The Old London Tube

I was in London last week, for the first time in five years, would you believe? And I couldn’t get over how old the tube was. Of course, I was comparing it to the modern subway systems of Hangzhou, Shanghai and Chongqing.

Shanghai’s metro lines are ever expanding, and when I was there last year, the new Disneyland metro station was one of the newest stations, but I imagine that more stations will have been opened since last May when the park opened.

The subway systems in China are (in most cities) very modern and high-tech. Some have recycling machines that give you credit for your travelcard, most have moving adverts along the inside of the tunnel, and they all have voice announcements in English and Mandarin telling you what stop is next and to be careful with your bags.

In London, there are no x-ray machines before putting your ticket in the barrier and there are no tv screens on the platforms that with video adverts or news on, as well as the information of when the next trains are coming. The whole experience in London was totally alien, comparing it to the Chinese one, where the platforms have glass doors between you and the tracks. This is a safety feature, but it’s also good, as above the windows there are tube maps so you can plan your route, and you know where the tube will stop and which way the tube is going, in London I relied on my friends to know if we were going the right way or not.

The London underground is very much underground, you lose service on your phone when you’re on the tube and there’s also a distinctive earthy smell to the underground that isn’t very pleasant. There aren’t any fans in summer, making it hot and sticky either. It’s a good way to get around the capital, and especially with Oyster visitor cards that cap spending to £6.50 per day for people who don’t visit very often, but it’s not exactly a pleasant or efficient se ice, when I compare it with metro systems in China.

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Gifts to send abroad

I’ve lived abroad for several years in different countries, and I am always so grateful and excited to receive any type of post from home, but when it’s a package, that excitement increases even more than getting a postcard. A huge thank you to everyone who has sent me postcards and letters over the years, I have kept every single one of them and I found some earlier, which prompted this post.

When you have friends of family living abroad, and want to send them a gift, here are some things to consider…not all home comforts can be sent abroad.

First and most importantly, I think you should never send anybody anything valuable. You should send things with the back thought that ‘it might not get there’, because trust me, not all packages arrive. Some are opened by customs or nibbled at by mice before it gets to the receiver and some just never ever arrive at all.

Food

Food and comfort food is always great to send. Always check the date on what you send, as parcels could take from 10 days to 10 weeks to arrive. Coming from the UK, I always request Cadbury’s Dairy Milk and it’s much better to send a multipack of individual bars, rather than a big 500g block. Because if you open a 500g bar, you have to either share it, or eat it all within a few days. 10 x 50g bars last a lot longer. Plain chocolate is always better than anything with caramel or sticky things inside, as they sometimes leak (creme eggs).

I missed cereals when I was in China, and a friend of mine had the greatest idea to send one of those Kelloggs multipack of cereals, you know, the ones for indecisive children. They’re light, so cheap to send and also nostalgic.

Stuff to read

If you’re a book fan, like me, you might run out of things to read. Even with a kindle, there is still nothing greater than a nice paperback book, a magazine or newspaper clipping from home. Most charity shops sell books for between 50p and £1.50, so they are not expensive to buy.

Cosmetics

Not all foreign countries have the same brands and types of cosmetics as they do at home. Asian countries that attach a high importance to looking pale, use a lot of whitening products in their cosmetics, so it’s nice to receive some moisturiser or hand cream from home, knowing that it won’t bleach your skin. Make sure it’s properly sealed, cos a leakage of creams could be devastating.

Teaching aids

If your loved one is teaching overseas, ask them if they need any teaching aids that you can’t get abroad – like blu tac, ‘well done!’ stickers or colouring books to make photocopies of. Blu tac really isn’t sold overseas!

Finding a suitable working café

Finding a café in the UK is not so hard, if you need a caffeine fix there is usually 5 Greggs within a mile radius in any city centre, and now chains like Costa and Starbucks not only have standalone cafés, but also now have drive-thoughs, are inside clothes and book shops, you’re never too far from a hot beverage.

But when you want to sit down and enjoy your coffee, whilst working on a laptop or tablet…that’s more difficult.

Parking/walking distance from home

When I first moved into my flat, there was no wifi, so I had to find places to work – in hindsight the library would have been a good choice, but I only remembered that public libraries existed about 10 days into my wifi-less home situation. It needs to be somewhere close enough to walk to, because carrying your laptop, charger, phone, notepad, diary, pencil case, purse, hand cream (etc etc, you get the picture) is heavy, even if you have a proper rucksack. If you drive to a cafe on a retail park, you need to check there’s not some silly maximum 2 hour parking rule if you’re planning on spending the whole day there (which of course you are). Or if it’s near a football stadium on match day and there’s a one hour max or £50 in purchases rule to park there…Don’t think you’ll get away with it cos you haven’t seen a parking warden – ANPR (that’s Automatic Number Plate Recognition). As soon as you drive into the car park, the cameras know you’re there and if you’re even just one minute over your time, you’ll be sent a fine.

