Thursday, 24 November 2011


Its winter in Shanghai, how do I know? an obvious statement you may think since its mid November?  Well not if the weather is anything to go by, with temperatures still in the 20's and upwards, the majority of the leafs still on the trees, and with the birds that haven't been eaten still chirping away, you could be fooled into thinking we were still in Autumn (Or Fall).  If the unseasonably warm and pleasant weather doesn't give it away - what does? Well as with the arrival of Summer, the tell tale signs are there for those initiated into the workings of this country.

Firstly, you start to see people wearing their coats backwards? by that I mean the zip/buttons are on the back - arms through the arm holes and the unzipped 'joint' section flapping at the back.  Why? Christ knows, I would have thought you would have got more benefit from wearing it the normal way, zipped up to your chin to prevent drafts.  But oh no, us idiots in the West have been wearing coats incorrectly for years, the Chinese show us how its done, especially when riding bikes or scooters.  I guess you could argue that the wind penetrates the gaps between the zip links? However most coats I have, seem to have corrected this with a nice little flap of material inside and out.  Still I am sure it will catch on, and soon everyone in europe and the US will be wearing coats back to front!

Secondly, the dogs start to get worried.  In fact anything with 4 legs should find a hole to hibernate in.  I was at a suppliers factory two weeks ago, just a couple of hours drive from Shanghai and the 2 factory dogs were curled up looking extremely sheepish, enjoying the mid day sun, unusually they didn't lift an eye lid when I approached them.  My companion for the day mentioned that they were probably trying to 'lay low'.  At first I didn't understand and then 2 seconds later it clicked - he went onto explain that it was normal for the factory dogs to be replaced every year, normally just before Chinese New Year (CNY), and after the previous 'employees' had provided a hearty warm meal for the factories bosses!  The look on their faces said it all, almost as if they knew of their impending journey to the hot pot!   A traditional winter dish justified by the colder weather, it remains a favourite by many in Shanghai and the local 'wet' markets are full of hanging carcases. Something I have wrote about before, and something I still cant get used to, yes I know is hypocritical to distinguish between Dog, Chickens, Pigs and Cow's - but as I have said before i have never named a pig, took a duck for a walk or thrown a lamb a stick.

Thirdly, and as with all seasons - women's fashions change.  Men it seems have one outfit, and just add more of the same or take more of the same off when the weather gets colder or warmer.  We are not burdened by such delicate issues as what shoes to wear with which bag, flat, heeled, ankle or knee length, matching colours, seasonal style and 'accessorising' isn't something most hetrosexual male gets concerned about.  The change from summer to winter fashion trend, starts slowly. You may remember I reported the shortening length of the 'hot pants' of the young Chinese girls as an announcement of summer arriving, well they will try and keep these on for as long as possible, but not being stupid, a pair of thermal stockings underneath help ensure they keep warm and er fashionable.  The girls wearing 'daisy jukes' over knitted thermals is one sign its got cold, but sooner than later, you can also see the tell tale signs of the thermals poking from behind shirts, trousers and blouses, along with the 20 layers of Michelin man clothing. 

In Shanghai the first sign of winter means time to dust off the long johns and thermal knickers - for everyone.  I had never known the joy wearing a warm pair of thermals until I came to China, my first winter I refused to conform, citing fashion, age and the fact that the make me look even fatter than I am.  Seven years later I have several pairs in various colours and almost (but not quite) regret the warmer spring weather and the need to hang up my oh so sexy long johns!

Insulation, or at least the lack of it, no central heating, single glazed windows and high humidity all add together to make 20 degrees feel like minus 10!  Despite of all of this, it seems impossible to get warm on those cold days, unless you have a couple of spare kidneys left to pay for your underfloor heating, you resort to living in your car with the heater on full blast, whilst grasping the steaming hot mug of grass in hot water through a thin plastic cup.

