Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Article - Beijing - wrap up

I had a great time in China and it was nearly time to return home. Although I was sad to be leaving Leon, I was looking forward to some home comforts. Like a reasonable mattress. One that is so hard that it gives you sore hips is not my idea of bliss. And maybe London isn't quite as dirty and polluted as I had previously thought!

I've included a few additional photos of memorable moments during the trip.

We had some good local food at this restaurant. The waiter rushing behind Leon was carrying a live fish obviously for inspection by a patron. As he walked past Leon, the fish leapt out of his hand, nearly on Leon's lap, and landed gasping on the floor. The waiter barely hesitated, scoped it up and continued on his way!

These photos are of the view from the Hyatt Hotel in Beijing. The cocktails were a cheap price to pay to watch the sun go down over Beijing.

We had to reluctantly catch one of these 'tuk-tuks' home one night. The last train stopped earlier than expected, and all the taxis were taken very quickly. It was an interesting experience, skidding from pothole to pothole!

I really did have a good time, and am looking forward to my next visit. It definitely gets easier as Leon's Mandarin improves.

Beijing - Cooking classes

Cooking classes were the next highlight! Luckily we were meeting out chef on the edge of the hutong (traditional style living in a maze of alleyways), or we would never have found her. This photo is inside the alleyway on the way - not where we were cooking!!

There were seven of us in the group, and after introductions, our next stop was the market. We watched Chun Yi negotiate for chicken, various spices and vegetables, before heading into the hutong to her cooking school. Although I was pleased to note that we didn't buy anything exotic like wiggling silkworms, snake or beetles, there was the opportunity to finally identify some of those stranger looking fruits and vegetables I'd seen previously.

Lessons started off with an explanation of different soy sauces and how you tell a good one from a bad one. Unfortunately this hasn't helped me back here at all. The vital ingredients are listed on the label! Perhaps I need a more authentic chinese supermarket than Waitrose.

Although not all of the cooking was hands on - it would have taken far to long - we had the opportunity to view closely and to get closely involved in two dishes. We made Gong bao chicken and canton style steamed fish. In this photo, I am trying to fish out all the very hot dried chili I had just fried. I was assured that any eaten would result in a numb mouth! Leon left his in, but I wasn't that brave.

We ate the food in the little courtyard outside and it was delicious. Once again I had eaten too much food - the story of my life in China!!

Beijing - 798

'798 stands for much more than a three digit number: in Beijing these numbers symbolize the country's cutting edge art movement led by the Chinese vanguard, unchained artistic personalities with alternative life goals. Wild and unconquered attitudes waft inside 798's free and rambling atmostphere. '

I found this description on the internet, and although it's a bit overstated, I think it's a good description of the best bits of 798. I really enjoyed it. My visit was enhanced by the fact that Leon had been there twice before, so had already worked out what to ignore and the location of the best bits. It's a disused industrial area, still full of old warehouses and factories, that now continue a large variety of art works.

Unusually for me, I connected with most of the contemporary art!  And I felt that I understood the messages, or should I rather say that they had messages for me.      Perhaps not quite as wild or unconquered as some artists would like to think.

 Here is Leon looking at 'life through a rear view mirror'.    A number of the mirrors already had images in them, and some were left blank.

This next photo was taken inside a room filled with some sort of vapour that moved and changed colour as you walked through it.  It attacked most of your senses, as the floor and ceiling both changed sloping up and down.    It was very disorientating and I did panic for a while that I wouldn't find my way out.

I found this next installation quite eerie.  

I suppose it was a video exhibition.    There were lots of oval and round balls that had eyeballs projected onto them.  The eyes moved staring at you and blinking.  

Two talking heads!    Again a video installation onto oval shapes representing the faces.   Unfortunately I couldn't understand what they were saying, but it was very clear that they weren't listening to each other!!

There were a number of different exhibitions - that were interesting and challenging.  I've included those that were easy to photograph, but there were many more.     I'd love to go again and spend more time exploring.

