absentfather

Letters for my kids to read in the future, from around the world now

Food on Sticks: Xiamen, China

Squid on a stick

Dear G, B and E

At the end of my last visit to China, I visited Xiamen, a seaside city in the south east Fujian province, looking out towards Taiwan. It’s a smaller Chinese city with (only!) about five million people and is famed for its seafood and tea.

And boy, do they love to eat seafood. The Chinese will be the first to admit that they have a preoccupation with food, but Xiamen was a whole new level. I guess many of the people I saw were on holiday so wanted to find and eat the foods they were visiting Xiamen to eat, but the queues for stalls were huge. As was the scale of consumption.

I walked down Zhongshan Road which is a pedestrianised central street lined with food stalls and shops aimed at tourists. Amazing to see people harvesting pearls from farmed oysters and making jewellery on the spot. Chinese liquor (bai jeo, literally white alcohol) in various elaborate bottles, some shaped as missiles and artillery shells. Dried food stuffs (such as 1 metre-long fish) stacked high in shops. But most impressive was the freshly cooked food. And most of it can be bought on a stick for ease of consumption on the hoof.

Fancy a whole BBQ squid? No problem, cooked in front of you in minutes on a stick. Deep fried prawns? Have several, on a skewer. A foot long sausage? You can have one, but it has to be on a stick.

I’m not going to lie, I was whipped up into a frenzy and stuffed my face. In rough order I had:

An oyster pancake (deep fried and so good)

A squid on a stick

A plate of mantis prawns

A bowl of razor clams

Potatoes slices on a stick

A mango smoothie with mango ice cream and mango slices on top

The following evening I went over to Gulangyu island which sits in the bay looking back at Xiamen. It’s where all the old embassies used to be and so has lots of pretty architecture and walks.

On an island further towards Taiwan the Chinese government have positioned a huge sign which reads “One country, two systems”. Which is a bit galling for the Taiwanese.

Anyway, Xiamen is quite nice and is in the running for my second favourite place on the Chinese mainland. It’s relaxed and the people are friendlier. I have work here if I want to come back anyway!

Love

Dad x

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Up Town Tokyo in a Typhoon

Dear G, B and E

I’m writing this somewhere over Siberia on my way home from Tokyo.

My first stop was Seoul yet again, but I didn’t really do much to speak of except work and walk. I spent a lot of my time on my own, exercising when I could and relaxing when I could. The trouble with attending events (this one was in the Coex centre in Gangnam) and being in meetings is that the rest of your work has less time to be done but is still there. So I’m a bit behind and very anxious about some of it, mostly because it is in preparation for my next trip with the man who could sack me if he wanted to. But that is just life at work, I think everyone feels like they could be doing more or doing it better.

The “glorious leader” of North Korea, Kim Jong Un has been posturing to the world recently and developing nuclear weapons. He’s been firing missiles over Japan and generally provoking everyone. This is not great when the idiot who is Donald Trump is president of the USA and is as measured and intelligent as an angry bull. So going to South Korea when mock military operations are underway seems risky as tensions and rhetoric are amplified. Seoul would be razed to ashes in 24 minutes should war start according to their strategists. Surprisingly, when you are in South Korea, the locals are talking about celebrities and the latest scandal involving a senior executive at tech giant Samsung, they couldn’t give a hoot about the nutter up North.

Very cool bookshop in COEX Mall, Seoul

After three days I flew to Taipei for presentations and then took the bullet train to Kaohsiung (industrial city in the south) to visit a university. The Taiwan High Speed Rail is fantastic, just like in Japan and I travelled the length of the island in 1 hour and 24 minutes. Super easy, super clean, super smooth. It was baking hot as I got shown around. The university is owned by a steel magnate who is a billionaire and also owns hospitals and entertainment companies. He has builtthe largest mall in Asia there with a theme park attached. Huge Ferris wheel dominates the skyline and it is tacky in a way only that part of Asia can do. Lots of pale pink and blue flashing lights, lots of shoddy workmanship and terrible sculptures of giant comic characters.

High Speed Rail and Casino in. university, Taiwan

The university is the only one I know that has a casino for education purposes (to train croupiers], which was a little strange considering casinos are illegal in Taiwan. The graduates go to Macau or SIngapore or elsewhere. I had some productive discussions and then had a lovely Japanese lunch in the shopping mall. There is a slide that you can take down three floors in instead of the escalator!

