Archive | June, 2012

Don’t count your dragons before they hatch

28 Jun

The old sauce is needed for the curse of the dragon

The Dragon – the blazing red spirit of the skies, the luckiest animal on the Chinese zodiac. So surely, you would think, booking a plane for the weekend when the stars align for the Dragon Boat Festival in the Year of the Dragon is about as auspicious as you can get. Your airplane-based Yin and Yang will be balanced as if with a spirit level– especially if you are, as I am, a class-of-1988 Dragon Baby.

As I arrived at Beijing airport on the morning of June 22, and was handed a freebie Dragon Festival colored string bracelet by a smiling official, I couldn’t help feeling that my flight to Hong Kong was about as in tune with the heavenly spheres as possible.

Oh, the tragic irony. I look back on my debonair self in the same way as one would look at Juliet prancing on stage in Act 1,  Scene III, with no inkling of what is to come. To whit: poor hapless sod.

The first hint that something was slightly out of joint came when I glanced at the departure time on my ticket. Instead of the expected 12.10, it read 14.00. I checked the departure boards and indeed, my midday flight had been bumped forward.

Ah well, I thought. I had a good few chapters of The Hunger Games to get through. I sniffed out a Starbucks and settled down to the gore of young adult dystopia.

An hour or so later, I checked the flight board again. My ETD now read 16.00. I procured a second Starbucks – frappe this time – and switched to a somewhat racier tome.

When the departure time moved to 17.00, people began to get cranky. A small throng gathered to cross-examine the airline staff in raised voices. The staff in turn tried to deflect their rage with free plastic boxes of sponge in oil masquerading as meat and rice. Bursts of staccato Chinese echoed round the departure lounge, undercut with threatening, passive-aggressive American – “well, I just hope we don’t miss our connection flight, that’s all I’m saying”.

I tried to lose myself in my smutty book again, but it was not good. My patience had worn as thin as the garments that Christian Grey purchases for his “submissive”. When 18.00 turned to 19.00, I snapped like her very knicker elastic. I stormed up to the desk, pushed away the cardboard sandwich the flight attendant was trying to bribe me with, and demanded an explanation.

It was then that I saw the plane. Our plane. It had landed and was waiting for us on the runway.

The trouble was, the passengers who had been sitting on it for the past seven hours of “technical failures” were now staging a lock-in, refusing to disembark until the airline compensated them in full.

Team Beijing-side was not best pleased. One flight attendant was forced to flee behind barricaded doors as at least 15 people attempted to storm the plane, wielding complimentary plastic water bottles and baying for the blood of those good-for-nothing mutineers on board. Other staff members desperately tried to placate them, swearing that they would pay for everything from hotels to taxis to missed onward flights to the cost of prostitutes, while handing out yet more fizzy drinks and processed food.

Finally, at 19.45, a deal was struck with the mutineers. Yet we waited another hour on board to be cleared for take-off. During this time, one passenger lost it completely and had to be restrained by the crew as he screamed, “Let me off this fucking plane!”

We arrived in Hong Kong around midnight, weary, pale, drained. We were grouped together, supposedly to be taxied to our hotels. Four of us who were bound for the Causeway Bay area were shown onto a huge, 30-seater coach, where we were joined by two others who were not staying in Causeway Bay, but had decided that getting as far away from the plane as possible was their best option. As we drove off, all six of us in this huge tour bus, we tried to communicate our different destinations to the driver, first in English, then in my broken Mandarin. He replied with a string of Cantonese syllables. Clearly it wasn’t over yet.

We made it as far as downtown Hong Kong, where the driver stopped at the side of the road by the Hotel Excelsior, opened the doors, and switched off the engine. None of us was staying here, of course, but as far as he was concerned, this was the terminus.

This would have been the moment for me to unleash my anger Chinese. Unfortunately, my lessons about Baolou and Zhimei planning to go on day trips to Datong have not yet covered expressions of abject rage and dissatisfaction, so my outburst was confined to, “I’m not happy. This is not good. A taxi is too expensive. This is not our hotel. Where are we? I’m not happy. This is very bad.”

We found a regular taxi and drove around the block to our requisite hotels – luckily it wasn’t actually far away.

