absentfather

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

Archive for the category “China”

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

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

798 Art District, Beijing

Dear G & B

Just returned from a two week trip to China, Thailand and Malaysia. My first stop was in Shanghai (which I love) and stayed in an old 1920’s hotel near the Bund which was wonderful. Ate well, walked around, met nice people. I was introduced to some clothes manufacturers and taken out to dinner by them and then they give you both sets of clothes as gifts. The old lady who owned the company was very taken with the photos of you I showed her (“ke ai!” which means cute!).

When I arrived in Beijing the taxi driver took me to the address of the hotel I showed him but seemed to stop in the middle of an industrial estate and proceeded to tell me that I was at the right address. I told him I wasn’t, that I needed a hotel and I wasn’t getting out of the cab. I called the hotel and soon enough a little porter emerged from the darkness and helped me with my bags. The hotel was in the 798 Art District and was so cool that it decided not to have a sign or any sort of frontage. Once inside it was really nice, full of contemporary art, great rooms and a really different feel.

I had some spare time the following day, so strolled around the massive art district which is made up of old factories now converted into galleries, shops and cafes. It is almost European/American in the way it has been developed and feels very different to the rest of Beijing. I tried to find Ai Wei Wei’s workshop but couldn’t so instead I took a look around the UCCA gallery and some smaller ones, full of interesting work. Had a little stop off at a cafe and watched the cool kids of Beijing walk by, models on fashion shoots and other foreigners following maps. Photos are some of the things I saw.

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I went on to the warm of Thailand and Malaysia, which was nice and then home to you two. You have chickenpox so are going a bit stir crazy being confined to the house, but are both hilarious. We’ve been playing Star Wars Lego “miggie-figures” and lots of living room acrobatics. Check out how crazy you both are:

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Love

Dad x

Hong Kong Foodie

Dear G and B

Shortly landing in Amsterdam where I’ll change planes and head home to you, at the end of a 12 hour flight from Hong Kong. 

I was first in China, in the seaside city of Xiamen and the South West city of Chengdu in Sichuan. Most people in the UK know Sichuan from Chinese takeaway menus, where Sichuan style is a little spicy with a couple of chillies in it. In China, Sichuan is known for having the best food, the prettiest girls and the pandas. I’ve been a few times and have seen the pandas in the sanctuary, climbed some hills in the countryside and have always quite liked it. Like much of mainland China now however, Chengdu lives under a blanket of smog and is an architecturally soulless, vast metropolis in the most part. Town planning has not been a priority in China for the last few decades. 

Some business colleagues took me out for ‘hot pot’ which is the most famous of Sichuan dishes and revered by its people. It is essentially a huge dish of bubbling oil absolutely swarming with fierce chillies and Sichuan pepper (known as flower pepper in Chinese) which has a very unique taste. The pot is placed over a burner in the middle of the table and diners choose raw ingredients that are brought to the table and added by those sitting around it. A fantastic business model – your customers cook for themselves! We had strips of pork, meatballs, various vegetables, bamboo, tripe and liver. Anything substantial or tough is left to bubble away for a while but other more slight morsels can be held submerged with chopsticks for a few seconds before devouring, hot, spicy oil dribbling down your chin. 

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Sichuan pepper makes your mouth go numb, a strange sensation when you are eating and unlike the heat from chillies. Those make your nose run and your throat heat up. You sweat. The more of it you eat, the greater the sum total of all this becomes, both uncomfortable and enjoyable at the same time. Beats a sandwich at your desk anyway. 

Down to Hong Kong and after all the work over a weekend some different colleagues took me out to Mong Kok, Kowloon side for another meal at restaurant London, which is one of the oldest establishments in the city. It is true Hong Kong food, served to round tables. There are tanks near the kitchen full of fish and crustaceans that will soon become dinner, so we chose our lobsters and fresh water fish, looking them in the eye and thanking them for their sacrifice to their graves in our bellies. 

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Choose seafood, look in eye, eat in cheese sauce

As the food started to arrive, things that stood out were the roast pigeon, complete with roasted head, the chickens feet and the vat of lobsters which had been steamed, covered in a cheese sauce and chopped into large chunks making it almost impossible to eat with chopsticks. Cue very messy foreigners and several plate changes. It was a real feast. 

Afterwards we walked down Temple Street where you can buy tourist tat and fake designer goods. We made our way to a group of tents at the end where fortune teller will read your palm and predict your fate. We were all going to have this done but the standard price was £35, a bit steep for a bit of fun you don’t actually believe in. 

Coming in to land now. I’ll get home at around midnight and you’ll both be fast alseep but I can’t wait to see you. Choco-porridge for breakfast and lots of playing with toys, tomorrow will be a good day. 

Love

Dad

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