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.
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:
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.
The tour of east Asia continues and I am nearly at the end, here in Tokyo. It is cherry blossom season and the branches are heavy with white and pink blooms; enthusiastic photographers aiming their expensive telephoto lenses at them from tripods in the park. Tokyo is a relief after Beijing, only three days there is enough for me.
This work trip has lasted two weeks and my first stop was Seoul, Korea. It wouldn’t be a normal trip for me if there wasn’t imminent doom predicted, and the tensions between North and South Korea are at a peak. All rhetoric of course and it was hardly mentioned during my stay. I worked solidly for 6 days, my only down time was at the gym and being taken out to Korean BBQ restaurants by clients. It is always a BBQ restaurant and you have to act as though it is something really special for you each time. After three nights of it, I was ready for something less time consuming and more western, but the BBQ kept coming. Some guidelines: marinated beef is best, followed by chicken followed by pork, which is generally really fatty and sometimes still has hair on it. They cook the skin too. The places with genuine charcoal are my favourite as the heat is homely and the popping fuel makes it feel more authentic. Grab a leaf, add some rice, a bit of spicy paste and some snipped up meat then shove it in your mouth. Wash down with local beer, makoli (fermented rice alcoholic drink that looks like milk. All the cool kids mix it with lemonade) or soju if you are feeling brave. Of course, it is accompanied with kimchi and pickles.
One exception was a trip to Korea House, a heritage site surrounded by traditional gardens and serving food made from centuries old recipe books. It is fine dining, Korean style and is quite an experience. Boxes with many compartments containing shredded vegetables, pickles and meats arrive for you to build miniature pancakes with. Baked abalone, seafood soup, meat patties, kimchi and sweetened nuts all make up an 11 course menu washed down with tea. The setting makes it a unique experience.
Then on to Beiijng, a city that is changing at an incredible rate. When I first went to China in 2005, I was still a little bit of a novelty, kids stopping me in the street to have their photo taken with me. There was 16RMB to the pound and I couldn’t spend money however hard I tried. A bottle of beer was about 30 pence and a hotel room in the middle of the city was about £40 a night. Now beer is £5 a bottle and hotels don’t come much cheaper than £150. I was staying in Haidian, a student district, and was struck by the massive increase in foreign students there – hundreds of American, British, Russian and Korean kids taking the opportunity to experience China and learn Chinese.
My hotel was hosting some snooker players playing in the China Masters, so I was eating breakfast next to sports celebrities (in the UK and China anyway) every morning.
I met up with a friend one evening and went to Hohai lake for dinner and drinks. We went into the hutongs behind the main drag and found Bed bar, a converted peasant house that now charges £4 for a mojito and you sit on beds to drink them. We ate some Vietnamese food and went to a bar owned by an American couple. Just shows how Beijing is now a very different city to a decade ago – truly international. We whinged about the dirty air, the traffic and the spitting taxi drivers, but it was fun.
I arrived in Tokyo last night and love this city. It’s efficient, convenient, massive and bonkers. When your mum and I first came here in 2002 we felt like we had landed on mars, but things are a little easier now. The subway has English signs for a start. As always, I’ve got a pretty packed schedule, but I’m looking forward to the food, maybe a run around a park and hopefully something cultural one morning.
The gardens at Korea House
Snooker players in Beijing
A funny sign at a university in Seoul
The view out of my hotel over Shinagawa station in Tokyo
I’ve just woken up on an Airbus A380 on my way home to you and your mum from Hong Kong via Dubai. I’m flying business and managed to sleep pretty much the entire (9 hour flight) like a baby. I love this plane.
This latest work trip was back to Bangkok for a week and then to Hong Kong for a week as there were two large exhibitions I had to attend as well as some other meetings. I stayed at Novotels (jokingly “Novo-hells) in both cities to try to be loyal and they weren’t too bad, apart from mosquitoes in the lobby in Bangkok and the pool being drained in Hong Kong. At least I get my points in.
I’m on a fitness regime at the moment, which started on January 1st. It involves:
1) Doing P90x for 90 days – this is a set of DVDs where you follow an American guy called Tony jump around, lift weights, do pull ups and strain through yoga. I’m a third of the way through and actually really enjoying it, but it’s pretty intense and time consuming.
