Category: Travel

Wakatobi: underwater heaven in Indonesia

Wakatobi: underwater heaven in Indonesia

I’m going to find it difficult to explain Wakatobi to you. If you’re not (yet) a scuba diver, I’m going to attempt to describe the whole experience of coral sea diving in a few hundred words. If you are already a scuba diver, you’ll understand the general attraction, but Wakatobi is almost certainly a different experience from anywhere that you’ve dived previously (unless, I’m reliably informed, you’ve been to Rajah Ampat).

Overwhelmingly, people like me who love warm water diving in coral seas do it for one big reason: we love gazing at the wildlife (there are other sorts of diver, like the ones who dive deep into ice cold water to hunt for artifacts in wrecks, which is a different experience altogether). So when we talk about our dives, we discuss excitedly whether we saw a turtle or a shark or a manta ray, or a tiny brightly coloured mandarin fish found only in this particular corner of ocean, or of a coral shrimp so tiny and translucent that it took the sharpest of eyes to notice it. Many divers are obsessive about writing up every dive in their logbook, not least because the major certification bodies make this an important part of one’s training, and old habits die hard. On a good dive in normal sites, which would typically last somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes, you might expect to see a dozen or so notable things (the definition of “notable” is fuzzy, but everyone agrees that it includes sharks, rays and turtles, and it usually includes any bright, colourful or physically odd-shaped fish that isn’t present in massive numbers in the area you’re diving).

The thing about Wakatobi is that on just about every dive, you reach the “dozen notable things” mark in about the first five minutes. Then, the number keeps clocking up as you go, accelerating as you reach the shallows, especially if the sun is out. If you try to remember all the species you’ve seen on a dive, you’re on a hiding to nothing; even counting them is beyond my ability. I’ve tried remembering all the species of butterfly fish – just one small section of the marine diversity out there – and given up when it gets to a dozen (it turns out that around 60 of the world’s 120 species are present in the area). In other dive areas, you might struggle to think of any really significant thing you saw during a dive. At Wakatobi, you have the opposite problem: you’re getting sensory overload. It’s best to start a dive with a couple of things you’re going to look out for, like, for example, counting butterfly fish species, counting turtle sightings (my maximum count was twelve) or searching the sand for its inhabitants. The goby-shrimp combo is a particularly cool sand-dwelling symbiosis: the shrimp lives in a hole and does the housekeeping, ejecting anything it considers not to be nice and clean, while the goby (a silvery fish around 3cm long) stands on guard outside.

If you compare coral reef diving to wildlife-watching on land, the difference in sheer profusion and diversity is simply enormous. Whether it’s a safari in Africa, hoping to see the “big five” (elephant, lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo), looking for bears or moose in Scandinavia, or just bird-watching in the UK, you can spend most of your hours in the field waiting for some animal to put in an appearance. On a coral reef, by contrast, there is a riot of colour and shape all around you.

It’s not just about the fish. The coral comes in a thousand forms. The hard corals are generally named after things on land: potato coral, lettuce coral, mushroom coral, plate coral, brain coral (you get the idea). They can make very large formations indeed. Some sea fans can be well over the size of a person. Roma, one of Wakatobi’s dive sites, has two enormous “coral roses” of overlapping plates which must measure at least 30m in diameter. Towards the top of the reef, you can see single formations of staghorn coral that last for 100m at a time, hosting an unbelievable variety of reef fish sheltering in its branches. The soft corals can be equally eye-catching, like watching a colony of Xenia coral feeding, each of its dozens of arms waving in the swell, with a star of eight feathery “fingers” opening and closing to grab nutrients which pass by. Blown up in your mind’s eye, it’s the stuff of horror movies. There are many other creatures that are not corals. Ali Baba could hide inside the basket sponges without a problem; Lampert’s sea cucumbers form scary white patterns around the outside. There’s the tunicate family: solitary tunicates with a delicately veined pattern like fine porcelain, bluebell tunicates,  electric blue translucent ovals which you’ll see in colonies scattered across the reef. Sailor’s eyeballs are a type of anemone which look for all the world like giant pearls.

