Monday 1 December 2014

4 months in China

The start of a new life has gone hiccup free *touches wood*.   It's been great and the first term is almost done.  Christmas beckons in England and I look forward to home comforts of sliced bread, Ribena and a good curry.  My adventures since my last post have been minor but include a return trip to the Great Wall at fall and Beijing's famous DongHuaMen night market.  As my girlfriend visited from England I took her to the same spot on the wall that I went and it felt like a different place all together.  The dilapidated walls look so much more at home snaking through the gold and crimson Autumnal trees.

The night market is an interesting, fun evening.  There's a whole load of different insects on sale but you can never be quite sure whether these are to entertain the bus load of tourists or actual local delicacies.  As the deep fried tarantula was £8 just for one I figured it wasn't the latter.  I did, however, fall for the deep fried scorpion even though I am 90% sure it's not a local dish.  And of course, it didn't taste of anything other than crispy chip fat oil.  But hey, how many people can say that they have eaten a scorpion?!  It feels great walking through a market now with a (very) basic understanding of Mandarin.  Prices instantly halve simply from my Chinese responses.

I find myself missing English foods that I didn't even eat in England;  Branston pickle and cheese! Vimto! Piccalilli!?  I am certainly looking forward to going home for Christmas but I know that it will not be long before I start longing for my China life again! 

Saturday 4 October 2014

South Korea, Seoul - Autumn 2014

"Oppa Gangnam style!" 
Tuesday, 30 September

8 weeks into my new job and living in China I hit a half term and an opportunity to explore this side of the world.  A flight to Korea for a third of what I would have paid from England was our second choice and Japan will have to wait for a while.  Seoul in South Korea is one of the fastest developing cities in the world and is home to the stomach turning dish of Sannakji; freshly prepared, still wriggling octopus.  Why else would I be here?  Octopus is clearly the most loved sea creature in South Korea as it is found all over the place in all possible forms: barbecued, dried, skewered, battered, deep fried, live, raw and candied!  No site of the Sannakji as of yet but Google tells me that it is around just difficult to come by when away from the coast.  This may be an issue as we have decided to spend our full 5 days in Seoul only venturing out for a full day tour to the demilitarized zone.  We shall see, we are lucky to have a couple of local friends of friends here so maybe some insider knowledge will help!

Seoul is like a super city.  It is the worlds leader in wireless internet and you can find a connection anywhere.  Our hostel is in Insadong; nicely central with bustling shopping streets, bars and restaurants.  Our first tourist attraction was the Seoul tower where a pint of beer was about £5 but you got to drink it with one hell of a view.  And if you didn't fancy drinking a pint with a view you can just as easily take a pee (well only if you are a guy... I presume?) and marvel at Seoul.