Onward to Tokyo, which I haven’t visited in a few years. It was freezing cold and constantly raining, because A giant typhoon was making it’s way to the island nation as a little treat for me. Taxis are prohibitively expensive in Japan and the public transport is so good that everyone tends to use it. I took the Sky Liner fast train from Narita Airport to Nippori station and then to Shinjuku where my hotel was. Still a 5 minute walk in which time I got soaked to the bone.

Japanese toilets are fantastic. They are electronic with heated seats, they can spray water in a cleaning function, then dry, then perfume your nether regions! Then flush when you stand because they have a sensor. I want one.

The approaching storm detracted from the pleasure I have previously had walking around Tokyo and just soaking up all the crazy and marvelling at the unexpected. Instead it was a constant sea of umbrellas and shuffling with wet feet. I went to the Shibuya Crossing where 5000 people cross every 3 minutes and got mesmerised by that again. I stopped at noodle bars and “sushi go around” restaurants for delicious and cheap food when I needed refuelling.

Shibuya scramble crossing, Tokyo

On the Saturday I visited Asato Goto, a fashion designer, at her studio near Roppongi, the most expensive area of Tokyo. She lives in an “old” wooden house, which is 30 years old. I told her that Morton Hill was over 300 years old and she laughed. She’s a really interesting character and we just talked about life for 2 hours over a very Japanese soup she made. Japanese people live in such tiny spaces, usually just 1 or 2 small rooms with tatami mat floors and roll out futons for beds. Tokyo is an absolute tangle of buildings taking up every inch of available space and it comes at a premium.

Asato in her studio

I walked around Meguro and found some of the crazy things I expected, like dog hotels, where you can rent puppies to pet. Went into a toy shop that had Japanese manga style dolls, Godzillas and the latest crazy crazes.

”Dog hotel”

The following day I went out for dinner with a couple of English guys who do the same work as me. We went to an isakaya, which is a Japanese pub. You order food on an iPad. We then went to Golden Gai which is a really interesting area of Shinjuku which was established as a bar district after world war II. It has 280 different bars in 140 buildings over 7 small streets. The bars each only seat about 6 people and are personalised by the owners so they all have their own feel. Some don’t allow foreigners in them, some almost only get “gaijen” as customers. After that we went for a traditional karaoke session. Karaoke businesses are everywhere and are vast, some with hundreds of rooms. You can order in food and they even supply outfits if you want to dress up.

The typhoon was raging by now with the rain coming heavy and sideways. I got a notification to tell me my flight home was delayed the next day, so was dreading it being cancelled but fortunately it passed over Tokyo beforehand and by the time I got to the airport it was blue skies. The only time it didn’t rain the whole time I was in Japan!

Pops had a fall on a walk and was taken in an ambulance to hospital, but is apparently ok. I’m going to see him, straight from the airport, hopefully back at his and Ouma’s house and not the hospital. I feel guilty for being away at these times and not being any use.

Eleanor has learnt to crawl whilst I’ve been away, but only in a kind of commando shuffle, I’ve seen evidence by video call. You guys are on half term so I’ve taken the week off to have some time with you before another trip to China, the one I’m dreading. Looking forward to some hugs when I see you later tonight.

Love

Dad x

Your Pops has a brain tumour

Dear G, B and E

This is going to be a hard one, and I’ve thought about writing it for the last few weeks, for me as much as for you.

In July this year, Pops was on holiday with uncle Henry and Caz in Devon when he had a strange turn and became a little vacant in his behaviour. They were at the Eden Project and he wandered off and was not very responsive when they did catch up with him. Caz took him to hospital as she thought it might be a urinary tract infection (apparently common in old people and can have these symptoms), but they scanned him and found a large brain tumour in the middle left side of his head.

Henry called to tell me and my first thoughts were that it was something we could deal with and get through, with operations and treatment. After speaking to him, I looked up all the different types of brain cancer that are out there (and there are a lot) and my hope was given it’s first reality check. In younger people, when tumours are caught early and in places where they can be removed then survival can be good, but most of the time things are not so.

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Pops and baby E

I wanted to be with him so jumped in the car and drove the 5 hours down there in a strange and desperate mood, a kind of fuzz around me. I was in a rush and everything seemed to be going wrong: the traffic was terrible and then my rear tyre exploded. I managed to limp to a garage and eventually got the hospital to find dad in bed and not able to speak. His mobility was restricted and they had given him heavy doses of steroids to bring down swelling in the brain. After a couple of days of frantic phone calls to every doctor mum and dad know in Wolverhampton we got him transferred and allocated a space to see a specialist at the hospital in Birmingham. I drove them home in a nervous silence, dad just occasionally getting angry with somebody else’s driving.