Everyone has their own favourites. I love the ambush predators, like the crocodile fish which looks extremely like its landbound namesake, except that it’s perfectly camouflaged for the underwater landscape. We’ve seen a scorpion fish coloured white as it swims through the water, then settling on a reddish brown rock and then changing in an instant to match the place where it has settled, waiting for prey to arrive. There’s also defensive camouflage: at 20-30cm, a trumpet fish isn’t exactly a small item, but it’s surprisingly difficult to spot one when it’s pretending to be one of a bunch of sea rods. Many divers and most dive guides seem to love nudibranchs; personally, I struggle to see what the fuss is about. At the end of the day, even if it’s brilliantly coloured and boldly patterned, a snail is a snail. But big shoals are always a thrill, particularly when they’re tiny fish swirling around in a “bait ball”, whose shape morphs as they move with the current’s ebb and flow or perform some shift to attempt to confuse predators. I also love seeing parrot fish bump the coral, bite off a chunk and grind it up into fine sand which you can see them excrete (after they’ve ingested the nutrients). It’s not far off the mark to assert that the fabulous beaches of white sands in these parts are largely composed of parrot fish droppings.

By the way, I haven’t attached any underwater photos because I stopped taking them a few years ago: I realised that I wasn’t enjoying dives any more because I was spending all my time worrying about the camera and the pictures. There are plenty of people who disagree with me, as a search for “Wakatobi underwater” will quickly show you.

Wakatobi is located just off the south-east corner of Sulawesi (that’s the spindly one on the Indonesian map) in the so-called “coral triangle”, which brings me to the first of my three caveats: it’s a bitch to get to. If you’re coming from the UK or the US, you have to spend the best part of a couple of days getting to Bali, and it’s then a two and a half hour charter flight to the airstrip on nearby Tomia island. They do their best to make the trip smooth and efficient, but any way you look at it, Wakatobi is in the middle of nowhere.

Second caveat: you won’t see much in the way of large pelagics here (sharks, rays, etc). And finally, Wakatobi isn’t a cheap ticket by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a luxury resort with a capacity of around 60 guests, where they take exquisite care of you. You do pay for what you get, although not at the level of the ritzy international brands. 

Somehow, when you leave, the team there manage to make you feel like you’ve just left a long lost second family. I don’t know quite how they do it, but whatever the magic is, it results in a lot of return guests. We’ve just done our third trip and it won’t be the last.

Travelling again: Salerno, the border of two Italies

Travelling again: Salerno, the border of two Italies

We’re travelling again. After a few fairly hectic business trips, we arrived in Naples with 10 days to explore its environs – the first time I’ve been to the region. We started our little tour at the busy port of Salerno, on the Tyrrhenian coast an hour or so’s drive south-east from Naples airport.

For a brief spell from 1816 until the reunification of Italy in 1860, Naples was the capital of the “Kingdom of the two Sicilies”, a name which puts me in mind that Salerno is really the “border of the two Italies”. To the West, the glitzy Amalfi Coast, which attracts a slew of tourists, many of them well-heeled. To the south-east, Calabria, a region which is agriculturally rich but has one of the lowest GDPs per capita in Italy. Heading down the coast road (the SP175 “Litorale”), I couldn’t help being struck by how down-at-heel the farms looked, especially when compared to a recent trip to the beautifully kept farmland around Padova and Verona. There were just too many derelict buildings, too many stretches of land with awnings that clearly should have been protecting crops but only served to cover bare earth gradually filling with weeds. When a stretch of coastline is proud of itself, its beaches and seaside restaurants have names like “Blue Gulf”, “Beach of the Angels” and so on: here, they have names denoting the desire to escape to somewhere else: “Malibu”, “Hawaii”.

Paestum – Temple of Poseidon

However, there’s a good reason to drive down this road, because after an hour, you get to the Archaeological Park at Paestum, which contains three of the best preserved Greek temples on the planet. The Temple of Poseidon  (or Neptune – they’re a bit inconsistent about whether to use the Greek or Latin names here), with its array of huge Doric columns, is nothing short of awesome: I haven’t been to the Parthenon, but I’m told by those who have been to both that The Temple of Poseidon is close to as exciting a sight; you can get far closer, with the added bonus in June of seeing it isurrounded by a carpet of wildflowers. Next door, the Temple of Hera comes close, although the columns are slightly more spread out, which reduces the “shock and awe” quotient. As you walk back towards the park’s exit past various ruins of Roman settlements, which include a particularly noteworthy marble impluvium (rainfall collector) in the centre of a villa’s atrium, you pass the Temple of Athene, which is somewhat smaller. You come out with the feeling that you have just been thoroughly dipped into a large pool of the culture of 2,500 years ago.

