Showing our usual disregard for cultural sensitivities

How not to have a holiday in China

We bought our timeshare in February 2000. We were on holiday in Bali, which sounds very exotic, when you live in Europe or US. Bali is to Australia what certain parts of Spain are to England, and I’m sure there’s an American equivalent – you know the kind of place. Cheapest overseas holiday you can get, lots of young blokes on their annual footy club trip making the most of the cheap grog. Girls with peroxide and earrings in equal amounts also tend to congregate in such areas. We’d been looking for a timeshare for some time. We weren’t particularly interested in the timeshare itself, but the ultra cheap bonus weeks/instant escapes from RCI (a timeshare exchange company) which would be ideal for us as we take 5 or 6 one week holidays each year. Our first experience with RCI wasn’t quite what I’d expected. I phoned in early March, wanting a bonus week beginning 5th May. Didn’t care where – whatever looks good. That seemed to stump them a bit. You must know where you want to go? Nope. Airfares to Europe are a bit expensive at the moment, but anywhere else will be considered. But you can’t plan a holiday if you don’t know which country you want to go to. So, surprise me. She wouldn’t. Qantas had cheap fares on to South America, so we decided on either Chile or Argentina. We picked out the best of a very good bunch and put it on hold, but I couldn’t get flights for the days we wanted. Starting all over the next day (with a different RCI staffer), I asked what availability was in the Asia region. Which country? Any, whatever looks good. Begrudgingly, she went through the entire region. There were heaps to choose from (all AU$299 for a week) in Malaysia, Thailand, Korea, Taiwan and (the one that caught my attention) Hangzhou in China. Qantas had cheapie fares to Shanghai, so I booked it all on the spur of the moment. Peter got very worried. He was never quite sure about the timeshare thing at all. His idea of a holiday is a package, where the nice man from the Sheraton picks us up at the airport and carries our case into the hotel reception and does the same in reverse when it’s time to go home

I should say that Peter isn’t anything like me. He’s quiet, shy, affable, will do anything for a quiet life and will do anything for anybody. He once towed a complete stranger some 25 km in the opposite direction to home. After we’d been married a year or so we were out shopping and he pulled a face when I picked up a cauliflower. I asked him why, and eventually he told me he really didn’t like it. “But we had lunch at your mum’s last Sunday, you ate it there” “Yeah I know, but she’s gone to the trouble of making it…” 21 years he’d been eating cauliflower because he didn’t want to upset his mother by telling her he didn’t like it. I’m the kind of person that some will always take an instant dislike to – very strong personality – but I’m yet to meet anyone who hasn’t taken an instant liking to Peter. The fact that he’s always giggling and laughing about something helps. He’s also quite hapless and very accident prone – the only person I know to have actually set something on fire inside a microwave, and in a totally unrelated incident 10 years later blew a hole in the door of our last one. One day I’ll write a book on some of his better disasters – like putting my car in neutral instead of park (he’s not used to automatics), not making sure it was properly engaged and then seeing it jump into reverse with the weight shift as he got out. You’d think the only place you’d see someone chasing an empty car down a street would be in a cartoon wouldn’t you? I was quite literally on the pavement on my knees holding my sides because I was laughing so much. By this time, Peter had realised we weren’t just going get into a hotel limo or taxi at the airport and going to the resort, but I figured the less he knew, the less he had to worry about. What if we can’t find the station? What if we can’t get a ticket? What if we don’t know which platform? What if we miss the train? What if we get off at the wrong stop? What if we can’t find a taxi? I told him I’d been on the net, and had everything worked out. Just a little white lie, but he never learns. He’s so trusting.

