Rugby Tour to China - March 2008

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Belsize Park RFC Tour to China 2008: Beijing - Xian - Shanghai - Hong Kong

For all rugby clubs it’s traditional to have an end of season tour. My rugby union club Belsize Park RFC (located in central London) has an extraordinary touring record including North and South America, South Africa, Hong Kong (during the time it was borrowed by Britain!), Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Spain, Italy and Scandinavia making us probably the most widely toured amateur Club in the world of rugby. This year was our most ambitious tour of all – China with our hosts the Beijing Devils. There are very few rugby teams in China, those that do exist are mainly expat. My team came 3rd (winning the plate) in the first tournament which consisted of 8 teams, the following week we went on to play the winners, the Shanghai Hairy Crabs, who we beat making us the official “Best Team in China”.

Being gay in a rugby team is fairly controversial in itself, taking your boyfriend along with you while on tour is even more so. Luckily my club is very open and has a great bunch of lads who don’t make it an issue. Like one of the boys said “so long as you can play good rugby, keep up with the drinking games and give good head, it doesn’t matter!”

It’s a whole new world out in China, a fantastic country to visit, but one with many controversial issues due to its Communist Rule. Human rights and freedom of speech are very poor. For example satellite TV is banned, all newspapers and TV are government controlled, you’ll automatically get 3 months in jail for negative political comments and you’re only allowed to have 1 child. 

I believe that China is not so much one country or nation but a civilization. It has a very ancient origin; China is the Greece and Rome of East Asia. Unlike in what became known as "Europe", the Chinese civilization never died but has had a continuous existence for at least 5,000 years. All Chinese speakers share the same written language. Written Chinese is composed of tens of thousands of characters. Knowledge of around 600 to 2,000 characters is necessary to be literate.

China is the most populated and third largest country in the world. Its land mass is similar to that of Europe and 40 times bigger than the UK. It has a population of 1.29 billion which is almost 4½ times more than the USA and 21 times more than the UK.

China isn’t really a place I would recommend going to visit on your own, socialising with the locals is very difficult due to the language barrier. You will enjoy the country much more if you go with a large group of friends to keep yourselves entertained. Being able to communicate is the most challenging factor. Not much is translated into English, even in the large restaurants. In one restaurant in order to get the waiters to understand us, we ended up having to pretend to be a chicken or cow, along with making the relevant “cluck cluck” or “moo” sounds (which was very embarrassing in front of the other diners). But even then we got served up something completely unexpected! Going to a restaurant that has photos of the food in the menu makes ordering a lot more easy. Road names have been translated into the English alphabet; however that is only helpful if the Chinese taxi driver can understand the English alphabet (which 99% of them can’t). It makes getting around delightfully challenging!  

Our tour of China was very typical for tourists (Beijing – Xian – Shanghai – Hong Kong) and would be very suitable for any traveller wanting to experience the country over a 1 or 2 week period. A good web site for booking a vacation, along with English speaking tour guides is www.TravelChinaGuide.com

The capital Beijing is where we started, which plays host to the 2008 Olympic Games in August. When first getting off the plane it seemed to be a dull misty day, however it was pointed out that the mist was in fact smog and it was actually a very nice day for Beijing. The city is inland, it doesn’t get much wind or rain, so the smog of the massive city along with frequent sand storms linger in the air, blocking out the sunlight. Three or four days in this city are enough. Visit Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, the next day experience the Great Wall of China (about 1½ hour drive away) and on the way back stop by the Ming Tombs & Sacred Way. Beijing has lots of shopping and restaurants to explore; Roast Peking Duck is one of China’s national foods and originates from Beijing. The most notable restaurants (which are over two centuries-old) in Beijing which serves this delicacy are are Quanjude and Bianyifang.

From Beijing get on a sleeper train which takes 13 hours overnight to Xian. A first class, lockable privet cabin, which sleeps 2 or 4 people, will cost about £60 per person, the mattresses are very hard but we managed to get a good sleep on them. You’ll only need 1 or 2 days in Xian, the reason you’ll want to visit this city is to see the amazing Terra Cotta Army. Current estimates are that in the three pits containing the Army there were about 7,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 670 horses, the majority still buried in the pits. The Terra Cotta Army was only discovered in 1974 by local farmers drilling a water well. We actually met one of the farmers, who was there doing some book signing. When you see the size of the pits, and realize the life size terracotta statues where built way back in 210BC, it will really make you think.

From Xian we got an internal flight (1½ hours) to China’s international city Shanghai. It’s very different to Beijing; cleaner air, warmer climate, tall skyscrapers, modern lifestyle, bright lights and a lot more technology. The train from the airport to the city was a Maglev (magnetically levitating train) that went over 300kmh. Shanghai is China’s largest city and the 8th biggest in the world. Some of the best places to visit are Qibao Ancient Town, Yuyuan Garden, Shopping along Nanjing Road, go up Jin Mao Tower (currently the tallest building in China, and 3rd tallest in the world) to see a birds eye view of the city or take a boat ride along the Huangpu River which separates the city into east and west. Shanghai is the host city of World Exo 2010 which will be an amazing event worth visiting.

From Shanghai you could fly onto Hong Kong which is a smaller, more compact, yet even more spectacular version of Shanghai, the skyscrapers here are even more amazing, plus they are surrounded by towering magnificent mountains. The English language is also much better spoken, plus there is a Disneyland, Ocean Park and many great tourist attractions to visit. Hong Kong use to be owned by us British and so still has a separate law and currency (Hong Kong dollar) to the rest of China.

All in all it was a fantastic rugby tour, a fantastic adventure in an almost alien world. For a vacation, China is a place you’d want to travel around in, rather than just go to one city. Each of the four cities I mentioned above is totally different in so many ways. But remember the Chinese law is not the easiest to comply with if your outspoken, so respect that as a factor before you decide to travel there. You’ll need to get a Visa in your passport before you travel to China, the Chinese Embassy in London offers a same day service if you get there before 10am, otherwise a next day service for about £40.

   

Erick and I visited Hong Kong the year before: in January 2007. Above are some photos and video from our 4 day trip.

 

China Tour Rugby Match Reports by  Ian Deay (1st Team captain)

Well this tour was a first for Belsize in so many ways and will live with all of us for ever for many reasons, both tragic and great.  We lost a great friend and an embodiment of what makes Belsize such a great club, but we are the lucky ones, the ones that knew Shirley, however briefly, and will all be the better and richer for that. 

The match reports below are all as a result of his hard work, what he made possible for everyone and show the results he inspired everyone to achieve.  It was an honour to be a part of such a great group of people and I'm truly grateful for everyone's contribution; together we produced one h*ll of a tour which everyone, especially Shirley, should be incredibly proud of.

Ice Breaker Tournament - Beijing,  March 15th 2008

The ice breaker tournament saw the best sides in China, competing with two sides of Belsize Park's finest for the title of Best team in China.  Our first outing on Chinese soil, or more accurately sand, with Bamboo goal posts surrounded by razor sharp stones, the latter providing a great incentive not to get tackled in touch; was at the rather painful time of 9 a.m. on our second day of tour.  With our bus arriving at the ground at about 3 minutes to 9, the effects of a 14 hour plane journey and a quiet beer or two the night before were clear for all to see.  The first 15 guys changed got to the field and formed the first of the two Belsize sides for the day, ably led by 2LJ, who I'm sure will provide an update as soon as he has recovered from tour. 

The second Belsize side took to the field half an hour later against the Chengdu (famous for Pandas, apparently) Black and Whites.  To be honest 10 days of touring has wiped several of the details from my mind so highlights are likely to brief and/or affected by various embellishments heard in the bar afterwards.  This performance, particularly in the first half, was far from the champagne rugby Belsize are capable of, with rustiness and fatigue to the fore.  Still, the forwards dominated the set-piece with the opposition quickly choosing to play unopposed scrummages having lost virtually all the early encounters.  Despite our dominance, sterling defence by the oppo combined with a poor final pass or catch meant we turned around only one try ahead.  However, the second half did witness a big improvement with Belsize beginning to look quite good, Chris Geary produced his usual bullocking runs scoring a couple, Alex Upton found a wing that was only just bigger and stronger than him, but they were female (honestly), Murphy got one from 10, Rob Harrison cut some good lines in the centres and even I managed a try as we ran out winners 35 nil. 

Our second game was against a much better Chinese outfit, Beijing Loon Bang.  In what proved to be a very confrontational, physical game, not helped by a referee who appeared to lose his whistle and have no concept of a breakdown, Belsize competed well but ended up as the losing side.  Joe Murphy's playing day was ended early after trying to emulate his hero Johnny Wilkinson at fly-half, running from 10 he got clattered and left as a broken heap on the deck and was forced to leave the field.  However, the highlight for most was Pete Galka spitting the dummy at his opposite number and the ref and whining like a girl in a high pitched Aussie accent before being binned.

This left Belsize with a place in the semi-final of the plate against a Japanese side made up mainly of students who had hammered their previous opponents by around 50 points playing 7's esque rugby.  After a 2 hour wait for other matches to finish up and having seized up nicely after 80 minutes of rugby in the morning, Belsize took to the field again to face the free running students knowing they would need to dominate up front and deny the opposition ball.  Belsize started solidly with good forward driving and quick ruck ball providing plenty of ball for Sam Bradnock, stepping in to the 10 role and playing in Belsize colours for the first time in a few years to control the game.  Belsize scored twice early on to the ease the pressure but were then punished when a mistake at the set-piece gave the oppo their first piece of quality possession and the chance to show they could run with the ball if we let them as it was fired wide for a score in the corner.  This woke Belsize up a little and we hit back with some more good work with backs and forwards combining superbly to allow us to run out comfortable winners by around 30 points in the end.

