28 February 2018

Cherry blossoms in Guiyang, Hunan

After a lazy morning and lunch at home, we decide to take a short trip in the late afternoon. We take a taxi (a "Didi", the local company that bought the Chinese Uber operation) and drive about 10 minutes to see the famous cherry trees in bloom. It is February, rather early for any flowers, and it is cold, but somehow the cherry trees blossom in Hunan!

There are actually two orchards, one is free and for the other one we would need to buy a ticket that costs 40 Yuan. The ticketed one is more crowded, maybe it is better?, but the taxi driver told us it is not necessarily more beautiful, and in fact he had seen that most of the flowers had already fallen to the ground. So we decide to go to the free one.

The driver can only go so far, not really all the way to the garden. We have a choice: walk or take a motorbike taxi. As it is already a bit late in the afternoon, we chose the latter option. Someone with a bike offers to take us the few hundred meters that separate us from the orchard for 5 Rmb.

Once we reach the area we are getting close to sunset but the warm pre-sunset light is very useful to take some good photos. Only a few dozen people are left, and the local hawkers of drinks and snacks are beginning to pack up.

As I snap away at the flowers and take some portraits of my wife, I notice a girl wearing an eye-catching white and blue costume who is posing for her girlfriend. She also has a veil she lets lose in the wind while the other girl takes photos with her phone.

It is now getting dark, not enough light for more flower pictures, but we take a walk toward the town's mine. The dig out lead and silver from here. The mine is still partly in operation but has a section that is open for tourists. It is too late now but we'll come another time.

On the way, an interesting poster with the thoughts of Xi Jinping, sharing his wisdom with passerbys.


Socialism core values

people have faith, nation has hope, country has power

wealth, democracy, civilization, harmony,   

freedom, equality, fairness, justice

patriotism, professionalism, honesty, kindness



Chinese president's thought



Longish walk back home, about 1 hour. On the way I looked at a wine shop, China is now the 6th largest producer of wine and the middle class wants ever more good wines. This one though sells mostly distilled products. Most wines are red, which the Chinese consume in much larger quantities than whites. Some bottles are Chinese and a few French. A couple of Italian bottles from Tuscany and Venetia. Most wines are priced between 80 and 250 Rmb.

Dinner at home. As we're about to finish dinner the neighbors come in for a visit. Their little one and my niece Cindy play together quite often, even once kissed on the lips before they reached 2 years of age!


27 February 2018

Banca, dentista e manicure a Guiyang

Giornata di commissioni varie che dobbiamo sbrigare in giro per la città. Cominciamo con la banca, dove dobbiamo cambiare alcune banconote di euro che ho portato per fare qualche regalino.

Le regole per cambiare valuta straniera in Cina sono un po’ complicate, e cambiano con una certa frequenza. Tanto per cominciare, solo la Banca di Cina (Bank of China) è autorizzata a cambiare. Poi, in questo periodo non fanno cambiare contante agli stranieri, quindi devo dare i soldi a mia moglie per cambiare a nome suo. Mi pare strano, come fanno tutti i turisti e gli uomini d'affari che vengono qui e non possono cambiare? Vero che pochi ormai portano contante. Forse gli alberghi lo accettano ancora, non se sono sicuro, la Cina è decisamente avanti con il denaro elettronico.

Quando arriviamo alla filiale della Banca di Cina prendiamo un numero e aspettiamo un'ora che arrivi il nostro turno. Non è particolarmente piacevole aspettare: l'ambiente è alquanto tristanzuolo, le sedie non particolarmente comode ed i fumatori appestano l'aria. Quando arriva il nostro turno ci dicono che l'unico impiegato autorizzato a cambiare valuta estera oggi non c'è. Riproveremo.

Ci rechiamo quindi presso un'altra banca, la International Commerce Bank of China (ICBC) per aiutare mia suocera in alcune operazioni sul suo conto. Lei non ama particolarmente le nuove tecnologie elettroniche per maneggiare il denaro.

Mentre Lifang fa le sue cose scambio qualche elementare convenevole con un impiegato in divisa blu che sta in piedi vicino alla porta d'ingresso, sembra una guardia della sicurezza. Mentre aspetto lo vedo camminare su e giù davanti alla porta che si apre liberamente, non ci sono metal detectors o altri controlli per evitare che maleintenzionati entrino in filiale, magari armati.

Dopo un po’ lo vedo avvicinarsi ad una vecchietta che è in difficoltà al bancomat, ed aiutarla sul touchscreen con l'operazione che non riusciva a completare. Poi se ne torna a fare la guardia.

