Category: Travel

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!

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.

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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).

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.

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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.

 

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

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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.

 

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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

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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)

Ekaterinburg (or Yekaterinburg)

Last month, I made my first visit to Russia, and on a first look, Ekaterinburg could be any European city. There are shops, cafés, banks, office blocks, advertising hoardings, people going about their business, dressed in sensible warm clothing against the chilly autumn weather. The most immediately obvious difference from what I’m used to is the prosaic fact that everything is in cyrillic script.

Sevastyanov's House
Sevastyanov House

There are differences in culture and architecture, of course: the glitter of golden onion domes from many of the churches, the Wedgwood-china plasterwork of the Sevastyanov House. And there is a lot of land: Sverdlovsk province has a population of 4.3m the size of (half the population of London) in a land mass of 194,800 km² (nearly as large as the whole of Great Britain). The result is a preponderance of wide boulevards and  generous green spaces – albeit not at their best in grey-skied drizzle of early autumn, before the trees have turned properly to gold. Ekaterinburg is a steel town, and those wide boulevards are well used by a lot of cars, with seemingly less congestion than that number would cause in an older, narrow-streeted European city.

There are, however, visible signs that all is not well with the economy. I saw two building sites, one of them huge, where work simply seemed to have stopped altogether, presumably from lack of funds, their giant cranes simply sitting there. The city’s trams look like they haven’t been replaced in many decades, and the cars are notably older than I’m used to. There’s virtually no sign of Russian-made vehicles. There are some fine looking shops, but nothing approaching the retail density that I’d expect in the centre of a Western European city (to be fair, this might be because the retail has all migrated to shopping malls that I didn’t see).

Chandelier at opera HDR
State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre

One institution was definitely thriving, which was the Ekaterinburg State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, my hosts (who paid for my trip). They seemed to be at the centre of things in a way that’s unthinkable for an opera company back home: Thaddeus Strassberger, the American director of the opera I saw, was bowled over by the fact that the lead up to the production received significant news coverage and that random strangers in the shops knew who he was. Wages are low for singers – a third, I was told, of their equivalents in  Moscow, I was told – so the theatre has a large roster of singers under contract. The evidence of my ears says that the quality is consistently very high; the equivalent singers in Western Europe would undoubtedly be travelling from their homes to get the best work; job mobility is presumably lower here.

Russia isn’t really making a big effort to welcome international tourists. The visa process works well enough, but is demanding and inflexible – for example, as a company director, I was required to submit three months worth of personal bank statements and a list of all countries travelled to in the last ten years, and to specify precise travel dates and address in Russia. Immigration officials don’t speak anything other than Russian (or don’t admit to it, anyway) and airport signage is erratic. Ekaterinburg doesn’t feel as if many foreigners go there. Even figuring out its latinised name is confusing: the cyrillic Е is pronounced “ye”, so it’s fairly random as to whether it gets spelt “Ekaterinburg” or “Yekaterinburg” (the cyrillic letter for an “e” sound as in “Edward” is “Э”). There are, however, plenty of visitors from elsewhere in Russia, with two notable historical sites.

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Yeltsin Presidential Center

Sverdlovsk province is the birthplace of  Boris Yeltsin, and Ekaterinburg contains the Yeltsin Presidential Center, modelled on the concept of Presidential Centers in the US. Behind the massive statue of Yeltsin and the very up-to-the-minute (and somewhat overpowering) multimedia displays lurk some fascinating artefacts: for any child of the cold war who lived a teenage-hood in fear of a nuclear holocaust, it’s quite a jolt to see the suitcase with the nuclear trigger that was handed from Yeltsin to Putin on 31st December 1999. Yeltsin’s handwritten letter of resignation to Gorbachev is also on display – or, at least, Yeltsin’s personal copy.

The Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg was the site of the murder of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his family. The house was destroyed in 1977 (on Yeltsin’s orders), but after the Romanovs’ controversial canonisation in 2000, it was decided to build a church on the site: this is now the “Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land” (or, more commonly, the “Church on the Blood”). It’s a bizarre place to Western eyes: we are well used to seeing the Romanovs in standard fin-de-siècle garb, so seeing them transplanted into ancient Orthodox iconography, with its robes and massive gold backgrounds, strikes a strange note.

church-of-the-blood-towerBoth the Yeltsin Center and the Church on the Blood are more notable for the things they don’t say than for the things they do. The Yeltsin Center is conspicuously free of vodka bottles or references to his handling of privatisation and the subsequent rise of the oligarchs: the hagiography of the man as the proud standard bearer of the long march to freedom must not be disturbed. The Church on the Blood is equally free of references to the fact that Nicholas was a weak tsar who repeatedly failed to take action that could have reformed his country and avoided the revolution and the subsequent Soviet rule. Neither site shows any intention to give a nuanced view of complex events, and talking to Russians confirms that such a view is not what they are taught in school (not, I hasten to add, that we in Britain can hold ourselves up as models of this).

But while it may not be an obvious place to visit, the city looks very liveable. The picture of a lone kayaker on the river Iset will stay with me as an image of a calm in a bustling, industrial city.

Kayaking on the Iset river

And here are just a few more pictures:

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Gaijin view 4: top 10 things I didn’t expect in Japan

Lots of what we saw in Japan was exciting and great to see, but pretty much consistent with what I’ve read and with my memories of a short visit thirty years ago. To close our trip, in no particular order, here’s my pick of the rest…

Gold lame biker in Kyoto

Japanese Kitsch

The Japanese love their minimalist aesthetic of clean lines and elegant shapes. But when they drop all that and go for kitsch, they do it in a big way. Here’s the guy in Kyoto with close cropped dyed-blonde hair in a gold lame suit on a red Honda Goldwing-based tricycle trimmed with blue neon lighting. And while we’re on the subject of blue neon, here is the hall-of-mirrors corridor to the toilets in the otherwise relatively modest Café Grace in the suburbs of Hiroshima. The toilet itself, by the way, uses mirrors instead of wallpaper. Floor to ceiling, on all four walls. Really.