The RCI information from the resort was shockingly bad. It gave directions from Shanghai as by air or rail – all flights to Hangzhou stopped about 2 years earlier - gave directions to give to a taxi driver (in English of course, because as we know all taxi drivers are multi-lingual) and gave a contact email address in case we wanted to arrange the resort to pick us up. I sent 3 messages before getting a response, 200 RMB pick up from airport. But there are no flights – why are you quoting airport pickup? How much for pick up from railway station? Still 200 RMB (info sheet said airport 16km, railway station 8km or half the distance). I started to smell a smelly thing. I’d earlier posted a message on the Lonely Planet site asking approximate taxi fare from Shanghai airport to city to avoid being taken literally for a ride, and this 200 RMB seemed to be an awful lot of money compared to the prices/distance in Shanghai. I wrote back, indicating concern over the price, and the price became 200 RMB round trip – still don’t know if that was each or total. Once there, we discovered a taxi was 25 RMB each way, public transport 2 RMB!!

We got off to a good start – upgraded to Business Class, but we were late getting to the airport and then were delayed out of Melbourne to Sydney which meant I didn’t have enough time to get a couple of spare tapes for our new digital video camera in Sydney duty free – didn’t worry though as there’d be a chance to pick up duty free on arrival in Shanghai. Wrong. And we got into the wrong customs queue – you know, the one that doesn’t move. We switched queues. The one that doesn’t move transferred itself to the one we had moved to. We changed queues no less than 6 times before finally clearing customs. As soon as we were out, a middle aged man and teenage boy came up to Peter asking for his autograph. They kept saying “movie star”. This set off a chain reaction, everyone thinking he must be famous if people wanted his autograph and we were fair mobbed, not to mention attracting a lot of attention from the gun-wielding guards. Outside, we were quoted various ridiculous prices for a taxi – we only knew them to be 3 or 4 times the going rate because of the helpful people on the Lonely Planet site. Just goes to show, it’s worth doing a bit of research. We actually managed to match the cheapest price I’d seen any of the Lonely Planeters get.

The Holiday Inn was indeed close to the station – our room looked straight onto it. A 2 minute walk as the crow flies, but so many people milling about it took a good 10 minutes to get there on Thursday night. We had decided to check it out ready for the next morning, as I’d read that there was a special ticket window for foreigners. There wasn’t, but someone kindly pointed us to the hotel next door to the station. I then remembered having read that railway tickets could be bought from the Longman Hotel adjacent to the station, and it was worth the couple of dollars booking fee as they had English speaking staff. They didn’t. We were ignored at the reception desk for a good 10 minutes, then spent another 5 minutes trying to explain what we wanted before finally resorting to “choo choo” noises. I don’t think they have Thomas the Tank Engine in China. They didn’t seem to recognise the tune. We were pointed to a grubby looking office – it appeared to us that someone must lease it from the hotel. The man in front of us - an Afro American who appeared to speak fluent Chinese - wasn’t able to get the ticket he wanted and was incredibly rude to the lady behind the desk. This rudeness was something we quickly got used to. We then got our first taste of the Chinese inability to queue. A businessman, complete with briefcase and suit walked into the office just as the other man was leaving the counter. He almost (but didn’t quite touch) elbowed me out of the way – this was a window, not a long desk. I used my most condescending tone to say “excuse me” and gave him my best “look” and stood my ground. He looked very surprised, as if he wasn’t used to people complaining about pushing in. The lady didn’t speak English, but the Chinese pronounce Hangzhou the way you would imagine, 2 fingers for 2 tickets. She started punching into the computer and I managed to convey to her with sign language tomorrow morning, not tonight. She came up with 2 seats on the 7.30am train, but as we couldn’t get into the resort too early, we managed to change that to 10.00am. Easy as that. Not a word of common language, and we’d booked and paid for train tickets – correct tickets AND not the first ones offered either. I was feeling quite proud of myself.

