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Category: China

The early stages of the COVID-19 crisis: China and the UK

It was mid-January 2020, and news began filtering out from China of a type of Coronavirus, at first appearing similar to SARS, largely affecting the city of Wuhan and wider Hubei province of China.

With a planned return to the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian to celebrate Lunar New Year, we were closely monitoring the situation. At that stage, the north of the country had very few cases, with the outbreak largely contained to Hubei province. As we were travelling to a city that hadn’t registered any cases that we could see reports of, 1400 kilometers from the centre of the outbreak, we decided it was safe to travel. Certainly, if we were due to visit Wuhan or the wider Hubei province, we would have called our plans off.

Now back in London, my experience enables me to compare the early stages of the outbreak in northern China with the same in the UK.

On 23rd January, we flew to Dalian with KLM via Amsterdam and Beijing, arriving the following day. On the day we arrived – 24th January – China was reporting 550 cases, but the vast majority of these cases were in Hubei province. With so many cases, this is when Hubei authorites began to impose restrictions on residents leaving home, and travel to and from the province was also suspended. At a time reserved for important family gatherings, this was a huge deal – many people were forced to celebrate Lunar New Year without their family, some even by themselves.

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朱家角 Zhujiajiao: The sometimes Touristy Watertown without the Tourists

A couple of years ago we decided to stay the night in a watertown near Shanghai, and we made our way to the small and charming Nanxun 南浔. It takes just a quick look at the geography of Shanghai to see that it is surrounded by rivers and deltas that make the whole area around Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Wuxi, and Nantong extremely wet.

There are many old towns dotted around this area, which romantics are quick to call the “Venice of the East”, since it seems it is ever popular to reference that famous Italian city when referring to any town or city with a reasonable number of canals, Bangkok of old being another example of a “Venice of the East”.

These towns date back many hundreds of years and are full of rickety old traditional houses fronting onto picture-perfect canals with beautifully carved bridges and wooden boats floating up and down, albeit mostly carrying paying tourists these days.


Zhujiazhou old Watertown, 50 minutes’ drive from Shanghai, Jan 2019

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冷不冷? The importance of warmth in China and how this can positively affect your travels

It is often said that people from the United Kingdom have an obsession with the weather. A phone call to family in another country or even town will likely lead to the question ‘how’s the weather?’. It is also often said that the UK’s weather system is capable of producing all four seasons in one day. So much so, there was a well known song all about this. If you know it, it will now be playing in your head – sorry about that. But between these two facts, there may be a correlation.

I have spent over three years living in China, and during this time I have observed that similar to the British, China and Chinese people have an obsession with temperature. Everything seems to revolve around temperature and there seems to be an inherent fear of cold. I am not talking about a fear of being freezing – we all have this, this is perfectly normal, a survival instinct. What I have seen is that the majority of Chinese people have a fear of, and will go to great lengths to avoid being a little bit on the cool side.

Xinghai beach winter swimming, Dalian

Not all Chinese people are afraid of the cold, illustrated by this swimmer at Xinghai beach, Dalian in mid-winter.

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In Beijing and looking for the best place to swim… how does 6 hours by train to WARM blue seas sound?

Until recently, I lived in Beijing, and during the hot summers, I would search for a pool where I could cool off. Sure, some Beijingers swim in the Liangma river, but I only ever skated on it in the winter.

My first experience of a Beijing pool went like this. I found a public swimming pool that was recommended online, and so after a hour of getting lost I arrived with high expectations. I was met with a grimy pool, people spitting everywhere, not only in the dedicated spit boxes on the sides of the pool. The place was packed with loud kids leaping around, and the changing rooms stank of stale urine. I longed for the time when I lived in Bangkok and I could just jump on a bus and a short ferry to a Thai island for the weekend. I missed those days, and I still do.

However, what I didn’t realise was that, Dalian 大连, a beachside city in relatively close Liaoning province, not only has great beaches, but also has summer sea temperatures that are very close to what you’d find in Thailand. If you don’t believe me, see the following.

Dalian sea is very warm

Dalian’s summer sea temperature is almost the same as Thailand

Koh Yao sea temperature

The sea temperature in Thailand is high, but only marginally higher than Dalian in the summer









Source: August 6th 2018.

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Dalian’s Oktoberfest inspired beer festival is coming, but why the popularity of German beer in China?

Dalian Beer Festival 2018 starts on 26th July 2018 and runs for approximately 12 days. If you are reading this from outside of China and have never visited, your experience of Chinese drinking culture may be restricted to the world famous Tsingtao beer. In fact Tsingtao or 青岛  – Qingdao – as is actually written in pinyin (the official system for Romanisation of Chinese characters), comes from the city of Qingdao on the east coast of China. It is no coincidence that Qingdao was occupied by Germany from the late 19th to the early 20th century. Presumably because the occupying Germans found the local 白酒 baijiu, rice whiskey, a little too potent, in 1903 they established  the Germania Brewery. This later became the Tsingtao Brewery.