Yesterday we ate our first proper S.Korean meal.  S.Korean because it came with all the side dishes (Banchan) famous in Korean cuisine.  The higher the number of Banchan the more important the meal.  Lunch, it would seem, was reasonably important!  The most significant and always present is one of the national dishes; Kimchi.  Cabbage fermented and buried underground for a few months it gives a sour, spicy crunch to all meals.  Lots of small dishes make any meal more exciting!  We spent most of our day walking around Changdeokgung Palace, taking haduken photos (yup they look awesome!) and getting a feel for Seoul.  The palace looks like it is taken from a old age Kung Fu film so we couldn't help but feel like ninjas!  We were recommended to go see a show called DrumCats which was described as sexy Korean girls dressed in skimpy clothes and playing drums.  Now it has to be said, after 8 weeks in China, Korean girls are an absolute delight to look at! How much of this is a result of the immense popularity of plastic surgery here I don't know.  Seeing a woman with a full face of bandages is not uncommon!  Where else in the world can a man successfully sue his wife for bearing ugly kids because she kept her plastic surgery secret!?  Anyway, DrumCats, sounds amazing!  And it was for about 20 minutes.  Any more than that the rhythmic drumming turned into repetitive, droning noise.  They exhausted everything you could possibly do with a set of drums in the first 20 minutes.  Yer the attractive women helped a little but not quite enough.  They could have been naked it wouldn't have made a difference.  ummm well maybe a small difference but were talking an extra 10 minutes at most!  I jest of course; third of the price for a third of the time would have been perfect.  At least I had S.Korea's second national dish to look forward to for dinner!  In one day I have ticked off both of them.  Bulgogi or "fire meat" is thin slices of marinated beef barbecued in the centre of the table.  Each table has its own extractor fan stretching down from the ceiling, it all looks quite impressive, however, none of us left overly impressed.  We put it down to a poor restaurant choice;  middle of a touristy area, prices higher than expected and not a Korean customer in site.  We know for next time.
Today we got up at the crack of dawn and dressed appropriately as instructed by our tour guide.  No knees, no shoulders, no flags and no army looking outfits.  We had booked onto a full day tour, submitted passport copies in advanced and signed our life away for "entering a hostile area with the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action".  Sounds like a great crack.  It actually was! We passed the half day tour and said goodbye to the majority of the group and I was genuinely glad that I got to carry on with the day.  And the second part of the day was by far the better half!  It was the part where we had to follow full instructions of no gestures (waving, thumbs up, etc), no photos(until told when and which direction to point your camera) and to not under any circumstances break away from the group in fear of being mistaken for a stray North Korean and being shot.  I found the whole situation fascinating!  It's like a sibling rivalry; at the boarder you can see the two nations' flags both enormously tall, the Northerns slightly taller.  For years it was the battle of the tallest flag taking it in turns making it a few meters taller at a time.  We visited one of many tunnels dug by the North Koreans to infiltrate the South and bought a ticket to Pyongyang at South Koreas' super special International train station.  I never realised the fact that South Korea is pretty much an island in the sea with the Norths ruling of no access.  To change this they managed to strike a deal that the South could run a train line through North Korea and finally be connected to the rest of the world by land.  The South built this amazing station, lay down the tracks all the way to the Northern boarder at which point the North pretty much said "Only joking you can't really build through here!".  Can't even begin to imagine how frustrating that might have been and I grew up with an older brother.  A thoroughly fascinating day and a must do if you find yourself in Seoul.

Quite a full on day was followed by a busy evening.  I managed to convince the others to join me on the hunt for Bibimbap, another Korean special which is a mixed rice bowl containing meat, vegetables, a fried egg and Gochujang; the dish maker! Gochujang is the tastiest sauce ever.  A bit like a spicy Hoisin.  It's made from fermented chilli paste and our hostel has two barrels of it brewing(?) on the roof!  Everybody went out drinking afterwards and I went clothes shopping in Dongdaemun night market.  I definitely made the right decision! Koreans have good style and I was shopping until 1AM in busy, hassle free markets.   New shirt, new scarf, new tie and new jacket! 

"Eeeeh... sexy laady"
Friday, 3 October

I have been practising my chopstick skills for 8 weeks now and just when I thought I got the hang of them I came to Korea and learnt that I don't even know how to hold them!  Flat strips of stainless steel adopted and developed from a war ridden Korea.  We were told that silver chopsticks were used as they tarnished at the presence of poison during the Japanese invasion.  Now war free (kind of) the metal chop sticks remain to make the lives difficult for any non Korean.  A long stainless steel spoon accompanies the chopsticks but it is seen as bad manners to use the two at the same time which, at the moment, is the only way I'm getting fed.  Luckily most street food comes on sticks!  Street food here has an enormous variety but the most common is easily Octopus.  I have had dirt cheap Kimbap rolls that look and taste like sushi and eaten like the UK's equivalent to sandwiches; Tteokbokki which are chewy rice cake pieces in a sticky spicy red sauce served with tooth picks and fishcake stuff on skewers bathed in a broth which I didn't manage to catch the name of.  I think I'm more sold on Korean street than anything else.  It's more exciting and has much more too it.  Korean restaurants in London gave me high expectations of the food here and by and large these expectations are not completely met.  The food's still great, just not my new favourite cuisine!

I'm not sure what came over us today but we decided to climb Seoul's tallest mountain.  Seoul has a lot of mountains for a capital city and trekking is a popular outdoor pursuit here.  We were clearly under prepared comparatively to our fellow climbers who were kitted out head to toe in trekking gear.  830 meters is nothing we thought.  That's less than a single kilometre!  Piece of cake.  Far from it.  Ill-prepared we rationed our water on the way up and had nothing to drink on the way down.  Half way and 2 hours of constant uphill climbing we were motivated by lying locals on their way down telling us it's only 20 minutes to the top.  It was seriously hard work and I was ready to jump off if the views from the top were not worth it.  They were breathtaking and felt like a real reward for almost dying.
As if the DrumCats were not enough I managed to convince the gang to see possibly the strangest bit of theatre I have ever put my eyes upon.  Nanta is "the longest running show in Korean history" and is all about food.  So one can only presume that is has got to be good right!?  Lets say it was a real insight to Korean humour.  They love the slap stick!  There were grown adults literally crying over a man falling into a bin?!  I certainly recommend the overall experience...  Others probably wouldn't.  Another weird experience was using the toilet there! Now I understand it's a little weird to have posted two pictures of toilets in my post but they are both equally important.  This one had a load of buttons and my curiosity just had to see what each one did.  A back sprayer, a front sprayer, a dryer, a seat warmer and a flushing noise maker for the nervous pooers.  Just make sure you are sitting down when you're pressing all of these.  And don't spend to long in there playing, I had people come look for me!

Yesterday was the last chance to hunt out the Sannakji.  I would have cried if I went home without experiencing it.  With advice from the lovely lady at our hostel (who laughs at my constant questioning about Sannakji) we headed to Seoul's great Noryangjin fish market.  Here I bought 3 live baby octopus and carried them in a bag to a kitchen for it to be prepared.  This kitchen was preparing all sorts of things customers were bringing in from the market.  What a great idea! The freshest seafood possible.  I hadn't been too worried about eating Sannakji until the sweet girl at the hostel told me that people have choked to death as the suckers can cling on to your throat when you swallow.  Great, as if the fact that they're moving wasn't enough to put you off.  Traditionally served with leaves, sesame oil and a spicy sauce.  Dip in the oil (to minimise the grip of the suckers!), add the chilli, wrap it up in the leaf and chew like you've never chewed before!  The last note being the most important.  It doesn't help that it's pretty difficult to chew.  Raw octopus is a lot like over cooked octopus except slimier and wrigglier.  You feel it gripping to your lips, cheeks and tongue as you manoeuvre it around your mouth!  There is nothing else like it.  No real taste other than what is with it but it was an experience and a long awaited dish ticked off of my list.

There was just one more thing to consume before going home and a night out on the town was the only place to get it.  Soju is the Koreans choice of tipple and was consumed in copious amounts with local friends of friends.  Made from rice it tastes like watered down Vodka.  It is a social drink, served by the bottle to be shared among many, drunk from a shot glass and downed in one in sync.  Followed by drinking games using the Soju bottles!  Traditional?  I don't know.  Either way a brilliant night out finished a superb week in Korea.  I managed to fit in most Korean consumptions and experiences except plastic surgery and botox; it's always nice to have a reason to come back to a place.  :o)

Monday 15 September 2014

China, Beijing - Summer 2014

Yi, Er, San, Si...
Monday, 8 September

I have been driving my new colleagues mad with the practising of counting to 10 in Chinese.  I am adamant that I will be fluent before I head back home in a few years.  I have settled in beautifully with a fantastic apartment, brilliant job and great friends.  How on earth do I write this experience up?!  I live here now! It's like me writing up my day to day life in England... Except more exciting.  Far more exciting!  But yet I still don't fancy writing up my entire time here.  Weekdays is solid work with little time for much else.  The weekends are where I actually realise I am in China.  So my entry for Beijing will be write ups of some of the weekends where I crossed the line from resident to tourist and back again.

