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Monthly Archives: August 2012

Food, Glorious Food!

Most of the meals here are interesting in one way or another (once you get past the “Chinese food again?” stage), but here’s a couple we went out for specially.

Hotpot

This starts with a big pot in the middle of the table, on top of a burner. This is filled with some kind of stock, which could contain almost anything. Sometimes the pot is divided in two, so you can have separate spicy and non-spicy stock; this time, ours was just full of chicken-based stock, using all of the chicken, as you can see. The only bit we couldn’t find was the beak.

You order a selection of food, which arrives separately, uncooked. We had wafer-thin slices of beef and pork, a selection of green leaves, a few different kinds of mushrooms, and a load of fresh noodles. (Of course, we forgot to take pictures of any of this.)

This is chucked in to the simmering stock, a bit at a time; fished out as it’s cooked, then eaten straight away. Repeat until you’re stuffed! If you’re still hungry, you can drink the stock too.

Tabletop Barbecue

Another meal where the “cooking” is done in the centre of the table. Each table has a ‘fire pit’ with an extractor above it. You order a suitable piece of meat, something like a leg of lamb or pork shoulder, along with whatever side dishes you fancy. One of the staff comes round with a pile of ready-heated charcoal briquettes and lays them out in your fire pit, then the piece of meat is brought to your table on a big spit. It’s already been oven-cooked, and just has to sit above the coals, being turned occasionally, for long enough to heat it and char it to your taste. Once the outer layer is ready, each person has their own set of long-handled knives and forks, and carves off chunks.

Unfortunately, this restaurant only has Chinese language menus, no pictures, and our vocabulary is a bit limited, so our method of ordering was to wander round the other tables in the restaurant, pointing at things and saying “zhège” and “nàge” (“this” and “that”). If nobody was eating something that we wanted, we had to wait until somebody else ordered it, then ambush the waitresses as they came out of the kitchen carrying it, then use more pointing and Chinese number gestures to order it.

It sounds a bit chaotic, but it seemed to be good entertainment for the rest of the diners. We managed to get our big lump of meat (ribs), plus sweetcorn, fried dumplings (delicious!), salad, and some kind of bread that was like flattened wholemeal rolls with a slight cinnamon flavour.

The other diners were obviously enjoying the spectacle we were causing, particularly the table next to us. One of them kept challenging Clare to “gānbēi” her drink (literally “empty glass”, down in one). Another who’d made sure that we understood what piece of meat we’d ordered by pointing at his own ribs, also seemed very impressed that I was managing to entertain six ladies by myself, and introduced himself to me. By pointing at a picture on his phone he managed to let me know that his name was ‘Sky’; to be honest, he might have meant, ‘Night’, or ‘Clouds’, but I don’t think it mattered. We were also sent a plate of edemame beans, with a piece of paper inviting us to “try these you will like”. We didn’t tell them that we often eat edemame beans at home…

So, a decent meal, drinks and entertainment, all for ¥42 each (about £4.20). Bargain.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday 8 August 2012 in China

 

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A Walk in the Park

On Sunday morning, rather than going into school, I decided to have a bit of an explore by myself. I’d heard there was a nice park nearby, and I’d seen a green-coloured area on the map provided by the hotel (to be returned at the end of our stay!), so I headed for that. It turned out to be a different park to the one that people had been talking about, a little further away but definitely worth the walk.

Heading into the park, the first thing you encounter is a very fancy-looking bridge which is just being finished off. This is quite surprising, as I get the impression that much of the rest of the park was completed for the 2008 Olympics, and many things in China don’t seem to get updated once they’re done, but it’s clear that this park is being kept up-to-date.

Through the main entrance, past the Garden Notes, you can see the top of the large sculpture which I suppose is meant to evoke the Olympic rings, and start to encounter many of the Olympic-themed pieces that are scattered around the park.

There are plaques on the ground with some statistics for each of the modern Olympics; apparently the 1968 Mexico Olympics was “the first time, the gender and tonic checking was officially applied.” Who knew?! There are slight mistranslations like this everywhere in China; whoever does their proof-reading should be who shot… I mean, fired… actually, it’s China; I was probably right first time.