Journal - Changchun - Making dumplings

Stella and her husband came and collected Leon and I for a day out. Included on the iterinary was a visit to Jingyuetan National Park - it is the largest artificial forest in Asia! There is a large lake in the middle and visits seem to consist of either driving or walking around the lake on the road. There were very few footpaths off into the forest. The main purpose of visiting this park is to inhale the 'natural oxygen'. There was a total fire ban at the time, and there were quite a few soldiers patrolling to ensure that this was enforced. Apparently on total fire ban days a text message is sent to all mobile phones in the area. Quite a cool idea!

We then headed off to Stella's parents apartment. This seemed typical of most apartments. We took our shoes off at the door, and were given slippers to wear. It had a 'sun room' where the laundry is dried, but also large containers of water in the bathroom. Apparently the water can be turned off unexpectedly and so reserves are kept at all times! And once again, no heating. Heating is controlled centrally and turned on and off when the government decides winter has started or ended. We had fun making dumplings, although none of us were as good as Stella's mum. It felt like we made hundreds and I was surprised that we managed to eat nearly all of them. Neither of Stella's parents could speak English, although this didn't stop them from making us feel very welcome. Stella's Dad would occasionally break into Japanese. He said this stopped him from feeling left out whilst we were speaking a foreign language!! He could play various musical instruments and gave us an impromptu concert.

After gorging ourselves on dumplings, together with a salad of wild garlic and dandelion roots, we headed off to visit Stella's grandparents. They had lived on their farm for most of their lives and the farming was being continued by two of their sons. Again we were made to feel very welcome and lack of English wasn't a problem. Living conditions were very basic - one large room with a raised platform, under which a fire could be lit. So for once, it was lovely and warm in their house! Stella said her grandparents didn't see the need for furniture and were very happy living in the traditional style. The kitchen had the largest wok I had ever seen, set into the stove top. Grandma also proudly showed me the small radish she had grown.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Journal - Changchun - Leon's school

The next day I caught the school bus to Leon's school. Leon teaches 8 year olds - and they are so cute! I watched three classes - and participated in some of the activities. Leon introduced me to each class and they asked me questions: How old are you? What's your favourite food? What's your favourite colour? Of course, these are children that get a lot of attention at home - as most of them are only children. Apparently the parents have the teacher's mobile phone number and will ring at any time if they have any concerns. It also goes the other way, if they are happy then they will pay money into the teacher's mobile phone account.

As it was the last day of school, it was a half day. So all the teachers in Leon's group, and I, headed out for lunch. We had a fantastic meal at the 'Social Revolution' Restaurant (my english translation). The food was very typical for the northern region and there weren't any parts of each animal that was wasted. I think the strangest food that day was the pig fat, that had been cooked for a long time and then cut into cubes, so that it looked like a pieces of jelly and had about as much taste!

Journal - Changchun - the puppet emperor's palace

Dennis, a lovely tiny little Chinese student, first helped me to check into my hotel.  Then we headed off by taxi to Puyi's Palace. Poor Puyi, who was rather hopeless, was the last emperor of China. Puyi means puppet, and I think this was his official title, as he had to report to the Japanese.

 The palace was interesting as it was set up as he would have lived in the Forbidden City with his four wives.    Not all four at the same time. Anyway poor Puyi didn't seem to do too well in the bedroom so his first wife, the empress, found a new lover. When she was discovered, she was restricted to her rooms, got addicted to opium through boredom and went a bit mad. Apparently she was offered a divorce, but she didn't take up the option. He married the second wife at the same time as the first.

The third wife was a student from Beijing. Apparently she was well-behaved for a while, but then got politically active, and died in suspicious circumstances. His last wife was a nurse, which was a good idea because this guy was a total hypochondriac. He consulted his doctor at least once a day.

There were lots of amusing stories - the fact that he used to spend hours on the toilet hiding from the Japanese, and that he tried to escape from the palace in his huge Bentley. Of course, no-one would have noticed the Bentley as all the peasants had one in those days!!

Journal - Arrived at Changchun

Made it safely to the airport, correct terminal, and got my boarding pass. A huge relief! Collected the luggage okay, and found a taxi at Changchun. Leon had given me a sheet with questions and the chinese translation. I only had to point to the question. Slight problem - I didn't understand the answer. The taxi driver kept saying one, one, and I agreed. I hoped this meant that the fare would be a 100RMB (which Leon said was reasonable) and not a 1,000RMB.

Arrived safely at the hotel which was very cool, and in the busy part of the town. The walls in my room were stencilled with flowers and the bathroom had glass walls, with a light orange curtain. Fun, until I had visitors who wanted to use the bathroom!! The remaining people in the room had to stare out the window with their backs to the bathroom. It also had its own hot water cistern, so lots of lovely hot water.

This is the road outside my hotel. There were road works going on during my whole stay in Changchun. The roads have to be repaired after the winter snows and the government gets stuck in and ensures it is done. This causes major disruptions to the traffic, which is totally chaotic before the roadworks even start! So cars go over the pavements and over the roadworks, if possible. Where they can't go over the roadworks, then it seems to create extra parking possibilities!

Leon tells me that the rule is, if you can't see them then they can't run you over. The only problem is that I want to know that they have seen me and aren't applying the same rule! You need to do that sneaky sideways look and pretend you aren't looking or you never get across the road. Don't think of waiting for the red light, 'cos stopping is optional, as are most the road rules!

Journal - China - overnight in Beijing

My flight from Sydney stopped at Shanghai and we had to clear immigration there, and then get back on the plane to Beijing. We were told on the plane that if we boarded the plane at Sydney then we had to go through international, and everyone else should go through domestic. I didn't want to go through international 'cos I didn't have the paperwork anymore. So I went through domestic. All the baggage came off the plane - no suitcase. I wandered around at 2am in the morning trying to find someone who could speak english who could locate my bag. It was sitting on the international carousel wasn't it!! Got to the hotel at 3am, and had to get up at 6am in time to have some breakfast and head out back to the airport to fly to Changchun.

Breakfast was interesting. After eyeing out all sorts of strange looking vegetables and meat, I decided that the only thing I could face so early in the morning was the birthday cake - sponge cake covered in hundreds and thousands and silver balls! Luckily I then found some toast, but no knife, so I had to use a chopstick to butter the toast.

Sunday, 16 May 2010


I had a most relaxing four days with friends in Brisbane. Mandy loves to cook and Terry loves to drink fine wines - so I'm sure this gives you a very good picture of what I spent most of my time doing.

Mandy and Terry have moved into a new house since I visited them last. This house doesn't have a view over a canal, but overlooks a park. It's a new park at the moment, but as the trees grow, I think it will be magnificent. This is a sunset view over the park.

I've included a few photos of us eating and drinking with various friends and relatives on the front deck.

The drive North - Sanctuary Cove

I've had many fun meals at George's at Santuary Cove, so I decided to stop in for lunch. Santuary Cove looked like it was booming to me. Funny to think back to the eighties when it nearly went bankrupt, and we wondered how they were ever going to convince people to buy in such a far out place!

The drive North - Surfers Paradise

Continuing up north with the Gold Coast in my sights! I did try to do a detour through the hinterland. Got of the freeway at one stage and meandered through some very scenic countryside with breathtaking views over to the coast. But unfortunately there were very spots to stop, which i usually saw too late, and as the road wasn't very good, I had to concentrate on where I was going.

But once at the Gold Coast, I can assure you all that nothing has changed. Or perhaps there has been a slight change, I think it was a bit grubbier and tired looking. However, there was a lot of roadworks and renovations going on, so perhaps when done, it will look like it's old glitzy self. As you can see from the photo of the view from my hotel room, tall buildings are still the order of the day. Sunbaking on the beach in the afternoon isn't really an option! Jogging along the broadwalk was pleasant and I managed to get a run in each morning.

