rt2k6 - Korea to Britain the hard way

2006-04-01 08:47


Apart from it being called Canton, and being the home of ridiculously good food, I don't know much about Guangzhou other than the stereotype that the Cantonese are bad-tempered. Beijingers are distant, aloof; Shanghainese are too friendly because they want your money, and Cantonese are just plain surly. I can't say one way or the other so far.

We arrived at about 7am on the morning of Friday March 31, and went to a Starbucks (the only other shop open at Guangzhou East Station was McDonalds) and sure enough, there was a PC room on the fourth floor of the building, but the building wasn't open yet. So we had a coffee and read the China Daily and eventually one of the Starbuckettes showed me around the back of the building into afilthy service lift, beyond which was the highest-tech and most chrome-ridden internet barn I'd ever seen. It looked like the whole place had been decked out by boy racers with shares in blonde wood, tinted glass and brushed metal; larger-than-life Asian CRPG decals were everywhere. It never closed, so we'd waited almost an hour and paid 70 kuai for coffee for no reason at all.

At the other end of the subway it was raining, and we had absolutely no instructions beyond 'Exit D'. We wandered aimlessly until, on a hunch, Deb headed into a cluster of old colonial buildings, and it turns out that the Guangzhou International Youth Hostel is on Shamian Island, a pluty former concession where the US Consulate is located. Ossie, it turns out, had been waiting at Exit D for us, and had just given up when we arrived.

Shamian Island is a very weird place. It's populated almost entirely by foreigners and the Chinese who cater to them. Every shop has a woman's name - Melissa's, Susan's, Jennifer's, etc; but they're not brothels. Even weirder, this is the place you see fat USian couples pushing prams (strollers, they call them) with cute little Chinese babies in. Yes indeed, this is the centre of China's Overseas Adoption industry, whereby unwanted Chinese babies (perhaps casualties, though not the worst casualties, of the One Child policy) are adopted by American couples unwilling or unable to have children of their own. The prospective adoptive parents are required to live in China for at least a month, and Shamian Island is where they stay. Waiting at the ATM this morning I overheard two fat USian couples discussing ther relative expensiveness of various pre- and post-adoption services as if it were the price of petrol at various stations. It's a bit scary, really.

The Vietnamese Consulate was doing a roaring trade, and we were given the choice of same-day or five day service; the latter of which gave Ossie a little over 24 hours to get to and across the border. Lunch at the standard Cantonese 'rice plus three' places is a superb deal. You get a bunch of hot steamed rice (they eat long-grain rice down here) and three things from a bain-marie for the princely sum of 5 kuai. A beer is another 5 kuai, and at last we're in a part of the world where they serve beer COLD. It seems about three quarters of Guangzhou eats this way, from flashly-dressed businessfolk to the bums on the street, when they can. The food is fresh; they sell so much of it it doesn't have time to go bad, there's a suitable variety, and because it's mostly rice and veges, it's not too wildly unhealthy. I'd eat like this all the time, if only there wasn't so much OTHER good food in Canton to choose from.

Wandering around the place, we tried unsuccessfully to buy doxyxcyline and deet and permethrin for the mosquitoes in Nam, but not even my little drawing of a mosquito with a cross through it was any use at all - we got offered remedies for motion sickness, sunscreen, tiger balm, sleeping tablets, laxatives and all manner of other stuff. Apparently there's no malaria in Guangzhou. Eventually we parked up on a table outside a small restaurant and watched Canton go about its business.

For dinner we decided to go for the muslim food we'd been unable to get in Quanzhou, and headed for a place across the road from the Central Mosque, famous for lamb and live entertainment. Going to a muslim restaurant on a Friday isn't necesarily the smartest of things to do - you certainly won't find any belly dancing, I can assure you of that. The kebabs were superb, but the rest of it was overpriced and of poor quality. They didn't have any of their specialty dishes on; the bread was tough; the tea was weak. I haven't been at all impressed with either of the Chinese muslim restaurants we've been to in Eastern China - the last was in Shanghai. I suppose it makes sense, given my ruminations of a few posts ago.