People heard and started to visit, not really knowing what to say and drinking a lot of Dad’s wine. They are lucky to have so many close friends, but things like this hold up a mirror to their own mortality and some don’t know what to do with that reflection.

I sent the notes from Devon to a neurosurgeon friend of uncle Charlie’s and got my second reality check. I’ll never forget his words, they were powerful and awful. He said, “start making the most of him.”

In some cases of glioblastomas they can “de-bulk” the tumour through surgery and put chemotherapy wafers that dissolve right in the the brain, but Dad’s is inoperable. Radiotherapy can slow it’s growth but nothing can shrink it or stop it. Even if these are caught relatively early, almost 100% of people are dead within 5 years. Most people are dead within 1 year of diagnosis.

He had a biopsy and cried as he was wheeled away to surgery, one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve seen. The results were what we expected and that he has less than a year of palliative care.

I managed to arrange for him to come to Wales as part of our summer holiday in August and was so glad he got to see the village again and so many of the people he loves down there. My ‘fairly’ godmother (fairly because I was never actually christened) Bente flew over from Norway to help mum and stayed for weeks. She was amazing in so many ways and our family owes her a great debt for this selflessness.

He started radiotherapy 4 weeks ago, dual with chemo, which only works on a small proportion of brain cancers because of the brain/blood barrier. They make a mask to hold your head in place and then zap the active areas of the tumour when you are in it, accurate to the millimetre. A few hours after his first session he had a seizure and was hospitalised. He totally lost speech and much of the use of his right side, including walking and good use of his hand. He was confused and would get stuck on words and repeat them over and over again. He has spent three weeks in hospital in the oncology ward, which is not somewhere you want to spend time. The guy opposite died not long after dad arrived, people spend their nights coughing up blood. The good thing about hospital was that he could start treatment again and he could get speech therapy and physiotherapy every day, which quickly improved him, but he is still absent in many ways. We’ve already lost so much of him.

My first visit to him in this state put me in a misery I don’t remember ever feeling. I cried and cried for him, mostly on my own, sometimes uncontrollably in the car or anywhere out of sight, for the indignity of such a great and lovely man and for his helplessness.

The cruelty of this compared to other cancers is that it affects the brain and therefore slowly steals the person an inch at a time. The cancer itself just grows on the outer edge and then dies inside, leaving necrotic tissue in its wake. An existence with one goal: to squeeze into space that should be used for Dad’s brain and kill him.

The small mercy of it is that I don’t think he fully cares about his situation most of the time. He reads, but I don’t think he absorbs. He watches endless TV but I don’t think he really follows what is on (judging by the crap he is watching). He is there and is still caring, he still loves a hug and kiss, he still enjoys food and the whiskey we sneak into the ward.

Mum (Ouma) is battling on but her heart is crushed. Knowing that he is dying is to prolong grief, but it also prepares her and us for the end. Dealing with practical things makes you forget and being in the moment is how we get through life. You three children are a massive help to me and that I know he would all be so proud of what lovely kids you are. I wish he could live longer to get to know you as adults and that thought always makes me cry.

It looks like he is coming home today, back to the house he has lived in for 35 years, which is wonderful news. It will be hard for mum but much better for him.

I’ve had to leave on a plane, which is where I am now, on my way to Korea again.

Love

Dad x

AUSTRALIA, after a while

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Bondi Beach

Dear G, B and E

** Written back in June, just found on my iPad **

I haven’t written anything on my travels this year. A couple of reasons I suppose:

– It is now late June and the trip I am on now, to Shanghai, is only my third this year, so travel has been light (comparatively, for me); we had the arrival of Eleanor and all that goes with having a new baby (at first she was quite a handful and has since turned into a very reasonable infant);
– I have forgotten about this enterprise, only recently remembered when your Auntie Claire said that I should write about my travels and reminded me that I should write this to you.

I went to Korea in April and visited some cities I hadn’t been to before. I was with a Korean friend, Daniel Shin, who also has a young family. He’s been to our house, you might remember him, he’s a thoughtful chap and quite wise. He really opened my eyes to Korean culture, especially business culture and it makes me realise how simple the UK is in comparison (for someone from the UK I guess). Most of the world, including developed countries like South Korea, still depend on favours, good will and influence to operate and not straight forward, open transactions. For example, a guy wanted me to do a favour for his daughter, next thing I know he is taking me to a fancy restaurant because he feels that is expected. Every favour has a price. I went to a place called Cheonan that is famous for making walnut cookies and met their city council. If by the time you read this Nottingham is the twin city of Cheonan then it is my fault. It is very different to Seoul, more gritty and perhaps less of a façade, it felt more honest but in parts verging on seedy. Maybe that is just every provincial city in the world.

