Shanghai – Old Town – New Town


We started some days in Shanghai with a plan. A walk, a metro ride, a destination – but then sometimes things changed. Sometimes our Apple map app (Google maps banned in China) led us down blind alleys, conflicted with street signs… and Shanghai is still China, and not all of its 25 million people can speak English or help you out on any street corner and point you in the right (or left) direction.

There were some days when we wanted a quiet space and a bit of old China, and so it was when we went in search of Shanghai’s Old Town. Our search, which seemed simple to begin with, ended up leading us down cool tree-lined streets, which dissolved into sweltering, bustling intersections, but eventually, thankfully, led us down onto metro platforms, saw us wrestling with water vending machines, and ended up with us standing and swaying and sipping a strangely flavoured water (what was it?).

We switched metro lines to eventually arrive (the app said a 15-minute walk, thank goodness it was only 5 in the oppressive heat) at the Old Town.

The Old Town is rather a tourist trap. The best bits are the curved bridges over the tepid river filled with huge leafed water lilies with big pink flowers drooping in the heat, and the curved old rooftops, and the curved lanes lined with red pillars. We jostled our way down the curiosity shop-lined streets, buying only two cheap items, an old-fashioned fan, which I immediately put to good use and a small painted tile for my cool courtyard back home.

Hungry, we eyed the food on offer, not sure of the meat and heat combination. Eventually, we bought some chicken pieces on sticks and found a seat at a communal table. The chicken kebabs were good and spicy and the table was cool.

We left Old Town, which, although genuine, is also a kind of theme park, and made our way back to the modern chrome of the metro. The metro rail is incredibly and wonderfully efficient and absolutely spotless. Riding on it, as we did again later when we travelled that evening to meet a friend of a friend, we were even more impressed as we unintentionally encountered rush hour. The throngs of people are enormous, but everyone moves swiftly and in an orderly way. And so the mass of moving people never once (in our experience) bottlenecked or pushed and shoved. The trains pulled in and out every few minutes and people passed in and out of the automated doors. I hardly ever found a seat available, and it was crowded, but there was room for everyone and the air was comfortably cool. We alighted at East Nanjing Road, which is a hub of people and skyscrapers featuring large neon billboards. There was an exciting buzz in the air amongst all the many people gathered down there. Some used the little motorised trains to move the length of the long boulevard past the oblong glowing Apple Store, which is the entire length of one building, whilst above it, Florence and the Machine opened her gentle arms a mile wide, and serenely gazed down on us all. We found our way through the people to the Press Cafe and Bar, which is housed in one of Shanghai’s lovely old Art Deco buildings. It was a real newspaper press building in the 1920’s. (Established as the Chinese daily news called The Shun Pao in 1872.) Inside it is a double volume space under a white ornately plastered ceiling. There are walls of old black and white Chinese press photographs and L and I sat down and ordered cold beers. Benjack joined us and we talked happily for a number of hours and shared platters of tzatziki and fried calamari, chicken and mango salads and tasty pumpkin gnocchi. Ben has lived in China for over 20 years as an architect and the conversation was fascinating and insightful as he talked about the new rapidly emerging China.

Inside the Press Cafe and Bar

We parted late and down the road, towards the river, we could see that the lights of The Bund were on all around – illuminating the tops of buildings, and the Pearl TV Towers red and blue and purple lights blinked at us. We would visit it again another night. It was late and although the streets of the Bund were steamy and sultry we resisted its charms until another time.

A few days later we visited The Bund again and enjoyed the dramatic change as the lights came on and the buildings became ablaze with colour.

 

 

The Big City

It’s raining in Shanghai. Outside the sun parasols have been transformed back into being rain umbrellas. The cool air is a huge relief, the roads awash with water that scooters splash through, their riders soaked to the skin or suddenly (miraculous), clothed from top to bottom in waterproof gear. We watch wet to the skin people passing by from behind the glass of our local patisserie.

We often set off to find a cool place to drink an icy drink, have a cappuccino and find a comfy corner to write in. The FFC has a number of bookstores or interior design shops which feature a coffee bar or juice bar and welcome patrons in to sip an icy drink and to sit for hours on old leather couches or at antique tables and chairs. The ambience is often artsy with booklined shelves and original paintings, soft lighting and muted music. We found Sinan Books early on and thereafter we discovered an interior design shop, filled with art deco furnishings in which we were served a particularly good cappuccino by a slim suave Shanghai man in a crisp white shirt. A slender and beautiful young Shanghai woman, wearing a long flowing skirt and sporting a moving snake plait of hair down her back joined us there with her entourage of admirers. They enjoyed a photo shoot in the stylish space, with her posing amongst all the art deco artefacts.