2006-04-01 08:15

Xiamen Redux

I recall seeing a documentary on TV in Korea about a town which was effectively designed by a single man - a bloke called Tan Kah-Kee who'd made a bunch of money in Singapore, and in his will, had endowed a stupid number of new buildings in his hometown of Jimei.

Jimei is indeed full of Tan's legacy, but it's not fair to say he's responsible for the town - mainly for the School Village in the town, which includes a bunch of schools from primary up to university level.

We arrived from Quanzhou on the first really hot day of the trip, and proceeded to wander about the place with packs on for about an hour looking for somewhere to stay, before being directed to the resort district of town, where the cheapest hotel room was roughly two and a half times what we were prepared to pay. We had a beer, and admired the architecture of the architecture - colonial stone and brick buildings with distinctive Chinese black-tile rooves, set in red-brick driveways and flat, square lawns. Perhaps it's more interesting if you're an architecture geek, but there's not a lot to see in Jimei, so we walked to the railway station and caught the #51 bus back to Gulang Yu for a swim.

But, alas, by the time we'd gotten set up and sorted out it was too late for swimming, and low tide to boot, so we wandered about in the dusk and headed into town for eats.

Finding good eats in Xiamen had been a bit tricky, but on this occasion nothing was simpler. Down a crowded alleyway, we stopped at the only place with a menu, and a lovely buxom Chinese woman patiently explained the menu to us, and sent her boys (younger brothers, cousins, who knows?) to cook and fetch beer from the shop across the street for us. We ended up with donkey meat hong shao (cooked in soy sauce - like mild venison; tough but flavoursome) and more dumplings than it was humanly possible to eat. Good people make good food better.

The next morning (March 30th) was V Day, and we collected our visas from the PSB with all ease and simplicity, bought tickets for Guangzhou, and got back to Gulang Yu with enough time for a swim in the cold spring sea, much to the amusement of the Chinese gathered there. Lunch at the same place as last night, but I had to find a computer to get the instructions for our accomodation in guangzhou, where we were to meet Ossie. 45 minutes of walking through alleyways - not strictly lost, just unable to leave the maze of markets and stalls and tea shops and whorehouses - sorry, I mean beauty salons. No internet anywhere. The sideeffect of China's internet rooms being massive warehouses filled with thousands of computers is that there are very few of them, and since they cater to a loal poptulation, they're never signposted or advertised, so it's fucking impossible to find one without at least an hour of dedicated searching. Somewhat like hotels.


2006-04-01 06:30

Gastronomic Experimentation of the Predictably Stupid Kind

When living in Asia, something which must be done from time to time, with the purpose of reminding oneself what a bloody stupid idea it is, is to eat foreign food. By 'foreign' I mean 'not local to the country you're currently in'. Occasionally this pays off - the pizzas at the Hidden Tree in Beijing are superb, and the steak and pies at the Three Alley Pub in Seoul are pretty good too; and we had decent lamb chops and NZ mussels in Bangkok. So it was with great reluctance that we decided to try our hand at Houcaller Beefsteak - a Chinese franchise specialising in steak, but basically just pretending to be a Western Style restaurant. Chinese yuppies come here, presumably to experience the bizarre sensation of ordering a plate of food and having it all to yourself. This is considered extremely strange all over Asia, and after three years it's even rather alien to me. Dishes which everyone can share is much more civilised. Nevertheless, we ordered a T-Bone Steak and an Australian Style Steak, two beers, and waited expectantly. Out came a little plastic card for the salad bar, and upon cashing it in for a little bowl, I found that it consisted of lots of poor-quality tropical fruit drenched in various mayonnaise-based dressings, dirty-tasting cherry tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, and sweet jellies. So far, not a winner. My steak arrived, covered, on a hot cast-iron platter, and with much pomp I was told to hold my napkin in front of me like a curtain as the waiter removed the lid; to protect my honourable clothing from being spattered with steak juice. Beneath was a skinny steak, drenched in gelatinous black pepper sauce, and upon the same hotplate a small blob of - spaghetti in tomato sauce, with cucumber in it. Yes indeed. That's apparently how they do in Australia. We tried to order chips, or potato of any kind, but the staff just stared at us in confusion and shook their heads. Deb's T-Bone came out about 20 minutes later (?), and the same silly ceremony with the napkin was performed with due seriousness. And it was exactly the same as mine, in every respect, except that it had part of a t-bone in it. Another part had been hacked out with a cleaver, leaving trademark Chinese slivers of bone in the steak, for which the steak would have been sent back in New Zealand, and the restaurant would be sued out of business in the USA. The Chinese method of butchery is as follows:

