider and Mac’n’cheese, happy hour and the unexpected bonus of a rugby match on the TV, in other words it was a triple whammy win, which was exactly what I needed after so many disappointments and annoyances from that afternoon of repeatedly being wrong.

The icing on the cake was Ping’s light show and the ladies in mirrored outfits handing out pink plastic devil horns, and doing a little dance for us.

With happy hour over, we headed back to the hotel to pack and prepare for the next stage of our trip – Chengdu and pandas!

On arrival in Chengdu, we were met by an informative and chatty young lady called Molaii, who told us that if we wanted them, she could wangle us some tickets to see the Chinese opera and show that night. We wanted them and it was all set up. It included a complementary ear cleaning or massage. We chose the massage, and all loosened up, we were mesmerised by the show, a lot of which hails from thousands of years of traditions. My favourite was the two stringed instrument player who was also having a lot of fun on the stage, Mother’s was the puppetry. Other highlights included hand shadows, face changing and a pantomime-esque performance.

The next day was pandas! We had an early start because the best time to see pandas is when they’re eating breakfast, otherwise they’ll be sleeping. If only I could do that. We saw many many pandas, including three little black and white fluffballs. We still haven’t decided if Domino (our black and white cat) channels his inner panda, or the pandas channel their inner Domino.

Pandas started dozing, and we were off, to the old markets, also known as Wide and Narrow Streets. they were a blend of old and new, and rather what I imagined Diagon Alley to be, a mosh pit of colours, sounds, smells that invaded the senses and required eyestalks for true appreciation. Luckily both the parentals were wearing brightly coloured tops and easily spottable in the hubbub as we moved at different speeds and kept getting separated.

Then we went to a fancy gardens and my parents threatened to find me a Chinese husband in the lover’s quarters where parents do the speed-dating for you (and have been for hundreds of years) before it was time for them to be refined and have tea in a tea garden. I had my ears cleaned, and they itched for hours after. The little bit of fluff at the end just tickles. I would not do it again, because it was uncomfortable in a way I didn’t like, but I had to have a go while I was there, so I did.

As our tea cooled in our bellies, and my ears felt assaulted hunger clawed at us so it was a good job our next stop was yet more old streets that included an area that sold an enormous variety of street food. I wasn’t quite bold enough to try the local delicacy of rabbit head, or cockerel mohawk, but I did find some decent food, for us to happily munch as we wound our way through the streets, heads swivelling so much they were liable to unscrew and fall off.

By now it was only about three in the afternoon and when Molaii dropped us off at the hotel, she told us that we’d be advised to eat earlier so we avoided the rush and gave us the location of a hotpot place nearby that she recommended. We took the recommendation and made our way there. Our fumbling and inexperience with the whole concept of hotpot no doubt gave the staff at the restaurant much laughing fodder at the “silly white people who don’t know how to eat hotpot”, but we had fun, broadened our cultural horizons and tried a local dish. I have had hotpot before, but every place is different and this one was not the same as the one I’d had before so even I was a bit befuddled. But me managed it, and, having learned from previous mistakes, I used good old Maps to get us to a local monastery. As I explained to my parents on the walk, the maps normally gets us within sight of the attraction we wanted to see and then we could make it up from here, and guess what? I was right. We found the Wenshu monastery just as it was getting dark and the Huawei phone camera beat out our traditional ones in capturing low light images as we wandered around and explored the quiet Buddhist haven. There wasn’t anywhere we could leave a donation for the monks to thank them for allowing us to bimble around their home, which was a shame but I supposed it shows the Buddhist way of eschewing personal property so cannot really be faulted.

After this and a little bit of souvenir shopping, we were all tired and had yet another early start the next day, it was time to go back to the hotel for bed.

Our final day together was as early if not more so than the rest, as we were going to a panda sanctuary to muck out and feed the pandas. Which is exactly what we got to do. The panda’s poo is green, if anyone is wondering, and only slightly smelly. It often gets inspected to make sure the panda is healthy, and the panda likes to poo in the most awkward places to clean up.

We also got a chance to smash bamboo which was very cathartic, as you had to slam the bamboo onto the ground to break it up for the pandas to eat (they are spoiled pandas – I doubt they have an on hand bamboo smasher in the wild) and if there is someone who annoys you, you could just imagine their face as you hurled the branch to the ground with all your force. Perhaps worryingly, my mum got very into it and was a very efficient smasher.

Lunch included, wait for it, bamboo shoots, and then we had yet another wander before we got to feed the panda for a second time. As the pandas settled for their naps, we were taken back into the city and left to our own devices again. Tonight we tried retail therapy and were rebuffed at the opera house as I hadn’t bought my souvenir on the night we’d been at the opera so I’d need to buy another ticket, which I just wasn’t going to do, so we retailed (after another hotpot, which we made less of a hash of) in Wide and Narrow and had another chance to explore it.

Then it was back to the hotel to pack and sleep and the next day more serious packing happened and because I had a pesky thing called work, I had to fly back to Shenzhen while my parents continued up to Xi’an, Beijing, and the rest of their grand Chinese adventure.

I had nearly a week with them, and yet it felt like no time at all. I enjoyed spending time with them, even as we had mishaps and “not quite what I expected” moments almost the entire way through the holiday. But as the friendly Did driver who spoke next to no English said on the way to Ping: “Welcome to China!”. I personally wouldn’t have it any other way, as it’s part of this unique country’s charm.