But today we took shelter in the patisserie after we had travelled to the Bund, early in the morning, on the metro. The Bund is downtown at the river’s edge. The sun beat down on us mercilessly. We hovered on the waters edge promenade, gazing across the Huangpu River. Large working river boats still ply their trade, and large ferries make tourist river crossings. We strolled along and took some pictures of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower and other iconic buildings on the opposite bank. We decided that we would leave our crossing for another day, as the heat was excessive. We sought coolness like shade plants, clinging to the slightly cooler sides of the streets in the inner city. We stopped and admired the many art deco buildings, looking upwards at them. Many are in excellent condition and others, we were grateful to see, are being worked on behind bamboo scaffolding and shade cloth. The Bund was mainly tourist free, apart from small groups of Americans and Italians and larger trains of Chinese people under umbrellas following their leader bearing a flag aloft.

iaPM mall – Shanghai
Dolce & Gabbana (iaPM mall)
Shirokuma Curry (iaPM mall)

We strolled about the big inner city, crossing roads sizzling in the heat, avoiding Starbucks and KFC’s before deciding to return to the FFC (now called “home”) on the Metro. We now know the number 10 line and alighted just next to the iaPM mall. Opening the glass swing doors from the metro station into the mall was like diving into a very cold, refreshing swimming pool and so we stayed there, moving past the icy glass and chrome windows showcasing Gucci, Stella McCarthy, Dolce & Gabbana and so on and so on. L and I deeply admire design and fashion, if only from afar and so we lingered long and rode the escalators up to the 5th floor. This time we were looking for curry, which we found in a Japanese format (Teriyaki chicken style) at Shirokuma Curry. We downed cold beers with it and made friends with chopsticks after an absence of days. The meal was wonderfully tasty and we enjoyed eating it on the top floor of the very modern and beautiful iaPM mall. It had been a day in which we had enjoyed the very modern side of Shanghai with its huge malls and awesome skyscrapers.

And then the rain came and instead of seeking shelter in our upstairs flat, we ducked into our patisserie, sipping iced mocha drinks and petting a sweet little Chinese former stray dog, called Mona, now owned by a very sophisticated Belgian lady who was sitting beside us.

Shanghai Cheese

Our first few days in Shanghai have largely revolved around food. The pursuit of cheese to be more precise. L had done our homework and sourced a couple of tempting restaurants and cafes in the FFC (Former French Concession, where we are staying). We have not eaten any cheese to speak of for the last seven months, and those who know us might remember that cheese in all its forms has always been a big passion of ours.

When we realized that we would not be returning home, but instead be spending some steamy weeks in Shanghai we went out of our way to find the things we would miss by not going home.

Turns out we did not need to go out of our way but could keep to the cool Plane tree planted (apparently by the French over 100 years ago – what a good idea!) streets of the FFC.

On our first night, we walked a fair distance in the early evening to find Cheese.co. We found it down a small street and chose to sit out on the veranda, where we could catch a little cool breeze, as it rustled through the green cicada sounding leaves above us. We ordered cold beers and struggled to choose our toasties from the wide selection on the menu. Eventually, we choose a duck and mozzarella and onion marmalade toasted between sourdough bread as well as a salami and tomato pesto and a few other cheeses melted together in a sandwich.

We waited for our order with anticipation and sat back on our bar stools to watch the street in front of us as we sipped our beers. It was a busy and yet very quiet street, filled as it was with great moving streams of electric scooters. I envied them as they passed. All scooter riders ride without helmets in China and so they pass sedately by, with their hair flowing back in the breeze. Young couples, him often with his shirt open and billowing, her often side saddle hands loosely linked on her lap, or sitting with her cool milky limbs astride her boy and clinging. There were families too, a little one sometimes standing in front, little hands holding onto the side mirrors with another child squished between their fathers back and their mother behind. I noted many foreigners amongst the cool passing throng. Young men with pretty girls riding pillion, and other older grey fox men, some of whom had lived in Shanghai for over 20 years. Some talked to each other as they meandered past, some peddling sedately on bicycles.

