Posh hotel in the middle of nowhere

Or, The Start-of-Term Conference.

Yes, it’s that time of the year again when we get sent off to some exotic location and then have to sit around being professionally developed. This year we were sent off to the Crowne Plaza Hotel near the panda place north of Chengdu. The hotel was seriously posh. This was not one of those hotels where the lobby looks nice and the rooms are in a lower tax bracket. My bed was so wide that it was wider than a normal bed is long. The pillows were so soft that they ate my head. This was a bit of a nuisance.

From the window I could see a small village in the distance, but it all looked a little fake to me. The ridge of a hill came down from the left. Nearer to the hotel there was a fake church and down below me a swimming pool with a fake beach and a pavilion. The place was being advertised as a location for weddings. Part way down the hill was the word “Starkey” in large letters. This seemed to have something to do with some sort of charity event which was concurrent with our gathering. To the left were some housing units and to the right some blocks of flats, both of which seem to have been completed on the outside, but were lacking anything on the inside. Other buildings in the area were occupied.

Getting to the hotel provided some entertainment. The coach headed eastwards around the 3rd Ring Road from the airport and hit the turn-off to the 4th Ring Road where there are extensive roadworks. We already knew by this time that the driver wasn’t really sure where he was going, and we went slightly past the intersection before reversing into traffic to turn right. We went up the road and eventually found a big sign saying 保利198园 where we turned left and went into a car park which was clearly unused, drove around it, and went back out. Then we turned left again, but the driver decided sooner rather than later that he’d made another mistake, and we went back to the main road. We then saw a sign which indicated the hotel, and from the third turn, the hotel was visible.

The following evening as we came back from the conference dinner, another coach driver went quite a way down the second turn-off before deciding he’d taken a wrong turn. There was a second coach following him, too.

But it doesn’t stop there. The hotel ran a shuttle bus service to the city. When we came back the night before last, the driver seems to have headed up the other side of the roadworks I mentioned above only to get us stuck among a convoy of trucks carrying tonnes of soil to the site. They were all doing a dance, driving into some side lane to reverse to go into the site while the trucks which had already entered attempted to exit. The lane was too narrow, the entrance was too narrow (and probably should’ve been in a different place), and it was around midnight by the time we got back to the hotel. It was another instance of imperial efficiency.

However, it’s possible that the driver had found that there were delays on the other side of the site when he was heading to town and was trying an alternative route to speed things up. Didn’t work, but he probably didn’t know that.

The branch of the school out there, 石室北湖, is in the middle of nowhere. I feel sorry for any foreign teachers who might be sent there one day. Unlike the school in Tongzhou, the place isn’t in a proper town. There’s a small village on one side and some blocks of flats under construction a few hundred metres away, but apart from that, there seems to be little or nothing.

The only reason I could see for holding the conference in the middle of nowhere was the size of the auditorium. There were 280 of us this time, and there will be more next year. 石室 wouldn’t have the capacity to seat everyone, I think.

As I implied above, I did manage to get into town and see Linda, which was good. We were going to try meeting at the airport, but we would have had much less time than I would’ve liked.

Departing was a little bumpy. When I went to Chengdu, the woman at check-in here seemed to have problems with my passport, but said nothing about it and issued my boarding pass. The one at the airport in Chengdu revealed that my old passport number had been listed and I had to go to some other desk to get it changed to the new one. The question remains why the woman here allowed me through when the one in Chengdu didn’t.

There are now twenty-five of us here and we’re going to grow a bit more next year. Where we’re going to grow, I don’t know, but we barely have enough space now. I’m now officially schizophrenic being both A-level and IB, but not actually the latter, except I’m treated as if I am. Sort of.

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So the foreigner really did make a mistake

The quirks of the imperial mafia.

Well, as we all know, Gu Kailai got away with murder as the punters ex­pected she probably would. Much as I deplore the culture of whacking people in this country, it would seem that premeditated murder should have got Gu dragged off to some distant field and her brains splattered all over it. As for the defence, I’d assume that Neil Heywood as an Old China Hand would’ve known better than to threaten anyone in Bo Xilai’s family. Will we ever know the truth or come close to it?

Meanwhile all those fat little Asian babies continue their infantile squab­bles about some rocks in the South China Sea. It seems to me that none of them have any clear and unequivocal claim to this particular piece of water since, I expect, they will’ve all been criss-crossing it for centuries.

