Gill’s Reflections on Irkutsk and Lake Baikal

Our herd of cats lands at Irkutsk airport, Eastern Siberia, where fortunately there is knowhere to get lost – it’s a country airport. The air is cool & clear for the first time since I left Canberra. The light is pale & crisp like a highland Aus town. Strange foreign people live here – not like Chinese at all… The lettering makes more sense than Chinese characters though.

Inexperienced as we are, with no hosts to help us,we cram onto a public bus with our cubic metre of bags, instruments & costumes & get off the bus only about a km walk from our hostel.

At last I stretch out & have an hour sound sleep before my friends wake me to go to Lake Baikal, one of the deepest fresh water lakes in the world. I follow them through Irkutsk feeling like I slept very efficiently, I I grab a strange brown drink from a stall which turns out to be Kvass, just the thing for a girl on a 30 hr day.

The bus to lake Baikal goes through forest for 50mins & then we stop at the little holiday village beside clear, cold water stretching as far as th eye can see, hazy mountains loom in the distance. To me it looks like Bateman’s Bay…I am so glad they woke me.

We paddle & breathe & explore the foreshore. I follow the narrow stony beach past stalls selling ornaments made from local gemstones & local woods, embroidered cushion covers etc.; past people in bikinis sunbaking; I find a food market & buy smoked fish & apples & eat the as I continue past derelict buildings, picnics, a woman dressed in traditional dress….

We dream of taking a boat ride but return to the hostel for a few hours before our 2am rendezvous with Transiberian Railway.

Gill’s Reflections on Outer Beijing

I spend time at the airport looking for coffee. Airports are the only source of caffeine in these health conscious countries. Taiwan & China so far have believed in room temperature soups & teas. I keep a little stash of instant coffee to ward off the cold turkey approach to caffeine addiction.

So I’m housed on the 5th floor of a nice apartment block with a lovely Chinese medicine practitioner, her husband & son. Luckily they believe in hot water to drink, so it’s only filling the plastic water bottle that can be a problem. Another wayfarer is with me to absorb some Chinese massage etc. Susan, our host, is self effacing, educated and cooks us beautiful food, melon at the right time to cool the body, other foods for their subtle health effects. The family has very little English. My Chinese begins with it’s my 1st word – ‘itszy’ for ‘together’, suddenly falling out of my mouth. Also Chinese ’thankyou’ – tzhere tzere and “eehow” for ‘hello’.

Her husband drives us & their 9 yr old son, Tien-Nan a short distance to school via the back lanes – kms of muddy lanes through dilapidated patched-together houses, vegies growing in spare nooks, 3 wheeler bikes, kids & quiet dogs. Garbage is piled , not hidden in bins. It stinks & there are flies.

The Steiner school is temporarily down one of these lanes. Several adjacent house blocks have been converted into school classrooms & play areas. Different class areas are accessed by going back out to the lane. The coutyards & classses are pleasant & include Steiner-esque curves, natural wood climbing objects, sand pits, a play hut of bamboo made by the kids & a muddy play pond. They make cooked lunch & dinners for everyone including for us Wayfarers. Sometimes the drinking water filter or the electricity in one class room breaks down. They love our music & the final school concert includes music & puppetry that the kids have been woking on all term. After school I can walk home down the smokey main street past many stalls selling fruit, veg, fresh cooked Chinese food, various litlte grocery shops, restaurants, a hotel, a big modern supermarket, a woman screaming at her child for too long, washing, garbage, repulsive drains, old women chatting together, the dancers, an old man smoking a joint, a dead river, 3 wheel taxis, smart 4 wheel vehicles….to the cluster of 10 floor apartments where I stay, decorated with flowering Hollyhocks, vegies, where people calmly take evening walks with their pure bred dogs. There are even a couple of wheelchairs.

This village is the only place in China where I have noticed many old people or any one with a disability. I think they hide at home or homeless like the man with the fused hip, like mine, at the city train station. Curiously there are many tactile pavements in the city, but no obviously blind people, except the one playing the Irhoo – a chinese instrument.

School organised a guide to take us to the Great Wall one day & the Forbidden City another day. Both hot days we walked amongst crowds of people but I loved it, especially the Wall.