Finally, although I am sure there are hundreds more. The one thing that tells me Winter has arrived is of course the dark nights.   Not the dark mornings mind, no the mornings are still blindingly light at 5.30am, only now the night is dark by 4.30pm, add to this miserably cold weather, extortionate fuel bills, having to dress like a blimp and the acidic puddles on the ground eating away at your leather shoes, its a wonder the dogs looked glum - sounds like they get off lightly.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011


My travels around the world are always full of incidence, i'm not sure if its me, the law of averages or just the fact that i turn every minor issue into a minor crisis?  Either way this last journey to Europe was a good example of my own disastrous attempt to live a normal life.

It all started as normal with a flight out of Shanghai, I'm not sure how long it will be before the ground staff actually think I work at the airport? But the fact that I'm known by my first name to the check-in girls, the security and immigration staff, as well as the car park attendants - sort of gives you an idea of how often I use the bloody place? This journey in fact started before arriving at the airport, because i had to visit the office on my way (on a Sunday) to pick up my driving license, that for some reason I had left there, and knew I would need to hire a car when in the UK. 

Like some drug crazed, addictive spell, Virgin Atlantic was my weapon of choice, to show just how much I have become obsessed with this airline, I have my own seat - yes thats right, seat 16A is mine, no debate, no alternative is acceptable, seat 16A has been my home for longer than I can remember, and longer than most mortgages I have had.  I even wrote to Virgin to ask if they would gift me the seat due to the fact that I have spent so much time trying to get comfortable in it, whilst finding it funny they refused even to sell me the seat, which is a shame as I would have put it into the spare room at home and insist visitors slept in it - at least this way they wouldn't stay long and definitely wouldn't return :)

The flight itself was fine, well as fine as sitting in a elongated tube of poisonous air at 40,000 feet for 13 hours can be. Even the extraction at Heathrow went without a hitch, I should have know it was all too good to be true as I entered the Avis car rental office.  You see, as an habitual traveller and renter of cars, I am considered a 'privileged' or 'preferred' customer, which gives me special discounts and 'offers' as well as a fast track service designed to reduce the waiting time and paperwork synomninous with hiring a car.  However this time would be different, having to drive an uninspiring black box at an average of 20 kph in Shanghai, means that when I am in other countries I like to hire something a bit more interesting, sporty or luxurious.  My car of choice this time was an Audi A5 Convertible that I had got at the same price as a Ford Mondeo.  I had paid in advance, and even knew the registration of the car that would be me chariot for the next 5 days in Europe.  That was before I met Nick, Nick was the pimple faced Asda shirt and tie wearing dip shit, who would decide to piss off a loyal Avis customer of 18 years, following a 20+ hour journey to his small desk of responsibility.

I had spent more hours in this particular rental office, than Nick had been in long trousers, I knew the pattern of the wallpaper, the loose pavement stone near to bay B6 and that the drinks dispenser only worked on a Thursday of months with an 'R' in them.  Still he had decided that the recent training course he had been on meant that he was up to dealing with me on the same level.  Of course to my detriment he had me over a barrel,  you see what I didn't know was that the little plastic identification card issued by the UK driver license department expired at a more regular rate than the standard paper copy  which lasts up until your 70th birthday. My argument that I had my paper license, had hired vehicles 4 times from the very same office since my license had expired, all fell on deaf ears.  A 'jobs-worth' of immense proportions, there was no way I would be traveling in anything other than my size 11 shoes from the office in Heathrow. Appealing to a better judgement or looking for a decision of someone more senior got me nowhere, well in fact it got me to the hotel across the street, once I had decided that pulverising his brain would only serve to rid the world of one more dick head, but still not result in me being able to hire a car.

This small issue led to a week of reliance on public transport, I had 6 cities to visit in as many days, 3 airports, 4 train stations and 5 different hotels.  Of course I could have tried to blag a car from another rental agency, but the prospect of someone else telling me I wasn't good enough to hire a Fiat 127 for a few days got the better of me, and I thought my public transport project would be, er fun - how wrong can a person be?