Around us at other tables sat mostly young Americans. They were drinking beer and fussing over a Staffie called Buster. I could not shake some images from movies in my mind, mainly about GI’s and Vietnam I suppose, and pavement cafes and endless clouds of scooters going by. But this is no war zone. Instead, this is Shanghai, the City of Dreams.

The toasted sandwiches were a revelation. We shared them half and half, savouring every mouthful and then we strolled home in the dark, under the now silent trees, so safe and happy.

The still hot evening streets were flanked with Shanghai skyscrapers in part, lit up by great glowing neon billboards, filling the night with dazzling and blazing colour above the trees and the warm tarmac.

The next day we embarked on part two of our cheese quest.

In Lanzhou, we have eaten a so-called pizza once or twice and have been severely disappointed, and unfortunately made ill by them. Let’s not go into that now…

Palatino Roman Restaurant was a place sourced by L. It featured stunning reviews and real Italian, or as the ad said, “Roman cuisine.” We found it, small and stuck away, through a cluttered garden of vines and verandas. Inside were a couple of older Italian men speaking in rapid Italian to the owner, an elegant Chinese woman who switched from Italian to flawless English to greet us as we entered. We were led upstairs to the dimly lit and very cool intimate space and shown to a table. The menu was exciting, not cheap, but affordable for us. It was pure Italian bliss. The Italian men joined us upstairs and so our entire meal was eaten to a soundtrack of an Italian conversation, for which we were grateful. L and I took our first mouthful and as the very thin crust crunched and crumbled between our fingers our eyes met and I think it was me who said it first “I feel so happy right now.”

Ah! The power of food!

We ate pizzas topped with thin slivers of Parma ham, piled with crispy rocket leaves, oozing with stringy mozzarella, shiny with salami, and we plunged into a shared salad of green and black olives, capers, artichokes, chunks of mozzarella, and juicy sliced tomatoes. We sloshed all with fragrant extra virgin olive oil and a drizzle of black balsamic vinegar. And so ended our cheese odyssey.

But no doubt there will probably be a second journey before we finally head home.

 

 

Xi’an weekend

We had our first ride on a Chinese bullet train when we went away to Xi’an for a weekend. We knew we were travelling at speed because the speed appeared in red letters on a digital screen in the carriage at regular intervals.

Speed

I sat facing, with my long legs a little cramped as we swept in and out of tunnels. I suppose the train travels fast and straight and cannot manage the curves and gentle ascents and descents of the hills we saw around us.Julie and Michelle

The view through the windows alternated between darkness and dry terraces, a few scattered low houses, and after the outskirts of the city, there were more and more half-built concrete blocks of apartments.

We were travelling together with our Indian friend to join him in celebrating the Holi Festival. Xi‘an boasts an Indian Restaurant – it looked like it could be fun.

Ganesha (special to him and special to us – the Elephant God – remover of obstacles) had already helped us out by making a bus stop for us early that morning – we were the only passengers he stopped for – and thus ensured that we made our early morning train.


Now, after our arrival at the unbelievably confusing station, followed by a mind-blowing underground tube network (thanks dear Chinese speaking and reading friend…) we surfaced onto the streets of Xi ‘an and made our way to the restaurant.
It was raining a little but little Ganesha statues led us up a stairway to another large marble Ganesha statue against the wall.Ganesha and Michelle

We were also following the music, which we had heard from a long way off. It sounded like an Indian soundtrack from a Bollywood movie. Our Indian friend had been excited for weeks and as he bounded up the stairs we followed.

It was drizzling slightly but there were a few Indian men and Chinese women and men with faces already smeared with paint, dancing in front of a large printed screen which was standing in the open courtyard, depicting scenes from a previous Holi Festival.

A tray was prepared with burning incense sticks and other bowls, including one containing a red paste which was offered to Ganesha (his curled trunk was touched with a finger that left a red print) and we were invited forward to receive a red dot gently printed at the place of the third eye between our eyebrows – and then the party could begin.

Our friend could not be contained and swept up by his enthusiasm and energy we all joined in, sliding about on the damp tiles which soon turned into a multitude of vibrant colours as the powder paint, piled high on platters, began to be thrown about.

L and I were not spared and our hair and faces were soon turned to an assortment of exotic colours.

Many photos were taken, and later we saw that everyone had been photobombed by a collection of pretty Chinese girls ( and we were glad of it).

We were hungry and soon tired of the dancing and were ready for the promised Indian meal. We had surrendered our black coats and other clothing to the rain and they had been painted by the powders that had fallen upon us.

