absentfather

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

Archive for the tag “blog”

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

Clear Skies Over China for Once

A post from a few weeks ago that I never got round to uploading….

Images: Beijing river, Maglev train, Shanghai skyline from Pudong

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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.

Love

Dad

India when it is 45 degrees C

Dear George,

The wall of heat that smacks you across the face, penetrates your clothing and fills your lungs with surprise is really quite unpleasant. I stepped onto the Tarmac in Delhi and realised I don’t think I have ever been somewhere this hot. Maybe a sauna. Maybe. The humidity isn’t too bad so it is not a case of instantly sweat-soaked clothing, but once you are hot, it is hard to cool down and it makes everything just that little bit more difficult, more annoying.

I haven’t been to India in May before, but I have been plenty of times. It is a love-hate relationship. Love the service you receive, hate the bureaucracy. Love the food, hate having stomach cramps. Love the weather, just not when it is making the road melt.

I went to meet some colleagues on Connaught Place (large circular piece of turn-of-the-century town planning in the heart of the city) last night and decided that I would take an autorickshaw or tuk tuk. Cheap as it comes and the bar was not far, so I thought it would be okay. Usually when you go at speed the air in your face cools you down. Not here, it heats you up, like having a hair dryer blasted up your nose. I fell out of the thing once it had stopped and nearly ran for the nearest air conditioning, a tragic sweaty mess.

Connaught Place is undergoing restoration, which was supposed to be finished over a year ago and was started several years ago. It is the centrepiece of the capital and is an absolute mess. An example of where India gets it wrong – infrastructure. I once landed at Delhi airport and sat in the car park for over an hour, not moving for traffic. When we finally got out I saw why: cows on the road. Cows outside your country’s major airport. Then I almost died on the Pune to Mumbai highway because there was an elephant walking against the flow of traffic in the fast lane. Bonkers.

But I am here to work, and that can be tough when you are overheated. You also have to contend with the Indian mentality. I love Indians – they are kind, generous, thoughtful and value friendship and trust. However, they can’t keep time, love paperwork and will constantly interrupt you so that every meeting takes three times longer than it needs to. I have finished in Delhi now and am on the way to airport and a much cooler Bangalore.

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That’s sweaty eyelid heat

 

Dad

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