27 February 2019

Back to Hong Kong

Breakfast with dumplings by Ouyang's wife, he brought them to us yesterday when he visited. Very thin envelope, more like northern China style than the thicker southern Chinese kind.

He is a very traditional Chinese man even though he is only in his forties. He said he got her daughter a job in Chenzhou as a kindergarten teacher but does not want her to go and live far away or have a career. He gives her some extra money each year to compensate for what she's missing. Despite his young age, he has already planned to bequeath some money to his two daughters but all real estate properties to his only son.

Ready to go back to Europe, but first one last espresso in China. My three-year-old niece learned how to operate my Nespresso machine a few days ago and now every time I say out loud I want a cup of coffee she wants to do it!

My niece makes me coffee!

We leave at 7.30 with a Didi car my wife booked night before. It is rush hour so it takes a bit of time to get out of the town. On the way, we meet a funeral procession on the road. Four people are carrying the coffin on shoulders. A long line of mourners follows them and they all wear white cloth on their head. Musicians play trumpets and cymbals. I am curious and interested in the ceremony, though we do not have time to stop and look. Lifang, however, is not amused, she does not like to talk about anything that has to do with death or accidents in the morning, especially early morning, at the start of the day.

On the road to the airport, lots of little street hawkers sell hot dumplings to cars on their way to work in Chenzhou. Maybe commuters or just people going for shopping or business to the big town. Big pots and steam coming out are quite inviting but we just had a substantial breakfast and decide not to stop.

Another fast train to Hong Kong. Lots of people at the station, but fairly disciplined this time, no one is cutting the line, or almost no one.

On the train, I can't help chuckling every time I see, over and over again, this promotional tourist video with a chubby doll in a red dress showing her enthusiasm for the major Chinese tourist sites.

Once in Hong Kong, we have a few hours until our late night flight to London, and decide to make our way to the "Peak". It is not the best day to visit, the visibility leaves a bit to be desired, but still, it's worth the effort. At the top, besides the obvious view, there are lots of restaurants and souvenir shops. Tricky Hong Kong... once you are topside you have to pay another ticket to get to the terrace from which you can enjoy the view, otherwise, you are stuck at the restaurants and the museum!

It is not always easy to get a ticket for the iconic tram at the last minute, but we manage to get a combo pass of some kind that will also allow us entry into a funny wax museum with all kinds of statues of well knows (and some not so well known to us) Hong Kongers from all walks of life.

After which we need to go and pick up our many bags at the hotel we stayed in last time, and traffic is not promising but luckily a trusted Uber driver shows up when we start up our App and we get through the rush hour in no time.

26 February 2019

Carbonara in China

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Easy day at home, packing and playing with my niece. She loves to play hide and seek and can do it nonstop for as long as it takes to exhaust me!

Dinner with family, mostly food from my in-laws' farm, pickles, bamboo shoots, dried fish. Mother-in-law has set aside two large bags of the addictive peanuts they grow to take back to Europe.

Tonight I used what was left of my guanciale to make some carbonara, thus taking my culinary proselytism one step forward from the gricia of the other day! My first time eating carbonara with chopsticks!

Again they loved it beyond expectations, much to my satisfaction. We even rang the bell at the neighbors and gave them some. Ayi (the auntie) later came over to thank and to say they had eaten it and appreciated it a lot! She looked sincere!

At night we go out for a little walk and my wife has a facial massage from a little shop inside the supermarket from which she bought some aloe vera cream. I found a massage machine: a large and supremely comfortable armchair with all kinds of moving parts inside which massage my whole body, from the neck down. However, it was necessary to have a special store card to use it and we did not have one. So my wife's masseuse kindly agreed to use hers for a 25-minute session, I think it was 15 Rmb and we had to insist to reimburse her!

Later at home chat with the neighbors, as well as catching my niece who continues to hide behind the curtains until I catch her! While we are doing this, the tv is always on in the background. Quite often my father-in-law put on serials about the war with Japan. There are quite surreal features. All the actors are very beautiful, without exception, also the hated Japanese. They all wear lots of makeup, and all the men sport perfect shaves. I doubt anyone was so presentable in the heat of war.

25 February 2019

Pasta alla gricia and espresso

The highlight of this day is dinner with relatives who came over to visit.

I cooked "pasta alla gricia" with guanciale from Lubriano kindly gifted to us by friends Jacopo and Luciana who came to China with us.