We went inside and queued in front of the fragrant aromas of the buffet. We left colourful fingerprints on our plates (even though we had washed our hands – the paint was hard to remove…) We went ahead and ate the delicious meal mostly with our fingers, tearing up the naan bread and dipping and scooping the chunks into bowls of chicken tikka masala, basmati rice, a delectable array of curried vegetable dishes and gently fried pakora bits and pieces.

We washed it all down with Tiger beer to the accompaniment of Bollywood images and a soundtrack played on a huge flat screen. Occasionally the stage was taken by young Chinese women, all veiled and dressed in belts of shiny coins and colourful chiffon, who danced for us with graceful arms and expressive hands.

The place was filled with many Western people, and there were a number of very attractive young Indians who held their own private party at a smoky table over a shared hookah and much beer, and danced in the aisles with a beautiful freedom and abandon that made us all smile.

We tried to wash more of the paint off in the bathroom, but the majority of that work was left for our hotel room, where I caused the glass box wet room in our hotel to be decorated with a splattering of pink and green dots against the white enamel.

Lex followed and added his own selection of colours to our bathroom.
We washed it all away but as I dried my grey hair later I realized that I still had a swathe of pink running through a large section of it. L’s beard was still a little pink on one side, but we shrugged and got dressed because we had plans for the evening.

The next day we would leave Xi ‘an and catch a late train back to Lanzhou. We arrived at the station at close to midnight and joined a long queue of weary travellers all waiting for a taxi. Our exhausted group of foreigners lagged at the tail of it and prepared to wait – until – suddenly we were waved to the front by some station official. We were confused, but we did not hesitate and followed his lead as he guided us to the very front of the queue – I don’t think any of us looked to left or right – I made no eye contact with anyone, but I swear I could feel the love…..
We were bundled into a waiting taxi and whisked off.
Now, you see, this is the way China often treats its foreigners – like royalty – or perhaps it was simply Ganesha again – finishing off what he had started the previous day… and seeing us happily home!

Lamb shanks and beef noodles

Beef Noodles are the Lanzhou national dish.

A Muslim friend took us out one day to experience them at a Muslim Restaurant, assuring us that this was the restaurant that provided the best beef.
We followed him around the Restaurant, moving from counter to counter, being handed a platter of thinly sliced beef, then a couple of dishes of vegetables (chunky chopped cucumber, pink crunchy radishes and bright orange cabbage in a vinegary dressing), and finally large bowls of soupy noodles ( L chose the spicy one – great spoonfuls of red chillies were ladled into it).
We found a place at the communal tables and sat down. We picked up slivers of succulent beef with our chopsticks and dropped them into our bowls of noodles. The beef softened and we shovelled them into our mouths along with the long strands of noodles which we bit off. It was all pretty delicious. In between mouthfuls, we ate the fresh cold vegetables.

A young lady waitress came and befriended us. She was a student she told us and this was her family’s restaurant. She communicated with us in a mixture of English, Chinese and German. We sort of figured it out. Sweet girl!

L and I appreciate being shown around but there came a day when we ventured into a Chinese restaurant on our own.

We could have gone to 26”pizza. But where would have been the fun in that?
We chose the Restaurant for it’s Union Jack seats which we could see in the window. It seemed popular and the photos of dishes in the window looked good, reasonably priced, and so we went inside.
The menu did not feature a word of English. We tried to use our Chinese translation app. It wasn’t very helpful. No one in the Restaurant could help us, but I liked the traditional Chinese pictures painted all around the walls. I liked the big front doors painted brightly, featuring fearsome Chinese warriors and gentle watercolour scenes of the countryside.
We pointed out two dishes and they arrived. They turned out to be two HUGE platters, one with lamb ribs, very crisp and juicy but covered in red chillies. The other was what had looked like chicken in the photograph but turned out to be something… which we never figured out…but there were also peanuts and such an immense amount of chillies that even L could not manage it.
Oh well, we called for COKE, which we assumed was an international word. It isn’t.
We got a coke in the end, and we were gratefully able to wash away some of the burn.


A week or so later we visited another Muslim Restaurant with the same friend and our Chinese speaking Romanian, who could translate!
The food, delicious roasted lamb shanks and a platter of sweet and sour chicken, a fresh salad and some spicy potatoes was wonderful.
The whole meal was washed down with a tea consisting of dried dates, dried litchis, dried flowers (not sure which), lots of green tea leaves and a lump of sugar crystals. Our large glass mugs were continuously topped up with warm water. The tea improved with time.