When you get in to the main area of the park, everything becomes very tranquil. It almost seems too stereotypical that there’s an old man sat in the shade by the edge of the lake, bike parked behind him, playing his erhu.

Wandering around the various spaces in the park, each with its own identity, you’re likely to encounter more stereotypes: a middle-aged man doing Tai Chi, or a group of old woman doing their daily exercises.

The lake itself features a large water fountain feature, which occasionally starts and spouts water in time to some gentle chiming music issue from hidden speakers in a pile of rocks at the side of the lake.

Leaving the park and getting back to the hectic traffic comes as a complete shock to the system, like being woken up by a loud alarm clock. As usual, more tower blocks are being built wherever you look. I walked past rows of car workshops: the “workshop” is actually the street, where I saw everything from oil changes to engine rebuilds being done; the buildings only seem to be used for parts storage. I also found the local equivalent of B&Q: outside, rows of tradesmen are waiting with their scooters, advertising their services by the tools attached to the back seat. Painters with rollers, builders with drills, carpenters with saws, etc.

Further on, I found small lanes lined with market stalls. Having no-one with me to act as a distraction while I took photos, I didn’t feel like I could take pictures on individual stalls, so maybe I’ll have to go back with an accomplice.

I’m still trying to get a good photo to capture the craziness of the traffic, but you get some idea on the photo of the junction: all those vehicles just keep moving, nobody ever seems to come to a stop.

Returning to the hotel, past where some drains are still bubbling up foul smelling water, I was glad to see that somebody had put a ‘wet floor’ sign out; I might never have noticed otherwise!

 
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Posted by on Tuesday 7 August 2012 in China

 

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Walking Home [UPDATED]

I decided to rest my legs today, after walking 9½ miles around Qinhuangdao yesterday, so I got the bus to Qinhuangdao No.1 High School with Clare and the rest of the teachers this morning, and hung around all day; being sociable between lessons and enjoying a bit of a busman’s holiday by providing a bit of IT support.

Clare was one of the judges in this evening’s Speaking Competition. Rather than hanging around the school for another three hours this evening, I walked back to the hotel after eating tea with Clare in the school canteen: £1 for rice, pork something-or-other, and something involving green beans, plus a massive 10p for a steamed roll stuffed with some kind of celery-based mixture. That’s my third rice-based meal of the day, and my little “rice baby” is developing nicely; soon I’ll be able to proudly roll my T-shirt up to expose my belly, just like the locals do.

(Edit: just found out there’s a name for that look: Bang Ye, which means “exposing grandfathers”, also known as the Chinese Shirt Roll or the Beijing Bikini.)

I took a few photos on my way…

Water that looks reasonably clean doesn’t get wasted here. On Saturday morning we saw people washing their cars in rainwater that was running clear; this evening, a mother is using water being pumped out of somewhere (I think it’s from part of the school sports facilities) to wash her daughters’ bikes, while the girls “help” by playing in the water. They look reasonably well-off, judging by the clothes, appearance, and the bikes, but I don’t think there’s any stigma associated with using waste water in this way, like there would be in the UK.

This is the view towards the centre of Qinhuangdao, which is past the tower blocks which you can just about make out through the haze, in the centre of the picture. As you can see on the right of the picture, there’s a lot of construction going on; the city is filled with half-completed tower blocks, many of which seem to have had their shell completed, scaffolding removed, then abandoned completely. The main scaffolding starts part way up the building; lower down (about level with the lamppost banners in the photo), there’s a net that extends out from the building to catch anything that falls off, and it looks like plenty of stuff falls off. Also in this picture, there’s the unusual sight of a bike/moped lane which only seems to have bikes and mopeds; more on that later…

This is the Chinese equivalent of a roadside cafe, many of which are literally on the road. It looks like the proprietor and family (or families) lives here too, but I’m guessing it’s not an officially-registered address. Behind the “tents” you’d probably find something that looks remarkably like an allotment; people seem to use any bit of spare ground for growing vegetables, and the climate in this area means that they grow very successfully. Of course, what they end up being coated with, being situated next to a main road, I’ll leave you to imagine.

