absentfather

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

Archive for the tag “food”

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

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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

A Calligraphy Artist’s Studio in Xi’an, China

From December, behind the great firewall of China:

Dear G & B

I’m just coming to the end of a two week trip to Taiwan and China and am in the usual zombie state brought on by early starts, long days and the exhaustion of travel. Looking forward to getting back to you all and the warmth of home before Christmas. 

I haven’t written any of these for a while, mainly because I have been going to the same places over and over again, and there seems little new to tell you about. My experiences have not been exceptional for me, although in the past 4 months I’ve been to India, Korea, Brazil and now East Asia in a blur of hotels, airports and forgettable meetings. 

I’m learning Chinese at the moment, as I am sure you will given the importance of this country in the future of the world.  I am beginning to understand the country and the people better because of this, and although it still annoys the hell out of me, I appreciate China more than I used to. 

It is rapidly changing, and although traditions and the arts are making a resurgence and becoming more valued by everyday Chinese, the cultural revolution of the 1970s is hard to recover from. Free thinking and creative expression was subdued and much of the ancient treasures destroyed along with those that appreciated them. I was fortunate enough to visit some art exhibitions and schools this time and had one wonderful experience I thought I should tell you about. 

One of the cities on this trip was Xi’an, a former capital of China, still fully encircled by an enormous medieval wall and proud of its heritage and culture. It is seen by Chinese people as a historical city, home to the terracotta warriors and other significant sites, but it is still a rapidly developing and modern Metropolis. I was visiting Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts, one the “Great Eight” art schools of China and was invited to take traditional tea with a well know calligraphy artist, Yang Bin. 

His studio was in a tower block on the campus but once inside you could have been in a traditional house. Books lined the walls along with rolls of beautiful calligraphy of various styles. He sat us down at an elegantly carved table and went through the motions of a traditional tea ceremony. Boiled water goes into the pot with loose tea which is then poured out into a glass vessel and then poured back over the tea pot (which sits on a wooden grill over a tray to catch the tea). This gets rid of initial bitterness. The pot is then re-filled and the tea poured into very delicate, tiny, handleless cups and drunk. It tastes great. It feels special. 

He then asked if we would like a piece of calligraphy to remember our visit by. Of course I said yes and he began his work. He took out a piece of textured rice paper in a fan shape and selected his brush hanging from a dead bonsai tree. His ink was in a large ceramic bowl and he pondered his message before he began, writing in a traditional font. He told me that people sometimes do not value calligraphy as they think it takes no time to produce, but he said he has been in training for over 20 years and it cannot be done by just anyone. Once he had finished the four main characters he signed and dated it in characters also. It reads “all here are striving from calm and elegance” or similar and is a Chinese idyom. He then took the lid of a red ink gum which must be manipulated and the stamp worked into it before pushing it down onto the paper for the “chop”. He makes the stamps by carving them painstakingly out of stone. I felt really honoured to be given it and it was a special moment being in his house to witness him work. 

I tried calligraphy two days later in a studio and was told that I was naturally good at it, must be my artistic youth! I was presented with two calligraphy brushes and intend on practicing. Maybe once I have learned enough I can send Prof. Yang a piece of my own in return. 

George, you are currently obsessed with Lego and super heroes and are the chattiest of little boys, always full of stories of what has gone on over the last few days. You summarise beautifully for me on Skype. 

Bea, you are saying your first words, “shoooooooes” and “no way” and couldn’t be cuter when you do. You toddle around with such awareness and are a complete clown, always trying to make people laugh and catch their attention. 

Much love

Dad

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Solo in Seoul

Images: Cherry blossom; Conch that became dinner; Green tea and banana frap; Korean steak tartare

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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.

Love

Dad

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

Istanbul: chicken pudding and riots

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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.

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Seoul Food

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Dear George,

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.

Love

Dad

Pictures:
Seoul food
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

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Kuala Lumpur: back after 7 years

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Dear George,

 

I first visited Malaysia with your mum in 2002 as part of our tour of the world. We’d all but run out of money by then and arrived by bus from Singapore into Kuala Lumpur bus station quite unprepared for the squalor and chaos that greeted us. We were disorientated by the noise and mass of people, lack of any signage and pure contrast to Singapore and our luxury air-conditioned bus that had delivered us with smiles from ear to ear. The one-lmbed beggar shuffling towards us, the heat and the uncertainty of where we were going stressed us out a bit. We eventually found our way out of the dusty station and called a guy who picked us up and took us to his ‘hostel’ (his spare room in a leaking tower block in a fairly dodgy area). Suffice to say that I didn’t have fond memories of KL and we left after a couple of days to explore the Cameron Highlands.

 

My next visit was in 2005 for a work trip and the contrast to my first experience couldn’t have been greater. My boss flew me business class with Emirates, I was picked up by a hotel limo and driven to the club floor of the mandarin oriental hotel, overlooking the Petronas towers (one time tallest buildings in the world, setting for the finale of a heist film with Sean Connery and Catherine-Zeta Jones). I was stunned by the city this time around – great food, happy people – and the cobwebs of the late 1990s economic crisis had been well and truly left behind.

