Unelectable opinions no.2: a National Pension Service

I would love to change our country and our world for the better. But there’s one overriding reason that I don’t go into politics: there are too many things that I think should be done that will never get taken up by any of our major political parties. So whether you agree or disagree with me, I’d love to hear from you.

The UK has a pensions problem. Everyone would agree that it’s a bad idea to let the elderly die in penury, and you have to go a very long way right to find someone who doesn’t think the state should play a part. But the level of the basic state pension is derisory (£4,566 per year in 2019, compared to a median pre-tax income of £29,400). At the same time, the cost of the old age pension is one of the biggest items of government spending – in 2019-20, it’s expected to be £101 billion or around 12% of total government expenditure (which is higher, for example, than education).

And it’s getting worse. People are living longer and requiring more money to be spent on their healthcare. Increased labour mobility has broken up families, destroying the model of multi-generational households and making it hard for people to care for elderly relatives who are now distant.

But there is little political agreement on what to do about it: in fact, there are hardly any ideas for a comprehensive solution. Rather, successive governments of all political flavours have provided a series of kludges: the Thatcher-era push towards private pension provision with “contracting out” and the “state earnings-related pension scheme”, the Blair-era “stakeholder pension schemes”, the “auto-enrolment” workplace pension system of the Cameron-Clegg coalition.

Each of these kludges has piled legislation upon legislation into the pension area. More regulation came about in response to scandals like Equitable Life (where a major pension provider became non-viable because it had not anticipated changes in the financial markets); more still resulted from the decreased trust in financial institutions in the wake of the 2007-8 global financial crisis. The result is a morass of complexity so great as to be almost totally impenetrable to the overwhelming majority of the population. To give you a flavour of how bad it is, here is a typical extract:

The trivial commutation rule will only apply to defined benefit schemes. This is because defined contribution benefits may be taken as an ‘Uncrystallised Funds Pension Lump Sum (UFPLS). You have to add all the benefit values of all types of pension (company pensions/personal pensions/stakeholder pensions/retirement annuities/buy-out plans, but not any state pension) together. If they do not exceed £30,000 trivial commutation may be a possibility. In addition, trivial commutation can apply from age 55, or earlier, if in ill-health.

Do you have the foggiest idea what this is talking about? Because I don’t. I’ve run multi-million pound businesses including subsidiaries of major public companies and I’ve done my own tax return and company VAT returns for years, which I figure puts me in the top 1% of financially literate people in the country. But when it comes to pension documentation, I don’t even come close to understanding enough to make a reasonable decision about anything. I currently have four pension schemes, none of them enormous,  accumulated from different jobs. They all send me masses of mandated documentation, all of which is largely incomprehensible. I have no idea whatsoever how to manage these schemes wisely.

Many of the reforms, from Thatcher onwards, have been made in the name of giving consumer choice. But when consumers are utterly unequipped to make any kind of informed choice, that’s a nonsense. The official response to this is to suggest that you get professional financial advice, but that’s simply shifting the problem: consumers are equally unequipped to make a good choice of financial adviser. Take a look at a “find an independent financial adviser” page like this one: I defy you to give me a reliable set of grounds for working out which of these providers are any good.

My one good pensions experience has come not in the UK but in the 18 months that I worked in Singapore in the early 1980s. The system was really simple: I paid what felt at the time like an alarmingly high percentage of my salary into an account held in my name in the “Central Provident Fund”. Had I stayed in Singapore until retirement age, my pension would have been paid out from the fund (since I left the country, they paid out early).

I believe the UK should have a National Pensions Service: a single fund in which every individual has a named account, into which they make substantial contributions from an early age. Everyone should get the same investment return rate: the whole concept of consumer choice and the morass of documentation around it should be abandoned. The concept of a workplace pension should also be abandoned, getting rid of the massive risks for pension-holders of the bigger schemes and the recent onerous bureaucracy of auto-enrolment for small businesses.

This isn’t to say that the private financial services sector has no role to play. I have no problem with anyone being able to make private investments: I just don’t see why they should be subject to any special tax relief. And I also think there could be a role in the National Pensions Service for private investment managers: the NPS could parcel out chunks of the fund for management by private companies, who would tender for the work and would be assessed according to their performance. Their fees, however, should be a small fraction of the 1-2% of capital per year currently charged by the industry.

The level of contribution – and to what extent the state should top up the contributions of those at the lower end of the income scale – is a matter for the usual left-right political debate. But the principles are clear: (a) have a system where the investment returns are the same for everyone; (b) get rid of the titanic confusion levels; (c) get rid of the titanic waste of money currently expended in the financial institutions on management, marketing and compliance as well as on their own salaries and profits.

The transition plan would need a lot of attention (and is probably the hard part of all this). Most probably, a deadline would be set for people to migrate any private schemes to the new NPS, or face loss of their tax advantages – but a softer transition may be more viable.

Are you listening, UK political parties? In the Labour Party, are you too mired in the past glories of the workplace pension to countenance such an idea? In the Conservative Party, are you too much in bed with the Financial Services sector? Or are you both too timid to tamper with something that is so long term and won’t translate into an easy vote-catching slogan?

Sources for the data:
https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/benefit-and-pension-rates-2019-to-2020/proposed-benefit-and-pension-rates-2019-to-2020

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.3: Spanakopita

If you’re thinking of Greece and baking, the chances are that spanakopita is at or near the top of your list. But what exactly is it? The most usual answer is “spinach and feta pie”, but the truth is, you can take pretty much any leafy vegetable, any set of alliums, your favourite dairy products to enrich it (or not, if you’re vegan) and your favourite herbs and spices: wrap that in filo pastry in a shape of your choice (bite-sized or pan-sized), bake it and you get something that’s arguably a spanakopita. There are probably as many recipes as there are cooks.

The finished article – a view of the inside…

So I’m not in any way claiming that what follows is a definitive spanakopita. But I will claim that it’s tested, it’s absolutely delicious, it’s filling, it looks good, it doesn’t take all that long to make, it’s highly tolerant of inaccurate quantities and as long as you take it out of the oven before it starts burning, you’re unlikely to ruin it. In short, whether you’re a frequent vegetarian cook or not, it’s a winner.

…and in context, ready to be cut and served!

The filo pastry and butter is a given, and unless you’re going to opt for kale or other leaves, so is the spinach (the recipes I’ve seen recommend fresh non-young spinach, but all I have available in my local supermarket is the young stuff, and it works fine). For alliums, I like a mixture of leek, shallot, onion and garlic – but you can leave out at least two of these. For flavourings, I go for nutmeg and lemon rind, which gives a real zing, plus a mix of dill, oregano and flat leaf parsley. But again, the first time I made this, I only had parsley in the house, and it was fine. For enriching the filling, I like eggs and feta cheese with a generous dose of grated Parmesan. But you get the idea: don’t feel overly bound to my choices and quantities. Lots of variations will work. So here goes…

The recipe serves four generously as a meal on its own, or would do a starter for at least 8.