2) Not drinking. I thought this would be hard for me, but turns out it isn’t. And I feel really good on it. My family think I’m weird though.
3) A diet that mainly involves eating healthily and avoiding white carbs. Again, if you told me I couldn’t eat bread I’d have thought it impossible, but it makes you experiment and try a lot of new stuff.
I’ve lost about a stone (7kg) in weight, although I don’t have goal, or even really any idea why I’m doing it. I think it is a reaction to the news that your mother is pregnant again with your brother or sister! I think I want to be a healthy dad so I go hell for leather at it. I tend to be all or nothing. He or she is due at the end of July so we’ll have double trouble and will probably need to buy some sort of mini van to transport you, him/her and your cousins around. It all feels very lovely.
I spoke to you on Skype a few times this trip and it is amazing how quickly your speech is coming on. You are two in three weeks. You can pretty much get your point across for anything you want and you are cheeky as hell. Last night you stirred pasta in your mum’s tea and told me there was a shark in there.
So what of Bangkok this time? I had plans to go the Thai boxing at Lumpini Stadium, see a snake park and even fire machine guns at the rifle range, but none of these came to fruition. Instead I went to some nice restaurants and did a morning run around Lumpini Park with a colleague, which was great and incredibly tiring in the heat. I went to a restaurant called Bed Supper Club which is in a really interesting structure. You sit on beds (free massages are available) for your dinner and are entertained in the central part of the restaurant by contemporary dancers. It was great. I had a night out with a colleague at “In the mood for love” which is a Japanese restaurant and some of the best food I have ever eaten. Afterwards we went to a pool hall and played a few sets with the women there who are ex-sex trade workers and also happen to be very good at pool.
In Hong Kong I feel I have been so many times it is hard to get motivated to see sights, so I did a morning run there to and ran half way up The Peak to Bowen Road fitness track and took in the views. That’s quite a few cities I’ve gone running in around the world now and it is a great way to get to know them and soak up atmosphere.
Looking forward to giving you a huge squeeze when I get home
Photos: bed supper club, Siam Square decorations, street art (all Bangkok), halfway through my run up the Peak in HK
No surprises, I’m on board a plane again. I’m on the Tarmac at Taipei’s Taoyuan International airport waiting to fly 12 hours to Amsterdam then home to Nottingham.
I haven’t been away with work since Hong Kong in August but now have a devilish couple of months when I am away 4 weeks out of 5 in 4 different countries and will mean I see very little of you. To make matters worse, I am only back from this trip for 2 days and for most of those you will still be on holiday in Mallorca with your mum, grandparents and cousins. I see you for one evening and then wake up at 4am to fly to Brazil. You’re at an age (almost 2 now, where did the time go?) where you are doing new things every day and I’m missing them. Skype has let us down this week which makes it worse.
So what of this trip? Not much to tell you really, it was all work until into the evenings and then moving on to the next city. I went to Taipei, Hsinchu, Taichuhng, Tainan and Kaohsiung then back up to Taipei. All I really saw were hotels, Starbucks, a Karaoke bar and a couple of restaurants with no time for being a tourist. I’ve been to Taiwan so many times now and all I have seen is the cities. One day I’ll make time to see the eastern side and middle of the island that everyone here assures me is beautiful. Taipei continues to grow in population, sucking the youth from the rest of the island whilst the middle-aged move out to Hsinchu and Taichung to larger, cheaper housing and commute on a fast train. There is real worry about the economy as wages haven’t gone up in the best part of a decade, growth has slowed, the hi-tech industry is being out-competed by other parts of Asia and the population is ageing. The rich are rich and everyone else is slogging away for not great returns, so property is too expensive for most couples and this is delaying family life. Someone told me that people have kids more out of duty than anything else – to help the economy.
Karaoke is massive in east Asia. In the UK it is a public performance, but here you go to huge buildings full of lots of small private rooms for only you and your accomplices to use. You can order all types of food and drink with waiter service and usually even have your own toilet. It is a time-sucking black hole once you are inside and have drunk a couple of beers – the hours fly past in a blur of Blur, crooned Frank Sinatra, and frankly optimistic Whitney Houston . The performances start, the Viking in you comes out and everyone starts crucifying well known tunes. It is great fun, but only because it is so strange to us Europeans and treated as a bit of a joke. Locals use is as a social and business forum and not the drunken screech-fest that we do. I am particularly good at Faith by George Michael and Chasing Cars by Razorlight (by that I mean not totally appalling) and not much else.
