Transport of delight

Being a continuation of my meanderings through the intricacies of China’s modes of transport available to those who can’t afford to go by private jet.

Having made the (possibly unsupportable claim) that despite the general disregard for recognisable road rules the spirit of courtesy and a laid back live-and-let-live ethos keep travelers on Chinese city roads safer than St Christopher, it seemed important to live the philosophy.

It was on this basis I decided that cycling the streets of Shanghai would be a great way for my family to get around the city. Reader: it was!

IMG_6135Not on this though, since a) it’s not a bike, it’s a trailer/barrow,  b) Betty and Tanea would not like the rusty seating, and c) those spokes appear to be made of spade handles

So much easier on the legs than stomping everywhere. So much more to see than on the Metro! So much less reliant on Tanea’s iPhone than the taxi! So much more alert to it all when everything in your field of vision can be expected to kill you at any moment! I arranged a gentle introduction by purchasing an expensive guided tour (culture-shock-tours.com) with a young French lass called Claire who spoke Chinese well and English pretty well. We started ever so gently down the easy streets of Xintiandi, one of the many high fashion, high priced districts in Shanghai. It was a pretty sweet introduction, if a little unambitious on the food front. The progression to the narrow laneways of the old town was accompanied by pelting and chilly rain so that by the time we bade Claire farewell we were quite damp, and Tanea was no longer so bothered that she’d forgotten to bring the SD card for the camera (which explains the lack of illustrative support for this section).

IMG_8110The wide, leafy avenues of Xintiandi were absolutely crying out for cycling. And once we showed the locals how to do it they absolutely flocked to it.

IMG_8093The decision by municipal authorities to ban the playing of trumpets, bugles and cornets has been a boon for easily frightened cyclists.

As in any big (well, giant really) city, walking from seeable sight to shoppable plaza involves long and uneven kilometers of trudgery, leading to some slightly low-energy behaviours as everyone becomes exhausted. Biking, on the other hand, puts just about everything within reach, especially in towns where the concept of a hill or wind is spoken of in hushed, disbelieving tones (“What is wind?” “What is hill?” they ask in fearful wonderment). There’s a wonderful looking civic bike rental scheme in Shanghai called Mobike. These guys have snappy silver and orange bikes with enclosed direct (rather than chain) drive and intelligent locking that allows you to pick them up and drop them off just about anywhere, not making you reliant on docking posts. All you need to do is download the Mobike app and scan the Q-code. Which is all in Chinese, as well as Appstore apparently being blocked.

Doh!

Plan B. Find a local bike renting concern. As luck would have it there was an enticing bike shop just down the road from us in our first Shanghai apartment, boasting such wonders as a porcelain and bamboo bike and some mean-as looking city wheels. I got the feeling that they were custom-building bikes just for the hell of it (I never saw one go out the door or any serious looking purchaser). In fact their lack of apparent commercial aspiration would have done Jonty proud.

IMG_6798“Oh, hullo sir. How can I help you” is what nobody in this shop said to anyone walking in off the street, ever.

The crappy bikes they had no interest in (but owned nevertheless) were racked up outside. There were new ones you could buy and old ones for rent,  though as the shop dude indicated through gestures, the new ones were even crappier than the neglected old ones, so why would you? Renting was what we were after, and after some interesting discussions in which they demonstrated a “Nanny Piggins” style of bargaining we struck a deal: “How much to rent?” “200 Yuan a day.” “No, way too much.” “OK, 10 Yuan an hour then.” “Done.” Then it was just a matter of picking out the least crappy of the crappy bikes and disentangling them for immediate use.

IMG_6801You’re wondering why we didn’t take the tandem chopper? Me too. How cool would that be? You might also like to look at the previous picture and marvel at the fact that all of these bikes had to go into that bike shop at day’s end.

