WeChat, China’s messaging megalith

China has 1.3 billion people and surely at least that many mobile phones (everyone has a mobile and some sleazy businessmen will have one for the wife and another for the mistress, #lads etc). If I take the metro to work it’s very easy to avoid eye contact with anyone, as they’re all looking at their phones. 

What are they doing – especially given that so much is blocked in China? Watching TV shows, catching up on weibo, shopping on taobao or chatting on WeChat, of course!

WeChat is the messaging app of choice for everyone in China, young or old. You can use it for text and voice messages, sending photos, voice calls and video calls. So far so normal. But there’s so much more. Here’s a few things that I use wechat for on a daily basis (ok, hourly, I am in China after all).

  1. WeChat wallet. If you link your bank card (Chinese banks only) to your WeChat wallet then you can use WeChat to pay for things. Every retailer either has a QR code for you to scan and enter the amount to pay, or they’ll scan your QR code. It’s so so easy and means you hardly ever have to carry cash. You can also use WeChat wallet to pay bills, buy tickets and top up your mobile phone.
  2. Red envelopes. You can send money to friends. Again, so easy!
  3. Scanning friends. If you meet someone and you want to add them as a friend, you don’t need to faff about typing in their number or looking them up in a search bar. Every user on WeChat has a personal QR code, so you just ask to scan them, they produce the QR code, you scan it and add them. Simple! 
  4. Stickers. These are pictures or gifs you can send in messages. You can download packs of stickers or if a friend sends you a cool one you can save it to impress other friends with later. I like dog ones, obviously, but I also have a pretty rad one of Hitler dancing with glow sticks.
  5. Group chats. These can be for work, friends or interest groups. I’m in all three, though some of them have notifications on mute!
  6. Subscriptions. These are news or organisation accounts that I follow. I particularly like the ones about Shanghai so I know what’s on (art, cinema etc) or what’s a hot topic right now (typhoons, flour scandal, VPN news).
  7. Moments. This is like a facebook news feed, except if a friend posts something you can only read the comments by people you’re already connected to.

Soon you’ll be able to use it on the turnstiles at metro stations here in Shanghai, eliminating the need to carry a metro card.

    Of course, this amazing app does come with a price, and that’s all your personal data belonging firstly to Tencent and then the Chinese government. So that’s not ideal. Also, like many apps in China, it’s a really bloated app  and as a result my phone is grinding to a standstill these days. But life without it would be a lot less convenient, so I try to put any concerns about the government out of my mind… Needs must!!

    Things that are banned in China

    You probably know that Facebook is banned in China. It’s been banned for years now. But did you know that the following are also banned (either permanently or temporarily):

    Google (other than google translate), WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, WordPress, LFGSS, gambling, going to Tibet, talking about something that happened in June 1989, baking soda, tinned soup, mentioning certain topics in WeChat groups, changing your WeChat profile picture or username, imported blue cheese, going anywhere without your passport, Brad Pitt, airbnb (it’s not technically legal and right now it’s completely banned in Beijing), hot air balloons, drones, the New York Times and the South China Morning Post but not the Guardian, having a dog without a license, some shoes, giving your child a Muslim name if you live in western China, marmite, and Justin Bieber.

    Renaming a dog

    I’ve been looking after a miniature schnauzer for ten days, a sweet little boy called Santa. His owner assured me that he was well behaved and well trained. He’s certainly not well trained – toilet trained, maybe, but he doesn’t know any basic commands (he will sit if you hold a treat over his nose, so he definitely could get it if he was trained, he just hasn’t been!). 

    He’s very cute, a real velcro dog who wants to be by my side at all times. He can’t climb onto the bed by himself but he’ll put his front paws on the bed and wait for me to pick him up and then he’ll sleep on the bed all night. During the day he follows me about the flat, sitting on my feet wherever I am, unless I’m sitting on the sofa and then he’ll sit next to, or across, me.

    He loves going outside and gets very excited if he thinks he’s going to go out. This means that every time I go to the bathroom (which is next to my front door) he gets excited and starts shuttling about in a circle and jumping up at me. Once outside, he wants to sniff everything, and any understanding of the word “sit” completely vanishes. He’s used to having two 20 minute walks per day but he’s been getting a lot more with me, usually more than 10,000 of my steps over the course of the day.

