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.

 

 

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.

 

 

The Muslim Quarter in Xi’an

Xian

Lex and Michelle - Holi FestivalAfter our shower, in which we failed to remove all the Holi Festival paint, we set off, me with a pink streak in my hair and L with a flash of pink in his beard, to visit the Muslim Quarter street market, set within the walls of old Xi’an.

It had stopped raining, and we were grateful for that as we climbed aboard the bus that would take us there.
Xi’an is even more beautiful at night, which we discovered as we travelled through the wonderfully lit streets.

Muslim market
We got off at the Drum Temple and strolled to the entrance to the Muslim Market, where people stood on the few small stone pillars there, for the purpose of taking selfies, featuring the brightly lit and colourfully detailed Drum Temple in the background.

lady selling chicken sticks
The streets of the Muslim Market were filled with people, and the sidewalks crowded with a multitude of stalls all manned by Muslims, wearing their distinctive little white hats. The women had their heads draped and covered by fabric decorated with silver or gold brocade and white lace.

They all laboured intensely at their various stalls exhibiting their skills of pounding sugar, or peeling the flesh cleanly off the bones of an animal (mutton or beef?) leaving the skeleton to hang, picked completely clean of flesh as if by some large bird of prey.

Slicing meat
Women demonstrated their skill in making ice cream over a frosty steel plate, spreading and scraping and finally rolling the ice cream into bud like spirals, and then placing them together into a small tub, like so many rosebuds.

At one stall a man pushed a millstone around, like a mule would, crushing a mound of chillies and then scooping them all up into jars with oil (one of which L bought).
The variety of stalls were endless and the street, flanked on either side by ancient buildings visible above the stalls, stretched on for miles.

Making spicy lamb pita pockets, which L loved!

Every now and again a Muslim man would stand out on the pavement outside his stall and bark some words, almost aggressively, at the passing crowd. I suppose he was advertising his wares.

Lady selling gourds
I wondered about this community, the Hui, and stood still in the street, gazing at their marvellous faces, all toiling together under the soft yellow glow of the lights. I wondered if they were mostly family-run stalls, sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts, and young men and women with the destiny of their roles already written as they were born.

We hardly bought any food (we were still full from our Indian dining..). We opted, instead, to spend some money at a silver jewellery store, mainly because of the woman seated at the entrance, dressed in a kind of silver armour and an elaborate headdress, who was banging away at a strip of bright silver.


L decided that we should buy a pair of extraordinary earrings there for me ….made of ‘canary stone’, which is what our Chinese translation app told us they were made of, but later we found out it was yellow jade.
The transaction was sealed by the saleslady pouring a colourless tea into small blue porcelain bowls, each of which contained a small fish charm made of silver. We both drank our tea and the deal was sealed.

Later we bought a small book of Mao Tse Tungs quotations, simply because I loved its redness and we managed to bargain the stall owner down from 80 yuan to 20 yuan.


Later we drank cappuccinos under the very modern roof of a nearby Starbucks and viewed the brightly lit Bell Tower in the middle of the busy street above us.
We were tired and gladly walked out to catch a bus, and we slept very well under the crisp white linen in our hotel room.

Tobacconist at Muslim market
Tobacconist at Muslim market

Pagodas, Temples and Monks

Last week we set out to see some of the Buddhist temple sights in Lanzhou.

We had been wanting to visit the famous Steel Bridge – historically the Zhongshan Bridge also called the first bridge over the Yellow River, lies at the foot of Bai Ta Mountain. In the year 1907, the Qing Government began to build this first iron bridge over the upper reaches of the Yellow River. All materials, even the rivets, were transported from Germany to China using ships, trains, carts and any other means possible. The bridge was completed in two years, and named ‘Lanzhou Iron Bridge over the Yellow River’.

As it was around the time of New Year our visit coincided with the bridge being strung with great clusters of red lanterns the entire length and breadth of the bridge, spanning the Yellow River.

On the other side, from the river bank, we could look up and see our destination, high up on the mountainside – the White Pagoda.
It stood up there, appearing as a tower-like structure, whiteish in colour.

We crossed the road and began our ascent.