Actually for a town with surely more than a million cyclists, it’s amazing how crappy most bikes were. They evidently practice the same kind of bike maintenance that I do: none. My biggest worry though was how Tanea, who finds the underpopulated streets of Wellington a wind-up, would cope in amongst all of this unabashed mayhem (sorry love, but I was absolutely packing. You and I both know how cranky you’d be with a bus on top of you. So cranky…). Our plan was to get to the site of the Expo held here in 2010 (incidentally when Tanea and Lyn were here to look after Derek). Then it was a splendourland of gigantic pavilions evidencing the might and openness of resurgent China, now it’s an abandoned junkyard of oversized steel structures that would have got J. G. Ballard very excited. A junkyard squatting on several hectares of prime real estate on the banks of the Huangpu River that no one can quite bring themselves to pull down, though nor can they be bothered to do anything with them. Instead they’ve banged barrier fencing all around them and left a platoon of security guards on site to watch then rapidly decay. A cycling wonderland in short, though we were largely forced to stick to the roads and paths.

IMG_6762Betty expresses delight at being taken to any empty wasteland of nationalist bombast. At least that’s how I read that smile.

It’s not every family that leaps at the chance of riding past a long parade of rusty decrepitude, but at least two of us were pretty excited, and the other had been promised a visit to another jumbo plaza as a reward for putting up with this decay-tourism lark. Though presumably all were as excited as me by the crumbling China Railway Pavilion with railway siding detail on the walls.

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Decaying? Perhaps. But still a bit flasher than KiwiRail HQ.

The only people about apart from security were the occasional elderly joggers and walkers making the most of the winding tracks with stadium-grade red rubber tracks with marks at 20m intervals so they could mark off their achievements. The only decoration apart from the ubiquitous photinia hedges were these giant sculptures dotted randomly about the place.

IMG_6765Local government provides graphic illustration of what can happen to an under-maintained bike.

So delighted were we with our discovery (of biking and wastage) that by the time we came to the spike-guarded waste-water outflow into the Huangpu River we were ready to pose for possibly the only romantic photo from our trip.

IMG_6774Nothing says “I love you” like a bike ride round the detritus of empire

The one building that seemed to have retained a purpose (and secretly, or main reason for being there) was the gigantic old power station that is now, predictably, an art gallery, “open seven days except for Monday”. It was a Monday. We rode on.

IMG_6768Given this international propensity for turning power stations into art galleries, I’m surprised that any power generation gets done at all. Or that Genesis doesn’t just deliver art works to us to burn on our fire.

One other building of note was a cluster of sort of inverted beehives clad in overlapping strips of some kind of composite board (think MDF). There must have been some coating on the strips or they would have turned to mush years ago, but they were certainly starting to show their age (I know: as are we), having taken on the texture of poorly assembled weetbix. The effect was still stunning; velvety from a distance and raggedly furred close up. Photos don’t capture any of this, so please activate your imaginations at this point.

IMG_6784 Even Pearl aged 8 couldn’t eat that many Weetbix

As we turned from the desolation of the Expo site back into the hurly-burly of the city we all realised that we no longer had any fear of the traffic. People really did try to avoid you even as they pushed on through their red light. No one much cared if you were going the wrong way down a one way street. And as we covered more and more miles we still hadn’t seen a single accident.

IMG_6759Feel the serenity…

Well, actually there was one moment. As we rode along in the slipstream of a guy riding his moped the wrong way down a one way street with big signs indicating that bikes were not allowed, we saw him suddenly do a U-turn and fang back towards us. Drawing the obvious inference from our sweating pink flesh he switched on his English briefly to alert us: “Police!” before driving off. Too late! We were already in a police sting among a dozen or so others who had also been pulled over. Our policeman started to lay down the law for me in Chinese. I showed him the palms of my hands, shrugged my  shoulders. “You” he tried before deciding that his English just wasn’t up to this. Brusquely he motioned for us to go on our way. So on we went.

Travel: the curse of the travelling classes

I always recall Tim Beckingsale explaining why, having got to London and secured work as a courier driver in the 1980s, he had opted not to travel anywhere much further. “Travel,” he sighed, “is such a chore.”

IMG_6244Though maybe if he’d tried going by camel? This chap in the Shanghai Museum seems to be finding it anything but a chore

And he’s sort of right. Being somewhere new is great. Getting there is largely aggravation. For me, planes are a special hell. Too little space, windows that won’t open and doors that you get scolded for trying to, only intermittent plying with alcohol, and surly blond Aussies with their hair pulled into facelift pony tails and make up designed to mask all emotion so they can stare down your requests with pointed indifference. Ah Qantas!