Equipment

I used a square 23cm x 23cm metal baking tin, which probably better than a thick ceramic dish, but you can adapt the instructions for whatever you have.

You’ll need a brush of some sort for spreading the butter – otherwise, you’re likely to break the filo too much – it’s very fragile.

The ingredients (minus the olive oil and nutmeg, which I forgot to put in the photo)

Ingredients

  • 400g fresh spinach (frozen is said to work well, but I haven’t tried)
  • 2 leeks – around 300g, 240g after trimming
  • 1 red onion – around 120g
  • 3 cloves garlic – around 20g
  • 1 banana shallot – around 50g
  • Bunch of dill
  • Bunch of oregano
  • Bunch of flat leaf parsley
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 200g feta cheese
  • 120g Parmesan or similar hard cheese
  • Rind of 1 lemon, grated
  • Grated nutmeg and salt to taste
  • 12 sheets of filo pastry (around 150g)
  • Melted butter for spreading – I needed around 100-120g
  • Olive oil for frying

Method

Here’s the usual collection of in-process shots:

Preheat oven to 180℃ fan.

  • Boil a kettle, put the spinach in a colander and pour the boiling water over it. Leave it to wilt and drain while you prepare the rest of the filling.
  • Chop the leeks, onion, shallot and garlic and fry gently in some oil (I add a bit of salt at this stage). Meanwhile, chop your herbs: when the mixture has gone transparent, add the chopped herbs and stir well so that everything is nicely blended. Keep frying gently for a few minutes until it’s all soft and beginning to go golden: don’t let it go dark brown. Remove from heat.
  • Crumble the feta into a large bowl, add the grated parmesan, beaten egg, lemon rind and nutmeg and mix thoroughly. Make sure the leek and onion mix is no hotter than lukewarm – you don’t want it to scramble the eggs – then combine it with the mixture. Now squeeze some water out of the spinach, add this, and stir/chop vigorously with a spoon or spatula  so that the filling is thoroughly blended – you don’t want lumps of cheese or lumps of pure spinach.
  • Spread a layer of melted butter over your oven dish or tin. Open your packet of filo and work quickly (the stuff dries out): spread two pieces across the bottom of the tin so that they hang over the sides, brush melted butter over the area lining the bottom and sides the tin now repeat this but going the opposite way. When you’ve done this, your square tin will have filo draped over each of its four sides. Repeat this twice, so you’re using 12 sheets of filo in total.
  • Pour your filling into the pastry-lined tin and even it out into a single, thick layer reaching the corners.
  • Take the overhanging edges of the last pair of pieces of filo you put in, wrap them back over the dish, and brush them with melted butter. Repeat for the remaining five pairs. Make sure you have enough butter left to give the top a good brushing: that’s what will make the pie go gold.
  • Bake for around 30-40 minutes, until a deep golden colour.

You can serve it straight out of the oven, cold for a picnic, or anywhere in between.

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.2: Sachertorte

The Austrians, particularly the Viennese, are serious about cake and serious about chocolate. And there’s no debate as to what is the baked item most emblematic of Vienna: it’s the apricot-laced dark chocolate cake created in 1832 by Franz Sacher and known to the world as Sachertorte (or, in the case of my family, “Sam’s birthday cake”, which it has been for several years now).

There are plenty of recipes for Sachertorte around, but the basics are common to all of them: a mixture of butter, sugar, flour, egg yolks and melted dark chocolate, folded into a meringue made with the egg whites; the baked cake is cut into layers, spread with apricot jam and topped with a chocolate icing. The variations are in the detail – the choice of icing sugar or caster sugar for the cake mix, or additions like ground almonds, vanilla, rum or baking powder. For the icing, Austrian recipes tend to favour a combination of sugar syrup and chocolate, while English ones are more likely to use a ganache made with cream.

The Hotel Sacher claims to guard the original recipe jealously, but in my honest opinion, it’s now selling the stuff to tourists in such volume that it doesn’t even make the best Sachertorte any more. Opinions differ, but my Austrian colleague Elisabeth (who is a serious baker herself as well as having an encyclopaedic knowledge of Viennese cafés) recommends Café Sperl, near the Theater an der Wien, or Café Diglas, which has four locations around the city.

My personal set of preferences, as shown in the recipe below, is to (1) follow the Austrians in using icing sugar for the cake mix, (2) use a teaspoon of baking powder to help the rise, (3) add some vanilla essence, (4) use the syrup method for the icing, (5) take the trouble to slice off the top dome of the cake to create a perfect cylinder. One Austrian tradition I don’t follow is to serve Sachertorte with whipped cream, because no-one in my family likes it. But you will undoubtedly come up with your own set of likes and dislikes.

By the way, although the instructions I’ve given are reasonably precise, don’t be intimidated, because it’s a fairly forgiving recipe. As long as you have good dark chocolate and apricot jam, your result is likely to taste just fine, even if it isn’t the last word in elegance or perfect texture.

Credits: my recipe started life as the one in the American classic “The Joy of Cooking” by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker. Since then, it has morphed and has acquired its icing recipe from austria.info.

Cook with a greased, 8-9 inch, removable-rim pan. Serves 8, generously.

Ingredients

Cake

  • 150g dark chocolate (70-80% cocoa solids)
  • 120g icing sugar
  • 30g granulated sugar
  • 170g butter, softened
  • 100g plain flour
  • 6 eggs
  • Apricot compote, or apricot jam mixed with the juice of half a lemon
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • vanilla essence or vanilla paste to taste (different brands are so different in strength that I can’t give an amount)

Icing

  • 150g dark chocolate (70-80% cocoa solids)
  • 200g granulated sugar
  • 120g water

Method

  • Preheat the oven to 160°C fan. Grease the sides of the pan with butter and line the bottom with baking paper or parchment.
  • Separate the eggs into yolks and whites
  • Melt 150g of the chocolate in a double boiler. Then leave it to cool.
  • Cream the icing sugar and the butter until the mixture is fluffy.
  • Beat in the egg yolks gradually until the mixture is light in colour.
  • Add the melted cooled chocolate.
  • Sift the flour and add it gradually. Add the baking powder and mix everything thoroughly.
  • Beat the egg whites until they are beginning to be stiff. Add the 30g of granulated sugar and beat on maximum speed until stiff but not dry.
  • Fold the resulting meringue mix into the cake mixture, about a quarter first, then the rest.
  • Bake the mixture in the pan for 50 to 60 minutes.
  • Remove and cool on a rack.
  • Optionally, slice the top dome from the cake and set aside. Slice the remaining cake in half. Spread the jam on the bottom half and reassemble (optionally, spread jam on the top of the cake also).

Icing

  • Put water and sugar into a pan, heat until you have a thick syrup
  • Add the chocolate, and mix vigorously until smooth
  • Leave to cool for a few minutes (but don’t allow it to set)
  • Spread over the cake
  • Cool

Notes

Really, you want a higher and narrower tin than my one, so bear this in mind when looking at the photos.

If your butter isn’t soft, cut it small cubes and leave it at room temperature for a bit (see photo)

The part of the recipe worth taking trouble is the part with the egg white. When you fold the first bit of meringue into the mix, be robust enough to make sure that it’s fully blended, at the expense of losing some of the air in the meringue. The result will be softer and easier to fold for your second phase, when you’re trying to protect that fluffiness.

If you’ve sliced off the top of the cake to get that perfect cylinder and/or to allow an extra apricot layer, the offcuts make a magic cheesecake base when blitzed with some butter.

The home made jam I’ve had from an apricot-growing area in Austria has much more fruit and less sugar than apricot jam that I can buy in the UK: the nearest I’ve found here is Bonne Maman apricot compote. If you’re using standard apricot jam, you will need some lemon juice to thin it out or it won’t spread properly (some recipes suggest heating the jam).

The reason I’ve gone off using a cream-based ganache is that it never really stays set at room temperature and the cake never tastes as good when chilled. And although I own a sugar thermometer, I haven’t given a temperature for the syrup for the icing because I’m not convinced I’ve got it right yet. Any recommendations welcome!

Unelectable opinions: Prevention of Faceless Bureaucracy Act

I would love to change our country and our world for the better. But there’s one overriding reason that I don’t go into politics: there are too many things that I think should be done that will never get taken up by any of our major political parties. So whether you agree or disagree with me, I’d love to hear from you.

Kafka portrayed it better than anyone: the common man, faced with a bureaucracy which is unreasonable, impenetrable, which denies you access to the people who might resolve your problem, an entanglement of petty obstacles which exhausts your will to stand up for your rights.

In the course of the last decade, UK government departments have been making enthusiastic efforts to turn Kafka’s vision into reality. This post isn’t about the big deliberate policies like Theresa May’s “hostile environment”, iniquitous that it was. Rather, what I’m talking about is this: every government agency, one at a time, has changed its operational policies in ways that make it more difficult, frustrating and time consuming for individuals to deal with them, while increasingly allowing government officials to engage in unfair behaviour without sanction.

I’ll start by quoting two examples from my own direct experience.

My company occasionally sells services to public bodies in Poland. For some reason, in order to pay our invoices, these bodies require a Certificate of Residence which is produced by HMRC. Back in 2011, the procedure was fairly straightforward: you phoned your assigned HMRC office, they told you what you needed to put in a letter to them and when you did this, they sent you back a signed certificate. Job done, invoices duly got paid.

By 2017, the process had changed. There was now an online form filled with jargon that was hard to understand unless you were an international tax expert (I’m not). Several weeks later, a certificate was sent, but this contained a laser printed signature which was unacceptable under Polish law. I couldn’t phone the HMRC office any more: all I could do was to get through to a call centre operator who refused to deal with the problem, saying that “HMRC no longer issue documents with wet signatures”. In the end, we wrote off a significant sum of Polish withholding tax.

My second example is with the Valuation Office Agency – the bit of government which assesses the rateable value of a business property, who set our business rates at several thousand pounds higher than the correct amount (they used a wrong measurement). Once again, we were banned from speaking to the person dealing with the case: our only possible contact was via the call centre – lots of time waiting in voice mail jail, followed by speaking to a person with no authority to even read the full case documents, let alone actually take action.

And here’s the beef: when I submitted a complaint, the complaints office passed it on to someone inside the VOA, but refused to initiate a formal complaints process on the grounds that their Code of Practice states that I should have started by “contacting the person you are dealing with”. Since the VOA specifically made this impossible, this is a Catch-22.

What’s happened in both these cases is happening across just about every government department: where the old process involved assigning your case to an identified person who would read your letter or answer your call, the new process deliberately makes it as difficult as possible for you to do contact any person with any level of authority to assess and deal with your individual case. It’s done in the name of cost reduction, but what’s actually happening is to transfer cost from the government to the individual while ignoring the increased risk of unfairness.

I’m fortunate that on the grand scale of things, these examples are minor and that I’m literate enough to deal with them (in contrast to HMRC, by the way, the VOA dealt with my complaint properly). But the bureaucratic mechanics at play – the replacement of individual responsibility by rigidly automated processes – are the same ones that cause genuine hardship to vulnerable people, as shown in this article from the Guardian and this harrowing story from the Liverpool Echo. People are actually dying as a result of this trend.

Please don’t think I’m a luddite. I’ve designed and sold customer-facing IT systems and use them happily every day. This is not a complaint against automating routine processes: it’s a complaint against government officials being encouraged to hide behind a mask of anonymity and the shield of a call centre. “I was only following orders” has been replaced by “I followed the process”. Officials should not be encouraged (or even forced) to behave in ways that are blatantly unfair or inhumane as a result of supposed efficiency measures. And my (admittedly untutored) guess is that if you account for the duplication of effort from multiple people reviewing a given case and the time wasted by members of the public in jumping through hoops, the cost savings are illusory.

I believe we should have a Prevention of Faceless Bureaucracy Act which grants any citizen dealing with any government department the right to the name, email address and direct telephone number of the official dealing with their case, with a defined level of responsiveness required from that official and a defined process for escalation if that responsiveness is not met. For good measure, let’s add a requirement that senior department officials should be required to meet those responsiveness levels as a condition of any bonuses.

This idea isn’t glamorous and is probably tricky to implement. But I honestly believe that the attitudinal change involved would make a big difference, most of all to those too vulnerable and/or IT-illiterate to deal with the systems and processes now being rolled out. We must not allow the current dehumanising trend to continue.

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.1: Moldovan Plăcinte

For the next year or two, I’m planning to explore breads, cakes, pastries and other baked goods from many different countries, including places we don’t normally hear about as well as the obvious ones. Being a rank amateur, will I get to 80 before I give up? I don’t know, but watch this space…

A Plăcintă (the plural is Plăcinte) is a flat pastry or filled bread from Moldova or Romania. It’s a pretty broad term: look up recipes online and you’ll find dozens of different variants: the filling can be sweet or savoury, the dough can be yeasted or not and can be made and rolled in various ways.

For this one, working from a Youtube video from someone called Katy’s Food, I’ve chosen a cheese filling and a yeasted, layered dough, which results in a kind of cheese bread. Each ball of dough is rolled out thinly and wrapped around its filling into a sausage-shape, which is then formed into a spiral before being baked.

The result is a layered, flaky bread that’s very delicious.

Vera, the only Moldovan I know and the person who suggested I try making plăcinte, gave them her seal of approval, although she recommended adding chopped spring onions to the cheese filling and she would have used a medium-soft curd cheese: the nearest you get in London is “twaróg”, which you can find in Polish food shops or larger supermarkets. As far as I can see from the web, quark is similar (though I’ve never tried using it).

Ingredients

I’ve reduced the recipe to make 6 plăcinte, which is what fits into my oven. There’s 100g of flour and 80g of cheese in each one, so they make for a very large snack or a substantial component of a lunch.

  • 600g strong white bread flour
  • 300 ml of warm water (around 40℃)
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 8g dried yeast
  • 500g cheese (I used 300g feta and 200g grated cheddar, but see above)
  • 2 large eggs
  • sunflower oil

Method
I won’t give instructions for bread-making basics like mixing, kneading, proving, testing for doneness: if you’re already a bread-maker, you’ll have your favourite methods for these; if you’re not, this probably isn’t the right recipe to start on. The best book I’ve found so far is Andrew Whitley’s Bread Matters.

  1. Weigh out and mix flour and salt
  2. Mix warm water, sugar and yeast, leave 10 minutes or so until foamy
  3. Combine wet and dry mixes and knead until you have an elastic dough. then leave to rise
  4. While the dough is rising, make your filling. If using a hard cheese, start by grating it, then beat the eggs and combine them with the cheese(s) to form a paste.
  5. Cut the dough into six pieces (it’s probably  a good idea to weigh these out to ensure they’re all the same)
  6. On a floured surface, roll a piece out into as thin a circle or rectangle as you can manage. Transfer the circle of dough onto a large plate or other surface, and brush with a thin later of oil until the surface is covered. Repeat for the other pieces, stacking the circles on top of each other.
  7. And now the tricky part of the recipe: take your first circle of dough and transfer it to your original surface, stretching it with your fingers as far as you dare without tearing it. Take a sixth of your filling, spread it into a sausage the length of one end of a circle of dough, then roll it up into a cylinder. Now form the cylinder into a spiral and transfer to a baking tray lined with baking paper or parchment.
  8. When you formed all six plăcinte, leave them to prove
  9. Brush with beaten egg
  10. Bake at 180℃ fan (mine took around 20 minutes, but your oven may differ: I get the distinct impression that mine runs hotter than most.

Finally, here are some photos at various stages of the process:

Forts, mosques, mountains and hospitality: visiting Oman

Forts, mosques, mountains and hospitality: visiting Oman

They’re big on forts in Oman. There are dozens of them, often situated on a strategic high point in the  rugged, mountainous terrain that spans much of the country: the fort at Nizwa, with its single round tower 43 metres in diameter, its top circled with firing ports for cannon, is a striking example. The sultanate’s capital, Muscat, is situated on a strip of coastal plain, but even this is strewn with rocky hillsides, many of them topped with forts – some old and ruined, some very much in use, as evidenced by the serious-looking fatigue-clad sentry outside the Al Mirani fort, one of a pair of forts which flank the Al Alam palace by the old harbour. The Al Mirani and its sister the Al Jalali were built by the Portuguese during a century-long occupation: it’s an episode which features strongly in Omani history books, even if, as our Omani guide pointed out to us somewhat ruefully, it has been largely forgotten by the Portuguese.

Al Mirani Fort, Muscat

Unsurprisingly, the other most prominent landmarks are the mosques, which dominate the landscape. Omani mosque architecture seems to be never less than elegant and beautifully crafted. At its best, it’s jaw-dropping, nowhere more so than in the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, inaugurated in 2001 to celebrate 30 years of the present Sultan’s reign. The quality and quantity of the craftsmanship leave you gasping for breath, as do the elegance and proportions of the many buildings that make up the complex. The calligraphy in shining white stone around the outside of the main building, the elaborate carving on the wooden doors of the women’s prayer hall, the single piece Persian carpet that spans the whole of the men’s prayer hall (many times the size, because Omani women are permitted to pray at home, while the men are required, broadly speaking, to come to the mosque), the lighting and tiles: all are beautifully conceived and immaculately executed.

Interior of Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

As a visitor leaving the Grand Mosque, you are likely to meet one or more Omani women wearing the standard black robes and a broad smile of welcome, to be taken to the Islamic Information Centre, where you are encouraged to ask questions about the mosque and Omani life in general while being plied with dates, Omani coffee and ginger/lemon grass tea. It’s all done with grace and charm, supporting the received view of Oman as a moderate Islamic nation welcoming to non-Muslims. They’re hard-line on some things, particularly within the mosque – my wife’s honest attempt at dressing respectfully flunked due to her cotton shawl being deemed to reveal her skin colour through white cloth – but people here have been invariably charming, and at no point have I felt that I would have caused outrage by admitting to being Jewish (or perhaps even to having Israeli parents). I must confess, though, that I wasn’t brave enough to put this feeling to the test.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

Oman has nearly 8,000,000 date palms and more than 250 indigenous varieties of dates. The locals miss few opportunities to offer them to you: as a greeting when you enter a shop or a hotel, as a petit-four equivalent (with Omani coffee) after a meal, or pretty much any other time when anyone thinks you might be about to sit down somewhere. They’re mainly eaten dried (though sometimes fresh) and they’re very, very good. The love affair is deep and goes back a long time: in Fort Nizwa in the mountains above Muscat, you can see the room where sacks of dates were piled on top of each other as provision against siege: the weight of the dates at the top expelled juice that was gathered in special ducts carved into the stone floor of the store room.

Fort Nizwa

The other notable agricultural product is frankincense, known as “luban”. As well as burning it for incense or turning it into a perfume, they swear by “luban water” as a medicinal item: you drink water into which a small piece of the resin has been soaked overnight (only the higher quality luban should be used – the lower grade stuff is for burning). A visit to any of the souks will yield ample opportunities to buy some, as well as many perfume shops which will sell you many oils and perfumes very different in character from the typical big brands in the West: the scent is therefore usually less blended (and therefore less complex) but considerably longer lasting.

Sunset on beach at The Chedi, Muscat

Oman is a sparsely populated country (27% bigger than the United Kingdom, with one fifteenth of the population).  It therefore shouldn’t surprise one that the city planning and general road layout in Muscat has a very American feel, with wide roads, cars parked perpendicular to the houses, the main shopping concentrated into large malls, the smaller units in strip and corner malls. The roads are excellent and driving around is straightforward, apart from the occasional bear trap for the unwary (a street sign facing you could either denote the name of the cross street, as in the US, or the street you’re on). Signage, like Omani driving, is generally good but not always: it works really well most of the time, but will occasionally send you in the wrong direction or (in Italian style) abandon you altogether at critical moments.