Free, unlocked* wifi

And not just free wifi for 30 minutes, or free wifi that only works intermittently, you need a good solid wifi connection if you’re working online and using the Cloud to save everything. Also, I need to be able to connect more than one device. Generally, I trust and can rely on The Cloud wifi hotspots (but sometimes that doesn’t let you use Whatsapp).

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Plug socket

This is the bane of my life. I cannot understand why nobody in the UK seems to care about letting their devices run out of charge. Looking around me, I hardly see anybody with portable power packs and there is a serious shortage of plug sockets in BRITISH (the Chinese are on it with the plug socket thing) libraries (even university libraries, let alone the public ones), coffee shops, airports and hotels. Virgin trains must be commended here, they provide plenty of plug sockets and have done a very good job in that respect, but nowhere else are there enough plug sockets.

But seriously, in a cafe like Starbucks or Costa, that will have seats for 60 customers, why are there only 4 or 5 plug sockets? If there were more plug sockets, I would spend more time, buy more coffee and maybe even a cake. C’mon, wake up! Normally, after assessing the wifi, the first thing I will do is scout for a plug socket and plug my laptop straight in, that way I get fully charged so if someone comes along with their phone on 4% I will let them use it. Plug sockets are 98% of the time on the wall and not on the floor, so there’s no point looking at the tables in the middle of the cafe, start by searching the walls. Sometimes in Starbucks they are on the wall but under the seat, so check there too.

There’s nothing worse than seeing your pc screen go darker as it runs into ‘low battery’ mode and then having no way to charge it. I have quite a long cable to my laptop, luckily I’ve never needed to bring an extension cable with me – a trick I learnt on one of China’s slow trains. The train will have one plug socket in each carriage, so that’s what one per 100 people? 200? A woman travelling with her extended family brought 3 extension cables with 6 sockets in each, meaning that one plug socket turned into 15. Everyone probably got a tiny trickle of charge but it was enough and other people used the plugs too, thinking about it, she could have charged a few kuai for letting them use it.

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Check amount and location of plug sockets

Chair with a back

It’s better to sit with a chair that has a back on it. After getting there, checking the wifi is good and finding a plug socket, you need a chair with a back on. No stools! A table is kind of a luxury, most places have them, but I’m fine balancing things on my lap if there isn’t a table available.

A drink

After all that (and once you’ve found that perfect spot and reserving it in the truly British style by putting your coat on the seat), it’s probably time to go get a drink. By this point, I don’t care about roasted arabica beans or rainforests or decaf or skinny and any of the rest of that coffee talk. I just want something warm, that I can sit with for a while, so the baristers will leave me alone to enjoy. Try to keep hold of your mug for a while, so that when new staff come on shift (remember, you’re playing the long game) they won’t turf you out for not having purchased anything. If there is free tap water available, take a glass of that and leave it topped up on the table. If they take your mugs/cups/plates away and although you probably won’t be directly asked to leave or purchase something, you’ll be made to feel guilty by other customers (looking at that plug socket you’re hogging) or staff who wonder why you are here, alone, sitting on your laptop and haven’t moved for a good 2 hours. You’ll see it in their eyes.

In summary, finding a suitable working café for me involves (in this order):

  • Ease of access – free parking, or within walking distance of my home
  • Good, reliable wifi – that I can use with no time or device limit
  • A power source – the more plug sockets the better, and they should be in reach of my table
  • A chair with a back – for sitting back in and resting – no stools
  • Drink – reasonably priced hot drinks available – preferably loose green tea with a huge flask of hot water for refills, but I haven’t found such place yet.

*This isn’t China any more where you can guarantee that 98% of the time, locked wifi passwords in places are either 88888888 or 12345678, or less common but still good to try if the first two don’t work – 66666666.

Chinese vs British trains

I was waiting to take a train from Coventry to Birmingham a couple of days ago, and amongst the chatter on the platform, I heard some Chinese speakers. They were complaining that the train was delayed, and in fact all the trains were delayed by at least a few minutes that day for several reasons. It was then than I started thinking what Chinese people must think of British trains. I mean we do have a good system here in the UK, but the Chinese system probably has the edge (I’m talking about the Chinese high-speed trains, the slow trains are a totally different matter).

