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Smashing records on the way to visit a giant bird’s nest.

Day dawned on our final full day in Beijing and the adrenaline ran like a deluge through the veins of the boys. For two long years, the Chinese language students had lived in the shadow of one Benjamin Joseph Topham. This fabled figure of STCC folk lore had achieved the near impossible, managing to traverse twenty-four towers along the length of the Great Wall.

Snakes and ladders was originally developed by the ancient Chinese as a way of passing time during the harsh winters.

In the years since Ben’s heroic acts, the saga, nay epic, of Ben’s victorious journey had only grown more magnificent. Some former students swore that Ben managed to scale all one million steps of the Great Wall without so much as any lactic burn. Other witnesses testified that Ben’s face was illuminated gold upon the completion of his last tower. Even Chinese witnesses were astounded by Ben’s heroics, and his legend is known among the Wall community as the ballad of the Dà Bái Hè (Great White Crane).

Thus, upon our arrival at the Badaling National Park, seventeen young and expectant men were primed and ready. On this day, either history would be made, or glorious death would be achieved in the pursuit of immortality. Starting at the base tower, the group immediately split into two, one half opting to challenge the southern part of the wall first, while the other group challenged the northern side. The southern crew, consisting of Fraser Buckley, Josh Dent, William Topham, Jakob Hoogenboezem, Josh Doocey, Jack Pugh, Ethan McLintock, Josh Grosvenor and Will McCorkindale broke early with the solitary goal of destroying Ben’s record. Arriving at the highest point of the southern route, the super team’s spirits were high and focused on victory.

Team Awesome believes in sweaty male bonding experiences.

Team Awesome practices their battle formation.

Gazing into the distance remaining of the southern route, these hardy lads were not intimidated by the near vertical steps where any slip was surely death. Making use of the centre rails, these intrepid men slid their way down the wall and neared the end point of the southern route, the fabled twelfth tower. For the rowers among the team, Josh D and Will T, it was also a time to ensure that their hard made training gains were not lost. On one climb, the team challenged itself to complete a push-up on each step while on another ascent, sprints and lunges were incorporated.

Climbing stairs is easy when you’re this ripped.

As the team arrived at the twelfth tower, the trailblazers paused and waited for everyone to catch up. In this team, no man stood alone, and the entire group touched the tower at the same time to commemorate the collaborative work that was essential to conquering Ben’s legacy.

Self-explanatory, if this needs to be explained you may need ‘re-education.’

From tower twelve, the team turned around and began the long trek back to summit the northern wall. Drenched in sweat with legs and calves burning, they encountered the dreaded enchantress Circe – aka Mrs Kennedy – who told the brave members of Team Awesome that they only had half an hour to complete the entire northern traverse, and suggested they relax and dine on sleep inducing ice-cream. As bold St Thomas’ men, Mrs Kennedy’s challenge only bolstered their resolve, and with Ben’s battle cry of, “I’m not going to let my brother win!” uplifted the team and carried them onwards. In this last passage, where every step was painful and where every at second landing they were accosted by trinket sellers, the rallying cry of, “What’s gonna work? TEAM WORK!” kept the group pressing onwards.

The post-season rowing sprint programme ensured the development of fast twitch muscle fibres.

Suddenly, tower seven of the northern climb loomed large. Yet the group, as it rounded the notorious precipice of tower five, had lost two of its original number to the dreaded German backpacking sirens.  This loss affected the group greatly, and it was only after the appropriate prayers were said, and incense was lit, that the mission could continue.

Summiting the last stretch of wall as a combined unit, the group touched the goal at the same time. Suddenly, the realisation of what had been achieved flooded over the group. Ben had managed 24 towers in total, but Team Awesome had managed 19 single towers which when crossed twice (forward then back), equaled 34 towers in total.

Many signs along the great wall are made of the hammered bronze taken from the shields of crushed foes.

The boys had not only beaten the Great White Crane’s record, they had absolutely pulverised it. William, giving in to the emotional revelry of the situation, celebrated the defeat of his older brother with a shirtless dance on one of the ancient wonders of the world.

“We knocked the bastard off!”

No Visitors Allowed. Anti-tourist propaganda at its finest.

With new found energy, the greatest team ever jogged back to the base tower to recount their glorious deeds to the enraptured audience of their peers, including those who were unable to topple the oldest Topham. Here amidst photographs and congratulatory pats on the back, the lone strands of a new ballad could be heard from the lone Chinese musician on the ramparts whose song, The Unrelenting Nine who broke the Dragon’s back, debuted at number one on the Chinese Music Charts that night.

The Chinese form the largest number of tourist visitors to the Great Wall.

Following the unprecedented defeat of Ben Topham’s record, the group had another massive lunch and then visited the site of Beijing’s 2008 Olympics, viewing the spectacular Bird’s Nest stadium as well as the Water Cube. Both buildings and the square that they sit in are impressive feats of modern engineering and design. The Bird’s Nest and the Cube straddle the Dragon Line, the emperor’s pathway that cuts directly through Beijing and into the Forbidden City.

Whoever said that ‘learning construction with pipe cleaners wasn’t beneficial’ has obviously never been to China.

Shortly after this picture was taken, Mrs Shields renounced teaching and undertook training at an obscure Shaolin Monastery.

After another action packed and exhausting day, the hotel and bed proved to be a reward of the highest calibre. Rest was essential as the following day was another early rise and a high speed train from Beijing to Shanghai.

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Taking over a Forbidden City, Hightailing through the Confucius Institute, the Hutong and Peeking Duck.

After the previous day’s late night, the promise of a sleep-in sounded really good. Unfortunately, sleeping in while visiting Beijing isn’t likely to happen, and when I ventured down into the lobby in the morning, the team was ready and waiting for their trip to Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City.

Upon arrival at Tienanmen Square, the team was rather disappointed to say the least. From the group’s entry point, the Square itself was rather underwhelming and was dominated by a massive building that housed the embalmed remains of Mao (for those keen on seeing dead people, the body apparently is so well preserved that it looks like Mao is just having a nap). Moreover, there was an obvious absence of parading soldiers and screaming officers, something essential to any Western depiction of a communist country. However, we need not have worried too much, as when we ventured past Mao’s resting place and entered the front of the square,  we saw an area that was both impressive and on a grand scale – and also had one or two guards thrown into the mix.

The local street vendors were out in force in the tourist areas, their coolie hats making them easily recognisable.

The massive square is set out in front of the Forbidden City, and is flanked by the Chinese National Museum and the Great Hall of the People. Both buildings are absolutely monumental in their scale. From a distance, neither building looks particularly large, but when one crosses the square to stand in front of them, their sheer size is revealed. Rather than performing any compensatory function, the Chinese socialists have a ‘big is better’ ideal and building on this scale is believed to emphasise the importance and longevity of the ideal. The square itself was first established in the 17th Century and over the years has been expanded several times. Following the 1950s, the final expansions were completed and the square can accommodate up to 600,000 joyfully happy people.

When making models, Jack could never get the scale of his buses correct.

Man 1: How do you know your dad is planning for the future? Man 2: He buys two cases of beer instead of one.

From the square, the group then traipsed north to the entrance of the Forbidden City. The city covers over 180 acres and was built in 1420, with a total of 9,999 and a half rooms (unbelievably, they ran out of bricks and the last room has been largely forgotten). The city is incredible and its architecture and design is unparalleled in the world. It is recognised as both a UNESCO Heritage Site as well as a Chinese National Treasure, right up there with Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee.

Unfortunately, the booked Chinese foot masseuse forgot to show, much to the disappointment of the boys.

Exploring the place required some decent footwear and patience as crowds flocked lice ants all over the place. Our students, wearing their bright blue shirts, scattered like the aforementioned ants through the various courts and probed the immaculate gates. The group spent most of the morning exploring, and didn’t even see a quarter of the city. We, the teachers, were very thankful to our guide, Happy, who kept the boys moving and on time. By the end of the morning our feet were so sore that most of us were wishing for a foot massage, but our itinerary had other plans, and it was less a case of Happy Feet, and more a case of grin and bear it.

Finally, Joshua gave in and submitted to a token pic with a native cat.

Immediately after our visit to the Forbidden Palace and lunch, we were taken to the Hanban/Confucius Institute Headquarters in Beijing. Here the boys performed a haka as a way of thanking the Institute for all the work they had done for us.

You put your left hand in, you put your left hand out, you put your left hand in and you shake it all about…

Following a few quick speeches and obligatory photographs, we were then given free reign through the Institute’s museum and education space. This interactive and informative place was easily the best maintained and enjoyable museum experience encountered by the boys and staff. Interactive media allowed the boys to dress as women, play badly strung instruments, and hit a bell set with about as much musical talent as a fingerless pianist. The exhibits were also clean, easily viewable, and the interactive electronics actually worked! All had a fantastic time and just as everyone began to run out of steam, we were again ushered into the bus for a trip to the Hutong.

The auditions for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, had several stand out applicants.

The Hutong are the old neighbourhoods in Beijing and their narrow streets and quant brickwork hark back to an older China. However, inside the buildings is a world that is anything but old. As a major tourist site, the Hutong bustles with modern cafes, trinket and souvenir stores, and just about anything else you could care to imagine. Set against a meandering river that joins two lakes, it was a beautiful spot and the boys launched into another round of exploring and adventuring. Meanwhile, the geriatric teacher posse immediately headed west and found, and I kid you not, a cat café.

On the quest to find Jet Lee and a Chinese film set.

The cat café is either a dream come true for feline fanatics, or a potential nightmare for anyone with hygiene issues. The coffee (which was served with pictures of cat’s paws and faces on the foam) was surprisingly nice, but was served on tables that cats leisurely strolled across and cleaned themselves on. The café was essentially a place where you could go to hide from annoying pet allergy people, or a place to take pet allergy people to see them succumb to anaphylactic shock.

What’s new pussy cat? WoOooOoooOooooOo.

Finally, after another long day, we sleepily made our way back to the hotel for a duck dinner that went down extremely well. Unfortunately, a little too well for one boy who gorged on the skin and who later discovered that rich foods are better eaten in moderation. Fortunately, he was able to sleep it off and join the team the following day as we braved the Great Wall and a long standing record.

The demise of one or two of the lads.

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Total immersion, 300kmph, and bamboo flavoured poo.

Following the visit to Malong, the next big event that had the boys nervously excited was the day that was to be spent with the Chinese families. Unlike other situations, where less confident boys could exist behind the language skills of the more developed Chinese speakers, being by themselves would ensure that there was nowhere to hide (cue clichéd horror music from the shower scene of Psycho).

Thus, on our way to the pick up zone, we saw a combination of false bravado (picture a Chihuahua holding its ground to a Rottweiler), quiet contemplation, and straight cut fear. However, despite the fears, the boys found their time with their families to be the most rewarding experience of the trip and we have decided to share an example from one of the boys’ diaries below:

Jakob Hoogenboezem

Jakob and his host family for the day. The blonde man on Jakob’s left was the family’s adopted Romanian orphan, Magnus.

Today was the best day yet. The second we walked into the school I could tell that today was going to be awesome. I saw a young girl holding up a sign with my name in it. I approached her and introduced myself. Her name was Jessica and she was very kind.

We went to a shop and baked cupcakes and cake pops which was so much fun. We than had lunch which was Hao Chai and it was delicious. Then we went to Wu Chan, China’s oldest running market. During the trip, I chatted constantly with Jessica, her sister, her mum and her friend. Jessica became quite a good friend!