We don’t go to Restaurants that often, perhaps once a week. The Chinese food Restaurants are very, very cheap. The lamb shank meal was expensive and cost us each about R45,00 (under $4)!

Normally, over the holidays, we have been eating our daily meal at the canteen in the Wanhua building next door. They invited us to join them for lunch over the holiday season, and so we do. We are the only teachers there.
We pay a small amount with WeChat and sit down with the workers there, some in blue jackets, some in red, some in suits, some in designer coats. By the vast majority of them, we are now hardly noticed.
The lady in charge is helpful and friendly. Her English is a whole lot better than just about anyone else we have met.
Most days a trip to the canteen is enough for us, or sometimes we buy a few containers of food and take it back to the flat to be heated up and eaten later.
We sit around our table with our bowls and red chopsticks and dip into the containers of tofu, or noodles, rice or beef with lots of red peppers.
It feels as good as any restaurant, with the sun streaming into the room, our favourite photos turning around on the flat screen and some soft blues playing.

lounge

Cake and Cappuccinos

Our search for the perfect cappuccino has often pushed us out, onto buses and pavements, quite often in temperatures as low as – 20.

CakeEarly on in our stay in Lanzhou, the word CAKE stood out for me – often the only English word I could read amongst all the other Chinese shop signage.

I never associated CAKE with China. But I was wrong.
We were treated to our first cake after we had only been in China for a couple days. It tasted good but it was the way it was decorated that really impressed me.

Later we explored the shop that had supplied the cake for ourselves. The shop is called ‘Holiland’ and both the shop’s contents and its displays have amazed and amused us ever since.

boobie cakeI have yet to find out which occasion would warrant the purchase of the ‘booby’ cake – but there is always at least one displayed at ‘Holiland’, iced and ready.

When you do buy a cake you are also given a slim gift box of noodles to take home. It’s just a ‘Holiland’ thing…

We have enjoyed cake in other places, namely with a cappuccino on the side.

Coffee bars have become our favourite place to hang out, whether it be 501, Starbucks or Caffe Bene.

I am writing this whilst sitting on a large squashy leather couch in our favourite (thus far) coffee bar – Caffe Bene.
One of the reasons that I think we like it is because we can catch the no 88 bus just outside the school, and then go with it over the Yellow River, which is wonderful. We can look down on the icy brown river, sluggishly moving through its icy banks, flanked by bare trees on either side. We can get off the bus very close to Caffe Bene and be inside its cosy warm interior within a matter of minutes.

All the coffee bars which we have visited thus far have a few things in common:
– They are all really big and can seat a lot of people
– They just about all feature the Union Jack design on either chairs or tables
– They all serve excellent cappuccinos, fruit teas and juices
– Most of them serve slices of pizza
– Waffles are also popular
– They all serve CAKE
– No one minds how long you stay – all day if you like…

Right now L and I have been here for about one and a half hours. Our laptops and books are all spread out over our low kist-like Union Jack coffee table. There are electric points at most of the tables here and our cell phones are plugged in to charge. There is excellent WiFi.
You are also allowed to smoke inside the Coffee Bars in China. I, personally, quite like that fact…
The ceilings are often high and there doesn’t seem to be much smoke hanging around. Maybe they remind me of another time when I was young and everywhere I went I remember as being smoky. Anyway.


The first time we ordered a piece of cake (to share) at 501 we were each given a little black plastic fork as well as two sets of silver crockery. Later we were offered hot water from a silver jug, and when we nodded the young waiter poured the water over the foamy dregs of our cappuccino! Yet another lost in translation incident!


At 501 you are given a Teddy Bear when you place your order. Teddy then sits with you to be collected when your order arrives.
Youngsters arrived in groups into 501, boys mostly, to sit with cell phones and cigarettes and chat over bottles of beer. The music was mostly rap that day, featuring very unsuitable English words. The F-bomb and rude names for women were really not properly understood I believe, and the music was shrugged off, along with the ash from their cigarettes, flicked into coffee grind filled ashtrays.

On our first visit to a Starbucks we ordered a slice of cheesecake (cheesecake is popular), only it was not cheesecake that arrived. We had been so confident of our order that day – the Chinese boy with blonde streaks in his hair seemed to understand our English so well!
We bumped into our sweet Chinese fixer that day – which was like a miracle – to bump into one of the few people we know amongst the teeming throngs of people in Lanzhou.