This weekend was a long weekend due to the Mid-Autumn Festival or "Mooncake Festival".  Mooncakes come in all sizes and flavours but it's a particularly fierce bean paste filling that seems to be the popular choice.  The ones I have eaten haven't been that great tasting and have a consistency that welds itself to the roof of your mouth and tire your jaw muscles out as you try and chow through them.  I say all this but my landlord left me four in my apartment and some how or other they have all managed to find their way down the Berny colon express!  We spent our Saturday roaming the side alleys (called hutongs) around the Lama Temple.  These hutongs are where to find real Chinese culture and many are protected in order to preserve their rich history.  It goes without saying then that here is where you can find some of the best food.  We had lunch at a Hunan restaurant that sold skewers of all kinds of things grilled to order.  I remember back when I thought eating chicken feet was quite abnormal.  Don't get me wrong, it's still a little strange but comparatively to what else you can find on a local restaurant menu it's quite beige.  Chicken knee caps on a skewer and sautéed duck tongues are just two of the most peculiar I have come across so far.  And you thought there was not enough meat on the feet!? So from chicken kneecaps (as well as wings and normal parts) to the best grilled aubergines; you can plough through quite a number of sticks for very little money.  This was suppose to be just a light lunch before we go exploring but we ended up with a small trees worth of bamboo skewers laid out on our table like a giant game of pickup sticks.

Once you have been to Laos/Cambodia, temples just become a little common.  Lama temple is pretty but it's the exploring around the temple that was more fascinating.  It being a public holiday, everywhere was busy.  We took an over crowded subway to an even more crowded Ho Hai lake; a popular destination for Chinese tourists.  In the Summer you can hire boats and in Winter you can higher ice skates and sledges.  Tourist prices are extortionate here but you can queue for the most amazing lamb (?) skewers just on the edge of the lake.  A little stall that sells nothing but this one type of skewer, it's very popular and expect to queue for at least 10 minutes.

After paying £4.50 for a small bottle of Tsing Tao we soon left and headed to Sanlitun for a local favourite - hotpot.  A brilliant arrangement with a row of refrigerators holding an immense variety of raw skewered items and tables with enormous pots of boiling stock in the middle.  The pots are split in two with one side a simple vegetable stock and the other a bubbling deep red, oily, spicy Szechuan broth.  You each are given your own tray to pile with whatever treasures you find when raiding the numerous refrigerators.  Like a kid in a swe... computer game store I struggled to contain myself and returned to the table with a tray holding a small food mountain.  On the side of your hotpot you each get an individual bowl of a sauce of your choosing - I went sweet sesame paste.  The meal is a social event!  You put your items in the pot, you drink and chat whilst they cook and then you argue over whose was whose.  At the end the waiter comes and simply counts the number of skewers (168!) and gives you your bill.  The entire meal, including drinks, cost less than £6 each.  Amazing!  How else could you finish a day of being a tourist in China than a KTV; Karaoke, Chinese style! We booked a room and digested our food whilst murdering old classics such as "hey Jude" and "Don't stop believing". Day 1 of being a tourist. Done.

Yesterday we intended to make the most of having today off.  A free flow Champagne Sunday brunch buffet at the "Westen Hotel" followed by a night out.  For me, nights out never happen when preceded by a buffet.  And this wasn't any buffet.  This was all you can drink actual real Champagne, from Champagne with all you can eat lobster!  For £50!?  And of course not just lobster, there was a wide range of high end Western food.  Yes there was a Chinese section and a Japanese Tapanyaki and Sushi bar but very much how you would find a top version of such in the UK.  In Beijing you can order a Western Chinese takeaway or you can order a local Chinese takeaway.  It's the difference between sweet and sour pork balls or pickled chicken feet in onion oil.  I've never seen anything like it and couldn't begin to imagine how much the equivalent would cost in England.  Giant ice sculptures holding oysters, snow crabs and weird fish shots along side live music and a hundred waiters topping up your champagne glasses.  Low and behold I did not go out afterwards.  I went home and sweated out a serious food coma.