It was challenging because her English wasn’t very good but I managed to still talk with her.

We had dinner then bused back to the uni to home. She gave me a gift and we said our goodbyes. I thanked her for her hospitality and gave her some gifts.

Today it really showed me how hard it can be for others who are in New Zealand with a very small vocabulary. Today I loved it and it brought me a lot of joy. I even had a tear in my eye as it was such a memorable time. I will always remember this and will treasure it. Thanks for the nice day Jessica and Co.!

While the boys were out fraternising with the locals, the teaching staff were taken to the East Lake Scenic area. This is a massive park and nature reserve (87 square kilometres) that has been extensively developed with interconnecting paths and walkways. The place is renown for its picturesque landscapes, and on any given day, brides and grooms can be seen making the most of the stunning scenery during their pre-wedding photoshoots.

The happy couple just before they were photobombed by Mrs Kennedy.

Another great aspect of the area are the plenitude of cycleways and easy to access bicycles. For one Chinese dollar, you can hire a bike for a half-hour to explore the area. Being generally a bit slower than the boys, the staff opted to get tickets on the electric carts that drove us around the lakes, and gave us a fantastic view of both the greenery and the locals.

Mrs Kennedy, Mrs Shields, and Ping just before a round of dynamite fishing on the lake; a very cheap experience at only 10 Yuan a stick.

The East Lake Moto GP officials struggled to get all racers to go in the right direction.

The day following the family day was uneventful, with only a test and some shopping to break up the day. We had originally planned to leave Wuhan on the overnight train, but some struggling timetable logistics meant that there were to be some changes to the original schedule. Instead of taking the overnight train, we were now booked on the following morning’s high speed train to Beijing.

Life’s a whole long journey so before your grow to old, don’t miss the opportunity to strike a little gold…

The train itself looks exactly as you would imagine, long and sleek with a tapered front end. After being ushered through ticketing, we soon discovered that the trains are not ideally set up for large travelling groups. This forced us to spin the movable rows of seats so that each pair faced each other. In the space provided behind the turned chairs, we jammed in our suit cases. While solving the issue of the baggage, we had created a new issue. The chairs, now facing each other, had limited space and we all found ourselves with interlocked knees, and zero leg room, for the five and a half hour ride to Beijing.

Sleeping beauties.

However, as cramped as we were, the students generally made the best of the situation, with people sharing spaces, wandering up and down the train, and sleeping where and whenever possible. This was made slightly more bearable by the spectacular sight of the countryside and cities whizzing by at some 300kmph.

William Topham killing two birds with one stone. Having a nap while cleaning up everyone else’s rubbish.

When we arrived in Beijing, we were immediately ushered through the crowds to see the Beijing Zoo’s Panda exhibit. The Pandas are a major source of pride for the Chinese, and the animals are extremely comical. Like plush toys the size of a medium dog, the Giant (whoever named them giant must have had a seriously good stash of opium) Pandas rolled around, ate and defecated – much to the amusement of the boys. There is nothing quite so hilarious to a teenage boy as a Panda pushing poo off its mini zoo fort.

The most active Panda caught in between its favourite activities, pooing, eating, and sleeping.

After viewing the Panda enclosures, we had about twenty minutes to see the rest of the zoo (for future reference, an hour at a zoo is far too little time). Unfortunately, the Beijing Zoo hasn’t kept up with the rest of the world. Its enclosures are tired, run down, and do not emulate the open spaced and unfenced enclosures of large modern zoos. It was quite sad to see large animals pacing in small spaces, and the Polar Bear looked so forlorn that many of our boys walked away feeling extremely sorry for it.

The unhappiest Polar Bear on the planet.

After another dinner at a nice restaurant, it was an early night for the boys. The following day was our ANZAC day and we had booked a spot at the New Zealand Embassy to commemorate the event. For the boys, that would mean a telephone call from the hotel staff at 3:30am to ensure that we were there on time!