In China, you have to buy your own ticket, with your own ID, be it ID card or passport, so nobody can sell their ticket on to anyone else. When you enter the station, after an ID check, there is a security check and a metal detector…usually people pile mountains of bags on the conveyor belt, and a sleeping officer will be ‘checking’ the screen for weapons, but on the whole it feels slightly more secure than any UK train station where anyone can walk in and anonymously buy a ticket.

Only after these checks, are you in the train station. Therefore, everyone inside the station has a ticket to travel that day. Whereas in the UK, anyone can buy a ticket, at the machine or at the counter, and anyone is allowed inside the train station, where there are restaurants, shops and ATMs. Now, with ticket barriers operating at major UK train stations (including Coventry now, no skipping the fare!), you have to scan your ticket to be allowed on the platform.

This happens in China too, but in China, there are never platform alterations, and you’re only allowed onto your platform when your train is coming. If you’re waiting for the 11.05 to Hangzhou from platform 2, you can’t go and wait on the platform at 10.40 when they open the gates for the 10.45 train to Beijing. You wait in the large waiting room, rather than on the platform.

Also in China, everyone has a seat number and carriage number, there are some standing seats available, but not many and even if you have a standing seat, you will be told which carriage to stand in. On the platform, 5 minutes before the train arrives, everyone stands in a very neat line according to the marks on the floor which say the carriage number. When the train arrives, people first get off the train, then people get on the train in a very orderly fashion.

Flip back to the UK, where on platform 2 you could have people waiting for the 10.58 to Birmingham, the 11.05 to Bournemouth and the 11.12 to London on the same platform. Everyone is crowding around and then suddenly, a voice comes on the tannoy saying that the 10.58 has been delayed, and it will now depart from platform 4 at approximately 11.03. Everyone for the Birmingham train will barge past the other passengers, trying to find the stairs to get up and go across to platform 4. The train arrives and people will always try to get on whilst others are getting off, and nobody ever knows where they should stand on the platform. Sometimes you have a reserved seat, but the UK sells a lot of ‘open return’ tickets, meaning you can get on any train and don’t need to wait for a specific train, so lots of people don’t have seat reservations and sit in any place.

With a bit more organisation, in the UK too we could write the numbers (well, letters) of the carriages on the floor so people know where to stand waiting on the platform, we could make stations safer by asking people their names to write on the ticket, we could have unreserved carriages for people with open tickets and travelling by train could be a smoother process. Delays and platform alterations are bound to happen when you’re only travelling a short distance and signals, bridges and weather affects the times of trains, so not everything can be avoided.

I just feel sorry for those Chinese people who are used to travelling by high speed train, who come to the UK and have no idea what to do at the train station, because there’s so much chaos in their eyes.

Working as a tour guide

One part of my job is working as a tour guide. I lead groups of international students around places like Nottingham, Sherwood Forest, Durham, Lake District, Peak District and I hope one day to give a tour around my hometown Coventry!

You’d think that learning a script and taking students to the same places each week would get boring and repetitive but it really isn’t! Each time I take a group of students, there are different challenges to overcome, problems to solve and the groups all have different vibes…the group who had a slow three hour coach journey with no heating are less enthusiastic than those who just had a one hour journey with no traffic.

As a tour guide, you need to know a whole lot more than just what’s on the script – where are the nearest toilets? where can you get a bottle of water/cup of coffee? where is there some shelter from the rain?

A tour guide has to be adaptable and make the most of opportunities that come up. If there is a special event on like Robin Hood Day, instead of just walking past the people in medieval clothes (who aren’t usually there), ask them to give a performance or tell the group about what they’re doing today. If Coca-Cola is handing out free cans in the centre, lead the group past their stand so the customers can get a little sugar boost etc. If someone tells you about an organ concert in 30mins time at the church, take the group back to the church to hear the concert.

Those are examples of good unexpected things that can happen during a tour. But there are problems that happen during tours – people have lost bank cards and ID cards at Sherwood Forest, I’ve lost three students who didn’t arrive at the bus at the departure time and weren’t answering their phones, groups have arrived 30 minutes before the attraction opens and need entertaining etc. It’s times like these when my skills come out and I shine. I always keep calm in situations like this and by getting other people involved and on board, the problems are always resolved. Students cards were returned to them on the same day, with the help of Sherwood Forest staff we found the missing students and on the Harry Potter tour, when the students arrived before the cathedral opened, I spent the time ‘sorting’ students into their Harry Potter houses which was fun for me too, especially deciding which group looked like they would be Slytherins!

So being a tour guide, it’s something I enjoy, it’s something I wish I could do more of because there are so many stories to tell people about a place, stories that aren’t on wikipedia or in the travel guides.