End of the “Mirage” trail at Jabal Akhdar

Like all the oil states in the Gulf, Oman needs to plan for the day when the oil will run out. The first part of this has consisted of building infrastructure: apart from the roads, there has clearly been a giant construction boom. The next part, currently very much under way, is to build up Omani businesses equivalent to the best of the multinationals so that there is a proper local economy offering jobs and profits to Omani nationals. From what we heard, progress is being made, but there are obstacles which are taking time to overcome. The first is a paternalistic, deferential culture in which it’s not a good idea to tell a superior that what he’s asking for is a seriously bad idea: one expatriate described to me his discomfiture at discovering that his entire (extremely busy) team had downed tools at his Omani superior’s command and were patiently waiting in a conference room for this man to address them. Another described the difficulties of turf wars in situations where you need more than one department to implement a decision for the project to succeed, but where one department simply decides that they don’t agree. The will to make decisions is there, but the ability to grasp the implication of a decision and do all the things needed to turn into reality is sometimes missing. This is by no means a uniquely Omani trait – plenty of Western businesses suffer from similar types of sclerosis – so let’s hope that education and experience will alleviate the problems and enable the new economy to thrive.

Canyon in Jabal Akhdar

We met several of the many Western expatriates working in Oman, all of whom attested to the Omanis’ charm, family-mindedness and hospitality: they had regularly been invited to visit colleagues’ homes to meet the family and it had invariably been a delightful experience. Perhaps that innate feel for hospitality contributes to the fact the hotels are superb, and indeed, one area where the new economy seems to be thriving already is tourism. There’s good diving (which was what initially attracted us) and the country is becoming popular as a destination for outdoors types: there’s is masses of rugged territory for hiking and off-road driving or biking: we did some great hikes up at 2,000 metres in Jabal Akhdar, the “green mountain”, with spectacular limestone canyons as the scenery.

Pool at The Chedi, Muscat

We stayed in two of the luxury hotels, one in Muscat and one in Jabal Akhdar: both were architecturally amazing and both gave us a genuinely warm welcome: perhaps the long-standing Omani reputation for hospitality extends to being good hoteliers (and yes, I realise that most of the staff are expatriates, as is around half the population of the country). A slight warning, though: food in the big hotels can be very expensive. 

Western breakfast at the Alila Jabal Akhdar

Just as Oman is around half way between, Egypt/Syria/Lebanon and India, Omani food seems to be at a mid-point between Arab and Indian cooking, with lots of curries and lots of spices (unsurprising once you realise that Oman used to own Zanzibar and control its spice trade). But they seem to use their spices more for fragrance and aroma than most Indians: cardamom, saffron and ginger are popular, fiery chili-induced heat is not. Arab influence is seen in dishes like kibbeh (fried meat and lentil balls), moutabel (aubergine dip), a penchant for a soft curd cheese called labneh and the ubiquity of flatbreads and hummus.

Lemon mint

One aspect of Oman’s strict Islam is that they don’t drink alcohol (although hotels serving westerners generally serve alcoholic drinks, as do some restaurants). This has the side effect that they serve the most wonderful selection of soft drinks. My personal top tip is to order “lemon mint”: fresh lemon juice with fresh mint blitzed to a powder, with crushed ice, water and sugar (you can ask them to adjust the sugar level). Your dates will often be served with Omani coffee, which is mild and lightly laced with cardamom and sometimes other spices, poured out of a characteristically shaped pot which looks like it takes years of training to learn to use without spillage. If you don’t like coffee, lemon grass and ginger tea is a winner. But there are tons of other inventive fruit and spice-based drinks to enjoy: being the designated driver has never felt less of a chore.

We originally came to Oman as a place to go diving with Indo-Pacific marine life and less jet lag than the Maldives or Indonesia. In the event, our diving was curtailed by bad weather – apparently, storms in the Gulf of Oman can be whipped up out of nothing – which gave us extra time to enjoy the country. Whisper it not, but I’m thankful for the bad weather at sea: the country is fascinating and well worth the visit.

Olives, almonds, grapes and the sea: food and wine in Puglia

The first things that strike you are the olive trees. On the way from Bari airport to our first hill town, Ostuni, we pass untold hectares of them. When we visit the Masseria Brancati, we get to see them close up, laden with leaves and fruit, which is still unripe – it’s August and the earliest harvest is still a couple of months away. Some of the trees, named the monumentali, are very, very old – 2,500 years or more: their trunks are several feet wide, gnarled, looking generally grumpy at what they’ve seen.

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Olive trees at Masseria Brancati, near Ostuni

Puglia produces 40% of Italy’s olive oil. But this ancient part of the nation’s culture is vulnerable, as evidenced when you drive past Brindisi and see the road – the old Appian Way from Rome – lined by thousand upon thousand of dead trees, standing upright but with their leaves scorched. They’re the victims of a single subspecies of bacterium, the xylella fastidiosa subs. pauca: since 2013, farmers and government scientists have been engaged in a desperate struggle to save the olive trees: there are signs of some recovering or being replanted, but the lines of brown trees are still a desperately sad sight.

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Friselli with tomatoes and basil

In Italy, food defines everything. And Puglia is where the food is grown, so it’s all about doing simple things with the local ingredients. The centro storico of Ostuni is packed with shops selling local food items to the well-heeled tourists from further north, of which the most important is olive oil. Apart from details of terroir and whether or not the oil is organic, the principal differences between oils lie in whether or not they are first pressing (the Italians tell you to keep extra virgin olive oil for salads and not use it for cooking) and the harvest date: early harvest olives (mid-October) give an oil with a distinctive strong flavour, whereas late harvest olives can give a smooth oil with a long aftertaste.

Almonds are another important crop. If you’re an ice-cream lover, don’t miss their combined fichi e mandorle (fig and almond) flavour, and the shops have plenty of almond biscuits of various types. There are many types of hard biscuits (including the biscotti type familiar to us outside Italy), but my downfall was the mouth-watering soft ones, something between an almond biscuit and marzipan, that we bought from the Furne di Porta Nova bakery, towards the east of the old city in Ostuni. The bakery also makes focaccia, the Puglian version being delightfully light, with far less oil and salt than I’ve had elsewhere, and usually laden with olives and cherry tomatoes. Apart from focaccia, my favourite bread here is their equivalent of the Spanish pan rustico, an unevenly shaped sourdough loaf with a hard crust and a delectable soft, moist middle: in at least one bakery we visited, the sourdough starter was made with fruit. Hard crackers (taralli and friselli) are ubiquitous, handed out as snacks with virtually any drink you buy at a bar.