Our reward for our efforts was another 40 minutes of rugby for some already tired bodies. Nevertheless, an hour later Belsize took to the field facing the Fijian Allstars, determined to capture some silverware, inspired by Zack's unique team talk and supported by a vocal touchline.  We finally got to scrummage properly again and the forwards showed the power they had as we dominated scrums and denied the opposition much ball at all.  Sam tried to control the game but found that is howitzer of a boot wasn't built for the Chinese pitches as it went long on a few occasions meaning a scrum back.  The forwards, seeing he needed the practice kindly stepped up and kept winning the scrums back so he could have another go and this paid of as we pushed the Fijians backwards.  Belsize began to pile on the pressure, playing most of the rugby inside the opposition half.  The pressure finally told as Belsize got a couple of scores midway through the first half, at least one coming from Sam.  The Fijians hit back with a score of their own to show they were still in the game and we still had a job to do.  Belsize played a great second half, controlling the game where we needed to and attacking when we had the chance, having extended our lead we came under increasing pressure from the Fijians, culminating in a second try for the Fijians and a binning for Zack, which he managed to turn into a red by politely suggesting he hadn't made the correct decision. Belsize defended sternly and sealed the game when Chris Geary broke out with another great run, through and over the opposition to finish a great day for the club. 

Shanghai Hairy Crabs went on to win the Cup competition from our hosts the Beijing Devils, but both sides said they were glad they hadn't played us during the day, particularly in the afternoon as the effects of a few drinks the night before wore off.  This was a great day of rugby enjoyed by all.

And to finish off a great day I was awarded the Man of the Match. (thanks boys)

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Shanghai Hairy Crabs - Shanghai, China: March 22nd 2008

After an interesting tour of the local rice fields, dead end streets and deserted hotels the lost coach driver finally managed to find the right place before driving half way around the complex to before letting us of the bus to walk back to where we came in.  Still this worked in our favour, ensuring we had minimum warm-up in true Belsize style.  A minutes silence before the game was observed by everyone and as the rain came down it reflected the determination in the Belsize side to go out and get the win.  Again Belsize followed their traditional style of starting badly as a kick down field was poorly chased giving the hard running fullback too much space as he went in in the corner.  No goal posts at all this time meant this was going to be decided on try count, and Belsize knew they were up against it. After weathering an early storm, Belsize began to dominate, again the forwards were to the fore, with Garth, Zack and Chris punching holes in to the opposition defence.  Joe was again forced to leave the field early when left in a heap, this time by a knee to the back, but this meant the introduction of Trent at 12 who began punching yet more holes in the defence.  Despite having the majority of the possession and territory, lapses in concentration combined with continued infringements by the oppo meant Belsize failed to take advantage of their superiority leaving us a score adrift at half time. 

We started the second half strongly, picking up where we left off with great work by the forwards punching holes and creating space for the backs.  The reward came early in the half when Rob Harrison crossed the line to level the scores. Belsize continued to battle and pressure the line, time and again we went close with Chris being adjudged to have knocked on before scoring after a dart from Rob was stopped just short.  Then, hugely against the run of play, a pass was intercepted in the centre giving the crabs a shock lead.  With 15 minutes to go Belsize were up against it, the subs continued to roll and everyone who came on gave there all.  With 4 minutes to go the crucial breakthrough came as Sam took advantage of a distracted defence watching handbags in the forwards to throw a dummy and stroll in under the posts (or he would have done had there been any).  With both sides fired up it promised to be a hard fought final few minutes with the scores tied. 

Belsize continued to press with Sam probing the corners looking to mount the pressure on the crabs, and as one kick held up on the muddy ground Alex Upton showed his gas to get there ahead of the crabs cover, kick past the stranded fullback and ground the ball for a great try.  With a minute to play Belsize dug deep and defended with everything they had, the final whistle arrived and Belsize had pulled off the victory, final score 15-10.  This was a truly great game of rugby and everyone, be it on the pitch or the touchline, came together superbly, gave it everything they had and contributed to an amazing and bitter-sweet day.

This was the best possible way to finish the tour, at the final whistle there was little doubt what had driven everyone on and making Belsize the BEST TEAM IN CHINA was a fantastic tribute to a fantastic club man. www.BelsizeParkRFC.com

 In loving memory of Marc 'Shirley' Friedman

Shirley