Category Archives: Chinese food

The Great Brick Wall of China…


Michael, my agent, collected me from the airport.  As arranged.  With just a stopover of 90 minutes in Beijing, my suitcase was the first one to appear on the conveyor belt when I reached Hangzhou…

I only made my connecting flight by the skin of my teeth.  Wow, if I thought Heathrow was a large airport, or maybe Hong Kong, it was nothing compared with the scale of Beijing.  To transfer from the arrivals hall to the departure area within the same terminal, I was herded onto a train, which took an agonising fifteen minutes to reach its destination.   This was definitely not the bullet train variety travelling between Chinese cities… Of course, I needed to clear immigration and still run the gauntlet of another security check before boarding the flight to Hangzhou…

I headed for ‘Departures’ on the third floor, looking for the gate number…in vain.  In desperation, I accosted a security employee at his desk next to his computer – the only living soul in view – but his job description did not include  ‘helping stranded passengers finding the necessary information’.   Whilst the minutes were ticking away at breakneck speed, he advised me to check the board on the floor below.  Really, no board on the departures floor itself??? I rushed, I ran, I scaled the escalators…  I grabbed the first person crossing my path; she simply scanned my boarding pass and hey presto, the gate number appeared.  After a mad dash back to the third floor,  I finally reached the gate, the last person to board..  I must make a mental note for the future: allow more time for a transfer through Beijing, even if it bumps up the price of the ticket…

As my return to China had dragged on a bit, finding a new flat was a priority.  Michael had been ‘proactive’ the previous weekend and, after a brief flurry searching the web, sent me some adverts for what he considered suitable living space….  Suffice it to say that our ideas and tastes clearly clashed and I was certainly not going to spend the next twelve months holed up in a box, nor pay exorbitant prices for a lavish two-floor apartment.  Was there no middle ground?



Deciding to play it safe, I dispensed with Michael’s flat-hunting services and took Amanda with me.  Although Chinese, she is a sensible person with a clear understanding of Western standards of living accommodation… She is a woman after all…  In the end, we agreed on a perfectly sized ground floor flat, nestled in the middle of a quaint Chinese neighbourhood, but within walking distance of life’s necessities, such as Starbucks, McDonalds, CenturyMart (a rather posh, expensive Chinese supermarket chain) and of course, the school where I would be teaching…

There was just one little snag: the flat was clearly still a work in progress: a bathroom without doors, a bed without mattress, no furniture and no heating, and definitely no kitchen…  On the upside: freshly painted walls, brand new sanitary wear in good working order, a separate bedroom, a sofa bed in the living room and the generous offer of two televisions provided by the landlord.

Keen to be absolved of the cost of the hotels (paid for by the agent until suitable accommodation has been found),  Michael hastily arranged a meeting with the estate agent and the landlord for the next day.  He wanted to get the deal signed and sealed as soon as possible.  It did not worry him that he had not seen the property, as long as I was happy, he was happy…  During the two minute conversation we had, I tried to imprint on him that it may still be a few days before the flat was ready for me to move into and he may have to put me up in a hotel a little longer…  ‘OK.  I shall collect your suitcases from the hotel after work and bring them to the flat tonight,’ Michael reassured me.  ‘When Michael???  The flat is not yet ready…’ ‘Tonight, after six!’…

Two of Michael’s answers immediately send all alarm bells ringing: ‘OK’ and ‘I see…’   Both spell disaster as he either has not grasped the message at all (OK – ‘Hmmm, I will need to figure this out later’) or he has realised he does not have a clue about what he is required to do (‘I see’ – he doesn’t see it at all…).  Although he vehemently denies this, Michael is an agent ‘on the side’.  His day job keeps him busy during business hours, so he only has his evenings to deal with any urgent paperwork or other issues for the teacher(s) under his wing…  Needless to say, it explains a lot about all the delays with my visa and currently my residence permit.

I spent my first two nights back in a hotel in downtown Hangzhou, close to the centre, but some distance from my school.  Not very convenient, as my new job requires me to be at school for 8 am.  With the contract for my new flat to be signed in the evening, Michael insisted I checked out of the hotel.  ‘Michael, where will I stay tonight??  Do you have another hotel booked?  The flat is not ready for me to move into…Where do I leave my luggage?’ I urged him. ‘Don’t worry,’ was the the worrying reply. ‘It will be fine..  The hotel will look after your suitcases and I will pick them up tonight before we sign the contract…’ ‘And what shall I do when I finish at school..?  Wander the streets in the cold??’  ‘Go and have some coffee somewhere…Isn’t that what Westerners do??’