If you are familiar, you’ll know that Tsingtao beer does not taste like a typical German beer. It is in its simplest form a light, refreshing lager, that is typical of mainstream beers throughout Asia. It’s around 4% abv. In China, alcohol content of beer is usually given as an exceeding or equals to rather than an exact figure. Sometimes, it can feel like a kind of beer lottery.

Dalian Beer Festival 2018

The tents of Dalian’s 2018 Beer Festival are up, but not yet filled with beer, July 2018

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重庆 Chongqing: the most fascinating Chinese city you’ve possibly never heard of

There was a certain feeling of certainty as I woke up that morning and recalled peering through the hot steam the night before, sound of chatter and banter and mouthwatering aromas almost beyond the realm of human detection. I got up as usual, took a shower, drew a hole in the steam on the bathroom mirror, brushed my teeth, and went down for breakfast. But so far nothing. Not the breakfast, this was plentiful. But my stomach wasn’t showing anything, any sign of trouble that is. You might wonder why that morning I was expecting stomach trouble.

Chongqing street scene

A typical Chongqing street

If you’ve spent any time in this part of China, you will by now be both dismissing the title of this piece and understanding entirely. Anyhow, of course I couldn’t escape from this so easily, so predictably after a cup of coffee, a croissant, and some rice-porridge, I began to feel somewhat troubled, therefore I swiftly ran back to the bedroom, only to emerge broadly ten minutes later to continue chipping away at the vast breakfast buffet, feeling somewhat more relaxed.

Busy street of Chongqing

Chongqing has no shortage of people

To elaborate, please allow me to rewind 12 hours. 12 hours prior, immersed in a neon-lit city night. Where millions of people rushed around us, pushing and shoving, going here and there. We dived out of this sea of people, climbed into the refuge of a quiet, steep, red-neon-lit alley, and then into a steaming-sauna of a restaurant, concerned and starved in equal measures, waiting with anticipation for what was to be presented to us, for this city has a reputation that precedes it, and for a very good reason.

The sound of pots and pans smashing around the kitchen, serving staff shouting orders across the dining room to each other, rice-whisky fueled banter being thrown around by diners; this was a typical restaurant scene in China.

Chongqing at night

Chongqing at night, many different street-levels along the riverside.

Glancing around through the hot spicy steam and cigarette smoke, we could see numerous couples and small groups hovered over simmering cauldrons of vicious-looking oily red broth, dipping in their meats and vegetables, pulling them out – by which point they’ve soaked up copious amounts of chilli and numbing Sichuan peppers – and after slopping on some sauce that they concocted from the DIY sauce station in the corner, they were washing the dipped article down with dangerous amounts of insanely powerful rice-whisky and conversely room-temperature and watery Chongqing beer. It was very, very lively, and the smells coming from the boiling pots in the middle of each table were just incredible.

Chongqing hotpot

That night, the deep red pool of the Chongqing 火锅 hotpot

We sat down on our rickety wooden stools, ordered not from a menu, that was not allowed. The grinning waitress told us we must use our smartphone to order via an app. I wondered what had become of paper in Chongqing. Our wide cauldron holding a deep-red mysterious pool appeared like magic, placed on our gas-lit flame, and flames licking at the base, began bubbling away, teasing us with its pungent aromas of Sichuan pepper and chilli. And so it was that for the next hour, we dipped our offals, meats and vegetables, cooked, dipped and ate, and put ourselves through the pleasure and pain that is a Chongqing hotpot. An hour later and we were finished. I cannot put into words how it tasted. But it was an explosion of flavours, on many different levels.

kou shui ji mouthwatering chicken in Chongqing

口水鸡 literally means saliva chicken, but what the translation really equates to is mouthwatering chicken, Chongqing

When we’re discussing levels of spice, pleasure and pain is not something I would always have associated with Chinese food. Spending my formative years in the UK, I always thought that somewhat legendary of curries, the Indian vindaloo was the hottest, and wildly spiciest thing ever invented by mankind. Then I spent a good portion of my post-graduation years in Asia, and found that the Thais and the Laotians have things that make vindaloo taste, well, a little on the mild side. It wasn’t until I came to China that I realised when Sichuan peppers are introduced alongside chillis, the level of heat reaches a whole different level. The Sichuan peppers, if you’ve not tried them, give off a powerful sensation akin to a burning anesthetic, if that makes sense, but not numbing enough so you can’t feel anything.

