I guess the first thing that happens as soon as the last entry finishes is the mustering of our 同学 (tongxue - classmates), so, by nine o’clock, a group of us assemble in the Liyun lobby ready to brave the brutal cold of the Beijing night: my Beijing course mate Brett, Manchester course mate Rosie, her Beijing course mate Shuyi and I. Shuyi is in fact a Chinese New Yorker, Brett an Oklahoman - and the Americans soon hit it off as we leave in a taxi bound for WuDaoKou. Here we meet yet more course mates - Mancunians this time - Hannah and Adriana; and a little later in a foreigner’s bar called Helen’s, with the welcome male addition of Matt and Andrew to balance the gender scales we have about a third of Manchester University Chinese Studies gathered on the streets of Beijing, ready to hit an electro club.
We jump into a taxi as midnight rolls around and are whisked off to God-knows-where in the East of Beijing. What we eventually discover to be our electro rave venue is in fact a lot more chilled out than we imagined - we arrive just as a jazz band is playing their last song. A DJ takes over the floor, but the club stays relatively empty - we must take up about half the numbers in the club on arrival, and nearly all the guests are 外国人 (waiguoren - foreigners). Like the Chinese, the waiguoren all think alike - and so it is not hard to come across the small foreign minority in Beijing whilst out on the town. The dance floor is lit up by a powerful beam of green light that creates circles and tunnels and waves with the smoke that is churned out into the faces of the dancers - and this keeps us entertained for hours on end. It is nearly three when the night comes to an end and we decide to move on - some of us to another club - the White Rabbit, some of us back home. I head back home; next weekend - my birthday weekend, will be the big one.
It is bizarrely quiet when I get back and I soon find out why. Rom is not in, and won’t be most of the weekend - and that means an almost too peaceful two days in which to do very little. It is not until around 1 or 2 in the afternoon that I drag myself out of bed and decide to do something. Yes, I decide, it is time to see some 名胜古迹 (mingshengguji - scenic or historical sights), and with my ever handy and knowing Rough Guide to Beijing I head down to Houhai. The frosted lake is beautiful - and from a striking temple in a park right next to the ugly metro station I am rewarded with a breathtaking view over the lake. From here I walk all the way round the lake, meandering into some 胡同 (hutongs - cheap Chinese terraced housing) on the way. I only kill about an hour with this stroll, so I decide to be more ambitious with the rest of my day - and to head to the Summer Palace.
Along with the sights of Tian’anmen, the Summer Palace is most definitely one of Beijing’s most important buildings. Located in the far northwest of the city it holds beautiful parks, palaces and temples, as well as lakes and forests. As I storm through the metro, I unknowingly take the wrong train to get there, and find myself in Wudaokou. According to my Rough Guide map though, the Summer Palace is seemingly within walking distance, and so I set off past the Oxford and Cambridge of China - Beijing’s Tsinghua and Peking Universities, and far into the depths of the unknown. Some hour or so later, I am still walking aimlessly around Northwest Beijing, seemingly no closer to the Summer Palace than before. When I find another metro station I almost consider giving up and heading home, but instead soldier on upon seeing a sign pointing the way to the Beijing landmark. I probably should have headed home - as when I do finally reach the gates of the summer palace it is nearly six o’clock, and it is closed. This fails to bring me down too much when I see the prices, but it just means another long walk for nothing. Not for the first time I get picked out as a waiguoren - and am offered a rickshaw ride back, which I almost gladly take. But my Paris-born “traveller-not-tourist” instinct soon kicks in and I fend off the tourist-leeches with ease. The fact that they can only offer two words of English: “Hello! Rickshaw?”, and are far less numerous than anywhere in Europe makes it all the easier for me.
Maybe it was all the walking that did it, maybe it was something else. When I wake up on Sunday morning, I know that something is not good - as I clamber out of bed my ankles ache down to the bone. Last Sunday I took a hefty jog in the ice cold of the Beijing winter, and the night before I had spent most of my day trying to get in and out of the Summer Palace, so I put it down to this. All the same, it means I have to hobble around the electronics store the next day, when I head to Hannah’s new house in Wudaokou to meet my tongxue and buy possibly the most fantastic invention ever - an electronic dictionary. As I have mentioned, these little but insanely clever devices are all the rage among the Korean and Japanese students, and I don’t know how I coped without one in the first week. We bring along Beijing veteran Aaron, who knows the city like the back of his hand, and can haggle like a Chinese pro. We soon find what we are looking for in the huge electronics store, and get down to business. Aaron and I leave the girls bartering over a reasonably priced Besta, and head to another stall to do the same. It is there that I find the ultimate electronic dictionary - a Besta with which you can write characters on the screen with the aid of a stylus, and even have a Chinese person pop up in the corner of the screen and read the word for you. I am immediately set upon getting this one, and we (I say we I mean Aaron) get it down to 880 yuan - saving 100. Finally, I think, my life is sorted. And then the Cold War kicks off.
