absentfather

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

Archive for the tag “journal”

Food on Sticks: Xiamen, China

Squid on a stick

Dear G, B and E

At the end of my last visit to China, I visited Xiamen, a seaside city in the south east Fujian province, looking out towards Taiwan. It’s a smaller Chinese city with (only!) about five million people and is famed for its seafood and tea.

And boy, do they love to eat seafood. The Chinese will be the first to admit that they have a preoccupation with food, but Xiamen was a whole new level. I guess many of the people I saw were on holiday so wanted to find and eat the foods they were visiting Xiamen to eat, but the queues for stalls were huge. As was the scale of consumption.

I walked down Zhongshan Road which is a pedestrianised central street lined with food stalls and shops aimed at tourists. Amazing to see people harvesting pearls from farmed oysters and making jewellery on the spot. Chinese liquor (bai jeo, literally white alcohol) in various elaborate bottles, some shaped as missiles and artillery shells. Dried food stuffs (such as 1 metre-long fish) stacked high in shops. But most impressive was the freshly cooked food. And most of it can be bought on a stick for ease of consumption on the hoof.

Fancy a whole BBQ squid? No problem, cooked in front of you in minutes on a stick. Deep fried prawns? Have several, on a skewer. A foot long sausage? You can have one, but it has to be on a stick.

I’m not going to lie, I was whipped up into a frenzy and stuffed my face. In rough order I had:

An oyster pancake (deep fried and so good)

A squid on a stick

A plate of mantis prawns

A bowl of razor clams

Potatoes slices on a stick

A mango smoothie with mango ice cream and mango slices on top

The following evening I went over to Gulangyu island which sits in the bay looking back at Xiamen. It’s where all the old embassies used to be and so has lots of pretty architecture and walks.

On an island further towards Taiwan the Chinese government have positioned a huge sign which reads “One country, two systems”. Which is a bit galling for the Taiwanese.

Anyway, Xiamen is quite nice and is in the running for my second favourite place on the Chinese mainland. It’s relaxed and the people are friendlier. I have work here if I want to come back anyway!

Love

Dad x

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Up Town Tokyo in a Typhoon

Dear G, B and E

I’m writing this somewhere over Siberia on my way home from Tokyo.

My first stop was Seoul yet again, but I didn’t really do much to speak of except work and walk. I spent a lot of my time on my own, exercising when I could and relaxing when I could. The trouble with attending events (this one was in the Coex centre in Gangnam) and being in meetings is that the rest of your work has less time to be done but is still there. So I’m a bit behind and very anxious about some of it, mostly because it is in preparation for my next trip with the man who could sack me if he wanted to. But that is just life at work, I think everyone feels like they could be doing more or doing it better.

The “glorious leader” of North Korea, Kim Jong Un has been posturing to the world recently and developing nuclear weapons. He’s been firing missiles over Japan and generally provoking everyone. This is not great when the idiot who is Donald Trump is president of the USA and is as measured and intelligent as an angry bull. So going to South Korea when mock military operations are underway seems risky as tensions and rhetoric are amplified. Seoul would be razed to ashes in 24 minutes should war start according to their strategists. Surprisingly, when you are in South Korea, the locals are talking about celebrities and the latest scandal involving a senior executive at tech giant Samsung, they couldn’t give a hoot about the nutter up North.

Very cool bookshop in COEX Mall, Seoul

After three days I flew to Taipei for presentations and then took the bullet train to Kaohsiung (industrial city in the south) to visit a university. The Taiwan High Speed Rail is fantastic, just like in Japan and I travelled the length of the island in 1 hour and 24 minutes. Super easy, super clean, super smooth. It was baking hot as I got shown around. The university is owned by a steel magnate who is a billionaire and also owns hospitals and entertainment companies. He has builtthe largest mall in Asia there with a theme park attached. Huge Ferris wheel dominates the skyline and it is tacky in a way only that part of Asia can do. Lots of pale pink and blue flashing lights, lots of shoddy workmanship and terrible sculptures of giant comic characters.