With nowhere to go at the end of the school day, one of my new colleagues took pity on me and I stayed in her flat until finally, a few hours later, Michael turned up and we set off to meet the home owner…  ‘Did you pick up my suitcases from the hotel?’ I pressed him… ‘Later,’ he shrugged off my remark. ‘Later, after we have signed the contract.  And then you can move into the flat.’  ‘Michael, I cannot move into the flat!!!  Did you speak to the owner about the mattress and the bathroom door??  I have nothing to cook with!! The heating does not work.  All my things, such as sheets, towels, are stored in YOUR flat…’  Michael insisted that the home owner had confirmed there was a mattress on the bed and the bathroom door had been fixed…  And what about sheets??  ‘No problem,’ he continued, ‘I will take you  shopping and you can buy sheets and towels.’  ‘No way, Michael.  I have sheets, I have towels.  If I have to move into the flat today, YOU will be paying for my shopping… It may be cheaper to find me a hotel for tonight!’

I was not privy to the Chinese wheeling and dealing that ensued during the signing of the contract, but any suggestion of negotiating on the monthly rental fell on deaf ears.  Being clever, I had  clinched ‘free accommodation’ as part of my package as this would save me forking out three months rent, another month’s rent as deposit and the agency fees in one lump sum in advance, plus my accommodation would be paid for in the summer.. .  But the flat was slightly over budget and I had agreed to pay some of my salary towards it.. so Michael did not feel HE would gain anything from achieving a rent reduction… and, as he confided afterwards, ‘Prices go up for foreigners…’   Maybe if he had not paraded me at the signing of the contract, the house owner would have been none the wiser…

By the time all the red fingerprints had been inked on the papers, it was nearing 9 o’clock and Michael was still adamant I should move into the apartment on that day.  ‘Let’s at least check out whether there is a mattress and then, if you  insist, YOU can buy me all the necessities such as sheets, a kettle.…  Why not get me a hotel room for tonight???’  Still jet-lagged, I was so not in the mood for camping without sleeping bag or airbed…

The estate agent handed us the keys and showed us to the house…Nothing had happened since my last viewing the day before…  There was no mattress, no curtains in the bedroom, nor a door for the ‘wet room’.  Paint and builders’ dust covered the floors.    At last seeing sense, Michael relented and reluctantly agreed we should collect my suitcases from the other side of town and look for a hotel nearer my school…  It was almost 10.00 pm.

After a quick dash into town to get my luggage, Michael started searching…  He had spotted a cheap establishment very close to my new apartment.  ‘You stay in the car,’ he said, ‘I shall go and see if they have a room available.’   He returned, tail between his legs… ‘Ah,’ he explained, ‘they are cheap, very cheap, so they don’t allow foreigners..’  We drove to the next hotel, just around the corner in a niche spot opposite the famed GongChenQiao Bridge.  ‘Far too expensive,’ Michael decided after looking at the special rates on offer online; he did not even venture inside.  We set off again, and Michael tried his luck a little further afield, but there was nothing to be found within his budget nor with rooms available…

Running out of options, we returned to the posh hotel.  It was past 11 pm and Michael had a day’s work at the office ahead of him and I needed to be in school by 8 am.  I unloaded my suitcases and accompanied Michael to the reception desk; I was here to stay whatever the cost.   The hotel had indeed rooms available, but this late at night, there was no hope of getting the discounted rate suggested by the internet.  And they certainly did not have any rooms at budget prices…  I have no idea how much Michael paid in the end, but he certainly turned a few shades paler on the mention of the figure.  By then I was beyond caring!!  I smiled and inwardly could not resist the thought, ‘Serves you right for leaving this till the last minute… You only have yourself to blame for not listening…’

My hotel room was wonderful, comfortable and luxurious…  and I only had a few hours to indulge.  I filled the bath to the brim and sat there enjoying the bubbles, leisurely topping up with soothing hot water… because undoubtedly, I would be moving into my new home the next day…   With three months’ rent in her pocket, the landlord would have no excuse not to at least put a mattress on the bed and curtains in the bedroom…


Breathing life into the heater…

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Which remote control will get the heating going?? New batteries maybe???

Eating Peking Duck in Peking


I stayed on in Beijing, just for a few days, whilst the G20 summit kept many ordinary Hangzhou residents out of town.  For us, school did not start until 8th September and many businesses and factories were closed to contain the pollution levels and guarantee healthy air and flawless, deep blue skies for the visiting world leaders.  It seemed the perfect time to explore what Beijing had to offer and put ‘faces’ to the many prominent names linked to the capital city of China.