    He doesn’t know his name, which is good because I don’t think Santa suits him and I forget to call him that most of the time. My friend Mahalia said he looks like a Gustav so he got renamed, but I also call him the following: Big G, shuttlepig, horror, piggo, superted, gougou, pumpkin, Rowley (the cat), Nancy (my friends schnauzer), Hazel (another friend’s schnauzer) and any number of other names that aren’t Santa.

    Things my Chinese teacher says to me…

    Your pronunciation is terrible.

    Your pronunciation is great.

    You’re not *that* fat.

    You have very big eyes.

    Don’t say that, you sound like you’re from Beijing.

    Don’t say that, you sound like a cute Taiwanese girl.

    Don’t say that, you sound like you’re from Shanghai.

    Don’t tell anyone, but I think Koreans look funny.

    Your family is strange.

    Your life is funny.

    You’ve made huge progress and we’re all really proud of you.

    Yangcheng Lake 10k

    My running club organises a few races each year, but this was the first I was able to go along to. People had been talking this up for some time, telling me about an amazing buffet and swimming pool, so as soon as it was announced it went straight in my diary.

    What’s the deal:

    • get picked up from Shanghai (not too far from our house), get given breakfast and then driven to Fairmont hotel by Yangcheng Lake, a 5* hotel about an hour from Shanghai
    • 10k or half marathon in the grounds of the hotel/surrounding area, alongside the lake and through some organic farms
    • swimming in the hotel pool
    • buffet
    • get driven back to Shanghai afterwards

    In reality, this meant:

    • We took a taxi to the pick up point and the stupid driver went the wrong way and refused to do a U-turn, prompting my best Shanghainese shouting. Breakfast was good and we had a chat with people I know from running club, then we took the bus. The bus got lost near the hotel for about half an hour, but one of the other buses was so lost that the start had to be delayed.
    • The 10k was slightly long, about 10.6k! This wasn’t appreciated but my undertrained legs. The half marathon was spot on. So glad I didn’t do the half… Beautiful course despite the runaway golf cart.
    • It was a little too cold to swim in the pool but we lazed by it for a while, and having a pool meant we could use the showers to get changed post-race, which was fantastic.
    • The buffet had been seriously hyped. I’d been told about cheese – and after not really eating much cheese for some time, I was pretty excited. This was just before the Great Cheese Ban of 2017 so I’m not sure why there was no cheese, but there wasn’t, and the veggie options weren’t amazing either. I had two plates of salad and then about 3 plates of desserts. Not three desserts. Three plates of desserts.
    • We got the last bus back to Shanghai as we were having fun chilling out in the hotel grounds. The bus driver took us on a major detour and we ended up in Suzhou. There was a lot of talk about dogs and Matt fell asleep. When we got back we went for a beer at EQ cafe.

    All in all, a really fun day and an enjoyable race. I was soooo slow but I’ve really not done much running. I ran out of steam after 8.5k, which is definitely more of a mental thing. There’s a 15k race next month so I’m hopefully going to do that.

    Huge thanks to Martin for organising everything and being an all-round great Dane!

    Slugs and snails and puppydogs’ tails

    Little boys are horrible. Six year olds, specifically. Snot, fighting and being awful to each other.

    Little Raphael is a case in point. When he’s not paying attention, or when he’s paying too much attention, he blows spit bubbles. It’s my least favourite thing of anything my students do, which is impressive as they’re often quite repulsive. Every time he does it I tell him to stop and tell him I won’t give him a sticker at the end of class. Sometimes this goes in and sometimes he just stares at me, spit bubbles ballooning out of his chubby face. Then I say “goodbye sticker!” and out of his unfortunately slightly gormless face comes a confused and slightly wronged face – what did i do? He reminds me of a small drunk, a miniature McNulty, barrelling about agape at the injustice in the world.

    Raphael would love, more than anything, to be one of the cool kids in class. He tries so hard to be part of their gang but never quite manages it. Recently we were discussing dinosaurs and we all agreed that dinosaurs are very cool.

    “When I grow up I want to be a scientist!” announced Raphael, proudly. “I want to discover things about dinosaurs!”

