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.
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.
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.
Images: Cherry blossom; Conch that became dinner; Green tea and banana frap; Korean steak tartare
Dear G and B
I’m in a “limousine bus” on my way from Yeoksam in Seoul to Incheon Airport after a week away here. It is April and the cherry blossom is out everywhere making the city look almost Japanese in parts, especially the small side streets jammed with traditional restaurants (including tons of Japanese izakayas and sushi bars). The weather has been perfect – sunny and 21 degrees and this makes everything more pleasant and people happier.
I’ve been coming here for many years now and feel like I know the city reasonably well and have made some good Korean acquaintances through work. Korean is another language I wish I spoke as generally Koreans don’t have good English and it must be incredibly hard for them to learn. Even the people I meet who have studied overseas for several years still struggle with pretty basic stuff. Not that I can talk (literally) my language skills are appalling. Korean is a pleasant and polite sounding language.
When I arrived at my hotel I was looking at an art exhibition being run there and thought I recognised the name of the artist. I checked Facebook, and sure enough it was an ex-student, so I got in touch and we met up the following evening for dinner. She talked me through her work and then took me down the road for dinner to somewhere “very Korean”. I like to try something new on the food front each time I come here and this time it was boiled conch, a kind of shellfish that looks exactly like a giant snail. It was chewy, fishy and not all that appetising, but I poked it down in politeness. The restaurant was a really run down little place full of loud, noisy, drunk salarymen toasting each other and talking business. Atmospheric. We left and she introduced me to two of her business colleagues – Mr Ahn and a girl called Jenny. What cracked me up was that Jenny would not stop either taking photos of me (with her in it) or taking pictures of herself on her phone. Unabashed narcissism that is totally normal here – one of the origins of selfie behaviour. They were nice enough and we had a couple of over priced drinks in the rooftop bar of the hotel.
I walked around Gangnam the next day after I’d finished work in the afternoon to get some air and notice a proliferation of two types of business: coffee shops and plastic surgery clinics. More clinics on one street than in the whole of London probably. Plastic surgery has become normal for Korean young people of a certain social class, endorsed by the stars of their soaps and K-pop. They have nose jobs (to make them thinner but bigger), an eye operation to make their eyes rounder and they even have a jaw operation to saw away the bone to make it literally more chiselled. I actually interviewed someone today who was straight from having an eye operation – they just had shades on!
You cannot believe that one city can sustain so many coffee shops. A Starbucks on every corner and then the home grown big names (An Angel Inside Us, Coffee Bene, Paris Baguette, A Twosome Place) followed by loads of American outfits like Dunkin Donuts and Krispy Creme. They must drink about 5 cups of overpriced brown stuff a day. They really like iced coffee here, which I don’t really like, but I do like the crazy frappuccinos. This time had green tea and banana and it was awesome. With all the fast food joints and donut/cake shops you would think the Koreans might have an obesity problem on the way, but it doesn’t look like, not compared to the west anyway. Must be the main diet of healthy Korean BBQ and the high levels of superficiality! Maybe that is just Gangnam.
I wanted to have a run by the river, but didn’t get time, mostly because I have suffered with horrendous jet lag once again. No matter what i tried I could still not get a good nights sleep and it really gets to you after a few days. I should sleep like a baby on this flight home. I’ve done some shopping: some equivalent to £1 stores for crazy stationery that your mum likes and some Korean sauces and kimchi for Ouma, who has watched a TV chef and now wants to make Korean food. Good luck to her.
You two have had your first photoshoot together this week, which I have missed but can’t wait to see the results of. You are very cute together: B loves watching G playing and G loves cuddling B. You are going to make quite the team as you grow up.
A post from a few weeks ago that I never got round to uploading….
Images: Beijing river, Maglev train, Shanghai skyline from Pudong
Dear G and B
I’m coming to the end of a 10 day work trip to Taiwan, Shanghai , Beijing, Sichuan and Kuala Lumpur and am yet again on a flight, not far from landing in Birmingham. Just watched 3 terrible films in a row, which on top of sleep deprivation and jet lag has all but melted my brain. I’m very excited to see you both in a couple of hours though. Whilst I was away you went to your cousins 5th birthday dressed as batman and robin (George says “batmeeeeeein” which is hilarious) and the photos look great. Haven’t spoken to you much whilst I’ve been away as I was travelling most evenings trying to get a round and get the trip over as quickly as possible. Anyway, done now.
What can I tell you about this one? I went on the Maglev (short for magnetic levitation) train in Shanghai that goes to the airport from the city in 10 minutes. As the name suggests it is levitating on magnets, so there is no friction and it goes up to 300km/hr. Not sure how fast it has gone in the past. I’ve always taken taxis before which take about an hour, so will definitely do that every time from now on.
The strangest thing was that the skies were clear all across China – no smog or evidence of the pollution that usually makes everything so grim. It was actually really crisp and fresh. Then I realised the national congress for the communist party was being held in Beijing and they had probably shut down all of the factories to get the skies clear for the that. Or the cynic in me thinks so. Was nice to enjoy the views of the ever more impressive sky lines they are creating at alarming rates. Apart from constantly being exhausted I had a good time – work was much easier as we have employed a local to run an office for us in Beijing and it took the usual stress of not being able to order food/taxis, etc away. I have to learn Chinese, as will the rest of the world in the not so distant future.
Always surprised by China and find it more and more developed each time I go, both physically and culturally. Their absorption of the rest of the worlds habits, cultures and technology has happened so quickly. As a guy I met at the British council said: “there will never be another china” and I think he was talking about it as an economic phenomenon. I wonder what it will be like by the time you are both grown up. I either think civil unrest will have weakened it and split it into fractions, or it will be ruling the world and causing upheaval overseas.
Just as I was flying into China there was a massacre in Kunming where a minority group used knives to kill 30 people and injure 4 times as many. These types of events are happening more frequently, or rather technology is allowing the world to witness them. Your mother always thinks I am going somewhere dangerous, and these events don’t help her nerves. As I was flying from China to Malaysia, a flight coming the other way dropped out of the sky and 230 people were lost and nobody knows how. Air Malayisa Flight MH370 – look it up. I think you have to fly non stop for 300 years to be certain of being involved in an air crash, so the probabilities are ridiculously small and being rational, I simply can’t worry about it. I love flying.
Dear G and B
At the beginning of December I hopped over to China for a week, first to Shanghai and then on to Beijing. For the first time in many visits the pollution was all but gone and the skies were clear – I even managed a run around Peoples Square in Shanghai and the air didn’t even taste of battery acid….
Because it was clear, although minus 8 in the wind, I decided to use up an afternoon’s free time to look around the Summer Palace, one of the few main tourist attractions in Beijing I haven’t seen before. I guess it is better in the summer, but I figured I could escape the crowds there and by this point in my trip, that in itself was attractive enough to warrant a visit.
The palace is actually made up of many buildings that surround a lake, all from slightly different eras. It would have been more impressive, but most of it was burnt to the ground by us Brits during the opium wars and has since been reconstructed. It was bitterly cold and I didn’t have any gloves, so after the second hour I lost patience and trooped off, but I think I saw most of it by then and had a nice, contemplative time in the process.
The most impressive structure is the Incense Tower which looks down upon the rest of the palace from atop a hill and is an ornate circular pagoda. It has amazingly steep and symmetrical twin staircases that run down each side to lake level with some covered with beautifully decorated roofs. Walking down them was a joy. At the (semi frozen) lake there were some food stalls and trinket sellers where I bought a coffee and browsed for gifts, but was slightly put off by the vacuum packed chickens feet. I’m sure they are a delectable cold snack for on the hoof as it were.
Afterwards I had a meeting around 60km north of Beijing so took the metro to the end of the line where I waited for a lift to pick me up. It was like post-war China; bleak, grey, flat landscape with communist style buildings and very little else. People stared at me from their cars and I felt quite uneasy – not the China I have become used to and I was glad to get out of there before I saw some kids riding pigs and pointing at planes overhead…
I had a great night out with a colleague around HoHai lake in a converted hutong made into a bar that sold various Belgian beers with a live band. He had had a tough week as his wife and baby had been knocked off their bike back home and we’re in hospital briefly, so it was good to unwind at the end of a trip. Nothing is as good as coming home to you two though.
Dear George and Bea
[This is another delayed entry from October 2013]
Currently on another plane, this time somewhere over Lake Erie on my way to Mexico for a week. BA, economy, terrible.
Since I last wrote I’ve been working pretty hard which means travelling too much and stressing a little. I went to Malaysia and Korea a few weeks ago and it was the first time George realised I was leaving – you held onto my leg and asked my not to go. And cried. It was really difficult to leave. Was back for a few days and then flew to Brazil again so you have been camped at the farm where there a few more hands to look after you. Bea is less than 3 months old and is changing daily. Thank god for Skype.
Continuing on my fitness regimen I’m trying to run in every city I visit and in São Paulo I managed to get out for a 5km in Pinheiros, a really nice neighbourhood, but with little to see – some churches, mobile phone towers, and a lot of people walking dogs. A lot of dogs each, maybe 10-15. There seems to be very little open space to make use of in SP as when I asked the reception of my hotel for directions to a park to run in, they told me it was 35 minutes away by taxi! When I did go (just outside the hotel) there was a weird kind of concrete exercise area where lots of Paulistas were power walking in cycling shorts and looking serious about it. Basically, that place needs more parks.
I flew to Rio early on Sunday morning and spent the whole, lovely day on the beach relaxing, drinking the odd caipirinha and jumping in the sea when I got to hot. Escaped with minimal burnt skin, which was surprising given the pasty state it was in. In the afternoon I notice a lot of men in tight, small swimming costumes seemed to be congregated in this particular section of the beach. I turned around to see rainbow flags and realised which part of the beach I was in, confirmed by a lot of male canoodling and frolicking in the sea. I moved along a little.
The next day I got up early and heading out with two colleagues to run along Ipanema and to Copacabana stopping at the workout stations along the way and a muscle beach type affair in between. It was a lovely day and so many people were out doing the same thing, or riding bikes, or skating or on long skateboards underneath the palm trees that line the route. We went to the lookout point between the two beaches and took in the views before descending to the beach gym. This place is great – the weights are iron bars with concrete on the end! No nonsense and packed with meatheads who obviously spend a lot of time either working out there or eating chicken. After another section of jogging we bought coconuts to drink and jumped in the sea to cool off, throwing in some body surfing for good measure, all before 9am.
Rio is a special place, changing fast and gearing up for the spot light of the World Cup and Olympics heading there soon. It has it’s issues, but generally it’s a really positive place to visit and for once I came back from a work trip feeling refreshed rather than exhausted.
I land in Mexico in two hours and will hopefully see some interesting things to write about for you. Part of the British Government’s Great campaign, this being a creative industries tour. There is an ambassadors reception (I’ve been to quite a few now) so that in itself should be amusing.
From September 2013:
Dear George and Bea
This is my first time away since Bea was born and she is only 4 weeks old (2 weeks fashionably late) and I’ve been attending a conference in Istanbul, a new city to me as Turkey is a new country. I didnt really want to leave but at the same time was excited about visiting a place ive seen on film so many times and heard so many good things about. All friendly faces and smiles when I arrived, despite the ridiculous queues at immigration. I had some free time on my first morning and took a tram to the old city to look around the blue mosque (Sultan Ahmet) which was busy but at the same time serene. The signs ask that everyone stays quiet and it has a calm, cooling effect on the crowds. There are 1000 blue tiles in the ceiling and is pleasant, but not breath taking. I think the mosques are more effective as structures from the outside, creating one of the most dramatic skylines in the world, especially around dusk when the haze and light create a middle eastern hue. Outside the mosque a guy asked to clean my shoes. I’ve never had it done so agreed for a few lira and a chat. A nice guy that had moved to Istanbul 20 years ago and now had almost flawless English learnt from tourists, along with Spanish, Italian, Russian, etc. Not very good at cleaning shoes though.
I walked around soaking up the atmosphere but soon had to dash to meetings. This was pretty much my only free time during the day for the entire visit, but was worth the trip in itself. It’s an incredibly atmospheric city.
That evening I took myself off to find something to eat after asking hotel staff to recommend some places. Those places looked quite high end and not the experience I was looking for. Instead I carried on walking through that area and found myself at a little cafe at the side of the street. I ordered a Turkish coffee (another first) and got chatting to the waiter. I said I was looking for good, cheap Turkish food and he said look no further. 10 minutes later he brought out mashed aubergine and garlic, salad and kofte. I think it is probably the nicest thing I have ever eaten, closely followed by the tiramisu he brought out for desert. With a handshake and thank you I said goodbye and must remember to write a review online for the place, the total cost was about £10.
After the conference’s first day I headed out with some colleagues to find a restaurant near the centre of the city, Taksim square. There have been protests recently so it was no surprise to see police around, thinking this was quite normal. Then there were more police and more police and police with riot shields and gas masks…..then they started putting on their gas masks. At that point I could see protesters coming the other way and decided to get out of there. Behind me I could see the tear gas being fired and could har chanting and sirens. I ducked into a cafe and luckily the protest was driven in the other direction. My old boss was caught up in it and got gassed – not a pleasant experience.
Continuing my gastronomic journey the next night I went to the most Turkish looking kebab house I could find: garish decor and the most amazing smells. Ordered all the things I couldn’t identify on the menu just to see what would come out and got a soured yoghurt drink, a lamb kebab, and a pudding made from minced chicken and cinnamon. All delicious in a strange way. I’ll bring you guys here one day – it is worth it for the views and food alone, but the people are great too.