And all those deadlines. Nothing feels less holiday-like than having to be somewhere at a very specific time or face family-wrecking disaster. Or maybe it does. Maybe that’s exactly what real holidays feel like, as distinct from those TV-fuelled fantasies (#travellikedickieroper).

Why can’t it be like this…
TLDRIs a decent bit of legroom and some complimentary popcorn really too much to ask?

Rather than this?

cattleclass

Now add in the total language barrier. Having assumed a kind of citrus equivalence, we’d boned up on a bit of Pomello, a reasonable amount of Tangelo but neglected Mandarin entirely.

Citrus

一切,除了我们需要一个柑橘类水果!

So if (just hypothetically), in the midst of some mega-human dumping station that is a “tourist transfer station,” one was to climb into a taxi and say “Tunxi” (one of the “towns” we were staying in; popn. 1.5 million) you might, just might, get taken into a general, undifferentiated built up area about the size of Auckland, assuming you managed to get the pronunciation just right (Tuhn She). If, though, you only know your address as “No. 5 Old Street”, and can’t translate that into Mandarin (including numbers) your driver is just going to shrug and smile and keep driving until you tell him to let you off. Basically, the only reliable strategy is to get the exact address on your phone and show it to the driver. Since Google is banned here, even this is not as simple as it sounds = get VPN on the computer, find your destination in English, find a representation of same address in Chinese characters, email self (all before travelling) then pick up email on phone and show driver. Then watch driver shrug and drive off in what you know to be the wrong direction.

We’re currently on a fast train travelling from Tunxi to Hangzhou which is in an extensive wetland area (like, about the size of the South Island) inland from Shanghai. Tunxi is, home of the Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) scenic area, of which, more later.

IMG_7238Though here’s a wee preview, just to whet your appetite

The train track itself is a miracle of modern engineering, as smooth as New Zealand rail isn’t (both literally and figuratively) and the train glides along at about 350kph. Even at this speed some of the tunnels can take up to 10 minutes to go through, suggesting that the Chinese attitude to mountains is as disdainful as Qantas onboard crew to their passengers.

IMG_7508Chinese disdain for mountain, as seen from speeding bullet train

The train is nice and new, wide and pretty generous with its legroom. No WiFi (always a challenge on long distance rail). Although it speeds along at a pretty decent clip, the trip is only about an hour quicker than a bus (and about 10 times as expensive) as we take an easy arc in order to stop in at numerous towns along the way.

In Shanghai and the various tourist areas there’s a huge amount of signage exhorting people to act in a “civilised” fashion – you get the sense that they’re after the kind of politeness reforms that Lee Kwan Yu managed to embed in Singapore in the ‘70s.

IMG_7239Typical example of the civilising message from Yellow Mountain: “Each flower or leaf is of the view, and your remark or behaviour of the civilization.” Quite so.

IMG_7208My personal favourite: “Leave the scenery in your memory and your virtue in the area.” I really did try to leave my virtue in the area but Tanea was having none of it.

If by civilised they mean queue like a brittle Englishman, preserving a small empire of personal space around oneself (the way I like to queue) then they’ve got a wee way to go. And the further into the countryside, the more rustic are the manners of the locals. Huangshan North railway station is a vast edifice that looks as though it was opened yesterday: absolute acres of polished granite floors and spotless industrial concrete concourses and platforms.

IMG_7472You know you’re paying above the odds for your train fare when only about 22 of China’s 1.4 billion people are in the train station along with a couple of dozen honkies.

IMG_7481So sleek and clean: civilisation expressed in concrete and steel

Settling into the aircon carriage of the sleek-fuselaged ubertrain certainly felt like an advanced form of civility to this unreconstructed modernist. One stop in though and the rabblement overran us. The local youfs got busy jamming their oversized hardshell suitcases into the too-small luggage racks in complete disregard for the stooped crone who was trying to stick her rusty wheelchair up there as well, then turning on loud Chinese movies on their oversized iPhones (haven’t they heard of headphones? They’re only two bucks at Miniso for god’s sake!). Then the old chap who couldn’t find his seat set to yelling randomly at everyone. They were certainly the noisiest of times and quite restored my faith in The People to subvert any over-swift efforts at re-education.

IMG_7570Maybe I exaggerate? Once they were all sitting down and the wheelchair was taken off to a luggage area it all looks fine. And what a difference a wider gauge track makes to seating space.

There is a code of courtesy that governs road use, it just doesn’t seem so obvious at first to those of us bred to think of manners as a form of strict regulation. Of particular interest, and instructive in terms of the criticism of Chinese tourist drivers, is the fluid interpretation of the centre line. Chinese drivers will overtake anyone just about anywhere. Their expectation is simply that the oncoming car (RIGHT THERE! And closing fast!) will scooch over to make room for everyone.

IMG_7309Astoundingly, all of these vehicles, all travelling at about 80 kmh, will manage to avoid each other at the last second. Which is good given my rudimentary knowledge of first aid.

Scooters and bikes generally commandeer the right-most section of each lane and are happy to mix it up, either going with or against the specified traffic flow as they wish. Within this microcosm they don’t even strictly observe a keep right or keep left policy, just an “avoid the oncoming person in a way that seems most sensible at the time” tactic. Everyone toots frequently but only to say “I’m here”, and I’ve yet to see anyone express annoyance or even surprise at the most outrageous of u-turns. Nor have we seen any accidents or evidence of them. In a city like Shanghai where 25 million odd people need to rub along together this seems remarkable.

IMG_6132Take this chap with his grandson on the back doing the school run; he’s just narrowly avoided being run down by a bus and is now ploughing through pedestrians on a green crossing light. Happy times indeed.

Even pedestrians seem to do ok, despite the fact that bikes and scooters (and quite a few cars) don’t hesitate to run through pedestrian crossings, even when the crossing light is green and they’re on a red light. Apparently we’re in the midst of a traffic crackdown, and every now and then a bunch of police will swoop on some corner and pull over those not observing the rules (= pretty much everyone). Much banter, hilarity (on both sides) and passing of money goes on, then everyone goes back to doing exactly as they were before. Hilarious!

Speaking of congestion, it seems one holiday laptop is not enough for the modern family. Betty’s friends are online so Skyping’s afoot, so the next enthralling installment on transport in China is going to have to wait and this blog is…

to be continued…

Just Shangin’ Out


Really Tanea? Shangin’ out? Does that even count as a pun?

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Local man fails to enjoy Tanea’s punning efforts

Nearly a week in and we’re still only marginally in control of our own destinies here. It doesn’t help that our Chinese is limited to the (very) basics and that in general there’s no expectation that your shop person or taxi driver speaks a word of English. Add the fact that we can’t even decipher Chinese characters and you can imagine we’re pretty much relying on hand gestures and handing over large denominations in the hope that they’ll cover the cost of whatever it is we’re trying to purchase.

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James attempts to communicate with a local, only for his rudimentary Chinese to let him down, again.

Still, we’re doing our intrepid bests to do justice to this great city, though the desire to get into the more appalling looking food options is somewhat tempered by having an early teen in tow.

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James does his best to convince disaffected teenager that those are not the characters for “horse meat”

That said, we’re all pretty comfortable with breakfast options, although the amount of fried food we’re consuming is pretty alarming. It turns out there are quite a few pretty decent coffee options about, so we haven’t had to go without on that front. To the two morning flat whites I usually add any number of the following:

  • Bing: this is the general term for round things, and these are generally some kind of fried bread, either plain or stuffed with chopped vegetables (think Chinese greens, garlic and tofu), bean paste or general and assorted meats (don’t ask; they all taste fine). Some are like pizza bread full of scallions and sesame seeds, others are more like giant dumplings. But the king of bing is surely the dry fried pancake (jianbing) that gets spread with an egg, sprinkled with fried garlic, spread with a hoisin/chilli mix, handfuls of corriander and spring onions, then gets a fried bread (technically another bing, so bing on bing!) then all wrapped up and served. A bit like a masala dosa really. One of these will generally keep you going until the first morning tea time.
  • Bao: dumplings either steamed or fried, including the ubiquitous pork bun (though again, there are a range of other fillings including shrimp, bean and vege). There’s even a steamed dumpling skin just full of rice for the purists. These are all great value (about three for a dollar) and offer a welcome relief from the relentlessness of fried everything. I usually eat a couple while I’m waiting for my bing and coffee order.
  • Xiao Long Bao: technically a member of the bao family, these deserve a special mention because they are so damn good. Known in English as the Shanghai soup dumpling, they’re usually about the size of a golf-ball, though there are several that are super-sized, presumably for competition eating purposes. I don’t know if these are endemic to Shanghai, but they do seem to be especially identified with the place. These are not the simple dumplings floating in soup that are available at every other hole in the wall, but a tough-skinned dumpling, fried on the bottom to a sticky chewy crisp with a small nugget of filling (generally pork or a pork-based mixture) as well as a decent amount of hot juice (the “soup”). You need to nibble through the skin on top and drink the soup carefully through the hole, a) to prevent scalding your tongue, and b) so you don’t send a jet of soup over onto the person sitting opposite you as Tanea did. Laughter did not ensue.

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A hearty breakfast: bing und bao.

Lunchtime seems more suited to noodle or wonton soups as, being early spring, the weather can still be a bit cool (we’re generally oscillating between tee shirt and tee-shirt plus light top) and it’s quite often spitting. I haven’t learned to differentiate between these nearly so thoroughly; it’s generally just a case of going up to the soup dude and pointing, before raising the appropriate number of fingers to signal how many servings you’re after. The broth is generally clear and subtle, though the best ones still manage to stand out with quite detailed flavours. Not as many condiment/sauces on the table as we’re used to back home: chiu chow chilli oil, and maybe just some brown vinegar.

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One of many noodle soups. At about $2.50 a pop that’s a cheap stonking.

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Anticipating Betty’s picky standards, they even offer a bing burger with nothing but pork inside.

Our dinner options have been quite varied, and everyone’s preferences seem to vary too. Not speaking the lingo’s a real curse, as we’re flying blind apart from the (often minimal) cues offered by menus. Photos are best as the English translations can be hilarious but unhelpful (“three kinds of baby food with liver as centre”?). But even the photos can’t tell you that that duck is insanely sweet and served cold.

IMG_6707 Insanely sweet duck, served cold. But otherwise looking pretty much exactly as it did on the menu.

Also I don’t really know my arse from my elbow when it comes to differentiating, say, Xian from Cantonese from Sichuan cuisines, except in the most rudimentary ways. This is possibly compounded by the fact that cooking in Shanghai seems to be immensely progressive, with some restaurants very plainly modifying their styles based on other influences. The result is that each restaurant we’ve tried has had a distinctly different feel.

Pricing is also wildly varied, with most restaurants offering filling but standard dishes for between 20-30 yuan ($5-6). Then there’ll be somewhere that mucks around with your food and wants to slap a 200 yuan price tag on a dish ($45 odd dollars). Generally though we can eat ourselves to a standstill for between $30-60 so even when we go overboard the water’s not that deep.

Betty and Tanea’s favourite was, predictably, at the upper end of cheap and featured a grand dining room, opulent seats that were impossible to manoeuvre around and all the complimentary smoke you could inhale courtesy of surrounding tables (though in truth this is absolutely everywhere). I think it seemed Cantonese in style though what would I know? It reminded me a bit of the old Wellington favourite Uncle Changs (it even had orange beef!) although the fish in the tanks here were more for eating than decoration. Here’s a brief tour:

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Betty rushes to get her order in before the place completely packs out and we are thenceforth studiously ignored.

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Everything from the classics (the hard boiled eggs are underneath)

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To the mango salad on loan from the seventies (that’s Kewpie mayo strewn across the top)

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And rarest of all treats: fresh greens!

My favourite was probably a joint just around the corner that cuts back on the intensity of sugar and oil and lets the basic flavours do the talking. That said, it’s not exactly a health spa either. I ordered a pork hock in broth, a large basin of lightly vinegared stock with cabbage, ginger and a whole enormous hock cooked to silken perfection. No sign of soy sauce, it felt almost Germanic in its disposition of elements. Tanea’s tofu-skinned dumplings were similarly light and delicate.

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It’s light, and it’s tasty. That’s right: it’s light and tasty

Then there’s the place a few doors down our road that looks kind of swanky from the street. That is until you’re inside and the pull back the sliding doors from the dining room to the kitchen to reveal that the kitchen has them cooking around a great big boiler (as in: the boiler that heats the whole building) on some fairly rudimentary facilities.

The food here had some quite different, distinctive flavours, and there were some suspicious beans that reminded me of the petai beans they used in sambal petai at Satay Kampong, and which lend an indescribable (but partly metallic) flavour to the food. The soup Tanea ordered was once again big enough to feed a family, fiery hot with a bit of the Szechuan pepper effect, numbing the mouth. I ordered deep fried smoked fish which like all the fish I’ve eaten was full of fine bones which you just have to man up and chomp through. But my mouth does feel a bit like I’ve eaten a whole porcupine, and the chilli from Tanea’s soup really made the most of the contusions.

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A fiesty, plentiful soup, dwarfing a plate of spiny smoked fish in the background

Well, the research continues. Through it all there’s one constant: cheap, watery beer of which Tsingtao seems to be the pick of the bunch. You have to be careful here as many of them have less than 2% alc, completely defeating the point (especially since there’s no flavour to be considered). It’s cheap and refreshing though and once we learned to stop trying to pronounce it “Tsingtao” and instead say “Chingdow” we have no trouble lining the bottles up on our tables.

Expect us to go on one of our insane health/weightloss kicks when we return.

Shanghai, China

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19 hours after forcing our sorry asses out of bed at four am Tuesday, six movies and three bad airline meals later, we arrived in Shanghai. We faced the usual airport chaos: sim card negotiating, backpacks completely disappearing from the carousel, leap of English-free faith with money machines and avoiding taxi touts with the fresh eyes of Betty who’s never left the country (bar Oz which let’s face it, doesn’t count). As expected, she met it head on in a  calm disaffected teenage way. Mostly I think sleepwalking at this point.

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Breakfast bing

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The street of our AirBnB apartment (to right) in the French Concession

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View from the kitchen window

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Betty’s new friend

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Bund. James Bund. And Betty.

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Every man and his dog satay.

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James checking out his options

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Photos above, indications only

We woke super early and left the apartment to search for food but discovered that Shanghai isn’t entirely awake at 6.30am, so we wandered quiet calm streets for miles, though discovering quickly the endless hole in the wall stalls making delicious fried dumplings and various other greasy breakfast goodness. In your face muesli. After checking out the closest Metro stations for orientation purposes we decided on the spur to jump a train and check out The Bund. By this point it was morning peak but we’d already committed so on we squeezed with the other five hundred people per carriage. Betty had the face that said ‘really? – are you mental?’. Of course having left our digs with the intention of getting a quick feed we hadn’t actually taken a guide book, map or even a bag and lets be honest had actually NO idea where The Bund even was. I figured we catch a train to the river and how far could it be?

Miles actually. Miles and miles…

IMG_6103We’re thinking of hiring bikes next time.

Excursions will possibly be better planned in the future me thinks. Next stop dinner.

 

 

 

She’s leaving home….

061 037 022

Well the day finally came and with it, she went.

First stop Singas, with ‘Aunty Splendid’ in tow. Thank you Heather, we are eternally grateful. Plan at this point: three days in Singapore then through Malaysia making their way to Thailand where Heather leaves her in Bangkok. Un-chaperoned 18 year old in Bangkok, what could possibly go wrong?
Go wrong.

In the meantime we’ve traded up and got ourselves a new one. The wonderful Johanna from Hannover is with us for the first term at Betty’s school, even the cats have moved on…01112597013_905296366254344_1028382840_o

We’ll probably still miss you though Pearl. A bit.
xxx

 

Day 345: Completely floored

Good lord, that was a mission!

But look, once my knees grow back I’m sure it will all seem worth it:

Day345FloorSouth

Is a new floor a fair exchange for a pair of knees? I surely hope so.