This is what the bike/moped lanes look like most of the time: not so many bikes, but just about anything else you can think of. The green vehicle next to the hedge is a trike with a flat-bed back; very common around here. The driver appears to have some sort of glass-topped coffee table that he’s either trying to deliver, or perhaps trying to sell to passers-by. On the left, behind the family, you can see melons and other fruit and vegetables laid out on sheets on the ground by an “allotment famer”. Further down, past the truck, there’s a makeshift awning and people sat around at another roadside cafe (barbecued “meat” a speciality), with the smoke from yet another in the background. There is, as usual, a car in the bike lane, and its facing the wrong way. This appears to be completely acceptable… in fact, any kind of driving manoeuvre seems to be acceptable, as long as you do it fairly slowly and use your horn a lot. Drive on the right, or on the left if there’s more room. You should stop at traffic lights… unless you can’t be bothered. Overtake on double centre lines? Sure, just do it slowly and sound your horn. I could go on.

[EDIT: This is a perfect illustration of a commonly-encountered situation at a junction: The Basics Of Driving In China: A Diagram]

Further down the same bike lane, this evening market appears every day and seems to do a roaring trade. Mostly fruit and veg, but also a couple of the ubiquitous meat grills. Although we’ve eaten this kind of food, we haven’t risked one of the temporary ones yet, only those associated with a proper building. Although it did smell quite tempting, despite my having recently eaten a tray-full of rice, pork and beans.

The local motorcycle and scooter sales showroom and repair workshop, spread across a pavement and part of a bike lane. The red three-wheeled van is stuffed with bits and pieces of old bikes. The taller canopy is the workshop; partially-stripped bikes are often left here overnight, as indeed is the motley collection of bikes for sale. I suspect the owner sleeps in the white van, eats at the roadside market on the other side of the junction, and does the necessary… well, wherever necessary.

 
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Posted by on Monday 6 August 2012 in China

 

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Beside the Seaside

After the rain clouds cleared on Saturday morning, the weather brightened up significantly, and everybody was keen to head to the beach at Beidaihe for a relaxing evening.

Back on the bus again, and we realised that we’d forgotten the camera about 10 seconds after pulling away, so there’s no photos until I get hold of some from other people. There was some discussion about whether we should go for the up-market “Russian” end, or slum it in the Chinese end, so the bus dropped us off half-way between the two… and then everybody decided to go to the Chinese end anyway. Typical.

A brief walk down the main road, through some of the craziest car parking you’ll ever see (some of the cars would need at least a dozen others to be moved to get them out), then we turned down towards the beach along a small street that was a bit like a British seafront on a bad acid trip…

Most of the food places have tanks at the front with all sorts of live seafood, and the first mission of the evening was to introduce the first-timers to some prime specimens of Urechis unicinctus… more commonly known as the “penis fish”, for obvious reasons. Cue much raucous shrieking and laughter, especially when one of the staff fished one out with a net and waved it suggestively.

We headed towards the beach, past groups of locals sporting the latest fashionable swimwear (latest from the 1970s, that is), and the inevitable tucked-up T-shirts to expose their bellies. The beach was packed, mostly with people standing around near the water’s edge watching the swimmers, most of whom had some form of inflatable: not much competition for Ye Shiwen here! I thought someone should show them how to swim properly, and as I was the only one who’d come prepared, it was up me. The Bohai Sea water was quite murky but not too cold (warmer than the North Sea, anyway), and it was fairly easy to get in as the water was quite shallow, just a bit of a fine gravelled ledge before it got to knee-deep. I did a bit of swimming around, trying to swallow as little as possible as I wasn’t sure how clean the water was. I haven’t died yet, so I guess it wasn’t too bad.