High Speed Rail and Casino in. university, Taiwan

The university is the only one I know that has a casino for education purposes (to train croupiers], which was a little strange considering casinos are illegal in Taiwan. The graduates go to Macau or SIngapore or elsewhere. I had some productive discussions and then had a lovely Japanese lunch in the shopping mall. There is a slide that you can take down three floors in instead of the escalator!

Onward to Tokyo, which I haven’t visited in a few years. It was freezing cold and constantly raining, because A giant typhoon was making it’s way to the island nation as a little treat for me. Taxis are prohibitively expensive in Japan and the public transport is so good that everyone tends to use it. I took the Sky Liner fast train from Narita Airport to Nippori station and then to Shinjuku where my hotel was. Still a 5 minute walk in which time I got soaked to the bone.

Japanese toilets are fantastic. They are electronic with heated seats, they can spray water in a cleaning function, then dry, then perfume your nether regions! Then flush when you stand because they have a sensor. I want one.

The approaching storm detracted from the pleasure I have previously had walking around Tokyo and just soaking up all the crazy and marvelling at the unexpected. Instead it was a constant sea of umbrellas and shuffling with wet feet. I went to the Shibuya Crossing where 5000 people cross every 3 minutes and got mesmerised by that again. I stopped at noodle bars and “sushi go around” restaurants for delicious and cheap food when I needed refuelling.

Shibuya scramble crossing, Tokyo

On the Saturday I visited Asato Goto, a fashion designer, at her studio near Roppongi, the most expensive area of Tokyo. She lives in an “old” wooden house, which is 30 years old. I told her that Morton Hill was over 300 years old and she laughed. She’s a really interesting character and we just talked about life for 2 hours over a very Japanese soup she made. Japanese people live in such tiny spaces, usually just 1 or 2 small rooms with tatami mat floors and roll out futons for beds. Tokyo is an absolute tangle of buildings taking up every inch of available space and it comes at a premium.

Asato in her studio

I walked around Meguro and found some of the crazy things I expected, like dog hotels, where you can rent puppies to pet. Went into a toy shop that had Japanese manga style dolls, Godzillas and the latest crazy crazes.

”Dog hotel”

The following day I went out for dinner with a couple of English guys who do the same work as me. We went to an isakaya, which is a Japanese pub. You order food on an iPad. We then went to Golden Gai which is a really interesting area of Shinjuku which was established as a bar district after world war II. It has 280 different bars in 140 buildings over 7 small streets. The bars each only seat about 6 people and are personalised by the owners so they all have their own feel. Some don’t allow foreigners in them, some almost only get “gaijen” as customers. After that we went for a traditional karaoke session. Karaoke businesses are everywhere and are vast, some with hundreds of rooms. You can order in food and they even supply outfits if you want to dress up.

The typhoon was raging by now with the rain coming heavy and sideways. I got a notification to tell me my flight home was delayed the next day, so was dreading it being cancelled but fortunately it passed over Tokyo beforehand and by the time I got to the airport it was blue skies. The only time it didn’t rain the whole time I was in Japan!

Pops had a fall on a walk and was taken in an ambulance to hospital, but is apparently ok. I’m going to see him, straight from the airport, hopefully back at his and Ouma’s house and not the hospital. I feel guilty for being away at these times and not being any use.

Eleanor has learnt to crawl whilst I’ve been away, but only in a kind of commando shuffle, I’ve seen evidence by video call. You guys are on half term so I’ve taken the week off to have some time with you before another trip to China, the one I’m dreading. Looking forward to some hugs when I see you later tonight.

Love

Dad x

China in a blur

Dear G & B

So the big news is that you will be having a baby sister in March. We showed G the picture of the scan and asked what you thought it was:

G: “A baby”

Us: “Yes, it’s a picture of inside mummy’s tummy”

G: “Is it me?”