    One of his classmates started laughing. “As if you could ever be a scientist!”

    And all the other boys laughed.

    This class are off to primary school this week. Chinese children start school at 6 years old and are often extraordinarily ill-equipped for it. A nation of only children brought up by their grandparents, these children are fitted on from a young age. The parents work and the grandparents (sometimes 4 to 1 child) give their little precious everything they never had. I see children being fed like birds, opening their mouths and waiting for grandma to stuff more food in. I see grandfathers trailing their grandchild, praising every tiny thing. “You’re the best! You’re number one! You’re better than all the other children!” (about being number one… I’ve had fights break out in my classroom over it, and every child I’ve taught would rather rush their work and finish first than do it all correctly). I very frequently see 4 or 5 year olds being carried like babies. 

    Chinese children spend six years being told how amazing and special they are, allowed to rule the roost (bar the occasional violent beating), running around causing havoc in restaurants almost as bad as in middle class parts of London, unable to feed or dress themselves. And then… primary school.

    40 or 50 students per class, intense competition and years of rote learning lie ahead.

    Raphael, of course, doesn’t know quite what his future holds. He’s always seemed slightly carefree, either impervious or (more likely) oblivious, confident that he is NUMBER ONE despite any evidence to back this up. He looked puzzled when my Teaching Assistant stopped the other boys laughing at him by saying that everyone is allowed to have a dream, like he’d suggested he wanted to grow up to be a panda instead of the number one scientist…

    At the end of class I gave all the students lollipops and wished them well at primary school. They rampaged about one final time while I led them out of class to find their parents. All the children scampered off until I was left with just Raphael. His grandma hurried forward and checked he wasn’t cold (grandparents fight an endless battle against their grandchildren being cold, even in the Shanghai summer) and asked him how class was. He showed her the lollipop, clasped in his sweaty little hand. 

    Then the smile fell from his face. He stood completely still. Grandma asked him what was wrong. He appeared to get smaller by the second, then turned to me, his face hardened by resolve and sadness. “I’m not allowed sweets anymore,” he told me. “Mum says I’m fat.” He handed back the lollipop and, downcast, walked off, ignoring Grandma’s pleas that he was just perfect.

    Welcome to the end of your childhood, Raphael.

    Two weeks at Functional 45

    Since moving to Shanghai I’ve been a bit lazy and have run a fraction of what I used to do in London. I have lots of excuses: I didn’t know the city, it’s impossible to run to work without a shower at work, it’s hot (it maxed out at 45 degrees), it’s raining (rain here is heavy – I don’t mind getting wet but the roads flood and there are huge storms), my stomach is bad, etc. But a lot of the time I’ve just been lazy.

    I’m in a running club, which meets once a week and runs along a pedestrianised stretch of the West Bund. It’s a nice bunch of people from all over, coordinated by a 2m tall Dane. A great dane, if you like. The West Bund has no cars, bikes or scooters, which is heavenly (the rule of pavements in Shanghai seems to be that if you can fit your bike/scooter/car then it’s fair game). Lots of people come here to make the most of it, a lot of whom seem to be lacking any idea of space or direction. These include: old people out walking/clapping, young people walking 3 abreast, kids on rollerblades, kids doing martial arts, stupid little yappy dogs, a group of men playing the saxophone, old men flying kites, extremely large groups of women doing square dancing, big dogs scaring the shit out of people, joggers running extremely slowly, grandparents walking their precious darling… At first I tried to dodge people and then I progressed to shouting at people and I’m almost ready to graduate to what one of my club members does and implement a points system for shoulder barging people. 

    Much as I love running club, it’s only once a week and I need to do more :( Matt told me about a new gym opening in Shanghai, with a 2 week free trial. We signed up for the trial without reading too much about it.

    Last Monday we turned up at F45. It was a room full of random equipment in Jiashan Market in the french concession. F45, it turned out, is HIIT training, where you go around a circuit laid out and do each activity for a set amount of time (for example: 30 seconds, 15 seconds rest, 20 seconds, 10 seconds rest and move to the next activity). The activities are stuff like burpees, weights, cycling, squats, mountain climbers and sadistic things like battle ropes. Oh yeah and there’s banging music. It’s 45 mins long.