The Greatest of Walls
Monday, 15 September

It's going to be a long time before I stop double taking in China.  The mind can't process things it hasn't seen before and has to look at least once more.  It is rude to stare after all.  Whether it is a toddler being dangled over a shopping mall bin to pinch one off (did that actually happen?! yes i've seen it 3 times now!) or every show room bed in Ikea being occupied by sleeping locals.  I'm talking hole families tucked up whilst others potter around them.  Why is nobody else staring and taking photos?!

This weekend was focussed on climbing one of the wonders of the world.  Well that and eating the national dish of Chiiiiinaa!!  Another showy off national dish which has real style and makes other countries jealous.  The Beijing (Peking) Duck with pancakes in an entire event of a dish.  I have had it a few times already but I decided that the proper time was eating it at Bianyifang; one of the oldest restaurants to serve the world renowned dish.  There's no shredding of the duck here.  Somebody comes and slices the duck up for you at your table and you construct your pancake rolls with cucumber, spring onion and the awesome Hoisin sauce.  Amazing.  Years of practice means the fat is rendered perfectly and the meat is juicy.  Easily up there amongst my favourite national dishes.  The great wall takes your breath away.  Not because of the pollution; because of its magnificence and it's purpose.  We went to the Mutianyu side and trekked the direction with the least uphill struggle.  A cable car took us up and about an hour and a half of walk took us to the start of a toboggan back down.  I can't really think of a better way to do the wall?  It required minimum step climbing and finished with a fantastic downhill scramble!

Two weekends barely scrapes the surface of Beijing but for the purpose of my blog it will have to do.  There are several blogs solely dedicated to writing about the food in Beijing and this could so easily become one more.  I live here and a love it so far.  This write up is one small part of Beijing which is one very small part of China.  Maybe I should change the name to BernyEatsChina?  :o)

Saturday 26 July 2014

France, Paris - Summer 2014

Fries, Wine and Kissing
Tuesday, 22 July

The old romantic in me had me booking a short city break in Paris for me and my girlfriend.  It's a sort of Happy Birthday/Happy Anniversary/Sorry I'm Buggering of to China kind of thing.  It's weird to think that in less than two weeks time I will be sitting in my new apartment, halfway around the world.  It's a sad turn of events but excitement is still out shining at the moment.

I have been to Paris once before, and on realising that in my head I had mistaken the Blackpool tower for the Eiffel Tower I figure my memory of Paris is somewhat hazy.  Back then it was a trip to Disney Land and my only memory of that was not being able to ride on Space Mountain because I was vertically challenged.  So a second trip to Paris, now an adult and with a girlfriend?!  Oh how I have grown up!  We stayed at Hotel la Villa Glamour which was a very comfortable stay and located perfectly next to a metro.  After freshening up we caught the metro to Montmartre - home of Becky's favourite film Amelie.  We drank wine and ate in "Cafe Des 2 Moulins" which is popular because of its presence in the film.  Of course this does increase its prices a little but we were happily satisfied drinking giant glasses of red wine in happy hour and eating Steak Tartar; not quite the national dish but is iconically French!  Montmarte by night is what should come to mind when you think of Paris.  Quietly bustling cobbled streets lined with wine drinkers sitting outside glowing restaurants - It's lovely.  We saw the night through sitting on steps in front of the Sacre Coeur taking in the views, drinking beer and listening to buskers.  Not a bad first night in Paris.

Today our first port of call was to collect our ParisPasses.  For 115 euros this gave us 2 days worth of queue jumps and entries to the majority of the museums and sites of Paris and included free underground transport, boat and open top tour bus.  I have no idea whether it is worth it but I will keep track of my savings and let you know.  With our pass in hand we joined a guided tour of the very impressive "Palais Garnier (opera house)".  Sadly, the opera house does not perform over the summer period but the tour was fantastic and genuinely interesting.  That's a lot from somebody who probably doesn't really care much for opera.  