In May I went with my boss to Australia. I hadn’t been for 15 years (when your mum and me travelled the world together) and was excited to see it again and catch up with almost all my close friends who have decided to move there. One thing I hadn’t remembered is how far away it is. 7.5 hours to Dubai, change planes, then 15 hours to Melbourne. When I looked at the journey map and we were over Perth on the West coast, we still had another 5 hours to fly. Big ol’ place.

First stop Melbourne. When your mother and I visited all that time ago it was the same time of year and the same type of weather, like an early spring in the UK. I got a break in the rain and ran along the Yarra river in the morning, catching the cycling and running commuters coming the other way. The character of the city with its Victorian architecture, low rise sprawl and covered arcades really struck me. It is a charming city and that is how I think of it. Food culture is huge and I ate very well, catching up with my old work mate Simon Hall who treated me to a traditional “Parma” (chicken schnitzel baked in tomato and cheese, this one actually topped with smoked kangaroo!) and some great wine. I took the tram through the suburbs and through the south bank, taking in a visiting Van Gogh exhibition.

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Run down the Yarra River

Next stop Sydney. If Melbourne is charming, I’d forgotten how stunning Sydney is. I was picked up by my old School friend Hugh, who I haven’t seen in 9 years. He married an Aussie and now has an Aussie baby. We went to uncle Buzz’s flat and had a great night at a local hotel (pub) drinking scooners (2/3 pints) of various overpriced beer (lager) followed by much catching up over pizza. In the morning I got the true Sydneysider experience: run down to the beach, work out at the beach gym, jump in the ocean and look at the amazing fish then walk to cool cafe for avocado on toast and a whole lot of smugness, surrounded by the beautiful people in their “leisurewear” (everyone dresses as if they are on their way to yoga class). A similar day on Sunday, catching up with old friends who are enjoying life in that amazing city (but still missing the UK). I took a bus to the harbour for a walk at sunset on my own just to take it all in and saw the biggest cruise ship I’ve ever seen. Fun to wave at the passengers as they floated by. I’m still impressed by the boldness of the Sydney Opera House, that the city took the step to make something so controversial so central to their identity to be recognised the world over. I love it as a piece of architecture and how different it looks up close compared to the view we all know. I explored the angles for a while and marvelled that we humans can design and build such things.

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Stunning Sydney

Not much to say about Brisbane as I was only there for a day and a night, but the people were lovely and it seems pretty cool, if not a little provincial in direct comparison to Sydney. Again, I walked the river and got envious of all the boats and outdoorsiness of an average Aussie’s life, but then I remembered melting here in 35 degree heat last time and quickly got over it.

Returned home to a holiday in Norfolk with my favourite people (you). We had a great week visiting beaches, eating ice cream and adventuring. We didn’t manage to catch any crabs off Cromer pier but we did have a lot of fun.

Love

Dad x

Not being able to use cash in India

Dear G & B (and bump),
I’ve spent the past week or so in Delhi, Mumbai and Pune enjoying the heat whilst it hits zero degrees at home.
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Mumbai skyline

There is some crazy stuff going on in the world at the moment. 2016 has been a funny old year, but I don’t know how much of this will make the upper rankings of history books, so by the time you read these letters, you will need to scour the web to look them up:
1) The UK left the European Union (“what is the European Union” you ask…?)
2) Donald Trump, a businessman/celebrity/nutter has been elected as President of the most powerful nation on earth
3) Lots of icons have died: David Bowie, Prince, Gene Wilder, Terry Wogan. I suppose this happens every year, but it seems to have been a bumper crop.
4) There was a demonetisation policy in India
I’ve been experiencing number 4 first hand as it unwinds. Essentially, the Prime Minister (Mohdi) announced at 8pm on 8th November that all 500 and 1000 Rupee notes would no longer be legal tender as of midnight that night and just then be taken to banks to be exchanged for new 500 and 2000 notes. Crazy move and something we in the UK would know would cause chaos (and it has) but there is method in the madness: There are 1.3 billion Indians and only 20 million of them pay tax. That is one hell of a black economy and he is trying to reduce it. All those people that deal in cash now have to declare it. If they declare a significant amount that they’ve been stashing under their mattress the government will ask why, fine them and look into their dealings. Overnight (literally) he has made people have to legitimise their businesses and savings.
In practice, there has been pandemonium and it has hit the poor the most as cash has suddenly become scarce and they have no other way of paying or things. If people get hold of  (new) cash they are holding onto it as the queues at banks and cash machines are huge, taking people all day. Even when you get to the front you can only withdraw the equivalent of £50! It is an exercise in patience and I admire the Indian people for that.
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Queues at the ATMs. This is actually a very small, orderly one compared to most