I’ve been reading stories about some foreigner in Zhengzhou nearly caus­ing a riot by allegedly slapping and spitting on some Chinese woman for bumping into his car. No details about the man himself, but foreigners driving cars here are relatively rare, and in all my time in the Empire, I can only recall ever having seen one, which was in Tiananmen Square in Bei­jing not too long after I arrived. As for his behaviour, if he did indeed assault the woman, he was asking for trouble.

According to the LA Times, there have been changes to the requirements for tourist visas for China. The one which has me scratching my head is the “letter of invitation”, which, the article says, should come from a duly authorised tourism unit. It sounds like the Empire is trying to force tourists to go on package tours rather than just turn up and wander about where they please: more stage management to keep people away from the warts? It would appear to make it difficult for foreigners principally coming here to visit family members or friends. I wouldn’t be too surprised if the im­ple­mentation of these new rules and regulations is haphazard, though. Back in 2005, the Chinese Embassy in London proved to be a monstrous pain in the arse for me because they were still working on the old system after a new one had been introduced.

Tales of the Elders of Ireland

Translated by Ann Dooley and Harry Roe.

I must’ve bought this book over ten years ago at one of Galloway and Porter’s endless sales. I don’t mind having paid £3.00 for it. I would’ve minded if I’d paid the full £6.99 at the time.

The conceit behind this collection of Dinnshenchas (something like “tales of toponyms”) is that Caílte and Oisin, the two senior surviving members of Finn mac Cumaill’s fían, meet St Patrick. For much of the rest of the book, Caílte is explaining to Patrick why certain places in Ireland have certain names. The narrative is punctuated by verses which typically summarise the part of the story which has just been told.

And that’s the whole book.

It might’ve been fascinating stuff for a medieval Irish audience, but it would have been more interesting if it had been more like The Decameron or The Canterbury Tales with, say, Caílte and Oisin telling a tale apiece in each chapter in which they passed on the stories of Finn mac Cumaill and his fían with remarks about toponyms being incidental.

I got the impression that this was really a discursive textbook for schoolboys, or what passed for schoolboys at the time.

Borrow it from your best friend, steal it from your sister, or beg your brother to buy it for you. One for the fanboys. Also sprach Herr Bamboo.

Greenhouse Days

Heat gets in.

Temperatures have been back in the mid 30s again, but unlike the second half of July, the sky is partially overcast, which means that the heat gets in, but doesn’t get out, and the resulting humidity is stifling. These are the days which keep me at home for as much as possible because even just standing outside has me sweating profusely.

News that long-time fugitive, Zhou Kehua, has been killed by the police has me wondering how it’s possible for anyone to remain under the radar for so long in a country where everyone’s lives are public theatre. Perhaps they head out into the countryside where they have friends.

There was a story in the South China Morning Post a few years ago about some crime boss in Guangdong who had operated with impunity for years before he was finally tried and convicted. I could only imagine he was able to do that because he had friends in high places, and I could only suspect that his downfall came from losing those friends.

There’s been a bit of chatter in the expat blogosphere about various long-term expat celebrity 宝贝 departing, and whether this is merely a blip or a trend. It perhaps depends on what you do here, and what your prospects are like in the Real World™ (in spite of the dire state of the economy). I assume that most foreigners still don’t last more than a year or two in China; few last five; and very few last as long as I’ve been here. But even those expats who have managed to survive for ten or more years may suddenly go stir crazy and find that their patience is exhausted. They’ve tolerated conditions here, but decide that enough is enough.

I’ve put together a list of things which might have expats running for the hills. I won’t pretend this is exhaustive or informed, but it’s what comes to mind.