Paris is great to just potter about in; there is something to look at, eat, drink and play in every nook and cranny.  We found a cosy creperie feeding locals called "Creperie St Eustache" which served simple, delicious crepes with no bells or whistles.  I would definitely seek it out again if I were in Paris.  We took the open top tour bus to the Eiffel Tower and unintentionally spent the rest of our day there.  For a start, we were surprised to realise that the ParisPass didn't actually give us anything towards the Eiffel Tower.  A queue jump would have been ace.  But nothing.  We queued to get the tickets, then queued to get the lift 3 quarters of the way up and then queued once more to get to the very top.  Was it worth it?  It's like going to Iceland and not seeing the Northern Lights.  Oh wait, I did do that...  well you just can't go home having not done it!  And it means I can now add an item to my list and then cross it off (Because that's how "to do" lists work right?!) which is drink Champagne at the top of the Eiffel Tower!  The views were amazing and the fact that we had to queue for so long to get to the very top meant we got to appreciate the views in both sunlight and starlight.  Every cloud and all that jazz.   We ate Foie Gras for dinner which is a French delicacy of fattened goose liver.  It's produced controversially as it involves force feeding the geese to fatten them up.  It's not the best quality of life I'm sure but it does make a mild, unique and buttery tasting offal.  Not to say it's worth it.  I don't know what I think about it.  Let me sleep on it and I'll tell you in the morning.   

A good year and great legs
Thursday, 24 July

No that's not Becky.  Well it is but it's not what I'm referring too!  Yesterday was a beautiful day to be in Paris.  We made the most of our ParisPass and spent the morning climbing the Arc de Triomphe; cruising the Seine river; marvelling at Notre Dame Cathedral, nosing in quirky Museums and the piece de resistance - wine tasting in an old wine cellar.  If I were to recommend one thing to do in Paris, it would be a wine tasting class with O Chateau.  The ParisPass gave us a free wine tasting session, however, much to our pointless dismay was fully booked.  Insistent that we could not leave Paris without a spot of wine tasting we upgraded to a 2 hour "Tour de France of Wine" for 55 Euros in which the ParisPass gave us 20 euros off.  Man what a mistake going for the standard wine tasting would have been.  We passed the sorry people in the bar with their 3 glasses of wine as we went downstairs to a cellar for our 6 glasses (I jest it looked lovely but nothing in comparison to what we got!).  We joined a small group of novice wine drinkers and were educated in wine by a charismatic young man who owned the business.  We were treated to one Champagne, two white wines and three reds.  Servings were more than generous and empty glasses were quickly topped back up.  We paid 15 euros extra for a cheese board and bread was readily available.  Though potentially slightly swayed by the copious consumption of wine, I have to say that the cheese board was the God damn best frickin selection of cheese I had ever eaten.  Ever in my life.  I entered with little knowledge or interest in wine but left with a genuine fascination.  However short lived that may be.   
The Louvre has a completely different slant to it when visited post wine tasting.  We pretty much broke even with our ParisPass and the Louvre was our last "freebie".  We saw everything (lies) in there in just half an hour! Even with time for a Mona Lisa selfie.  Ok so we probably didn't do the Louvre much justice and many would scoff at the idea of being in and out in half an hour (or a Mona Lisa selfie!) but in the end it's just stuff that doesn't interest me very much.  It is clearly, and with good reason, a well loved attraction by millions.  Just not by me.  We decided to spend the rest of our final evening in Montemarte; our agreed favourite place in Paris.  Dinner of Snails, Confit de Cannard and Crepe Suzette screamed out we were tourists.  And of course we drank wine, lots of wine, but none of that cheap crap.  Good legs, a smell of roasted winter orchids and a hint of Apricot dew...  :o)