Paestum – Temple of Hera

The Amalfi Coast (or “Costiera Amalfitana”) fully deserves its reputation as one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline on the planet. Picture-perfect towns and villages perch uncertainly on the small flat spaces between cliffs that fall into the sea, or are hollowed into them. Vertiginous stairways take you from the coast road, high above the ocean, down to grey sand beaches. The scenery is studded with the luminous green of lemon trees: lemons from Amalfi and Sorrento are the most famous in Italy. Along the way, a never-ending series of places to vist, stay and/or eat with dazzling views: the picture here is taken from the Monastero Santa Rosa, a 17th century Dominican convent now turned into a high end hotel and restaurant.

View east from Monastero Santa Rosa

Sophia Loren’s villa is not far, with its mildly alarming open elevator to take Ms Loren from the house down the cliff drop towards the sea. I have to agree with the Italian friends who told us that the best views of the Amalfi Coast are to be had from the sea. Salerno turns out to be a good place to start a boat trip: go to Molo Manfredi marina and you’ll find several companies happy to rent you a boat, either with or without a skipper; for the cost conscious, joining a tour will make more sense than doing a private rental. There are fewer companies than the internet would appear to indicate, so you’ll find the same boats on offer on several different websites, aggregators or otherwise (for example, we started on “Blue Dream Rentals” and ended up renting from “Blu Mediterraneo”). The boat was fine and our skipper was very personable. We chose an intinerary that started at Salerno, proceeded to Positano (past Amalfi to the West) and then back via a stop for lunch. The photo here is of Positano, as glitzy as you can get and apparently the favoured ancharage for oligarchs’ superyachts (we saw five very large yachts moored there). You can also go to Capri, but that’s a longer trip and if you want to spend a substantial time going round Capri, you might prefer one of the many fast ferries and hydrofoils and then get a boat when you’re there. Alternatively, start your trip from further West along the coast: there are popular trips to Capri both from Amalfi and from Naples itself.


In between the glitzy Amalfi Coast and has-seen-better-days Calabria sits Salerno. What’s striking is the patchiness of the investment here. Stroll along the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele and you’ll find shops that are as modern and brightly maintained as you might wish for, with plenty of the usual big brands from Italy and beyond – Max Mara, Bennetton, Foot Locker – mixing with more local businesses that are maintained to a similarly high standard. The smartest restaurants, like the Michelin-mentioned Pescheria, are suitably ritzy; Embarcadero is a great looking bar and gelateria on the seafront; the 089 (zero-otto-nove) chain of bars is smart and fun. You can also eat extremely well at mid-level and cheaper places: Vasilicò, hidden away in a small square just off the Corso and run by the delightful chef patron Anna Clara Capacchione, served us some of the best Italian food I’ve ever had at a decidedly attractive price (including one of my favourite Italian wines, Lacryma Christi from nearby Vesuvius, at €13 a bottle). 

There are other small businesses that don’t look like they’ve had any money spent on them in half a century. Unsurprisingly, when it comes to food, some of these are excellent: we had the warmest of welcomes and fabulously good salumi at the Salumeria del Corso; in the back streets of the old city, Dolci Sapori, run by a father-and-son team, gave us just as warm a welcome and a superb lunch (plus a great selection of vintage rock and soul music, which, the dad told us, were down to his son – he prefers traditional Neapolitan song). There’s a definite feeling of going back in time to pre-globalization days when supply chains were short, with local shops selling goods made in the local hinterland – a feeling that can be pleasant, as in the excellent handbag shop which reminded us of the days when a parent might have been thrilled with bringing a handbag home from a trip to Italy. In other places, going back in time didn’t seem so great.

