absentfather

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

Archive for the tag “Travelling”

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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Hong Kong Foodie

Dear G and B

Shortly landing in Amsterdam where I’ll change planes and head home to you, at the end of a 12 hour flight from Hong Kong. 

I was first in China, in the seaside city of Xiamen and the South West city of Chengdu in Sichuan. Most people in the UK know Sichuan from Chinese takeaway menus, where Sichuan style is a little spicy with a couple of chillies in it. In China, Sichuan is known for having the best food, the prettiest girls and the pandas. I’ve been a few times and have seen the pandas in the sanctuary, climbed some hills in the countryside and have always quite liked it. Like much of mainland China now however, Chengdu lives under a blanket of smog and is an architecturally soulless, vast metropolis in the most part. Town planning has not been a priority in China for the last few decades. 

Some business colleagues took me out for ‘hot pot’ which is the most famous of Sichuan dishes and revered by its people. It is essentially a huge dish of bubbling oil absolutely swarming with fierce chillies and Sichuan pepper (known as flower pepper in Chinese) which has a very unique taste. The pot is placed over a burner in the middle of the table and diners choose raw ingredients that are brought to the table and added by those sitting around it. A fantastic business model – your customers cook for themselves! We had strips of pork, meatballs, various vegetables, bamboo, tripe and liver. Anything substantial or tough is left to bubble away for a while but other more slight morsels can be held submerged with chopsticks for a few seconds before devouring, hot, spicy oil dribbling down your chin. 

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Sichuan pepper makes your mouth go numb, a strange sensation when you are eating and unlike the heat from chillies. Those make your nose run and your throat heat up. You sweat. The more of it you eat, the greater the sum total of all this becomes, both uncomfortable and enjoyable at the same time. Beats a sandwich at your desk anyway. 

Down to Hong Kong and after all the work over a weekend some different colleagues took me out to Mong Kok, Kowloon side for another meal at restaurant London, which is one of the oldest establishments in the city. It is true Hong Kong food, served to round tables. There are tanks near the kitchen full of fish and crustaceans that will soon become dinner, so we chose our lobsters and fresh water fish, looking them in the eye and thanking them for their sacrifice to their graves in our bellies. 

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Choose seafood, look in eye, eat in cheese sauce

As the food started to arrive, things that stood out were the roast pigeon, complete with roasted head, the chickens feet and the vat of lobsters which had been steamed, covered in a cheese sauce and chopped into large chunks making it almost impossible to eat with chopsticks. Cue very messy foreigners and several plate changes. It was a real feast. 

Afterwards we walked down Temple Street where you can buy tourist tat and fake designer goods. We made our way to a group of tents at the end where fortune teller will read your palm and predict your fate. We were all going to have this done but the standard price was £35, a bit steep for a bit of fun you don’t actually believe in. 

Coming in to land now. I’ll get home at around midnight and you’ll both be fast alseep but I can’t wait to see you. Choco-porridge for breakfast and lots of playing with toys, tomorrow will be a good day. 

Love

Dad

Jeju Island and the “Sea Women”, South Korea

Henyeh (Sea Woman) and her octopus

Dear George

I was excited to have a couple of business meetings set up on the holiday island of Jeju, off the south coast of Korea. It is kind of like Korea’s Hawaii, where couples go on honeymoon and retired folk go to play golf. The number of visitors is over 5million a year and the population is only around 500,000.

Because of work I didn’t get to see many of the tourist attractions, such as the volcano crater in the middle of Hana Mountain, the countries largest mountain and one that dominates the skyline wherever you are on the island. I did however have a drive around and was able to admire:

– the indigenous Jeju horse, famous in South Korea. They race it.

– the graves that are dotted all over the landscape. They are a mound that is walled with local stone to keep the horse out. They look very Neolithic

– the cherry blossom, which lined many of the roads and was in full bloom

Cherry blossom

On my only evening there last night I was taken to the sea by my hosts to try some local delicacies. The “Henyeh” (literally sea women) are divers who free dive into the ocean year round to harvest sea cucumbers, octopus and sea urchins. They are a local tradition but are dying out because no young women want to do the job. Hence they are now all old ladies in their 70s or older who brave the icy conditions and risk of sharks and drowning every morning to earn a crust.

Until recently they wouldn’t earn very much at all, but the Jeju government has realised their value and has implemented ways for them to generate income through selling their produce directly to tourists. We sat at their plastic tables and ordered sea urchin with seaweed, sliced sea cucumber and some winkles that you had to manipulate out with a cocktail stick. All eaten raw. I can’t say it was a taste sensation, but was certainly interesting. I was really impressed with the jolly Henyeh women who were really no nonsense and full of mischief. Ours wrestled with an octopus she had caught and insisted that we eat everything she had given us.

Sea Urchin

Later that night I actually ate live octopus tentacles that suckered my mouth as they went down and wriggled in my throat. A really bizarre experience, but supposed to give men stamina! The rest of the food was amazing: a barbecue where everything was cooked in its shell. I have never seen such enormous molluscs and it was really delicious, if not a little wierd. I also tried the local poisons – maloki, which is a milky rice wine and soju a rice spirit like sake.

Seafood BBQ feast

Seafood BBQ Feast

I’d like to take you and your mother to Jeju next time, it’s a lovely place.

Love

Dad

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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