Agra town, India

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Beijing - breath of fresh air??

Our opening comment at the Leo Hostel following our admission of taking the slowboat from Korea was 'Oh! so you're the masochistic variety of backpackers, are you???!'
The person uttering that immortal line is an intensely fat man, a yank who looks as if his
usual mode of travel involves limited use of limb and sinew. I'm feeling a warm glow, he screws his cheeks up amazed we haven't flown in from Seoul.
Fucking flashpacker.

The ferry is to some (fatter-walleted) travellers a last resort, or certainly the least sophisticated mode of transport between countries. You can see their logic, for one it takes a bloody long time - 26 hours on an overnighter. I on the other hand, would argue if you're travelling on a tight budget and you have precious time on your side, the boat is prime. Cheap: 120 quid for the 2 of us, fun and very much an experience in itself; the sunset was magical, worth the fare alone.
We were the only western kids on the boat; basically it was us and 300 touring chinese geriatrics. Strangely enough they were visiting Korea to pick up electrical gadgets and beauty products, boxes of the stuff! Customs was great, when we weren't being gassed by the cabbage-tainted farts from the recent lunch service, our ankles were being hacked off with said boxes.(this early run in with the chinese tour group would prove essential primer later on..)
They were fantastic though, very affable. Having no surviving grandparents, I wanted to adopt the job-lot.

Post-boat, my sea-legs took a little too well, my middle ear was swaying on the crest days after our arrival in Beijing.

A quick warning. Be sure to carry some currency with you over the water. There is nowhere, I repeat NOWHERE to change Pound/Dollar Travs Chqs around Incheon on the Korean side or Tang-gu on the Chinese seaboard. Also just to totally fuck you over, no ATMs. This was the second time we were caught with our troos about our ankles and not a single rooble of exchangable currency in our pockets. The result? A long hot walk from the port to the nearest collective of shops and a lucky hustle with a Travellers Cheque. The two trainee concierge were convinced it was a $100 note we were exchanging for Chinese RMB, we bloody legged it before they could make sure.

So to may be wondering about the title of this blog. Well after the cultural/historical vacuum that was South Korea, catching sight of the towering Zhengyang gate outside Tianenman Square sub station was enough to know we'd hit the motherlode. Hellooo China.

Beijing is a great city in which to start your Sino odyssey. We spent the quickest week here during in which we scooted round some of the more famous in-city sights; Tiananmen, Forbidden City and some of the outer-city sites such as a certain Wall.
Unusually for a capital, there's still an awful lot ancient about it. Beijing has (for now!)retained it's traditional hutong. These are the warren-like narrow alleyways which intersect large parts of the city centre. Get lost off any main road and you'd think you had stepped back in time and furthermore into a different city. Here the Beijingers are happy to take the weight off their feet and gab into the night with their neighbours. You will notice men young and old but mainly rotund in my experience..:)exposing their midriffs in the summer swelt, gambling with cards, dominos or wooden tablets on mah jong tables (a flat, baize covered table). The females gather in groups around low stoops or lounge in decrepit deckchairs and chat. Getting off the tourist trail and amongst life in the hutong is one of Beijing's most pleasurable activities, don't let anyone tell you any different!

A couple of days in we hired bikes, again we used our excellent hostel, the Leo but as the awful Melua woman warbles you won't be stuck. We paid three pounds a day and hared round the centre like loons.

We did Tianenmen. Twice. The paranoia hit us the second visit. All of a sudden you'll become wary of sitting too close to strangers just in case they're memorising key words. Endless security checks in and out of the square, a spirit sucking police prescence and a stark joyless atmosphere overrun with reams of flag-following chinese tour groups. It made me first want to scream then run amok chanting 'Mao, the original ring-head' until arrest and tongue-removal. As OTT as this is, I wouldn't give it too much of your time.

If you like markets, I would eagerly recommend the Donghuamen night market just off Wangfujing's main shopping arcade. Operational between the hours of 5pm to 9pm, the 20+ stalls are an 'ooo', 'ahh' and 'erghhh' gallery very much for the tourists, selling off the wall, unusual snackage for those hungry enough. Most likely to hear: "Sir you like penis?". Least likely to hear: "I'll take one for the road". Treats include: Starfish lollipops, bbq'd sheeps penis and a whole pantheon of creepy-crawly kebabs. Scorpion, silkworm, spider and seahorse(!***!)...
Enjoyably spleen-wrenching.

As to the quality of it's air, the Beijing summer is typified by a sweat-inducing suffocating fog. A heinous combination of ever increasing exhaust fume, intensive industrialisation/manufacturing and seasonal humidity its maker. Hot stormy nights follow hot stuffy days. Four out of the seven we stayed we drifted off to a torrent of water beating the hell out of our tin-pan roof.

