Week two/ three:
I still can't speak Chinese but I can say Hello in Korean
Whoops! Where did those two weeks go? After such an inspired start (I'm sure you'll all agree) I'm afraid to say my blog has become a little cobwebbed and neglected. But you'll be heartened to hear that all it took for me to pick up the proverbial pen and start writing a new entry was thinking about the faces of my forlorn and disappointed readers, whose hearts no doubt felt a lightning bolt of sorrow and grief upon logging in day after day and seeing no new words of wisdom and inspiration on the screen... ahem, sorry, it seems I'm still channelling the mp3 voiceover man from the mausoleum of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. Ahhh, sweet memories of DPRK, but more of that in a tick - first things first:
Jingle Balls, Jingle Balls...
When I last wrote, I was in the grip of Paralympic fever - well probably fairer to say I was on the cusp of Paralympic fever, having not had the chance to see anything other than lots of posters and billboards proclaiming "Two games Equal glory" (or somesuch slogan equating both "Lympic" events to finding a cure for cancer). So I was very excited indeed to actually be seeing an event, Halla and I had tickets for blind football but she had some major cross cultural media crisis she had to attend to so was going to meet me halfway through at the stadium. Luckily with my innate sense of direction finding the Olympic Hockey Stadium was going to be no problem whatsoever... Actually though, it was hardly any bother at all. The Chinese have built a whole new subway line for the Olympics (can't quite imagine London doing the same thing) so there's only a limited margin for getting lost and - joy of joys! - when I did get to the subway stop nearest to the football match I just asked one of the blue-clad volunteers where to go next. It transpired that the hockey field was almost off the map but my volunteer had some free time so he said he'd take me there himself. We walked through the Olympic Green, past the bird's nest (ooooh!) and the water cube (aaaah!) and waited for a free Olympic bus to take us up to the other stadiums, we had to let two past before he would allow me to squeeze myself with the masses onto the bus. There are a lot of people on Beijing but I have never seen a bus so crammed since I was in Bangalore (ah yes, on the bus and having to stand on one leg with your face squished into some Aunty's armpit - lovely times) - and the strangest thing? This was for the Paralympics. When I asked why so many people had come the only response was because tickets were easier to get than for the Olympics. Can you imagine that at home? I hope I'm wrong but I don't see the London Paralympics proper stowed out with locals because tickets are available...
Anyhoo - I finally got in, had my photo taken with my volunteer before he had to go off and do some real work and trotted off to find the ground. I stopped off to get some food first (popcorn and the strangest bready-hot-dog-cheese'n'sauce combo ever. And no - it was not a sandwich) then walked into the stadium clutching my "lunch"-filled big brown paper bag to be greeted with a deathly hush. I surveyed the scene, quite a few of the spectators had displayed spectacular fashion innovation in transforming their paper bags into sun hats (I tell you, I chuckled at the time at the sight of these men looking like the most impoverished of chefs, until the next morning when I realised I had sunburn all over my head and had to have cold showers for the following week in an effort not to exacerbate it..). So there I was, halfway through China v Korea with a predominantly Chinese crowd wearing natty brown paper bags on their heads and not a peep out of any of them, I was about to put it down to eastern asian manners until I saw the signs. The volunteers were periodically holding up A4 laminated notices saying "Silence Please" in about 4 languages. Why? Because the players couldn't hear the ball. That's right, they couldn't hear the ball.
Let me explain a little about blind football: to ensure fairness on the pitch, and because some teams have only partially-sighted players all players wear blindfolds (which makes for a fantastic aesthetic and be assured just as soon as I find somewhere to develop my film I'll upload some snaps). The goalkeepers, however, are allowed to be sighted (by the way, I learned all this on the big scoreboards between matches). At the sides of the pitch there are soft barriers in case the players run into them (and yes, that happens. A woman sitting in front of me was thumped quite hard by her mortified daughter for laughing when it happened during the China/ Korea match but the poor woman continued to shake violently for a good five minutes with her fan pressed to her face in a fit of involuntary, and quite inappropriate, hysteria). The second best thing is that they have special balls with compartments holding bells so whenever the ball is kicked the players can hear where it is. The best thing? As I said, the goalies can see. So they can direct the players (and this was especially noticeable in the next match with the GB team) - there is also someone from the team situated behind the goal you're trying to score into (so if you're defending the goalie can tell you where to go and if you're about to score the guy behind the posts can tell you). Penalties were good too - the referee puts the ball underneath the striker's foot and the behind-the-goals-guy taps the right goal post and then the left and then stands in the middle and goes "Middle! Middle!" It's very odd. You're sitting there trying not to shout something encouraging and watching these guys trying to following a jingling jangling ball while an irate goalkeeper goes "go forward, no not you, no, you've lost it, stop, stop, you've not got the ball". Worth seeing if you ever get a chance.
After the blind football I managed to find my way back to the main Olympic Green and ooh-ed and aah-ed my way into the Bird's Nest for the athletics and I can confirm - athletics events are as dull in real life as they are on the telly. I did get an enormous amount of pleasure in watching the mexican wave travelling around the stadium (Chinese crowds are the best at mexican waves because they are so excitable and when it stops two-thirds of the way around they'll just start it again, no wonder the opening ceremony was so impressive, these people just don't give up till the job's done) and obviously being in the Bird's Nest was too cool for school but I, for one, look forward to when they start showing something worthwhile there like, ooh, I don't know, live versions of Summer Holiday (...wonder if that London bus is till in the 'Jing..?). By this time Halla had joined me and with our Western dress sense, British and Chinese flags in our hair and... well... Caucasian faces, we were the number one attraction after the athletics finished. I can confirm that at least 25 Chinese families now have a photograph of themselves with Halla and I clogging up their memory cards.
Our final Paralympic event was also our most hotly anticipated: Wheelchair Rugby - AKA Murderball. Everything about this game is just brilliant - it's not really rugby, it's played with a round ball and has to be dribbled at least once very 10 seconds (a la basketball) so that players can't just sit it in their laps. To score a goal players have to cross a line with the ball in their hands (like a try in rugby) but the most striking resemblance to rugby is just how unbelievably violent it is. Players have specially modified wheelchairs all metal and battered, Robot Wars springs to mind. I half expected fire to start shooting out of them and little hammers to come out of the sides. But no, just sheer unadulterated speed and violence - these men (and women) would just bang straight into each other and quite often knock each other over, usually when this happened people would come on from the sides to help the player right themselves but a couple of times they would get themselves up - and the crowd would go crazy. It was the most exhilarating, fast, and compelling sport I've ever seen - able bodied or otherwise. Check it out online if you can! We saw the US v. UK match and the UK lost of course, but we had the pleasure of meeting the family and friends of the team after the game and I can report back that apparently the US only won because the ref was siding with them and we had three goals disallowed so that's a comfort, at least.
The greatest man who ever lived...
Literally the day after the wheelchair rugby match Halla and I went on holiday (I've gone from being a workaholic to being a holidayaholic - which is more fun to do and to say). We did debate it a little - Cocktails in the Maldives? Too passe... Yachting in the Med? Too European... Temple -hopping in India? Snoresville... Visiting the Pyongyang International Film Festival in North Korea? By jove! I think she's got it! The most perfect minimalist retreat cum cultural experience for the post-modern holiday-goer.
We flew out to North Korea - or DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) as they call it out there - with Air Koryo, a must for any fans of aviation. The plane was 1960s vintage, which while preferable for clothing and cameras is not necessarily the first choice for hurling oneself through the air at great heights and speeds. It was the cutest thing ever inside, flocked wallpaper, air hostess buttons with an actual picture of an air hostess, just darling. As soon as it started moving, however, I was gripped with terror squeaking - why is she (the air hostess) not wearing her seatbelt? (during take-off and landing - casting doubt on the supposed necessary safety procedures employed by western airlines, I think you'll agree) and - when four pilots walked past us - who's flying the plane? It does have to be said though, that despite appearances the flight was exceptionally smooth and we landed safely and without incident but, still, I allowed myself a slight sigh of relief when I discovered we were to be travelling back by train.
Now DPRK isn't your usual holiday destination - these transport decisions- plane/ train/ horseback/mule - weren't technically ours to be made. DPRK don't just let anyone into their country willy-nilly - you have to be accompanied by tour guides at all times. We booked a tour with Koryo Tours, based in Beijing, who, as well as organising trips to DPRK, also make films (and why not - after all, I come from a country where key cutting and shoe-fixing go together like bacon and jelly). Before we went I watched A State of Mind - about the mass games and The Game of Their Lives about the progress of the DPRK team at the 1966 World Cup (- who knew? Turns out England weren't the only team playing..) I would recommend both for anyone interested on an alternative view of a country so inextricably associated with Nuclear programmes and a puppetified Kim Jong Il singing "I'm So Lonely"...
On our trip we were to see two different performances of the mass games - synchronised gymnastic displays with between 80, 000 and 100, 000 participants commemorating the 60th anniversary of the founding of DPRK and to honour the Great Leader and Eternal President Kim Il Sung and the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. It's almost impossible to describe the mass games - the sheer volume of people was mind blowing and more than one of our group was swept along in patriotic fervour ("get out of town!!!!"), I'm sure almost all of us burst into enthusiastic applause when thousands of yellow-clad gymnasts transformed themselves into a field of wheat and the smiling face of Kim Il Sung appeared in the backdrop (made up of countless boys holding books with different coloured pages - google it). It's no surprise to me everyone we spoke to about the leaders were full of love and pride - I was there for less than a week and was ready to renounce the west.
We were on the Pyongyang Film Festival tour, so we got to see the opening ceremony of the 11th bi-annual Pyongyang International Film Festival (brass-band-tastic) and a couple of films. We also saw umpteen amazingly enormous monuments erected to the glory of the leaders and the Juche Idea of self-reliance which the society operates under. We visited the Pyongyang film studios, met some actors and I was told by the film studio guide I was very active and going to live for a very long time - which is always nice to hear. We went to the North/ South Border and had our photographs taken with surprisingly easy-going soldiers. We visited the war museum and learned that the American Imperialists started the Korean War (fact) and saw the captured spy ship Pueblo (where we learned that the President of the Imperialist Aggressors was brazen faced and told a sheer lie). We had our mobile phones taken off us at the airport and there was no internet - we were told where to go, who to talk to, what to eat and when and where to take photographs. I loved it. I think part of me liked being told what to do all the time, so I could relax my mind and just soak it all in.
There's no doubt it's a troubled society with massive social problems, most of the population are extremely poor and there is no freedom of press, of association, of speech - of anything we take for granted here. But from what I saw the people are very proud of what they have and who they are - and everyone I spoke to was sweet and kind and lovely. I also really enjoyed being in a group - I think we were extremely lucky, we didn't have anyone very arrogant or disrespectful or disruptive, just 14 very different people. I floated about in a state of awe but other people were asking pertinent questions and filling me in on the history and current situation, on the bus to and from places and in the evenings we swapped our impressions of the place. I would go back tomorrow if I could... As ever, photographs will be up as soon as I get my films developed.
Back in Beijing then and employment and the ability to speak Chinese are still eluding me. I've decided to start formal Chinese lessons (apparently it's quite hard to just "pick it up") so that should be next week and joy of joys I have a job interview on Monday! It's for the British Council marking exam papers so fingers crossed I am in any way even able to do that. I've also got in contact with a British filmmaker who needs an assistant and waiting to hear back from the people at The Beijinger magazine about copy-editing so surely it's only a matter of time before I've got at least one of three jobs I'm completely unqualified for and of which I have no previous experience.
It's getting dark now and I cycled here so I'm going to have to finish up and make my way back home - loving cycling in China, none of those inconvenient hills you get at home and the traffic is slooooow so you can happily cycle across three lanes safe in the knowledge that no one's going to run you over (note to family - I am being careful, truly, that was just a whimsical remark to make the blog seem more fun. Honest).
Ps. If you read right down to the bottom of this insanely long blog you get a prize - send me a comment quoting the code below and your postal address and I'll send you a trinket: