Sunday, July 3, 2011

Rain, rain go away!

And here we are again. Six months later. Well almost seven actually... and nary a blog post in between. I shan't even try to make excuses as really there just aren't any to be made, I've just been hopelessly lazy, so there. So, what's up in Shanghai? Well, summer seems to have arrived with a vengeance after a few weeks of the usual plum rains that were unusual in the fact that this year there was hardly any sun in between the torrential downpours, just grayness and gloom. Though I shouldn't complain as despite the occasional few inches of water on the streets in some minor flash flooding we escaped the flooding in Zhejiang, which really is just down the road.

We did have one close encounter with the very wet weather in the countryside last month when we headed to Moganshan for Flo to indulge in his new favorite hobby. Triathlons. It was Dragon Boat Festival weekend (for more about that look here) and no longer content with just running  or biking insanely long distances, he's now thrown swimming into the mix (and doing pretty well consdiering he's never really swum seriously before.) Anyway, the Moganshan triathlon was an unoffcial affair organized by a lovely English gal called Tory who lives in that neck of the woods (Moganshan is about three hours' drive from Shanghai and is pretty much the first serious set of hills and greenery in any direction from this vast concrete jungle we call home.) 

It's all bamboo forests and farmers, though like everywhere the quaint villages with their lovely timber, whitewashed walls and slate tiles are gradually being eaten up by boxy buildings with swimming pool-tiled walls, blue-tinted windows and more stainless steel than should be legal anywhere. Anyway, it's a slow process but it is starting and you can't really blame them for it... when you do get a peek into one of those quaint old building it's often a bit like stepping back to the dark ages, except there might be a bare electric bulb hanging overhead, just enough to illuminate the gloomy rooms, sparse furniture (often repaired in the most inventive ways), maybe a chicken or two hopping around the kitchen counter which itself is little more that a bare slab of granite, a bucket and a greasy gas burner. With a bit of elbow work and a lot of cash these places can be cleaned up and restored and made quite charming. Or, you can let the crumble around you or knock em down and start again, (which is sadly the much cheaper and quicker option) with easy-build breeze block rooms and a bit of plaster, easy-sweep tiled floors and nice shiny tiles on the walls outside that look brand spanking new for, oh, about 6 months before getting stained with dirty rain water and slime. Nice big windows let some actual sunlight in and fluorescent bulbs to really brighten up the nights... I will never understand the preference for that sterile white lighting here, it makes everything feel like a hospital... though maybe that's just it, it's the absolute opposite of the dark and gloomy past.

View from our balcony at Mr Long's
Anyway, I was telling you about Moganshan, where we headed on a Friday night after work, bound for the little village of Biwucun where there is a great little place we discovered a few months ago through one of my colleagues and the pace of change is marginally slower despite every other house being a guest house. We stay at one of them owned by a Mr. Long, a smiling chap with a huge mustache a la Tom Selleck who has built four little cabins, each with two double rooms and shared terrace overlooking the bamboo clad hills opposite. A large courtyard in front of his home is set up with tables and chairs and if you arrive and order lunch you'll likely get a chicken that just minutes before was scratching around in the yard and bamboo shoots foraged from the forest. Unfortunately on this trip it was late and dark by the time we got there and so it was sandwiches in the car and followed by cold pasta on arrival... when your'e running/swimming/biking a total of about 60 km the next day you need some slow-burning fuel to keep you going!

We woke in the morning to the rain absolutely hammering down. It barely stopped all day but with a good poncho and a positive attitude as a spectator it was actually a lot of fun. There were about 40 people taking part (less than were registered but a number of people dropped out of the biking as it was slippery and wet, particularly for road bikes. Flo had his mountain bike which was a blessing in disguise. Our friend Kennon who was there had decided not to bike for that very same reason... a blessing in disguise for me as he'd driven down in his company car, which came complete with mini screens and a DVD player in the back so we stayed out of the rain for an hour while Flo was pumping his way through 40 or so  kilometers' worth of blinding rain while we watched Apocalypse Now). The start point and transition area was three tents made out of arched bamboo poles and tarpaulins in a very wet field that quickly had about 3 inches of water flowing around it, as mud sucked at my flip-flops and splashed up my legs. I have to say I was the envy of the rest of the crew with my poncho... it may not have been very stylish but it sure as hell kept everything from mid thigh up totally dry (though the rest of me was drenched.)