Gill’s Reflections on Chengdu

Suddenly we have to say goodbye & get on a plane for Chengdu, Szechuan Province.

I’m getting the idea of airports. See very little between one high-rise smog city & the next. Our hosts meet us & I get in the car with people I don’t know, who don’t speak English, here on the other side of the world, feeling very safe. I’ve even got over worrying where my next meal comes from because it allways has arrived, beautifully & reliably, for 9 weeks now.

I am transported to a weedy home garden, where I believe the smog is mist, where the double level, free standing house is oldish & imperfect, where Jir- mae has cooked a beautiful, traditional meal which we eat in the dining-living room on kitchen chairs. Afterwards Jirmae, her husband & her 9yr old son share the traditional Tea Ceremony with me in the open air on the roof deck. After posh apartments, I relax & breath.

Next evening they take me walking to the neighbours, along a small tree lined street, accross a paved recreation area & through another community garden to share Tea ceremony on the deck, under a wattle (!) tree, with other Wayfarers Hosts. We sip tea, chat & make music. I think I’m in paradise.

Jir-mae is practical & self taught. She writes English better than speaking, so there are delays while I find my glasses to read what she says… She reads music using a sol – fah system and numbers rather than a stave. One night Jir-mae shows me the Chinese Character for Love. I copy it with the brush & ink. She says she loves me which I understand to be unconditional love. I feel I’ve been given a huge gift. Here, somewhere in Western China, amongst gardens & smog & high-rise, I recognize what I already know.
Jir-mae has an Indian Guru who has taught her. Sometimes we share silence together.

The school is landscaped & pleasant, with veg & fruit gardens, chooks & happy kids. We all share school- cooked hot lunches of traditional Chinese veg, rice, noodle, mushrooom & meat dishes. We wash our own dishes using a brown clay like powder which we assume absorbs grease & abrades food scraps.

They love our contribution to their music, the concerts are allways full. They ask each of us to sing something individually & the children present us with gifts. They take us out sight-seeing to the Panda research centre, lunch at the Dean ancestral home & to the museum of recent archeological finds of the 2 – 4000yr old ‘Shu’ culture which has been uneathed near Chengdu. Ceramic pots & brass military masks & re-created scenes of Shu life. The Dean home is in Chinese coutyard style gardens – I could have spent longer there after eating our Szechuan style cooked lunch.

Suddenly, again, time to leave Chengdu & farewell people I probably will never see again, so sadness.

Gill Reflects on Guangzhou Part 2


Sorry for abrupt end to Guangzhou.
Internet & time are very limited! Better to send something than nothing!

Our time in Guangzhou is a bit glamorous; my hosts have taken me out to dinner a couple of times & they have organised restaurant meals for the whole choir a couple of times.One of our hosts took me & another Wayfarer driving in his soft topped sports car. First time on the 2nd level of the famous, posh 4 floor restaurant, my host invited her English speaking friend who translated for us. She was from Inner Mongolia studying in Guangzhou & has studied in England.

I got to know my host, Hannah (her English name) a bit. Hannah is editor of the ‘Creative Weekly’ section of Yangcheng Evening News. I think it was her article about us that was published Fri 15th June. She believes in developing creativity from an early age, hence her interest in the school. She is also interested in architecture & design, for which there is much inspiration here in central Guangzhou. They are very proud of their tall towers & bridges which are lit up at night in multi-coloured neon glory. Freeway interchanges and bridges are highlighted with multi coloured edges to mark their sweeping curves. We live close to luxury car shops, the famous business class multi-level resaurant as well as Guangchou Tower, West Gate Square and other land marks. Freeways enable quick access, streets are lined with street trees & plantings including Mangos, Lillypillys, Gardenias, Camellias and Gum Trees. Yes, Eucalypts grow like a weed! Bouganvillea, Passionfruit, & Morning Glory drape beneath the bridges. Plants are sprayed with water regularly to wash off dust & keep them looking beautiful. Amongst the cars, trucks & buses, fully laden 3 wheel bicycles pedal or motor by. They are often piled high with the equivalent of a 6X4 trailer full of building rubbish, fruit or 100 litres of drinking water.
The traffic has no rules. Everyone, pedestrian, bike or bus, heads straight for each other, cuts off or heads into road-fulls of oncoming traffic. Everyone seems to miraculously miss each other. I think the drivers expect this behavior & waste no energy remembering any road rules. So each day all of us Aussies had tales of miraculous survival.