We headed back up the street to find somewhere to eat, and ended up where Clare had eaten last year, where there was already a couple of tables of people from our group. Not much space left in the restaurant, but we managed to squeeze in to a table in the corner. Most of the “restaurants” on this street have the same style of food: a selection of raw meat, seafood, and vegetables on skewers; you choose what you want, hand it over and pay for it, then they cook it on a big hot plate, adding some spicy sauce, and you collect it when it’s done. We had some chicken, pork (probably), some type of scallop, bits of squid, courgette, mushrooms, and a big chilli pepper; delicious, if a bit greasy. They were also doing fresh noodles, which a guy at the front of the restaurant was making, showing off by waving the dough around between his hands like a short, thick skipping rope, banging it off the table, then doing some kind of cat’s cradle manoeuvre to split it into thin noodles. We shared a bowl of them, in some kind of vegetable stock; also delicious, and very filling. I don’t think I could have managed a whole bowl by myself, after all the kebab stuff. A large beer each to wash it down with (Shanhaiguan Bull Beer, IIRC), all for a total of about £10, I think; typical inflated seaside prices.

After we’d managed to stand up, then extract ourselves from the restaurant, a group of us headed up the street in the direction of a bar that they’d been in last year, wondering at the bizarre tat that was for sale in the various gift shops. Unfortunately, amongst the 70s-style swimwear and Mr Mong Monkey “daytime pyjamas” were some less funny items: live animals. The mini jellyfish in jars weren’t that much of a concern, but the baby turtles, sold in jars that were barely bigger than them, were very unsettling. Not much we can do about it, I suppose.

The bar we were aiming for was shut, and everywhere else on the street seemed to be full of people eating, so we went back to the main road (negotiating the crazy parking again), and found a hotel/restaurant that seemed happy for us to sit and drink without eating, until it was time to get back on the bus.

As it was a Saturday night and still relatively early, we decided to go for some more drinks back in Qinhuangdao (even though it was technically a school night), and many of the group headed for Tina Turner’s bar (so called because of the proprietor’s outrageous hairstyle). I stayed on the coach back to the hotel, because my shorts were still wet; it was warm enough, but just too humid for them to dry out. Didn’t take long for me to get back to the bar, and catch up before everyone else had finished their first beer.

Along with the several beers, we were pressured into buying a plate of Chinese bar snacks by a young waitress with very good English: peanuts and edemame beans. The peanuts were still in their shells, and not dried out like we’re used to; some of the shells had liquid inside, and the nuts were much softer.

The Chinese obviously have a very different approach to children’s bedtimes: there were still families turning up to eat, with quite young children, at midnight! I’ve no idea what time the bar stayed open until: certainly later than we wanted to stay, as we had to get up for school the next morning.

 
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Posted by on Monday 6 August 2012 in China

 

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Follow These Rules

Had a walk round this morning, including a trip through the Garden Park (or to give it its full title, Qinhuangdao Economic & Technology Development Zone Garden Park). More pictures from there in a separate post, but I thought the park rules were worth sharing separately, for your amusement:

Garden Notes

Forest Park is a opened public welfare park in the Development Zone. For neat , grace and safe environment, visitors should follow the principles below:
1. Keep off the grass and trees ,don’t trample on the lawn or discount flowers.
2. No smoking in the fire district area
3. Any unit or individuals shouldn’t gathering or organising activities in the park without approval.
4. Protect the environment of the park ,don’t drop litter , spitting or defecate indiscriminately.
5. Don’t catch birds. No fireworks allowed in the park.
6. Please to be a civilised person. Do not climbing, trampling, laying, swimming or do things that may threatened others’ safe.
7. Don’t selling in the park.
8. Dangerous items and pets are not allowed to be taken into the park.
9. Please take care of facilities in the park, do not scribbling.
10. Please do not make a racket, begging or alcoholism. Do not fighting and gamble.
11. Motor vehicle and Non-motor vehicle (except the baby carriage wheel chair) please do not enter the park.
12. Please observe the clauses above. The Park Administrative Office have rights to inculcate and fine the visitors who ignore the advice. For the impudent visitors ,Park Administrative Office have rights to call the Public Security Organs.

