Monthly Archives: April 2016

Food shopping Chinese style.

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I love food and, by now, have mastered the art of eating with chopsticks almost as expertly as any Chinese person… But the novelty of free school canteen food has long since worn off, and finally my first pay cheque has come through.  Shopping time!!!  After yet another trip to the local IKEA store I now am the proud owner of a wok AND a proper frying pan!  I have managed to sizzle bacon to a crisp and  rustle up French toast with fried bananas in the hollow of my wok , but believe you me, a wok and omelettes???

If getting proper utensils, cooking equipment, crockery and cutlery was half the battle, the other challenge is getting the right ingredients.  Although living in a more Westernised part of China, and in the vicinity of a branch of Wal-Mart, means I am not totally deprived of recognisable foods, they come at a price, an exorbitant price.  Cheese comes wrapped in plastic,  at about £4 for 200g.  Exotic cheeses such as Camembert are encased in protective tins, not quite authentic but the taste is not that bad…  Bacon and butter are available and a luxury I cannot do without.  And as for coffee?   Even at £9 for 1oog of instant, coffee is a must as I would struggle to start the day without it.  And when I next venture to IKEA, I will invest in a cafetière or other coffee making device and buy some real ground coffee to tickle my pampered taste buds…


On the upside, the Chinese love their greens and there is an abundance of vegetables on display in the supermarket, in the little vegetable shop around the corner or in the fruit and vegetable market.  After India, or the little hamlet of N in Kerala to be more precise (my Indian friends keep on pointing out that my view of all things Indian is pretty much warped because of living in a village rather than a town) where the scarceness of green vegetables all but dampened my excitement about food preparation, here the choice is myriad. From the familiar pak choy, spinach, leeks, broccoli and Chinese cabbage, to the more exotic such as lotus roots, all kinds of mushrooms and weird vegetables morphing into Laughing Buddhas.  It is vegetable heaven!!!  I still have to discover how to prevent each dish from having the distinct flavours of soy sauce, ginger and garlic, but I am working on that.


And then there is the meat… It takes some getting used to seeing raw chicken in a ‘free-for-all’ display and to watching Chinese shoppers delve into the delicacy of chicken feet.  In the supermarket, pork and beef are carefully sheltered behind plastic barriers and kept under a watchful eye, but in the market meat is on display on large metal or wooden tables, a rich selection.  Only, I am not so sure about buying my meat there in a few weeks time when the summer heat and humidity are bound to bring flies and other unwanted buzzy things in their wake.


In Wal-mart, barrels and barrels of dried fish in all shapes and shades of grey entice greedy hands to fill enormous bags.  Shrimps, prawns and langoustine, barely defrosted, are available at prices that make them an affordable treat. Of course, there are the live specimens where you can ‘pick your own’ with freshness guaranteed.   I have not been brave enough to try; a whole fish for one seems just a little over the top and not knowing which fish is which, I have avoided that challenge so far and, when on special offer or reduced in price,  stuck to rosy coloured salmon all neatly packed and wrapped…

And as for pigs cheeks, pig heads and other interesting meaty things getting perfumed by the fresh and polluted air…  I keep on the look-out for vegetarian protein whilst I conjure up memories of India with its mouthwatering dahls and finger-licking paneer dishes.  Tofu just doesn’t do it for me…










Follow the flag and wear the badge….

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I am sure that in the UK no one would get the least bit excited about rapeseed flowers in full bloom, but here in China, the occasion brings out hordes of tourists.  Only for a short while though, as the season lasts just a few weeks from the middle of March until early April when the yellow blooms slowly fade away.  So in the spirit of adventure and trying to taste China in all its facets and quirks, my motley group of international friends and I decided to go and have a look to see what all the fuss was about..  And how better to enjoy an authentic experience than by joining a ready-made touristy weekend trip, Chinese style…  The snaps on the travel agency’s webpage indeed promised a real extravaganza of gold splattered all over the rolling green hills of the Chinese countryside.


We arrived at the metro station indecently early.  7.20 am on a Saturday morning had necessitated a rather early start after a rather late evening, but who cared?  On the four hour coach trip to our destination, WuYuan, we were sure to catch up on sleep.  After being issued with the mandatory badge to identify our group amongst the sea of Chinese faces and ‘instructed’ to follow the Yellow Flag, we were herded onto the coach.  Most of us snoozed for a little while, but coach travel Chinese style – even with only adults aboard – involved entertainment, games and singing… There was no escaping the games, but singing???  We politely declined to amuse the Chinese students with renditions of English songs, feigning sudden amnesia and a paltry repertoire consisting solely of ‘Old MacDonald Had a Farm’ …  In the meantime, the glorious views of the yellow speckled green slopes blurred past the windows, hardly getting  any attention.


After a quick bite for lunch at a ‘Convenient Store’, we reached our first port of call: a huge amber field where we could walk leisurely taking photos and selfies to post onto WeChat, as long as we kept a watchful eye on the Yellow Flag…  But which yellow flag?  At least three other yellow flags bobbed up and down between the rows and rows of yellow flowers.  Thank goodness that at least the badges were not identical.  We took turns hoisting our flag, taking silly photographs and wearing flowery garlands, and followed Dorothy’s footsteps on The Yellow Brick Road. Only here the roadside was yellow and the path muddy and brown.  We didn’t meet a Lion, nor a Tin Man, but spotted a few weather-worn and threadbare scarecrows scattered amongst the flowers and certainly felt as if we were on our way to meet this Wizard of Oz..

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Our journey continued and after a whirlwind photo stop at a lake, we arrived in WuYuan, or more precisely a small traditional village in the area.  We watched local women washing vegetables in the clean-ish looking river, and only took a deep breath when we realized this was most likely to be our dinner..  And then there was the washing of the dishes… and the washing of the clothes…  Salad was definitely off the menu here!!!  But the food turned out to be rather delicious and, and as far as I know no one suffered any unfortunate ill effects.


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Our lodgings were primitive to say the least, but as we had opted for the cheap package, what did we expect???  Maybe not quite having to share one bathroom two floors below with seven other people and all the bar guests, nor having the abundance of fresh and cold air streaming through the ill-fitting wooden doors and literally sleeping on a wooden plank…  On the upside, being in the rooftop room meant we would wake up to the beautiful vista of slowly dissipating mist hugging the cloudy mountains.


We survived the night after taking part in the Chinese style bonfire evening where twenty twenty-something Chinese students walked in single file around the blazing flames spreading the only warmth.  They sang sedate campfire songs preparing everyone for a good night’s sleep until the Indian delegation managed to liven things up with a bit of good old fashioned bhangra dancing.  Even the Chinese joined in!!  And when the embers started cooling and it was time to retreat, with temperatures barely scratching zero, we stocked up on local brew and spirits before hiding under our duvets, fully clothed…  I tried to drink my fair share, but as the liquor had the distinct flavour of really nasty medicine, I left the others to portion it out between them.

But the village, surrounded by fields of yellow, was quaint, exquisite and smacked of ‘time stood still’; only occasionally would you see a child or teenager wearing modern, Western clothes and be reminded that here too it is the 21st century .  Apart from that, it showed a different side of China than the one I have grown used to in Hangzhou, a modern urban city, affluent, breathing the rhythm of a Western world.  There were no high rise buildings, only traditional Chinese houses with whitewashed walls stained with the black of moist air and damp, with traditional Chinese roofs ending in dainty upturned points where ubiquitous dragons stand guard.

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Sunday was our walking day, a 10 km hike over the mountain crest, taking in spectacular views of the yellow flecked valleys and gently rising slopes.  We did not exactly start from the foot of the hill but somewhere half way up, and soon we joined the winding path of steps up to the summit.  But tackling hundreds of steps, some steeper than others, took its toll on weaker knees and slowly but surely our little group began to break up, leaving only the very fit to carry the beacon to the top and beyond…  I may not have been the youngest of the crew by a long way, but I certainly was there with the first ones to see the other side of the mountain.  And downhill, that was child’s play, at least for those whose knees were still willing…

Another four hour coach journey home, this time without the need for songs and games as most of us were too tired after the morning’s exercise and a couple of nights of not enough sleep.  But we certainly had an enjoyable weekend.

And travelling Chinese style??  Maybe next time we might just be a little less stingy and pay a little more to get the room with the view as well as the bathroom and a door that keeps out the cold….


China’s blend of new and old.


The WeChat message came on Wednesday: the agency was organising a mountain climb.  Did the foreign teachers  want to join???  What a silly question really.  Not that I had spotted any mountains in the vicinity, but I would never turn down the opportunity of a bit of action and exercise.  So, my reply was  ‘Yes, please.  Count me in and can I have all the details…..’

In the event only a few teachers turned up.  Saturday morning 9.00am was clearly too much of a struggle for most of the younger teachers who had probably spent too much time in the karaoke bars and other bars or night clubs the previous night.  So we set off, four teachers and the rest of the office, all twenty odd of them.

The mountain in question was tucked behind the grounds of Zejiang University, past the grand statue of ‘Mao Zedong’  dwarfing the surrounding parks and buildings, and past the small houses where colourful washing fluttered in the cool Spring breeze.  We traipsed up the hill, mostly in silence and in single file as the narrow concrete steps made it difficult to move in tandem.

I cannot fathom why there should be steps in the first place as walking on the few remaining paths is so much easier on the knee joints.  But, as Klaus from the office explained, the steps are useful for the runners and walkers whose pastime it is to race each other to the summit and back down again.. And they are not youngsters, mind you, but ‘old people’ of sixty and beyond…  ‘Speak for yourself, Klaus,’  I argued, ‘who is old at sixty these days???’  ‘Surely,’ he carries on, ‘people in their sixties should be retired.  Live a life of travelling the world, and looking after the grandchildren…’  Not in the West, they don’t..  I wonder which world he lives in… This may be true in China, but in the West, there is still a lot of living to be done at such a tender age…

We carried  on uphill.  Teachers upfront,  the Chinese office workers already flagging, huffing and puffing and succumbing to bouts of heavy breathing.  And when a welcome sign to the summit beckoned???  Only three of us headed in that direction, the office workers making a beeline for a gentle, downwards sloping track.  Maybe they already knew that the views, shrouded in a stubborn mist that day, would not be worth the extra effort…  or that further steep inclines were to follow…

Our hike ended at the Fortune God Temple, a Buddhist temple standing proud at the top of the mountain overlooking Hangzhou’s West Lake.  Loud, reverberating chimes broadcast its presence as we neared the peak. But the tolling of the bells was not a call to prayer by the resident monks, but rather visitors and tourists paying a handsome fee to be allowed to clang the gargantuan bell with a heavy, oversized rod.   It may well have disturbed the peace of the temple, but I am sure the monks will have been happy enough to accept the extra funds.

I did not dare to take photographs of the inner sanctum of the temple where an enormous golden statue of the Buddha  filled the main room.  Not that I am superstitious, but I thought it wise to heed Klaus’s warning that it would pile on bad luck.  No point in tempting faith for the sake of a picture, I am sure to get other opportunities.   In smaller side rooms, the faithful queued patiently for their turn to throw the future and fortune sticks, to burn incense or offer prayers.

It was just a shame that the temple shared its prominence with a massive telecom tower.  Not a surprise, mind you, as the Chinese love to be connected at all times and mobile coverage is essential to ensure that selfies and videos do not remain locked up in the phone’s memory and are ready for live-stream without delay.  But what undoubtedly was an unsightly structure in a spiritual place provided ample space for tributes to Luck as curvaceous red lanterns and red knotted squares dangled daintily and elegantly from the metal bars.  Even a gigantic metal monster could not stand in the way of those wishing for a better fortune in the future.

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Hangzhou’s immaculate Spring parade.



Spring has been in the air for a little while now; the early soothing spells a prelude to the slow  awakening of swelling buds and flowers exploding into radiant bloom.  Only interspersing arctic shocks remain, the biting spasms of a dying winter. A bit like an English Spring really…  although when the sun bursts through the grey of the polluted Shanghai air, it is already quite hot, sunscreen hot.

I am lucky that my walk to school takes me through the local park, an oasis of calm and colour where alluring music perfumes the air with tranquillity, and where I witnessed the spectacle of spring unfurling.  When I arrived here in February, the park looked sombre with its lakes and ponds reflecting the bleakness of the surrounding skyscrapers; frivolity added by sculptures dotted around the area as the Chinese know a thing or two about dressing up nature in all its splendour.  The lanky naked branches of the willow trees drooped low over the water; the only bright sparks coming from the ever-present red lanterns festooning trees and lampposts.  With the Chinese New Year barely a week old then, I smiled at being greeted by Old Lang Syne….

But over the short period of a few weeks, the park transformed into a pot-pourri of vivid tints and bright colours as trees cascaded into blossom and spring flowers pushed through the perfectly tended borders and beds to expose their brightness and hues.  Magnolias in various tones dressed tree branches, tulips in many shades eagerly reached for the sun, deep purple and pink violets vied for attention with a mélange of poppies.  And it did not escape the notice of the locals who, just like me, whipped out their mobiles to take snaps of the display and almost certainly a fair few selfies as is the habit of the Chinese…  And keen photographers exploited the eye-catching extravaganza as a background for friend, family and wedding pictures.


But the park is not just an exotic place to visit on a whim or a special occasion; it is part of the town’s living space, used to full extent by the locals. The Chinese are masters of imitation, copying the best of what they see whilst diligently improving and refining, and their approach to landscape architecture is no exception.  Newly developed and developing satellite towns, housing huge numbers of people in massive flat blocks, benefit from wide, spacious roads and plenty of shared green spaces; no crowded, narrow streets blocking light and air… although maybe the number of car parking spaces seems woefully inadequate or is it merely that the Chinese park just about anywhere a space is available without due regard for other road users???.  And most mornings on my way to school through the park I bump into joggers and power walkers; I spot the small but conscientious groups of Taichi devotees; I watch mothers and grandmothers bringing babies and toddlers out in pushchairs and catch sight of a duo of badminton players.  The Chinese certainly take healthy living, fresh air and a good dose of exercise to heart.


And to ensure the park and other green areas remain spotless and pristine, a little army of gardeners is always on hand for the daily sweeping up of the leaves, thinning out stubborn and invading bamboo, sprucing up the flower borders with new specimens, dredging the lakes and other spring gardening tasks.  There is no such thing as litter in this park.

But I have yet to see a place where children can go, run wild, let off steam, or kick a football without destroying the carefully guarded lawns and immaculate flowerbeds….