I only cooked 300 grams of spaghetti even though there are eight of us because lots of food was already cooked, and che Chinese like to have a little bit of many dishes at every meal.

I was slightly concerned at first. Despite the fact that pork fat is a familiar taste in China, its combination with Italian spaghetti is new for them and my friends and family are not always very curious to try new foods and flavors they are not familiar with. I slightly over-cooked the pasta, a couple of minutes over my usual al dente texture to make it easier for them, as Chinese noodles are always on the soft side compared to their Italian counterparts. I also avoided adding cheese, though the recipe would call for pecorino romano.

Amazingly, the gricia went down well, it was all finished in 5 minutes! And we used the traditional Chinese chopsticks of course, no forks or table knives in this home!

I then decided to push my luck and offered everyone coffee. I have a Nespresso machine here which I took with me from Europe. I actually tried this before, but my in-laws never liked my nespresso, they said it smelled and tasted like something burnt.

The other relatives and friends loved it though it may be in part because I offered to add a little bit of sugar. Even the little kids wanted it, and I gave them some decaf with brown sugar!

24 February 2019

Guiyang dining tables

As I walk to run some errands I notice several shops selling a unique piece of furnishing I have seen nowhere else. Heated coffee/dining tables which my family tells me are typical for Chenzhou/Guiyang, with whole shops devoted entirely to different models of the same: a sturdy table, higher than a coffee table but lower than a normal dining table, with a large central support and a thick flat base that hosts an electric heating unit.

People gather around on their sofas or stools and eat while keeping warm. An oversize table cloth/blanket is placed on top and falls on the diners' laps all around, trapping the heat inside and keeping everyone warm. ot at least the lower half of everyone. Prices range from less than 900 to over 5000 Rmb.

Today dinner at aunty's, they just bought a sparkling new apartment in a large complex just opposite ours. It is a building we visit often, as it hosts both the best supermarket in the neighborhood and our massage parlor.

The building is relatively new but for some reason the elevators were never properly finished so they look a bit like cargo lifts. Nonetheless the one we take is on the outer side of the building and has glass walls, so it's pleasant to have a view of the urban setting as we make our way up. I am always puzzled at how all the windows of all floors are heavily protected with metal bars. Usually I have seen that, in many countries, at the top floors, where thieves could get in from the terrace or roof, or at the bottom floors, more accessible to ill-intentioned strangers from the street. But here it is almost universal practice.

Some teenage kids smoke in the elevator as we walk inside, although it is obviously not allowed to do so. They calmly kill their cigarettes when they are done and leave the stub on the floor of the lift. When I look at them with obvious disapproval they tell my wife... he looks like a foreigner!

We sit around her heated table and chat about life in Guiyang, she says there is no theatre in Guiyang no concert hall, no entertainment really. We are not there yet. But I am sure we will get there: the money is flowing and the curiosity for new things is already palpable.

23 February 2019

Hot Pot e liquore al serpente

A spasso per la zona pedonale, piena di negozi, ristorantini, venditori ambulanti. Molti prodotti falsi, borse scarpe. Contraffazioni belle e buone, anzi si dovrebbe dire non tanto belle e cattive!

Ma anche molte imitazioni, prodotti ispirati a marche famose ma abbastanza differenziati da poter aspirare ad un'identità propria. Per esempio una marca di telefoni che si chiama OPPO, foneticamente quasi indistinguibile da APPLE. Una marca di vestiti si chiama GODLESS Architecrue, boh.

C'è anche una imitazione di McDonald che serve panini e qualcosa che assomiglia ad un hamburger. Non capisco il nome ma il logo è molto simile al colosso alimentare americano.

Ad un certo punto sentiamo delle trombe che provengono da un sottoscala. Mi avvicino curioso e c'è un funerale! Tutti vestono una stoffa bianca sulla testa. Lifang mi chiede di non disturbare ed io obbedisco.

Nella zona pedonale anche molte gioiellerie, tanto tanto oro! Collane e bracciali ma anche lingotti di tutte le dimensioni, da 10 grammi a 1 chilo, che indicano "999.9", praticamente oro puro.