Although at this time of the year Lanzhou does have visitors – family visitors visiting their families – the old temple terraces of Lanzhou were relatively empty of other people.
We started with the lower temples and stairs. We were struck by the beauty of their structures, and L took a lot of photographs while I wandered beneath their curved roofs and perched on the low benches, and gazed out over the slow river moving along its icy banks.

We moved up the mountain slowly, taking each flight of stairs at a steady pace. The higher we moved, the more temples we encountered. Some were bigger, but they were always arranged as a courtyard, with many doors leading to rooms housing various statues. The statues sit in their dim chambers, glowing in candlelight, surrounded by great arrangements of big artificial flowers in front of mural painted walls.
Mostly there is a large bell close by, which I suppose only the monks can strike with the long tree trunk attached for the purpose.
The air is pungent, filled with the heady aroma of burning incense – some sticks are always alight and burning, stuck in a trough of sand, standing at angles, some a shocking pink, or a striking blue or a vibrant mellow yellow colour.
The statues sit aloof behind their green stable doors, untouchable, with a large padded kneeler in place for followers to kneel on or say their prayers.
And so we progressed upwards. The city spread out beneath us and we could see its high buildings stretching far into the distance.

Eventually, we came to the Pagoda itself, built in the 13th Century it stands alone with all its many Buddhas looking out from their many alcoves, all ringed around, layer upon layer up into the sky.
I like it immensely and L and I wandered around it. It stands so silently and still, and it was there that I felt moved to buy a three pack of pink incense ( it is an honour system, trust that payment will be left) and I lit them from the flame always burning there and planted them together in the sand, and prayed for my loved ones, and then left the rising fragrant smoke to carry those prayers up and up into the air all around.

L and I stopped at a little curio shop and bought cheap jade and other mementos for special people back home.
We took our time descending, passing more folk making their way up through the slowly warming up day.

A few days later we went on another expedition.
This time we visited Five Springs Park which lies in the northwest part of Gaolan Mountain. In the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.- 24 A.D.), a famous general, Huo Qubing, was dispatched by the Emperor to go on a punitive expedition to the Hun people, a minority group who lived in the northwestern part of China at that time. Since the troops had travelled from Chang’an (now Xian ), General Huo and his soldiers were exhausted when they arrived at the foot of Gaolan Mountain. They couldn’t find any water nearby, so General Huo forcefully jabbed his horsewhip five times into the ground. Abruptly five springs spurted water into the air. Thereafter the locals called the mountain the Five Springs Mountain.


We took the no 18 bus all the way to where it stops and then turns around to go back the way it came.
We could see some ancient Chinese structures clinging to the cliffs ahead of us.

We made our way to the entrance of the Park, stopping to stroll into a shop selling large statues and filled to the brim with other objects such as drums and huge gongs, one of which was being purchased by a couple of monks when we were there. The shop was filled with the sound of Buddhist chants which were for sale in CD format. We bought a long 21 flag string of prayer flags to take home one day, to hang up in our courtyard, where they can flap and whisper out their Chinese prayers and fade in the sun along our African stoep.

The bottom reaches of the Park contain a zoo, which we avoided, and large basins of brilliantly coloured artificial flowers. The incongruously raucous music from a nearby funfair beat its way to us as we discovered two of the magical springs. Some of the ponds were still frozen over but people were still seen filling bottles from the springs trickling steadily out of the rocks.
We walked on by and began to climb up the mountain, and were passed by a monk, walking, self-contained, his loops of prayer beads passing through his fingers one by one.

There were many stairways leading every which way up the steep hillside. We zigzagged our way up, stopping at the many temples as we went. We came upon a beautiful arched bridge, spanning a frozen waterfall, and we crossed it, me struggling with vertigo as I did so.

The temples near the top were strung with many colourful rows of prayer flags, fluttering in the very bracing breeze.

We found some metallic painted prayer wheels in one temple and ran our fingers over them, sending them spinning. At another rather busy temple there were 4 walls of golden prayer wheels and we followed the red arrows, guiding us along them in the correct direction. They turned slowly and heavily behind us as we passed.

At that temple there were a number of monks, crossing the courtyard very rapidly, heads down and disappearing through doorways hung with heavily embroidered cloths.

A big golden and shiny Buddha sat in his glass box there, grinning fatly, and it was there that Lex caught a monk in his shot as he passed behind the box, and he raised his hand at us and smiled.