A visit to Mao’s Mausoleum was not on the forefront of my agenda, but as it came with the ‘Camping on the Great Wall’ package, we duly joined the long line of Chinese tourists filing past the mummified body displayed in its crystal coffin.  Located on Tiananmen Square, Mao’s resting place was flanked by two brown statues portraying the revolutionary struggle spearheaded by The Great Helmsman. As taking photographs inside was not allowed, it was impossible to check whether this was the real Mao lying there, or – as rumoured – a Madame Tussaud’s make-over version…


Mingling with the bustle of tourists in Beijing’s remaining ancient hutongs -a network of narrow alleys crisscrossing and linking traditional courtyard residences- offered a flavour of China’s past.  Many of the hutong neighbourhoods succumbed to China’s post-war thirst for modernisation and were demolished to make way for boulevards and high-rise buildings.  But those that survive are now carefully protected and thrifty Chinese entrepreneurs and shopkeepers are taking full advantage of the abundance of visitors to the area.

Although the Forbidden City counts as one of Beijing’s highlights, I missed out on a glimpse of the inside as I was too late to get hold of a ticket.  So I took the metro to the Summer Palace instead, the grand royal retreat for the emperors to escape the oppressive Beijing summer heat.   The magnificent buildings overlooking the stunning Kunming lake surely warrant a full day’s attention,  but spending just a few hours in the opulence of China’s past was pretty impressive.



By then I had made acquaintance with Fiorella, a Peruvian Canadian, who was on a blitz trip through China on her way to Malaysia and beyond…  We spent Monday morning queuing at one of Beijing’s train stations to collect Fiorella’s pre-booked tickets to Xian, the next Chinese highlight on her tour…  If we had thought that Monday morning was less busy than a weekend, we clearly got that wrong.  The lines were long, indecently long…and trying to figure out which one was intended for foreign visitors took Fiorella’s clever foresight:  she had a picture of the Chinese symbols on her phone.  Although we managed to circumvent the eternal wait for tickets, we had less luck with changing money.  Banks in the area surrounding Tiananmen Square merely service tourists in need of quick cash with ATMs abound and not a living soul behind a counter…


But the best part of a visit to Beijing must be sampling Peking Duck in the very town of its invention.  Street vendors displayed huge containers full of ducks, carefully keeping the prized severed heads separate.  And many restaurants offered it on their menus.  I had already tasted ‘proper’ Peking Duck when we returned from our ‘Camping on the Great Wall’ adventure, but Fiorella had done her homework and selected one of the best and most famed venues to devour the delicacy: Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant.  We were not exactly dressed for the occasion, not realising that fame went hand in hand with class and in our touristy shorts and strappy tops we looked rather under-dressed for the event.  But customers are customers and we were invited in nevertheless.


We watched our Peking Duck being craftily carved and displayed, head cleaved in half to expose the contents in all its goriness.  We learned how to use chopsticks to one-handedly fill and wrap the delicate pancakes to encase the slivers of duck, spring onions and cucumber, liberally doused in plum sauce.

Was it better than the Peking Duck I have eaten in UK Chinese restaurants???  Maybe not… but the skin was indeed crisp to a crackle…


The dizzying heights of Shanghai.

I am not a lover of cities.  Snow capped mountains and gently undulating hills are my thing, and if I must, I can lie on a beach imbibing  too many scorching sunrays and drowning in the blue expanses of sky and sea.  Skyscraper cities have little appeal for me but living only 100 km from Shanghai -the New York of China as I have been told-, and less than an hour away by bullet train, dictated that I should not give it a miss.

‘You only need a day to see what Shanghai has to offer,’ Lorita explained.  She has been in China a little longer than me and has had plenty of opportunity to explore the touristy parts.  Jeff managed to fill a two-day weekend in November when Shanghai was cloaked in drizzle and gloom but he did not seem in any rush to add to the experience.   Faith, freshly out of uni, all but worshipped the wonders of Shanghai and recommended the Pearl Tower and The Bund as the places to visit.  Blogs I have dipped into raved about Shanghai’s Champagne Brunches..  Having carefully accepted all the friendly advice, all I lacked was some decent company to help me with navigation and map reading and, if I was lucky, with a few words of Chinese to keep me on the right track to find those places worth checking out.  So I approached J, who has lived in China for a number of years and frequents Shanghai on an almost weekly basis, for work mind you, so it is  more an in-out affair although he knows the touristy spots.   An ideal companion for the weekend.