Salerno from above – Piazza della Libertà in the centre in the distance

At the other end of the scale, there are huge architectural projects. Adjacent to Molo Manfredi marina is the gigantic Plaza della Libertà, 28,000 square metres of bright, shiny new square sitting atop a parking lot and completely empty except for a single crescent-shaped building (itself mostly empty). The square was completed in 2021 after an architectural contest whose brief was to “bring to reality a new image and identity of the urban waterfront: the definitive opening of the city to the sea”. It’s certainly an attractively designed and striking bit of urban landscape, but to my mind, given the immense backlog of building repairs throughout the city, that’s a vanity project if ever there was one. The car park was almost completely empty when we parked our rental car there, but that hasn’t stopped another immense waterfront car park from being under construction just a kilometre or so to the south.

In our small number of days, we didn’t attempt to go through an exhaustive list of the sights of Salerno, but I’ll mention a couple of notable places. In this part of Italy where the hills fall directly into the sea, almost everything is built on a steep slope. Starting at the Dolceria Pantaleone in the Centro Storico, walk a couple of steep blocks uphill and you will reach Salerno Cathedral, aka the “Duomo”, or, to give it its full name, the “Cattedrale di Santa Maria degli Angeli, San Matteo e San Gregorio VII”. It’s a beautifully proportioned, light and airy building which dates from the 11th century, a far cry from the baroque excess of so many Italian churches and notable for a glorious set of mosaics. The faithful can gaze in awe upon the relics of St. Matthew; the rest of us can admire the artistry and appreciate what a spiritual place this is.

Mosaics at Salerno Cathedral

Coming out of the Duomo, if you don’t turn downhill but carry on gently uphill for many blocks, you will reach the Giardino della Minerva, the botanical garden of the city’s mediaeval medical school. This isn’t a garden for simple gawking at attractive plants: rather, it’s a kind of living encyclopaedia of medicinally or nutritionally interesting species: start at the bottom and you go up through a dizzying number of terraces, with dozens of species in each, to finish high above the city, with spectacular views. Inside the building, you discover that the medical school has been on this site, in one form or another, since mediaeval times. Furthermore, Salerno was one of the first places where women doctors practised and one of the first places where there was medicine specifically for women’s complaints. Perhaps the earliest text by a woman on feminine medicine was published here in the 12th century by “Trotula”, the alias of a certain Trota of Salerno.

Giardino della Minerva

We stayed in a lovely B&B, the Casa Santangelo in Salerno’s Centro Storico, once the apartment of an Italian marquis and now converted into some very smart suites. I couldn’t resist including this photo of our bedroom’s trompe l’oeil ceiling, painted onto fabric and tacked to the framework above.

Ceiling at Casa Santangelo

We’ve travelled to Italy a lot over the years, mainly to the north but also to Sicily and Puglia in the far south. It’s been our first time in this area: Salerno, the Amalfi Coast and Paestum have been completely new experiences. More antiquities await us at Pompeii and Herculaneum…

Sunset from Conca dei Marini, west of Amalfi

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

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



  • 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)


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


  • 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).


  • 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


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!

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.

Masseria Brancati - near Ostuni
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.

Martina Franca - Bruschette at Bistrot Garibaldi-2
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.

Alberobello - Astra - Burrata and mozzarella-2
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).

Locorotondo - Perbacco Restaurant
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.

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).

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.

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.

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.


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.


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.

Moon cakes

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.


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.

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.

Tea shop in Guilin

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.

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.

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.

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

Elephant Trunk Hill in Guilin

“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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

Making biang biang noodles

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).

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.


China blog 2 – mining the past in Pingyao and at the Great Wall

China blog 2 – mining the past in Pingyao and at the Great Wall

With a population of 50,000 or so, tiny Pingyao pales into insignificance beside China’s great cities. But that’s not how it always was: a century and half ago, its central location made it a major hub for the “northern tea route” to Russia and the cradle of the country’s banking system. Today, the city has recast itself as a key player in the Chinese project to reconnect people with their past.

Fun outside Pingyao city walls
Fun just inside Pingyao city wall

It’s worth giving a broad sweep of the historical context, which starts around 2,500 years ago with the “warring states” period and the writings of Confucius. The great sage’s prescription of a highly stratified, deferential society in which everyone knows their place may seem horribly restrictive to modern ears, but its appeal becomes more understandable when you consider that it came at a time ravaged by warfare, banditry and generalised mayhem. Even though its emphasis on an enlightened ruler and the duties of rich as well as poor would be as often honoured in the breach as in the making, Confucianism would come to epitomise the Chinese mentality and, with a brief intermission in the rule of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi (he of the terracotta army), would last until Mao’s Cultural Revolution nearly – but not quite – succeeded in wiping it out, along with everything of the essence of old China that Mao could lay his hands on.