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Burrata (centre) with mozzarella

Puglia’s hallmark cheese is burrata: soft, white balls, usually 6 centimetres or so in diameter which are popular both as breakfast and lunch items. Cut into the skin-like outside and a creamy filling gushes forth, delicious on its own or as part of a salad (but be sure to eat fresh burrata the day they’re made – they don’t improve). Lunch plates are also likely to include caciocavallo, a hard cheese made of sheep’s or cow’s milk or, most deliciously, both. There’s also capocollo (a cut of cured pork from the neck and shoulder, somewhat fattier and somewhat stronger tasting than typical prosciutto).

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Caciocavallo tart with salad and capocollo

And then, of course, there’s the wine. Various connoisseurs I know are rather dismissive of Puglian wines as being easy drinking and lacking in distinction. Personally, I love Puglian red wines: they’re scented, full of flavour and low on hard tannins. The predominant grapes here are Primitivo (the same variety as the US Zinfandel), Negroamaro and Malvasia nera; there’s a wine called Salice Salentino that blends either two or all three of these. There are others to be discovered: we didn’t get round to Nero di Troia, but the contents of our bottle of Susumaniello vanished without trace in a chorus of yums. I’m less keen on the whites here, but they make a mean summer rosé with Negroamaro.

A short trip to Matera in the neighbouring province, Basilicata, revealed another truly lovely red wine, Aglianico, said to be one of the oldest wines from Greek times (the name may or may not be a corruption of “Hellenico”). It tells you something about Italian regionalism that Aglianico was nowhere to be seen on the shelves in Puglia, even if you’re only half an hour’s drive from the border. If you’re buying a present for a friendly baker, a neat souvenir from Matera is a wooden bread stamp, used in bygone days to stamp you initials on your loaf when baking it in a communal bread oven.

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What chilies are really for…

Even within the province, there is variability according to region. We stayed at Gallipoli on the Salento peninsula (not to be confused with the battle site in faraway Turkey), a town which has been a fishing centre for centuries and is celebrated for its seafood. At the fish market, stalls proudly announce that the produce is “recently fished”: the fish was very good; the clams and mussels were outstanding. The surprise of our trip were the gamberi viole (purple prawns), said to only be available in the Salento area and up there with the most intense-tasting shellfish I’ve ever eaten. When I asked the man in the market how best to cook them, his response was “anchè crudo” (don’t bother and eat them raw). I wimped out and showed them the pan for a couple of minutes and I’m glad I didn’t do more: they were fabulous, but we discovered in one restaurant that they lose their flavour if overcooked by even a minute or so (the restaurant, to be fair, replaced them without demur).

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Fisherman preparing nets at Gallipoli

Our experience of Puglian restaurants was that they’re not particularly good at trying to be fancy. But when it comes to taking great fresh ingredients – even humble ones – and cooking them simply, they’re masterful. Portions, by the way, are giant: if you’re trying to leave room for dessert, be wary. Il Pettolino in Gallipoli, Nausikaa in Martina Franca, Il Guercio di Puglia in Alberobello and PerBacco in Locorotondo all served us meals that were thoroughly memorable without a sniff of haute cuisine. We’ll be back.

China blog 5 – our trip ends in Shanghai

China blog 5 – our trip ends in Shanghai

“If you only visited Shanghai, you would leave thinking that China is undoubtedly bound for greatness.” After a day and a couple of nights in the last city of our brief tour, I can’t sum it up any better than Rob Gifford, who had been a China expert for decades when he wrote his superb travelogue China Road in 2008. You can’t help but be swept up in the sheer brash optimism of the place, the bright lights, the bustling crowds, the sense of boundless opportunity.

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Shopping square near Yu Garden

Shanghai reeks of the scent of money being made. In any restaurant of mid-price range and up, you’ll see mixed groups of Westerners and Chinese, most usually businesspeople stitching deals together – or, more accurately, lest we forget that business isn’t simply a series of deals, simply getting on with managing their joint ventures. A typical snippet of conversation, overheard in a decidedly not-top-end dumpling restaurant, was this vote of thanks from a German accented man to his Chinese hosts: “thank you for facilitating this construction project, both by official and unofficial means.” In our brief stay, without making any particular efforts at an inventory, we came across a chemical engineer, a conference organiser, executives from the automotive and semiconductor industries.

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View across the river from the Bund

The most obvious manifestation of Shanghai’s go-get-em atmosphere is the city lights, and the best place to see them is from somewhere high on the Bund, the former trading area of the foreign concessions (we were at the smart Sky Bar on the roof of the somewhat elderly-looking Roosevelt Hotel, but I’m sure there were dozens of other possible places). The neon glitters and dazzles for kilometres each side of the Huangpu River, much of it in building-sized animations: a meteor shower here, a moving figure there, the “Welcome to Shanghai” slogans on top of the 632 metre Shanghai Tower (the second tallest in the world). On Nanjing Road, the city lights are of a different kind: kilometres of high end retail, the ground floor lights spilling opulence onto the pavements, the product images on the upper floors blazing out their consumerist messages, the quality of the photography up to the highest international standards. And the shops get as high end as the proprietors can manage, from the “Starbucks Reserve Roastery” (I assume some superior form of Starbucks) to the Maserati dealership.

 

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Reclining jade buddha at the Jing’an Buddhist Temple

But the busy, get-on-with-it atmosphere shows up in improbable places. The Jing’an Buddhist Temple isn’t particularly venerable, but it’s large and thriving, with new buildings and new statues added to the extraordinarily beautiful pair of jade buddhas that are its crown jewels (it’s often known as the “Jade Buddha Temple”). It’s also obviously a working monastery: you walk past groups of monks chanting, copying out scriptures, setting up votive incense sticks and generally going about their business. This is 21st century China, however, so you also see them with heads buried in their cellphones – a common complaint that the Chinese older generation make about today’s young people.

 

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Jing’an Buddhist Temple

The game has winners, losers and people in-between. You may not see many of the losers, but we certainly saw the winners in the restaurant we went to on the Bund, and we talked with one young woman who earns a decent living in her adequate day job, but who dreams of being a businesswoman and is unsure how to climb the career ladder. We met another in-betweener in hilariously scary circumstances, when our Chinese Uber-equivalent failed to show up, so our guide hailed a public taxi. The driver confessed that this was his first day driving a cab, and it can’t have been many days into his driving career, as he barely had clutch control of the car, stalling several times in our 40 minute journey. He was clearly terrified of the fairly aggressive lane-changing tactics needed for the Shanghai rush hour, with our guide coaching him on which lane to change into as we went. But we arrived at our show in time (albeit only just), and if he doesn’t crash his taxi, he’ll probably be fine in a month’s time. I certainly hope so.