From the last blog entry, you wouldn’t be mistaken in thinking that Anglo-Russian relations were somewhat less strained than usual between my flatmate Roman and I in Flat 6001. Indeed, despite the constant stream of unfamiliar former Soviet countrymen moving through the seemingly revolving door of our flat (allow me to introduce them; Rom’s Russian girlfriend, an obscenely skinny girl who wears very little and spends most of the time simply monging around the flat; the Uzbek, a familiar face that I often see passed out on my flatmate’s bed, a friendly guy despite his limited English; the Tajik, a fat chav whose only form of greeting is the ambiguous “Wassup?” - to which my reply is often a confused “Yeah, good thanks?”; the Georgian, a new addition to the Russian circle, a friendly but equally cocky bald guy; the ringleader, Roman himself is originally Kazakh, despite living in Moscow) - I am beginning to build up trust in Rom. I am just about putting up with his girlfriends inane Russian conversation in the small hours, and am hogging the TV and fridge now just as much as the Russians themselves. Rom and I are even having reasonably friendly flatmate conversations on a daily basis; he offers me some (actually delicious) Uzbek ham before I head out. On Friday night I lend him my suitcase to transport his broken sub-woofer to a friend’s to get it fixed. I get the expensive suitcase back, but at a cost - once which triggers the hugely inconvenient Hi-fi Crisis of week three.
After returning from WuMa (a Wall Mart style superstore a few blocks away) with Rosie I am literally nearly blown away by the bass pounding out of Roman’s sub-woofer, and feign delight as he approaches me with a knowing “You like?”. “Yeah”, I reply, and as if to prove it, place my hand in front of the speaker to feel the vibrations, “yeah, it’s cool.” We have, of course, had the music discussion before. When asked what kind of music I am into, I reply with the textbook “Rock” reply, my best way of describing a finely tuned and vast library of some of the greatest musical masterpieces of all time, a deeply diverse collection ranging from smooth jazz to grimy electro, old-school hip-hop to noughties new-rave - one that this one-word reply fails to do justice to. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good bass-line as much as the next music-buff, but, aware that this may not sound cool - I don‘t like bass pounding out in the middle of the night just for the hell of it. Rom is into hip-hop and techno (there is a little overlap in our tastes, but not much) - and on Sunday night I am battered with a barrage of meaningless, tasteless and on the whole pointless bass (the only listener is the snoozing Uzbek, lying face down on the bed). There is no question of getting to sleep, and only one way to retaliate, when an especially unpleasant repetitive beep of a “song” assaults my eardrums: to fight back. Rather than approaching Rom to ask him politely to turn it down, my French iPod speakers do a tremendous job of blocking out bass by blaring out Bruce, the Killers and the Kaiser Chiefs at full volume in the middle of the night, and soon the Cold War begins. Really I guess the psychological reasons for our actions are the usual boastful bloke case of how big your bass is. Pete wins, I smile as the Russian techno dies down and all is quiet on the Eastern Front, a triumphant Sigur Ros signals the end of the first battle. However, this war will rage on throughout the night.
At one o’clock the bass kicks in again, so, accordingly, at half one, so do the Stone Roses and Oasis from Room A. The bass dies down and it would seem that I might finally be able to get a reasonable, if not sensible night’s sleep. Wrong. Half two rolls around and Rom gives it everything he’s got, the bass gets grimier, longer and louder. After an hour of this nonsense, I decide it is time to give him a knock. “Hey Rom,” I ask politely, “can you turn the music down?”. “Why?” he replies, defensively, “Are out trying to get to sleep”. “Er yeah,” I reply, crazy though it might sound at nearly four in the morning. He turns it down, then up again. At about four, he comes into my room “Sorry man, have you got any beer? I’m having problems with my girl.” Bad move, Rom, bad, bad move. Don’t ever expect Pete Gentle to have any sympathy for your relations with your girlfriend - and don‘t try and remedy it with beer. Obligingly, I give him a large bottle of Budweiser, unaware how this will help; just hoping he will equally obligingly turn the bass down “No, sorry man, I can’t” he replies - as if loud bassy techno is also somehow helping to repair his fallout with his lady, “can’t you use headphones?”. It makes no difference, I think to myself, having already tried, why can’t you?