It was snowing that day as well, and L took a wonderful photo of 2 monks, asking for directions, from the icy Starbucks doorway.

But the no 88 bus Caffe Bene remains our favourite.


As I sit here there is a hubbub of Chinese voices around me. The music here is mostly bluesy, or old 1930s jazz, sometimes with the raw touch of a Janis Joplin standard.
People are working on laptops, sometimes chatting, looking up from cell phones, laughing with red lip-sticked mouths, flicking their long dark haired fringes.
The people next to me order a pizza, it may have a sweet potato topping, or beef, or something fruity.
Maybe L and I will negotiate something plain – a Marguerite?
Anyway, we will probably be here for hours yet.
Like everyone else.

Food

Charlies Burger

Food plays a big part in our lives here.

Everything about it is so foreign – buying it, preparing it and eating it, both at home and in restaurants.

I have started to call our lives in Lanzhou – FULL IMMERSION – as life here is so totally different, so very intensely Chinese.

An English teacher friend just returned from a long weekend in Shanghai. She said she loved it. There is a lot of English there – she said. She also mentioned the beauty of the city, the buildings and the architecture. She mentioned hearing the English language being spoken everywhere. She even mentioned that she had found a bookshop that sold a wide variety of English books!

L and I are glad to be in Lanzhou. We like the fact that life is very unplugged from the West here. As a result,  we are being driven to learn to speak a little more Chinese, and we are learning a lot, both about China and about ourselves.

But we have pencilled Shanghai in on our calendars…

Curry night Last Friday night a couple of the other foreign teachers cooked for us. We lapped up South African curry and rice (with tomato and onion, banana and cucumber sambals on the side.)

A young Indian teacher also contributed to the meal, making us delicious Basmati rice with spices. He also made us  ‘Chicken 65’, which, we found out, is a type of spicy chicken nugget dish, served with a coriander dip. A wonderful multi-cultural meal!

Meals like that one do a lot to assist with the reality of FULL IMMERSION!

The other thing to do, we discussed, with our friends, who have been here a lot longer than us, is to find a way to lift your face up from under the water every now and then – so as to breathe a little familiar air occasionally.

With this idea in mind, we travelled out with them on Sunday morning. Firstly, we met some friends of theirs, gathered at a meeting in downtown Lanzhou.

Lanzhou, I am told, contains about 7 universities. This means that a large percentage of the population here are students and lecturers. And it is within these communities that one encounters more foreigners.

We have already met a couple of foreign students.  I think that they are impressive, because, although most are postgraduate, in order to study here, they have all spent a year studying to read and write Chinese, before they launched into their further studies! As a result, there are a bunch of Americans, Romanians, Indians and Africans who I have now met, who can speak, and write pretty good Chinese!

Meeting with them to make friends and to chat about life in Lanzhou ( a couple of  American doctors have been here for over 11 years already!) was like a breath of fresh air.

After the meeting we ventured further into Lanzhou, catching a No 118 bus, which we had never done before.

Our destination was ‘Charlie’s Burgers’.

Charlies BurgerThe exterior gave a hint of what awaited us inside. It was bright and fun! The interior downstairs was cluttered with huge lollipops which hung from the ceiling (and a Christmas tree with lights on – still in the corner – the Christmas decorations are kept up for months…)

Charlies Burger - interior

We were warmly greeted by a young Chinese waitress, in a checked red shirt and Stetson, who spoke to us in rapid Chinese.

Charlies BurgerWe followed her up the yellow pumpkin lantern lit stairs (décor left over from the Halloween festival…)

We were shown to a table and given four very large, very English menus. I felt a strange sense of relief begin to flow over me. All was so familiar, there was even American music playing!

Held within the large menu were large glossy pictures of an assortment of burgers. Most of the hamburgers were quite normal, some had a distinctly Chinese flavour, but all came with fries, and we even ordered cokes!

Charlies BurgerWe were issued silver knives and forks to eat with! Our orders were taken by a waitress who continued to speak to us in fluent Chinese, even when it became very apparent that we could not understand a word. Never mind – pointing to the pictures made our orders clear enough!

As I waited I glanced around the room and was entertained by some of the signs around the room.

Charlies Burger

‘Charlie’s burger join us for happy’

‘We want you smiling’

As we waited we were incessantly served hot water from a waitress, who circled around all the tables with a jug.

In China cups of hot water are given to you everywhere – even in the queue at the bank!

The meal arrived and it was as yummy a burger as I have ever had. The cokes were good too, only recognisable by their distinctive red and white colours.