1. Take an animal.
2. Take a big, heavy, sharp cleaver.
3. Using cleaver, hack animal into bite-size pieces, without regard for structure.

There were two positives amongst all this - firstly, the steaks were both actually rare, as requested - on account of being thin, not really having been cooked very much, and not on a very high heat; and COLD Tsingtao was only 7 kuai per large bottle.

The next night (the 28th) not having had enough punishment, we went to a Korean restaurant we'd spied East of Wenling Lu. The staff were terribly surprised when we spoke Korean, but the middle-aged woman who ran the show spoke it fluently, and asked us abunch of questions about how we came to learn it, how we liked Korea, and so on. I asked here where in Korea she was from, and she said she was Chinese. Go figure. We ordered mok sal (pork neck meat) and the usual stuff came out, but the meat was cut much thicker than Korean meat; the grill wasn't hot enough, and consequently it was very tough. The side dishes and kimchi were pretty good, but in Korea things are always just so, and this wasn't quite it. The rice wasn't sticky enough and the toenjangjiggae was mild and orange and odd-tasting. I'm starting to see why Koreans are so fussy - there's such tradition in Korean food, and so much attention paid to quality of ingredients, time-honoured processes, harmony and balance; if things aren't right, it just doesn't work.

Better than the steak, but.


2006-04-01 05:57

Quanzhou - three temples

We were in Quanzhou from about March 26-29, waiting for our visa extensions to come through in Xiamen. Quanzhou seems a bit like Xiamen's industrial ugly sister - not as rich, not as pretty, seven instead of one million people. Xiamen is (and effectively has been for centuries) a Special Economic Zone - a place with very liberal business and commercial legislation. Quanzhou lies just outside of Xiamen's SEZ, and is itself a fairly major port, with a lot of light and heavy industry and masses of factories belching smoke and effluent. In ancient times it was called Zaitun, and was China's (possibly Asia's) busiest port, the Eastern end of the Sino-Persian sea routes; the Silk Road of the sea.

Incidentally, the peacekeeping troops South Korea have stationed in Iraq are called 'Zaytun', presumably in this spirit of East Asian - Middle Eastern contact.

Most of the reason we'd decided to come to Quanzhou was to visit the Qingjing Mosque, built in 1009; the youngest (and only survivor) of the six ancient mosques of Zaitun. Where there are mosques, we figured, there are muslims; where there are muslims there's halal food; and in pork-dominated Southern China, where there's halal food there is lamb. The mosque itself is mostly a shell, and now not functional except for visiting dignitaries - of which it recieves many each year. It contains an Emperor's (I forget which) declaration to protect and preserve Islam in China; that being essentially the only reason Chinese muslims haven't been persecuted and displaced by Han Chinese over the last thousand years. It is in this respect a shrine to the long history of peaceful cooperation between China and Islam, and in a condescending way, a celebration of the fact that muslim Chinese and 'normal' Chinese can live happily side by side. A pat on the back for the Han for being so tolerant. I am reminded of what Paul Theroux said on this topic in Riding the Iron Rooster: that despite living alongside muslims for well over a thousand years, Han Chinese still find them perfectly inscrutable; puzzling and superstitious and altogether not Chinese.