The RCI instructions to give to the taxi driver were to go to FutureWorld theme park, and Dreamlake resort is right next door. We got an English speaking receptionist at Holiday Inn to write FutureWorld for us in Chinese, but he couldn’t translate Dreamlake – no problems, it’s next door. I’d read that Hangzhou was a huge tourist area for locals and we’d find thousands of Chinese but few foreigners there. I got Peter to ask a Chinese-born colleague to write a few basics on cards like Where Is The Toilet and I Need A Policeman in Chinese script. No need, she told him. Big tourist area. Loads of people will speak English. I’d read very differently, but didn’t want to spook Peter so I shrugged my shoulders. She also gave him a lot of reassurance by telling him that Hangzhou was a fantastic place, a bit like the Gold Coast with lots of theme parks and old monuments and that loads of her relatives had been there for holidays.

On Friday morning there were so many people about, it actually took us 20 minutes to walk the 2 minute crow flight to the station, but that wasn’t a problem as Peter had insisted that we leave the hotel an hour before the train departure time, just in case we couldn’t find the right platform. Outside the station, I was videoing the veritable throng of people when a light started flashing on the camera and I realised that I still hadn’t got the new tapes. There was a huge department store opposite the station, and I figured that they would have to sell them, so I took the tape out of the video, left Peter with the suitcase, and off I went. No words were necessary, one look at the tape and a very sullen sales assistant pointed me upstairs. On the next floor, it took a couple of goes to get one of the even more sullen assistants to recognise the tape and point me up to the next floor. So it continued until I reached the 5th floor and found the VCR department and matched the tape I had. One clerk to write out a docket, one clerk on the other side of the shop to accept payment, one clerk on another side of the shop to sign the docket confirming payment, and finally one clerk to hand over the tape. Each one letting me know how much I was inconveniencing them. I strongly suspect they have full employment in China. Obviously not in the job of their choice, most of these people were sullen to the point of being rude and many tried very hard to ignore me – not a good to do to someone with a temperament like mine. I could understand people trying to pretend they hadn’t noticed me if they thought I wanted to ask something and they wouldn’t be able to understand what I was saying, but I didn’t even try talking – I just had a smile and a questioning look on my face and showed the tape. It was like this with just about everything we bought.

Back at the station, Peter was looking very sorry for himself. He told me never, ever to leave him on his own again. He’d been hit on, big time, by beggars and people trying to sell him tickets and other assorted things. Inside the station it was easy, although I was a little perturbed to have our suitcase and hand luggage put through what turned out to be an explosives scanning machine – apparently a lot of people buy their explosives in Shanghai and just take them home on the train. We showed official-looking people the tickets and they pointed us in the general direction. Announcements were in Chinese and a kind of English, so there was no way we were going to go wrong. At this time, we also had our first taste of being stared at. I don’t mean the odd sideways glance, but open-eyed, open-mouthed and, quite often, people stopping in their tracks stares. Not quite so much in Shanghai, but in Hangzhou there were people who must never have seen a westerner in the flesh before. I actually have on video a bloke, walking smack into a signpost because he was cricking his neck staring at us and not watching where he was going!! We had our photo’s taken dozens of times with various families, and in McDonalds for a cup of coffee one morning a man came in, sat at the table next to us and stared at us in wide-eyed amazement. Didn’t order anything, didn’t say anything. Just sat and stared. The few westerners we saw reacted to this in different ways. Some were clearly offended and very rude, some were embarrassed and some got angry and stared back. We’re a bit different. We thought it was a hoot, and as soon as we started laughing, the people staring usually cracked a smile too. They probably thought we were lunatics. They could be right.
The train turned out to be an express and Hangzhou was the first station, about 2 hours. Without asking the lady who sold us the tickets had allocated us “soft seats”. Seating was reserved, padded and in clean carriages with the only other passengers “rich” clean people – mostly soldiers. The less than quarter price ordinary carriages had wooden boards for seats if you were lucky enough to get one, no reservations and passengers packed in like sardines.

When we arrived, the sign on the platform was in English, but just to be sure Peter said “Hangzhou” to the people sitting behind us and they nodded. We got off and were thinking about taxi’s and how we’d know if the driver was taking us to Adelaide via Sydney, and I realised we were in a bus depot. I left Peter with the case – he tried to insist that he came with me, even if it did mean lugging the heavy case around in 30+ degrees Celsius - and found a portacabin where several drivers were having smoke break. I showed them the piece of paper with FutureWorld written on it, and after staring open-mouthed and speechless for around a minute and a half, they had a bit of a conflab and one of them wrote 599 on the piece of paper. Another one then took me outside and pointed to bus number 599. I headed off in the opposite direction to get Peter and had 3 drivers running after me trying to steer me towards the 599 bus. It took a bit of explaining, but Peter had been hit on by beggars again and had come looking for me. When we got on the bus, I had lots of strange currency, and held about $20 worth of notes to the driver. Very unhappily, he took a 5 RMB note (about $1) from me. Showed him the FutureWorld piece of paper and tried to get him to understand that we wanted him to tell us when we got there. He didn’t understand at all. As other people got on, we realised just how many rules we had broken, and how these people had gone out of their way to help. Firstly, no one is allowed to speak to the driver, and he isn’t allowed to speak to anyone. Secondly, the driver is not allowed to touch money. They have machines that you put the correct fare (2 RMB) into. He took the money from another passenger, put my 5 RMB note and one of the other mans RMBs into the machine and gave me 1RMB change. Broke just about every rule in his book. Peter was still worried that he wouldn’t tell us where to get off – I didn’t care because the people seemed to be helpful enough, but as soon as the he started the engine another driver got on. She was as mean looking as anyone I’ve ever seen and I wasn’t game to ask her to tell us where to get off. Ever seen South Park? This was the bus driver from South Park. In both appearance and demeanour. As we pulled away, she shouted as one fellow passenger for opening a window as she’d just put the air conditioner on – how were they to know? She barked at another one for taking up two seats with a shopping bag – the bus wasn’t full – and she really went for someone else for reasons we couldn’t understand. I wanted to get the video out, knowing that no one would ever believe it, but was scared to move in case she shouted at me. The best was yet to come. She stopped the bus by the side of the road (not at a bus stop), opened the door, hurled a stream of venomous abuse at a man standing on the pavement, closed the door and drove off. I had to avoid looking at Peter, because I could hear him coughing (covering up giggles) and I knew if I caught his eye, I’d have lost it completely.