Lanzhou shopping mallWe moved on from there to a very posh mall – think Sandton or Cavendish – filled with designer shops spread over 4 or more floors. We were in search of coffee!

Cafe BeneWe found Caffé Bene and walked into its dim interior. The tables and chairs were filled with Chinese people, who were just about all on cell phones. Not much conversation was happening, and in many ways, it all felt very familiar as well. Apart, that is, from the menu blackboards, which were covered in pretty and intricate chalky Chinese letters.

Lex in queue to order cappuccinoThere were a variety of cheesecakes behind the glass in neon-lit counters. There were perfect cappuccinos, with delicate hearts drawn in the foam. We sat on comfy chairs covered in Union Jacks. There were design references to steampunk here and there. There was a picture of the New York skyline on one wall. There was a repetitive Calvin Klein advert being shown on a large flat screen. The models were Western and sulky and far too skinny. Perhaps I could have been anywhere.

Perhaps.

Mall entertainment for kidsBut then I would have had to drown out the loud voice behind the microphone outside – directing operations and activities that were taking place in the very large children’s play area, down on the ground floor of the mall. I would have had to ignore all the people stopping in their tracks to look at our strange group of tall South Africans…

Later, at home, I lay down to rest and shut my eyes. Scenes from the day played themselves out behind my eyelids, to a very loud Chinese soundtrack.

It’s a con really, I decided, to think that one can find any place within China that is anything but Chinese.

China is everywhere.

It is strange and other, and I doubt very much whether anything about it (pretend American or not), will ever be anything even remotely near familiar.

Chinese shopping mall

Coffee Shop

L and I love coffee shops. In fact, you might say that they are one of the passions of our life.

We weren’t sure whether we would find them in Lanzhou, so imagine how delighted we were when we discovered one in the building right next to the school.

All in all, it is a pretty modern space, the huge office block next door. It appears to be made of glass and consists of many different workspaces. At night it appears to be blue, with long vertical rows of red lights running from the top down to the ground.

At 5 pm most of the office workers leave and I have noted that they are mostly young and extremely trendy.

The foyer is large and airy, with one very high wall featuring what appears to be a vertical garden. I ventured close to it the other day and touched one shiny green leaf. It was plastic.

Off from the foyer, there is a small store, selling all kinds of luxuries. I bought L a ‘Snickers’ bar there ( it was the only kind of chocolate bar in the store) and myself an M & M. There are packets of a Chinese brand of crisps and the ‘Lays’ brand in tubes. The bags that food comes in in China are always like tightly blown up cushions, with very firmly stuck down seams that have to be cut open – I find them impossible to pull apart.
On the other side of the foyer, L and I discovered it – a coffee bar!

Interior of coffee shop

The coffee bar is a beautiful space, the walls are paneled with wood and the chairs are large and softly upholstered.

Music – of the kind heard everywhere in China – is playing softly in the background, and hidden lighting illuminates the shelves against the wall. China teacups and teapots glow and shine in the yellow light amongst packets of tea and imported coffee.

We wanted to order something to drink. The woman who was working alone behind the counter could speak no English and the menu was helpful in that it did contain the words ‘Tea’ and ‘Coffee’.
L took a chance and ordered the coffee that was first on the list of choices.
I did the same with the list of teas.

IMG_4602We were both lucky, although I have a feeling that all the choices would have been good.

A light blue steel staircase spiraled up to a second floor.  The Chinese lady indicated we might want to go up the stairs. We did so and chose to sit at a table at the window. Outside, snow was falling, but it was snug and warm inside.

screeWe were alone apart from two men who we glimpsed behind a beautifully painted screen. They were having a meeting (smoking indoors!) and drinking tea. After they left I went and looked at their table as they had left it. Evidence of the tea ceremony remained, the cups in a row, the beautiful teapot. There was a little clay turtle in the tray and a small reddish three legged frog. An ashtray with a few cigarette butts. When they left, they pushed each other forward towards the light blue spiral staircase. Eventually one conceded and went first.

An older business woman came and sat alone and ate a type of bread from a cellophane packet, with only her cellphone for company.

We sat in the window and sipped our drinks slowly. After my first sip, I was not so sure…but that is often the case here in China. After my second sip I began to like my drink, and by my third sip, I loved it.

L has been wanting to visit again, soon, his cappuccino was that good! And we will.
It might just become a habit!