Per pranzo andiamo a far provare un "hot pot" ai nostri amici in visita: c'è un ristorante che serve la specialità di Chongqing proprio accanto alla zona pedonale. Saremmo voluti andar al Parco della Cultura ma fa troppo freddo e pioviggina, non è il caso.  Proviamo quindi le prelibatezze offerte dal ristorante, oggi mi avventuro sul cervello di maiale. Come condimento ci sono una ventina di salsine predisposte in ciotoline attorno ad un tavolo rotondo, ognuno si alza e sceglie quelle che vuole.

Dopo pranzo piove ancora, oggi niente parco. Andiamo invece nel grande albergo vicino alla Piazza Ouyanghai, dove una cugina di Lifang fa la massaggiatrice dei piedi. Previa telefonata, quando arriviamo troviamo 4 massaggiatrici che ci aspettano. Lavorano molto bene, e ce la godiamo su quattro lettini comodissimi.

Non è stata fortunata la cuginetta. Da giovanissima si era innamorata di un ragazzo di un villaggio vicino al suo. Ma il padre si era opposto, temendo che lei si sarebbe trasferita nel villaggio del marito, come di prassi, e non lo avrebbe assistito. Siccome il padre non aveva figli maschi...

Così il padre nascose il suo "Hukou" e lei non potè andar via. Al posto del suo innamorato il padre le procurò un marito tramite un sensale. Lei non ebbe scelta. A complicare le cose nella sua vita, nacque un primogenito autistico. Poi ebbero una bella bambina, sana e intelligente.

Le cose sembravano mettersi su un binario accettabile se non proprio normale ma il marito muore in un incidente. Lei si ritrova da sola a dover pensare a tutto. La bimba che cresce bene ed è molto dotata nella danza, viaggia per tutta la Cina a fare spettacoli e saggi. Però questa attività costituisce un impegno finanziario per la mamma.

Per far fronte alle normali spese della famiglia e quelle relative alla danza la cugina lavora come massaggiatrice in un albergo di lusso, a 5 stelle, nel centro di Guiyang. Guadagno ottimo anche se irregolare, molto dipende dalle commissioni e quindi dal numero di clienti.

Però questo lavoro non è ben visto, toccare i piedi di estranei tutto il giorno è considerato degradante. Il che le impedisce di trovare un nuovo marito, pur essendo una donna piacevole e simpatica. Dice che mai un uomo accetterebbe una vedova, per di più con figli e massaggiatrice di piedi!

Cena dai vicini di casa. Fa un freddo cane, e ovviamente, come sempre, niente riscaldamento. Siamo imbacuccati come per andare a sciare.

Grande scelta di carni e verdure e poi la novità della serata: liquore di serpente. Shushu, lo "zio", si presenta con un enorme giara di vetro, conterrà 10 litri di liquore e nel liquido giallastro si intravedono un paio di serpenti interi. Dice che lo tirano fuori solo per le occasioni importanti e siamo onorati di essere considerati tali.

A me piace, ma è molto forte, qualcuno eccede e passerà la notte in gabinetto!

Ci offrono sigarette, che nessuno di noi fuma. Però mi dice Lifang che noi uomini dobbiamo accettarle, e anche se non le fumiamo possiamo metterle dietro il lobo dell'orecchio in segno di accettazione della cortesia. Le donne invece possono anche non accettarle, così il Galateo cinese. Dopo averla tenuta dietro all'orecchio per una mezz’ora ne accendo una per gentilezza, poi la spengo subito.

Allora tirano fuori dei sigaretti, ma che non credo contenessero solo tabacco, avrei giurato che nel truciolato c'era anche qualche erba ma non saprei dire quale. Comunque meglio delle sigarette!

22 February 2019

back to Guiyang's market n.2

Back to my favorite town market, simply called Market n.2. Except I can't really go "back" to it, because since the last time I was here last September they moved it! Even my wife does not know where it is so we need mother-in-law's guidance to lead us there, though it is only a few hundred meters away. But it is inside a large building complex, it takes a whole block and it would not be easy to find.

The new market is much better than the old one, for one thing, it is a proper building with a tiled floor and a rainproof roof, unlike the messy jumble of stands on mud floor like the old one. The old one was more fun to watch though!

Shops for live animals are clustered together, along the same street. On one side of the market they sell fish (alive from styrofoam boxes, as usual here) and on the opposite side of the block, it is poultry, also alive.

I buy some pig ears. I like the texture of the cartilage and enveloping skin, especially as my mother-in-law cooks it with her signature home make chili-garlic-ginger spicy sauce.