From the highest reaches, we looked down over the ancient curved rooftops of the temples, decorated with small bells and metal dragons, and gazed at the new, very rapidly growing city of Lanzhou. It was very peaceful, with a closed up monastery clinging precariously to the dry hillside behind us.

We found the sites of the other Springs, one of which apparently reflects the full moon perfectly in its well of water at a certain time in the summer.

I would like to see that.

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.

The Market

Brush salesman

On Saturday we set out to go shopping. We had no real plan, apart from a visit to the bank

We wandered past Wu-mart and kept walking, and around the corner, we came upon a market.

morning marketThe market ran down both sides of a side street. It was full of people and ran along the street for quite a long way.
We decided to venture down it.

There were many stalls, all very interesting and different from the markets that I know.

Fresh fishThere were stalls selling fish. The fish were kept alive in big red square baths, with fresh water being pumped around them as they lay there twisting and flicking their tails. We did not buy any, but if we had, our fish would have been killed, scaled and gutted for us while we waited.

Live chickens being soldThere were live chickens being sold. They were kept in wire and steel cages, from where they were taken out and weighed for customers. I didn’t wait around to see whether they were killed and cleaned then and there or not. We had to move on

The narrow walkway not only catered for pedestrians but also for three-wheelers and motorbikes and bicycles, all moving up and down, shopping and making deliveries.

Brush salesmanAn old man sold an assortment of brushes from his bicycle parked in the middle of the road.

Fruit and vegetablesThe fruit and vegetables were very fresh and crispy and brightly coloured. They were all set out in rows and were very cheap, but as we planned to be out for a while we did not buy any.

Colourful herbsThere were also tables groaning under bags of spices, loads of chillies, chopped finely or roughly, piles of a yellow powder (surely it was turmeric), dried green herbs (which ones?), and a pile of light pink powder (no idea what that could be).
I recognised piles of cinnamon bark, bundles of bay leaves, clusters of star anise and bunches of fresh coriander. I guessed at what other powders could be, but it didn’t matter, as I wasn’t buying.
What I did buy was ginger. I wanted a piece so that we could cut off thin slices to put in the hot water that the Chinese serve to you everywhere and which we have started drinking as well.
Anyway – I gave too much money (it wasn’t much) and ended up with 5 huge pieces of ginger!
Shopping from markets with no language is an art that I have yet to master!

We bought some crispy little round pastries to nibble on. They tasted of oil, but they went down well, as we ate them, strolling along in the icy morning.

Fresh meatThere were a lot of meat stalls, with the meat lying out on open tables in the freezing air. They seemed to be sold as large chunks of meat, not cut into steaks or chops or cubes or ribs. There was not much pork for sale, we noticed, as most of the stallholders at the market appeared to be Muslim, with the flat planes of Mongolia carved on their faces.

Green TeaWe stopped at a stall where a man sold piles of green tea. We did not have a container in which we could carry a small amount, nor do we have a teapot or a strainer. The man at the stall had a little English, in that he could say ‘Green tea’ and he gave us permission to photograph his stall, although he himself moved out of the shot.

A truck load of freshly made pasta
A truck load of freshly made pasta

We were beckoned over by a lady selling tofu (a lot of it is served to us in the school cafeteria). She was selling from a large bucket of chilli tofu (her husband knew the word ‘hot’) and another bucket of plain tofu. She gave us a little taster of each and so we bought a square – not so much because we wanted it but because we felt obliged to her. We did not pay much for it, and I carried it in my coat pocket, wrapped in plastic, for the rest of the morning.

Bicycle graveyardWe strolled on and the row of market stalls ended. We found ourselves in a rather dilapidated part of town, filled with workers, trucks and impatient men on 3 wheelers. There were little warehouses everywhere and towering flats above strung with ropes of black cable and windows caged in with bars.

Muslim restaurantI saw a small Muslim restaurant in which I glimpsed groups of smoking men talking and eating together around smoky tables.

We emerged back out onto the Main Road, having walked in a loop. We wandered into a health pharmacy, looking for some basic medication. L used our Chinese/English app to describe what we needed, as well as to read the packaging. We got what we needed, and amongst much smiling and reading of cell phone scenes, we paid and left.

Crossing Chinese roads no longer phases us, apart from the very real danger that we might look the wrong way for oncoming traffic.
We started feeling a little concerned about the tofu in my pocket, and so we headed home.

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

Out on the town

We received an invitation from the South Africans who work with us and their visiting children, and so we headed out, each with one yuan clutched in our hand.

This time we both paid, all 7 of us finding a seat on the bus. The mood was light and fun. We got off the bus a little later, following the two experienced South Africans, who have lived here for a year. They led us through the Lanzhou streets.

IMG_4524The city was busy, not quieting down after five, but instead seeming to come alive. We passed along streets, passing shops, some of which were a little familiar as we had seen them on our previous excursions.

The air was nippy and people were out, wrapped up in their puffy coats, some emblazoned with English words, not always spelt correctly and often inappropriate, for example – ‘screw you’…

The bare trees and pillars along the arcade which we walked down were strung with strings of lilac lights.

Outside the door to ‘Big Foot Ancestor’ stood a Mongolian looking man playing a large drum which was hanging over his shoulder. We all passed him by and moved into the massage parlour (Big Foot Ancestor) beyond.

It was a plush room, elegantly decorated, with a Buddha lamp (he appeared truly enlightened) and a cluster of small Chinese men and women, dressed in the traditional, button across the chest cotton shirts and trousers. Each person wore a name tag (actually a number tag) pinned to their shirt.

Our South African friends, who had been to ‘Big Foot Ancestor’ a few times before, assured us that a ‘99’ was the massage that we wanted. They organised that all 7 of us would be ‘done’ together in one room.

L looked a little uncertain, but, after a stop at the Chinese loos, which were immaculate and fragrant, we were all led into one big room, with 7 chairs (rather like Lay-z-boys) standing around the room.

IMG_4578We were all shown to a seat. The room was warm. We all took off our jackets, boots and socks and sat down. The women in our group were assigned men (I got no. 022) and the men were assigned, women.

022 was a young man, who seemed almost shy, but for almost an hour he worked on my feet, soaking them in hot water and massaging them with his very strong, very firm hands.  Glass mugs were constantly filled with hot water and we were urged to drink it. I struggled to understand but I tried to do everything that I was told to do.

There was much laughter, both from us foreigners and amongst the masseurs. As we were a rather tall, and, well, not a small group of South Africans, I felt for the very dainty group of Chinese youngsters working on us. Together we probably constituted more square centimetres of flesh than they had ever worked on before.

They were sweet, and, as the time passed the group of us lapsed into silence, the masseurs’ hands working their soporific effect on us.

Some details stand out – the extreme heat of the water into which we had to place our feet, the Chinese TV on the large flat screen facing us (we insisted that the sound be switched off) and the little glass bowls which the masseurs stuck to the soles of our feet. The air had first been removed from the little bowls by a large flame, skilfully applied and swirled around by each masseur. The little bowls remained stuck to our feet – by means of a type of suction – until the masseurs removed them.

When 022 removed both my little glass cups he turned the open mouths towards me to show me their contents. I think I saw something floating like a little ghostly fish in each little fishbowl, but I couldn’t be sure…

It was hard to rouse ourselves after 2 hours of feet, back and shoulder pummelling. We put on our coats and boots and headed back out into the cold. I felt very relaxed and would have liked to have been carried through the streets. The freezing air soon woke me up.

IMG_4581Next stop was ‘ Miracle Pizza’ a restaurant that caters to both Western and Eastern pallets. The sign outside said ‘Miracle Pizza – Love and Joy’.

Inside we were seated around a large table and L and I chose to eat pizza (for old times sake). I chose a curried chicken pizza. We ate it with mango flavoured and coloured fruit tea, served in a glass teapot on a warmed stand. It was delicious, sipped from very small glass bowls.

On the opposite wall was the word LOVE, set out in large silver letters.

We left the restaurant, having had both our massages and our meal paid for by our new friends. We walked through the busy night streets and nearly missed the last bus home.

The head of our party sprinted up some stairs and over a bridge and succeeded in persuading the bus driver to wait for us. We all moved as fast as we dared over the icy bridge, climbed aboard the bus and the bus driver took us safely home.