Us: “No”

G: “Is it B?”

Us:”No, we had this picture taken in the hospital yesterday”

[Long pause, gradual realisation spreading across face]

G: “Are we having a baby!?”

Cue lots of hugging and tears. It was so lovely, I just wish I had taken a video of it to show you later in life.

So utter carnage will reign again and we will probably need a bigger car. Very much looking forward to it.

I’m in the KLM business class lounge in the newly refurbished Schipol Airport, deciding if 5:45am is too early to have a glass of champagne. I think I will probably crack and have a glass as I’ve just come off a 13 hour flight from China and think I deserve it. The last few hours before getting back home to you guys after one week and four cities in The Middle Kingdom.

I flew into Chongqing (a city few people in the UK have heard of, and why would you, it is only a small settlement of 30 million people!) in Sichuan Province for my first appointment and everything went swimmingly. I hadn’t been to this city in about 3 years and, like much of China, it continues to develop at a frightening pace with endless skyscrapers and monstrous, monolithic pieces of experimental architecture. Look up the Chongqing Theatre or Guotai Arts Centre and you’ll see what I mean. I could see both from my hotel room, just about, through the fog. There is a very old Chinese saying: “A Szechuan dog barks at a sun,” because they so seldom see one. I had my fill of mouth-numbing Sichuan food and followed the Yangtze River by plane to Wuhan.

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Me with some friendly locals in Chongqing

First thing in the morning I took a stroll through the city to a shopping district to try to buy a local SIM card for my phone, but was told they had moved to a new system and I needed a Chinese ID card to do so. Wondered around a supermarket and marvelled at the snack section. All wrapped in plastic you can buy duck’s tongue, duck’s gizzard, duck’s neck or duck’s feet – meeting all of your duck snacking needs. Carrefour (big French supermarket) is there but has very regional context – you can buy live seafood and plenty of dried animals as well.

I now have that glass of champagne…

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I then flew on to Shanghai, a city I do like very much and had a very hectic schedule, but did manage a wander down Nanjing Road and a nice relaxing dinner with a nice colleague. As we flew into Hongqiao Airport, I was yet again blown away by the scale of China. I know that there are 30 Chinese people for every British person on the planet, so I always use this as a mental scale: There must be 30 times as many everything (houses, hospitals, power stations, chicken nuggets, etc) for China to work, but even so, when you look down from the air on the volume of housing and the size of the cities, your brain just can’t deal with it. I took this photo of row after row of identical houses, but I’d already flown over another 50 areas like this:

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Onwards to Guangzhou and the most important meeting that I had organised with my big boss coming to do niceties. Two years of my work in the making and it all went really well, so I celebrated with colleagues afterwards and looked forward to jumping on the plane home. Did some banqueting.

Me:”We call this a Lazy Susan, what do you call it in Chinese?”

Host:”A table that turns”

[Pause]

Me:”Your name is better.”

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G is playing rugby now and I have been helping out with the coaching, which is great fun. You got kicked in the head by the baby bump whilst resting on your mother, which you found hilarious.

B is still acting up in every way, comedian and diva all wrapped into one. You want to call the baby Jackie. Not sure how to get you to drop that idea…

Love

Dad xx

China….again

Dear G and B

I’ve spent the last week in China, this time flying into Shanghai, down to Guangzhou, back up to Ningbo (which is pretty close to Shanghai) and then farther up to Beijing. I’ve been with two colleagues much older than me, but much less seasoned travellers, so I’ve been hand holding but also having a good time with them. One of them definitely on the autism spectrum. 

So what to report? 
Shanghai: I went to the Shanghai Sculpture Space, which is a lot like the 798 district in Beijing, but smaller and a bit more commercial. It was lovely sunny, winter weather and a stroll around quality public art was a good tonic to the horrible jet lag I suffered for the first few days. See the pictures of some of the crazy work there. 

        

  
Guangzhou: My other colleague arrived and brought with him a sickness bug that immediately knocked him out of action for 24 hours, locked in his room. We did our best not to breathe his air and got on with our meetings and saw a few interesting buildings whilst driving around, including the golden coin building or Guangzhou Circle. Although cities have not been planned with any foresight in China, there has been free reign on the architecture front and some spectacular structures have arisen. Check out Guangzhou Tower on the Internet, that is only a few years old and I think is currently the worlds second largest building. It has a kind of roller coaster on top of it. Why not, eh? 

   
  
Ningbo: twin city of Nottingham and I thought it was rather nice on my last visit – calm and civilised. Not really on this visit – seemed to just spend our time on broken roads and driving through wholesale markets, with men holding up turtles on sticks for sale.  Did meet some lovely people though and was taken out to dinner on The Bund and practiced my terrible Chinese. 
Beijing: the most amazing hotel, Hotel Eclat in Chaoyang. You turn the bedside lamps on an off with a plastic gun! Kapow! Full of art and just brilliant service and ambience. My new favourite. I went to a media partner and spent some time looking around their studios and then just worked away, not really doing anything newsworthy. Beijing is so different to the first time I came over 10 years ago and there are new, spectacular skyscrapers going up every time I visit. There are murmurs of a collapse in the economy from everyone I know there and the world’s economists so we’ll wait and see. It could be pretty bleak for the world if they do go pop, and very bad for my job! The scale of China means the scale of the problem will be massive. Apparently there are 40,000 media companies in the Beijing Media Corridor alone. 

   

Hotel Eclat

  

Chinese TV studio

 
I’m now taxiing on Beijing Capital Airport’s finest runway on my way to Seoul for some barbecue and soju fuelled escapades. 
I’m missing you both more and more with each trip. I worry about what I’m missing out on and I worry what you are thinking about with me being away. I think time is more of a fluid concept when you are a child, but I remember days taking months and weeks taking years when I was 5, I hope it doesn’t seem like I abandon you. 
George: doing really well at school and can read books by yourself now. You love Lego still of course, you got a bike for your birthday and we are going to spend the next few months working on getting the stabilisers off. You tell jokes now and are such good company. Bea on the other hand….haha! The cutest of little girls, you play with your dolls house all the time and and little characters you have to hand, making up stories as you do, with full script narration. You do like attention though, but we don’t mind giving it. You do anything to make us laugh and have some killer dance moves. Here is you going all Banksy on our kitchen:

  
Love 
Dad

Nairobi National Park (and a small car crash) #travel

Dear G & B

I’m sitting by the pool on a Sunday in Mombasa at the Whitesands Hotel, palm trees swaying in the wind and Afro beats music drifting over from the bar, sipping a beer. I can’t work today and downtime like this is great, although it is over a week since I left you guys at home and would much rather be there. Or have you here.
I’ve just arrived from Nairobi after a short flight past Mount Kenya. I haven’t been here for 6 years and nothing much has changed, except it is a lot quieter, I suppose because of perceived risks of terrorism.
Mt Kenya from the plane

Mt Kenya from the plane

I was working for 3 days in Nairobi but finished yesterday at 3pm so managed to arrange a quick trip to Nairobi National Park, which is a game reserve right next to the city containing all the wildlife you expect in Kenya. The car that picked me up (along with 4 other people) was a bit beaten up and I assumed that we’d be on Tarmac roads for the whole trip. After a short drive we arrived at the gates and had the usual wait for tickets that you expect with any organised activity in Africa. As soon as we set off we saw small antelope and a tortoise walking along the side of the road. We stopped at the ivory burning sites where dignitaries burn seized poached tusks as a symbol of disdain for the Ivory trade. Great views out across the plains but weird to still see the city in the background.
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Wild animals

Wild animals

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Just chillin'