IMG_4666

Another meal out

The no 32 bus that we climbed aboard at 4.45pm was apparently one of the last buses riding ahead of the tide of workers as they left work.

We easily found seats and settled down. I thought about the buses that would soon be travelling behind us, packed to capacity with weary passengers.

We arrived at the Restaurant ( the name of which no one seems to know…), a group of 11 of us, and we were shown to a table.

The Restaurant is frequented by the Chinese community and is a type of restaurant that I have never experienced before.

I was feeling a little out of sorts that day – concerned about a few things regarding my job (it wasn’t quite as I had thought it would be – is anything ever?) and I had had a disappointment concerning my missing luggage. I was told that my suitcase had been found (yippee yay) and was on its way (woop woop). I was then shown a picture of a black case and asked – is this your case? – and it wasn’t. It wasn’t my suitcase.

That day I was wearing L’s corduroy trousers (too short) and new friends’ jersey and coat ( both very nice) but I felt lost somehow.
It was a bit of a revelation to me – the way I felt. I thought that clothing had never been very important to me. But I was wrong.
In my suitcase were things that I had specifically picked to bring, leaving as I was for two years. A friend told me once that if you hold an item, and it brings you joy, then you should keep it. If it does not – then give it away.
In my suitcase were things that bring me joy. Most are old, most have a story, most are attached to people and places.
Again I thought of the fire victims of Knysna, and one of them, a friend, who said – I have money to buy new clothes, but that’s not how it works. You gather things over time, you don’t buy a wardrobe in just one day.
In my case, being nearly 6 foot, a collection of clothing would be hard for me to find in Lanzhou.
My mind had been muddling through all these thoughts all day – surrender and acceptance, sadness and pity (for myself), excitement and loss, judgement and understanding (of myself).
And so on.
It was becoming exhausting.
It was becoming boring.
And so we arrived at the restaurant. Inside there were shelves and shelves, rows stacked with platters of food. Some of the platters were shrouded in an icy cloud. They contained an assortment of very cold (or frozen) cuts of meat and seafood – shellfish and fish.
There were bowls of cooked vegetables and cooked meat in sauces and spicy meat on wooden skewers, all arranged on long shelves.
There was a delicatessen stocked with cakes and biscuits and tarts.
There were racks bright with bowls of fresh crispy green salad leaves and stalks.

We were shown to a long table, with two silver basins sunk into two holes in the middle of it. The bases of these basins were covered with a disk of thick greaseproof paper, and it was hot.
The idea is that everyone chooses their cuts of meat and fish and places them on the hot base to cook.
It’s a sort of Chinese Bar-B-Q, and I guess is the closest China can get to a South African braai.

IMG_4603We all sat around and chatted. We stretched over each other and turned our cuts of meat and seafood over with our chopsticks. When cooked we lifted them out onto our plates. We dipped the cooked pieces into little bowls of chosen sauces, chilli, soy with coriander, peanut butter (sort of satay). We drank a few cold beers. It was all very delicious.
At tables alongside us groups of young Chinese people gathered. Friends sat together chatting and dipping and cooking and sipping brightly coloured coolers from glass bottles.
Later the waitresses changed the hot ‘braai’ basins for pots of hot water, served ‘half and half’ – one-half boiling and flavoured and milky in colour, the other half red and hot and spicy.
Into these boiling pots, you put more bits and pieces chosen from the shelves. The young people with us had tried frogs legs cooked on the hot base – now they ate crabs, boiled and pulled apart.

IMG_4608I sat back and relaxed. Eating in that way can be hugely filling, but as you eat over about 3 hours, fulness slowly creeps up on you.
The bus on the way home was very full. Our experienced South African friends led the way – don’t be polite, just push! And so we did, and all of us managed to fit in before the doors of the bus shut.
On the bus, there was standing room only, but almost immediately Lex was offered a seat. He took it, it would have been rude not too. And then I was offered a seat as well, which I also took.
Those standing looked to be the same age as we are. Maybe it’s the grey hair. I smiled at two young women clinging to the rail next to me. They were unsteady and too short to reach up and hold onto the loops hanging from the rail above them. I resisted the impulse to reach out and offer them my hand to help them. The bus rode on, with everyone pushed up close to each other, and swaying.
From my comfy seat, I watched the brightly lit buildings passing by, the neon signs, with big letters like art, in a language I do not understand.
We had to push past everyone when our stop came up. The freezing air greeted us, the road was suddenly empty and so we ran across the tarmac.

A kind of home again.