I had dinner at George's with Bernie, an old friend from my banking days. Bernie is a keen body builder, and is doing well in competitions. Good luck with the next one Bernie.

The drive North - Coffs Harbour

The next night I 'treated' myself to a night at the Opal Resort just north of Coffs Harbour. I remember this as being the last word in luxury. Now it is slightly tired and delapidated. I had a nice room with a view over the ocean, and an early night.

Up for that early morning jog again, I was rewarded with a sighting of lots of parrots feasting on blossoms. So as soon as I had checked out I was back with my camera.

The drive North -second stop

The man at the visitor centre assured me that I would have no problem negotiating the gravel road to see the 'grandest' tree in NSW. It is approximately 400 years old and well worth the trip he assured me. Well, I found the turn off easily enough, but negotiating the road was another matter. I'm sure I didn't tell him that I had a four wheel drive! And the rain over night didn't make things any better. My only consolation was that if I went off the road, it would most probably only take two of us to lift the car up and put it back where it belonged. This photo is not indicative of the state of the road - it is merely the only place where I felt safe enough to stop and take a photo!! The tree most probably wasn't worth the effort, so I'm not even including a photo, but I was very pleased with myself that I had negotiated the road.

I also took the detour to Seal Rocks, which was a very scenic spot. A little off the road so not totally spoilt by tourists, but unfortunately on its way there.

I walked up the light house, and took this 'artistic' photo of the reflection of the trees in a puddle in the road.

The drive North - first stop

I hired a small car, a Nissan Micra. I didn't realise how small it was until I was boxed in by enormous trucks charging along the Illawarra Highway! Anyway I refused to be intimidated or to be pushed over the speed limit, but I found that four hours was really my maximum for each day.

I spent the first night on a house-boat at Bulahdelah. For some strange reason I remembered this as a very picturesque little town. How memories do deceive! Anyway I thought a night on a houseboat would retrieve the situation. I was enjoying myself until the cockroaches came out! Enormous! I slept out on the back deck, until the rain chased me in.

Again there was an advantage, I caught the early morning mist on the river.

Someone else who was also looking for breakfast!

Sydney - Mosman and Dee Why

After the wedding, I headed off to Sydney to stay with friends. Ed & Denny have a fabulous apartment with fantastic views over the harbour. I had lots of fun experimenting with my new camera. Also did a few jogs along the shore line. A bit more challenging as it is quite hilly in parts.

Denny is very artistic and has done some fantastic paintings. Unfortunately my camera has completely changed the colours in this painting, but you can still get an idea of how good she is.

I managed to do a little bit of gardening whilst in Sydney. I used to be a very keen gardener, but don't have the opportunity or the time to do this in London. So it was a pleasure to do a bit of pruning, and dig out a few weeds.

I had a very relaxing time with Barry and Gretchen. This is us having lunch at Narrabeen, and I was now ready to tackle the big drive up to Brisbane.

Canberra and the wedding

My first stop was Canberra. Made contact with a few old friends which is the most enjoyable part of visiting old haunts. I did a fair bit of jogging, getting up early in the morning as I was still suffering from jet lag! I enjoyed jogging along the pathways near the lake, which forms a central part of life in Canberra.

The wedding was fabulous. Here is Rhonda with a very proud Dad! Everything went like clockwork - one of the smoothest weddings I have ever been to. Rhonda and Shannon were obviously very much in love, and had no problems expressing this to the world. It was lovely to see and to feel included. Rhonda's dress was so unusual, and I loved the fact that the flowers sewn on the dress where from her mum's wedding dress.

I regret that I didn't take more photos at the wedding. At the time I thought that the official photographer would take better photos than I could and that there was no point in duplicating. But I should have thought that the official photographer won't be interested in the same people that I am. So here are a couple of shots of people that I did take: Toppie, my ex-father-in-law, and Graham and Jane, very good friends who I haven't seen for a very long time.