  1. Environment. Bloody dreadful, of course, and you can’t go to Hong Kong to escape it. When I lived just outside of Beijing, the air quality was much better than I was expecting, but I hear that since the Olympics ended, it’s got much worse. This is likely to get expats with children fleeing.
  2. The climate. Roughly speaking, five months of the year it’s too hot; five months it’s too cold (in spite of the latitude), and for the remaining two months, it’s about tolerable.
  3. Culture. There’s a whole range of stuff here such as conspicuous consumption; noise; spitting; disorderliness (e.g. pushing in at the front of queues to make enquiries instead of waiting; lack of traffic courtesy); a lack of consideration; a lack of attention; chicken coop culture; and I’m sure there are other things as well.
  4. Pests. Here we have people who stare or expect that foreigners are a source of amusement and entertainment. How bad it gets depends on where you go. This may not have expats scarpering, but it’s one thing they won’t miss, and it reflects badly on the locals, exposing their utterly lack of sophistication.
  5. Internet censorship. As I’ve said before, this almost certainly affects expats more than it affects the Chinese. It’s bloody annoying to have to fire up Freegate to see some harmless YouTube video, or visit some harmless WordPress blog, or visit any number of innocuous sites online. We don’t really give a damn about those things which make Nanny hot and sweaty, and most of the natives don’t care either.
  6. Medicine. I am a little sceptical about the quality of medical care in China. I also know that hospitals will take you for a financial ride if they can although it’s not just foreigners who might find themselves gouged. This is another one of those things which probably isn’t uppermost in the minds of expats, but could be if they have some sort of long-term illness.
  7. Education. Really one for expats with kids, but if I had a Chinese wife, and we had children, I wouldn’t let my imaginary children near the Chinese education system because of the length of the school day, the length of the school term, and the dubious curriculum. (Hongkongers, beware! You should be worried about the nonsense the Mainland is trying to peddle through your education system.)
  8. Government. This may be where expats trying to run businesses in China come to grief as they try to negotiate their way through an opaque system where the rules will be applied rigorously to you. You, in turn, may not use the rules in the same way.

Ultimately, I don’t think we are seeing anything but a coincidence. A few celebrity expats have decided they’ve had enough at about the same time, but they’re hardly a representative sample.

For 10.5 mid-range EFL teachers

You can have these two marvellously expensive cars.

A Porsche 911 Turbo S and an Aston Martin Rapide
This is what 10.5 mid-range EFL teachers will buy you.

A couple of days ago I was just leaving 远东百货 and spotted a very new Aston Martin (sans reg. plates) parked along the street. Today, I turn up outside the same building, and there’s a white 911 Turbo S.

Did I mention the violently yellow-green Audi R8 I saw a couple of weeks ago and which took about 100m to catch up with me after the lights turned green? I can’t remember, but you’re not misreading that. I, self-propelled and on two wheels, out-powered an Audi R8. Of course, dear reader, you should remember that imperial citizen either start before the light turns green, or spend a few seconds after it turns green before it registers with them that they should go. The Audi did come blasting by, but the driver should’ve been ashamed to have let me get so far ahead of him.

Typhoon Haikui II

The aftermath.

This morning it was still raining, but on a more human scale, but the wind had died away and the rain along with it.

I was able to venture out more boldly at lunchtime. The most visible signs of the typhoon were the barriers on 中山路, which had been shifted to the side of the road, and the sign at the west entrance to 远东百货, which had been ripped to shreds. Pieces of broken strip lights littered the pavement, and a worker, who had climbed out of a small access hatch in the wall, was perched on the narrow metal brackets clearing away the remains of the lights. Oh, and health and safety be damned. No harness or hard hat for this brave chap.

But by lunchtime, the wind had come up again and the clouds were gathering, and we had another downpour accompanied by thunder and lightning earlier this afternoon. It did not last long, and since then the afternoon has been grey and still.

While one raging typhoon passes through, another one is in the dock for murder. My predictions are life imprisonment for her and the butler gets whacked as the sacrificial goat. I wonder if she’ll use the foreigner-must-have-made-a-mistake defence, which is a favourite here when foreigners are involved.

The next day. I went to Parkson because Carrefour was out of Nutella and I was looking for an alternative source. No luck; but the entrances to the underground supermarket had been walled off with a couple of layers of sandbags. I was also watching some footage on YouTube of the effects of the typhoon on Zhejiang, which seems to bear the brunt of the typhoons once they’ve skimmed by Taiwan.

As for The Trial of the Century™, it seems this was the software version. That is, the user sees the front end, but not the workings, which are hidden away. I assume that all the decisions were made long ago and the trial was a formality, a pretence that the decrepit arm of the law was doing, er, something. The defence lawyer needs to be kicked in the nuts for saying that Neil Heywood bore some responsibility for his own murder. See, I told you it’s the old foreigner-made-a-mistake defence. No sign of a sentence yet.

Typhoon Haikui

Wet and windy. What were you expecting?

Yup, Typhoon Haikui has been beating down on the city most of the day. The weather has veered between light torrential rain (you can see the Hongdou Building) and heavy torrential rain (you can see an outline of the Hongdou Building). The lane out the back is completely flooded, which means that the garages down there are probably the better part of a metre underwater. Meanwhile, I’m not immune even up here because rainwater has been being blown in around the east-facing windows. My door has also been making farty noises for much of the day.