Some things I saw this week:
– Din Tai Fung – a Michelin starred but very reasonable dim sum restaurant, which was excellent
– The Eva Air check in desk at Taipei airport which is Hello Kitty themed. Hello Kitty is a cultural phenomenon in Taiwan and has arguably influenced visual culture in the asiatic region for the past twenty years – hence their fondness of cute characters in all advertising, etc
– Painted junction boxes. It’s like middle class street art
– Kiss and ride sign. This is the drop off point for cars at stations/airports, although it sounds much ruder
My flight has taken off now and it’s close to midnight, so I’m going to kick back and try to get some much needed sleep.
I arrived in Bangkok early yesterday morning (around 1am), had about 5 hours sleep and then had to get up for a full day of appointments, so my sleep deprived existence continues. I missed speaking to you on Skype because your mum had to leave the house to collect your grampa’s car and I couldn’t speak to you last night because the internet was down in the hotel, so I haven’t seen you in a few days. Apparently you are crying all the time unless someone holds your hands so that you can practice walking. Please don’t start walking before I get home. I suppose I am going to miss all these things because of travel. Apparently you are already saying “car” and “shoes” and I’ve only been away just over a week.
Bangkok (the ‘Big Mango’, as opposed to the Big Apple) is not how I remember it from 4 years ago. It is busier, more modern with far more westerners here. Your mother and I first came to Thailand in 2001 as part of our world tour and gave Bangkok a miss, instead just visiting islands and beaches. Even then it was incredibly popular as a holiday destination, not just for northern Europeans but for Asians, Americans, Latin Americans – it was verging on being ruined by its own popularity and I can only assume those same beach resorts now are. I’ve been here one full day, but even in that time you get a sense of changes, attitude and people around you. I like to categorise the westerners I see around me and so far this is my little game when I am the BST (Bangkok Sky Train): In my eyes there are only a few categories:
1) Couple dressed casually = tourists
2) Couple dressed scruffily, probably with braids, fishermans trousers, bangles, etc = backpackers
3) Man in suit = visiting business man
4) Couple with pram = expats
5) Couple of tanned men sharing iced drink = gay expats
6) Man on his own, or holding hands with much younger Thai woman = sex tourist
I know, I am a terrible stereotypist, but it keeps me amused. Why does the entire world descend on Bangkok? Everyone can find the experience they are looking for here – a luxury break, the cheapest of holidays, a hedonistic weekend or a spiritual journey – and the local people are forward thinking, accepting and business-minded. The City, like many in Asia, comes alive at night when market stalls are erected and the population pours onto the streets to find everything available to mankind. I met up with two colleagues last night and took a wander through the (rather sterile for BKK) streets around the hotel. I’m staying in the Novotel in Siam Square, bang in the middle of the city, which is much more developed and westernised than I remember. There are still children made to work, either begging, playing instruments or as part of the enticement game for tourist stalls – it makes my blood boil. The malls over the road have all the trappings of Europe, the USA and the rest of the consuming world: Krispy Kreme donuts, McDonalds, Tesco, Starbucks and restaurants from all four corners. The only thing I couldn’t find was Thai food! We looked for a bar to relax in, but I suppose retail space is so expensive that they cannot afford to set up and the only place open in the whole district was a Hard Rock Cafe playing very loud live music so we gave it a miss and had a couple of beers in the hotel lobby instead, getting bitten on the legs by mosquitoes.
I’ll take my camera out tonight and try to get a visual record. When I first started travelling for work I took my camera everywhere, but after a while I became ambivalent and stopped. Such a mistake, as there are some places that I used to visit frequently that I will probably never go back to now – I only have 2 photos of Bogota in Colombia for example, hardly any photos of Uganda or Nigeria or Pakistan. I’m going to make more of an effort to capture this period of my life, although there is always the question of what I’ll do with these pictures. They tend not to be the kind you frame or put on your wall. Just for me and memories I suppose. Here is the view out of my window until later: