Wednesday, 30 September 2009

China Part 1

It's difficult to know where to start describing what this trip was like, so I guess there's nowhere to start but the beginning!

DP and I have been fundraising since the start of the year to do this trek on behalf of Scope, a leading UK charity who campaign for the rights of those with disabilities to lead a full and inclusive life in society, and help those with disabilities to do just that through schools, support for families and independent living support for adults. On the 17th September, we got up for an early start, after a few days of frantically running around for our last bits and pieces (lots and lots of handy packs of tissues and alcohol hand gel), and made our way to Leeds and Bradford Airport for our flight to Gatwick to meet our trek buddies.

As it happened, we met three trek buddies early - a girl with stunning red hair caught my eye, and I wondered aloud how on earth she managed to get her hair that colour. I also noticed that she was wearing hiking boots - as were her two companions. They turned out to be the first of many great people we were to meet on the trip, and we all headed towards the Emirates check in desk at Gatwick together, where we all met our rather subdued fellow trekkers - all of course on best behaviour, since we were all strangers and no beer was flowing!

A couple of hours killing time at Gatwick and we were ready for our flight to Dubai. The food on the plane was surprisingly not inedible, though there was the inevitable bread roll that you could bounce off the walls. We arrived in Dubai at silly o'clock, all with red eyes, but after a bit of idle duty free browsing some of us gathered at the coffee stand for a chinwag, so the ice was broken. I can't say the flight to Beijing was as pleasant - DP is 6'4", and while the London crew had given him a seat on the emergency exit, the Dubai crew could not, because the plane was full, so poor DP had to cram into the sardine seats with his knees pushed against the seat in front for 8 hours.

We arrived in Beijing mostly tired and red eyed, and fairly aghast at the sheer scale just of the airport - you have to get on a train to get from the terminal where you arrive to the baggage collection point! We were scrutinised by the impassive masked officials for signs of the dreaded swine flu, our passports peered and frowned at, before being impatiently waved through to start our incredible Chinese journey.

Meeting us at the airport was Fiona, our trek leader, and the Chinese crew - James/Yao Di, Grace, and Jenny, and not forgetting the bus driver Mr Han. James tried to cram some Beijing facts into our tired heads, but we were all too busy fighting sleep enough to take in some of the sights of the new city. Bikes everywhere, people pedalling rusty trailer bikes perilously balancing all sorts on the back, little kids sitting calmly on the handlebars of a parent's bike while the traffic whizzed past. The contrast of ancient Chinese pagoda-style buildings with utilitarian Communist austerity was everywhere, and the modern opulence of the Olympic village and surroundings seemed to spring from nowhere.

Our first hotel was located just near a large reservoir that seemed worryingly low. James told us that they used to have a problem with it bursting its banks, so they let some of the water out, but the water never came back to fill it, and so all the riverbanks are now being used by local farmers for growing corn, which seemed to be the favoured local crop. We headed in to check out our rooms, and get a much needed shower, ours was disappointingly just a dribble and impossible to get the temperature between freezing and scalding, which was not good as there is not much worse than long haul flying for making you feel completely, well, disgusting. But we managed to get clean, or, well, clean-er and made our way to the courtyard for the first of many local beers with our new "brothers and sisters" for the week. James called us all "brothers and sisters" as because of the Chinese one-child policy, he never had any siblings growing up. Bless!

The Tsing Tao local brew loosened tongues somewhat, and while DP headed to the table with the lads to do some boy-bonding, I went to a table with some of the girls where I quickly found several like minded lovers of innuendo and dirty jokes and soon we were competing with the locals for loud laughter. We had our trek briefing for the day ahead, and met our trek doctor Nina who extolled the many virtues of alcohol hand gel and blister plasters.

The night was tough - while we went to sleep straight away, the cicadas started up their chorus in the wee hours and I could not get back to sleep. I dreaded the first day's trekking on only a few hours on top of all the flying, but there were many of us in the same bleary-eyed boat, faces white against our red Scope T-shirts as we trudged through for breakfast. Breakfast was odd, to say the least - the Chinese seem to make their bread very sweet, which was a little strange with the fried eggs and sausage. Having travelled in Asia a fair bit before, it all had the familiar smell and taste of the Asian versions of Western food, which looks like Western food and yet has that distinctively Asian flavour. I made a mental note to seek out the Chinese breakfast when I could do. At least the fresh watermelon was lovely.

Our first day's trekking took us to Mutianyu, where James informed us that this was our "warm up day". One of our members, personal trainer Lloyd, took us through a warm up, of some stretches and general doing of silly bouncy things, much to the amusement of some locals. He earned himself the nickname "Terminator" for his so called "light warm ups" but more later about how he was eventually terminated....

"Warm up Day" once we got to the wall, consisted of steps, steps, and more steps. We climbed 16 watchtowers, and at the end tackled the "Oh My God" steps - 450 damn near vertical steps climbing up to the final tower, but it was so misty that day we couldn't see a thing! The vertigo sufferers had their first challenge of the day coming down those, and we were all glad to stop for lunch, though I have to say another thing that the Chinese cannot do is sandwiches. For the love of God, stick to the rice and noodles! We can deal with not eating bread for a week, I think they have this idea that it's all we eat here!

The descent from the wall on Day One was a luge, in other words a big metal slide running down the mountain, where you sat in little dodgem kart type things with a stick in between your legs (oo-er missus) that either made it go or stop. The boys were discouraged from playing bumper cars by Fiona, whose inner teacher came out complete with wagging finger, but of course, like boys, they didn't listen. The Chinese also don't really do health and safety, and I did have a "whaaaaaat" moment when I got on to this little plastic thing and held on to my stick and realised that there wasn't really much keeping me on this thing.....but hey, I'd paid my 40 yuan and didn't know the Chinese for refund, so off we go....a few "oh shits" later and I was thoroughly enjoying it, and would gladly have walked the wall again just for another luge ride!

Our first taste of haggling came at the market at the bottom, where DP secured himself a "I Climbed the Great Wall" T-shirt for 20 yuan for himself and one of the other guys, and was pretty chuffed with his bargaining skills until one of the others announced he got one for 10 yuan (about £1). It was here that we also got our first taste of Chinese public toilets, and the Art of Squatting and Aiming. A few of the girls had bought "she-wees" which are meant to allow women to pee standing up, but most chickened out of using them, and I don't blame them because one of the reasons I didn't get one was Overflow Fear - peeing into a plastic funnel just doesn't seem right, and what if you pee quicker than the thing can empty? Mess! I think we just need to accept that we are not men, and we don't have the appendages to pee standing up. End of.

Day One of trekking also happened to be DP's birthday. I had been organised and brought his card out with me, and in the evening, our Chinese crew had organised a birthday cake for him and got all the trekkers to sign a picture of where we had trekked as a birthday card. Of course, he was bought more than a few birthday beers, but what better way to spend your birthday than trekking one of the most amazing sights the world has to offer, among people who were rapidly becoming good friends.

That night, we slept peacefully, having been donated some earplugs by some of our charitable co-trekkers. Trekkers 1, Cicadas 0.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Belated Bloggy Award Acceptance

It's official! My Blog is Swank!

Thank you to the amazing dragonflymama for bestowing this upon my humble blog! You're not so bad yourself, dontcha know! I do apologise for my lateness in accepting and passing on this award, you thought I'd forgotten now didn't you! time honoured blogging tradition, time for me to pass this award on to three other blogs that I think are particularly noteworthy, and of course, fabulously Swank!

First award goes to that very swanky feline.....The Smirking Cat!
I love her mix of heartfelt honesty and kitty anecdotes, and her sense of humour so sharp that she could be an honorary Brit!

Second award goes to the lovely and swanky Eyes Wide Open.
Apart from the fact that I love the art on this blog, I love how laid bare and honest she is, with of course more than a sprinkling of wry humour.

And last but not least, my third award goes to the uber-swanky Tool Box Girl
Peggy is an inspiration to me on my quest for stepmotherly wisdom, she has an unfailingly positive attitude and an arsenal of fabulous tools (hence her Tool Box moniker) to help us on the way. Reading her blog is like my daily dose of therapy!

There are countless blogs that I love, and I wish I could give an award to you all, but I'm on here in my lunch break so unfortunately I can't keep going, or my boss might start to get suspicious and ask me what exactly reading blogs have to do with IT Support...well, maintaining my sanity of course!

I have begun to piece together my musings from China and will be putting China Part 1 up very soon...

Love you all - Mwah!

Monday, 28 September 2009

Long Time, No Blog

Yes, fellow bloggers, I know it's been a while. I couldn't believe it myself when I saw my last post was on 31st August! Whaaat....

But shortly after that, things went spectacularly downhill. I was rejected for promotion at work, things with SD and the BM continued being difficult, and things at work got more manic, and seemingly nastier, although I'm sure that was partly my perception of it, because I was so devastated at the prospect of remaining in the job indefinitely with no prospect of any change. It became an odd but lethal cocktail of boredom mixed with intense pressure, and it eventually resulted in a massive 3am meltdown, DP pretty much marching me to the doctor and the doctor signing me off with stress until I was due to go on the China trip, from which I have now just returned.

The 8 days I was off work, plus the trip to China gave me a lot of chance for contemplation about where I am, what I'm doing and why. Suffice to say, I don't really know what I'm doing in that job, other than earning money and paying bills, going through the motions and taking shit from people who think their computer problems amount to the dawn of Armageddon. Surely, no job and no amount of money is worth crying for 3 hours in the middle of the night because you can't switch your head off enough to sleep for dreading the day ahead? I also read Oliver James's Affluenza, which was enough to remind me that no, it is not worth it, and that life is not meant to be like this. The more you earn, the more you want. The more you get trapped into thinking that if only you could afford this car or this TV, you'd be happy. But you get them, and a short time later there's a new model and yours is no longer the you want the next one.

Don't be alarmed, fellow bloggers, I'm not about to pack it all up and go live in a caravan, turn Freegan and go dumpster diving. But it is time to make some changes in Wicked Steppie world, and I look forward to sharing those with you all over the next few days as I try and write about my incredible experience trekking the Great Wall of China with some of the most fantastic people I could ever wish to meet (including of course my own beautiful DP) and some of the things that I've learned about myself and about life over the past few weeks. I'm not sure I've processed it all quite enough to write about it just yet.

I have to warn you though, this is not going to contain any major revelations about how to deal with stepmotherhood. The Great Wall held no mystical secret answers on that front, and when we got back yesterday, and DP phoned SD, I still felt the familiar bubble of annoyance when the first thing she asked was "did you get me a present?" and "what are we doing at the weekend?" expressing disappointment when DP told her that we had only just got back and nothing was planned as yet. But, SD is a product of a typical Western upbringing where being materially spoilt is the norm, and I can't really blame her for that, though I do feel sad that sometimes, she looks at us with pound signs and not love in those wide blue eyes. Would she want to come to us if we couldn't afford the horse riding lessons, the new bike for Christmas, the trip to the cinema? I am not so sure that she would, and I don't think DP is either, which is why until now he has ensured that SD remains pretty indulged, and it's sad that the poor kid can't separate the spending of money and love. For her, the two are inextricably intertwined.