Of course there was no escaping a healthy dose of Chinese culture so we started off with the impressive Jing’an temple, cowering amongst high rise buildings in flourishing downtown Shanghai. Intricately carved timbers and lattices, exquisite marble reliefs, an imposing silver Buddha, and gilded steeples and finials evoked an opulent past. The temple was destroyed by a fire in 1972, but meticulously restored to its former glory and is still an active place of worship.



Next we ventured to the Yuyuan Gardens, a famous classical garden, dating back to the Ming Dynasty and built by a government official as a place of tranquillity for his parents to enjoy in their old age… The six scenic areas are carefully woven into a spectacular garden with so many unexpected turns, nooks and crannies that it would make an excellent paradise for playing hide and seek..


We explored the famed Bund, on the banks of the Huangpu river in central Shanghai,  a waterfront area  lined with historical buildings, tokens of China’s  brushes with Western colonial forces.  We revelled in Shanghai’s skyline  on the other side of the water,  by day and night, with its Oriental Pearl Tower tucked between dizzying skyscrapers.  From the heights of the Pearl Tower’s viewing platform, we watched modern Shanghai unfold, scanning past some of the world’s tallest buildings such as Shanghai Tower (second tallest in the world) and Shanghai World Financial Centre.  We stood in awe, it was amazing!!!

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And then there was the food of course. If nothing else Shanghai is a paradise for foodies with cuisines covering every corner of the world.  We sampled an Italian style sandwich for lunch with proper buffalo mozzarella and Italian ham followed by a delectable panna cotta dessert.  In the evening we deliberated on Greek,  French and Chinese restaurants.  In the end we were won over by the Thai food and savoured a delicious green chicken curry, finger licking luscious prawns and pad Thai rice wraps.


But nothing compared with our luxurious Champagne Brunch on Sunday.  Shamelessly expensive, but eat as much as you like lobster, sushi and seafood , followed by crispy, plum-sauce-oozing Peking Duck pancakes, roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, Indian food, Mexican food, Chinese food,  and a mountain of desserts,  and all washed down with the best  part of a bottle of Taittinger and some Bloody Mary to boot… An excellent way to kill some time.



And the winner of ‘The Best Texan Chilli’ is ….


I love cooking… so when the opportunity to take part in the ‘First Hangzhou Chilli Cook Off’ competition  presented itself I was not going to turn it down!!   Adverts for the event cluttered all the expat websites tempting budding chefs, not just Americans and foreigners who know what a chilli should taste like, but also local Chinese cooks.  Let’s try to integrate and promote a sense of community, the message rang.  Proceeds to go to charity! The leaflet did not exactly specify which one, but it sounded like a good cause nonetheless.  Plenty of orphanages and disadvantaged children to be cared for, we thought.

Being in the company of Indians, we left the Chilli to the Americans/Europeans and plumped for the ‘Non-Chilli Spicy Food’ class, concocting an Indian curry instead.  Our initial team of three shrunk to just two members on the day, we set off laden with ingredients, banners and bunting to jolly up our stall.


As the non-Indian member of my team, I focused mainly on chopping and stirring, leaving the adding of spices to the ‘One In The Know’ and kept fingers crossed.  We were working on Indian intuition, not a recipe book in sight…  And although P had tried out the curry before, she had not cooked it in the large quantities we were expected to produce…  Neither were we prepared for the cooking conditions:  a huge pot on a rather small burner giving off a paltry heat unable to cope with the vast amounts of onions to be sweated and browned…


So at the 10 am start of the event, our curry was still bubbling away and aromatizing, slowly gaining the optimum flavour to present to the judges and the public.  Our next door neighbours, definitely in the right spirit and dressing the part, were keen chilli fans, the pleasant odours of their wares wafting across…  We shared their beers, which was a lot cheaper than buying our drinks in the pub/restaurant run by an American who was clearly making a mint on the day…

Visitors came to our stall and sampled our curry, nodding their heads in approval at finally savouring a proper curry in Hangzhou, one that resembled Indian food, as eaten in India…  We were confident…

The afternoon lingered on with plenty of tasters.  And in the background, the obligatory ‘Eat the most hamburgers’, ‘Eat the most pies’ and ‘Eat the most cake’ (without vomiting) competitions carried on.  We could have been at any Chilli Cook Off in the US of A…  But the day eventually drew to a close when all the chillies had been consumed and everyone was eagerly anticipating the announcement of the winners…

I had looked around earlier and tried several of the chillies and curries entered by the other teams.  Apart from the professional amateurs from the Americas and Europeans regions, a sprinkling of local Chinese and Indian businesses also cooked chillies and curries.  And I was glad I was not the one to be judging the competition, although the Chicken Tikka Massala  cooked by the chef of a local Indian restaurant had all the hallmarks of too much sauce, too much food colouring and too little resemblance to anything Indian that I have eaten in India..  You know the kind of Chicken Tikka Massala that comes out of a jar…

But we should have taken more notice of the local businesses sponsoring the event and their lavish contributions to the raffle prizes…  Indeed when the winners were announced, not a single American entry was deemed the best.  You would have thought they should have been able to cook up ‘The Best Texan Chilli’.  The trophy went to the Chinese chefs of the restaurant that donated generous raffle prizes…  And the best non-Chilli dish trophy went to the Indian chef of a restaurant supporting the event…   And at the last minute, the organisers announced a surprise new category: the invention of a new chilli dish … which was given to a Chinese business selling chilli ice cream…  And the charity we supported???  A local ladies football team….

Thank goodness we made our own fun that day, but I wonder how many non-Chinese entrants will be rushing back for the Second Hangzhou Chilli Cook-Off….  Maybe sponsors of the event should be in a separate category????

And if you wonder about the spelling of ‘chili’; blame the Americans…




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…










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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‘Don’t be hot, isn’t it.’ and other Chinese food.



‘Don’t be hot, isn’t it.’  I stared at the mobile phone screen of Helpful Chinese Man, plumbing the depths of my memory to find any recollection of the last time anyone told me not to look or be hot…  I suppose I should be flattered at my age!!

I was standing at the counter of a Chinese restaurant, starving and unable to get through to the woman behind the desk.  She was in no mood to even try to comprehend my body language, no matter how often I pointed at the menu or in the direction of the steaming food on nearby tables!!  Any of those dishes would have done the job.

In desperation and in the absence of pictures, I just picked out a line on the menu, hoping it wasn’t anything too unpalatable for my Western palate.  She seemed flummoxed and spewed out reams of unintelligible (to me) language in response.  I resorted to my translation app;  this did not have the desired effect either and my attempts to draw the Chinese symbols were aborted as it took far too long.  So the chef was called for in the hope he could make sense of my request, or be able to describe the ingredients of said dish.  No progress!!

And just as I was about to admit defeat and go home hungry, Helpful Chinese Man appeared.  Not that his English was any better, but he knew the word chicken, so I was on the edible track.  Hooray!!   Woman Behind The Counter, Helpful Chinese Man and Chef put their heads together to extract further details about my needs.  ‘Did I like spicy food’ translated as ‘don’t be hot, isn’t it’ on Helpful Chinese Man’s translation app and Woman Behind The Counter had merely been trying to establish whether I wanted food to take away or eat in…  I was eventually shown a table and my food arrived: fleshless chicken doused in garlic and green sprigs, enough to feed me and the rest of Hangzhou… that is if you like garlic.

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Up till then, I had been reasonably successful in ordering food in China.  My first lunch consisted of what looked like pork kebab, heavenly spiced, mixed with a few salad leaves and packed in a wrap.  My subsequent independent foray resulted in a vegetarian heap of egg and tomatoes for lunch, served with a huge helping of mifan (cooked rice)… and then there was the garlicky chicken.  But I admit that most of my adventures with Chinese food initially happened under the skilful and beady eyes of Klaus and Eddie from the office, who liked to take it upon themselves to entertain the foreign teachers and introduced us to delicacies such as frog.  I tried it and admittedly it could have been worse: melt-in-the-mouth chicken texture liberally coated with soya sauce…

But these days I enjoy lunches and dinners at the school and although I am sure that in due course I will get thoroughly fed up with the monotony of school food, for now it is a great way not to spend money!!  And at least there normally is plenty of green stuff on the plates….

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But not all the food is to my liking.  A big container full of bony looking stuff was on closer inspection filled with duck heads and beaks – I did indeed put one on my plate to take a picture but had no intention of eating it.  But rather than enjoying my lunch that day, looking at the doleful sight in front of me, put me right off my food.

I love duck but I think I prefer my duck meat neatly shredded, smothered in plum sauce, garnished with strips of spring onion and cucumber and delicately wrapped in paper thin pancakes:  Peking Duck.  I had it for lunch last weekend, as Walmart sells pre-packed kits; they certainly know how to entice the foreigners to keep spending money in their shops….

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