 

I flew into KL this time around for work again, but with a weaker pound and tighter budgets I could not stretch to my previous opulence. I still had a lovely view of the towers, but no executive privileges, rooftop pool or flowers on my bed this time. The city has changed a great deal. There is building work going on everywhere, old businesses moving into new tower blocks and the economic improvements are apparent by the cars people drive and the way they dress. But my my, the cars! KL is absolutely grid locked every rush hour or anytime it rains (most afternoons at this time of year) and it is next to impossible to get a taxi. The residents take it on the chin as part of modern life, but it is the worst experience of traffic I’ve ever encountered – I spent more time in cars than in the meetings they were taking me to.

 

No novel experiences this visit, just hotels, work, the odd restaurant to shovel beef rendang into my mouth with great gusto and a couple of drinks with colleagues in the heat.

 

You are 21 months old now and very cute. You say door, car, kangaroo, more, star, mama and dada, Eddie and potato and seem to pick up a new word every day. You are a natural comedian, pretending to cough up socks that you hold in your hand and hiding things from us. Last night you were trying to feed me sweets through the screen on Skype (and I was pretending to eat them). I’ve been away a week and it always gets more difficult being away from you longer than that.

 

I flew on to Seoul and I’ll write about that later.

 

Love,

 

Dad

A week in Taiwan

Dear George,

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.

Love,

Dad

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One Night in a Tent Outside Riyadh

Playing cards with Saudi men in a tent outside Riyadh

Dear George,

Another story from my travels before I forget too much of it:

I used to visit Saudi Arabia about twice a year, mostly just to Al Kobar, Jeddah and Riyadh with work. The first time I was really nervous, I think because I had no idea what it would be like: a seemingly quite closed and very conservative society with little or no cultural influence on my life so far. I soon realised I didn’t need to be worried and that like most of the world, people are just trying to get on in life and are generally nice to one another. One or two unnerving things happened, like almost being run over by a quad bike on the pavement, but generally it was relaxing place to visit full of soft drinks and late night sheesha smoking in cafes.

On my second visit I met up with a contact who was intent on showing me what Saudi could be like and keeping me entertained. We hired a big jeep (a Toyota FJ Cruiser), filled it up with fuel (£4.30 for a 65 litre tank – the cheapest petrol in the world) and headed out to the desert to do some dune bashing. There were herds of camels being walked through the flat plateau by shepherds shielding their faces from the sand-filled wind and just miles and miles of nothing. Riyadh sits on a rock plateau that falls away into rolling dunes and as we headed down through the rock my friend told me that Tony Blair had visited there only two days before to take in the view. He had just started his role as Middle East envoy. We reached a flat-ish part of the dunes where all sorts of vehicles had also stopped in preparation for their own dune bashing. We let air out of the tyres to get a larger surface area, engaged 4WD and revved the engine. My friend went first and absolutely gunned it towards the loose sand and up the dunes, sand flying everywhere and me gripping hard onto the hand rails. It was an amazing feeling, especially when you get over the top of the dune and are faced with a roller-coaster drop the other side. Wheels spin round, the car slides sideways and just when you are sure it is going to roll, one flick of the wheel and you straighten up and can hit the accelerator again. A real rush. We nearly collided a couple of times when other jeeps blind jumped over dunes we were on – so reckless – but just exhilarating. And then you get stuck. We probably got stranded about 5 or six times and once we needed a tow out of deep sand. The locals there were great though, stopping to help dig us out and jumping in the driver’s seat to try themselves.

Dangerously close to tipping over

Prayer time before Dune Bashing - it worked and we didn't die

We eventually tired and started to head back – we had a dinner appointment in a tent to make!

Some friends of my contact had invested some of their cash as a consortium to buy a piece of the desert on the edge of the Riyadh plateau where they had erected a large tent, complete with small holding out the back of goats and camels. When I arrived, they all came out to greet me with handshakes and kisses, I took off my shoes and entered the tent, complete with traditional carpets, stoves and pillows for comfort. They poured coffee, made me sit down and started asking me all about myself (through my friend who translated). I’ve never felt so welcome. Everythin that was being offered out – dates, spiced coffee, sweets – was offered to me first and it was amazing.

They had killed a goat earlier for us to eat for dinner and ushered me outside to show me how we were going to cook it. They had sunk a barrel into the ground, which had been modified to have an airtight removable lid. Charcoal was lit at the bottom of the barrel and then the goat was put into a basket, head and all. This was then placed over another basket full of rice, so when the goat cooked it seeped juices onto the rice and made it moist and flavoured. Once the lid was sealed they wanted to take me out onto the plateau to see the view. We jumped in their pick-up and head out at dusk. We saw a black camel roaming on it’s own. About a mile later we were flagged down by a rugged-faced man in a bashed up jeep. He spoke to our driver in Arabic, gesticulating wildly and then went on his way. When I asked what he wanted I was told, “He is looking for his favourite camel”! It was the Saudi version of a Welshman losing his sheep.

The stars were bright as we got back to camp and the goat was pulled out of the make-shift oven. The baskets were carried inside and then poured out onto huge round dishes that were placed on the floor, where we sat and ate with our hands. Again I was offered everything first and my plate was constantly being refilled before getting emptied. I was then offered the tongue (which is reserved for the poet of the group – I was obviously talking too much) and some of the brain, which tasted like cold, sloppy liver. It was actually really delicious.

After dinner we had more coffee, played cards and the old men moaned about their work and their wives. It was the Middle Eastern version of a night in the local pub. I left with a full belly, a big smile and a reassurance that most people in the world want others to be welcome and comfortable.

The goat coming out of the oven

I’ve got some more stories from Saudi for another time, but it is past midnight here in Hong Kong now and I’m going to bed.

Love,

Dad

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