So it is six in the morning when the bass dies down a little, I am sat in front of the TV watching 100 greatest goals on CCTV, trying to guess the goalscorer’s name with the Chinese adaptation before seeing it on the screen (i.e.罗比鸟 - Luo Bi Niao - clearly Robinho), and by seven all is once again quiet. Thankfully I have afternoon classes, and can lie in until 12 (12.30 being generous, 12.45 at a push). My alarm fails to go off at one, even, however, for some reason or another, and so I start in class 101 an hour late. Brett and his girlfriend Jiwon are confused, but when I offer my explanation, are somewhat more sympathetic. They agree to head to the reception desk with me to engineer a room change. I can’t change rooms, the receptionist tells me, because I am in a double - who would they get to fill my room if I move out? They listen to my complaints however, and tell me to come back the next day. The good news, I guess, as I climb into bed early, is that my ankles are no longer aching. The bad news is that now my knees and elbows are.
I am invited out by my new classmates - a friendly bunch of Indonesians, Thai and the odd group of ever-present Koreans. The class also includes my acquaintances, Cameron and Ibrahim, formerly known as the Tajik and the Uzbek respectively. Cameron attends the meal, and I find myself speaking to him (in Chinese of course), and realising that he is in fact a lot friendlier than I imagined. The leader of the night out, a Beijing Kaoya (roast duck) filled night of fancy in which I get completely filled with dish after dish of spicy and oily Chinese food, but also drastically tired as well, is a Canadian called James who lives with his wife in Sanlitun (or Sanliturrrrr in Beijing dialect. To perfect the Beijing dialect, you just need to talk like a Westcountry bumpkin, something I don’t have a problem with. “I’ve got a brand new combine harvesterrrrr” , and “I would like to go to Sanliturrrrr” pretty much rhyme. Likewise, Wudaokou(errrr), would more or less rhyme with “lawnmowerrrrr”). I get back home feeling full but oddly worse for wear. The next morning I have a dotted red rash all over my skin as I head to class, and often lose my concentration - and when I come back to rest it off, I am blasted by Rom’s bass. It is the middle of the day, so I can’t really complain, especially after telling him that his music was “great during the day, just not so good at night”. My politeness shoots me in the foot sometimes.
At my wits end, I Skype my mum to explain the already drastic ups and downs of my third week so far (yes, we‘re still on Tuesday). My mum suggests a whole plethora of solutions to my numerous problems, the main one being - think healing thoughts. I think healing thoughts that night, and the aching in my legs and arms most definitely dies down. She also suggests I get in touch with the student welfare officer in both Beijing and Manchester, go and see the doctor on the BNU campus; on the accommodation front she suggests finding a flat outside the campus and I set about this almost immediately, finding some attractive duplexes in Wudaokou. I text Brett to see if he is interested in moving out, and, incredibly, he says yes. I shun the aching feeling as nothing, and don’t let it get to me - the next morning I wake up feeling much better. The sun is out, and I get my Besta ready to explain my malady to the doctor. On such a lovely day I decide to get some fruit as well, assuming whatever I had to be either a vitamin deficiency or a cold (the even-more dreaded swine flu?) - hoping it is the latter as it is something I can and will recover from quickly. A vitamin deficiency would mean I was lacking something in Beijing that I had in England, and might not be able to get as readily, if at all, in China.
I soak up the sunlight, aware that this will do me endless amounts of good. My stomach feels a bit rough but the aching in my limbs has faded. The seemingly trivial classes we took in Manchester are now coming into effect - “How to go to the doctors”, and “how to order fruit” seem invaluable now. “How to buy and skin a cow from the market in Urumqi” would, I’m sure, some day, have its uses. When I reach the BNU clinic however, the building is dark and eerie, and strikes me as not exactly the kind of place I’d want to be checked up in. As I timidly tiptoe through the empty corridor, the names of the rooms “Injection Room”, “Operation Room” and “Intestinal Tract Room” soon confirm my fears. Even the seemingly harmless “Water Room” is a dingy affair, with cobwebs all over the place and very little sign of water. I don’t find a reception desk at which to register, and soon scarper, daunted by the sheer prospect of being ill in China.
So I get a grip and try my level best to get my strength back. Fruit would help do this. The last time I tried to order fruit in China - my second day in fact - I got a bit overwhelmed and went a little over the top. Not knowing how to say a weight of fruit I decided instead to buy an entire box of oranges (for the very reasonable price of about £7) which lasted me about three weeks. This time I am more daring and ask for a kilo of apples (measured in 近 - half kilos -the standard measurement in China) and six oranges. I swagger away with my fruit quite pleased with myself and fill up on healthy food, soon forgetting I am ill at all. I am winning the war against the cold, I brag, and feel like I’m indestructible. Maybe this is my error.