Chongqing has many steep narrow streets

One of Chongqing’s many steep narrow streets

At the same time they induce an odd kind of dizzy feeling that cannot be produced by any other food. Since coming to China, it has become apparent that what I thought was Chinese food, served out of those outdated, run-down Chinese takeaways typical of a British high-street, is far from the reality of the diverse array of flavours found throughout China, particularly highlighted in Sichuan and neighbouring Chongqing cuisine. Thankfully with the new generation of Chinese visitors to the UK, this is changing, and particularly in major cities like Manchester and London, the UK is seeing a revival and an overhaul of Chinese cuisine.

Back to Chongqing. Later on in the warm evening, as we meandered up and down the steep, narrow streets I spotted a lady, street-side with a cart, a heavy pan, and an array of sauces and spices, frying up gleaming potatoes, coating them with a, I promise, totally not credible amount of crushed chilli and Sichuan peppers, that after one dose, temporarily sizzled all memory of the hotpot we had only a few hours prior. That dish was deeply, deeply incredible. Imagine your finest roast-potatoes with the flavour-level multiplied by 500.

Fried potatoes, Chongqing streetfood

The beginnings of the potatoes, before the coating of spices is applied

Chongqing is a city of 8 million at the confluence of the Yangzi 扬子 (more commonly known as Chang Jiang 长江 – long river) and Jialing 嘉陵 rivers, which gives it a kind of island effect. Just like Hong Kong, it is built into mountains, has stupidly steep streets, and is a vertical, high-rise city, with seemingly endless metallic towers shooting up to the sky. Just like Hong Kong it is also a culinary enthusiast’s dream.

Fried potatoes in Chongqing

Chongqing streetfood. Not your usual roast potatoes

But what is definitely not just like Hong Kong, is the relatively low number of foreign visitors to the city. Of course, you do see them, but usually in big tour groups, and they won’t stay for long. It seems most foreign visitors to Chongqing visit only because it is the jumping on point for a Yangzi river cruise (or Yang Zeee, as we were led to believe it was called by our school Geography teacher while teaching us about the world’s largest hydroelectric dam).

These visitors rarely stick around long to explore the cuisine Chongqing is famed for, or to dive in and out of the narrow alleys built into the mountains, full of street-level trade and commerce that is often quite unique to this city.

Chongqing skyline from the 'subway' train

The view of Chongqing from the ‘subway’ train

Chongqing has a whole industry of men and women hauling vast packages up and down the steep hillside streets of the city, as this is much quicker that the goods going the long way around by motor-vehicle.

Steep streets of Chongqing

A typical steep street in Chongqing, workers carrying goods up and down

We passed a whole road of women knitting roadside, hats and scarves and other things to be sold in adjacent shops. Beijing has a lot of people sitting around, relaxing, people watching, and why not, but it seems in Chongqing everyone is busy with some kind of trade. I could spend days walking around immersing myself in everything that’s going on in Chongqing.

Chongqing is built on many different levels. Enter a building on what you think is the ground floor and going out the other-side, you may need to descend ten floors to return to ground level. Take a ‘subway’ train, and when you arrive at your destination you may find your train entering the eighth floor of a high-rise causing you to descend many stairs on your way out with a total feeling of disorientation.

Chongqing train entering a building

Just a ‘subway’ train entering a highrise building, Chongqing

One never quite knows what level one is supposed to be on. To get people up one of the many steep hills, Chongqing is home to one of the world’s longest continuous escalators, that frankly makes central London Piccadilly line escalators seem minuscule. Look around and it is clear to the eyes that despite the apparent abundance of food in the city, and some of it, like hotpot, a little heavy on the calories, most people seem in pretty good shape. Take in all the hills and the reason is quite clear.

Escalators in Chongqing are long

One of the longest escalators in the world, Chongqing

Neighbouring city Chengdu is relatively inundated with visitors because of the panda sanctuaries nearby. Chongqing gets largely overlooked by foreign visitors at least, but the reason is unclear. Perhaps this relatively unknown city deserves more publicity. However not too much, no, too many visitors would of course cause it to loose the charm that is unique about this city. So do visit, but don’t tell your friends.

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Change in Beijing’s hutongs 胡同

Beijing. A fascinating city, one that is thoroughly enjoyable to live in. But pollution can get even the most hardy of resident down, and like any big city, it can be overwhelmingly busy and hectic at times. Unsurprising for a city in excess of 21 million residents. But what arguably gives Beijing an edge over other similar sized cities, is being able to escape to the relative tranquility of the hutong areas. For those who are unfamiliar,

Rickshaw hutong Beijing

A 三轮车 san lun che rickshaw driver in a typical hutong

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