From January 2009

Hamburgers at Noon

Lumix LX3 on Lumix LX3

I just got back from spending a couple of days in Hong Kong where I went to take a breather from the mainland. While I was there I spotted this rather large ad for my new camera (Lumix LX3) which I thought was cool. In the picture it’s shown with a number of accessories available (lenses, viewfinder, filters…). I don’t have any yet but I like the fact that it’s been given this sort of flexibility to be expanded and customised unlike most on the market. It’s a great camera as I think the photo proves.

So Good...

Having Chinese food day in, day out gets a bit much sometimes so as well as the usual cornucopia of delights on offer food-wise in Hong Kong I also treated myself to some devilishly good burgers located with the help of the World’s Greatest Hamburger Blog (their words not mine!). So bad, yet so good 😀

Chinese Cuisine

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One of the great things about living in China is the variety and quality of food on offer. Being such a large and ethnically diverse country with different climates and natural resources each region has its own local specialities and tastes (some being more palatable than others). Real Chinese food is a million miles from the greasy junk you’ll find at your local takeaway and is usually high in nutrients, low in calories and well-balanced. As a general rule you’ll predominately find noodles in the north and rice in the south with five main regional divisions* –

  1. South-eastern – Canton (Guangdong) – Famous for roast meats and delicate sauces as well as stir fried dishes with vegetables and the delicious delights of dim sum. Probably the most well-known and popular around the world.
  2. Western – Sichuan – Highly spiced, peppery and oily dishes prepared using vast quantities of dried chilli, Sichuan pepper, sesame seed oil and fermented bean curd paste. This distinct style of cooking is not for the fain of heart!
  3. North-eastern – Peking –  Imperial Chinese cooking at its best. Consists of mildly spiced dishes rather than rich foods. Peking Duck, Mongolian hot pot, soft-fried foods, and delicious dumplings all on offer.
  4. CentralHunan (and Shanghai) –  Characterised by rich sauces and complex flavors. Tender vegetables, accompanied by freshwater fish and crustaceans are prepared mainly with ginger and Shao Xing wine.
  5. East Coast – Fukien (Fujian) – Famous for seafood and clear, light soups. Fukien is also noted for its subtle use of cooking wine, its soy sauce, egg rolls and suckling pig.

(*summarised from here)

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Of course not all Chinese cooking is to everyone’s taste, especially if you’re used to a western palate, and using chopsticks takes a bit of getting used to. I’m quite happy to try almost everything once (much to my mums surprise!) and generally like most of it. The only thing I dislike is having to de-bone most meat/fish yourself and then spit out the rejected bits onto the table – it’s against my British sense of good table manors but quite the norm around here!

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All the pictures in this post are from my trip to Xi’an which boasted some amazing food and especially strong spirits (56%) which the locals drank to ward of the cold weather (as well as smoking like chimneys). Unfortunately I’m not sure about what all the dishes are called. More about Xi’an cuisine can be found here.

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Above: cauliflower like you’ve never had it before!

Lunch Stage 1

One of the local specialities not to be missed are traditional flatbread called Youzhi which are filled with shredded cured pork meat creating a delicious and cheap snack called Rou jia mo.

Lunch Stage 3

The flatbread are also used in a beef/mutton soup called Yangrou paomo which is made by breaking the bread into small pieces before being added to the soup with seasoning and then eaten with pickled garlic cloves. The custom of having the customers crumble their own breads supposedly make the food taste better!

Terracotta Army

Kept undercover in large vaulted hangers on the outskirts of Xi’an lies one of the worlds greatest historical treasures constructed on the orders of the First Emperor of China in 210 BC to protect him the after-life.

Xi\'an Terracotta Army

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No Entry

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The Terracotta Army, consisting of over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, was discovered by accident in 1974 by a local farmer who was digging a well. Only part of the site has been uncovered to date and along with the terracotta figures was also found the remains of many of those who constructed it who were buried alive to protect the secret. The biggest mystery of the emperors tomb still remains unearthed and is alleged to contain rivers of mercury.

The main collection of figures are arranged in military formation according to rank and duty in pits 7m below ground level. It’s one of the earliest examples of mass production where moulds were used to create each part separately before assembly. Every head was customised to give unique facial features and legend 1has it that these were based on real people.

Whilst the artefacts are an incredible sight the museum itself leaves a lot to be desired. There is little in the way of written information to explain what you’re seeing and this appears to be a way of trying to coerce people into paying for guides to show them around. Case in point I was told when entering “even Chinese can’t understand what they’re seeing without a guide“! As a matter of principle I turned down the guides offer and made do with the information in my Rough Guides book. My other complaint would be the over commercialisation of the site which, as with much in China, sadly seems to be more focused on making money than the amazing history.

Aside from the presentational deficiencies this is a place not to be missed if you’re in this part of the world.