The next morning I have four hours of classes, and for some reason have set myself the task of finding housing in Wudaokou for the rest of the afternoon. Before that, immediately after an exhausting class I find myself outside Lush, a smart restaurant in Wudaokou, shivering in the chill Beijing cold, waiting for a friend from BLCU to turn up. One of my former housemates’ best friend, Harriet also happens to be studying in Beijing as part of her year abroad, and has promised to show me the “cool” parts of Beijing, and I happily accept. Unfortunately, she is late, and I am tired and cold and most definitely under the weather. I keep my spirits up over lunch, though, and look forward to finding new accommodation that afternoon, when I will be meeting Brett, his girlfriend and an agent to look around.
The first flat we look at when the Americans turn up is an enormous one on the other side of the metro. It has three bedrooms, a huge hall, bathroom, kitchen and balcony. It turns out to be 7000 RMB a month, a little more than the Americans want to pay. As they are willing and would rather share a bedroom, I suggest finding an extra housemate to move in, thus making the cost 1750 RMB each, 750 less than what we are paying at the moment. They are still not too keen. Accordingly, the next houses we look at are small cooped-up affairs with two bedrooms. What would be my room always appears a little dingy or dirty, and the beds are often hard. We look at three such houses, the first enchants the Americans, I can’t tell why as it basically has two main rooms, my room and the living room which doubles up as their bedroom. I don’t like it. The next has no lift, so immediately goes down in the bad books - none of us can see ourselves moving our luggage up the seven flights of stairs to move in. The next one is dirty and has an alarming looking bathroom and kitchen that are next to each other and look like they could flood or explode at the slightest usage. No one particularly falls for this. The attractive thing about these last three is the price - a ridiculous 1000 RMB each is more or less what we are offered by the hospitable looking landladies. By this time though, I’m beginning to give up hope, still being set on the first.
Finally the two men that have been showing us around as agents allow us to ride their bikes to one final location. The landlord is a bit short on money at the moment, they tell us, so this one will be cheap. What we find after much cycling through Wudaokou is a plush three piece apartment with sizable rooms, smart kitchen and bathroom and a snazzy lounge with a great view. We are all immediately set on this - and when we are told the price - 1,100 RMB a month we almost snap it up. We will have to decide soon, as we know it will go quickly, but as we wander the bus to head home we are pretty much decided. What hinders us is when the very helpful agents spring on us the agents fees. 2,800 RMB - 900 each, that surely doesn’t sound right. But for such a fantastic find we consider this could be the price we have to pay. My whole body is aching as I climb onto the bus home, but I have found my escape. We arrange to meet up to seal the deal the next day - and I sleep heavily in what could be my last night in 6001.
If only life could be that perfect. Even when it seems its suddenly going swimmingly I realise I have forgotten to factor something in - the Me factor. This is an unspoken rule which states that, no matter how good things are going - they can never be going quite perfectly; no matter how high, there’ll always be something to bring me down. I get up unwillingly, my body still sore and aching more than ever, at nine in the morning, and call Brett and Jiwon to see where they are - we were supposed to meet in the lobby to go into town and get our flat. Quite how I’ll make it into town, I don’t know, but I’m so excited that that’s the last thing on my mind. Pretty much an hour later, I am still sitting in the lobby, feeling weaker, no sign of the Americans.
I clamber back up to my room and lie in bed in despair. Some ten minutes later I get a call from Brett, who has just woken up; “Hey, I have some bad news,” he tells me - I can guess what it is going to be, “We’ve discussed moving and we’ve decided to stay put. Sorry to get your hopes up.” I don’t know what to say or do, I just spend the next few hours lying listless on my bed, waiting for class to tick around at one. I decide it might be a good idea to find a doctor before heading to class, or things could go pear-shaped - so I head once again to the BNU clinic, at much more of a hobble this time to inform them of my problem. This time a nurse greets me at the door and asks me what my problem is. “My legs hurt, my arms hurt, my throat hurts when I try to drink, my stomach hurts” I tell her, assuming this quite validates seeing a doctor. She asks me if I am a foreign student to which the answer is quite obvious - and that I will need to go to the foreign student’s office to register my complaint. I have been trying there all day, and it has been closed.
I try and keep strong, but I am despairing. I head back for a last power nap before class, determined to go to present the talk on Public Transport in our home country which we have been set as homework. When one o’clock rolls around I limp lousily out of bed and clamber into the lift in a sweat. I don’t make it two floors down before beginning to feel very, very faint. I decide it is best to hurtle out of the lift at floor four before I collapse, and find somewhere to sit down. I am a weak, ill mess as I lay there sprawled on a chair in the floor four lobby, breathing heavily, taking sips of water and praying I will have the strength to return to my room. The cold is winning the war, I am now just worried it might be a lot more than just a bad cold. I think I have a fever. I text my friends to tell them I shall neither be coming to class, nor partying that night - no fun and games for me. China has got the better of me - game over?