 

Broadly, it must be said, the transport infrastructure seems to work. The big expressways make traffic relatively OK during normal times, while the rush hour is no worse than, say, London or New York. Parking is thin on the ground, but not the disaster it is in Beijing. One local complained to us that to save fuel, the maglev train to the airport doesn’t run at full speed except in peak hours – it runs at “only” 300 km/h, the speed of the bullet trains. And once again, I can’t help being struck by the fact that things work. The airport is well laid out, the immigration and security systems run as smoothly as you could imagine: you cannot escape the contrast of the experience to that of the London airports, with their abysmal layout optimised for shopping, not flying, or of Los Angeles, with its random disorganisation and its casual disregard for passenger inconvenience.

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Moon cakes

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Loom at the Silk Factory

Shanghai still has things you won’t easily find elsewhere. The food really is great, from the restaurants to the moon cake vendors (the term “moon cake” here seems to mean anything that’s baked and round, whether savoury or sweet: the pork moon cake we had was like the flakiest, most mouth-watering sausage roll I’ve ever had). The acrobatics show at the end of our novice taxi driver’s journey was a dazzling display of strength and precision body control. The “free silk factory tour” was an effective fifteen minute zoom through the process of how silk goes from worm to garment (vegetarians look away, because the silkworms do die in the process). However, it was free only if you had the strength to ignore the bewildering array of silk garments, bedding and other products in the huge showroom behind. I don’t imagine that many people do: we certainly didn’t. The posh hotels are super hi-tech: we heard from one traveller who ordered a room service coffee and was astonished when his room bell rang and he opened the door to a robot, which dutifully brought the coffee into his room, left it on his table and departed.

 

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Dragon at Yu Garden, Shanghai

Will China become truly great? The picture that Shanghai paints is of a country that will continue its break-neck pace of progress out of poverty and become a beacon of prosperity for the world. Or will China implode from the contradictions of its sclerotic, corruption-ridden political system, or from the sheer size of the environmental challenges it faces? I don’t think anyone can be sure, but I’ll point you again in the direction of Rob Gifford, who explores the question thoroughly and thoughtfully in China Road. Broadly, we’ve only seen the good bits of China on our travels, so I can’t really judge. But after reading a decent amount about China and seeing it at close quarters for the first time, I understand a huge amount more about the country, and particularly how much of what it does is an inevitable consequence of its history. It’s been fascinating, and I’d like to be optimistic.

China blog 4 – Guilin and the Li River

China blog 4 – Guilin and the Li River

The river Li, in Guangxi province, meanders gently through a bountiful land: a land filled with rice, water chestnuts, kumquats, oranges, long beans, taro and dozens of other crops. When you see a field being hoed before planting, the soil itself seems to invite you to grasp its richness. The backdrop to this fertility is of the most dramatic kind: tens of thousands of sheer limestone peaks, all but the most vertical overhangs covered in lush green forest.

The Li valley isn’t the only karst formation in the world, and it’s by no means the only beautiful river valley in China. But its combination of lush fertility and the extraordinary backdrop is perhaps unique: certainly unique enough to be printed billions of times on the country’s 20 yuan banknote and to attract throngs of tourists – nearly 30 million a year, 90% of them from the rest of China. Maybe it’s something spiritual that attracts them: if you’ve spent time in Asia, you’ll understand that when you see the lush green of a paddy field, the stems groaning with rice waiting to be harvested, there’s a deep, visceral feeling that all’s well with the world.

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Karst peaks and rice and water-chestnut fields near Yangshuo

In point of fact, not everything is well with the world. All that lush produce is coming from smallholdings and the need to keep food prices low for a burgeoning urban population means, as it has often done through history, that farmers barely earn enough to feed themselves: most farming families require other sources of income. There are government subsidies, but in spite of the huffing and puffing from both Donald Trump and Barack Obama before him, they sound painfully low to me: our guide told us that a mu of land near Guilin, Guangxi’s capital, will attract just 100 yuan (in English: the subsidy for an acre is £67), although subsidies in the famous rice terraces of Longqi attract up to 100 times that, since they are expensive to farm and rightly considered a priceless tourist attraction. And while Guilin and Yangshuo (the town at the other end of the most popular Li River cruise route) look bustling and prosperous, you still catch snatches of underdevelopment and poverty: Yangshuo’s main food market was packed with wonderful fresh fruit and vegetables, but hygiene standards were indifferent. In another Yangshuo market, just before opening time, I saw a number of women crouched among the refuse sacks, reclaiming the contents of half-eaten lunch boxes: one hopes it was for animal feed, but I felt alarmingly uncertain.

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Tea shop in Guilin

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Making chili-garlic paste

The truth is, though, that these are isolated instances in what looks like an improving picture. The main food streets are incredibly busy, which attests to tourist money flowing into the local economy: there are lots of specialities made with local produce, amongst which the large scale hand-chopping of chilies, garlic and ginger into the fiery pickled paste beloved by Guangxi foodies is a delightful sight.  Local young people say that their parents and especially grandparents are continually enjoining them to appreciate what they have, compared to the incredible levels of hardship those grandparents had to survive. And it’s become possible to leave government service to be an entrepreneur: we bought tea from a former English teacher who had become fed up with the ten hour working days and low pay and had joined his family in setting up what appeared to be a successful tea business (before he retrained as a tea master, he confessed, none of them had any prior experience). At Guilin’s “Elephant Trunk Hill”, the stall renting traditional dress for children to pose in photos was doing a steady trade. Elephant Trunk Hill, by the way, gets lit up at night in spectacular fashion, with constantly changing colours.

The name Guilin (桂林), by the way, means “Osmanthus forest” – the second kanji character is delightfully pictorial. No, I hadn’t heard of the Osmanthus tree either before I came here, but it’s a dark leaved thing which provides masses of tiny yellow flowers which are incredibly aromatic and make a delicious tea.

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Dressing up at Elephant Trunk Hill

One of the signs of increasing prosperity is a kind of slow motion building boom. Most rural families aspire to a bigger and better home. They have enough land to build one on their plot, but they’re short of ready cash to buy building materials: whenever they get a bit of spare cash, they plough it into the next step of building their new home. As a result, you see large numbers of part-finished houses, anywhere from concrete shells with no walls yet through to places that are obviously being lived in but still need work. Another impressive sight is watching a rice paddy being blitzed by a kind of miniature combine harvester: it’s only a tiny thing, not much over a couple of metres in length, but it powers through a small rice field leaving a pile of stalks behind, arriving at the end of its trip to disgorge its pickings into the awaiting farmers’ rice sacks. It bears no comparison with the giant tractor-driven behemoths that you’d see in an English wheat field (let alone its American equivalent), but it’s small, neat and effective.

