Hangzhou pictures.

Now, don’t get too excited; I’m a reluctant photographer, to put it mildly. One of those people who doesn’t like to interrupt the flow of their real life/real time experiences, stepping back from them in order to compose a shot, and thus somehow placing them at one remove. If a picture paints a thousand words, then give me the thousand words every time.

However, I did force myself to take the odd few snaps here and there. As usual, click on each thumbnail for a larger version.

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This was my (and later J’s) apartment, in the Zigui Gardens complex on Wenxing Lu. Acceptably contemporary, wouldn’t you say?

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Left: one of the strange group of ceramics that hung above the telly in the sitting room.

Right: me and some old stone geezer, at the tomb of General Yue Fei.

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Stone Buddhas, carved into the rock at the base of Feilai Peak.

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Views of the amazing Lingyin Temple.

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Left: view over the West Lake.
Right: Lovely Puff!

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Left: window cleaners on a Shanghai tower block.
Right: the Jingmao building, Pudong district, Shanghai. I think this is currently the city’s tallest building. The Hyatt Hotel starts on the 54th floor; J and I had a coffee up there.

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The amazing cake shop on Wensan Lu, snapped just in the nick of time before I was asked to move on. They must have thought I was a spy from a rival cake shop.

Tombs, temples, grunge bands and a glass of your finest Moet.

Saturday daytime.

Two weeks in, and it’s high time I did the whole tourist thing. So off we troll on the trusty old Number 81, back towards the West Lake, for some serious tomb-and-temple action.

The tomb of General Yue Fei is one of the city’s top attractions, but I can’t say I’m bowled over. Like so many historical sites, it was badly damaged during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, and so is more than a tad too Repro for my tastes.

Onto the Number 7 bus – packed with schoolkids, all gawping at the charmingly bonkers cartoon on the overhead telly – and all the way out of town, to the Feilai Peak and the Lingyin Temple. The former is a steep, wooded hill, with many images of Buddhas and other deities carved into the rocks around its base. The latter lies on the other side of the stream, and is a vast, colourful and elaborate complex of Buddhist halls, which rise up above each other on the facing slope.

Now, this is more like it. I’ve done more than my fair share of Buddhist temples over the years, but this is up there with the very best of them. J and I are particularly taken with the hall containing long, winding corridors packed with hundreds of gold-painted sculptures of assorted holy men; life-sized, but placed above head height in facing rows, where they almost seem to be interacting with each other. Every single sculpture has its own unique character, running the gamut from devout to leery, inscrutably beatific to slyly conspiratorial, quietly contemplative to exuberantly hedonistic (and not a little camp). Soon, I’m inventing little stories and doing little voices for each one. Freestyle anthropomorphisation. Great fun.

Saturday night.

The 31 Bar lies up a dirt track, off a deserted main road, way out of town, on the unfashionable west side of the West Lake. It’s Hangzhou’s only venue for live alternative rock music, and tonight – New Year’s Eve – it is closing its doors for good. From tomorrow, there will be nowhere – in this city of over six million inhabitants – for local bands to play.

To mark the bar’s closing night, seven acts will be playing – including one of the city’s longest established bands, the 5 Second Boys, whose lead singer/guitarist works in our Human Resources department. J and I have been playing their home-made debut album (Learn To Juggle) for the past few days, and have been won over by its semi-acoustic latter-day grunge sound. (Its nearest reference point: Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged, but with an additional violinist.)

The 5 Second Boys were meant to be second on the bill, but various circumstances have dictated that they perform the opening set instead; this is good for us, as we’ve only just arrived and we won’t be able to stay the whole night.

Their set goes down great, with the album’s closing track Pussycat gathering a big whoop of recognition, as it was also featured on a recent sampler CD of local bands. Our colleague S makes a convincing front man, with a performance which – like all the other acts on the bill – eschews any form of flashy rock-star posturing. No-one’s in this for the career path, as quite simply there isn’t one. These are bedroom bands, rehearsing in each other’s flats, recording onto home PC equipment, and occasionally playing live for a small, dedicated community of enthusiasts. It’s the very essence of “indie”. John Peel would have approved.

As for me, I feel privileged to be here, just in the nick of time, in this roomy, dingy, appropriately scuzzy backwater bar with newspaper plastering on the ceiling and (oh joy!) strong draught Tiger on tap, instead of the ubiquitous piss-weak Tsingtao.

After his band’s set, S sells around thirty copies of the CD, signing the booklets in the makeshift backstage area for a throng of fans. While he’s doing this, the next act slinks onstage, almost unnoticed. He’s a quirky looking long-haired dude in a scarlet anorak, big specs and a woolly hat, who starts up a simple drum pattern from his laptop, sits himself down on a little wooden chair, and starts strumming basic chords on his guitar, feeding them through his effects pedal as mood dictates.

Behind him, an exceedingly primitive Winamp visualisation program does its rather limited thing on the projection screen. Occasionally – very occasionally – someone at the mixing desk chooses a new pattern, by closing Winamp, going into the Windows Start Menu, picking another file, maximising the Winamp window again… all of which does rather kill any potential psychedelic mystique. (They’d have been better off with iTunes.)

This is clearly the “experimental” section of the evening. The dude’s first number is over in a few minutes. His second number – featuring puny drum machine pattern #2, in the same tempo as the first, and an equally random selection of chord patterns and indistinct mumblings – lasts well over thirty minutes, and incorporates snatches of I Wanna Be Your Dog by Iggy & The Stooges, and If You’re Happy And You Know It Clap Your Hands, re-worked in Mandarin to read If You’re Not Happy And You Know It, All Jerk Off.

I’m making this sound a damn sight more interesting than it was; actually, it was intolerable. Unable to summon up the courage to register my misery in the appointed fashion, I retreat to the yard outside – along with a sizeable section of the clientele, who burst into wild applause when the drum machine finally shuts up. This is my first encounter with Chinese sarcasm, and I cherish it.

We stick around for the next three bands, who all play short sets in quick succession, sharing the same drumkit to speed up the process. It becomes increasingly clear that the ghost of Kurt Cobain still looms large over Hangzhou’s underground rock scene. Nothing wrong with that, but I make a mental note to mail S with some recent releases. (The Arcade Fire album, for instance; they’ve got to hear that one.)

S orders us a cab, and we whizz across town in time to arrive at the All! New! Shamrock before midnight. (As one venue closes, so another one opens. Darlings, we only do opening nights and closing nights, and only if we’re With The Band or friendly with the owners. I tell you, I’ve got this city cracked.)

The All! New! Shamrock is a very different proposition from its predecessor, which closed its doors for good on Christmas Day. The old venue was tall, narrow and historic; the new venue is in the ground floor of a modern building, with a wide, open-plan layout and a small stage area in the middle of the back wall. R greets us effusively and shows us to her table, where yet another mad dice game is in progress. Someone tries to explain the rules, but it’s loud, and everybody’s sloshed, and it’s nearly midnight anyway, and Woo! Happy New Year, Hangzhou!