Toilet at Cafe Grace, Hiroshima

Washlets

Cistern with integral washbasinSpeaking of toilets, a couple of weeks before getting here, I was sent a Japanese class item about washlets – the toilets which have a sort of built in electronic bidet and spray water over your nether regions. But nothing prepares you for the reality of a toilet with a heated seat which, as soon as you sit down, starts making gurgling and squelching noises to mask anything you might be producing yourself. I’m told that birdsong is a popular alternative.

Less weird but strangely impressive is the cistern with integral wash basin. It saves the space of a separate floor standing unit (always a consideration in space-constrained Japan) and means that your hand-washing water is re-used to flush the toilet.


Shinkansen trips are short. Even Shinkansen 253 to NIkkowhen they’re not.

Eurostar and TGV, eat your heart out. The original and best high speed railway line is the Shinkansen “bullet train”. I don’t understand how it’s possible to do a five and a half hour ride from Hiroshima to Tokyo and have been so relaxed and comfortable along the way that you feel you could happily have gone double the distance.

Japanese directions. Or not.

If you ask someone Japanese the way to go somewhere, they don’t seem to accept the concept of telling you where to go (or pointing, as you might expect if their English is as non-existent as my Japanese). Rather, they simply accompany you to wherever you are trying to go, even if it appears to be considerably out of their way. We had one shopkeeper virtually shut up shop when we asked for some wrapping paper. He didn’t have any in his shop, but he duly accompanied us to a shop a short way down the road that did.

Hideki the teppan-yaki guy

I expected Japanese food to be relatively expensive by the standards of most cities I visit, an expectation that turned out to be largely correct. Then we fetched up at the Teppan Tavern Tenamonya: a tiny hole-in-the-wall teppan-yaki place in Kyoto, just by the Torii of the Yasaka shrine. The owner, Hideki, more or less bullied us into ordering the right things, and proceeded to serve up course after course of totally delicious, perfectly cooked food. The whole thing cost us ¥7,000 for four (around £11 a head), including a couple of rounds of beer and sake.

Hideki keeps a nice Takamine acoustic guitar in the joint, which he will lend out if asked nicely. And if he’s not busy and you ask really nicely, you’ll discover that he spent years in a Beatles tribute band and plays mean versions of Blackbird and I saw her standing (and, presumably, others). An amazing evening out.

HIdeki playing Blackbird at Teppan Tavern Tenamonya

The Kimono-and-selfie-stick combo

Kimono selfiesSeveral of the main Kyoto shrines are awash with girls wearing full kimono regalia, who have come there in groups, not least to Kiyomizu-dera, the temple with the “walk of love” where you have to go blindfolded from one stone to another – if you succeed in reaching the target (and you’re allowed help from onlooking friends), you will gain fortune in matters of the heart. Somehow, the combination of these beautiful traditional outfits with a cellphone on the end of a selfie stick struck me as particularly bizarre.

Japanese banks don’t take foreign cards

The vast majority of Japanese banks – even the big international ones – have ATMs that only take Japanese cards. And by the way, there are far fewer high-street branches and cash machines than we’re used to in the UK, so it takes longer than you expect to find this out: visitors come back with tales of “The Great ATM Hunt”. If you want to get money out with your European debit card, it turns out, improbably, that the place to go and do this is a Seven-Eleven convenience store, many of which are suitably equipped.

Trail to Misen peak, Miyajima
Trail to Misen peak, Miyajima

Hill walking

We did two lots of hill walking while we were here, at opposite ends of the country. Nikko, in the mountains outside Tokyo is a sea of cedar forests, a place of bewitching calm. Miyajima, an island just off Hiroshima, is at the latitude of the northern edge of Africa; it’s volcanic geology gives it steep forested slopes whose vegetation reminds one of the jungles of further south – although in March, it’s chilly out of the sunshine, so the trees and undergrowth are far less dense than in real tropical regions. Both longish hikes were utterly magical, each in its own way.

The Onsen is a marvellous thing

OK, so we were spoilt. As well as a public onsen (hot-springs type bath with continually circulating hot water) our ryokan (Japanese-style inn) in Nikko gave us a private onsen for our own personal use. There’s a ritual – rinse first with hot water, then soak in the tub, then get out, wash with whatever soap or washing products you’re using, rinse and then soak in the tub again – and you have to get used to soaking in seriously hot water. But particularly with the help Nikko’s clear mountain water, I have never felt so relaxed and totally clean in my entire life.

The obsession with Sakura picnics

The moment the cherry blossom comes out in spring, Japanese people feel an irresistible urge to eat under it. The most junior person in the office is dispatched to the nearby park of choice to lay down their mat (usually in a rather lurid blue which isn’t necessarily the best match for the sakura itself) and spend the day on it awaiting the party that will happen at sundown. The picnics themselves appear to be quite cheerful affairs, if this one in Tokyo’s Ueno Park is anything to go by: there are drinking games, performances of music on a variety of instruments, magic tricks and, of course, large quantities of eating. Since it’s actually quite chilly at sakura time, the ramen stalls (hot noodle soup) do a roaring trade. The trait is odd, really, since the Japanese are normally incredibly reticent about eating in public. Maybe this is just a time to throw off the shackles…

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And just for a bit of eye candy, I’ll close with a picture of the cherry blossom in full glory at Chidorigafuchi. Actually, I can kind of see what they get so worked up about…

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