    Slightly dazed at the end, we showered (using the delicious Eco&More shampoo!) and then had a little chat with Lauren, the trainer. It was a lot more fun than I thought it would be, less shouty and motivational, and it didn’t matter if you couldn’t do something very well (hello, press ups) as it didn’t get in the way of anyone else as they were all busy doing their own things. Matt and I went to Happy Buddha (amazing veggie restaurant nearby) afterwards and stuffed our faces.

    The next day I was pretty sore but managed a run. On Wednesday we went back to F45, and again on Thursday and Friday. Thursday was more resistance based, whereas the other days were cardio. By the end of the week we’d got to know quite a few of the other people and felt a lot more comfortable with the format. I’d figured out that the TV screens at the front showed what each activity was meant to look like, or what it could look like if I was about a thousand times fitter and also a man with a half sleeve.

    We didn’t go over the weekend but I was back on Monday. I was asked where Matt was and I forgot his excuse so just said he was in bed, which he was, but he was going to football later and also had a medical excuse that I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone and am probably not allowed to blog about. 

    On Tuesday I got up at 6am, jumped on the metro and went to the 7.15 class. Although we don’t live in the french concession it’s super quick and easy for us to get there. I did a resistance workout then cycled to work HQ for an exam. And then ate a pastry and an icecream.

    I didn’t make it again until Friday due to work, though Matt went on Wednesday and Thursday. Our final exercise of the final workout was jumping over a box, which Matt and I managed to totally synchronise. I thought we looked pretty cool, but evidently not as cool as my friends Casey and Catherine, whose endeavours on the agility ladder ended up filmed and on the F45 instagram.

    Part of me would love to sign up now my trial is over. I definitely wouldn’t push myself to do all those exercises on my own, and I like the camaraderie. The trainers are really lovely, super supportive, friendly and fun. 45 minutes is enough time to get a proper workout in but not so long that you think you might die before the end. However, it’s 1600 per month (that’s about £180!). And I have a feeling that the vibe probably should be more shouty, to fit the overall brand. 

    I’m really glad I did the trial. If money was no object I’d absolutely sign up. But I’m soon to be unemployed so I can’t really justify it :( You can do individual sessions for 200 a go, so I will do one every now and then, especially with Matt or with my friends. And in the meantime I’m going to try to stop being such a lazy goose and work on press-ups so that I can impress the trainers on my next visit!! 


    Right now there’s drilling going on outside the house. I think they’re putting in some new pipes, water or gas or something like that. The concrete is being smashed to pieces using one of those diggers with the big spike. It’s pretty loud.

    But not loud enough that I can’t still hear the cicadas. For the last few weeks these noisy insects have been making an absolute racket. It’s so ridiculously loud, at first I couldn’t believe an insect could be so noisy.

    And then I saw one.

    Good god. I don’t like nature any more.


    Matt and I wanted to go and see the Terracotta Warriors – but the dates we chose ended up being the same weekend that all the university students go home, and trains from Shanghai to Xi’an were all booked up. I asked a colleague where he recommended we should go and he suggested Huangshan.

    Huangshan (literally, “yellow mountain”) is actually a range of mountains, rather than a single mountain. It’s in Anhui province, about 700 km from Shanghai (so not that far, in China terms). We booked tickets for the overnight train from Shanghai railway station, leaving at 8pm and arriving at 7am the next day.

    I’d printed out a map of Huangshan and planned for us to walk up the Eastern Steps (about 750m ascent over 7.5km) and then walk down the Western Steps (1000m and 12.5km) the following day. But I didn’t think about this when buying tickets for the bus at Tangkou, and we were dropped at the start of the Western Steps. Oops.The train terminated at Tunxi, now rebranded as Huangshan City. Our cabinmates had disembarked (noisily) at 2am and we fussed about getting ready before stepping out onto the long and old fashioned platform. Outside the station we got some snacks before boarding a minibus to Tangkou, the town at the entrance to the Huangshan scenic area. This took about an hour. Once at Tangkou, we took another bus, to the very foot of the mountains. I think you can walk all the way from Tangkou but it would be a long old way. As we were buying tickets, we got chatting to a Canadian guy who’d spent the last few days up the mountain. He said it was wet and stormy up there but it seemed impossible from where we were.We arrived at Shanghai station with hours to spare (I worry about missing trains) and bought snacks and hung out, before boarding our train. What seemed like a full on argument was taking place in our cabin, though on closer inspection, this was just normal volume Shanghai negotiations about swapping bunks around. We refused to swap as we wanted to be in the same cabin and eventually someone else relented and the main instigator of the shouting, Grandpa, climbed onto his bunk and immediately started snoring. I chatted with the six year-old granddaughter, who kept checking with me that Matt couldn’t speak Chinese, was amazed that I could read English and ate the sauce directly from her packet of instant noodles.