The benefit of being at R’s table is that we get the Moet, rather than a glass of the more regular bubbly that everyone else in the bar is offered. Upgrade! Upgrade for Mister Diva! I’m soon out in the corridor near the loos, bellowing New Years’ greetings down my mobile to K in Derbyshire, and to my mother in Cambridge.

Tomorrow, we hit Shanghai city for a Big Adventure.

Or in real time: tomorrow, I hit Shanghai airport, followed by Heathrow and Nottingham. My Hangzhou experience is almost over; I’ll be leaving the office in a matter of minutes, heading back to the apartment for some preliminary packing, then out for a meal and a late drink at yes-you’ve-guessed-it.

See you on the other side of the world.

Mud, Mariah, madams and mince.

All the rainfall of the past few days has exposed one of the city’s big weaknesses: the quality of the pavements. There’s flooding everywhere, which has a habit of seeping underneath the atrociously laid and completely unsuitable little square tiles of etched concrete – which, I am told, begin buckling almost as soon as they are laid, and require replacing every three or four years or so.

Therefore, if you don’t watch your every step, you are quite liable to step on a loose tile and splatter yourself, from both ankles to both knees, with muddy water – made thicker and browner by the layer of dust-turned-sludge which accumulates at times like these.

By the time I get to the office and look down for the first time, I find that my nice dark blue Paul Smith jeans are plastered – nay, caked – with the stuff. Oopsy. That’ll learn me.

J and I are growing increasingly irritated with the number of telephone candidates who are blatantly trotting out prepared speeches. It’s always the candidates with the weakest grasp of English who do this; there will be a sudden jump from faltering hesitancy, and an inability to grasp the simplest of questions, to suspicious fluency and a dramatically increased vocabulary. How can you know what “enterprise knowledge management system” means, when you don’t even understand the word “why”? Or even, in the case of one rather abrupt fellow, the expression “IT”.

(“What? What is this? What is IT?” It’s the name of your industry, petal. Thank you for your time. Someone from our Human Resources team will contact you later.)

This morning, I catch one candidate lifting entire sentences straight from his CV, and so deliberately set out to throw him off course with unexpected questions. But the phone candidate who annoys me most is an otherwise intelligent, articulate young woman who is determined to read out her lengthy scripts at all costs, no matter what questions she is asked. In fact, it’s a few minutes before I even get to ask my first question. In between speeches, she listens and responds perfectly well – but then her whole tone of voice will switch back to Recital Mode. She’s trying far too hard to impress, and this desperation spoils her chances. I’m sensing an underlying neurotic anxiety which goes beyond the nervousness which I’m used to dealing with, an obsession with winning for its own sake, and something of a prima donna attitude.

As she drones determinedly on, my imagination starts to wander, and my mind starts to project. I can see this girl fighting hard to stay at the top of her class, all the way through school; popular with her teachers, shunned by her classmates. There’s also something about this Recital Mode which puts me in mind of the star pupil on Speech Day, up on the podium, reading out her prize-winning essay on Responsible Citizenship. She’s someone who’s used to getting what she wants, whatever it takes.

“And for my next project, which I commenced in October 2003 and completed in March 2004…” Please, make it stop.

By the end of the interview, I’ve come up with a name for her: Princess Pushi. Sometimes, it’s being a snidey little bitch which gets me through the day.

The next phone candidate is a jolly, giggly soul, and a right little charmer to boot. (“My family think I am half a genius! But I am more than that! More than genius! Yes! Haha!“) His answer to the “what are your other interests” question makes my day.

“I like to sing! Backstreet Boys! And you know Mariah Carey? I love to sing Mariah Carey! You know her song Hero? Is my favourite to sing!”

Before I can stop him, he’s off and away. “There’s a heeee-ro, if you look inside your heaaaaart….

My ears, my ears. Enough already!

D the English manager asks whether I’d like to join him, one of the other English guys, the two American lady trainers, and a thrusting American entrepreneur from the office upstairs, for a buffet lunch at the über-swish Hyatt Hotel, overlooking the West Lake. What a treat! But oh, my trousers! On today of all days!

No matter. I’ll tell them all it’s the latest distressed look. Helmut Lang, darlings. All the rage in Milan. You mean you didn’t know?

In the evening, J and I decide to try the famous Banana Leaf: a Thai restuarant, where an unfeasibly camp bunch of Filipino waiters perform song-and-dance acts round the tables, flirting suggestively with half the male diners, with a shamelessness that is all the more startling given the precarious legal status of homosexuality over here.

Then again, camp “theatricals” have always got away with more than most. And boy oh boy, do this bunch ever clock me. Less than halfway through my meal, I am pulled out of my seat to join them in a rousing rendition of I Just Called To Say I Love You; a couple of minutes later, one of them is giving me a mini-lapdance, his grinding arse hovering a couple of inches above my napkin-shielded crotch.

“Where you from?”, he asks.


“Oh, Ing-er-rand! You have a special language there?”

His colleague cuts in. “You stupid! They speak Ing-er-ish! They’re Ing! They from Ing-er-rand, so they’re Ing!

“Aiee, I’m so stupid!”

“It’s like people from Swiss-er-rand, they are Swiss!”

I can’t resist cutting in.

“And people from America, they are?”



Peals of laughter. They liked that. And no, I didn’t fully buy their Dumb Act, either. Who cares, though. Stereotyping can be FUN.

Ponchos, hotpots and dive bars.

Thursday morning.

It’s raining today, so many of the cyclists are decked out in plastic ponchos. Others simply cycle along using one hand to steer, and their other hand to hold up their umbrellas. J says it gets interesting when they start talking on their mobiles as well…

I’m having difficulty reconciling two aspects of Chinese behaviour. On the one hand, there’s a sense of regimented orthodoxy – a certain dampening down of individualism – which is particularly apparent amongst the young graduates who pass before me each day, fresh out of the sausage factories of the mind, parroting the same stock lines. But out on the streets, where the collective good would be best served by observing the rules of the road and obeying the traffic signals, it’s everyone for themselves, pushing ahead, swerving and cutting up and simultaneously claiming equal and opposite rights of way. The same holds true in the shops, where queues are almost unheard of, and getting served is a simple matter of shoving your way to the front regardless. What’s also strange: there’s no sense of underlying aggression to this sort of behaviour. It’s just the way things are.

Thursday evening.

D the English manager takes J and I to a Chinese Hotpot restaurant. As in yesterday’s not-Korean-after-all food joint head shop, there is a gas ring set into the middle of each table, onto which a large metal pot is placed. The pot is split into two compartments, ying-and-yang style, with each side containing a different blend of oily sauce and spices; deep red on one side, golden yellow on the other.

Vast quantities of raw food are ordered from the picture menu: meat slices, meat parcels, sausages, fungi, green vegetables, bamboo shoots, quails’ eggs. Once the oils are bubbling hot, representative samples of all of the above are incrementally dropped into the pot (watching out for splash-backs), slooshed around a bit, cooked until they go soggy and mushy, retrieved with chopsticks, dipped into a selection of sauces (chilli/garlic/peanut) and consumed.

The process is labour intensive, intrinsically socialising, and deeply pleasurable – at least until you’ve eaten your fill, and the pot cools down, and you peer into the cloudy, blotchy residue, and you realise how much grease you’ve just poured down your throat.

With The Shamrock closed all week, J and I are missing bar culture – so we ask D to drop us off on Nanshan Lu, where the hot-spots are. I’ve read good things on the web about Kana’s Bar, so we give it a shot.

Ooh dearie me, no. It’s a dank, gloomy dive in need of a good scrub, with vast swathes of empty tables and not much more than a dozen other punters round the bar. Kinda back-packy, as evidenced by the table of loud young Americans in the corner. The music’s shite: dated trance, played on a muffled and knackered old sound system. Still, we’re here now. Set ’em up, barman.

A couple of beers later, a Chinese guy staggers in from the street, barely able to walk – I’m assuming extreme drunkenness, although I’ve not witnessed it before in this city – and lurches up to the bar. J spots that one of his hands is drenched in blood. He slams three 100 YMB notes down on the bar (around 20 quid), and lurches straight out again.

We call the bartender over. “What was that all about?”

(Dismissively) “Oh, he’s a friend of the owner.”

No more information is volunteered. Maybe it’s best not to enquire further. But once again, you sense there’s a whole story there.


Bus shelters and heavy trips.

Wednesday morning.

On this morning’s walk to work, J and I encounter two elderly men who are slowly wheeling a bicycle down the road. Attached to the bike is an unusual cargo, even by Chinese standards: a full-sized metal bus shelter.

Perhaps they are mature students on a jolly jape, carting the shelter back to their dorms as some sort of trophy? (Well, traffic cones do seem to be in short supply round here.)

Then again, there’s a bus crawling along behind them in the next lane; maybe it can’t stop until the bus shelter is safely installed. Perhaps this is some sort of traffic calming scheme, along the lines of those chaps with red flags who used to walk in front of early automobiles?

We shall never know. Only in China, etc etc.

Wednesday evening.

Flushed with the success of last night’s sushi emporium, we decide to try the next restaurant down the strip on Wensan Lu. J thinks it might be a Korean restaurant. It looks bright and bustling, with gas rings set in the middle of all the tables (which might be fun) and they have laminated picture menus (which should make things easy).

I’m used to large menus over here, but this one takes the prize so far; the pictures must be well into the hundreds. Unfortunately, they’re also small pictures, with poor reproduction quality, rendering it impossible to guess which dish is which. Some of them do look a bit hardcore, though – and so we decide to play safe, and order the dishes which look the least threatening. One wok dish, to be stir-fried at the table, and two side dishes.

Our waitress, though polite, seems oddly reluctant to take our order. Every time we point at our selections, she hesitates, looks at us searchingly, and says “This is…”, followed by something unintelligible. It’s proving a real struggle to get her to write anything down. Just take our order, dammit! This one! Yes, yes! Good, good! Want, want, want!

The first side dish to arrive looks like a plate of mixed twiglets. Our waitress stands nervously behind us as we taste our first mouthfuls. Yes, yes! Good, good! Xie xie! Eventually, she nods and backs away.


“It’s a plate of twigs, isn’t it?”

“Mmm. They’re, um, a bit chewy aren’t they?”

“Well, they are twigs. Quite bitter, as well.”

“Actually, they’re pretty disgusting. I’m not a big fan of eating wood.”

The other side-dish arrives, followed by the wok: pieces of chicken, mixed with sauce, peppers and various other bits and bobs. The gas ring is lit, and we commence stirring.

“I wonder what they do with the breasts and legs of chickens over here. You know, the good bits. Do they go eurgh, disgusting, and throw them in the bin? Because all we ever get are the gristly bits. What are they, anyway?”

“They look like kneecaps. But chickens don’t have kneecaps, do they?”

“Shoulders, maybe?”

“I’m getting the hang of them, though. You just suck them very slowly in your mouth, and the meat drops off. If you try to chew them too quickly, then you’ll get a mouthful of bones.”

“Yeah, it’s a bit like sucking boiled sweets. Gobstoppers or something. Slow food – that’s the point, isn’t it? Meant to be good for you. We Westerners like to wolf things down, but over here, they…”

“Mike, are you feeling all right?”

“Yeah, I think so. Why?”

“Well, I’m starting to feel a bit light-headed. Spaced out. A bit trippy, I suppose. What about you?”

“Actually, you’re right. See that wall next to us? It’s gone all wobbly.”

“What the…?”

“Must be something we’ve eaten.”

“Shit, the twigs!”

“So that’s why they were so disgusting. It wasn’t about the taste at all. They’re trippy twigs! We’ve eaten trippy Korean twigs!”

“Which is why they were looking so nervous?”

“Must be. Woo, I’m getting quite a rush from them. Coming up on me twigs!”

“Will K know anything about them?”

“Dunno, I’ll give him a ring… oh, shit. I’ve just realised why I couldn’t suck much meat off that last piece of chicken. Look at it. It’s the f**king head!”


“I’ve been sucking on a chicken’s head! Whilst off me nut on f**king hallucenogenic Korean twigs! Bad trip, man!”

On the way home, after ringing K (“Google for them! Google for trippy Korean twigs!”), I discover that the twigs have a nasty side-effect: they’re also powerful diuretics. Jeezus, I’m bursting.

This is where I make my second discovery: that in densely populated Hangzhou, there’s no such thing as a quiet alley. Having sentry guards posted outside the entrances to half the buildings doesn’t exactly help matters, either. Oh, the agony.

“Look J, you buy any DVDs you like. I’m going to race on ahead, OK?”

Thirty minutes on a full-to-bursting bladder, racing down the street, eyes darting up every dark entrance. Waste of a good trip, man.

J arrives back at the flat bearing DVDs and snacks.

“Look, Mike: I bought these especially for you.”

J’s chosen box of snacks rejoices in the name of LOVELY PUFF. Quick, call the Graham Norton show.

“J, I’m touched. Really touched. What are those?”

“Oh, they’re some sort of sweet doughballs, with a gooey filling.”

I choose from the selection of four DVDs, opting for the last John Waters movie, A Dirty Shame. You know, the guy who did all the classic low budget Divine movies? Hairspray, with Ricki Lake? Serial Mom, with Kathleen Turner? Sick humour but he’s cleaned up and gone mainstream?

Eww. We seem to be back with the sick humour and the B-movie production values. And, well, it’s a bit crap really. I reach for my sweet white doughball. It feels smooth, cold and clammy to the touch. Kind of creepy.

“This doughball is kind of creepy.”

“I know. It’s like a dead woman’s breast, isn’t it?”

“I WOULDN’T KNOW. What makes you say that?”

“Heh heh.”

“Actually, you’re right. OK, so I’m watching a pervy John Waters film, munching on a dead woman’s breast, with a box of LOVELY PUFF beside me, high as a kite on trippy Korean twigs. That’s… fine. No, really.”

“In China, you can be sure that something will happen every day…”

“Yup. Something happens every day. God, this breast is sticking to my fingers…”

P.S. We checked, and the twigs weren’t Korean after all. The restaurant specialises in food from the south-west of China, not sure what district, still none the wiser…

Jowzers, bowzers and hunky plumbers; lip gloss, tears and virtue rewarded.


It’s J’s first day in the office, so I’m back in Mentor Mode, introducing him to all and sundry and explaining the interviewing process. We do the first couple of phone interviews together, with J sitting in as a silent partner. Fortunately, the first candidate is one of the strongest yet, thus providing a useful initial yardstick.

Later on, I have to terminate a phone screening interview when the candidate – whose verbal English skills are almost non-existent – breaks down completely, his attempts at speech dissolving into soft whimpers. I do this as gently as I can – I’m used to nervous candidates, after all – but I can’t help wondering why someone would put himself into such a distressing situation in the first place. It’s not as if they aren’t warned in advance, in their native language, by our Human Resources team.

On the way home, J and I spot a dodgy DVD shop on Wensan Lu. Wa-hey, the complete second season of Desperate Housewives, for less than three quid! Back in the apartment, it takes a good half hour for the two of us to master the complex and typically non-intuitive DVD system, but persistence wins out in the end. Bree, Susan, Lynette, Gabrielle: welcome back into my life. (And thanks for hanging onto the hunky plumber; I don’t generally do Celebrity Crushes, but Mike Phwooar Gerra Loada That Delfino is the shining exception).


On the half-hour walk between the apartment and the office, J is spotting all sorts of things which I had missed last week, stomping along with my headphones turned up high, impervious to everything but the mad traffic and my inner angst. An obvious case in point: the tiny brothels, with their pink lights, barbers’ poles, and nominal disguises as hairdressing salons. Once I learn how to spot them – and it does take a while – I realise that they’re ubiquitous; yet another phenomenon of Chinese life which makes no economic sense to an outsider.

(At this point, I was going to say something along the lines of: we only see what we need to see. But as that would cast all sorts of misplaced nasturtiums upon J’s stainless character, I shall refrain.)

J has decided to take his breakfast en route, purchasing gyozas (he calls them “jowzers”), “bowzers” (God knows how you spell that), and filled pancakes from a variety of street vendors, in exchange for tiny handfuls of small change. I follow suit, and feel a frisson of excitement in going native, to such a daring degree. Tomorrow morning, I’ll pack tissue paper; this stuff is tasty, but it ain’t half greasy as well. Jowzers and bowzers! Sure beats supermarket muesli…

(Side-note: since I’ve been here, I’ve almost completely stopped farting. Could this be down to the lack of dairy products, such as the milk on my morning muesli? Whatever it is, it’s a blessed relief. This won’t have come up before, but I’m SUCH a fart-arse. Sorry, is this too much information? OK, back to the plot.)

As usual, there’s a long, chatty e-mail from K waiting for me when I log on. In an unexpected side-effect to our prolonged separation, K has revealed a previously hidden talent for witty, eloquent, tartly observed and pleasantly bitchy e-mails. I suspect that he would make rather a good blogger. Dammit, is there anything the man can’t do (apart from putting away his shoes neatly under the stairs, or leaving the house in unironed clothing)?

The day’s first face-to-face candidate is articulate, charming, confident, energetic, immaculately groomed (he’s gone in a bit heavy on the clear lip gloss, but I’m in a tolerant mood), thoroughly likeable, enjoyable company, with all the hallmarks of a rising star… and, for various reasons, completely the wrong “fit” for our company. Part of me feels rotten for rejecting him, but the rest of me is certain that he would not be happy here, and would quickly move on. It’s for his own good, I tell myself, as I circle the NO option on his reaction sheet.

After work, J and I try the sushi bar down the road from the office. The sushi turns out to be first-rate, and we find ourselves wolfing down dainty little plateful after dainty little plateful. The staff, who look vaguely stunned at our rate of consumption, and vaguely distressed at the size of our bill, offer us a VIP discount card as we settle up. VIP cards are common enough currency round here – JP bequeathed me his card from 5th Avenue, for instance – but you generally have to earn them through repeated visits. Our naked greed appears to have fast-tracked us through the entire process.

It’s still quite early, so we jump into a cab and head downtown for a speculative mooch. The main downtown area turns out to be a bit of a let-down; bright lights and wide streets, but with little of unique interest, as KFC follows Pizza Hut follows McDonalds follows bloody KFC again, in an endless loop of homogenised mediocrity. The shops are still open, but we search in vain for atmosphere, buzz, life. In fact, it all turns into a bit of a trudge. After an hour or so, we head back to the flat.

Emerging from the open-all-hours “C-Store” over the road, with tonight’s beer and water and tomorrow morning’s rolls and juice, the awful realisation hits me: I am no longer in possession of my satchel.

Shit, what was in it? Company laptop? Nope, I left that at work. Passport? It’s in the flat. Keys, cash? In my coat pocket. Oh buggeration, my bloody credit cards. Shitshitshit stupidstupidSTUPID.

I’m almost certain that I left the satchel on the floor of the taxi, which sped off into the night over five minutes ago. Trying to think clearly, I make a call to Y, our Chinese office administrator. As luck would have it, I asked the cab driver for a fa piao tax receipt, as torn off from his little till-roll machiney type thing. Mercifully, this contains the registration number of his cab; all we need now is the phone number for the cab firm, who can put a call through to him. I read out the only number which I can find.

A few minutes later, Y calls back. It was the wrong phone number, connecting her instead to the company who manufactures the till rolls. Oopsy! I can’t see another number. She says she’ll see what she can do.

An agonising hour passes. What if the car can’t be traced? What if the driver denies all knowledge? What if the bag has been filched by another passenger? J is urging me to cancel my cards, but I’m reluctant; it feels like giving in. For the umpteenth time, I remind myself that things could have been a lot worse. It’s only plastic, no-one has come to any harm, and the passport’s safe. Actually, what bothers me most is that I’ve also lost my CD Discman, my sexy top-of-the-range Bang & Olufsen headphones… and one of the lovely world music CDs that K lovingly put in my suitcase for Christmas Day boo hoo hoo I miss him SO MUCH oh pull yourself together you big fat drama queen.

Why hasn’t Y replied? I text her, but no reply. Look, I’m English; one hates to nag, one baulks at being a burden, oh very well then I’ll ring her.

“Hi Y, any luck?” Oh so faux-casual.

“Didn’t you get my text? Your cab driver is downstairs, by the main gates.”

Shitshitshit quickquickquick, and I’m flying down the stairwell, out into the night, how long has he been waiting PLEASE let him still be there hey THAT must be him PLEASE let it be him aha he’s smiling at me, opening the boot and YES, it’s my bag!

Before handing it over, the kindly looking driver (who bears a passing resemblance to Chairman Mao, now that I can take a good look at him) insists that I check every compartment of the bag. The cards are there, the Discman is there, all’s well. Xie xie, xie xie. I slip the driver a massive tip – five times the original fare, but Y said he had come a long way, and it’s important to demonstrate that honesty pays, right? – and stagger back upstairs, sinking to my knees on the living room floor with relief. What with my notorious absent-mindedness, and all the solo business travel over the past few years, something like this was bound to happen sooner or later. It could have been so much worse. Oh, did I say that already?

Although J and I were dog tired an hour ago, my mini-drama has left us with sufficient residual energy to keep us heart-to-heart-ing into the small hours.

Christmas Day – addendum.

Oh, oh, oh! How could I have forgotten to tell you about the Gents toilets in the SOS Club?

The Gents toilets of the SOS Club are, as you would expect from somewhere so damned aspirational, of a shiny and glossy appearance. Unfortunately, this shininess and glossiness also extends to the tiled flooring. Not just because the tiles have been polished to within an inch of their lives, but also because the floor is, in fact, soaking wet.

With what, I do not care to speculate; all I know is that it takes a concentrated effort not to skid on my Pradas and fall arse over tit in front of the uniformed toilet attendant.

The toilet attendant who is now approaching me, even as I wee, with a beaming, servile smile upon his face.

The toilet attendant who is now standing directly behind me, and attempting to give me some sort of half-assed back massage. I repeat: as I wee.

This sort of behaviour is liable to put a chap off his stroke. It’s a good job I’m desperate. Er, for a wee, that is to say. Crumbs, what do you take me for?

I do my best to shrug off the ministrations of the toilet attendant. It’s a pity that there’s no easy catch-all Mandarin term for “No”, and I’ve temporarily forgotten its nearest equivalent, bu yao (“Don’t want.”) Also, effective shrugging is kind of difficult when you’re, you know, trying to have a wee in peace: an activity which, by definition, does rather anchor you in one fixed place.

Also, I don’t want to offend. I’m sure the back massage is kindly meant, and all part of the service sir, and probably factored into the astronomic 100 YMB entrance fee, and I’m aware that an outright display of irritation might not be duly sensitive to the different cultural… oh, f**k it, I need this guy to get off my back, now. Literally and figuratively.

I risk a harder shrug – a sort of sideways shimmy, hopefully not too coquettish in effect or else we’re opening up a whole new minefield of misunderstanding – and accompany it with a series of me-no-want grunts.

He gets the message, and backs off. I finish the job in hand, and teeter my way over to the sink, using tiny tippy-toe steps in order to stave off any further arse-over-tit opportunities. Ancient Chinese Ladies Of Yore, I feel your foot-bound pain.

The toilet attendant is waiting for me by the sink. In common with all annoying toilet attendants everywhere, he rescues me from the arduous and faintly demeaning task of actually turning the tap on for myself. That’s OK, we’re used to that.

Except that, instead of reaching for the hand towels as all good attendants should, he is now seizing this second opportunity to do manifestly non-therapeutic things to my back – this time by performing lame chopping motions with the side of his hands against my shoulder blades.

More shimmy-shimmy, more me-no-likey. Takes a bit longer this time, but we get there.

And then – and then! – he has the GALL to point at a couple of soaking wet 20 YMB notes beside the sink, and then back at me, expectantly and confidently.

Have I mentioned that tipping is not a part of Chinese culture, anywhere at all, and that leaving a tip can even cause offence?

Cheeky bugger. Maybe, if he spent a little less time fiddling ineffectively with his client base, and a little more time actually keeping the f**king floor dry, then such gross impudence might be justified. But, under the circumstances, how DARE he presume to…

I tip him 10 YMB, and meekly waddle off back to the dancefloor.

Christmas Day in Hangzhou.

Oh, hang on! I omitted an important element from my blow-by-blow description of last Saturday (see below). After dinner in the Jingle Bells Water Torture restaurant, J and I wandered round the corner and found a bustling little night market – complete with a lengthy strip of street stalls selling all manner of interesting looking hot food, which ran the full gamut from mouth-watering to deeply disturbing. Vows were made to return for the full experience; when this eventually happens, I’ll write it up.

Christmas Day, then.

Opened K’s presents: a lovely Paul Smith tie, and – as tradition dictates – four shortlisted CDs from the forthcoming Radio 3 World Music Awards, only one of which I had heard of before. Felt a sudden lurch of intense homesickness. Resolved not to give into it.

Left J still asleep at 14:00, and caught the 81 bus back to the north shore of the lake, alighting a mile or so earlier this time. Beautiful warm sunny day, in stark contrast to the freezing cold week; within 30 minutes, I was down to shirtsleeves.

Crossed a bridge over to a large island, and walked along its shore, past brides and grooms posing for photos in the most delightfully cheesy manner: the grooms in white tuxes, gallantly kissing the outstretched hands of their Proper Little Princess brides. In front of them, photographers’ assistants crouched on the ground with reflective panels, shining light back onto the bridal veils in order to create translucent “dappled” effects.

Continued walking… past scores of small boats, offering rides around the lake for fairly paltry sums… and onto a long causeway, packed with Sunday afternoon strollers. Smartly dressed urban types; hicks from up country, standing out a mile in their ill-fitting “Sunday best”; and hundreds of pairs of slightly shy young lovers, the boyfriends forever snapping their girlfriends in the full approved range of stock pouts and poses.

Ended up near the massive Hyatt Hotel on the east shore, in the heart of the downtown district, where I merged into the crowd in front of The Most Massive And Gobsmacking Fountain Ever. Actually, “fountain” doesn’t do it justice – this was more of a kinetic water sculpture, with hundreds of jets spurting out, in constantly varying heights, in synchronisation to an amplified soundtrack of light classics and Chinese pop ballads. Yes, it was cheesy. Yes, it was wonderful.

Back to the flat, where J is still in bed after fourteen hours. Wake him up, so that we can get ourselves down to The Shamrock in time for Christmas dinner at 18:00. Family phonecalls in the taxi en route.

Dinner places are laid out on long trestle tables, down the full extent of the ground floor bar area. Nine of us from the company eat together: four Brit blokes, and five Chinese girlies from P and C’s team. It’s yer Full English: soup and rolls, mulled wine, and then we all form a queue for roast turkey with all the trimmings.

Shuffling my way forward in the long queue, I experience another sudden, violent lurch downwards. Everything here is perfectly lovely – as lovely as could be expected, if not lovelier – but I badly do NOT want to be here anymore. Ach, bloody Christmas; it messes with your head. Buggered if I’m going to let it show, though. Mask on, smile fixed, I proceed to Make The Best Of The Situation.

At the end of the meal, R gets some party games going; I volunteer, and find myself trying to tear a sheet of paper into the shape of a Christmas tree, while holding the paper behind my back. Hint: fold the paper in half first. But lengthways, not widthways, as I did – thus producing a rather nice, if irrelevant, Olde English oak tree.

The Chinese girlies are getting restless, and want to move on. There’s a strong lobby for the SOS nightclub, but it’s still too early. Others – headed by a stylish young miss with a yen for crooning her party piece, Seal’s “Kiss From A Rose” – want to go to a karaoke bar. Everyone looks to P the English team leader – but he’s, well, in an advanced state of lubrication. In the nicest possible way: he’s still great value, and the very soul of generosity, but possibly not best placed for strategic decision-making. As for me, I feel bad about slinking away from The Shamrock so early – but not for me to argue, best go with the flow, etc.

An increasingly bizarre, mystifying, random evening starts to unfold. Pure “Lost In Translation”, as we spill in and out of taxis, careering round the city in a mad sequence of long journeys, nobody quite certain of what’s going on, bright lights flashing past all the while, car parks, glittering lobbies, FULL signs, huddles, conferences, more taxi rides, bright lights, car parks, snow machines covering us in detergent foam, cash desks, money crises, mad taxi dashes to cashpoint machines, shoving coats in black plastic sacks…

…and somehow, an hour and a half later, we’re inside the SOS club, being handed plastic bags by an army of Santas, each bag containing a teeny-tiny orange “ringer tee”, as they call them over the pond, and Yet Another F***ing Santa Hat Yeah Thanks For Nothing You Must Be F***ing Kidding Pal.

The SOS is large, and glossy, and bewildering, and ruinously expensive, and uncomfortable in an angular way, and full of the haughty young rich, a-preening and a-posing in The Place To Be. The intention is possibly to re-create an Ibiza superclub, such as Pacha or Privilege. It’s sort-of successful; I hated those clubs ten years ago, and I hate this club now.

We try to sit at a table, but are informed that it will cost us 800 (around 55 quid, astronomic by Chinese prices) for the privilege. Bloody cheek. We’ll stand on the stairs in the main room instead, necking Bud Ices and enduring the crap R&B.

A couple of the girlies look completely fed up by now; heads bowed, coats on one arm, goodie bags in the other. A couple of the others are still making the best of the situation, bopping around with P the English team leader. It’s a sweet dynamic; he’s genially trashed, and they’re almost mothering him, waggling their figures, skittishly scolding, sharing the joke. P’s Angels. Ah, bless.

Suddenly, the vast projection screens behind the DJ booth dissolve, revealing an illuminated “Celebrity Squares” grid behind. The grid quickly fills with rather sulky girl and boy go-go dancers, in skimpy Santa costumes, disconsolately gyrating to the strains of – I kid you not – a gangsta rap version of “Jingle Bells”. Oooo-KAY. I text K: “You’re not going to believe this, but…”

Time passes. The room fills up. The music switches to chunky, bouncy techno. Ooh, much more like it. We can work with this. Now we’re all bopping on the steps, throwing shapes, laughing away. Every now and again, a curveball is thrown into the mix: a banging choon dissolves into a romantic karaoke ballad, then lurches back into the same chugging riff as before. The sound system is superb, the lasers are wild. We leave the club just as the overhead gymnastic display commences.

I’ve not experienced a single downwards lurch since.

Best day yet, Part 2.

Compared to the timid week I’ve had so far, catching a Real Life Chinese Bus feels like the height of adventure. With no way of verifying that the 81 route does definitely take us to the lake, I try and plot our journey on the tiny little map from the official city guidebook. Our fellow bus travellers don’t bat an eyelid at the unusual sight of two tallish Westerners on the north-west edge of town, opting to share their transport rather than zoom around in taxis.

Westerners are rare creatures in this city – I’ve walked past no more than one or two others all week – and yet I have been pleasantly surprised by my general lack of Curiosity Value. Almost nobody stares, and – aside from one elderly woman near The Shamrock, working the same short strip with her begging bowl every night – nobody hassles us either. It’s like we’re invisible. Or perhaps people are just too polite to gawp.

After the bus has traced most of the lake’s north shore, we alight on the east side, near the main downtown area, and soon find ourselves wandering along a loose network of winding paths: sympathetically restored, neatly maintained and pleasantly landscaped. Visibility out over the water is poor – we can’t see the far side at all – but it’s good to get a glimpse of Hangzhou’s major tourist attraction at last.

We stop at one of the more reasonably priced tea shops, where rambunctious family groups are playing Mah-Jongg at the tables. Who would have thought that such a dainty parlour game could inspire so much laughter and noise? Our tea is so leaf-heavy that it takes an age to settle, and even then we’re forever extracting chunks of half-digested cud from our mouths. Hell of a kick to it, mind – an hour later, and I’m still buzzing.

J and I fall into animated conversation. We’re different in many ways – but it’s an invigorating difference, and we share a similarly skewed take on the world. This is is going to go well. J speaks a little conversational Mandarin, and starts to teach me a few basic words. But not, alas, the word for “toilet” – my “washy hands” mime causes the tea shop cleaner to convulse in hysterics the moment my back is turned.

“Tsi zwor”. OK, got that. Shan’t be forgetting in a hurry, either.

In the taxi back to the flat, our driver is yakking ten to the dozen to J, who is making all sorts of authentic sounding noises in response. Wow, impressed.

“Mike, can you start talking to me quick. This guy won’t shut up. I think he’s trying to get me a woman.”

A quick shower later, and we’re in another taxi, speeding back across town to The Shamrock. Trouble with this city: everything’s a 20 to 30 minute drive away. Nothing much to do near the flat, unless shopping malls, smart furniture shops and plush but miserable lounge-bar cafés are your bag.

We alight at The Shamrock and head for the strip of restaurants round the corner. I opt for the large place that R from The Shamrock took me to on Thursday. Like everywhere else, it has been Christmassed up to the max, with the obligatory, ubiquitous Santa hats on the heads of all the staff. This would be OK, were it not for the loud Chinese disco-pop version of “Jingle Bells” that plays on a loop, all the way through the meal. And I do mean ALL the way through the meal. Chinese water torture had nothing on this.

We’re in The Shamrock by 9pm, “just for a drink or two” as J has barely slept all weekend. However, company tradition dictates that I bring him down here, in order to “drink through” his jetlag. Just one or two, then. We pull up stools at the corner of the bar, next to R’s base of social operations. Hostess with the mostest. She’s a character and a half, that one. Love her to bits.

I’ve remembered to bring the Double Decker bar which I promised R over our introductory dinner on Thursday, “as a token of my esteem”. (I think it was at that precise moment that she decided she liked me.) She’s ecstatic; they’re her favourites, and she hasn’t had one in months. We discuss how best to savour it; R decides to eat half now, and half on Christmas Day. Spread the pleasure. Tonight’s half is consumed slowly, ceremoniously, and amidst general celebration from the increasingly lubricated throng at the bar.

The Shamrock isn’t one of those sorts of ex-pat bar. You know: the ones where jumped up petty officers of the New Asian Economy strut round like they own the place, dissing the shifty locals and their strange ways. R says that if anyone like that comes in here, she chucks them out on their f***ing ears. Instead, there’s a healthy mix of East and West, with tables of Chinese merry-makers rattling yellow plastic dice buckets all over the shop.

I keep checking back on J’s progress. Not wishing my lonely first few days in Hangzhou on anyone, I see it as my personal mission to ensure that his first few hours here are memorable ones. Yay, he’s loving it, chatting to all and sundry as The Pogues’ “Fairytale Of New York” blasts through the sound system for the umpteenth time. Tune of the trip – along with U2’s “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”, which nearly had me in tears on two occasions during the week.