Confucius Shrine fountain
Throwing coins into the wishing pond at the Confucius shrine

While most of today’s Chinese seem to be thoroughly satisfied with the results of Deng Xiaoping’s great project to open China to modernity and the West, many fear that an unwanted side effect has been an accelerating loss of Chinese identity. Chief amongst these is today’s president, Xi Jinping, the result being a drive to reclaim China’s past. And that’s where Pingyao comes in, with the walls of its old city unbroken since the Ming Dynasty in the thirteenth century, its heritage as the home of merchants celebrated for their integrity and its six-gated, turtleback-shaped pattern of streets untouched by the modern high rise world.

Cider vinegar
Cider vinegar – a Pingyao speciality

Modern Pingyao – the bit outside the ancient city wall – is a coal city (there’s a permanent faint smell of coal in the air) and a farming market town. From the bullet train station, the cornfields stretch as far as the eye can see, interleaved with orchards of dates, persimmom and apples: the condiment of choice on a Pingyao restaurant table is not soya sauce but the local cider vinegar. The city is also celebrated for “Pingyao beef”, instantly recognisable by anyone Jewish as salt beef (corned beef, if you’re in America), which is somewhat less salty than the European version but equally delicious.

City Hall - Wheel of fortune
Wheel of fortune at City Hall

The inner city, however is about heritage. You can visit a significant shrine to Confucius or the large Taoist temple; you can see the old government buildings where they re-enact criminal trials in the style of bygone days (the process, with an investigating judge, is closer to the French one than to the UK or US adversarial system). You can visit an agency which provided the armed muscle to protect travelling merchants: I’m afraid I couldn’t resist a giggle at the English translation as the “Armed escort agency” – accurate, but raising other connotations.


Ri Shangcheng Bank
Courtyard of Ri Shengchang Exchange House

Ri Shangcheng Bank - Kitchen
Canteen kitchen at Ri Shengchang Exchange House

Particularly popular is Ri Shengchang Exchange House, which was set up in 1823 in a former dyer’s shop and became one of China’s first nationwide banks, with branches stretching across the country and in key foreign markets. The traditional way of transporting payment for goods had been in silver ingots, which were heavy and susceptible to accidents and banditry: Ri’s innovation was to replace this by letters of credit and cheques, which included anti-forgery measures in the shape of water-marks, the use of a small number of calligraphers whose handwriting was well known to bank employees in all branches, and the use of encryption with keys that changed regularly. The encryption was a simple substitution cypher and the keys weren’t changed very often (every year or two), but it worked well enough to make the house prosper until the central government started printing banknotes in the 20th century.


The legendary probity of Ri and his various counterparts forms the basis of the “Impression Pingyao” immersive theatre show. Created on the usual Chinese massive scale, a cast of over 200 actors and dancers accompany you and your thousand or so fellow visitors as you walk through the streets of old Pingyao (modelled on a scale that isn’t nearly as much reduced from the real thing as you feel it should be) to relate a tale of the fidelity of the merchant who travels to Russia to reclaim the only son of an employee who has died at his dangerous posting, only to be killed on his return voyage, together with his bodyguards (the body count gets pretty high in these stories).

Impressions of Pingyao
Impression Pingyao: brides waiting to be chosen

Confession time: this is the kind of stultifying morality tale which makes me clutch my stomach and run for the hills, much in the manner of the opening show at the London Olympics. The effect was mitigated by the fact that (a) it was in Mandarin, so I didn’t have to listen to the undoubtedly saccharine dialogue and (b) the theatricals were suitably impressive: the Chinese really are good at theatre lighting and at getting large numbers of dancers/gymnasts to perform coordinated acrobatics on stage. But I can’t deny the fact that the locals were lapping this stuff up. As part of a focused campaign of indoctrination of a people into its supposed past virtues, I’m impressed by the method, even if the all-too-easy moral prescription makes my toes curl.