In the afternoon it is massage and herbal bath time. My wife and I take our two friends who are visiting from Italy to try the Chinese technique. One hour is filled with three sessions of massage, body, legs, and arms, alternating with sessions in a wooden tub for a hot bath of herbal infusions. The massage takes place in a warm room with gentle music in the background. Single or double rooms depending on clients’ needs.

For our two friends, they only had two single rooms and only one of the rooms had a shower. The masseuses did not speak any English, so with the help of a phone translator my lady friend's masseuse, at the end of the session, wanted to tell her if she wanted to rinse in her husband's shower. Except she said: "I want to take a shower with your husband!" Haha.

21 February 2019

Supermarket and TV series

I am pleased to see Italian durum wheat pasta of an unknown (to me) brand called "Sicilia" in the supermarket but no other Italian products. Not many foreign products at all actually. There used to be a few last year. In fact, there was a whole stack of shelves with pasta, olive oil, vinegar, and also lots of wines.

Every time I come here I get a kick out of seeing the live fish in the aquarium waiting to be hauled out with a net and knocked dead with a wooden stick before being weighed by the fishmonger. Weighed but not cleaned as the Chinese like to eat the skin as well as the guts of the fish, which by the way are delicious, silly of us to throw it all away.

Ground floor kids space all kinds of games and entertainment. You buy a card and top it up, then tap every time you play a game until you run out of credit. Our niece Cindy is very fond of this and whenever we are here she can't wait to drag us to the games.

An evening watching TV at home. There is a singing contest on CCTV (China state TV) with many Taiwanese singers. I suppose that is a good way to improve relations across the Taiwan straits.

Later on, there is one of many war series with Chinese soldiers killing many Japanese during the war of the 1930s. The subject touches raw nerves in China even eighty years later. Many Chinese soldiers are very pretty and immaculately manicured girls, but no less brutal fighters!

20 February 2019

Train to Chenzhou

Crispy fish skins
Easy morning around Mong Kok. I would like to try a snake soup again but my friends are not so enthusiastic so we opt for a traditional family restaurant of Cantonese cuisine. Fun to walk around this part of town, lots of peculiar shops, selling goldfish, cats, rabbits and all kinds of food, of course. This time I tried noodles, bovine pancreas and fish skins.

In the early afternoon we take a taxi to the sparkling new West Kowloon Terminus, the final stop of the newest fast train coming directly from the mainland. One more step toward the integration of Hong Kong with the motherland.

It is all very new and impressive. For some reason we foreigners are charged 30 Rmb to collect our tickets even though we had already book and prepaid online. Perhaps because we must show our passports to a human teller. (All tickets are nominal.) Chinese can do this at an automatic teller and for free with their electronic ID cards. Anyway, we are lucky to have seats at all. It is still the end of the CNY celebrations, lanterns day festival was yesterday and millions of Chinese are still on holiday.

Second class tickets are the equivalent of about 40 Euro each, fairly reasonable at European prices for 2 and a half hours ride on a superfast train, but quite expensive for the average Chinese. And yet the train was long fully booked. My wife was smart to catch tickets for us and our visiting friends via a special app which somehow manages to snatch tickets as they become available (one month before the trip) or when there is a cancellation.

Pass Hong Kong passport control first and enter a duty-free area, just as if we were leaving the country although Hong Kong is an integral part of China, if with a special autonomous status. I bought some whisky to share with my family in Guiyang.

Then, before we get to the PRC passport control positions, we walked over a thick yellow line on the ground and passed from the "Hong Kong area" to the "Mainland area" on the other side. Landing cards must be filled and we were at the Chinese passport control checkpoint. The officers did not smile much but are polite and very fast to let us all through.

The ride is quite smooth. We arrive in Chenzhou and it's dark and very cold. We have to get off fast as the train stops only for very few minutes before resuming its run to Wuhan.

Taxis are readily available, 100 Rmb to Chenzhou. We tried Didi, the company that bought Uber out in China, but could not get one. We don't trust some illegal taxi drivers who approach us and offer a discount.

Pile up our suitcases in the truck at the back of the taxi but they do not fit, so the driver just leaves the lid open and ties everything together with some strong belt he always carries with him.