I was getting worried after about 30 minutes – the info sheet said about 8km from the railway station, and we’d gone a lot further than that but as we later found, the 599 bus goes right around the West Lake in the opposite direction to FutureWorld – the 8 km is as the crow flies, not how the roads are laid. Anyway, we eventually were the last passengers on the bus, and drove into a terminal. This mad driver got out of her seat and came over to us. Peter was visibly shrinking back in his seat, but she indicated we should get off, and pointed us in the direction of what we found to be FutureWorld – obviously the drivers in the smoko room had told her all about us. It was here that our real problems started. It was over 30 degrees, we were hot and bothered and had to find the resort. We walked past the entrance to the theme park and found a business centre side of it. We stood around looking lost and hopeless. Very often that does the trick and someone will come up to you. It didn’t. We ventured into one of the offices. There was a huge conflab, and several phone calls made before we were given the phone to speak to someone in very broken English – too broken to be understood. We pretended we were fine, said thank you and walked back outside. I had the RCI confirmation, and showed it to a security guard. He shrugged his shoulders and showed it to several of his mates and thankfully one of them recognised the RCI logo and pointed. We walked. And walked. And walked. I knew we were in the right area – the shape (if not the condition) of the buildings were exactly as the RCI photos. The biggest problem was that the resort isn’t called Dreamlake, but Utopia Villa’s. We finally found a very small RCI logo and breathed a sigh of relief. From the outside, it didn’t look much like the pictures on the web site. Like everything else in China, it was very grubby and needed a good clean. In we walked – the reception area was surprisingly clean - handed over the confirmation and waited. The four staff looked from one to another (two of them stared open-mouthed at us) and after a minute or so an older man came in saw the RCI letter, seemed to know what to do and barked a few orders to the others. It became apparent that nobody in the whole place spoke a word of English. The case was whipped from Peter and carried up 2 flights of stairs (so much for the elevator). I was concerned to see a dog kennel under the stairs in reception (so much for the strictly no pets policy) as we were ushered upstairs to the room. Talk about a shock. In the corridor outside the room (polished floorboards) was a neat little pile of doggy-doo. Inside the room – where do you start? There had obviously been a recent, large influx of water through the roof, leaving a lot of water stains on ceiling, walls and carpet. The giant-king sized bed was freshly made and what I could see of the sheets and pillowcases looked clean enough, but the floor hadn’t been vacuumed. Previous occupants must have had a party judging by the rubbish and old-fashioned canned drink ring-pulls on the floor. I pointed to the floor – they looked confused. I used sign language for vacuum cleaner. They looked surprised, but within 5 minutes a couple of young girls came in and vacuumed the floor. I gave them the benefit of the doubt as we were there a good 3 hours before official check in time. While the floor was being vacuumed I’d inspected the bathroom and towels – both showing signs of age but very clean. I’d pulled the bedding down, and the bedding and sheets were scrupulously clean, so not all was lost. I had to catch the cleaning girls as they were going down the stairs to get them to clean up to doggie-doo – you wouldn’t think I’d have to ask. A lot of what we thought was rubbish on the carpet was actually stains. Peter was in need of a cup of very sweet tea. He had this horrified look on his face and kept shaking his head, but saying nothing. I knew I had to do something. He’d never been too keen on going anywhere where everything down to the last breakfast voucher wasn’t arranged in advance. Either I do something or we have a ruined holiday and, worse still, be condemned to a lifetime of package holidays. Quick thinking and the female manipulative gene had to take over. As soon as the door was closed I burst out laughing. At first he kept up the head shaking, but laughter is infectious, and eventually it combined with the head shaking, giving us a big sulky lower lip and “It’s not funny” between giggles. The air conditioner was very effective, and the cable TV had 4 English language channels and 3 Chinese cartoon channels so that cheered him up a bit. There were quite a few toiletries and some yucky green tea and some other kind of Chinese teabags, but we never leave home without a box of teabags. Took us almost an hour to work out how to use the funny kettle though, and no fridge meant that we wouldn’t be able to buy fresh milk and had to use our emergency supply of powdered milk(I hate that stuff) until we could get to shops to buy more. Not that we could have bought fresh milk. They don’t have it – not from cows anyway. We were offered buffalo milk at one stage, but respectfully declined.

We unpacked, and decided to go for a look around. In reception, we tried to convey the idea of a resort directory or map or anything to tell us where everything was. No understandy. The “grocery store” was a glass display cabinet in reception containing toiletries, soft drinks and some horrid looking dried fish. We went for a look-see. Couldn’t find most of the facilities listed on the info sheet, but there was a very basic gym – cost $10 per use even to guests, and a swimming pool with very green water. We left home just as the third person had died from the legionnaire disease outbreak at the new Aquatic Centre, so we were a bit weary about water anyway. OK, so it was just the start of the tourist season, but ii was incredibly hot. By the end of the week, the pool had been emptied and was being cleaned out. I still wonder if this was spurred by my horrified look when the lady at the gym/pool area showed us around. It also appeared that there was a $10 charge to use the pool, but we didn’t go into it. We went back to the room, having decided that RCI only had half a dozen or so of the units and the rest seemed to be privately owned or unassociated hotel type operations. The grounds were kept very neat and tidy – we saw two or three people sweeping leaves, but the white buildings were so grimy and black they needed a good hose down or new coat of paint. Either the photo’s on RCI are very old or have been touched up. We found most of China was like this – no maintenance done anywhere. One of the girls from reception came up to our room – they’d obviously figured out what we wanted, and gave us a brochure for the resort. All in Chinese of course, but with a few pictures and more importantly the name and address in Chinese characters so if we got lost we could show it to a taxi driver to get us back. We were getting a bit hungry and didn’t want to eat in the resort restaurant. Not that we’d been able to find it. We could see a housing estate and a shopping strip about one kilometer away, so we headed there. It turned out to be more like 3 km, but didn’t matter as it was cooling down and interesting. Cars and bikes were almost coming off the road as the drivers stared at us, and as we passed a block of flats word must have spread like wildfire because dozens of people were soon hanging out of windows to have a look. I wish we’d taken the video. But as before, and always after, we laughed at people when they stared at us and they laughed or smiled back. There were no interesting shops – motorcycle repair and farm equipment, and the few eateries didn’t look fit for human habitation let alone food preparation, so we opted for the resort restaurant if we could make the people on reception understand what we wanted.
We did the sign language thing for eating – took us a while to figure out why they were giving us blank looks. If using sign language for eating in China, don’t use knife and fork motions. They use chopsticks. They don’t understand knife and fork motions. After a lot of discussion they took us to a building exactly the same as the one we were in. The “restaurant” appeared to be a one bedroom unit, with 3 tables in the lounge and kitchen in the bedroom. There was no menu. We shrugged our shoulders and asked what was yummy yummy . There was a bit of comical sign language involving “moo” and “chuck chuck” with appropriate horns and Chicken Tonight arm movements. Mine wasn’t too bad, fried rice and chicken, but it wasn’t that great. Peter got beef and noodles. The noodles had been soaked in oil, cooked in oil, and then soaked in oil again, just in case there wasn’t enough oil in it. It was the worst thing you can imagine. We were the only customers. Not surprising. The one waitress and the chef stood (very discreetly) watching our attempts with chopsticks. After a while, the waitress very proudly produced 2 knives and forks. They didn’t match, but it was a nice gesture as they obviously thought we needed help. They were then fascinated – watching the way we handled cutlery!

On holiday we always get an early start, and walk miles. No alarm clock? No problem. We were awake at 4.30am. Partly the yapping little dog in our building, partly the huge Doberman in a unit across the road, which appeared to be a holiday house. Then at 5.30am, it was obviously time to start work. The Chinese seem to have no consideration for others. One up, all up. Staff (at least two of whom seemed to live in a room in our building) banged, clattered, had spitting competitions, slammed and shouted. Someone was sliding a shovel against gravel – we saw no evidence of actual work – and every 30 seconds or so cleared his throat and had a good big spit. If you’ve ever been to China, you’ll know all about the spitting. It’s not so much the spitting, but the hoik noise made before the act itself. There is currently a government campaign in major cities to stop the practice, as it is one of the things most often complained about in surveys by western tourists. That, and the official Double-Price-For-Round-Eyes policy, which has now been withdrawn officially, but many still think they are doing their patriotic duty for the good of the country by adhering to this policy. Peter still had been convinced to see the funny side of things. Fawlty Towers, except we couldn’t “Register a Complaint” because no one spoke English. We had a couple of caffine fixes and got ready for a day on the road. We needed a map badly. Shortly after leaving the train station, in between entertainment stints from the bus driver from hell, I’d seen several department stores and the ever present McDonalds, so figured if we got on the 599, the worse thing that would happen would be missing that stop and ending up back at the railway station. We were a bit early – we discovered that the first bus left the FutureWorld terminal at 7.30, which left us with 15 minutes or so to be stared at by passing motorists and pedestrians. One was so shocked to see us, she hoiked but, having noticed us mid-hoik didn’t spit, choosing instead to stand in front of us with her eyes, but thankfully not her mouth, open.
We had the bus system licked. 2 RMB each into the money machine and take a metal seat – good to hose down and keep clean, but a bit hard on the old botty. And boy, did they need cleaning. I lost count of the number of people hoiking and bobbing their heads down. As we progressed, the bus filled up more and more. Hangzhou is a fair sized city (about 2.5 million) and we were in the rush hour. By the time we got into town, I’d never been on a bus with so many people. An old lady got on, and Peter automatically got up to give her his seat. Some spotty faced kid tried to jump in. I gave him the look and put a stop to that, but no amount of sign language could convince the lady to take the weight off her feet. There were no bells or anything, the bus pulled into every stop automatically. As the bus slowed down, the announcement that presumably told you the name of the stop came over loudspeakers. It was the most annoying, grating, loud female voice I’ve ever heard, and the announcement lasted so long it was obviously praising the good grace and works of the generous and benevolent Peoples Government or some other such thing every time it came over. Very tedious. And very, very loud.
We arrived in the city centre, found McDonalds and got some real-ish coffee and, as Peter had decided real Chinese food was not to his liking, a burger for breakfast. The table wipers got into a bit of a flap when we quite automatically went to empty our tray in the bin. They were trying to take it off us. The Chinese don’t clean up after themselves. On a major intersection just outside was a truck with a loud speaker blaring – and I really mean blaring - recorded messages. I swear it was the same woman as on the bus. Again we assumed that this must be the political indoctrination/education that we westerners keep hearing about. We also found bike-parks. Thousands and thousands of push bikes, lining up and paying the fee to the parking inspector. Also saw someone sticking fines on illegally parked ones, and a truck taking away they very illegally parked ones. Each bike had a registration plate, just like cars. Almost without exception, they were identical old black boneshakers with little wire baskets on the front. If you’d forgotten where you’d parked, you’d never find it.

Then we set off on our mission for the day. I’d read in Lonely Planet that the sockets were 3-pronged Aus/NZ type, and at a glance they are. Closer inspection revealed the prongs to be on a slightly different angle, and no amount of force would connect our video camera battery charger to the electricity. We though it might be just a bodgey socket and tried a couple of others, but they were all the same. Odd thing is that in Shanghai, they were indeed exactly the same as in Australian. We needed an adaptor. We didn’t speak Chinese and by now Peter had realised the lady at work had lied and no one in the entire city of Hangzhou spoke a word of English. Powdered milk? Easy peasy. Sign language for an adapter? This was to be our mission. To make matters worse, the angle of the pins was only about 2 degrees out. To the naked eye, no adaptor was needed. Try and explain that one. We took the power cord along to help, but this was going to be hard work. There were 2 huge stores, one of which was the government owned Friendship Store, the other looked a bit like any other upmarket department store. We figured the government owned one would be cheaper. It wasn’t, and where they came up with the name Friendship Store is beyond me. Turns out that the shop I’d bought the tape from in Shanghai was also a Friendship Store, and this one was exactly the same. Same high staff to customer ratio. Same sullen ignore-customers-at-all-costs attitude, special effort if customer looks like they might need help, extra special effort if they look like westerners and top notch effort if they are westerners who might need help. The videotape was pretty easy. At least everyone knew what it was and pointed to the escalators until I reached the 5th floor then pointed in the appropriate direction. Waving around a powercord from a battery charger presented new problems. Some staff just looked at us – no smile of greeting, no change in expression, no shrug of shoulders in an “I don’t know what you want” manner. Just a rude, almost hateful look. We trailed through the whole 6 floors before finding the electrical department. Started off at the video section. They thought we wanted a new powercord. “No, no. Cord no fitty hole in wall”. Blank look. Much sign language to demonstrate cord no fitty hole in wall. More blank looks. Walked through to the inner sanctum (shock horror) behind the display cabinets, found a lamp or something connected to the electricity and used sign language for our plug not same size. In desperation, used sign language for this plug fits Australia but not China and did the Kangaroo hopping thing. That should have at least cracked a smile. It didn't. Peter started giggling, and I’m not surprised – I must’ve looked pretty stupid. No smiles. More blank looks as well as angry looks for daring to step behind the counter. Understandable to a point, because the plugs were very similar to the local ones. Just not quite the right angle. We gave up and went to the small appliance section. Same routine, same blank looks. Same ridiculous kangaroo hopping – at least these ones thought I looked stupid enough to almost break into a smile. Perhaps it’s against the rules to show any sign of friendship in the Friendship Store. Suffice to say I was attracting quite a bit of attention from other customers - people who had previously been staring open mouthed at me just for having round eyes. God alone must know what their impression of westerners is now. Peter’s usual ploy in such situations of distancing himself and pretending he’s not with me wasn’t working. We were the only two pairs of round eyes within a hundred mile radius. In the whitegoods section, we finally cracked it. A young bloke realised what we wanted. They didn’t sell them. Tried to get him to write in Chinese characters the name of what we wanted, but nothing I did would persuade him. There was a bridge over the road to the other department store, so we decided to try there. On top of the bridge we found that there was a mezzanine floor with a good old shopping mall style foodcourt. No McDonalds or KFC, nothing in English, but at least we could see and choose, which meant that we wouldn’t be spending the next week eating burgers, and the food here looked a bit better than what we’d had the previous night.
So, into the department store we went. This is more like it. Gucci, Rolex, Armani, Estee Lauder. Staff here would speak English for sure. They didn’t. We found the electrical department under our own steam, and were pleasantly surprised to find that the majority of sales assistants weren’t sullen or rude and seemed to be trying quite hard to find out what we wanted. It was just a bit difficult. Eventually, I spotted a heavily overloaded powerboard behind one of the counters. I made a grab for it, indicating that this was what I needed, but that my plug wouldn’t fit in the holes. Success at last. A girl actually accompanied us to the other side of the floor and told someone there what we wanted. Hey presto! We wanted a single adaptor. We really didn’t want a 6-outlet multi-nation power board, but it was only a few dollars and I just couldn’t be bothered. This whole thing had taken us more than 3 hours. We’d worked up an appetite and decided to give the foodcourt a go.

Around and around we wandered. Just like the Australian foodcourts, each outlet sold different kinds of food (including some pretty dodgy looking burgers) but all the staff were wearing the same uniform, so the whole thing must’ve belonged to either the department store or the Friendship Store. Serving staff smiled at us and encouraged us to try their wares. Must have been the department store. They were too friendly for the Friendship Store. We finally settled on one. We could see someone coming out from behind the counter with some really yummy looking beef or lamb stew or curry or something so Peter pointed to it. The girl pulled out a plate with raw meat and veggies on it. Peter took the horrors. “No, no. Same as that one”. The girl indicated that she was giving it to someone to cook. Goodo. I settled for a plate of fried rice, which they though quite odd. They kept pointing at other things, probably to go with it, but the rice looked good enough to me. We paid, and they pointed to tables, so we sat down and waited. I realised that we hadn’t bought a drink, so I went to the burger counter and got a coke. That was a drama in itself, because I don’t like ice in my coke. Imagine the sign language there. When I got back, our meals had been delivered. My fried rice was spot on, Peter’s meal even better. We also had a small bowl of soup that we hadn’t asked for but everyone else seemed to have one too. I hope it was free. It tasted like dishwater.

Peter and chopsticks don’t mix all that well. He tends to try for a few mouthfuls then get sick of the messing about and resorts to other ways of using them. Balancing is a favourite, but dangerous as the food usually falls off before hitting his mouth, and more often than not, falls onto his clothes rather than the plate. Stabbing is the other preferred method, but not terribly easy as all chopsticks are blunt ended, but the disposable ones you get in the foodcourts are not quite as strong as the plastic ones we get at home and they tend to break. Easly. The girls behind the counter were gathered up quite close to us. Peter was facing them (of course). Very discreetly, but very closely, they watched and watched. Peter knew they were watching, and he laughed at them, which set them off into giggles. Staff at other outlets were also having a bit of a peep and a bit of a giggle. In the end, he gave up on the chopsticks altogether and started using the little pottery spoon that came with the dishwater/soup. This was very amusing to everybody, especially when he started using his broken chopstick to shovel food onto it.
All this, and this was only lunchtime on our first day. At least we didn’t eat dog. That was the following day. Not very pleasant either.

One day I’ll get around to writing up the rest of the trip