Bloody hell, it’s 2 o’clock in the frigging morning. How the hell did that happen? God knows how many litre jars of Carlsberg I’ve knocked back, but I’m still just the right side of legless. Farewells all round – see you all back here tomorrow for Christmas dinner, OK? – and it’s taxi, crash in front of fifty-channels-of-crap Chinese telly, bed, oblivion.

Best day yet. The Hangzhou experience starts here, folks.

(The latter part of this post was bashed out under the influence of the trippy Korean twigs from the restaurant near the office, about an hour and a half ago. Well, how were we supposed to know that they were trippy? Or indeed twigs? They looked harmless enough on the laminated picture menu. You can end up with anything in this place. It’s part of its charm.)

Best day yet, Part 1.

How strange that, even in the absence of any public holidays, I should still be experiencing something of that characteristic bloated lethargy which descends in the immediate aftermath of Christmas. It must be an automatic seasonal response, which has been hard-wired into my system. Still, let’s rewind and recap the last few days, here in sunny/smoggy Hangzhou (delete as appropriate).

Saturday morning saw me back in the office, interviewing a candidate who had come over from Shanghai especially to see me. A personable young chap, who gave me my favourite answer to date.

Me: Could you tell me about your outside interests?

Him: Yes! I like watching movies – English movies. I watch between seven and ten English movies a week!

Me: What kind of movies do you like best?

Him: I like Hugh Grant… Nicholas Cage… and Brad Pitt. Because they are all very handsome! And very good!

At which point he flashed me his biggest and brightest smile, while I tried not to flush too violent a shade of puce. My God, am I that obvious?

This is what we call “taking a calculated risk”.

Bouncing out of the office an hour later, still with a smile on my face, I head over to 5th Avenue for lunch. This is a large, comfortably appointed restaurant on the same block, with an English language version of the menu, much favoured by our genial English office manager – and by JP, who bequeathed me his VIP discount card on his return to the UK.

Not that discounts are really here or there; provided our expenses don’t exceed a hundred quid a week (and believe me, you’d struggle to spend more), we can claim back all of our living costs on production of the all-important fa piao tax receipts. (Simple bills and till receipts aren’t enough; you have to make a special request for a fa piao when you pay.)

This lunchtime, 5th Avenue decide to add a soup and a simple salad to my order. Mine not to question why. I simply accept and enjoy them without further quibble. OK, so I’m charged extra for them at the end – but it’s only pennies, and I’m not about to waste my energies in attempting to dispute the bill. Especially since none of the staff speak English. It could be a rip-off – but it could just as easily be a cock-up, or even a whim. Frankly, as in so many situations over here, further speculation is fruitless. Try and seek a rational answer for all the seemingly illogical weirdnesses that beset you every day, and you may well go mad.

Does this make me think less of the Chinese? No, it doesn’t. To European eyes, the lack of so much of what we consider to be basic common sense can be baffling – to say nothing of the staggering lack of efficiency, and extraordinary levels of over-staffing.

(Sometimes it feels as if, at any given point, half of the working population is engaged in nothing more than standing around, silently waiting for something to happen. Especially in shops and restaurants. Perhaps it helps to have a richly developed inner life to fall back upon. Or then again, perhaps the opposite is preferable.)

However, there is much that the Chinese must find extraordinary about Western behaviour. The impatience; the manic drive to fill each moment of the day with purposeful activity; the emotional incontinence (*); the public drunkenness; the crime; the aggression; the cynicism; the inability to feel happy with one’s lot. So I’m not going to embark on any typically ex-pat “Ooh them crazy Chinks!” rants.

Well, maybe only occasionally.

I rush back to the flat, where my new flatmate J is expected at 14:00. He’s already there when I arrive, and a complicated pantomime ensues as both of us struggle with the tricky double locks on either side of the door. Finally, we meet. He’s spaced out with the jetlag, having had precious little sleep on the way over; I remember all too well what that feels like. However, the best solution is to keep going – and so, not much more than an hour after J’s arrival, we’re boarding the 81 bus for Hangzhou’s famous West Lake.

To be continued.

(*) Which reminds me: I’ve been told that the Chinese staff in our office receive special training in How To Deal With Stressed And Snappy Europeans Who Are Having Difficulty Settling In And Might Come Across As A Little Bit Rude. Which is a good job, considering my extended battle to get the heating in the flat sorted out last week…

Things which have made me smile this week.

1. The green walking man at the pedestrian crossings, who – as JP has accurately observed – looks as if he is pleasuring himself from both ends.

(To help you visualise this, please imagine someone pulling a small hand towel backwards and forwards between their legs. Got that? OK, now remove the towel.)

2. The restaurant on Monday lunchtime, where the waitress wordlessly snatched my napkin out of my lap, crossed over to the other side of the table, and placed it on my colleague’s empty lap. Cue fits of helpless, hysterical laughter. But that might have been the jetlag.

3. The cake shop on the walk to work. (Not the original boring walk to work, past all the huge stores – but the alternative route, along the smaller street, past all the dinky little shops. Humbler, more varied, more chaotic, more “typically Chinese”.) You have never seen such surreal icing jobs; I particularly love the spiky brown monsters.

Memo to self: take photos of cake shop. Memo to readers: don’t let him leave without photographing the cake shop.

4. The “Chinglish” menus, whose attempts to describe the dishes merely add to the confusion. Secretly Prepared Yellow Croakers, anyone?

(There are probably whole web sites devoted to this sort of stuff, so I shan’t dwell.)

5. The moment in The Shamrock (Irish pub and main ex-pat watering hole, yeah yeah OK it’s not “authentic” but we all need a social base) when the art and yoga teacher/hippy raver chick and I realise that we both know the same Berlin club promoter. Bulging eyes, open mouths and clappity-hands all round. World’s a village…

6. The completion of each successive stage in my protracted battle to warm the flat. Unworkable heater in bedroom switched on: check. Annotated photo diagram of multi-buttoned air-con system created: check. Second duvet provided, to lay on top of lightweight “summer weight” duvet: check. Additional portable electric fan heater purchased: check. We’ll get there eventually.

7. The range of bedroom slippers at the local mall. Plenty of choice, but a} they’re all made for diminutive Chinese tootsies, not clod-hopping British hooves, and b) they’re all SO CAMP! I’m not having my new flatmate walking in on me tomorrow, mincing round the place in teeny-tiny, fluffy pink, “Hello Kitty” mules. He’ll get quite the wrong idea.

8. Ditto the T-shirts, which I wanted to wear in bed. (Yup, I didn’t pack a single T-shirt. They’re so not me. Such unforgiving garments.) All the T-shirts on display came boxed up with matching “leisure pants”, in shades of citron and cerise. See previous flatmate-related anxiety.

9. Overhearing fragments of conversation in Myth, the rather gloomy restaurant round the corner which attempts Chinese approximations of European dishes. (My “steak” and “chips” were a valiant effort, and actually quite edible.) Particularly the American guy behind me, talking into his mobile:

“Listen, I haven’t told you yet today that I love you. Even though our relationship is in jeopardy right now. And I’ve got a girlfriend.”

(Frustratingly, he went a bit quieter after that. But you know there’s a whole story there.)

10. The answer given by the neatly groomed and very good looking young candidate (if you like that sort of thing, bit Twink for my tastes), working for a company called Handsome – who, when asked what personal skills he could bring to our company, replied: “Being Handsome, I have a lot to offer.” Never was a knuckle more hastily chewed.

Happy Christmas, everyone.

It’s good to purge.

Ah, the power of positive whinging! (See previous post for evidence of entirely typical Drama Queenery.) I feel so much better for that, so thanks for listening – and if you find me lapsing into my “The Little Boy Who Everyone Forgot” persona, then please feel free to administer a judicious slap.

(It’s my least attractive persona, and one which has dogged me for as long as I can remember. Unfortunately, my present circumstances do appear to be activating it in a major way.)

Someone asked what my apartment was like, and I’m pleased to report that it more than adequately fulfils the Troubled Diva standard for acceptable interior design. In fact, give or take the odd dodgy framed print, it actively borders on the stylish. All credit to JP for nabbing it for me before leaving Hangzhou last week; he knows me so well. Why, the place is a veritable symphony of clean lines, clear surfaces, sympathetic lighting and attractive modular seating solutions in exciting shades of beige. And it’s huge.

However, the apartment’s open-plan capaciousness also means that it never quite gets warm enough – and in the sub-zero night-time temperatures which are now upon us, that’s a major issue. There’s a massive aircon unit in the far corner of the sitting-room area, belching out hot air for all it’s worth, but unfortunately this generates as much draught as it does heat, meaning that I can only sit comfortably on the aforementioned modular seating solutions if I wrap myself tightly in my duvet. The parquet flooring is also ice cold, making a pair of slippers the number one item on my shopping list. Which reminds me: I must let my future flatmate know about this.

Yes, that’s right: from Saturday afternoon onwards, I shall be alone no more, either in the apartment or in the office (where, in terms of job function, I have been a solo act all week). Judging by his photo on the company Intranet, he looks like a friendly sort of chap; and as it will also be his first visit to China, I shall be able to graduate from Nervous Novice to Seasoned Old Hand in a matter of days.

This is a healthy development. As a Nervous Novice, I do have a habit of making a rod for my own back – but I think I shall make quite a good job of being a Seasoned Old Hand. Whereas I baulk at marching up to strangers in the office and trying to ingratiate myself into their social lives, I’m actually the sort of person who naturally gravitates towards people in my own position. In social situations, I’m often the person making sure that the quiet one in the corner who doesn’t know anyone is included in the conversation. Show me a lame duck, and I’ll extend a fatherly wing.

(Assuming that he’s going to want to play the role of lame duck, that is. He’ll probably be out playing pool with The Lads down the ex-pat watering-hole on the first night, leaving me huddled under my duvet like a spurned Craig-out-of-Big-Brother, free to explore the finer points of the latest Sufjan Stevens album, or to get to grips with that particularly chewy 6000-word think-piece in the New Yorker.)

*** SLAP ***

As for work – and you know I don’t blog about work, but f**k it – it’s proving to be well within my capabilities, whilst not exactly making huge demands on my time. So thank goodness for the Internet, even if all Blogspot sites are blocked from over here. (Unless they’ve got full RSS feeds, in which case I can pick them up through Bloglines. Still can’t leave comments on them, though.)

Basically, I’m here to conduct what we call “fit interviews” with Chinese candidates for our Hangzhou office. Not to assess whether or not the candidates are Well Fit (I would never allow such considerations to etc etc etc), but to assess whether or not they would be a good “fit” for the company. So I’m not testing their technical knowledge, but determining their English communications skills and trying to get an impression of their overall personalities. The trick is to force them to deviate from their carefully rehearsed – and grammatically faultless – scripts, and to see whether they can provide thoughtful answers to some more unexpected questions. Sometimes this will be over the phone; more usually, it will be face to face. I make copious notes throughout, but what people are really interested in are my decisions: Yes+, Yes, Yes-, Hold, No.

It’s a simple equation of input and output. Each day, the cream of young Chinese manhood passes before my eyes (there haven’t been any women as yet, but I’m sure there will be soon), full of shining-eyed aspiration, eager to please, eager to better themselves, eager for the benefits of working for a fast-growing international company in an equally fast-growing economy, eager “to work hard, and learn new skills, and be good team member, and do my best for your company”.

Each day, I hear minor variations on the same answers, to which I nod and I smile, teasing out fuller answers where required, diligently transcribing their thoughts, experiences and Personal Goals onto sheets of paper which few, if any, will ever read. Finally, as I pass the candidates on for technical tests, I review my notes and – like a lofty panellist on a reality TV talent show – cast my judgement. Their lives in my hands. Or so I like to think, in my more delusional moments.

One of these days, I might actually get round to telling you a little about Hangzhou itself; but I haven’t seen a great deal of it yet, so patience. Now it’s time I donned my fleece and my puffa jacket and my Gore-Tex lined baseball cap and my iPod, and braved the icy blasts of my thirty-minute walk home. I may be gone some time…

Half a world away.

Well, I’m here. Sitting in the Hangzhou office, about to knock off for the day, and feeling… well… more than a little displaced, if you really want to know. Hangzhou looks a lot more Westernised than I had expected: smarter, cleaner, and with lashings of Christmas tat everywhere, amazingly enough. Including around my cubicle, which was festooned with multi-coloured tinsel within a couple of hours of my arrival. They know how to make a boy feel welcome.

However, appearances only go so far. In all other respects, I am a long, long way from anything familiar. Every detail of my life here feels new, and strange, and frequently bewildering.

I thought I was prepared for this. Having made something in the region of thirty business trips around Western Europe in 2003 and 2004, I have become acclimatised to the unfamiliar, and to that Mr. Bean type of existence which dictates that I will pull any door marked “Push”, order the wrong food in restaurants, and lose my keys five times a day. Nevertheless, this trip takes unfamiliarity to a whole new level… and with three weeks stretching ahead of me, the challenge feels all the greater.

Unlike my usual two day trips, I can’t just breeze in and out of the country in default airport-taxi-hotel-office Eurotrash Business Wonk mode. This time, I’ve got to engage fully with my surroundings. I need to establish a routine, but not get stuck in a rut. I need to find ways of enlivening tasks which might otherwise become repetitive. I need to feed myself, but not simply by nipping down to the nearest Pizza Hut night after night. I need to forge alliances, both in and out of the office.

In particular, I need to get a good social life going, and not just shrink into the background – spending night after night in my apartment, iPod tootling away, necking cans from the supermarket and smoking comfort fags to pass the time. The easy option, but also by far the hardest path.

It’s daunting, and I feel a lot more homesick at a much earlier stage than I would ever have expected. Residual jetlag and culture shock are of course playing a major part in this. But each day things move on, falling into place little by little. The people here are more than ready to offer help, advice and company. I’m getting a grip. I just need to keep reminding myself of this.

The pithy apercus and bon mots, and all the wry observational stuff which you’re waiting for, will commence very soon. Just let me find my bearings, and I’ll be right with you.