You see in China, you can sit on a train which is less guaranteed  to be less than 3 years old, travels at 350 kph for 4-5 hours and will cost you as little as £10, pay a couple of RMB more and you get a foot massage, free wifi and a pet kitten to take home.  You get used to trains arriving not only being on time, but in exactly the same spot as marked on the platform floor, being clean, serviced by delightful, bi-lingual, Chinese versions of 1970's Pan Am air hostesses.  The story in the UK is not quite the same. 

Let me give you this scenario, your a visitor to London, a self professed international capital city in the same league as New York, Paris, Singapore or god forbid Shanghai.  You have heard the Taxi's are horrendously expensive, so you decide to catch the train to the 2nd largest city in the country - Birmingham, some 100 miles away.  First of all you can't get a direct train, you first need to travel  and transfer in central London, which is where a service calling itself the 'London Express' comes into play, banners across Heathrow exclaim 15 miles in 15 minutes as if its some kind of flux capacitor speed of light time machine. 15 miles in 15 minutes is 60 miles per hour - Bamboo grows faster than that! The cost works out at about £1 per mile, which would have been acceptable if it took you anywhere you needed to be, before getting excited that you are finally on your way, you then need to transfer across to Euston Station which means traversing the vampire and werewolf infested underground system with your 50kgs of luggage or obtaining a 2nd mortgage on your house to pay for a Taxi. Which will save you humping your luggage up and down vertical stairways, but will leave you with no money to pay for the final train to your destination.  A ticket in standard class to a city just 90 minutes away was £145, 1st class where they had seats designed for more than just one buttock was £250+.  The whole journey would have taken 2 to 2.5 hours in a car, got you to the door of where you wanted to go, and provided luxury comfort for 4-5 people plus luggage.

The British government suggests it wants to get people off the roads and onto public transport - at  those prices a journey for a family of 4 people would have cost the best part of £1000, or the same price as a soggy cheese sandwich on one of the trains.  I am all for getting people off the roads - it will leave more room for me, but given the inconvenience and costs, I think its a long time from becoming reality, i hope that anyone visiting for the Olympics next year realises to bring an up to date driving license or several bars of gold bullion.


Around this time of the year Shanghai is full of three types of people; Tourists enjoying the milder weather, newbie expatriates nievly full of the joys of a city that hasn't slapped them around the face yet, and family visitors joining their expatriate relatives.  I have been 'enjoying' the later of these three during the past month, the weather in Shanghai is only bearable during the very short spring and fall and its the only really sensible time to visit for  business or tourism.

Being a miserable sod, who is only truly happy in his own company, or complaining about other people,  having strangers in my house doesn't fill me with enthusiasm or delight, even when those strangers are family.  You see I left home when I was 21, and spent the next 20 years travelling around the world just to get away from living with family,  don't get me wrong I love my family and would do anything for them, anything except have them live under my roof.  So when my better half announced that her parents would be staying for the entire month of September I lurched for my address book to see what suppliers I hadn't visited for a few months.

Its hard enough for two people who love each other deeply, to live together at times, especially at the start when every snore, belch, noisy chew and ball shuffling habit grinds on the other like bleach on a paper cut.  Over time you learn to accept and ignore the curious (to you) eating habits, the 3 hour long baths and the strange obsession with matching underwear.  If your lucky you get to enjoy these 'cultural' differences before you take the plunge and get married, either way love overcomes and you learn to live with most, and ignore the rest.  Of course when you marry you inherit a whole army of people you didn't choose to live with, and who's habits you didn't sign up for!

My parent-in-laws are good, kind and generous people, a tad racist, a smidgeon bigoted and a dash homophobic but that seems almost acceptable in people of their age.  Their not bad people, but grew up in a different generation, with different beliefs and standards.  They have watched a country change beyond their recognition and they have grown elderly, infirm and feeling unsupported by a state they helped design and contributed towards, for moments exactly like this. I am not condoning their views, just trying to understand the reasons why they are like the way they are. Most of the time of course I don't have to put up with their views for longer than a few hours each year, family visits back to the UK are rare, and even when we do visit our time together is short, but not this time, a month living under the same roof tugs at your patience strings like a blue marlin tugs at a deep sea fishing line.