I queued for 2 hours to exchange currency when I landed at Delhi airport, which turned out to be pointless – nobody wants to accept my crisp new notes unless they can give me old shitty ones that I can’t then use! I have had to use cards and online payments entirely for a whole week and it certainly makes you plan in advance.
Enough of the economic update. I had great day looking around Pune (used to be called Poona and was where the sport of Badminton was invented) at the old Fort and some of the markets. Beautiful colours, terrible smells, but a nice afternoon adventure. There are a lot of stray dogs and stray people, but neither of them bother this obvious fish out of water, they just get on with getting on.
Some images of the Phule Manai (market) and Fort:

I’m now back in yet another airport lounge in France waiting for my connection back to the UK and you little rascals. I just got sent videos of you both performing the alphabet to camera: G is spot on and quite the little thespian, B’s attempt was full of enthusiasm and interpretative movement rather than accuracy. I’m smiling from ear to ear.

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A Pune sunset

Love,

Dad x

China in a blur

Dear G & B

So the big news is that you will be having a baby sister in March. We showed G the picture of the scan and asked what you thought it was:

G: “A baby”

Us: “Yes, it’s a picture of inside mummy’s tummy”

G: “Is it me?”

Us: “No”

G: “Is it B?”

Us:”No, we had this picture taken in the hospital yesterday”

[Long pause, gradual realisation spreading across face]

G: “Are we having a baby!?”

Cue lots of hugging and tears. It was so lovely, I just wish I had taken a video of it to show you later in life.

So utter carnage will reign again and we will probably need a bigger car. Very much looking forward to it.

I’m in the KLM business class lounge in the newly refurbished Schipol Airport, deciding if 5:45am is too early to have a glass of champagne. I think I will probably crack and have a glass as I’ve just come off a 13 hour flight from China and think I deserve it. The last few hours before getting back home to you guys after one week and four cities in The Middle Kingdom.

I flew into Chongqing (a city few people in the UK have heard of, and why would you, it is only a small settlement of 30 million people!) in Sichuan Province for my first appointment and everything went swimmingly. I hadn’t been to this city in about 3 years and, like much of China, it continues to develop at a frightening pace with endless skyscrapers and monstrous, monolithic pieces of experimental architecture. Look up the Chongqing Theatre or Guotai Arts Centre and you’ll see what I mean. I could see both from my hotel room, just about, through the fog. There is a very old Chinese saying: “A Szechuan dog barks at a sun,” because they so seldom see one. I had my fill of mouth-numbing Sichuan food and followed the Yangtze River by plane to Wuhan.

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Me with some friendly locals in Chongqing

First thing in the morning I took a stroll through the city to a shopping district to try to buy a local SIM card for my phone, but was told they had moved to a new system and I needed a Chinese ID card to do so. Wondered around a supermarket and marvelled at the snack section. All wrapped in plastic you can buy duck’s tongue, duck’s gizzard, duck’s neck or duck’s feet – meeting all of your duck snacking needs. Carrefour (big French supermarket) is there but has very regional context – you can buy live seafood and plenty of dried animals as well.

I now have that glass of champagne…

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I then flew on to Shanghai, a city I do like very much and had a very hectic schedule, but did manage a wander down Nanjing Road and a nice relaxing dinner with a nice colleague. As we flew into Hongqiao Airport, I was yet again blown away by the scale of China. I know that there are 30 Chinese people for every British person on the planet, so I always use this as a mental scale: There must be 30 times as many everything (houses, hospitals, power stations, chicken nuggets, etc) for China to work, but even so, when you look down from the air on the volume of housing and the size of the cities, your brain just can’t deal with it. I took this photo of row after row of identical houses, but I’d already flown over another 50 areas like this:

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Onwards to Guangzhou and the most important meeting that I had organised with my big boss coming to do niceties. Two years of my work in the making and it all went really well, so I celebrated with colleagues afterwards and looked forward to jumping on the plane home. Did some banqueting.

Me:”We call this a Lazy Susan, what do you call it in Chinese?”

Host:”A table that turns”

[Pause]

Me:”Your name is better.”

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G is playing rugby now and I have been helping out with the coaching, which is great fun. You got kicked in the head by the baby bump whilst resting on your mother, which you found hilarious.

B is still acting up in every way, comedian and diva all wrapped into one. You want to call the baby Jackie. Not sure how to get you to drop that idea…

Love

Dad xx

China….again

Dear G and B

I’ve spent the last week in China, this time flying into Shanghai, down to Guangzhou, back up to Ningbo (which is pretty close to Shanghai) and then farther up to Beijing. I’ve been with two colleagues much older than me, but much less seasoned travellers, so I’ve been hand holding but also having a good time with them. One of them definitely on the autism spectrum. 

So what to report? 
Shanghai: I went to the Shanghai Sculpture Space, which is a lot like the 798 district in Beijing, but smaller and a bit more commercial. It was lovely sunny, winter weather and a stroll around quality public art was a good tonic to the horrible jet lag I suffered for the first few days. See the pictures of some of the crazy work there. 

        

  
Guangzhou: My other colleague arrived and brought with him a sickness bug that immediately knocked him out of action for 24 hours, locked in his room. We did our best not to breathe his air and got on with our meetings and saw a few interesting buildings whilst driving around, including the golden coin building or Guangzhou Circle. Although cities have not been planned with any foresight in China, there has been free reign on the architecture front and some spectacular structures have arisen. Check out Guangzhou Tower on the Internet, that is only a few years old and I think is currently the worlds second largest building. It has a kind of roller coaster on top of it. Why not, eh? 

   
  
Ningbo: twin city of Nottingham and I thought it was rather nice on my last visit – calm and civilised. Not really on this visit – seemed to just spend our time on broken roads and driving through wholesale markets, with men holding up turtles on sticks for sale.  Did meet some lovely people though and was taken out to dinner on The Bund and practiced my terrible Chinese. 
Beijing: the most amazing hotel, Hotel Eclat in Chaoyang. You turn the bedside lamps on an off with a plastic gun! Kapow! Full of art and just brilliant service and ambience. My new favourite. I went to a media partner and spent some time looking around their studios and then just worked away, not really doing anything newsworthy. Beijing is so different to the first time I came over 10 years ago and there are new, spectacular skyscrapers going up every time I visit. There are murmurs of a collapse in the economy from everyone I know there and the world’s economists so we’ll wait and see. It could be pretty bleak for the world if they do go pop, and very bad for my job! The scale of China means the scale of the problem will be massive. Apparently there are 40,000 media companies in the Beijing Media Corridor alone. 

   

Hotel Eclat

  

Chinese TV studio

 
I’m now taxiing on Beijing Capital Airport’s finest runway on my way to Seoul for some barbecue and soju fuelled escapades. 
I’m missing you both more and more with each trip. I worry about what I’m missing out on and I worry what you are thinking about with me being away. I think time is more of a fluid concept when you are a child, but I remember days taking months and weeks taking years when I was 5, I hope it doesn’t seem like I abandon you. 
George: doing really well at school and can read books by yourself now. You love Lego still of course, you got a bike for your birthday and we are going to spend the next few months working on getting the stabilisers off. You tell jokes now and are such good company. Bea on the other hand….haha! The cutest of little girls, you play with your dolls house all the time and and little characters you have to hand, making up stories as you do, with full script narration. You do like attention though, but we don’t mind giving it. You do anything to make us laugh and have some killer dance moves. Here is you going all Banksy on our kitchen:

  
Love 
Dad

Nairobi National Park (and a small car crash) #travel

Dear G & B

I’m sitting by the pool on a Sunday in Mombasa at the Whitesands Hotel, palm trees swaying in the wind and Afro beats music drifting over from the bar, sipping a beer. I can’t work today and downtime like this is great, although it is over a week since I left you guys at home and would much rather be there. Or have you here.
I’ve just arrived from Nairobi after a short flight past Mount Kenya. I haven’t been here for 6 years and nothing much has changed, except it is a lot quieter, I suppose because of perceived risks of terrorism.
Mt Kenya from the plane

Mt Kenya from the plane

I was working for 3 days in Nairobi but finished yesterday at 3pm so managed to arrange a quick trip to Nairobi National Park, which is a game reserve right next to the city containing all the wildlife you expect in Kenya. The car that picked me up (along with 4 other people) was a bit beaten up and I assumed that we’d be on Tarmac roads for the whole trip. After a short drive we arrived at the gates and had the usual wait for tickets that you expect with any organised activity in Africa. As soon as we set off we saw small antelope and a tortoise walking along the side of the road. We stopped at the ivory burning sites where dignitaries burn seized poached tusks as a symbol of disdain for the Ivory trade. Great views out across the plains but weird to still see the city in the background.
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Wild animals

Wild animals

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Just chillin'

Just chillin’

We next came across herds of huge buffalo with calves and birds sitting on their backs, more antelope, zebra, a lone ostrich running behind us and some distant giraffes striding through the tall bush. As the sun went down it cast a lovely hue over the clouds and the big sky turned dramatic. Seems unreal to be so close to a capital city with that backdrop.
Pano of the National Park

Pano of the National Park

Up close with some big buffalo

Up close with some big buffalo

Buffalo feeding in some amazing light

Buffalo feeding in some amazing light

Ostrich silhouette

Ostrich silhouette

The roads were not Tarmac, but very much potted dirt tracks and boulders. After a while there was a knocking noise from the fron of the car which sounded a bit serious. We made it out of the camp after dark and started the short journey home, the knocking getting louder. I told the driver I thought he might have problems and it sounded serious, so he should slow down. He did, and sure enough we turned a corner and his front right wheel snapped off sending us skidding into a lay by. We were close to the hotel, so after checking he was ok, we set off on foot to finish the journey. If he had been going faster it might have been serious.
Whoops!

Whoops!

Only two days here then back to you guys. Bea has had her first hair cut and G keeps getting all the awards possible at school, bright as a button. So proud.
Love
Dad x

Eating Brains and Climbing a Mountain in Chengdu, China

View from the top of Mt Qingcheng

View from the top of Mt Qingcheng

Dear G & B
I haven’t been overseas since April, possibly the longest time in about a decade when I have been just in the UK, and it was wonderful. We’ve had a lot going on, including moving to our new house and G starting school, so it has been great to spend so much time at home.
But, travel has started up once again and my first stop has been Chengdu in south west China. It is the 4th largest city in China and famed for being (I think I might have mentioned this before) the home of Pandas, spicy food and pretty girls. One of those myths that the people here like to proliferate, but isn’t necessarily true. I’m only here for a few days before flying over to Kenya via Doha.
Chengdu, Sichuan Province

Chengdu, Sichuan Province

I arrived on Saturday and couldn’t work on Sunday, so decided to go on an adventure: Climb Mount Qingcheng, an ancient place of buddhist worship about 2 hours drive from Chengdu. I thought I would save cash and make it a real challenge by forgoing a taxi/driver and taking public transport. First stumbling block was buying a ticket at the bus station and navigating my way to the mountain itself.
The station signage is almost exclusively Chinese as are the announcements, so I was particularly happy with myself by being able to order my ticket in Chinese and ask if I was on the right bus. I struggled a bit when the bus stopped and I didn’t know if I should get off or not, but the universal language of mime and a few key words saved the day. The bus still stopped quite a distance from the Mountain and I managed to find an English speaker to ask advice from. She turned out to work at the American Embassy and was waiting for her colleague – she said that I was free to join them to make it to the mountain, which was really nice of them. We got a cab to the cable car (it was already about 2pm as the bus had taken over 2 hours to get there) and then had something to eat. I say something because I wasn’t at all sure what it was and didn’t ask, just some kind of meat in spicy oil. The walk through the “high town” was really interesting, a lot like a European mountain town, but with traditional Chinese architecture and lots of stalls selling cured pork, heads and all.
Chengdu bus station

Chengdu bus station

My bus ticket

My bus ticket

Dried pork, high town

Dried pork, high town

The cable car up allowed us to skip 4km of the climb but there were still three more to tackle to the summit. But it was steep. What amazed me were the amount of people carrying young children and even some women wearing high heels! Dressed like they were off to a nightclub. I struggled in sensible trainers. The path was thin at times, the concrete steps wonky and the it wove through the mountain following a stream with waterfalls, bridges and a cool damp atmosphere. It was really beautiful and peaceful. Well, unless there were a group of men spitting and shouting in front of us. There was a small lake where we had to board a boat and get punted across which was very serene. After about 40 minutes my new friends decided they didn’t have enough time to get to the summit and turned back, but I pushed on, adamant that I had to keep going if I come this far. I virtually ran up the remainder of the hill and it was really tough, I was covered in sweat when I finally reached the White Cloud Temple, expecting great things. It was a bit of a let down, the temple was pretty generic, the statues concrete and recent, the view no better than several hundred feet below. I stayed only a few moments to watch people pray with incense and then turned to bound down as fast as I could. If I missed the last gondola I would have an 6km descent to deal with and would be doing the last of it in the dark!
Looking like I just rushed up a mountain