Unfortunately, there was not a scrap of lamb to be found in the whole city. It didn't help that the Ronery Pranet map took as its Eastern border Wenling Lu, and that we were later to find that all the best eating places were to the East of Wenling Lu. The only sign of muslim food we found in this city with an apparently large muslim population were street vendors selling bread and seed cake near the bus terminal.

Wandering, we stumbled unintentionaally upon a functioning Three Ways Temple - at least, its architecture was buddhist, its motifs and carvings were daoist, and the bulk of the worship being made seemed to be to ancestors. It also held a small shrine to the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. Most of the temple was being renovated while we were there, and it was clearly intended as an active place of worship rather than a tourist attraction, so it was hard to get any further idea without being intrusive. You know a place is sacred when the beggars don't follow you in.

Onwards to the far West of the city, where the shiny designer shops petered out into roadside stalls and teahouses, two-storey houses of diverse designs, obviously the cumulative work of centuries of wear and repair. Some had unintelligible latin (latin characters, anyway) inscriptions, european colonial-style colonnades and lintels, or arches and peaks of Islamic geometry; or the bottom floor would be made of blocky granite, while the top floor would be roughly built from pine board, balcony and all. We were making for two tall pagoodas in the distance, and upon reaching them found that we'd come to the main reason tourists come to Quanzhou - the 7th-century Kaiyuan Temple. In contrast to Buddhist temples further North and in Korea, it's a lush, parklike place with old trees over cobbled courtyards, and broad gardens with winding paths set through. The two pagodas are stupendous things - made of rough brown stone in huge blocks. Stone Lions guard the eight sides, and one had at some point had its top half cut off, in one clean stroke of a saw (or something else which can cut stone so cleanly) and had toppled off, breaking its ear - and then had later been replaced to the exact location, less broken ear and foreleg. Unless it was a huge sword wielded by a giant of superhuman strength, this had to be part of the Cultural Revolution. Such a clean cut can be no random act of vandalism, it would have required heavy machinery, great perseveance and the will to destroy relics which, throughout China's history, have been valuable regardless of religion.

The temple also holds the world's oldest mulberry tree - planted at the temple's foundation to feed silkworms, and now more than 1300 years old. It's quite hard to find, because you expect to see a wizened, leafless shrub; but this tree is enormous, spreading perhaps thirty metres from side to side, and is enclosed in a stone wall with its venerable branches supported by stone dragons. It appears to still be entirely healthy, and has a prodigious crop of vibrant green leaves. It probably still yields mulberries.

Under the leaves of this tree, we had one of the more curious meetings of our trip thus far - a moneychanger. The odd thing about this guy is that he wanted to change kuai into kuai, at a rate of 100 kuai to 810 kuai. Yes indeed; I was to give him 100 kuai, and heof them, and handed them to me. This had to be counterfeit, of course; I was just curious as to HOW counterfeit. Would it have a picture of Lenin instead of Mao, or would it have a missing digit on the serial number? I pulled out a 50 of my own to compare, and to my eye they looked perfectly real. Then again, I know nothing about Chinese money, and it's the 50s, not the 100s, which are most commonly counterfeit. Deb and I were just mystified. Who could think this was a good idea? Chinese store clerks check 50 kuai notes pretty carefully, and you get in deep shit for passing counterfeit renminbi. Perhaps if he'd offered a lower rate, or if he'd been wanting to change small notes for large, or something, but this was just blatant fraud and he made no attempt to hide it, giving me a "Eh .. eh, nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more" sort of routine when I figured started comparing notes. He was all very good-natured and jovial about it. We declined his generous offer, even though it seemed like a good deal, because the other possibility was that he was in cahoots with a local policeman or security goon, and that we'd get shaken down and searched when we left the temple, and then "fined" for possessing counterfeit money - even if it wasn't counterfeit, which it might not have been. It was tempting, though. I wonder who falls for it?