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When a guy walks you home

Last year when I lived in China, I met a lot of African friends, the university I attended gave a lot of scholarships to students from Cameroon, Tanzania, Ghana, South Sudan amongst other developing countries, like Ukraine, Albania and Egypt.

I spent half the year in dormitories on campus, and there were two sets of dorms for international students, most of the Africans were in Qiming, and the rest of us were in the slightly better Liuxueshenggongyu.

As most of my classmates were African, they quickly became my friends and we would often/always go to Beimen, the school’s bustling north gate to eat dinner. Meals were cheap and there were loads of choices, as well as a supermarket, KTV bars, snooker halls and beauticians (I miss those £2 manicures!!).

When we first started meeting for dinner, most of the group would go walk to Qiming, but there would always be a guy who would offer to go out of his way to walk me back to my dorm, even if it was raining and he was wearing flipflops, I was almost always walked home.

At the beginning, I felt very uncomfortable about this, did the guy have bad intentions? Did he want to know exactly which room I lived in? Why is it ‘not ok’ for a girl to walk home on her own…yet fine for guys? Etc etc. But after a while, I just accepted it as it offended them when I said I would walk by myself and actually, the company is nice.

What I learned was that culturally, these guys were expected to make sure women get home safely, due to the dangers there can be for women walking alone in their countries.

When I came back to the UK, I was walking home with a group of friends about a week ago, most of them lived in a student accommodation 5 mins walk from me…we said our goodbyes and a guy who lived a bit closer to me said he would walk me home. But after the group went into their halls, this guy who said he would walk me home said that actually he lives the other way…so he just walked off and left me. I was a bit annoyed, since he said he would walk me home and didn’t, it was one of the first times in a long time I hadn’t had someone walk back with me after meeting with a group.

Then last night I was at an event and a Russian guy offered to walk me home, I had just met him, but I accepted the offer as we live close by and again, for him culturally, he cannot ‘when in Rome, do as Romans do’ when it comes to things like walking a girl home. He also gave me a big hug, as he said when you shake hands or hug, it re-energises both people as they pass energy to each other through physical contact and it shows strength and power.

Last night we also talked about greetings, and how British people may shake hands when they first meet someone, but not when they meet again for the second or third time. The Russian said us Brits can be really cold, and he can’t understand why I would want to walk the last 5 mins alone… whereas the old me could not understand why a guy would want to walk an extra 5 mins, then have a 10 min walk home alone. I’m still unsure how I feel about being walked home, as if escorted because being a woman puts me in danger…but at the same time, I realised that I did get used to it in China and I kinda like it.

Going Over

You’re flying somewhere, and the airline has a weight limit for your baggage. It’s always a gamble, do you pack within the limit, or do you take a risk and pack a few kilos more and hope you get away with it at the check in counter.

This happens to all of us I’m sure, and when you’ve been away for a long time, it’s difficult to pack within the weight limit (for most people anyway). There’s books, which are really heavy, shoes, clothes, gifts, maybe food and sometimes toiletries too.

I was travelling back from China, and before I left, I knew that if I packed all my books, I would have no room left for anything else. So I sent my books separately through the post office. The rates were much cheaper than buying excess baggage through the airline (270rmb/kilo with Qatar airlines and through China Post 130rmb for the first kilo and 50rmb/kilo afterwards). I packed all my books up, approximately 12 kilos, not including the box and took them to the post office.

They wrapped it up very well, even putting big thick staples into the box and weighed it, 12.05kg. But when the postman charged me, he charged it as 1kg + 12kg + tax + box fee. I told him he was wrong, because 1 + 12 = 13, my package is just 12kg. He said no, your package is over 12kg, making it 13. I asked if he was serious…it was over by 50grams, did they not learn rounding in school? He said that if it passed 12kg, it had to be classed as 13kg, no matter if it was 12.01 or 12.99.

50rmb is not a lot of money, about £5, but the principal made me so angry, I ordered him to reopen the package so I could remove the smallest notebook to make it under 12kg. He wasn’t very happy with me (he had been sleeping before) but I refused to pay the extra money for going over by just 50g.

I knew when flying home, my bags would be over thr 30kg weight limit I had, but before I left, I decided which things could be thrown away if I was made to at the airport and put them near the top of my bags (plan B for if crying didn’t work). When I got there, the assistant seemed to be in a daze, and didn’t pay any attention to the extra kilos I was packing, which was a relief.

She also didn’t make me weigh my cabin bags, which were probably double what they should have been. But if I’m honest, almost everyone had a small wheely cabin bag and an extra handbag or rucksack, despite the rules being one piece of 7kg + one duty free shopping bag. I guess flying on a big international airline you get a few more priviledges and leeway thatn you do with buget airlines like Ryanair!