At about 2am, via a 24-hour bakery where I procured three danishes and inhaled them in one gulp, I arrived at my youth hostel. The poor guy at the desk looked ready to die. “You are very lucky,” he said. “I stay up all night waiting for you because you phoned. Next time – no way.”

As I reached for my wallet to pay for my room, my eyes caught sight of the little bit of coloured string from the airport I had tied around my wrist 14 hours ago. Blessed by the dragon? I think not.

Then again, this was the Dragon Boat Festival. Perhaps the spirit of the waters was so miffed at my going for his flashy younger brother’s mode of transport that he decided to crash my karma like a ton of bricks. Interestingly, once I switched to ferries in Hong Kong, the skies brightened, the sun shone, and I had a wonderful weekend.

Dragons are fickle creatures, I suppose. I guess the message is, don’t count your dragons before they hatch.

Busted by dust

10 Jun

Look to the right and you can just see the mountains poking out. To the left - detritus of the Gobi.

From scorching August days to achingly cold January nights; from torrential thunderstormsthat turn the sky into an 80s rave of strobe lighting to winds so dry that  everything you touch sparks with static and your skin crumbles off no matter how many hundreds of pounds worth of l’occitane en provence you smear into your hands… 10 months of roosting round the corner from Chicken Feet’s King have taught me that, whatever the weather, it’s going to be extreme in Beijing. And that’s even before you add in the pollution factor.

Yet somehow I had still managed to escape one of the city’s more bellicose climatic events – one which older hands had always described to me with a shudder.

Dust storms.

Give it the right level of howling gale, direct said gale towards Beijing, and the result is sand from the Gobi Desert, whipped across the city in a thick blackish brown cloud, covering everything in detritus in a matter of seconds.

One friend of mine described coming home from work having accidentally left the windows open all day. His whole flat, as he described it, had been transformed into a sandpit of filthy grey grit.

This morning – a Saturday – I woke up feeling hungover and wishing I hadn’t hit the worryingly well-priced mojitos at our local pub the night before. To make matters worse, it was revolting hot and sticky. I jabbed the air con on and opened the curtains to reveal predictably thick smog shrouding the buildings outside.

A definite museum day. But I would go on my bike. I had to get some exercise after all.

By the time I managed to heave myself out the flat, it was midday. The sun was beating down through the layers of pollution as I pedalled down to Chaoyangmen.

I spent a pleasant few hours wandering very slowly round museums (with regular trips to the toilet a necessity – bloody fake alcohol) and at around 4pm, decided it was time to head home.

The sky had turned the colour of tarmac. A sense of real urgency is something one rarely sees exhibited in Beijingers, but you could feel the unease from every person, whether they were walking, cycling or driving. I felt how I imagine a dog must feel before an earthquake. It was oddly pre-apocalyptic.

I turned my wheels homewards. About 15 minutes away from home as the bike rides, it struck. A wind like no other barraged across the street. There were screams from pedestrians, car alarms began to wail left, right and centre, and every bicycle – myself included – swerved involuntarily across the street.

With that gust came several tons of thick, gritty sand. It filled my eyes, my mouth, it coated my throat and shaved my skin like sandpaper (I was still wearing nothing but shorts and a strappy top).

I desperately pedalled on, fighting repeated wallops of sand-thick air that engulfed the streets. I could see every one as it approached ahead of me, a premonition like a small thundercloud with people and vehicles scattering in its wake.

And then came the rain – one of Beijing’s finest torrential downpours. Lightning flashed, thunder roared, and more people screamed. The dust mixed with fat raindrops, so it sliced at my arms like hail as I finally reached the last junction before my house.

I hurtled up the stairs to my flat and dived inside, breathing heavily. I was alive – somehow.

It only lasted about an hour. From my eighth floor window, I watched as the angry, solid-looking clouds glowered away into the distance, sliding back to reveal the mountains on the horizon, which were visible for the first time in days through the clear, refreshed air.

So there we have it – my first Beijing dust storm. Based on that, I won’t be heading for the Gobi Desert any time soon.

