Archived entries for

Busy few days

This is just a big long moan. Feel free to skip it.

On Thursday I went out to Ikea, about 30 minutes by taxi on a good traffic day, or an hour on a bad one. Words can’t describe the level of sustained misery it is possible to experience at Beijing Ikea – it’s a vast warehouse on three levels, cunningly designed so you have to walk through the whole thing even if you just wanted a new Swedish-designed (but made in China) pencil.

On a week-day it feels like the entire population of Beijing has popped in at the same time as you. On the weekend, they call for reinforcements from out of town. You can’t go to Ikea and return back to Central Park in less than three hours – and this is only possible if you storm through the place with a steely-eyed resolve, refusing to waver for even the brightest piece of Swedish gimmickry.

On Thursday I wanted a number of complicated things, some of which can only be obtained through attending several queues – once to order it, once to buy it, once to pick it up and once to have it delivered. “It”, in this case, is a fantastic full-length mirror that Helen has bought for us (so at least the result was appreciated!).

That out of the way, on Friday I went to pick up Mum and Marion from the airport, driven there in an embassy car thoughtfully laid on by the Chargé d’affaires. Sadly the flight was a little delayed. But five hours later (about three hours after I sent the embassy car home), they arrived with their record-setting luggage, and we made it back to the apartment in time for Reid and I scoff down some dinner before heading off to tonight’s function, the opening of the new Embassy of the Federated States of Micronesia.

We were 20 minutes late for the function, and on arrival discovered it was in fact a banquet. And the President of Micronesia was in mid-speech. So we had a quiet drink in the wall outside until he’d finished, then snuck into the banquet room shamefaced and sat through the following couple of speeches, toying with our food. Pacific events are fun though – we were at a table with Papua New Guinea, Tonga, the Micronesia Chargé and the two previous Chinese ambassadors to Micronesia, who were all friendly types . As dinner finished up they put some Micronesian music over the speakers, and some of the delegation started pressing for it to be turned up so they could dance.

On Saturday…. well, I went back to Ikea. Mum and Marion’s bed has the typical Chinese-style mattress, which is unbelievable hard – in fact, I didn’t realise how hard until they mentioned it, and I climbed all over it. It’s like sleeping on the floor. So – back to Ikea for a mattress top, and the collection of other nicknacks we absolutely require…. three hours later, having spent quality time with a few thousand of our closest friends, we’re back home to discover the spare bed is in fact a queen, not a double, so we’d bought the wrong mattress top.


Saturday night’s thing was a non-official party, good fun… giving me just the right level of hangover and tiredness to head back out to Ikea again today, to swap the mattress top for a larger one and buy a forth bar stool for the kitchen. Three hours later, back home… and yes, the bar stool is the wrong height.

Bugger again.

So unbelievably I’m out to Ikea again tomorrow.

The Beijing Center for Performing Arts – and a ballet

On Tuesday we suited up to meet the new mayor of Beijing, tour the new Beijing Centre for the Performing Arts and attend a ballet. This is another gig that Reid is attending as the Chargé d’affaires – apart from her, the attendance was wall-to-wall Ambassadors.

The Centre is a massive egg-shaped building designed by a French architect containing three halls – a 2,400-seat opera house, a 2,000-seat concert hall and a 1,000-seat theatre. You approach it by walking through a huge hall with a glass ceiling, through which you can see a small lake. Reid and I were issued with name-tags adorned with the NZ flag and sent on a guided tour, the guide emphasising how much of the interior was made in China (the only notable exception being the pipe organ in one of the halls, which came from Germany).

I can’t really describe how impressive the building is – the Egg is massive (you can fit the Worker’s Stadium inside it – and thats the Olympic soccer venue), and is of stunning design. Sadly we didn’t bring our camera, but Reid took some photos with her phone – i’ll post them shortly (the photo below is from the Centre’s propaganda).