Swimmers ready!
Swim, done!
Biking, wet!
Running: Muddy!
Finished: Yay!
It may sound like a bit of a nightmare but it was actually a lot of fun and the other people involved were really cool, plus it's always good to be out in the open air, even if it's sopping wet! By the time we made our way back to Biwucun and Mr Long's it was dark and we had a post-celebratory barbecue date with a very stinky Camembert, a bottle of red wine and our little terrace. The terrace was covered so, heck, it didn't matter that it was still pissing down.

See the insect whirlwind?!
Sadly it was not to be. You know those days in England when the flying ants decide to hatch and head out en masse to find new homes? This was the Moganshan version. Probably triggered by the rain and the warm weather, this was the one day of the year that all the litte beasties set out on their adventures, and with no other lights around, they all congregated on our porch. It started out with just a few of them that we batted away without thinking, but after about ten minutes there was a seething mass circling the column of white light like a whirlwind and yet more coated the walls. We de-camp to the courtyard where we could sit in the dark away from the insects and watched with wonder as they massed around a single lamp that shone outside, several meters away, as all the neighborhood frogs and toads (of which there are many) came out to munch on the flying feast, their tongues flashing out and with a surprising loud "thhsp," whipping their prey in to their big, warty mouths.

Happy toad

Another happy toad... with yummy bamboo shoots and
bottle of red on Sunday.
After a bout of frog watching it was time for bed and when we woke, the rains had stopped and though the skies were still leaden and low we managed to get out for a run. We'd planned to stay another night but with the rain forecast to return again in the afternoon, we packed our bags and headed back to Shanghai where it was also raining, but at least we'd have the comforts of home.

Moganshan was actually the second triathlon experience, the first being the shorter (and rather sunnier) NanjingMan in--you guessed it--Nanjing the previous month. Less adventurous, this was based round the Sofitel sits on the on the side of the city that is basically a huge park and for some reason we got an upgrade to a room with a ridiculous terrace with a view over the golf course. It was great! (Apologies if anyone reading this are any of the 2-3 dedicated China Travel Blog readers, bits of this will have been familiar... if you aren't part of that esteemed and elite group and and you'd like, you can check out the more detailed versions in a Tale of two triathlons.)

Flo is actually off biking as I type... well actually he left at 6am this morning and now it almost 9am so he's probably well into his 100 km ride by now. This is the start of his "serious" training for a half Ironman in Taiwan in the autumn (something along the lines of 3km swim, 100km bike and 20 km run). As for me, I'm still capoeira-ing once or twice a week with the occasional run thrown in but city running is hot and polluted these days and our gym didn't think to put in A/C. Being in the basement with a swimming pool it gets pretty stuffy and full of hot sweaty men working out with their tops off, sweating all over machines that never get cleaned--not really appealing.

What else, what else? It was the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party here yesterday though I can't say I really noticed anything special going on around here. There were certainly billboards announcing the fact for the past few weeks and the blackboard in our lane was decorated with the hammer and sickle and the TV on the metro was broadcasting a "Red" concert of bellowing revolutionary songs. Now, if only they'd have staged the Red Olympics here that would have been something to see!

This is actually the ceiling I just can't make the picture
turn the right way round.
Our neighbors have been doing some home improvements, tag teaming to have the two floors below under construction for two months followed by the upstairs floor gutting the place within a few days of them finishing so it's pretty noisy and dusty here and we've ended up with a big hole in our ceiling (and also had one in the floor that has been messily filled with cement. The one in the ceiling is staying til they've done as much damage as possible and then they'll fix everything at once. Welcome to home improvements with Chinese characteristics). We were actually thinking about moving and trying to find a similar place with a bit more space and a terrace but have realized quite how much the property prices have increased in our area... when we tell the real estate agents what we are looking for and our budget they pretty much call us crazy and tell us to stay where we are. We have seen a few places that we've liked but for twice as much it's not really worth it so we'll stay put for now.

Speaking of staying put, or not actually, it feels like a lot of people are leaving at the moment and we've had three leaving dos in as many weeks... it's always sad to see people go. We'll actually be heading back ourselves for a few weeks (though only temporarily) in August--tickets still not bought, sorry mum, I know I'm not s'posed to leave these things to the last minute--but we hope to see as many of you as possible! For now though it's time to sign off and go and get a very cold drink to refresh my summer brain-melt as the rains have indeed gone away and the 38 degree sun is here. Pheeew, hand me the ice cubes!

Lots of love from Shanghers and see y'all soon xxx