Impressions of Pingyao-2
Impression Pingyao

The vast majority (over 90%) of Pingyao’s tourists are from inside China. There are complaints, similar to those we’ve heard in Prague, that too many of them are bused in, spend a couple of hours seeing the major sights and then disappear again, not doing much for the local economy, but that still leaves plenty to throng the streets of the old city. The main arterial streets are lined end to end with small shops and stallholders. These give a great opportunity to assess what’s popular with the Chinese on holiday: a stroll along South Street passes enameled goods, elaborate designs made of cut paper, silver jewellery, plastic toys, brass and ceramic knick-knacks, perfume, soap, tea, hair combs, musical instruments, clothing of various sorts, shooting arcades, theme park ticket sellers, foot massage parlours as well as a place where you can get a pedicure where fish nibble at the dry skin, fungus and parasites on your feet (scuba divers will recognise the idea as a “cleaning station”). Local produce includes walnuts (not just for eating, but with pairs of the best ones to be used for hand massage), beef preserved in jars, dates and giant jars of the local cider vinegar, generally sold by the litre. Roadside bakery stalls turn out batches of various sorts of griddle cakes and biscuits: particularly popular at this time of year are the “moon cakes”, a hollow biscuit-like shell with a sesame-flavoured filling (the generosity of the filling is sadly variable between vendors).


South Street at night
South Street at night

Stallholder with preserved beef
Vendor proudly showing off jars of preserved beef

There are few bars, many restaurants and zillions of roadside stalls selling the kinds of street food you might find anywhere in China: dumplings, steamed buns, octopus or meat grilled on skewers, glutinous rice dyed with bright food colouring and cut out of large cakes. I particularly enjoyed watching the man hand-slicing noodles into a huge vat of soup, using something like a pizza wheel to slice off each noodle at a time from his large rectangle of dough.


Pingyao roofs
Pingyao rooftops

But the truth is that the real attraction of Pingyao is in its buildings, and not just the major ones: the uniform colour of the grey brick and tiles combined with the variety of the shapes and patterns makes for a true feeling of being transported into the past. Of course, this is Asia, where the tradition is that buildings are continually renewed and rebuilt, so there’s not really such a thing as an “authentic building” which has stood untouched for hundreds of years, but there are plenty of buildings whose appearance has not fundamentally changed in a millennium (philosophers will recognise the “ship of Theseus” question). The work of restoration is constant.

Reclaiming and restoring the past is also what you see when you visit the Great Wall, which is being steadily rebuilt in convenient, tourist party-sized chunks. There’s not much to say about the Great Wall’s history and scale that isn’t already well aired: suffice to say that it’s every bit as awesome in the flesh as you are prepared for by reading the stories, and the biggest surprise was the richness of the wildlife, with much birdsong and a thousand butterflies. But once again, the Chinese way of organising things is remarkable.

The Great Wall
The Great Wall of China at Jinshanling

We visited the wall at a newly restored section at Jinshanling, some two hours Northwest of Beijing, having been told that it would be relatively quiet compared to the heaving crowds at the sections nearer the city. This turned out to be good advice: there were no more than a couple of dozen people on our section of the wall. But that’s not what they’re planning for: the visitor centre and its accompanying car park and facilities are built to many hundreds at a time, perhaps thousands. Even in the United States, I’ve never seen a scenic monument with this kind of infrastructure. The facility isn’t finished, but given the impressive amount of carpentry being deployed (the hundreds of metres of decking and walkway were all being made on-site), I don’t suppose it’s going to take them long. Looking out from the car on our ride back to Beijing, we could see the massive engineering taking place for a new bullet train line to link Beijing with Jinshanling. Clearly, the Chinese authorities believe in the phrase “build it and they will come”.

Lantern shop
South Street lantern shop

China blog 1 – Beijing

China blog 1 – Beijing

There’s a lot you know about Beijing that doesn’t really hit you until you get here for the first time. So I knew how big and populous the city is, but I was still struck by the kilometres you can drive with high rise buildings stretching either side of you as far as the eye can see. I knew that traffic was supposed to be a problem, but I didn’t really clock the extent until we sat in a jam for fifteen minutes to cover a couple of hundred metres. I’ve read a decent amount about Chinese history, certainly enough to know that this was an ancient and magnificent civilisation, but that didn’t really prepare me for the sheer scale of places like the Temple of Heaven or the Forbidden City.

Panjiayuan Market - calligraphy materials
Panjiayuan Market – Calligraphy materials

They do things at scale here. Panjiayuan Market is simply enormous, with hundreds and hundreds of small stallholders plying their wares. The variety matches the size: you can find anything from a Ming vase to an old camera to an abacus or a mahjong set, as well as any knick-knacks you’ve ever dreamed of. The vast majority of it, we were told with some relish, is utterly fake. What is not fake, however, is the Chinese love for arts and crafts. The dozens of rows of stalls selling oddments to decorate your mantlepiece were matched by the numbers devoted to such things as paper, paint and brushes for calligraphy, soapstone for carving seals, driftwood to be made into sculpture, donkey hide to make shadow puppets as well as artists practising all those media and many more.

Panjiayuan Market - painting
Panjiayuan Market – painting

The romantic English view of Beijing is of the city of the million bicycles. That’s not how it works any more: everyone’s aspiration is to own a car, and nearly six million do. The resulting rush hour traffic is the stuff of nightmares, and the city hasn’t really grown a parking infrastructure to match vehicle ownership, so it’s broadly impossible to make a quick stop somewhere on your way from a to b. The other effect is that the air pollution can be pretty bad – the city is shrouded in a semi-permanent eye-stinging, throat-rasping haze that reminds me a great deal of Los Angeles on a bad day. The authorities, we were told, have now limited car registration permits in the city to 1,000 a year – a tiny fraction of the demand – and there’s been a huge growth in the subway system, but the average commute still runs at well over an hour. I suspect that the feel is something like 1960s London: there’s new wealth, there’s optimism and there’s steeply increasing car ownership in a city that isn’t quite sure how to deal with it.

Houhai lake - training for rowing race
Houhai Lake – training for rowing race

An early evening stroll round Houhai Lake (pronounced Ho Hay, the name means “Back Sea”, the lake having supposedly been formed by an upstream flood from the ocean) gives a good viewing of the Chinese at leisure. The area around the lake is packed with bars and restaurants, and the surrounding lakeshore is filled with people of all ages: courting couples, the elderly, young groups of friends, parents taking their baby for a stroll, you name it. Several points around the lake count as Beijing beauty spots, and I saw several instances of girls being photographed by a friend in poses that looked destined for whatever is the Chinese equivalent of Tinder. The sheer optimism of the place is inescapable: it was a bigger concentration of people looking generally cheerful (aided only marginally, if at all, by alcohol) than I’ve seen in many a year.

Houhai lake - family with bike
Houhai lakeshore

The concrete overload of Beijing’s forest of high rise buildings is moderated – for the tourist, at least – by the loveliness of its open spaces. The Temple of Heaven is striking as a monument, but is perhaps even more notable for the green space around it, while the Summer Palace is set in a stunning park and lake. Like anything the Chinese do that’s an important public space, both are vast.

Temple Heaven - Hall of Prayer for Harvest
Temple of Heaven

Temple of Heaven - interior
Temple of Heaven inside

The Temple of Heaven is the Ming emperors’ place of ceremonial sacrifices to the dragon, who is a godlike spirit with two crucial properties: (1) he controls the weather (i.e. life and death in a mediaeval farming community) and (2) he isn’t tied to any specific religion – especially useful in an empire covering vast territories where Taoism, Buddhism and all sorts of older faiths abounded, but *everyone* knew who the dragon was. For a non-specialist, the architecture isn’t fundamentally different in style from what you’d see in Japan or Korea, the distinguishing feature being the size: substantial palace living quarters, massive kitchens where sacrifices were prepared, an immense plaza for the emperor to be carried up to the imposing “Hall of prayer for good harvest” where the ceremonies took place and which Beijingers consider the true icon of the city – even Mao, that scourge of ancient culture, embraced it as his own rather razing it to the ground. You can see how central the whole ceremony was to the royal family’s legitimacy: if you can intercede with the heavenly powers who control the harvest of every faith in the land, you are a divine ruler indeed.

Summer Palace- Lotus Garden
Summer Palace – Lotus garden

Summer Palace - kites
Kites at the Summer Palace. Try to spot all three kites in the picture: the black shark is very high!