The Park Administrative Office

So, consider yourself told!

 
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Posted by on Sunday 5 August 2012 in China

 

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Heaven and Head

The teachers’ “day off” had been postponed from Thursday to Friday, because the weather forecast looked better. You can, of course, guess what happened…

But the transport was already booked, and a lot of people still wanted to see the sights anyway (despite some having a little trouble focussing due to the previous night’s overindulgence), so we all traipsed on to the coach and set off for the First Pass Under Heaven, the easternmost gate of the Great Wall (not to be confused with the First and Greatest Pass Under Heaven, which is obviously at the other end of the Wall).

I don’t think we took the most direct route, as it seemed to take much longer than expected, but we did see some interesting sights along the way (through the rain-blurred windows of the coach).

When we got there, it soon became obvious that brightly-coloured raincoats, accessorised with umbrellas, where the in-thing this season:

… although the local wildlife went for the transparent poncho look:

Much of the wall at this point seems to have been rebuilt (or perhaps just regularly maintained) and is in very good condition:

… but the same can’t be said of the local residences, literally within the shadow of the wall:

After we’d managed to round everybody up, with a slight delay while some locals had their photos taken with these exotic Westerners on the steps of our bus, we set off for the Old Dragon’s Head, the point where the eastern end of the Wall meets the sea.

By this time, the rain was getting increasingly heavy and tempers were getting shorter, so the Old Dragon’s Head didn’t get all the attention it deserved, especially when battling through a sea of umbrellas being carried exactly at eye height.

I did manage to make a new friend though, and he certainly didn’t seem to be bothered by the weather.

 
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Posted by on Saturday 4 August 2012 in China

 

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Swim School

The journey to school was fairly uneventful, although we did notice a few people casting fishing nets into the flooded streets. I’m not sure if they were trying to prevent rubbish blocking the drains, or trying to catch fish (I wouldn’t be surprised).

We couldn’t use the main entrance to the school, so I missed the spectacular entrance “parade ground” (for want of a better description). Photos of that when the sun comes out!

I had a wander round school with Brian (a retired deputy head who looks after everything and everybody), and saw how the flooding had affected some of the outside areas of the school. Doesn’t look like there’ll be any football or basketball for a few days!

Unfortunately, despite the school buildings being less than three years old, many of the windows haven’t been sealed very well so there’s a bit of flooding in some of the buildings, and lots of damp, mouldy patches on the walls.

 
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Posted by on Saturday 4 August 2012 in China

 

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A Bit Wet

We thought yesterday’s trip (which I’ll write up later) to First Pass Under Heaven and the Old Dragon’s Head was a bit damp, but we didn’t quite expect what we’d wake up to in the morning.

It had been raining heavily overnight, loud enough that I had to keep checking to make sure the windows were really closed.

When we got up and eventually thought to have a look out the window, sideways to the road, we then had to go out to the end of the corridor to check: waist-deep water outside the hotel!

Nothing we could do about it at that time, so we got ourselves some breakfast just in case the school bus turned up on time, then went and watched the entertainment outside, as various vehicles tried to get through the water, not always successfully…


Our bus to school eventually turned up at 9am, 1½ hours late, and we kept our fingers crossed that we’d make it to school and wouldn’t get stranded.

 
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Posted by on Saturday 4 August 2012 in China

 

Lane indiscipline

[Some time after the previous post…]

Getting away from Newcastle took a little longer than I expected: Air France “lost” a plane somewhere (or that’s what seemed to have happened), and we ended up leaving Newcastle about an hour and 40 minutes later than scheduled. All credit to the Air France pilot though: he didn’t skimp on the Jet A, and got us in to Paris Charles de Gaulle just 30 minutes later than scheduled. I think he must have taken a shortcut somewhere.