19 February 2019

Lanterns Day Festival in Hong Kong

Pomeriggio a spasso per Kowloon, ci fumiamo un sigaro con un mio amico in visita dall'Italia. Mentre ce ne stiamo tranquilli su una panchina a fumare e guardare le barche che passano arriva un guardiano, o un giardiniere forse, che ci avverte che è vietato fumare. All'inizio non capiamo poi ci prende quasi per mano e ci accompagna un centinaio di metri più avanti, in una zona riservata ai fumatori. Molto gentile.

Il mio amico poi passa dal sarto che gli è stato consigliato. Ce ne sono tanti qui a Hong Kong, molti sono indiani, e fanno vestiti in 48 ore a prezzi stracciati. Io non ci capisco nulla ma il mio amico sì e dice che la qualità è ottima, i tessuti sono spesso importati dall'Italia e la manifattura è impeccabile. Se lo dice lui deve essere vero.

Carine le lanterne enormi predisposte intorno al museo delle belle arti, in rifacimento da anni.

Ma il punto forte dei festeggiamenti sono gli spettacoli teatrali. cui per fortuna riusciamo ad accedere senza troppi problemi nonostante la grande folla.

17 February 2019

Fruit market and calligraphy exhibition

In the morning we walked to the flower market, just opposite the jade market I visited last week.

Some European food for sale, interesting to see prosciutto, salami and mortadella from Italy, and Iberico from Spain.

Lots of flowers but also wood carvings, tableware, exotic (for me) fruits.

Afterward, it was time to head back to the Sun Yat-Sen memorial for the calligraphy exhibition we heard about would be taking place today.

As we arrive we are welcomed by a lively scene of families, elderly people, some with their carers,

A whole huge room of the memorial is reserved for this event.
first children, then high school students followed by professors and finally masters. It is amazing to see all this talent pooled together to honor and perpetuate the ancient art of Chinese calligraphy.

At 5 o'clock sharp the staff start packing everything up, seats tables...

As I see some blank paper, a brush and an inkpot that have not been packed away yet, I call my wife and she paints my Chinese name on a white scroll in beautiful calligraphy!

In addition to local calligraphers, there are many participants from Japan and the United States.

As we are about to leave we met Mr. Zheng, a slim and tall Chinese who was born in Malaysia but emigrated to California in 1980. He is an active member of the American Association for calligraphy...

His main hobby however is painting and he's also been performing Peking opera for over 30 years.

His brother lives in London, his sister in Australia but his 98-years-old mother is still in Malaysia. They try to get all together with her as often as possible!

Before parting ways he wants to take a picture together, then the official photographer of the event comes up and wants to shoot us too, what an honor!

16 February 2019

CKS Memorial and stroll around Taipei

CKS Memorial
Visit to an important landmark of the city of Taipei, whatever you think of the history behind the man.

The most obviously awesome sight is the change of the guard in front of the huge statue of CKS sitting between flags of the Republic of China. It takes over ten minutes for the procedure to complete, and there always are lots of people watching.

A highly controversial man he was: the museum takes you through the various phases of his life, from a traditional Chinese background to world leader dealing with Churchill and Roosevelt.

His father died when he was very young and he grew up attached to his mother.

He was married off to his first wife at age 14! Much later he met Soong Meili, the woman of his life..... but still had a concubine in traditional Chinese royal fashion!

CKS car

The exhibition lavishes praise on him but I would not say there is a
cult of personality. his political and military failures and defeats are also covered in text and photos.

There are other art exhibitions in the mausoleum, one about Andy Worhol and another by YawaiMeika, a young (born 1990) lady painter who belongs to an aboriginal tribe in Taiwan.

We also try our luck at the concert hall and theater but there is not much going on, the next concert is in a week's time! perhaps because of the New year celebrations, oh well.

A pleasant walk around the mausoleum, lots of people walking around, children playing, elderly watching on wheelchairs, it is a weekend family day out despite a cloudy and windy day. Many exotic plants, the grapefruit flowers gift us the most intense scent of the afternoon.

Lunch at a simple but friendly eatery just outside the memorial complex, Steamed chicken, pork intestines. Shared formica tables, paper napkins and metal chopsticks which I don't really like, too slippery. I later noticed packs of single-use wooden chopsticks but they are for takeout clients. As I was thinking to ask for permission to use them a Deliveroo driver came by to pick up an order.

pork intestines

On the way to the hotel, past lots of lit paper balloons for CNY,  a well-deserved foot and body massage, a popular feature of central Taipei, 1200 ntd, 1 hour foot and 1 hour body.