Category Archives: Travel

Rediscovering Germany

Disclaimer: This is a post I wrote about my last return to Germany, almost one year ago. I finally decided to post it, despite its rather negative tone. 

Selective memory is a dangerous thing, isn’t it? Having left my native country Germany nine years ago, and not having had spent a longer amount of time there in almost three years, I had myself convinced that it would be a great idea to move back “home” in the near future.
Yes, I had read all the reports about problems with both right wing radicals and supposed migrants and soaked in the fear mongering, always telling myself it’s the media, no point in taking it seriously.
But take it seriously I probably should have. That is the conclusion I have drawn from my latest visit to the Land of Pretzels, Cars and Kebabs. The day of my arrival, fresh off the airplane, resembled a bucket of ice water being tipped over my head; and not in a “I’m helping raise awareness” kind of way.

In just a short trip that took me through three cities to my final destination, I witnessed fights, altercations or a feeling of being under threat – sometimes all three at once.

Encounters in the Public Space

First off a shouting match between what from their appearance can only be described as probable PEGIDA marchers and the poor conductor, who had pointed out that smoking was not allowed on the platform. In response, a veritable thunderstorm of foul language was unleashed with the conclusion that these specimens announced they could do “whatever the heck they want” to put it mildly. This, so I have been told by a number of old friends during my stay, has become Germany’s new normal. Returning from China in the past usually meant a relaxing and pleasurable experience, with people being rather polite and considerate of others in the public space. It seems incidents such as the above are now not uncommon as the behavior towards other people has changed for the worse.

Cologne New Years’ Aftermath

Next stop Cologne. One hardly has to repeat the events of New Years 2016 that have made the city’s main station infamous. The after effects though are as tangible as they could ever be. There was police everywhere on the premises; you could have cut the tension with a knife. After I asked one lovely policeman for directions to my following destination, he immediately warned me to be on my guard since “there are a lot of thieves especially in the station, and a bag such as yours is particularly easy to grab.”

So I found myself skulking up and down Cologne train station feeling doubly exposed not only due to the easy-to-steal handbag but with a massive and glowing red suitcase that screamed tourist at anyone in a 100m radius. The black one then, next time.

Beggars, Junkies, Alcoholics 

Upon arrival in Bonn, I was about to attempt to purchase an underground ticket, an unnecessarily complex process in the former capital, when something moved at my right elbow. Not registering what was about to happen, I turned to the young man with snake tattoos on his arm and a shaved head with a quizzical look on my face about to ask for help. Now, I cannot say for sure whether this was actually a junky, though he definitely would have fit the description. What surprised me about myself is that such people begging for money was completely normal even when I was growing up in Germany. This is also why train station toilets have blue lights, so said junkies can’t find their veins and shoot up in there; a fact of which I was painfully reminded when I set foot in the local “blue loo”.

At the sight of this stranger however, I was totally thrown. He did then very kindly help me out, but within seconds station security walked up to tell him to stop “harassing” me. He did ask for some money to buy a slice of pizza, even suggesting I can come with him to check he is truly buying food not alcohol. I gave him some change and sent him on his way, musing about how hard it is to fight stereotypical thoughts from entering your mind.

The grand finale to my disconcerting welcome in Germany was the last trip of the day on the underground, where a man in his fifties was barely able to remain slouched upon the platform seating with once again six police men and women gathered around him. Clearly drunk out of his mind, upon being told to get up and leave the station, the man stumbled around so violently he almost ended up on the tracks. After putting on a pair of gloves, one of the police men gingerly tried to lift and steer him, an attempt that desperately failed.

Alcoholism in China

Again, this is not in itself a terribly uncommon sight; especially at German cities’ main stations. But for some reason, it is rare to see a run-down alcoholic on his own in such a state in China. The inebriated might violently stumble around but there will always be friends to support them and get them home – since drinking is such a sociable activity. Generally speaking, it is rare to see an alcoholic homeless man out in the open. Beggars, yes. But these people, most Chinese I spoke to have claimed, are often part of an intricate network, trying to make money, in many cases playing emotional music as they drag themselves through underground carriages trying to look as desperate as possible (which to be honest they often truly are). Alcoholics, on the other hand, often hide in their own homes and are socially sanctioned through a traditional drinking culture closely tied to doing business.

In the end, this was not at all the welcome back I had expected. And it was just the beginning of a row of discussions and revelations in relation to safety, society and employment in Germany, that have given me a lot to think about.

Mangjing Village; A Disappearing Way of Life

Life recently took me to a rather unexpected place. It’s called Jingmaishan (or Jingmai Mountain) and is made up of 14 small villages that are colourd with ethnic minorities, mainly Bulang and Dai. 


A three-hour car drive from Xishuangbanna, I thought I knew what to expect – palm trees, sun and unique architecture. I’d actually even forgotten about fog, a starry sky and the scent of fresh, wet grass. The memories that Manjing brought to mind after years in dry and dusty urban giants were melancholic and bitter-sweet. However, what I didn’t expect to find were the people. 