The Towel

There’s one dilemma that will always exist when you go travelling…the towel.

Whenever I take a towel away with me, I know I’ll have to take a shower before I go to bed rather in the morning, to give it time to dry properly. Because if it’s damp it will make everything inside my bag damp and smelly. This is the start of one of the towel dilemmas…

So I pack my bag the night before I leave and the towel is left hanging out to dry. I close my bag, happy that everything’s fit in, then I turn around and say “oh, I forgot about my towel!”.

Towels take up a lot of room when you’re packing, and it’s not like socks that you can just squeeze into the corners, you need a whole two inch flat layer of space to fit that thing in. So when you think you’ve packed everything and then realise you still have the towel to squeeze in, it’s a nightmare!

But then if you decide not to take a towel, you can’t be sure of the quality of the towel in the hotel you’re staying (or if they’ll even have towels at all). Especially in China, even ‘4 star’ hotels provide towels that are scratchy and thin like cardboard, rather than the fluffy towels from home. And even though their texture is probably due to being washed at 100 degrees, you still don’t know how many people have used them before.

So what do you do? Take your own towel and have it take up space in your bag and restrict you from having a shower in the morning,or take a gamble, not take a towel and pray for decent towels in the hotel?

“I can’t take your money”

Most Chinese people don’t talk about money between friends, not in the sense that they ignore money exists, but when going out to eat, drink etc, one person will pay the bill for everyone. It’s a great system, compared to in the UK when you go out for dinner with 4 people and after eating, each person takes the bill and figures out exactly what they individually owe, rather than just splitting the bill between five evenly. I guess it depends what group of friends you’re in, but usually that’s the case.

I’ve seen lots of people in China fighting with each other about paying for things: coffees, restaurant bills, hotel expenses, taxi fares, presents etc. Once I even saw a pair of sisters race to the counter of a cafe with their purses at the ready, both wanting to get there first and pay the bill. I’ve also seen people sneak away from the dinner table to the ‘toilet’ and secretly 埋单 (pay the bill).

Last week I was travelling with my friend Marisol, we met her primary school friend and the two were both trying to pay for our desserts in a cafe. This wasn’t the first thing they’d quarrelled about paying for that day either. In the end Marisol gave in and her friend went inside to settle up. Her friend’s 7 year old daughter Apple was sitting with us outside, when a street seller came, trying to sell a big bouncy ball thing. Apple jumped up excitedly, “oooh, I want one, how much? I’ll go ask my Mum for some money…” The vendor said 5rmb (about 50p). Marisol took out her purse and was going to give the money to the seller, it was just a little amount of money compared to how much Apple’s Mum had paid for our meals.

What absolutely shocked me was the way Apple’s facial expressions changed. In an instant, she changed from an excited, smiling girl to a sad, scared and anxious little girl. She looked around, willing her Mum to come back outside. She said to Marisol

I can’t take your money. I don’t want it anymore. Really, I can’t spend someone else’s money. I don’t want it.

It really surprised me how mature she was in understanding the concept of money, and the way her expressions changed made me feel very moved. She really felt hurt at the idea of spending someone else’s money, rather than her family’s.

In the end, Marisol was victorious and gave Apple the gift, which made her smile again. But this whole situation really surprised me and I wanted to share it with my readers.

The Day I Lost my Face

Face is an Asian and Chinese concept, and losing face is not a good thing. It involves things like feeling embarrassed, being showed up by other people etc. Like if a couple went on a date and the girl paid for dinner, the guy would have lost his face, because traditionally, it should be him paying.

So last week I lost my face…

I’d been on a day trip with my friend Marisol to pick waxberries in her hometown, 千岛湖, which is a beautiful part of Zhejiang, with a huge river created when they built a dam. It’s green, leafy and the air is fresh. We picked waxberries from the little island her father owns as it’s now the season for them. The dark ones are sweet, but the others can be bitter. I ate quite a few while we were picking them and late that evening, Marisol gave me a basket to take home.

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Waxberries don’t keep too well, so you need to eat them fast. I’d already eaten enough that day, so on my way back to my house, I passed by my 兰州拉面 restaurant (a Halal noodle restaurant that’s popular in China). The owners are always very friendly to me and specially make me noodles depending on how I’m feeling.

I saw the man outside and offered him the waxberries. He said no thanks. I said go on, just have a couple, we just picked them from Thousand Island Lake. He refused again. I was like please, there’s too many for me, just take some. He refused again, so I walked away. Half way down the road I realised why he’d said no…

It’s Ramadan and it was still daytime.

I definitely lost my face, and haven’t returned there since.