Our tour ended with drinks and a buffet, and a speech from the new ‘acting’ mayor (he is acting until he is confirmed by the People’s something-or-other early next year). The American Ambassador replied to the mayor’s remarks, and then all the dignitaries formed an orderly queue to shake hands. We abstained from this exercise, preferring to hit the buffet and make small-talk with Luxembourg, Australia and Croatia (who threatened to write to Wellington to complain, as Nikki didn’t recognise his flag).

Onto the ballet – a performance of “The Red Detachment of Women”, one of only four ballets approved by Madame Mao, first performed in 1965. The programme had a quote from Madame’s husband- “Right Direction, successful revolution, and also artistically fine”, and you can see why he liked it. The ballet opens with a poor peasant woman about to be sold into slavery by some brutal Nationalists. She escapes, and subsequently directed by a handsome young stranger toward the Red Detachment of Women, a military outfit of chicks dressed in smart Maoist uniforms (I want to buy one for Reid).

Hanging out with the Red Detachment is an absolute ball – the backdrop changes to a lake surrounded in palm-trees, the lights go up, everyone is smiling and there is much joyous dancing. Hurray! Even target practice and grenade-throwing lessons are an absolutely lark. Meanwhile, back at the Nationalist camp, people are being whipped and starved, and things are generally grim – but happily they are eventually overthrown by the dancing Red Woman and baddies are slain. The handsome young stranger dies a Heroic Death but on the other hand there are now several bumper harvests to enjoy. The curtain falls on the detachment gaily marching toward a bright new future.

As propaganda goes, it can’t be beat. Loved it.

Chargé d’affaires and a movie

Reid is now the Acting Ambassador, as the Ambo and the Deputy are both out of the country.

This means she rides around in the -001 diplomatic limo with the NZ flag flying (it is taken down when she gets out), and is now requesting everyone address her as ‘Your Excellency’.

It has also meant we’ve been to several work engagements that normally would have been handled by the boss – two of these have been rather remarkable.

The first, on Monday, was the pre-premiere of a new Chinese movie called ‘Assembly’.


The story is pretty basic -in 1948, during the civil war (Communist vs. Nationalist), a People’s Liberation Army Captain is sent on a mission to hold off approaching hordes until he hears the Assembly Call blown on a bugle. Sure enough everyone in his platoon is heroically massacred (in a very well shot ‘Saving Private Ryan’ style), but the Captain somehow survives. Racked with guilt that he missed the bugle call, perhaps because his ears were ringing from a close call with a shell, he goes on to provide selfless military service in the North Korean conflict and eventually retires, dedicating the rest of his life to ensuring his dead platoon are never forgotten.

Eventually the Captain discovers the his Colonel actually never ordered the bugle to be blown, preferring instead to scarper with his regiment. After a 1 minute rage on this, the Captain reconciles with the Colonel (or at least reconciles with the Colonel’s grave) and, um, thats it.

It’s really easy to be pretty cynical about all this, but on reflection is seems to be pretty much what you get in your average Hollywood war-glorifying flick. We found some of the dialogue a little hard to take (“Put the dead man in the mine – and save a spot next to him for me” – all delivered in 1950’s John Wayne-style), but that could be the translation. It’s hard to tell.

There’s some wild over-acting as well, but everyone here does get quite excited when they get their steam up. So. Not really in a position to judge. But I wouldn’t rush off to it if it makes it to your shores.


We have a dog.

Tui (y’know, black, with a white patch under the chin) is a Spaniel on loan from the Deputy Ambassador, who has headed home for a month. Actually, she’s also on appro as well – the deputy Ambo is keen to unload.

Jury is still out.

So far Zara has loved having her around – and after she conceded Tui’s basket was for Tui, there hasn’t been any serious disagreements.

The downside is I get to take her for walks through-out the day, in 0 degree temperatures. Reid does the early morning and late evening shift. Other expats around here have fallen for the Tui Cult though, and she’s been visiting around Central Park a few times (but today got thrown out of Ritan Park – no dogs allowed, apparently). Yu Mei has started catering for her – so things are looking up for the wee puppy. Lucky she’s so short – there is a size restriction on dogs within the 4th Ring Road (the centre of Beijing).

She have me a wee shock the first time I took her out by jumping off a huge bank – but still seems to be walking.

Zara gets a dog

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Qiqihar. The Palmerston North of China

The local Government of Qiqihar (think “Chee chee har” and you’ll be getting close) holds an Ice and Snow Festival every year, in a bid to increase the tourist numbers…. and this year they invited a collection of diplomats up as well, to help spread the good word. The New Zealand Charge d’affairs and partner attended.

View Larger Map (google maps)

It was indeed a saga. On Friday morning at 5am, we were picked up by NZ1 and driven to a small military airport in the south of Beijing. It was pitch dark and snowing. The driver seemed to be guided by sense of smell – we certainly couldn’t see anything. Once at the airport, we were herded into a small VIP waiting lounge with the rest of the delegation, consisting of maybe 8 or 10 countries, some with families in tow. We sat there for several hours while we waited for the snow to clear during which time Reid was informed she was the senior diplomat attending and would be required to make a speech to the mayor at the reception that afternoon.

Finally the airport cleared and we flew north for a couple of hours, landing in snow-covered wilderness at an airport that looks a lot like Palmerston North (Qiqihar however has a population of 6 million). A convey led by a traffic-clearing police 4WD whisked us into town and we immediately started into the first of many banquets – this one featuring horse meat. A quick stop at the hotel to change into suits, and off to meet the mayor at the local town hall. Except it turned out to be a vice-Mayor, as central government had pulled rank and summoned the boss to Beijing for the weekend. Reid made her speech, all polite thank-yous and appreciation and exchanged gifts then we were back to the hotel to change into warm clothes for the Ice Festival opening.

(as an aside, it appears to be a useful thing in speeches when you are being translated. You say a line then wait as it’s translated, giving you time to dream up what happens next).

We were running slightly behind by this point, so missed most of the speeches at the opening (in Mandarin anyways) but did arrive in time to be showered in fireworks and have a 30 minute walk around the ice sculptures, during which fireworks continued in the background. We were then whisked back to the hotel for another banquet (this one featuring snails, and I don’t mean Escagot – I mean snails from out the back, without garlic) then off to the Cultural Festival opening night, held in a school gym.

This was like a 3 hour school variety show, with bells, whistles and many enthusiastic kids. There were dancing girls, traditional songs, gymnastics, parading Mongol armies, a bloke juggling huge vases, more fireworks and a horse, who after being led around the stage a few times showed her displeasure by having an enormous crap. At one point the bloke with the smoke machine almost managed to fill up the entire stadium (his machine was so loud it drowned out anyone attempting to have a romantic sing-along in the mist, which was okay because they were usually completely obscured by it as well). All that out of the way, we were returned to the hotel.

(A quick aside on the hotel. The owners had obviously read somewhere that the way to keep a tired hotel looking good was to keep the lighting low – and they’d taken this to heart. I kept losing things in the gloom. To read, we took the single bedside lamp into bed with us and huddled around it. Security was also obviously a concern, so they’d thoughtfully installed a car alarm by the door. This occasionally went off, leaving us to grope around the murk for the remote to disable it. And the breakfast was unspeakable).

Saturday dawned, and we were off again, this time to see the endangered Red-crowned Crane, a featured bird of the district. Hundreds of these cranes were housed in a snow-covered park about 1.5 hours from the city, inside large spacious cages – and when let out, flew a large circuit around the park, coming into land over our heads. TV crews were on hand to record our appreciation of the birds, but Reid couldn’t stand the cold, returning to the bus early accompanied by the wife of the Thailand rep who looked fairly stunned that this sort of cold actually existed. You could certainly tell the folks who came from snowy countries – the woman from one of the ‘Stans wandered around in heels and a huge fur coat, looking completely comfortable.

From there, we were sped back into town for another banquet, which was promoted as a feast consisting of many types of fish, but in fact had only one fish dish. It did, however, feature pigs face. I had a warming (but vile) glass of the local baijiu but Reid did not, and therefore never warmed up, so we retired back to the Gloom Room while the rest of the party attempted to ski.

That evening we met again for the final banquet which was supposed to be followed by a command circus performance. Some drama ensured and our Government host stormed off just before dinner, at which point it became apparent the circus would not be happening. Instead we had another variety performance at our banquet table, more songs, a woman that played a musical instrument through tubes stuck up her nose and a bloke who licked red-hot embers.

Next day, Sunday, we flew home.

(thanks to Erin and Marion for looking after the Small Child back in Beijing while this drama was unfolding)

Qiqihar – Northern China at it's coldest

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Snow – and some catch-up posts

It snowed this morning.

Yu Mei arrived almost blue – she’d missed her 6.30am walk around the park with her mother for the first time in ages. By the time I rode the bike down to training school the dump was slowing up, and by the time school was over, three hours later, it had almost disappeared from the ground.

Here’s a lame picture of a little white stuff – and nice one of my language teacher, Liang Tian Yan, since the camera was handy.

A light snow

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Using this blog

Hey readers,

A couple of things you may be interested in.

If you register for this site, posts to this website will be emailed to you so you don’t have to keep furiously checking for new content every 10 minutes (which you are doing now, right?).

It’s pretty painless. There is a link over to the left somewhere (‘Register’), you enter you name and email address, and this site will email you a password. Login using that password and change it to something you can remember. Email me if you’ve got problems.

Secondly… you can comment on any of the brilliant posts on this site, for all to see and admire. Toria has already commented on the ‘Dinner at the Residence’ post (like your tone, sister – expressions of admiration are exactly what we’re looking for here), and I’ve commented on the ‘The Place’ post, so you can see what it looks like. Just click on the ‘Comment’ link next to each post.

All you teachers/ex-teachers out there can have a field-day correcting my spelling and grammar.

The Place

The Place is a shopping and eating mall about 5 minutes walk from where we live – you walk through it on the way to the Embassy. It’s pretty flash, while managing to have shops you’d actually buy something at (as opposed to the China World, for example, which exclusively stocks stuff from the likes of Prada and Gucci). There is also an indoor playground for Zara and a clothing shop, also called Zara, so she’s pretty well catered for.

Anyway, what is remarkable about The Place (apart from the rather naff name) is the large telly screen that runs down the length of the outdoor part of the Mall. It’s 250m long, 30m wide, and rain falls through it somehow – but when it gets dark they turn it on and things get crazy. Most of the time it shows a variety of screensavers – an underwater scene, complete with mermaids and a very large whale, or a space scene, with passing spaceships. On the hour, however, they crank up the sound system and let it do it’s thing for 15 minutes – rockets take off, elephants trample across the screen (you look at them from underneath), 747s fly past… and apparently in one scene tanks advance on a certain square (I haven’t seen this – does seem a little unlikely).

It’s all very impressive. Check it out.

The Place skyscreen

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Style over substance

Beijing seems to have more than their fair share of restaurants and hotels that absolutely look the business, but turn out to be not that flash when you actually sit down and (attempt) to order. They then send you a bill that is reflective of the truly impressive fit-out, but doesn’t seem to have much to do with what you ate. Yes, I’m looking at you Red Capital Club, Green T House, and you, Lan Bar (a rumoured US$30 million fit-out designed by Philippe Starck). And to this pile let us now add The Commune by the Great Wall.

The Commune is about about 1 1/2 hours by car from the centre of Beijing, on a road that eventually gets to ski fields (and probably Mongolia). It’s a hotel/resort, built next to a bit of ‘wild’ Great Wall, which means that part of the wall hasn’t been renovated to look like it was built last week. The buildings were designed by 12 different Asian architects, and the results are stunning – there’s a main complex that houses reception and dining areas, the main hotel accommodation building and a collection of large villas you can reserve at great expense, all scattered around some hills with the wall snaking across the ridges at the top. The whole place was exhibited at the Biennale di Venezia in 2002.

So – yes, it looks fantastic. The practicalities were not so hot. 10 of us arrives for dinner on Saturday, in seperate cars, all straggling in at various times, and it started out very impressive. We were met at the door by the French manager who made a number of mild jokes about rugby, and then passed to the lunch staff who served the fanciest bottles of water I’d ever seen.

Things then went downhill. There are only 2 menus for a party of 10. They took forever to take our wine order, and when it arrived, they missed a couple of people when pouring it. They took an order for Zara, and then revealed afterward they had a children’s menu. They took a food order from 3/4 of the table then disappeared, and had to be convinced to return. Suz’s main course (off the Chinese menu) all arrived at the same time as everyone else’s entrees (she sent hers back). The bread rolls were hot on the outside and chilled on the inside. The ‘Australian’ lamb rack was basically all fat (this may be a Chinese thing – the Chinese like their meat fatty, so hard to complain here). And then we were charged 15% service fee. Phwar.

One of the lunch party was booked in to stay the night, and unfortunately discovered the walls between her rooms and next door seemed to be made of paper- she could hear them even when they were whispering to each other.

Have to say though – it does look amazing. And the wild part of the wall is also fantastic. Here are some rather grey photos (a dark overcast day unfortunately).

PS – have a look at the websites for the Commune, Lan Bar etc – they’re all very posh.

The Commune

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Rewi Alley’s birthday

Yesterday we celebrated Rewi Alley’s birthday (which was on Sunday. He’s 110 I think). We’re also nearing 35 years of diplomatic relations with China, and all this means a formal lunch hosted by the New Zealand China Friendship Society and various members of the Chinese Government. It was my first formal Chinese banquet.

The banquet was being held at a Government entertainment and accommodation complex, where heads of state are put up when they visit – it’s a collection of villas scattered around a huge park with a frozen lake in it’s center. The New Zealand delegation (maybe 10 of us) first filed into the reception room, where we met the Chinese team. Much hand-shaking and ni hao-ing ensued. The ambassador and the ranking Government minister then took the Important Seats (with translators sitting behind), and we arranged ourselves into the Lesser Seats accordingly (I sat in the row behind the Good Seats, in what I guess were the Attendant’s Seats). The minister said a few words, the Ambassador replied (both prepared remarks, the translators reading scripts) and we moved into the Banquet hall.

I was seated at the diametrically opposite position to Reid, seating again organised by rank (I was seated almost as far away from the Ambassador as possible). Next to me was a lovely gentlemen who didn’t speak English, but I was saved by the gentleman to the right, who not only spoke terrific English but had been New Zealand several times. Once we were all seated, the covers of the food were whisked away revealing small unidentifiable somethings and the glasses of wine were poured – but no-one moved. We need to get through the speeches first.

Various underlings made introductory remarks in both languages, then the high rankers had their turn – everyone speaking about the long-lasting good relations between our countries, the positive future we have together, and with any luck we’ll get the FTA signed soon. That over, 10 courses were presented, dispatched and removed in good order – if you put your chopsticks down, the plate disappeared and replaced by the next thing on the menu. The food was good, but sometimes a little difficult to identify, and I kept being worried I was going to eat the garnish, a flower or some other decoration.

Once the 10th course was removed, tea was presented – but just as I was reaching toward it, the underlings stood to announce the Banquet was over, and so we all got up and made for the door as fast as possible. It’s the Chinese way – you eat, and then you get out.

Reid does these things all the time, but I was vastly impressed by the whole deal. No photos sadly. I’ll attempt to smuggle a camera in next time.

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