Sure, everywhere in the world there tends to be a difference between big urban centers and small rural villages in the way people carry themselves and the way they behave towards each other. It’s common to greet people in smaller placer irrespective of whether you know them or not. 
But particularly Mangjing village, the base from which I explored this stunning area, absolutely turned my preconceptions on their head. 

Without fail every person we encountered would offer tea – this region’s main source of income – but not in the way that many tourist places in China do, where their ulterior motive is always to sell their product after. Rather the people here just socialize in this way. While I was waiting for my group, one of the locals, whose toilet I was standing next to, kept offering for me to use it if I needed. Another ran off to return with a branch from his ancient tea tree as a present. 


There is just genuine affection, warmth and a sense of community here that I have never seen in quite this way anywhere else, even less so in the big metropolises of China.

This attitude towards life and relationships is visible in the local architecture. The ground floor of their buildings is entirely open; there are only wooden beams that keep the whole structure standing up – and so it’s common for people to take a short-cut right through your house. While there is a second floor that is a closed-off room, the doors in this village aren’t locked and it isn’t uncommon to just pop into anybody’s house. Of course it has to be said that most people in the village are actually related and few outsiders have made this their permanent home. 


The contrast with Beijing couldn’t be more obvious. The bemoaning of how cold and isolated people are in big urban centers is nothing new of course. However, I think this is even worse in China than in any other country I’ve been in. Part of it is certainly the sheer size of cities. Beijingers can only muster a weak smile when they hear that London hit a record high in terms of population – totaling 8.6 million people. Try 21.7 million. 

The social isolation that comes with big cities seems to go hand-in-hand with some of the social developments bemoaned in recent years. Particularly the lack of empathy and unwillingness to help people in traffic accidents or facing violence in public for fear of ending up branded as a perpetrator. There is a lot of mistrust, a lot of apathy, and sheer loneliness. 

One of the people in my group told me that when they were growing up in Chongqing, the community felt much more like the one in Mangjing village. 
But this lifestyle too is under threat. As projects to increase tourism are expanding and the locals strive for a more materialistic, city-like lifestyle, not knowing the cost it holds. 

It is clear this will have a considerable impact on people’s lives and attitudes. For one, if the number of tourists increases, it will become inevitable for locals to start putting locks on their doors. As soon as they start shutting people out out of necessity, this will inevitably erode the incredible closeness that is the essence of Mangjing’s community. Development is, of course, unstoppable; but the loss it will entail is very costly indeed.

An Ode to Inner Mongolia

As the Chinese New Year approaches fast, so does my typically longest visit of the year to Mr Li’s hometown, Hohhot in Inner Mongolia. Since the beginning of time, there’s been a bit of animosity between the two of us caused by our differing perceptions and opinions of the place. I, as a person who enjoys tropical weather, humidity, multicultural society and distinct architecture, have had quite a hard time embracing this city that is characterized by a desert-induced dryness that will make the skin peel off your hands (true fact), -20 C° degree winters, and fairly homogenous, Han style construction with hardly more than 10 buildings to be found in a city of  that have any kind of architecturally distinct or fascinating character; and that in a city of over 2.8 million people. I realize it’s a tad snobbish to reject a city based on it’s architecture, but to me buildings have always been a major part in creating the feel of a city, and when you’ve lived in cities like Vienna, London or Nanjing, I guess your expectations as to architecture tend to be a little bit on the high side.

Anyway, because Mr Li has this base urge to spend every CNY back home in Hohhot (though partly I cannot blame him, seen as ticket and hotel prices are horrendous at this particular time of year), he has been trying very hard to show me that there are also some pretty fun things about his place of birth. And I have to admit that through his efforts, the city has been slowly growing on me. Not so much, I’d ever consider living there, I grant you, but we do manage to have a good time.

So, I thought it was time for me to admit to some of the cool aspects about Hohhot. Enjoy!

Number One: Food in Inner Mongolia is Da Bomb

Vegetarians, you’re going to want to run for cover. But for meat-eaters with a preference for lamb, ohhh, you’re in for a treat. My personal fave are Chinese dumplings filled with lamb and carrot, a CNY treat that I could gorge myself on until I keel over.

The other massive favourite is Huicai, which I reckon you’d best compare to a stew. Just a few minuted walk from Mr Li is his local Huicai joint, where they stew green beans, tofu, potato and fentiao (thick glass noodles made from potato starch) into carb-overloaded, mushy goodness, of course with a bit of pork for flavouring – sorry, vegetarians, you really will struggle to find anything edible on the local menu.

 

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Lamb Dumplings yumm, yumm, yumm
Super Fun Inner Mongolian-Western Fusion Restaurant

While I might have turned my nose up at Hohhot for its lack of international cultural in the past, it has started to cultivate a more global restaurant scene. One of my personal faves, introduced by Mr Li’s cousin, a young, vivacious girl who knows all the best haunts, is a Mongolian-Western fusion restaurant. I never imagined myself slurping some Spaghetti Carbonara and then turning to a huge pile of stewed Sauerkraut, beans and tofu to wash it down. It totally works and has become one of my must-visits whenever I’m up there!