The Summer Palace has a far more earthly provenance: it was rebuilt in 1895 for the benefit of the dowager empress Cixi (pronounced tsee-she), using money embezzled from naval supply funds. Cixi appears to have been quite a character: starting life as a serving girl, she became a concubine of the emperor, and then empress dowager in 1861, when the emperor died and her son, only a child, inherited the throne (he didn’t live long, either). She duly ousted the various regents and proceeded to control the whole of China until her death, almost half a century later. The Summer Palace is set in a park surrounding a great boating lake, which includes a stunning lotus garden; it was originally one of a complex of many palaces around the lake until the British and French burnt them down in the Second Opium War. The park boasts several architectural jewels, from the 17 span bridge (a favoured spot for kite-fliers – seeing the kites soaring hundreds of metres high is a sight worth the trip in itself) to the Long Corridor (long means 700 metres) to the stunning views from a splendid Buddhist temple set high above the park, to the oddity of a marble river steamboat (no-one in China had the technology to build a real one). The Opium Wars, by the way, may be a footnote of history to most British, but they’re recent and very real to the Chinese. If you imagine, for a moment, that a foreign power is pushing hard drugs to a majority of your population and then, when you attempt to outlaw the drugs, comes in and burns down your capital, only agreeing to go home when your government permits the trade to be restored, it’s not hard to see why the memory remains vivid a century or so later.

Summer Palace - marble river boat
Summer Palace – marble river boat

You can’t go to Beijing without visiting Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, but I have to admit to being disappointed. Once again, what impresses is the scale: the queue waiting to enter Mao’s mausoleum, stretching for over a kilometre around the building, the expanse that is the square (largely empty, barred to entry by rather niftily designed interlocking barriers). The Forbidden City feels as if size was the only measure of awesomeness that mattered to the Ming emperors – each gigantic courtyard leads to an impressive palatial building with an open front to display the goings on inside to the assembled courtiers or visitors, which in turn leads to the next super-sized courtyard. (To be fair, although our itinerary lasted the whole morning, there was only time to stop at one of the many museums along the way, a selection of outrageously ornate clocks, much loved by the 18th and 19th century nobility.) It also feels like an unremitting onslaught of buildings and paving stones: the Ming emperors were terrified of assassins hiding behind trees, so you don’t see any green until the very last, innermost courtyard (when you get there, it’s quite impressive, including the massive trunk of a five hundred year old cypress). It takes  a trip to the top of Jingshan Park, the hill behind the Forbidden City, to get to the shelter of enough greenery to mitigate the smog and to enable you to fully appreciate the size of what you’ve just been through. Mao, by the way, never entered the Forbidden City, due to some bizarre superstition about both him and the Ming emperors being dragons.

Forbidden City-8
Forbidden City: Hall of Supreme Harmony

Getting around is a mixed experience. As well as traffic being terrible, finding a taxi in Beijing is less than straightforward: after a few attempts, the guy on our hotel front desk eventually gave up and booked us their equivalent of an Uber, asking to be repaid when we returned after dinner – which worked fine. What’s impressive is the Beijing subway: modern, clean and with enough English that you can find your way around straightforwardly enough. The fifteen-year-old main line Beijing-Xi (Beijing West) station is spotlessly clean but shorter on English than the subway, until you get to the final waiting room – so if you don’t have the benefit of a guide, you’ll need to know your train number. The 300 km/h bullet trains are enviable, whisking you smoothly out of town.

Forbidden City, from Jongshin Park
Forbidden City – from Jingshan Park

You can eat well at any price in Beijing, and we sampled everything from steamed buns at a street food stall to high end gastronomic fare at the Peninsula Hotel. Unexpectedly, our best meal was our last: dinner at the mid-priced (300 yuan for two) restaurant near our hotel, whose traditional Beijing food was a riot of flavours and aromas. Even less expected was the delight of a trip to see shadow puppetry. We’d seen some of the puppets at Panjiayuan Market on our very first day and thought they were a bit basic. Seeing them in action showed that they can be anything but: in the hands of a master, these apparently simple shapes turned are capable of all sorts of dance moves and imitations of the movement of animals, which were used to tell stories with wit and charm. The creation of a demon gradually turning itself from a skeleton into a beautiful woman, complete with the dolling up process at its make-up table and mirror, was quite virtuosic: a happy reminder that there remains plenty of culture which escaped Mao.

Shachahai Shadow Puppet Hotel
Shachahai Shadow Puppet Hotel: story of the frog, the crane and the turtle (not in shot)