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Building boom, Guangxi-style

But setting aside such musings about China’s economy and prospects, the main impression that Guangxi on one is the extraordinary beauty of its scenery. As someone with pretensions to being a serious photographer, I normally spend my life looking around a landscape looking for a good angle. Here in the Li River valley, the lovely slow-flowing river and those amazing karst pinnacles mean that you can stand somewhere and pivot full circle with a good angle for a stunningly framed shot in almost any direction you look. If this place isn’t on your bucket list yet, it should be.

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The “20 yuan note” view of the Li River near Xingping

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Elephant Trunk Hill in Guilin

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“Lion watching the nine horses” on the Li River

China blog 3 – Xian and the Terracotta Army

China blog 3 – Xian and the Terracotta Army

If China’s first bucket list destination is the Great Wall, the second is most surely the Terracotta Army: the 8,000 soldiers of the army of Qin (pronounced “chin”) Shihuang, the first emperor to unite China, each exquisitely sculpted to match the features and accoutrements of an individual soldier, their ranks accompanied by chariots and horses. The site is a much more recent addition to bucket lists than the Great Wall: although the existence of the tomb was written in historical records, the first discovery in modern times was made in 1974 when a farmer came across pottery fragments while digging a well.

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Pit 1 – the largest of the three areas excavated

There are delicate ironies at work here. When Mao undertook the wholesale destruction of ancient Chinese culture, his prototype was none other than Qin Shihuang, whose drive to expunge Confucianism and impose an even more rigid “Legalist” system included the wholesale execution of the intellectuals of his time (Mao boasted that he was repeating Qin’s work but on a massively greater scale). One can only imagine the thoughts of Zhao Kangmin, the official in charge of the local cultural centre, at gradually realising the importance of the find at a time when the Cultural Revolution was still in progress, albeit in its last throes.

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Faces of the infantry

The fate of the whole enterprise is an irony in itself: Qin thought he was creating an immortal monument to the creator of an eternal dynasty, but only a few years after his death, his heir Fusu was dead and the Terracotta Army had been smashed to pieces by peasant rebels. So far, if I heard this right, only one kneeling archer has been recovered unbroken: the remaining figures on show so far have been reassembled from fragments; the zone of partially assembled figures is known locally as “the hospital”, including the “intensive care” unit for the most difficult cases. A high percentage of the army remains asleep underground, awaiting the day when archaeologists get round to awaking them and making them whole once more. It’s like the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle, with added clues provided by proximity but with no certainty that there aren’t pieces missing. These days, computer imaging and matching is used to help the solution, but that hasn’t stopped the pace of restoration from slowing in recent years due to resource constraints (as well as, presumably, a certain amount of fatigue).

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Pit 1: the vanguard seen from the rear

The whole site reinforces the two main themes about China to emerge from our trip so far: scale and craftsmanship. The scale is vast from your very first moment when you enter the aircraft-hangar-like structure that covers “Pit 1”, the largest of the three pits excavated so far, and see the massed ranks of soldiers (and of visitors, anything up to 60,000 a day of them). But that pales into insignificance when you open Wikipedia and read that the whole necropolis has been estimated at 98 square kilometres – a not-much-scaled-down model of the imperial compound. This includes Qin’s tomb itself, which has not yet been excavated, ostensibly because of fears over the difficulty of the task and contamination from the two rivers of mercury which flowed through it, although I wonder whether superstition plays a part here somewhere.

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Kneeling archer

However much you’ve heard in advance, the artistry and craft of the sculptures take your breath away. The facial features are so vividly rendered that at any moment, you expect one of the soldiers to step out and start a conversation with you: apparently, this actually happened a few years back when a young German, suitably clothed and face-painted, stood motionless in the army, unnoticed for several hours until a visitor was spooked out by seeing a pair of eyebrows move (the impostor refused to go quietly and had to be forcibly removed by security guards). Armour, clothing and body shapes show gradations in status: particularly notable are the ribbons, upturned shoes, expensive fish-scale armour and generous pot belly of the senior officer (the Chinese call it “corruption belly”). But perhaps the most telling detail of all is the perfectly reproduced pattern of stones set into the sole of the kneeling archer’s foot to provide grip – “Qin Dynasty Adidas”, as our guide put it. The detail of the archer’s hands is also extraordinary.

 

In the absence of the Terracotta Army, most Western visitors probably wouldn’t bother to visit Xian, although it has some other interesting features. The inner city is one of only a few in China whose ancient city walls survive (like Pingyao, only an order of magnitude bigger), and it has fine examples of the ubiquitous pairing of drum tower and bell tower (the former would be used to tell the time in the morning, the latter in the evening). As the head of the Silk Road, Xian was the jumping off point for many of the travellers who visited India and brought back Buddhism, so there are a couple of significant pagodas: we visited the Small Goose Pagoda, thirteen stories high and unbroken in a millennium and a half of earthquakes.

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Making biang biang noodles

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Jewellery vendors in the Muslim Quarter

There’s also a thriving Muslim quarter, which throngs with food stalls and which provided the first three stops on a food tour provided by some people called “Lost Plate”. This turned out to be brilliant: we were spirited around various food venues in the city by tuk-tuk (an electric motor-cycle with a carriage on the back just about capable of holding four people, and able to navigate the tightest of back streets). They chose exactly the kind of places you would never find on your own: a specialist in “biang biang” noodles, whose name comes from the noise made as the noodle-maker bashes the dough while hand-stretching it, an elderly retired man who produced skewers of sumptuous barbecued meat, an amazing place serving “soup dumplings” (think of a large raviolo whose filling has released liquid so that you bite the parcel open and suck the soup out before eating the rest of the dumpling).

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Chinese Muslim Barbecue

Part of the reason that you wouldn’t find these places on your own, it was explained to us, is that Xian is becoming a victim of its own success: with the large number of visitors and a growing economy, rents on the main food streets are skyrocketing, forcing smaller traders into the side-streets or, as in the case of our noodle makers and the barbecue man, back into their own homes. Certainly, Xian shows more signs of being settled down than Beijing does: there isn’t the same manic pace of construction everywhere, the air pollution felt far less severe (to the surprise of our guide, who expected everything in the capital to be better) and the roads far more in harmony with the number of cars: they’re astonishingly wide, many of them with four lanes in either direction. When I suggested that bits of the city must have been flattened to make way for them, I was roundly disabused: apparently this kind of road width has been a feature since ancient times. And the modern world is definitely visible: the road our hotel was on was cellphone city, lined with dozens of shops.

If Qin Shihuang has made it to his idea of the afterlife, he is undoubtedly filled with dismay at having to do so with an army that is a shattered, minuscule remnant of its original glory. But perhaps he can take heart that he is still considered the founder of a modern, united China. And he would surely be amazed at the 12 million people metropolis that his capital Xian – the city whose name means “Western Peace” – has become.