It just took ages to lay this, working away with my little wedges and acres of flooring glue, but once it was all down, sanded and finished with industrial grade matt polyurethane we did enjoy standing back and admiring our handiwork.

The road to satisfaction, though, is a long and arduous one, and more than once I wondered whether it would be just as good to have only part of the floor with timber overlay, leaving the rest as filthy ply.

Actually, my commitment was weak from the start on this one. Spotting  a capable chap coming out of a nearby house and loading a van with the legend “Floor Laying” stencilled across the side, I approached him to quote for laying our floor – all 56 square metres of it. He was more than happy to. He would price, he told me, for preparing the sub-floor, laying the flooring (but not supplying it; I’d already bought the timber remember), sanding it and varnishing it. All, as it turned out when the quote came in that night, for only $17,000.

I put on my glasses and read that again. Yep: $17K. Maybe he’d accidentally priced for supplying the timber? No, he hadn’t.

I went to Bunnings to pick up some flooring glue and got cracking myself.I soon had the girls pressed into service, carrying boards out from the garage and laying them out according to length in what became known as “the pipe organ” but which could equally have been called “the class photo”: everything arranged for smallest to largest.

Day345Pipeorgan

The pipe organ

This may seem like a make-work scheme, but being able to select the board closest to the right length to end each run saved a huge amount of wastage over the course of the job.

Run by painstaking run the floor was laid over the course of a couple of weeks.

Day345JamesOnFloor

Taking “cracking into it” a little too literally perhaps?

Day345HallFloor

Working up the hall – round about the half-way mark

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Nearing the end: wedging the fillets off the end wall

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The last board going in – James kneeling to offer the traditional builders’ prayer for a snug fit

The floor hasn’t been the only game in town though. We’ve been pressing forward on many fronts with the goal of moving in sneaking ever closer. The best surprise is always the arrival of friendly faces with helping hands dangling somewhere below them. Deb and Heather have been so regular we’ve had to consider charging them rent, but plenty of others have come in and helped us past significant milestones (Tim, Pippa, Will, Lynley, Jonathan…).

It was especially delightful to see Mark – previously paid to work here, now doing it out of love – come over the horizon, looking ready for business and promising the delivery of lunch by his lovely new wife Sarah later on. Mark’s one of those guys who can get on with anyone on a building site: super-friendly, able to direct people without making them feel bossed around, and respectful of all-comers. He’s also the only builder I’ve met who’s kissed my on the lips, but that’s another story…

Anyway, there was Mark with a real tool belt and good building smarts, and there was me wondering how to make the best use of him. Then it occurred to me: I’d been losing sleep trying to nut out exactly how to install the wood burner. It’s an “insert” fire meaning that it all gets hidden in the wall apart from the door and surrounding fascia. We’d decided to set it some way off the ground so we could store firewood under it. The fireplace itself came in about four large boxes and had completely Byzantine instructions in about three different booklets. Some (considerable) assembly was required.

So yeah, that’s what we did. We installed the fire.

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Here we are doing that very thing

Day345FireIn

I tiptoe away from the newly installed fire hoping it will stay where it’s been put

Another work stream that has been progressing slowly but steadily is the kitchen. I think I mentioned that we’d bought the cabinetry without a bench top to save money. I may even have wondered whether a saving that rendered the whole thing unusable was false economy. Simply put, the bench top was one of the first things off the priority list when the “running low” light came on in the bank account. We’d priced up a granite top (black, honed, naturally) and it was going to be about $7K. I reckoned I needed to bring that back to about $500. The cheap answer came (as it had in the past to a completely different question) from a chap in Masterton who calls himself “Plyguy” (well, more precisely, he calls his business The Plyguy; he calls himself “the Plyminister”).  The cheap answer was LVL panels, 40mm thick, 780mm wide and 2400 long.  At about $100 each they sounded just the ticket.

They’re basically like ply on its side. That is, the layers of pine and glue are visible on the main surface rather than just from the side. It was a bit of a trick cutting them to fit, and I wussed out and got my joiner to rout out the hole for the sink and hob, but the end result was, I think, rather snazzy, and entirely in keeping with our bizzaro-style kitchen.