Near the school the street is lined with small shops filled with all sorts of things, several selling building materials or groceries or home made take away Chinese food. There is one where men gather to play cards & smoke. People live behind the shops in old, crowded 3 floor buildings, accessed by labyrinth dark alleyways. Fruit & vegies are sold here or beading to decorate clothes for sale.

Contrast is one of my abiding impressions of China. It feels safe outside, I see no signs of drunkeness or crime. Groups of women form outside in the evening and dance to up-beat Asian music on portable CD players, obviously for excersise & relaxation. People use the streets, there is little private space.

As with all Chinese families I have met, the children come with us every where, no matter how late at night. My host’s 3yr old Emma is remarkably good, given her late nights and 9-5pm at school as well as trailing around shops afterwards etc.

Classes with the kids are pretty nice. One of us (a trained teacher) takes the class while several of us help with singing, playing recorder, actions, hand movements, games or percussion to help the kids experience variouse parts of the music – pitch, rhythm, beat, tempo, language etc. Judy has written a book full of songs especially to guide children through progressive musical excersises. Steiner kids all learn recorder from an early age.
One song is about variouse Australian animals which the children can act, another is about a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, another about a seed awaking to become a plant, another about sharing each others names etc. So basically I get to sing & a play for an hour or so without having to take too much responsibility except to sing & play correctly!

At the end of the week we have a concert where each class performs to the rest of the school, parents & teachers. Usually the kids sing songs complete with several parts, recorder & percussion ensembles& actions. Usually we have taken a class for adults, the parents & teachers, so they perform several songs with us in many parts & several languages, including some instruments. Usually we Wayfarers perform something for everyone.

Everyone is extremely appreciative. I think the schools love the input of quality music teaching, and Western culture. Usually there is a packed school hall, speeches & gifts for us. I feel I owe our hosts hugely, they have organised, cooked & transported us all week ; but often they press more gifts on us. In every place I feel I have made friends that are hard to leave, even if we have very littlle language in common. I notice the similarities between us and our common shared humanity.

My impression of China is a schemozzle of glitz & poverty, social order & anarchy on the roads, environmental disaster & valiant environmental wisdom, social control yet great human warmth.

Gill Reflects on Guangzhou

Greetings from Guangzhou!

It’s not too bad here on the 26th floor, amongst an endless forest of skyscrapers, construction, & a few pockets of small formal gardens. We all gape at the size of these apartment blocks. I feel like a country bumpkin.

Guangzhou is in SE China, 3rd largest city, hot & humid. Clouds or pollution cover the sun.
Occasionally on the triple lane roads, amonst the shiny Toyotas, one sees a rickshaw laden with scrap metal or bulging bags. People seem to smile less here than in ‘country‘ Ylan, Taiwan.

My hosts live-in home-help/child minder cooks the family beautiful Chinese meals – several tasty dishes of vegetables, mushrooms, tofu, fish, rice, rice noodles, & various desserts made from rice-starch are served on the beautiful professionally hand crafted table. My hosts have English names but do not speak much English. Hannah edit’s a magazine called ‘Creativity’ about building design. Roy is also professional. Emma is 3 & sweet & cheeky. I sleep in her room, also furnished with handcrafted furniture, in 4 poster bed with slim futon syle mattress covered with woven cane mat which makes a lovely cool bed.
They have an Oz style, ordinary toilet, unlike the Steiner School. (significant info…) Chinese loos do not suit me… Enough said!

Last night Roy & Hannah took me for a walk past Guangzhou Museum to West Gate Square, fringed by the Opera House and Asian Games Stadium, with a view of Guangzhou Tower & several others all lit up. Lots of happy people out enjoying the balmy evening.
Each morning Roy drives Emma & I across Guangzhou Bridge (another landmark) to the Steiner School a coulple of km away. It’s 3 level with 1 outdoor kindergarten play area. The kids here are younger. We teach 3 (!) to 7 yr olds simple pentatonic songs. Their normal teachers stay and translate for us. They have another campus, also for young children, which is a couple of rooms at the base of a grand old multi-story hotel. So ceilings are high with fancy columns & formal gardens outside.