I needed to go to 远东百货 to do a little shopping. Because the weather had got especially bad, I waited for it to improve. It did improve, but only when I was looking out of the window. I got downstairs and the Biblical deluge was back. (I think I saw Noah sail past waving at me; well, he was making some sort of gesture at me.) One of the staff in 远东百货 remarked that I needed a large umbrella, but it was hard not to look like a drowned rat which had been dragged backwards through a garden hedge by a cat afflicted with mange. And I did need to go out or tea tonight would be a thin affair.

A couple of days ago, the Shanghai Met Office (or whatever they call themselves) had issued a fairly low-level alert, which was then raised to orange and then, earlier today, to red. It seems we’ve got more of the same tomorrow. Time to get my flippers out and quack like a duck.

The Tain

Translated by Thomas Kinsella.

Kinsella’s Tain is taken from various sources. It begins with prefatory tales about Conchobor and the pangs of Ulster, Cúchulainn and the origins of the bulls. The bulk of the epic is about Cúchulainn’s defence of Ulster while the Ulstermen are debilitated, and ends with their recovery and a skirmish, which is then eclipsed by the battle between the white and brown bulls. The latter is victorious, but eventually falls dead. (Irish text with parallel translation by Joseph Dunn [1914]; or try the web comic by Patrick Brown.)

I may have read this version before because certain parts of it resonated with me such as the devastation which Cúchulainn wrought on the army from Connacht with his sling. But I also know the tales from other sources, which is why it took me so long to read it.

Stylistically, the central part of the story is episodic as Cúchulainn fights one opponent or many one after the other. It’s not revealed until later that he has been badly wounded as a result of his encounters. He fights, he wins; but the verbal jousting before the encounter tends to be more important than most of the fights. I can understand that because describing the actual hitting part rapidly gets monotonous, and once Cúchulainn has done the apple feat once, you’re seen it.

What interests me on this occasion is the genesis of the story. I would assume that the epic has such a long history of accretions that it’s difficult to see some ur-text beyond “a cattle raid”. Are any of the characters original to the story or did all the names – Conchobor, Cúchulainn, Ailill, Medb, Fergus etc. – get added as the tale evolved into an epic? What does it all mean? When Derdriu smashes her head against a stone in a casual act of suicide, what’s the real story? Human sacrifice? (Also the idiot who clowns about and cuts his head off on the edge of his shield.) What is Cúchulainn? A humanised sky god who got sucked into the story? What’s the real story behind his fight with Ferdia (or, Ferdiad)? What’s significant about him fighting in a ford? What are the bulls meant to mean beyond wealth? What do their colours mean, if anything?

I come out of The Tain on this occasion with a lot of questions to which I have no definite answers.

One of our Thursdays is Missing

By Jasper Fforde.

Thursday Next has gone missing and only one woman can find her – Thursday Next, er, the written Thursday Next.

With her faithful mechanical butler, Spockett, in tow (Jeeves to her Wooster), Thursday uncovers a plot to undermine the talks aimed at preventing a war in Book World because there’s a huge reserve of metaphor just waiting to be tapped.

This is not as bad as First Among Sequels, but it is a shadow of the original books in the series. It doesn’t seem to be as overlarded with Book World technobabble as the previous volume was, but it’s still there. The story tends to plod along, and even the occasional car chase or encounter with the Men in Plaid doesn’t really do anything much for it. It was when Thursday goes to Fforde’s fictional real world with Goliath, the Socialist Republic of Wales (not always raining), and Neanderthals that I was reminded how much more interesting that world was in comparison with Book World. It perhaps also helped that the real world wasn’t accompanied by more technobabble.

I don’t think I did myself any favours by reading this in a piecemeal fashion, but it says something about the book if I could put it down for a day or two or even longer, and not even feel remotely bothered about neglecting it.

Fforde should have stopped this series with Well of Lost Plots to which he might have added a brief appendix about what eventually happened to Thursday Next and have left it at that. If someone wants to buy me The Woman Who Died A Lot (Thursday Next Vol. 7, which came out last month, which was July 2012 at the time of writing), I won’t say no, but I don’t think I’ll be buying it myself.

Knowledge and Power – The Akkadian language: grammar and vocabulary

Knowledge and Power – The Akkadian language: grammar and vocabulary.

I’ve been looking at Akkadian again recently, and having found a searchable dictionary of Akkadian online (in French and English), I found the page about the language above. As it says, it’s a simple introduction to Akkadian, but it is clear in a way that Caplice’s Introduction to Akkadian is not. (I see there’s now a 4th edition of that book.)

There’s also whole range of other material on the site including topics of general interest about Assyria in the 7th century BC. Worth a visit.