Looking like I just rushed up a mountain

White Cloud Palace at the top

White Cloud Palace at the top

Cave with hundreds of buddha statues

Cave with hundreds of buddha statues

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Wonky steps

Wonky steps

Punting the lake

Punting the lake

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I did miss the last gondola, but there was a dirt track and some cars waiting. Again in broken Chinese I negotiated a trip down the hill, which turned out to be one of the most terrifying drives I’ve been on. I often read the newspaper when tourists die overseas doing stupid things (like getting into unlicensed taxis and asking them to drive along a mountain road) and think “idiots!” – well, that was me. Terrifying but relieved to get to the bottom, where I bumped into my two chums again. We arranged a car for £5 each to take us back to Chengdu and I finally got back to the hotel, exhausted, at around 8:30pm.
I was taken out for dinner by a prospective business partner last night and I requested hot pot, which is the local speciality. Essentially a pot of boiling chilli oil that you dunk food into to cook and eat. I said I eat everything so he really tested me, first with gizzards, then arteries and then finally with pig’s brain. Not to look like a wimp I scoffed it down with (feigned) relish although the texture was pretty revolting. It had been in the boiling oil for only a few moments when my host scooped it out and plonked the whole thing in my bowl. I chalk it down as an experience.
Love
Dad
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Hot pot!

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Pig’s brain

How not to keep 157 tigers: Harbin, China

Dear B and G

Yes, I’m in China again, for the fourth time in as many months, but this time seeing some new places, including Harbin in the very north of the country. It is covered in snow for about 5 months of the year and is close to the Russian border and North Korea. It is a relatively new city for China, not showing much growth until the 1920s when foreigners (mostly Russian) started trading there. Many of the older population still speak Russian. With the communist ties between the two countries and common enemies, Harbin became a base for the development of weapons and the institute that I was visiting started as a weapons research college.  It still invests heavily in ship building, weapons development and government nuclear research, which means there are a lot of troops on the streets. According to our hosts this makes Harbin a very safe place. I’m not so sure about that..!
After seeing a museum dedicated to war ships and missiles we were given the opportunity to visit the Siberian Tiger Sanctuary which protects the majority of the remaining population of this massive apex predator. I groaned as we approached the park, upon seeing fibreglass cartoon characters of tigers guiding us to the parking lot, a huge tiger head that was a shop selling all kinds of tiger-related tat and the tiger models put in undignified scenarios (pulling a cart, sitting like a human, etc).
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The parks concept was to charge punters £9 a time and then show them the tigers, apparently undergoing a re-wilding experience ready for re-introduction to their natural habitat. Although training a tiger to be wild seems like an oxymoron to me.
We entered a holding area before boarding a bus with the other tourists to go on a safari-style excursion through various gated pens that were where the tigers were being made to feel all wild again. Unfortunately they were exhibiting the usual zoo animal behaviour of walking along well trodden paths by the fences and doing figures of 8. They looked hungry and bored. There were some white tigers, which aren’t even a wild species, but a domestic breed created by man.
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After the safari we got off into a caged walkway which showed the other main tiger areas, which were concreted, sparse and crammed with the beasts, only separated by sex. What I wasn’t expecting was the opportunity to feed a tiger. Tourists can pay 20 yuan (about £2) to have a live chicken tied by its feet to a pole and then dangle it about a pit of tigers. Which the Chinese did with glee, jiggling the terrified bird just out of reach and taunting the tigers as they jumped for it. And boy can they jump – about 3 metres clear off the ground. When one of the tigers finally got the chicken in its teeth there was a terrifying scuffle and roars as they fought for the meat. Makes you realise you would be dead within seconds if you fell in. Apparently one tourist did last year as they were drunk. She got torn to bits.
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There were then some rather depressing zoo exhibitions:  a white lion that was trying to throw up, a jaguar in a small concrete pen and a liger (a sterile hybrid of a tiger and a lion) straight out of a Victorian menagerie.
I left feeling a bit upset, but perhaps the tigers are better off there and a few are released every year as they claim they are. If I was a tiger though, I would rather be free and risk the poaching.
On the way back we stopped at St Sophia cathedral, a Russian Orthodox Church in the centre of the city, which is now used to exhibit historical photos. Never seen a building like it as I haven’t visited Russia, so that was interesting for me.
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I’m on a high speed rail train now between Ningbo and Shanghai. Amazing speeds and the Chinese country speeding past in a blur. A few more days work in Guangzhou in the south and then the long flight home to you two monkeys.  At the moment we are trying to buy a house in the countryside so that you guys can grow up with space and freedom to roam. Your mum thinks we have found the place, so when I get back we will be trying to get the mortgage and move in time for G to start primary school in the village. Exciting times. Bea is now repeating almost any word you say to her, George continues to be obsessed with all things Lego Star Wars related and is sometimes like a moody teenager already, although in an adorable way.
Love
Dad

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