Number Two: Watching the Fireworks from our Balcony

Beijing has banned fireworks due to such minor considerations as, you know, environment 😉 But out in Inner Mongolia, the Wild, Wild North of China, try as you might, people will turn Chinese New Year into a festival of fireworks. When the clock strikes 12 on New Year’s Eve the racket starts and usually I will be standing on the balcony of my MIL’s flat on the 11th floor enjoying the view of fireworks everywhere. Most year’s Mr Li will have already passed out by this point, which has been a major irritation, let’s see if I can keep him awake this time around. Might have to give him some coding exercise – that’ll keep him awake till 3am.

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Spring Festival Fireworks as viewed from the balcony – love it!
Number Three: Inner Mongolia, A Great Place for Winter Sports

To me the major advantage of snot-freezing temperatures are the accompanying winter sports. As a former ice skater, going to the local park for a spin on the lake is a must. Ironically, I had never skated on a lake before coming to Inner Mongolia, only ever on man-made rinks. I love being outdoors without a roof above my head and some, albeit leafless, trees framing my view.

Look at meeeeeeeee
Look at meeeeeeeee
As I mentioned in the year-end review, IM is also the place where I learnt to ski for the first time. While it doesn’t necessarily house Swiss Alp style slopes, for an absolute beginner the man-made slopes are a very good place to wet your feet, or rather your backside when you tumble.

Number Four: Inexpensive Entertainment

Once you dig deeper, Hohhot actually has quite a lot of fun things to do. Such as pleasantly affordable Laser Tag, such fun, and a “cinema” that has private rooms for groups of around five people and uses streaming services, the legality of which I have decided not to think too much about. It’s a comfy fun way to relax on an afternoon.

Number Five: The Air, the Air, the Air. Did I mention the AIR?

Oh, yes, Hohhot’s number one selling point still is the air. While in recent years, pollution has slowly been starting to take hold, overall Hohhot, whose name in Mongolian means Blue City, is much better off air-wise than the capital of recurring airpocalypse, Beijing. This means that every visit is a much needed opportunity for your lungs to get some rest.

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Would you look at that AIR – Blue City, indeed!
Number Six: THE Blind Massage Parlour to END ALL BMPs

As a victim of desk jobs and terrible, terrible posture, I am one of those people whose neck and shoulders tend to be as a hard as brick. Seriously, you could injure your head should you for some weird reason smash it into my upper back. As locals, of course, Mr Li and his mother know exactly where the best massage parlours are, and so I was introduced to my favourite – back-crushing central. Yes, I will have bruises and feel tender for days to come post-massage, but I love it. Sadly, they usually aren’t open for CNY, and even more devastatingly I’ve heard rumours they’ve entirely shut down. But they’ll always be in my heart…and knotted shoulders.

Number Seven: Some Seriously Cool Local Architecture

Once I got over myself, I found that there’s actually quite a few interesting buildings to be discovered in Hohhot, a pagoda here, a temple there, but most interestingly the Hui Muslim district, which has a beautiful mosque and some very interesting architecture reminiscent of Arabic countries. Last time around, we even discovered a Christian church! And all it took, was for me to just get off my high horse and open my eyes.

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Hohhot’s Stunning Mosque ❤
And there you have it, my Ode to Inner Mongolia in seven neatly packaged reasons. Wishing you all a very happy Chinese New Year of the Rooster! Where will you be spending yours?

 

 

A Love Letter to my Chinese Mother-In-Law

Looking back at some of my posts, I realise that most the quirky anecdotes and the weird stuff tends to involve her, my MIL. That might give the impression that we don’t get along but that’s actually not the fact at all. The main reason that most of my funny and weird China stories, such as rearranging wardrobes, happen with her, is simply because she is the Chinese person I am closest to and spend the most time with. Mr Li doesn’t count, as his long time in the West and my terrible influence have turned him into as much a confused culturally non-identifiable mashed potato as I am. After five years of having him in my life, and thus her by association, I have come to learn a few things about her in relation to other Chinese mothers-in-law that make me thank my lucky star that she is indeed the MIL I ended up with. So, here we are. My love letter to my MIL:

Being Supportive of us Dating

To start off, I have to say cudos to my MIL for never once suggesting to my husband that dating a foreigner was something bad. I know a few other WWAMs, such as Jocelyn, whose potential parents-in-law had misgivings about their son dating a Western woman, since we stereotypically tend to be seen as “loose” and heartless monsters who will abandon their duty to look after their parents. My MIL was never anything but welcoming to me, even when I could be a total bitch when I was struggling with culture shock.

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The day we got our certificate

A Strong Woman to Look Up To

I think one of the things that I really appreciate about her is the fact that she is a business woman, who owns her own kindergarten. In a country, where still the ideal role of a woman is to take care of the family members, young and old, it is rare to find a woman who has such a successful career, and a family. Actually, being a divorced woman in rural China in the 90s – that’s some pretty tough stuff –  and she has been through some really intense shit in her life. But she came out of the other end a strong and successful woman, a total trail blazer. I have only two words for that: Absolute Awesomeness.