Just chillin’

We next came across herds of huge buffalo with calves and birds sitting on their backs, more antelope, zebra, a lone ostrich running behind us and some distant giraffes striding through the tall bush. As the sun went down it cast a lovely hue over the clouds and the big sky turned dramatic. Seems unreal to be so close to a capital city with that backdrop.
Pano of the National Park

Pano of the National Park

Up close with some big buffalo

Up close with some big buffalo

Buffalo feeding in some amazing light

Buffalo feeding in some amazing light

Ostrich silhouette

Ostrich silhouette

The roads were not Tarmac, but very much potted dirt tracks and boulders. After a while there was a knocking noise from the fron of the car which sounded a bit serious. We made it out of the camp after dark and started the short journey home, the knocking getting louder. I told the driver I thought he might have problems and it sounded serious, so he should slow down. He did, and sure enough we turned a corner and his front right wheel snapped off sending us skidding into a lay by. We were close to the hotel, so after checking he was ok, we set off on foot to finish the journey. If he had been going faster it might have been serious.
Whoops!

Whoops!

Only two days here then back to you guys. Bea has had her first hair cut and G keeps getting all the awards possible at school, bright as a button. So proud.
Love
Dad x

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

Nigerian Road Tripping

View at sunset on Victoria Island, Lagos 20140509-212237.jpg

Dear G and B

Yesterday I was back on Nigerian roads for a nine hour journey after vowing to myself 4 years ago that I would never risk it again.

My last experience of highways in this country was the 6 hour hair-raising journey from Abuja (the capital in the centre) to Kano in the north. The bus ride was in place of a Virgin Nigeria flight that had been cancelled due to serious dust storms and was organised at the last minute. It started out fine with good spirits in the minibus and lots to see out the windows – the raw humanity of life in rural Nigeria. The landscape started to change from lush green jungle to dusty plains and the peoples’ dress also altered to Islamic as the majority. The dust storm was now around us and it was starting to go dark. Along the road were lots of small black plastic bags; thousands upon thousands of them carpeting the first 20 metres of roadside. I asked a local girl I was with what they were. “The lorry drivers do not have toilets,” was her reply. A carpet of plastic wrapped poo.

I started to watch the driver in his mirror as he was swerving a little bit and I could see that his eyes were closing and he was lolling with tiredness. After some shouting we substituted in a fresh driver much to the original’s embarrassment. It was now dark and there was no lighting on the road, with the added treachery of the dust to hinder our vision. We were now pretty scared of dying in a mangled bus as the driver was going dangerously fast, many of the cars coming the other way did not have lights on and the road itself was a potholed assault course. At one point I tied a scarf around my head as protection from the imminent crash. We finally pulled into Kano with a collective sigh of relief only to see the lights of a plane landing at the airport. It was our original Virgin Nigeria flight!

The trip yesterday was not as perilous as we made sure we wouldn’t be anywhere rural in the dark, but there were still plenty of interesting distractions. Apparently,the state we visited (Osun) is well known for human sacrifice. I joked with my colleague that I was bringing her there to sell her for top dollar to the witch doctors. Some of the overtaking manoeuvres were verging on suicidal and I don’t think I’ve had adrenaline in my blood for such a long period of time before. 4 hours out, 5 hours back, including a one hour traffic jam and we were both absolutely desperate for the toilet for a good sixty percent of the journey.

The Nigerians we have mentioned it to since thought we were crazy for taking such a risk and that they avoid the interstate highways at all costs. Stupid tourists.

I’m writing this in the business lounge at Accra airport, Ghana after 9 days away and looking forward to seeing you both tomorrow morning. G is currently obsessed with making things from favourite TV programme Mr Maker. I look forward to a house full of pipe cleaners and cut up paper plates.

Love

Dad

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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

Summer Palace, Beijing

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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.

Love

Dad

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Why do my clothes always smell so ba……ah! #china

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