Day345SinkBenchOnFloor

Here’s the sink bench after its first sealer coat (also starring the new floor)

Being untreated ply, though, it needs a thorough sealing, to which end I’m in the middle of applying multiple coats of incredibly toxic two-pot polyurethane. The downside is that the final result is highly glossy. The upside is that it should be pretty bomb-proof.

What do you think?

Day345GlossyBench

Peer closely and you’ll note that the sink, tap and dishwasher are all installed in the background. There’s the hob and extractor fan to go, the former waiting until the varnishing is finished. I’m hoping it’ll all be done by this weekend, because this weekend I expect we’ll be fully moved in.

Just sayin’.

Day 301: All grown up

Birthdays eh? They really get you thinking. We downed tools this afternoon to spend a pleasant couple of hours celebrating Amber’s 40th. “Bitch!” said Heather when she discovered just how young Amber is. But you can’t hold people’s youth against them can you? But I admit there is a natural tendency to want to forestall the inevitable. Tanea says it would help if I lost the grey Albert Einstein hairdo, but it’s not so much my own ageing that has me worried as that of my baby: the house. I have a particular dread of the possibility that I will one day have to title a blog “Day 365: Still at it as winter sets in…” or similar.

I really want us to be able to move in. And soon.

Like those lines that graphs tend towards but never reach (they’re called what? Asymptotes? Why thank you.) the finishing work and painting seems to be endless, and this despite the best efforts of our generous friends working along side us as we push along.

Every now and then though, something happens to reassure us that we are actually making progress, not being hapless victims of some elaborate TV prank show in which we wake every morning to find the work of the previous day undone. And since we’re running with a “growing up” metaphor, I’ll share Jane Dunbier’s excellent simile: baby’s braces have been removed. Or, rather more prosaically, we did finally complete the main paint job so the scaffolders could come and remove their kit. They’re rushed off their feet, apparently, so they came round on a Saturday morning. Right on cue, the heavens opened over Buckley Rd to welcome them.

Day301ScaffTruck

“We lift you up” is their tagline, but today was more about tearing down.

The weather didn’t seem to bother them too much. They set to their work the sense of purpose common to those who are already committed to (and late) setting their scaffold up somewhere else. That said, the young lad couldn’t help peering in to the warm dry interior rather wistfully.

Day301ScaffBoyLooksIn

Get back to work you young whippersnapper

While we readily talk up the view of this place it must be admitted that the scaffolding has been something of a distraction. Watching a Saturday soccer game, for instance, has a strangely prison-like quality to it.

Day301Soccer

Could someone spare us a file?

For those of us sensible enough to have inside jobs to do, the guys scampering about outside provided both drama and an enhanced sense of comfort (nothing like watching someone else in the rain to make you appreciate how warm and dry you are). The weather made their precarious position seem that much more perilous: not only slippery and wet, but freezing cold too. Hardly optimal conditions for swinging about on the monkey bars one wouldn’t have thought.

Day301Nick

The leading hand, Nick (or “gaffer” as Heather insisted on calling him)

Day301OtherGuy

The dark, silent and really strong type (or “eye candy” as Heather’s attention seemed to imply)

We’ve got very used to clambering about on this structure of course, but it is dauntingly high at  the front, and as I discovered on the occasions when I removed some bits myself, with a few cross-members gone it can become alarmingly wobbly.

Day301FullFrontal

The full frontal shot captures that sense of height rather well

Despite my natural tendency to drive the workers hard, I let Tanea off painting for a while to capture the action. What follows is a summary of the progress as it happened.

Day301FromNorth

The view from Buckley Rd

Day301ViewFromSW Day301ViewFromNW
Day301SW3 Day301NW2Day301InsideOutAs the last pieces were being removed the sun came back out, and so did I, abandoning the paint to see whether the gangly adolescent house had, with a simple cosmetic change, been transformed into a thing of poise and beauty.

And reader, I think it had (but you must judge for yourself; I’m too much the proud parent).

Day301AllGoneNEDay301Front34Day301AllDownSWDay301AllDownsSWDist