Beer in a bag and a barbie near the beach

6 Jun

German Tsingtao from a less tasteful age

Tsingtao – you’ll taste it before you learn how to pronounce it correctly. Despite growing up in the lager lout capital of the world, despite a year spent oompah-ing around the Biergartens and Hofbraeuhauses of Austria and Germany, it wasn’t until China’s super-light, super-watered-down home brew of “Ching-dau” came to my attention that I developed a taste for beer – a taste made tastier by the 3-or-so kuai price tag on every bottle (about 30p).

With summer approaching, my newly beered-up tastebuds began to tingle ever more in the direction of two things: 1) beer, naturally, and 2) fish, which I miss more than anything in Beijing. The majority of fish here being more bone than brawn and tastes of the river sludge from which it has been dredged.

Last weekend, pollution levels reached toxic in BJ. It was time for some sea air. Chicken Feet’s King packed bikini and beer goggles and a book of Chinese characters (which was needless to say forgotten on the train) and set off to Qingdao, the town in Shandong province that is the home to our fine fermented friend.

It’s thanks to the Germans that Qingdao became such a beer-based place. In 1898 they thoughtfully conquered the port and it was a mere five years before the Tsingtao brewery opened in 1903.

The "Christian" (i.e. Protestant) Church

Nowadays the German influence is pretty clear from the architecture, as well as the number of tacky Bavarian-flagpole pubs that dot around the town.

The leafy, hilly Baguan area is lined with tasteful, red-brick, turn-of-the-century houses.

There are both Protestant and Catholic churches, to which Chinese couples flock in droves to take wedding photos (obviously no actual church ceremony is involved, but it looks so cute).

But the heart of Qingdao is still entirely Chinese. And it’s a blast.



Take the market that was positioned just outside our hostel, and which was perhaps the best noisy street food market it has been my pleasure to frequent in China. On both Sunday morning and evening, we cavorted around said market, buying steamed buns, raisin-packed brioche-like bread, fried fish, dumplings and pickled vegetables by the flimsy plastic bagful.

Qingdao ventriloquists say "Gag o' geer"

In Qingdao, that oh-so-Chinese method of selling the unlikeliest of things in the aforementioned flimsy plastic freezer bag (eggs, soup, live fish) extends to beer too. Every other grubby local shop will have a couple of large metal urns at the door, from which the owner will tap draft Tsingtao into your doggie bag, stick a couple of straws in the top, and charge you about 2 kuai.





Things start to blur through the Tsingtao goggles

But the best part of Qingdao – and the most tremendously Chinese – was the restaurant street where we ate on Saturday night. We had a huge meal of vegetable dishes accompanied by a vast, utterly delicious fish dish and stacks of “chuan’r” skewers with a slight paraffin flavour. It was livelier than the liveliest of Beijing’s food-centric hutongs, and the huge pitchers of beer only added to the atmosphere.

We had a splendid, utterly aimless weekend of binge eating and drinking, with the obligatory visit to the Tsingtao brewery, where we sipped yet more beer from tiny taster cups.



Wine bar bunker - and why on earth not?

We took a chairlift up and over a mountain and dived down into a bizarre German bunker-cum-wine-bar that served up some of the worst wine I have ever drunk in my life.

The only trouble with Qingdao was getting there and back.

Five-and-a-half-hours may not seem a long train journey in comparison to the two-day sleeper trains (hence why I’ve always tended to fly anywhere outside of Beijing), but you feel every one of those 330 minutes when you’re on a train that reminds you of a high-speed Black Hole of Calcutta.



One the way there, a small child kicked my seat the entire way, each kick punctuated with shouts of “TIGER! TIGER!” in Chinese.

On the way back, an obese extended family surrounded us and proceeded to shout, swear, make hilarious laowai-centred jokes, play aggressive card games, and stuff themselves with a range of strong-smelling baozi and instant noodles.

The one thing that got us through it was our own supply of goodies we had procured in a frenzy before we ran to catch the train (a frenzy that nearly saw me lose my wallet – don’t ask). Seaweed stuffed steamed buns, pancakes, yet more brioche and, of course, several cans of Tsingtao apiece went somewhere to softening the raucous noise on board.

Better still, I woke up the next morning bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, without a hint of hangover.

Thank God for Qingdao and its watered-down booze.