This left just about the right amount of time in Paris for a leisurely beer (0.5l of Affligem for €7.10; it was worth it at the time) and a triangular ciabatta-type thing before boarding was announced. As I got to the front of the queue, I discovered that for the first time ever I’d got an upgrade; woo-hoo! Only to “Voyageur” class, but that’s a lot better than sitting in cattle class in the back.

The seat-back entertainment system didn’t work properly, but with it being a night flight (notionally, at least), I wasn’t that bothered. Between my Kindle, a couple of meals, and trying to get some sleep, there wasn’t that much spare time to occupy.

We arrived at Beijing airport almost precisely on schedule, and I quickly found my way to passport control. I expected this to be quite scary, like getting in to the USA just with shorter security guards, but it was all very smooth and pleasant and over quite quickly. Of course, having got through security quickly, my bag seemed to be the last one off, but that’s just typical.

I’d been warned to expect crowds of people when exiting the Arrivals area, and thought it might be hard to spot the driver who’d been sent for me, but it wasn’t busy at all, and I spotted him quite easily… and quickly discovered that we had a mutual lack of comprehension of each other’s native language. There wasn’t going to be much conversation on the 3 hour drive, especially as my head hadn’t quite caught up with my body.

The first fifteen minutes lulled me into a false sense of security. Everybody seemed to be driving quite sensibly, sticking to their lanes; perhaps not indicating as often as they should, but definitely and clearly avoiding each other. Then we found a traffic jam, apparently caused by a truck and a car having stopped in the middle of the road after hitting each other…

Any notion of a “3 lane carriageway” disappeared completely. If there was a gap wide enough to fit half a car in, somebody would squeeze their car into it, and everybody would shuffle over to make room. And although the cars were about eight-abreast, they weren’t all moving in the same direction; most were moving diagonally, towards what they thought was the quickest way through, but it all seemed to work quite efficiently. Certainly better than the very British idea of getting into a single file queue as soon as possible!

There wasn’t really much scenery to see on the journey, which was broken only by a quick stop to use the “facilities” at a service area. Most of the road had trees along the side, with big advertising boards (mostly for rice wine) on posts rising above them. There was a little bit more to see as we passed Tang Shan, some industrial areas and hilly terrain, but it was starting to get dark and misty by then.

As we turned off the main road and into Qinhuangdao, we went through some kind of junction that seemed more like the road had been started from each end and hadn’t quite met properly in the middle, with sand bags and temporary barriers to guide you the right way. Apparently it’s been like that for over a year.

I got to the hotel just as the bus was leaving to take all the teachers (apart from Clare) to KTV for the evening, where we joined them after I’d had a quick shower and we’d grabbed a quick-but-expensive (£11!) meal in the hotel restaurant. By the time we got there, some of them seemed to be ever-so-slightly tipsy… can’t have been the beer, which was only about 3%, but judging by the waving and shouting as they were getting on the bus, I think a few had been getting a bit of a head-start on the drinking before leaving the hotel…

 
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Posted by on Friday 3 August 2012 in China

 

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My turn now

It’s a weekday afternoon, and I’m sat in Newcastle Airport with a beer (well, Guinness, but it’ll do). I feel like I should be on my way to Copenhagen for a business trip, as that’s the only reason I’ve ever been here for the last few years, but not this time…

This time, I’m on my way to China to find out more about the beer that’s 27p a pint meet my beloved wife (ahem) so she can show me all the sights, sounds, and smells that she’s been talking about for the previous two summers.

I hope nobody looks too closely at my hold luggage, as they might wonder what I’m planning on doing when I get over there: chocolate, Marmite, cereal, Vitamin C tablets, coffee filters, and… umm… pipe cleaners! All by special request of the various teachers who are there already, who have been my offered my services (strictly for purchasing of requisites, I understand).

Nearly time to go for my first flight, and hope that the online check-in has left me with the seat I wanted. Not too much problem or the first leg, but I don’t fancy being stuck in a bad seat for the 10 hours or so of the final flight to Beijing.

I should stop wasting my battery now, and get myself ready for boarding. On my way to China, but first I have to survive… Paris!

 
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Posted by on Wednesday 1 August 2012 in China

 

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