    Most of the other tourists took the cable car up to the top but we set off walking.

    And walking.

    After about 1.5 hours I started feeling a little bit wobbly, as we hadn’t eaten much, and I inhaled a Snickers bar. Matt’s legs were a little sore from the personal training session he’d done at the gym the day before. The views back down were becoming more and more incredible.

    It started to rain, and we saw some terrifying monkeys.

    Towards the top of the Western Steps it started raining heavily, floods of water that nearly washed my contact lenses out. We made it to a hotel near the top of the cable car, where a lot of people were sheltering. We found a corner of the restaurant where we ignored the stares from the waiting staff and unpacked/repacked our bags, and put them back on underneath our fetching yellow plastic ponchos.

    It was still quite a way from here to our hotel, and we were dispirited to see we had another 6km to go. The rain was bad (it got a little lighter), the views were nonexistent thanks to the fog and the crowds of people were both annoying and a little worrying. A lot of people were dressed for much more clement weather, and most people didn’t seem to be aware/care that slipping over could mean falling down the mountain, and probably taking a few people with you. The worst bit was walking up a waterfall, nose to tail with people wearing sandals.

    Matt said “this is the worst place we’ve ever been to, there’s no way that either of us could possibly say that we’re enjoying this, because it’s awful.”

    When we finally made it to our hotel, we were absolutely soaked. The hotel was a dispiriting building, commissioned by none other than Deng Xiaoping. We checked in and went to see our rooms (separate dorm rooms, as a double room was 1000 RMB) only to find that there were no towels. Back we went to reception and they told me that they didn’t have any towels in the hotel, but I was annoying enough that eventually I got us a towel each.

    The rest of the evening was spent pointedly sitting in the cafe area with one purchased snack and lots of snacks bought elsewhere, then going to the restaurant and drinking three pots of tea to make up for the overpriced (and not very good) food. By 9pm we were in bed. My roommates kept staring at me and Matt told a young boy to STFU in the night.

    At 4.15am we woke up, got dressed and met up at the hotel reception. The whole point of coming to Huangshan was to see the sunrise, and I’d asked the receptionist where we should go (she’d told me there was only a 20% chance of seeing anything, due to the weather) and done a little online research. We went out into the dark morning. It wasn’t raining. We headed for Lion’s Peak, using my phone as a torch. Very soon we came to a lookout point.

    We tried a few lookouts.

    Then we settled in for the sunrise.

    We were giddy with excitement. Below us was the sea of clouds, it was absolutely phenomenal.

    Behind us a cloud came in, rolling over towards the sunrise.

    Soon enough, the sunrise was gone.

    This was the exact same time that loads of other people showed up, tourists who’d come all the way to Huangshan, and woken up early but not early enough. Suckers. We wandered about a bit more before deciding to pack up and head down the mountain before all the crowds came out.

    Our hotel was very near the top of the Eastern Steps so we had a short walk to the steps before heading down, down, down. It started raining, of course, but it was nice to walk with hardly anyone around. It was amazing to look up at one point and see the cable car stretching up into the sky and realise that we’d come all the way down from there.

    After about an hour, we started coming across porters carrying up food, laundry, construction materials. I wanted to take a photo but it felt wrong, these men carrying more than my bodyweight on their shoulders, all the way up a mountain. It put into perspective our whinging about the weather.

    I’m quite nervous about going down steps, so we didn’t make hugely fast progress, but less than two hours later we were down at the bottom! Lots of tourists were arriving, some of whom didn’t look like they’d make it up in one piece.

    We boarded a bus back to Tangkou and Matt promptly fell asleep. Back in Tangkou, things didn’t look right. We had a hotel booked but the town didn’t look anything like the pictures. I slowly realised that where we were staying was the other side of town, not near the bus station – which meant that the bakery I’d been using as encouragement for Matt was also on the other side of town. Matt looked like he might cry so I suggested we go to KFC for breakfast: coffee, chips and custard tarts.

    Refreshed, we walked to the main town and went to the bakery. We were able to check into our hotel really early, and after showers (and towels!) we had a big nap. Later we wandered about the town. There was nothing much to see: a small creek with shops and restaurants on either side, a dusty carpark with a bank. We had dinner at a local restaurant (Matt had a Huangshan beer) and we went back to the bakery. It was all incredibly relaxing!

    The next morning we continued relaxing, before getting the bus to Tunxi. It was very hot and we set off for Tunxi’s only sight (Old Street) in the baking heat, quickly feeling sticky and sweaty. Luckily there was an underground mall on the way, so we ducked in there and gawped at the endless fake New Balance stores.

    Old Street itself was quite sweet, touristy but nice to wander along. We stopped at a cafe, which was perfect timing as almost immediately it started raining. Matt did some work and I listened to cheesy music and did some instagramming.

    I decided I ought to check the train time, and rummaged in my bag for the tickets. Immediately I noticed the date on the ticket. They were for yesterday. The blood drained from my face and I showed Matt the tickets. I checked online for the train on the correct date and all the sleepers were sold out, we’d have to sit the whole way back… Then I thought to check the buses (it’s 12 hours by train but only 5 or 6 by bus) and there was one at 16:50. It was 15:53! We paid and legged it to the main road, jumped in a taxi, got to the bus station and a man said he’d flag the 16:20 bus down for us. I was a little sceptical but sure enough, it all came off as planned and we had a long bus journey back to Shanghai.

    Transport in China is really cheap. If this had been in the UK, we’d have had to fork out serious money for another train or bus ticket. However 700km back to Shanghai cost us 135 RMB each, and we got dropped off at a slightly better location (to get back to ours) than the train would have done. I still can’t believe that at 15:50 we didn’t know we had a problem, and 45 minutes later we were on a bus back to Shanghai. I really didn’t expect it to work out!

    All in all, lessons learnt: check tickets before and don’t go up mountains when it’s absolutely pissing down. But we did have a good time, saw an amazing sunrise and we felt really relaxed at the end of the trip.

    Summer in Shanghai

    When I arrived in Shanghai it was cold. It was actually a lot colder than I expected, especially as there’s no central heating. The first few days in the hotel were chilly, and I remember one night where I was really hungry but couldn’t face going out into the cold night so stayed under my duvet all evening. 

    I wore all the clothes I wasn’t expecting to wear until winter – hats, woolly scarves, mittens. I bought new, warm pyjamas. I felt like a bit of a wimp, to be honest.

    Then, suddenly, overnight almost, it got warm. I first noticed that I’d been carrying my jacket around all day. Then I switched to a lighter jacket. Then no jacket at all. It was sunny and warm and pretty great.

    Turns out, that was spring. And even spring was quite hot.

    Now, my friends, it is summer. It’s been raining for the last few weeks. These rains are called plum rains, because this is more poetic than calling it “really really rainy”. It’s the sort of rain that, back in the UK, you’d say that wouldn’t last long. Except it does. 

    I’m not really an umbrella kind of girl but even I have taken to carrying an umbrella around. I’d wear a raincoat but it’s humid and sticky outside, so the thought of wearing anything like a raincoat is pretty off-putting.

    We sleep with the air conditioning on, which I hate. Matt tells me that the breeziness can’t be adjusted but I don’t believe him. I know he likes sleeping in the wind. My work doesn’t have any windows, so it’s air conditioning central in there.

    I miss rain that clears up a muggy day! 

    The “good” news is that the plum rain season is coming to an end. Unfortunately this means that summer proper will be here, and everyone keeps telling me how awful it will be. It also means the end of the yangmei season – a delicious fruit that’s grown in the neighbouring province. 

    Bring on September, I guess…