Passa ancora un po’ di tempo - Lifang ci mette un po’ a far quello che deve fare - e noto che la guardia ha impugnato una scopa ed una pattumiera e sta pulendo per terra. Quando ha finito si allontana per tornare con un secchio d'acqua ed un mocio col quale pazientemente si mette a lavare tutti i pavimenti. Poi prende un lavavetro telescopico con un secchio d'acqua e cominciare a pulire le grandi vetrate della banca, che effettivamente ne avevano proprio bisogno! Infine, non pago, prende una grande busta di plastica e comincia a svuotare i secchi dell'immondizia

Dunque il bravo impiegato svolge tre funzioni in banca: guardia, spazzino e impiegato alla cassa, almeno quella elettronica. Non male. Mi immagino la reazione di qualche bancario italiano se si dovesse trovare a fare lo stesso: Abbasso lo sfruttamento! Inaccettabile! Sciopero! 

Mi dice Lifang che guadagna sui 1200-1400 Rmb al mese, più o meno quello che mette in tasca una donna delle pulizie che lavora a tempo pieno nel nostro condominio.

Tornando a casa ci godiamo una bella passeggiata lungo il giardino chiamato "Parco della Giada" a due passi dal nostro comprensorio. Fa freddo ma c'è un bel sole, siamo bene imbacuccati e ce la godiamo. Noto sui marciapiedi alcune signore, sulla settantina direi, ma potrebbero essere più giovani, che lustrano le scarpe. Hanno un banchetto su sui si siedono ed un altro, più alto, sui cui fanno accomodare i clienti. Ogni lustrata di scarpe costa 3 Rmb e ci mettono una mezz'oretta. Per gli stivali di Lifang però ne chiedono 5, mi pare giusto, sono alti fino al ginocchio!

La strada oggi non smette di regalare sorprese. Almeno per me sono sorprese, ma in realtà qui sono cose normali. Per la sorpresa più sorprendente è proprio questo, che siano cose normali!

Ad un incrocio vedo un uomo, tra i sessanta ed i settanta, che dirige il traffico. Non è un vigile. Veste abiti civili ma ha una grande fascia rossa sul braccio e una paletta del tipo in dotazione ai Carabinieri in Italia. Oltre a dirigere il traffico, intervenendo soprattutto quando cambia la luce del semaforo, declama poesie in dialetto hunanese. 

Che bel modo di passare il tempo in modo utile durante la pensione! Penso che forse potrei farlo anche io a Roma, recitare Trilussa mentre aiuto i pedoni a sopravvivere nel traffico selvaggio della mia città.

Nel pomeriggio accompagnamo mia suocera dal dentista, nella zona pedonale di Guiyang. Lo studio dentistico, come spesso succede qui (e a Londra, ma mai in Italia) è al piano terra, con accesso diretto dal marciapiede.

Appena entrati la segreteria, un banchetto bianco con una segretaria in camice che registra le generalità e poi chiama il professionista adatto. Si può venire senza appuntamento.

I riuniti sono disposti in un grande spazio aperto, con tanti dentisti che lavorano fianco a fianco circondati da vetrine nelle quali sono esposti, come oggetti in un museo di gioielli, dentiere e ponti. Dalle grandi vetrate si vede la strada e, quindi, i passanti possono godere dello spettacolo dei pazienti sdraiati a bocca aperta che vengono trapanati!

Mia suocera ha bisogno di un'igienista e poi avrebbe anche necessità di installare un ponte. Costano 300 Rmb (40 euro circa) con il metallo meno pregiato, 800 Rmb (110 euro) in lega nobile. Vedremo.

Poi mia suocera va a casa e noi restiamo un giro. Lifang decide di farsi dipingere le unghie, qui c'è un negozio dove sono molto bravi. Per 80 Rmb, in due ore di lavoro, le decorano tutte le unghie con squisite miniature floreali, peonie e loti. 

La ragazza dipinge con un pennellino sottilissimo, linee micromillimetriche si intrecciano per un risultato realistico e creativo al tempo stesso. Sul dito medio Lifang chiede e ottiene la replica del disegno della linea "Diva" di Bulgari, un classico che fu dedicato a Liz Taylor credo negli anni cinquanta.

Io passo due ore a zonzo, guardo vetrine e la gente che passa. Ma fa freddo e dopo un po’ torno al negozio. Sono molto gentili, le ragazze mi offrono una poltroncina e del tè caldo. Qualche domanda sull'Italia e su Londra. Sono chiaramente un'attrazione, quasi sicuramente il primo italiano che hanno mai visto, e per la maggior parte di loro probabilmente anche l'ultimo.

Tornando a casa la giornata è suggellata dall'acquisto di un paio di chili di "castagne d'acque", 20 Rmb al chilo, ottime, non le conoscevo. 

26 February 2018

Guiyang pork and paper

Breakfast with rice flour curd and sour bean paste. Interessante, non si finisce mai di imparare, e di stupirsi!

Oggi ritiriamo il "certificato di proprietà" del nostro appartamento. Ce lo da una graziosa impiegata del comprensorio. Funziona così, non si passa dal notaio a ritirare il passaggio di proprietà.

Supermercato. Faccio un po’ di spesa, mi compro la mia solita insalata e pomodori per il pranzo di domani, tanto per alleggerire la dieta di fritto e grasso di maiale della famiglia, che mi piace tantissimo ma è un pochino pesante per il mio stomaco. Vedo un bancone di costolette di maiale (credo) affumicato, una cosa nuova, e faccio per fare un paio di foto ma poi interviene una commessa e mi fa capire che sarebbe vietato fotografare costolette, chissà perché.



24 February 2018

Leiyang to Guiyang by bus

After some more trying to get two train tickets (no chance) and some trepidation at the thought of spending the rest of our Chinese New Year holiday here, we manage to get two tickets on a bus home, to Guiyang, where family is waiting for us.

The bus too is fully booked, but we get two seats in the back.

Three men board and take seats without tickets, when collector asks for tickets they say they could not buy them because they were sold out. They  argue, they want to go home. Then three more passengers with tickets board but can't find any seats because they've been taken by the three men. A long argument ensues then finally the three men leave.

Very noisy trip, people suck their drinks loudly, a car-sick girl vomits no one cleans up.

Meanwhile, it's been raining all day long.

We pass through some old villages. Old houses with pagoda roofs quite charming though need restoration.

New housing on the other hand mostly has with flat roof, just boxes of brick and mortar, no character but popular because can dry fruit on top . good for farmers who move to town but still grow crops in village plots.

Once at the Guiyang coach station we find a Didi (Chinese Uber) taxi driver who is rude and unhelpful. He does not move from his seat and keeps smoking while we load and unload heavy suitcases. But anyway we are home!

It is 4pm or so by the time we get to the apartment, and it is very cold. Hunan houses don't have a central heating system but many (including ours) have electric systems but people don't turn them on. In the evening it's 11 degrees inside, essentially the same temperature as outside.

23 February 2018

Wedding in Leiyang

We get picked up early for a pre-wedding ceremony in the groom's village, about half an hour away. Here we meet his relatives and assist to a small ceremony in the paternal house.

They tell us how the husband went to the house of bride to take her with him and left a chicken as a symbolic form of gratitude to her family for having brought her up!

On a simple wooden table in the middle of the main room of the paternal house, we are offered tea, peanuts and cigarettes.

All around are many old houses with clay tiles, wooden beams and wood floors.Some are being demolished for new ones with flat roofing and cement bricks. More functional if less charming.

Back in town we see a rather large Christian church next to a Buddhist temple. We get our shoes cleaned  by a happy lady (one of many) who is working on the sidewalk with a little stool, a chair for her clients, brushes and polish. She is happy, smiling and works fast and very well!

 

We are told that this town of Leiyang also hosts the biggest cement factory in Hunan and a huge coal power plant they are very proud of! Also a shoe factory, not to mention a gold mine: 20 percent of china's gold is extracted in Hunan.

At the reception, people come and give envelopes at a table by the entrance where each envelope is opened and the money counted, then most of them just eat and go away, unabashedly taking leftovers with them! The meal is scrumptious as expected, local cuisine, moderately spicy. The bride and groom spend some time at the different tables, and at the end they come to ours. They are exhausted, but finally can relax a bit and eat their lunch!




We later take a walk around the Western Lake park with a large pond and bridges by the western lake middle road. Lots of children running around, many elderly men play card and mahjong. One lady is screaming obsessively at her son for who knows what reason, then starts to hit him. Lifang tries to calm her down but she tells her to mind her own business!

There is a beggar with broken feet, he says to my wife he was a construction worker but fell from the 3rd floor of a building and broke both his feet. He says he gets 200 rmb a month from government, just enough to pay rent for a room. Then has to beg for a living, moves around on a small sled with 4 little wheels and pushes himself forward with two broken metal pipes.

My impression is that it is not easy to be a beggar in China, it is not a compassionate culture if you can generalize about 1.5bn people. His pot is almost empty. I am thinking of London where beggars get much better treatment from passersby but a better comparison is India where (again difficult to generalize) people give more easily in the streets. Quite often I've seen people who look poor give to those who are poorer. In China apparently a lot of beggars are fake, they pretend to be sick or handicapped.

In the end we manage to buy tickets at coach station to go to Guiyang tomorrow, no chance for train, but better than walking!

22 February 2018

Changsha to Leiyang

Amazing buffet at the Changsha Intercontinental hotel, eastern and western, hot and cold, sweet and savory, chopsticks and forks and knives and spoon, it is a real celebration.

Some of the highlights: I was first attracted by the local cold noodles, roughly grated with a special tool from a big boulder of dow. You then add spices and bits and pieces of veggies and meats. Also interesting the hot soup with veggies, pork, mushrooms, taylor-made for each of us by a dedicated chef.