Giving us Space

I find one of the common worries of dating Chinese men can be the fact that many Chinese family members, particularly the mother, struggle with the concept of personal space in the way we Westerners think of it. Most Chinese parents expect their sons to live in the same city as them, many even on the same street or (scary thought) under the same roof. However, this, from what I hear and experience myself, can lead to conflict very quickly, as two strong headed women from two different cultures often tend to have clashing opinions. Our husbands, the poor sods stuck in the middle, are often not outstanding at managing these cross-cultural issues either. I’m therefore incredibly glad that my MIL is accepting of the fact that we won’t be moving to Inner Mongolia and have our own lives.

Not Pressing Us on Children

While the rest of the family is a different story, I am incredibly lucky since my MIL doesn’t put pressure on me to have child. This is very uncommon in China, and I think it has to do with the fact that my husband’s parents are divorced. Maybe she wants to see if we can make it last? Who knows. All I know is that all I get from her in terms of procreational pressure is the occasional “Doesn’t your husband look cute with his little niece.” Thanks MIL, I really do appreciate it.

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After marriage pressure comes…baby pressure!

Being OK with Us Moving Back to Europe

This is a big one. Many Chinese parents I know of, and more so those with sons, are heavily opposed to the idea of their child moving to another continent, because “who will take care of me in old age?” So the fact that my MIL is totally on board with the idea of us returning to Europe at some stage (mainly for breathable air) is not a given. She went to Germany for the first time this summer and overall seemed to quite enjoy it. There is of course a possibility that she would like to join us in Europe but we will cross that bridge when we come to it.

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Home sweet home.

Almost Always Picking My Side in Fights

This is a really interesting one. From the beginning, when Mr. Li and I tend to go at each other, I’d say 90% of the time my MIL would be the one to talk him down and who picks my side. Especially in the beginning of our relationship she was the reason we didn’t break up many, many times. I have actually had to force myself not to call her to knock some sense into him when we have had the occasional fight. This has been a massive help to me, since I am aware that especially when it comes to cultural conflict, it’s an easy thing for the Chinese relatives to gang up on the foreign partner. It’s probably the same the other way around. So her being able to see my side is something I really appreciate about her.

Spoiling Me

Yeah, I have to say, my MIL tends to spoil me rotten. She will always buy things that I don’t ask for and often even feels the need, when she buys endless stuff for Mr Li, to buy me something too so I don’t feel left out. She will go out of her way to make me comfortable and constantly feed me food, if I let her. When you are in a country far away from your own mum, it does feel nice every now and then to be showered by such affection.

Being Pretty Cool to Travel With

I think this is the funniest one in a way. After Mr Li and I got married in China last year, I went on a 2-week honeymoon not with him but with my MIL. He was working as usual, the workaholic. And it was actually pretty awesome. She never travelled much in the past but is now in a phase of her life where she is really enjoying exploring the world. And so I know that if I ever want to travel to a cool place and my hubs is busy, I can just ask her if she wants to go. And actually, she is as active as I am, so she is totally down for a busy schedule and looking at loads of places, as opposed to my little couch potato of a husband ;P

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Our MIL-DIL Honeymoon at Qinghai Lake

So, yes, while at times certain elements about Chinese culture drive me insane, I have to admit that overall I have been incredibly lucky with my MIL. She’s definitely not what you’d call a traditional Chinese mother-in-law!

2016 Review – Weddings, Traveling & Moving

So, as the last couple of weeks of this crazy year are whizzing past, I figured it was time to take stock in my annual review.

Let’s start with the not so pleasing aspects of this year.

Blogging

Not very content with my blogging this year. Couldn’t say why exactly but I have been much less active and need and want to get back on track. There are a few new projects in the works for 2017, so I’m hoping to write and create much more content in the coming year.

Losing Stuff

I have to say 2016 has been absolute horror for my personal possessions. I am a clumsy person in general but never ever have I lost items on the scale that I have this past year. I am very much considering getting my head checked since I have been losing items literally every single week, from my metro card, which was linked to a public bike account, and caused a lot of hassle, to quite a few personal items of mine that I am still upset about and haven’t been able to admit to the people involved. I won’t recount here which they were because a) too painful and b) too embarrassing. Getting my scatter brain under control is a major project for next year.

So let’s move on to the more pleasurable parts of 2016.

First Time Skiing

Yes, CNY of 2016 has been the first time in my life that I went skiing. The same goes for Mr Li. And that from a former ice skater, I hang my head in shame, and secretly kick myself for waiting this long to try it. It. Is. So. Much. Fun. Even Mr Li, who is seldom over enthused with anything besides computer code (yepp, I’m an IT widow), couldn’t get enough.

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Look at meeeeeeeee

Weekly WWAM Lunch

Following on from a few fun group activities with WWAMs (AMWF) in Beijing, I met two great women who incidentally work in the same area as me. As a result we started a weekly lunch routine, which has become the highlight of most of my weeks, especially the more arduous ones. Thanks to you two ladies for constantly putting up with my big gob.

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Yumm

German Wedding 

I need to say a massive, massive thank you to my awesome mummy, who single handedly organized the German wedding, including email instructions that could have been a strategic army action plan. All I had to do for my wedding really was pick a location, a colour, the food (most important of all!!) and show up. I’m so glad we had the German wedding since it was an opportunity to show Mr Li (and MIL) what a real Western wedding looks like. It was small and I loved every second! Big fat fank you mum for organizing my favourite day of 2016! And of course huge thanks to all the friends and family who made the trek into the hidden depths of the Black Forest to be with us on this occasion!

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Ever the elegant munchkin bride
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There’s a story behind the shoes…I’ll tell it someday.

More Work Travel

I definitely traveled more for work as the year progressed and got to go to some pretty cool places such as the Tibetan plateau of Sichuan, as well as a short trip back to Nanjing. I got to work on some amazing topics from China’s space programme to marriage pressure and pandas. It’s not always easy, but at the end of the day I’m so grateful for the people I get to meet and the places I get to see.

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Fresh air in Sichuan

Xiamen Trip

FINALLY, after 4.5 years of begging and moaning and complaining I managed to drag Mr Li to Xiamen, my absolute favourite city in all of China. I am happy to report that at least on the topic of this beautiful island we agree – it’s the best place ever!

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Can I move here please?

New flat

Oh yes, one of the big changes this year was our move from the Northern part of Beijing to a slightly more Southern area. It was bitter sweet since I had to say good bye to our cat army, a group of wild cats who moved into our garden as we started feeding them and soon multiplied to about 10 little rascals. Just staring at them eat was such a stress reliever and it broke my heart to leave them. Only binge cat-watching on Insta keeps me sane now. But we exchanged our over priced slightly tuhao (garishly luxurious) but tiny flat in the north to a two bedroom in an older compound down south and I couldn’t be happier. Mainly because of the  walk-in wardrobe, that I now call my own.


Weddings, Weddings, Weddings

2016 truly has been a year of weddings, and funny enough majorly WWAM weddings. Three of them in total, and I loved every single one of them. Most people don’t enjoy weddings in China since it means giving Hongbao (red envelopes) and spending money, but for me there just is nothing like a good wedding. Especially cross-cultural ones, where you tend to get the best out of both worlds. They can be pretty stressful, as I found out, but they are so worth it!

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A year of cross-cultural weddings

So overall, while the world around my seems to be going to shambles, looking at this past year I think it’s been a pretty good run. How has yours been?

Wishing you a merry Christmas and a happy new year and the best of luck in 2017. I hope I’ll see you there!

Winter Cold in China 

Winter in China; how can this even be a topic you might wonder, but believe me when I tell you, it can. The reason for that is the North-South divide that exists in China with regards to heating and climate. Anything south of the Qinling Mountains and along the Yellow River does not have central heating in winter, a policy enacted 60 years ago by Zhou Enlai. While in some of the country’s most Southern provinces, where temperatures rarely drop below 15, this is kind of understandable, in regions closer to the heating border such as Anhui or my previous home of Nanjing, where 0 degrees and snow can be fairly common, it is not necessarily what you would call a pleasure. Though of course there is still air con available to heat up a room to a certain extent.

Having experienced two winters in the South and let’s say one and a half in Beijing, I thought it was time for a comparison.

Winter Down South – Wet and Tough

Before moving to Nanjing I had heard the Chinese expression that the Southern cold 进骨头里 goes right to the bone, because the climate is much more humid than in the North. I never really knew what people were on about; until that first winter in Nanjing. It was, in short, four months of constantly frozen toes and weirdly enough the tip of my nose. That’s what I get for being a big-nosed foreigner…

In my first year, when I was living in a rather old flat, I ended up actually sleeping in one of those skiing hats, you know the ones that pull over your nose.

During my second year, I quickly learned that when the aircon was on in my little studio flat, I had to sit in the hot air stream and not move an inch. Any attempt to stick my arm outside of the hot air range would have been accompanied with icicles dangling off my extremities (had we been in a cartoon movie…oh how I wish we were).

After a while though, I got used to the constant cold and the limited mobility in my own flat. Which was of course when, as it happened, I made my move to Beijing.


Winter Up North – Lip-splitting Dryness and New Levels of Cold

My first Beijing winter wasn’t good. Sure, our flat had floor heating and so you would often find me looking like a passed-out drunk as I lay sprawled across our living room floor, soaking up the warmth. And yes, I loved walking around without slippers and having toasty feet, to Mr. Li’s utter dismay, but the dryness of the Northern winter brought with it two terrible, terrible side effects. Every single inch of my skin became mind-numbingly itchy (and if you know me you know I’m a terrible scratcher). No matter how much cream I applied, after a while my legs and weirdly areas on my lower back were so raw from the scratching I could hardly put on my layers of clothes. But even worse was the fact that my lips dried out and split to an extent I wasn’t even aware was possible. They doubled in size and were as painful as they were unpleasant to look at. Again, no amount of balm could salvage the situation.

A work trip to Shanghai turned into an unexpected relief as my crumbly skin soaked up every inch of bone-freezing humidity it could find. The Beijing winter reminded me of the German winters of my youth, and not in a good way.

A Question of Adapting?

Fast forward a year and it is the end of November. While there has been a spot of itchiness, my clown lips have yet to surface (*touch wood*). It almost seems like I am on the verge of getting used to the harsh Beijing winter.

The thing, however, that surprised me most, was our recent trip to Changsha, again South of the warm and toasty centrally heated lifeline. When it hit 0 degrees and we were filming outside, I just wanted to jump into the Xiang river. When we were in a public hospital I just couldn’t fathom why on earth some of their hallways were actually open so the ice cold air could stream in and the wind could cut into my shivering body like a knife. Even while lying fully clothed with five layers underneath the duvet in my hotel room, my frosty toes simply refused to thaw. Imagine getting up in the mornings after 8 hours of your body generating just enough heat for even that little toe to defrost and then being forced to throw off the covers and instantly turn into a rather unappetising human ice lolly. Yeah, I think I’ll just stay under these covers till April, thanks. (Oh yes, I forgot, Nanjing for one typically doesn’t warm up until well into the fourth month of the year).

I have been quick to profess my love for the Southern climate on many occasions; my body, it seems, has other plans. It couldn’t wait to get back to lip-splitting, itch-inducing dry Beijing and its toasty indoor heating.

What has your experience been? Have you gotten used to the Chinese winter where you are?

Welcome to Germany?

Selective memory is a dangerous thing, isn’t it? Having left my native country Germany nine years ago, and not having had spent a longer amount of time there in almost three years, I had myself convinced that it would be a great idea to move back “home” in the near future.

I had read many reports about problems with both right wing radicals and supposed migrants and soaked in the fear mongering, always telling myself it’s the media, no point in taking it seriously.

But take it seriously I probably should have. That is the conclusion I have drawn from my latest visit to the Land of Pretzels, Cars and Kebabs. The day of my arrival, fresh off the airplane, resembled a bucket of ice water being tipped over my head; and not in a “I’m helping raise awareness” kind of way.

In just a short trip that took me through three cities to my final destination, I witnessed fights, altercations or a feeling of being under threat – sometimes all three at once.

Public Fighting

First off a shouting match between what from their appearance can only be described as probable PEGIDA marchers and the poor conductor, who had pointed out that smoking was not allowed on the platform. In response, a veritable thunderstorm of foul language was unleashed with the conclusion that these specimens announced they could do “whatever the heck they want” to put it mildly. This, so I have been told by a number of old friends during my stay, has become Germany’s new normal. Returning from China in the past usually meant a relaxing and pleasurable experience, with people being rather polite and considerate of others in the public space. It seems incidents such as the above are now not uncommon as the behaviour towards other people appears to have changed for the worse.

Cologne New Years’ Aftermath

Next stop Cologne. One hardly has to repeat the events of New Years that have made the city’s main station infamous. The after effects though are as tangible as they could ever be. There was police everywhere on the premises; you could have cut the tension with a knife. After I asked one lovely policeman for directions to my following destination, he immediately warned me to be on my guard since “there are a lot of thieves especially in the station, and a bag such as yours is particularly easy to grab.”

So I found myself skulking up and down Cologne train station feeling doubly exposed not only due to the easy-to-steal handbag but with a massive and glowing red suitcase that screamed tourist at anyone within a 100m radius. The dark one then, next time.

Junkies, Beggars, Alcoholics 

Upon arrival in Bonn, I was about to attempt to purchase an underground ticket, an unnecessarily complex process in the former capital, when something moved at my right elbow. Not registering what was about to happen, I turned to the young man with snake tattoos on his arm and a shaved head with a quizzical look on my face about to ask for help. Now, I cannot say for sure whether this was actually a junky, though he definitely would have fit the description. What surprised me about myself is that such people begging for money was completely normal even when I was growing up in Germany. This is also why train station toilets have blue lights, so said junkies can’t find their veins and shoot up in there; a fact of which I was painfully reminded when I set foot in the local “blue loo”.

At the sight of this stranger however, I was totally thrown. He did very kindly help me out, but within seconds station security walked up to tell him to stop “harassing” me. He did ask for some money to buy a slice of pizza, even suggesting I can come with him to check he is truly buying food not alcohol. I gave him some change and sent him on his way. He did earn it after all. And he made me contemplate how easily our minds jump to conclusions and stereotypes. If that isn’t worth 70p, nothing is.

The grand finale to the disconcerting welcome to Germany though was the last trip of the day on the underground, where a man in his fifties was barely able to remain slouched upon the platform seating with once again six police men and women gathered around him. Clearly drunk out of his mind, upon being told to get up and leave the station, the man stumbled around so violently he almost ended up on the tracks. After putting on a pair of gloves, one of the police men gingerly tried to lift and steer him, an attempt that desperately failed.

Alcoholism in China and Germany

Again, this is not in itself a terribly uncommon sight; especially at German cities’ main stations. But for some reason, it is rare to see a run down alcoholic on his own in such a state in China. The inebriated might violently stumble around but there will always be friends to support them and get them home – since drinking is such a sociable activity. Generally speaking, I would argue it is rare to see an alcoholic homeless man out in the open. Beggars, yes. But these people are often part of an intricate network, trying to make money, in many cases playing emotional music as they drag themselves through underground carriages trying to look as desperate as possible (which to be fair they truly are). Alcoholics often hide in their own homes and are socially sanctioned through a traditional drinking culture.

In the end, this was not at all the welcome back I had expected. And it was just the beginning of a row of discussions and revelations in relation to safety, society and employment in Germany, that have given me a lot to think and – more importantly – write about.

Jet-Set Wedding

Beijing cctv Tower

Wow, so I have not written in a while and now I need to try and catch up! A lot has happened in the last weeks; in fact so much I have barely had time to digest it all.

It’s the typical long-distance relationship syndrome! Getting used to your boring life and as soon as you meet up with your partner you feel the need to squeeze all the excitement you missed out on into a couple of days; in our case combined with Chinese New Year and Valentines Day this has equalled trekking to seven different cities in three weeks. I still have a week to go and already feel exhausted. Even more so, because in our case the squeezing in part included getting married.

YAY, we did it, isn’t that unbelievable?!

Of course it took another couple of runs to offices of any form and description and a lot of grey hairs appearing from nowhere until we managed to beat the system. Buckle up and get ready for a long ride!

I will not go into detail on the exact route the documents we needed to get my single certificate took, as I hope to provide a detailed infographic at some point. Suffice it to say it took three attempts for the documents to be verified, since the German’s followed the official Chinese standards which the notary translator in Hohhot did not.

Luckily, the town in Germany I am registered in is so small that the registry office know us well enough now to allow for me to submit my documents while I was in Germany and to hand in Mr. Li’s later, once the Chinese and German embassy in China finally managed to sort out their s..tuff.

This all happened with amazing efficiency. We got the documents approved in the way the Germans required, they in turn issued my single certificate, which my mother, after saying good bye to another €80, quickly sent to Beijing.

Once the documents arrived, I boarded the next possible high-speed railway to Beijing in order to get the final document issued by the German embassy. This went as smoothly as I could have ever wished for, as I popped in and back out and then as a reward went on a little spree at the international supermarket down the street. After moving to China, visiting supermarkets that sell cheeses, sausages and German bread becomes as exciting as front-row tickets to the Backstreet Boys to my 12-year old self (yes, I admit it and no, I am not ashamed).

After a Chinese New Year’s Party and an enjoyable weekend in Beijing, we then jetted off to Hohhot on Sunday evening in order to attempt to get married the following Monday. And with that, stay tuned!

The Dates (Part 2) – The Registry Date

So, when we set out on this adventure almost six months ago (oh my, has it been that long?!), we were looking at having to choose three different dates in relation to our wedding:
The registry date
The Chinese wedding celebration
The German celebration

After quite a bit of kerfuffle around when we cannot set any of these dates due to Chinese superstition, we have now finally decided upon as many of the dates as is realistically possible.

Hong Kong island
But let’s start with the one date that is still eluding me; ironically the closest date of them all – the registry date in Inner Mongolia. As I explained previously the legal side of getting married and the party/show are two separate things, with the registering usually happening about half a year prior to the party. I had originally intended for us to get married just before Chinese New Year, so mid-February, mainly out of practicality, since I was expecting to spend the holiday back in Hohhot anyway, as is tradition. However, because my future mother-in-law is a seriously cool person/passionate world-explorer, she decided that we should go traveling after all and to a warmer climate at that.

This was rather a funny story in itself. About four months ago I started bugging Mr. Li that I wanted to go travel during CNY because you don’t often get off an entire week in China and I wanted to escape the cold (also, during the other big week off – national holiday, we only stayed in Beijing for the entire week for due to exhaustion from being such busy people but more importantly since the entire country goes traveling around this time. 1.5 billion people (currently still 1.49, but expected to hit the big 5 sometime this year) traveling through the country at the same time; well you can imagine how inviting that thought is.

Since Mr.Li wanted to spend the holiday with his family (or rather most importantly his mother), when she agreed to go travel initially I couldn’t believe it – this was actually happening. I might get to spend my holiday at a warm beach in the South rather than freezing my backside off at -20 degrees in Inner Mongolia (I ask myself to this day why I didn’t pick a Southerner, the climate is so much better down there…JK, or am I?).

Then, as is so often the case in China, the plan changed. For reasons I can only speculate about due to the Chinese habit of never telling you exactly what is going on in their heads, my future MIL decided she was going to stay at home in Inner Mongolia. But she wanted us to go out on our own anyway.

Based on the original wedding plan, I suggested to Mr. Li that we spend about 6 days in Inner Mongolia including the first two, and hence most important, days of CNY and then go traveling for another 5, to which he initially agreed. Until about a month ago when he told me that he would rather spend the entire time in Hohhot, because for CNY he felt it was weird to go out traveling. With a bit of begging, eye-batting and promises of skiing, skating on lakes and swimming he finally had me convinced to spend the holiday in Hohhot.

However, he had not reckoned with his mother! Because she is going to be rather busy at work in the coming year, this is the last opportunity for her to travel with us in a while, and so she decided that she did not want to pass up this opportunity after all. And so I spent two days speed-planning a trip to Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Macao – since any other flights at this time of year are ludicrously overpriced. After all, these three places put together have everything the two of us could want – heat and beaches for me, shopping for her.

But Mr. Li was not giving up that easily. He tried pleading with her as he had with me.

“Mum, I don’t want to spend the holiday traveling. Why can’t we just stay at home?”

Yet, as I said, he had not reckoned with his mother.

“You can stay at home doing nothing, my son, that’s no problem. But me and Laura are going out to explore the world!”

Cool mother-in-law.

What I forgot at the time was that as mainland residents, they both need visa-like permits to go to Hong Kong due to its history as a British colony and the lasting after-effects of this. Even less so did I realise that it is not possible for a Chinese person from Hohhot to apply for this visa in Beijing due to the insufferable Hukou system, and so Mr. Li had to fly back home to Inner Mongolia for an extended weekend to apply for his permit, bless the poor guy. I did end up feeling a bit sorry for him at this point. Though not enough to forget about the trip. I’ll make such a good wife.

So, long story short, the plans of getting married pre-New Year were off. However, I have to say that this was not really down to our frivolous desires of traveling but more owed to the fact that the only thing more insufferable than the Chinese Hukou is the bureaucracy involved in a German-Chinese marriage. We have been trying for half a year to get the documents sorted with countless setbacks and at this point our decision with regards to the date is: if we ever manage to get the bloody documents together, we will take the next flight out to Hohhot and get this over with. Romantic, I know.

German Christmas (Part 3) – Pudong Airport; Futuristic Scanners and Chewing Gum

I DID IT! I actually checked in and got my boarding pass. Can you believe it? I can’t. “Only” took me one and a half hours. I had to stand in line in the queue for the passport control twice because I forgot to fill out that little yellow departure slip; so I had to duck under the dividing belts, earning myself a disapproving look of a security guard, to go and fill it out. Queue was moving along surprisingly speedy though, there is hope yet!

Security check was fascinating, they have this futuristic boarding pass scanner presumably in order to wait for you an extra couple of minutes if you are running a little late. Shanghai is so modern.

On the way to my gate I walk past the duty free store and remember I only spent half of my petty cash on my extravagant dinner, I still have a little money left for a snack. So, drumroll please, … Here is what ¥4 will get you at Shanghai airport:

Chewing gum Shanghai Pudong airport
It was either this or two lollipops. Work out for my face muscles…chewing gum it is. A roll of Mentos was ¥5; there’s that manicured middle finger again. Thanks, Shanghai.

Speaking of fingers, a majority of my gel nails, which last about a day due to the inferior product I got off Taobao, have been peeled off during this trek; my equivalent of nail biting.

Good news is I had my celebratory pee ; best pee of my life. Am considering whether or not to write a Pee Guide to Chinese Toilets.

Finally, I am at the gate. NOTHING CAN STOP ME. Well, if the flight leaves that is.

Frankfurt to Freiburg – Smooth Sailing

As soon as I left Shanghai, the rest of the trek proceeded without incident, further confirming my very unhealthy superstitious obsessions with the city – will be curious to see what happens when I return beginning of January.

Having arrived at Frankfurt airport at 6am, I was looking at a four-hour wait until the departure of my bus to Freiburg. The time went by in the blink of an eye as I wandered through the stores selling German and European sweets, snacks and beverages; squealing with excitement like a five-year old.

Then I managed to hook my phone up to the internet and had a bit if a surf-gasm; the internet outside China is soooo fast! That was exactly what I posted on Facebook, which I had never seen in its latest mobile incarnation, what with the VPN only being able to take you that far.

The rest of the time I simply sat staring at all the people around me from all corners of the world; coming from a rather culturally homogenous surrounding, where you still get excited when you spot a different hair colour among a mass of black, I was not used anymore to the multicultural environment of Germany’s busiest airport.

On my bus trip to Freiburg in the Black Forest, which lasted another four hours, I had a very interesting conversation with Joy, my seat neighbour, a young girl from the Netherlands who grew up in Germany. She even fed me German chocolate, definitely the highlight of the entire trip (although the English breakfast on the airplane was a close second).

After 30 exhausting hours I finally arrived in my parent’s flat, only to fall into an almost 12 hour sleep at 8pm. Yep, that was a silent night, alright!