Beijing fabulouso... HIGHLIGHTS!!!!
HUTONG!! Lose your bearings and your troubles in the city's lively hutong.
With the thinking that two wheels is better than a footful of blisters. Hire bikes and whizz round Beijing's city centre, no pressure to hum along to Monsieur Distel.
Getting to grips with Chinglish menus: 'the international friend partial to the vegetables' roughly translates as sweet and sour pork with veg. Other dishes we encountered were the sinister 'fries the liver' and my fave 'explodes the stomach'.
Avoiding the armies of domestic tour groups around the big sights. I'm convinced the greatest hazard in Beijing and perhaps all of China is getting mown down by their 'take no prisoners' approach to sightseeing!
Donghuamen Night Market - maybe have your tea beforehand...
Go see the Wall - Nuff' said.
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Thursday, 22 July 2010

Excuse me, what the F**k is this?

The Korean's love many things; cigarettes, canned coffee, raw fish but none so much I believe as Kimchi.
They eat Kimchi as many Brit's do ketchup - plenty of it and served with EVERYTHING. Now it's not that it's not full of spicy boiled cabbage goodness, undoubtably it is. Kimchi is one of those 'only in Asia' dishes that you'll either take to your heart or hate with a passion, the very mention or sight of such will reduce you to bouts of violent shivering and involuntary gurning.
I belonged to the latter category - if purgatory were a restaurant, that restaurant would be Korean and serve up Kimchi in vast unfinishable bowls.

Korean fare is certainly rich in nutrition but personally its not fare to salivate by.

An example or 2 for you.....
Hongeohoe - not a yardtool or lady of ill repute, this is one of Korea's Southwestern speciality dishes. Slices of raw fermented Skate. Short a frying pan and full of flavoursome ammonia, this delectable offering is served up with a thick red chilli derived paste...mmmm

San Nakji...or live baby octopod.
The trick with this dish is to slice off the tentacles and eat right away. The wiggling sensation is a tongue-tickler, down in one is the best bet before the suckers catch onto your epiglottis.

Bibambap - A large bowl of boiled rice with a load of other random slimy garbage underneath. Topped with a raw egg.

Samgyetang - Whole baby poulet broth. Sometimes flavoured with Ginseng. This is better but soft bone marrow and other gibly bits is not my personal favourite cuppa soup.

There are thankfully a number of golden exceptions.
Gimbap, pronounced with a K is glorious as is Korean rice porridge. The porridge is actually a thick comforting(after raw skate....)soup thickened with lots of rice. Comes in lots of tasty flavours, spicy beef, tuna veg, chicken ginseng. Delish.
Gimbap is seaweed wrapped long rolls of rice, similar in look to sushi. They are wrapped with pickled veg, egg and usually some meat, ham etc. Usually eaten as a snack in the morning, they're cheap (50p) filling and healthy.
Two culinary joys discovered tragically late into our Korea sojourn. Gimbap consumption was at outrageous levels just before we left- if I didn't get my 3 long rolls a day, I was cracking skulls...

China looms next, a land topped with hills of egg fried rice, dumplings and steamed meaty buns, come on yoo beauty....

Dog Alley

Monday 24th May- our first day proper in South Korea and yours truly's birthday. What better day to search out that So Ko speciality. Dog.

We're staying in Busan, Korea's bloody HUGE container port in the south. Our first stop of the day was Gupo market in the north of the city, a good place to gain a flavour of the city.

The market is sprawling and busy. An hour passes in the business of peering in cabinets and inspecting bloody chopping boards for evidence. Then quite suddenly we come upon, by chance an unlit portion of covered market. Set away from the main bazaars we can just see light at the bottom end and conclude it must be a short cut back through. It takes seconds to process that our camera-laden prescence is an unwelcome one.

If the previous stalls were a jumble of colour and chatter, this is an alley of shadow curtained beneath a heavy quiet. The quiet is punctuated only by the odd tremulous bark from a far corner. Squinting in the direction of the barks, I can see a dozen shambles, all with pens containing perhaps half a dozen large dogs. Not shabby fleabitten strays but clean healthy looking animals. They lie slumped one on top of the other, a heaped pile of shivering fur and limb. The fear is palpable. As the fattened beast is thought to sense the butcher's purpose so these dogs seem fully conscious of their situation.
The few human inhabitants greet us with stony silence, some sharply turning their heads away gesturing no photo, no photo.
One male trader is particularly aggressive and shouts what I'm certain is not an invitation to tea.

A minute or so later (a long minute) we are back, as if by timewarp to the bright swell of the main market. Everything sounds louder as if our ears had popped back in the alley, the banter and bartering working as a most welcome balm.

That brief visit to the dog-pots of Gupo stuck with us over the next couple of days. It was clear from the beginning of our inadvertent stroll down dog alley that this was one holiday snap the residents don't want publicised. We set off some pretty angry responses amongst the traders and butchers.
More research revealed that Dog or Dogtang(soup) has reputation as more of a backroom dish rather than one served up for Sunday lunch. A sea change fuelled by younger Korean's who see the practice as cruel and antiquated.
The South Korea we have experienced so far is one with modernity fixed firmly in its sights, asthetic is everything. The traders here work within a rapidly disappearing tradition, this is one picture of Korea you won't find on a postcard.