After breakfast the real challenge of the day awaits us: find tickets to Leiyang for the wedding ceremony of Carrie, one of our best Chinese friends, but no seats were available to purchase online as usual. It is still the Chinese new year rush, with over half a billion people moving around the country to spend the holidays at home. We went to the station and tried our luck at the ticket office, but no way.

We were then approached by some scalpers who wanted 300 Rmb, not for tickets but as a fee to smuggle us on a train then we could then, supposedly, buy standing tickets. However I have never seen anyone standing on the fast train we need, and the slow train would take way too long, maybe up to 4 hours as opposed to 1. The whole thing is fishy, we give up.

We're stuck! My wife then remembers that there is an alternative: get bus tickets instead. We manage to catch the last bus to Chenzhou at 5:30pm, but must pay for the whole ride to Chenzhou even if we plan to get off at Leiyang. Actually at a highway station which is the stopover for Leiyang-bound passengers. But that's the way it is and we're lucky to be able to get (close) to our destination! Carrie's husband and his brother (who owns a car) will come and pick us up. Very kind for someone who's getting married tomorrow!

Meanwhile great buffet (40 Rmb pp) with unlimited food and beer at a restaurant by the gas station. Tons of meat (great), fish (so so) and veggies (again great). Beer is a local brand, kind of light, but tasty. No fresh fruit however. I loved the chicken paws and the pork belly. Also black fungus with quail eggs was juicy and inviting.

Gas station buffet, Hunan











16 February 2018

Chinese New Year parade in Hong Kong

Traditional parade organized every year in Hong Kong for the Chinese (Lunar) New Year.








15 February 2018

Alaskan crab in Hong Kong



Easy day of relaxing at the W hotel pool overlooking the city and some walking around.

Dinner at the Star Seafood restaurant on busy Nathan Road, there are only locals, obviously not yet discovered by the big guidebook publishers. I was here a few years ago by myself and tried to order their signature Alaskan crab, but they refused to serve me because it was too big!

We can not choose our own crab from large tanks which are prominently located at the ground level by the sidewalk. Each crab has a price tag attached to one of its claws.

A waiter grabs one for us and takes it to the table where he holds it up high for our final approval before dispatching it to the kitchen.

It comes back a while later on a large serving dish, piping hot and with all the shell and claws cracked open for us to enjoy the delicate meat inside.

It is a noisy restaurant, not really ideal for a romantic dinner with my wife but the crab is amazing and the price does not break the bank.

The head waiter advises us not to order anything else as this large animal (well over 1kg with the shell ) will be more than enough to sate our appetite. he was right.

When we ask for the bill he points out to my wife that it's CNY and so he expects a red packet from us, ie a significant tip!

14 February 2018

Hong Kong New Year preparations and flower market on Valentine's Day


Visit a new year market with lots of flowers, food and a couple of musical shows. Huge crowds! The flow of the masses of people is channeled so that everyone is going in a one-way direction around the portion of Victoria's Garden at Causeway bay which is dedicated to the fair. It would be impossible to have everyone move at random, freely, there are just too many of us. Those in the middle of the human river can't even see stands on either side!

In the middle of it all there was a theatre with a sequence of shows: singers illusionist, some free snack are offered to the crowd.

For street food, Hong Kong is rightly famous and today is no exception. We can stand in a fast-moving line at one of many howker stands and buy some quail eggs on a skewer for me and a pot of beef noodles for my wife. No meat, no meal!

While we are munching away, waiting for a show to start, a charming lady in her seventies comes to talk to us. She speaks good English and says her slight American accent is due to the fact she lived in Massachusetts for a few years. Her brothers went to MIT, my classmates! Then they decided to come back to Hong Kong. She is happy about her choice, this is home, but is worried about the future of the Special Administrative Region. A dilemma many Hongkongers face after the return of the British colony to China in 1997. As usual, the British left their old possession in a mess, just like India.

Filipino helpers are mostly sticking to themselves, there are so many here in Hong Kong, they are let in pretty easily to help out in the homes of the middle class. It is paradoxical but it is easier for a Filipino to come and work here than for a Chinese!

Dinner at one of the thousands of "hole in the wall" eateries of Hong Kong, this we found by chance as it was the only one still open at 11pm, excellent pork noodles. We sat at a cramped table along a narrow corridor and were joined by a talkative local lady. She is an ethnic Chinese but actually comes from Canada and is a regular here, she assures us we ahve been lucky to find this place by chance as it is one of the best "holes in the wall" around. She complained about mainland Chinese who come in droves and empty shelves of whatever it is they can't find in China. Baby formula is a constant. I don't really understand: why is it so difficult to procure more baby formula? If there is demand, local shops should be able to just order more from international suppliers and let the Chinese buy as much as they want.

Christians in Hong Kong.



Very dense crowd!