Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Winter delight

Woke up, drew back the curtains and gazed out at a snowy urban scene. While everywhere in China from Shanghai south tends to warm up post the Lunar New Year, up here in Dalian February is traditionally the coldest month.
Part of the reason for taking so darn long to move of Hong Kong was that I had become a southern poof. This is my first winter this decade. In Hongkers one quickly becomes used to the fact that winter simply does not exist – the slightest drop in temperature bringing out a ridiculous display of thick North Face jackets.
Dalian sits exposed on the Liaoding peninsula, overlooking and buffeted by both the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay.
The other day I went outside having just washed my hair. I stepped out into the curious vortex of wind that is my building’s entrance and within five seconds I could feel ice forming on my bonce. As I stepped gingerly on the tricky ice outside my gaffe, behind me all of a sudden a loud, protracted female shriek echoed around the buildings. A well wrapped up young woman behind me was pushed 10 metres, sliding, along the ice by the fierce wind.
And yet here really is not too bad. The thing is Dalian is very dry, so the worst cold does not go to your bones like you get in other cities like Shanghai. And besides in New Zealand recently I bought a possum fur hat and that really can withstand any cold.
The forecast for tomorrow is heavy snow. I might have to pull a Dr Zhivago to get to the airport on time.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Supermarket Sweep

The Chambers family has always been highly adept at the Carrefour supermarket sweep. Traditionally, it was the final port of call prior to taking the ferry back across the English Channel. Car doors would slide open, we’d be armed with a slew of francs (latterly euros) to unleash a battalion of trolleys. The family would march into the giant hypermarch√©. Wide aisles stacked high of just about everything lay ahead of us. Everyone had their own tasks. Timing was of the essence. We had a ferry to catch in a couple of hours. The organized side of the parental unit (Mum) would have a long list of household items that are just better value on the Continent. The focused side of the parental unit (Dad) would traditionally head to the alcohol department bringing my big brother for muscle. 10 cases of beer and a triple figure of wine bottles later (plus the obligatory giant pot or three of Maille Dijon mustard) and a three foot long receipt would fizz out of the till. Our car would have beer crates for seats and would be close to pulling a wheelie all the way back home in Kent weighed under by the then illicit volumes of booze we’d hauled across La Manche.
Fast forward a decade or two and I encounter a Carrefour experience of totally different proportions. Here in Dalian I have a lovely little abode in the centre of town. There were a few things I needed to kit it out though, plus I fancied doing a bit of cooking so I trooped down to the local Carrefour. Phew!
There’s simply no way of doing the fabled supermarket sweep here in the cavernous depths of this supermarket on the outskirts of Zhongshan district. The sheer volume of people wielding trollies makes for tough navigation up and down the aisles.
I am bamboozled by choice. Pick up a sauce pan or washing up liquid and an employee sidles up and suggests a different brand, giving a lengthy, keen rationale for her choice, not that I can understand her argument.
Anger spills over regularly among both customers and employees. A lady is irate that she hasn’t been served soon enough at the meat counter and vents her spleen, her decibel rant rising across the hectic shopping commotion. Unlike in Europe, say, the people behind the meat counter giver as good as her, a mass argument breaks out until she is escorted away.
It’s bumper trollies as I make my way to towards the fruit and veg section. It takes a while to find any bags to put the fresh produce in. Once secured, and lots of veg later, I then have to get it weighed. There’s a gaggle of people pushing and shoving to get their stuff weighed. My long arms eventually get the job done.
Staples that I take for granted in Hong Kong and Europe either do not exist or are prohibitively expensive with limited selections. Cheese looks like becoming a luxury up here. And amazingly for a country so famous for cha, a good tea bag is tough to find.
The checkout queue is haphazard. I eventually get out, head home and decompress with a calming cup of tea. The trick I have learnt is never, ever to go there again on a weekend, weekdays during work hours is easier.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Oasis in the concrete jungle

There’s nowhere quite like Shamian Island in the whole of China. Shanghai has the Bund, Xiamen has an island full of ancient colonial buildings too, but it is old Canton that one truly feels concession China as it used to be.
Guangzhou for the uninitiated is full blare noise and grime – a real wake up call from the pleasant surroundings of Hong Kong. Though Cantonese and proud of it, it feels like the real China as soon as you step out of the plane or train – a noisy attack on your senses. All of which makes Shamian Island all the more special. At the turn of the 20th century this little haven where was where the enfeebled emperor allowed foreigners to set up base and trade with China. The Swires and Jardines funneled their opium through here. The deal etched out was that the island – a narrow wedge between two rivers – was fair game but Joe Foreigner could not step foot off it. Up sprouted wonderfully sturdy colonial style buildings amid spectacular trees.
Go there now and little of this heritage site has changed. Sure, there’s the 28-storey white giant that is the White Swan Hotel, Guangzhou’s first five star and to this day best known hotel. Bar that though little has changed. Statues dotted everywhere depict yesteryear, plaques on buildings denote who was who a century ago. It’s quiet, which after a headache inducing day around town is a God-send. It’s leafy and it’s retained its dignified air. These days the majority of foreigners visiting this tiny strip of land – probably no more than 1.5km by 500m – are Americans here to adopt kids. Stalls garner business by offering free pram rentals. Western adults stroll the avenues as new parents – their Oriental offspring bemused by their hugely changed circumstances. All the restaurants here are top notch, Lucy’s is a pleasant bar to sup a beer as the dusk sets in and the banks of the Pearl river switch on a gaudy storm of neon. The annex of the Victory Hotel is a top place to stay at under half the price of the White Swan. An even better bargain is the Guangzhou Youth Hostel, whose rooms will surprise those brought up on a the European or American equivalents of the YMCA.
Before moving to Dalian I used to enjoy bookending my China trips from Guangzhou. The airport there is the best in the mainland with cheaper fares than Hong Kong while the train station is the starting point for countless exciting adventures. And after a rough few weeks away the civility of Shamian was and still is a joy to behold.