I am fairly liberal minded, accepting many different beliefs, religions and views on a myriad of subjects,  however i love to play devils advocate, its my favourite hobby and pushes my intellectual boundaries - especially when I'm trying to defend or offer an opinion on a subject not versed or prepared for. So when you have a couple who blame the worlds problems on immigrants, corrupt politicians, gay people and  Lady Gaga I am armed with more than enough material to provide a counter view (apart from defending Lady Gaga of course!).  If every conversation you enter into ends in a view that you should deport everyone who isn't related to the Queen (despite her actually being of German lineage), that  HIV/AID's is gods way of ridding the world of drug taking, homosexual commodity traders and politicians, and that  popular music culture is the reason girls get pregnant at 12, and why men no longer lay down their coats over puddles in the street - you can imagine that I spent 29 days of the 30 they spent with us arguing the virtues of a multi cultural, multi sexual, multi musical (I made the last one up!) society.

All of these arguments led to some interesting outcomes, not least the fact that you find out pretty quickly that you are incompatible to the extend that every little nuance grinds on you like broken glass into an eyeball.  You find yourself feeling hatred for the way someone breaths; too noisy, too often, too shallow, too deep - at all!  We would go to a restaurant for lunch or dinner, and even before they ordered I would know that they didn't like the food.  No chips, wrong shape chips, chips too thin, chips too fat, too spicy, not spicy enough, reaching for the salt before tasting, eating every last morsel on the plate and then complaining it wasn't very nice, having the same bloody club sandwich in every establishment you venture into, drinking too much alcohol on top of a cocktail of medication designed to sedate a Sperm Whale, and getting louder and louder with each sip before finally professing that 'we don't really like this foreign muck!' "WHY THE FU&K DID YOU COME TO SHANGHAI THEN!!!"

The list of irritations is endless, actual conversation 1:
"we didn't sleep because the room was too warm",
'thats what the air conditioning is for',
"yes but its too noisy",
"but if your awake anyway what is the difference, if your going to be awake at least do it in comfort',
"no its ok we will just struggle with the heat."
'put the air conditioning on before going to bed, and turn it off when you actually go'
"No its ok, we will be fine"

Conversation 2
"We need a new padlock for our suitcases"
"Well customs must have broke the one we had on our case, because it wasn't with our suitcase when we arrived"
'That's because you shouldn't really put a padlock on your suitcase, it raises suspicion and customs have to break it to check whats in your bag'
"Yes but our belongings aren't safe without a lock on the suitcase"
'Well I have flown over 100 flights in the last 3 years, and have never had anything stolen from a suitcase - all without locks on'
"Yes but we want a lock"
'Who is going to steal your underwear, knitting and copies of readers digest?'
"But we don't want anyone to open our cases"
'Yes but customs will be suspicious and definitely open your case because you have a lock on it'
"We need a new padlock for our suitcase"

I know its me and not them, I should learn to be more tolerant, more supportive and more understanding.   I have lived a very different life, enjoying different cultures, locations, foods and experiences, making me more adventurous and open minded I guess, it has also made me freer with my money, less protective with my belongings and having little regard for preserving what I have earned. But none of this is personal, it could be anyone  staying with us and I would have found some small niggle to upset me, I am sure the Pope is noisy when he eats, the Queen picks her teeth after a meal and the Dali Lama's beads rattle too loudly when he shuffles. The point is that my tolerance levels are very, very low, and its just best to leave me alone, after all the only people who actually come to visit us, come to see my wife or the kids, so perhaps I should just leave home at this point and wallow in my own perfection?  If I was more tolerant, more accepting, and less wound up like a swiss timepiece, maybe I could accept the fact that people insist on 'remembering' the war, or see mayonnaise as a strange delicacy, but until that that point please accept my offer to book a hotel for you as the most appropriate solution to ensure you enjoy the short stay you have in Shanghai.