New Year Flower Market

Flower Market Entrance

Around Chinese New Year flower markets traditionally spring up in various locations around the city selling not only horticultural products but also pets, fireworks & lucky charms for the new year. One arrived in my neighbourhood and for the last few days has been chocker block with people doing last minute shopping for the festivities.

View From My Apartment

The view from my bedroom window – super busy and crowded. Due to the messed up economy plenty of good deals are on offer as the vendors try to flog all their inventory.

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I have no idea what these strange yellow fruits are. If anyone knows please leave a comment – they’re definitely not lemons before anyone asks! I wonder if they’re for eating or just ornamental. (Update 26/01: The fruits were identified by Shuo as Solanum mammosum – they’re only for show and are poisonous so definitely not edible!!).

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Baby Turtles!

Buy two, get one free on baby turtles today only – supposedly the turtle is a sign of longevity. Mice, rabbits and goldfish also on offer, not sure whether they were for pets or eating…

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This man is hand painting signs to hang above your front door. Most of them read “Happy New Year” or variations on the same theme. They’re supposed to bring good luck to the household and ward off evil spirits.

Most people are off work for the week (including yours truly) and while I don’t have a definite plan yet there’s bound to be something interesting going on and the possibility of another excursion or two 🙂

Muslim Quarter Street Market

When you think of China the thought of a Muslim population existing there doesn’t immediately spring to mind which why I was somewhat surprised to find a thriving Muslim Quarter in Xi’an. The area was founded around 742 AD when foreign merchants from Persia, Afghanistan, and many other Middle Eastern kingdoms set up shop there along the route of the Silk Road. After 1300-odd years of integration we reach the current tight-knit Chinese-Muslim community totalling around 50,000 of whom many will spend their entire lives within the same five square kilometres where life exists much the same as it has the last few hundred years.

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Don\'t Tell PETA!

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Chinese Sandwich

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Nuts

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Dessert

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As with all the most memorable trips the best way to discover a place is to get lost in it and that’s certainly easy in the winding streets of the area which show little of the bleak urban planning applied to the rest of the city. Wandering through the cobbled market you’re presented with many fascinating sights, sounds and smells on offer from wide variety of vendors selling all manor of things. With regards food you’re spoilt for choice (assuming you’re not too fussy about hygiene) and the more adventurous can even try scrambled goats brain which are served directly from the skull of the deceased but for me this was a step to far!

I took this short video wandering down the main market street directly behind the drum tower. It’s a little unstable but hopefully gives you a feel for the area.

One thing you can guarantee about China is that you will find all extremes and variations contained within its boarders; from the very open to the very closed, from liberal to conservative, from modern to traditional… The more time I spend here the more I struggle to define China and am slowly coming to the conclusion even China itself does not know either. Perhaps much of the underlying issues emerging today can be associated with this lack of identity but I’ll leave that discussion for another day.

Globalisation

Xi'an Drum Tower

Going from +23 to -8 °C in just two hours was a bit of a shock to the system when I arrived in Xi’an last Friday evening. To make matters worse the place I was staying lacked heating, hot water or electricity the first night due to the fact that our host had forgotten to pay the bills! The result was that I caught a bad cold and a day later lost my voice. This aside Xi’an is a fascinating city with some amazing history and delicious local delicacies, more of which I’ll cover in the next few posts.

Xi'an Train Station Spring Festival Rush

Being the last few days being Chinese New Year everyone was on the move in a mad dash to get to their hometowns which meant the roads were terminally clogged and I counted around a dozen minor accidents whilst travelling around the city. Many people opt to take horrendously long train journeys across the vast country which inevitably leads to long queues and fights to purchase tickets at the heavily congested train stations (chinaSMACK has some great pics). One of my colleagues is travelling all the way to Inner Mongolia by train which apparently takes around 3 days!

Xi'an Bell Tower

Xi’an is one of China’s four great ancient capitals and with over 3000 years of history its culture descends from one of the world’s earliest civilizations. Today tourism is an important part of the local economy and I think the top picture explains the title of the post nicely. I will never understand why tasteless greedy beurocrats let this sort of development happen. At least the Starbucks in the Forbidden City was closed in 2007.

Year of the Ox

2009 Year of the OX

Over the next few weeks over 1.3 billion Chinese around the globe will be celebrating Chinese New Year (Lunar New Year / Spring Festival). 2009 is the Year of the Ox and for those who believe in this nonsense –

The Ox is the sign of prosperity through fortitude and hard work. This powerful sign is a born leader, being quite dependable and possessing an innate ability to achieve great things. As one might guess, such people are dependable, calm, and modest. Like their animal namesake, the Ox is unswervingly patient, tireless in their work, and capable of enduring any amount of hardship without complaint.

Over the holiday I’ll be taking a trip to the ancient city of Xi’an (pronounced Shee’an), terminus of the Silk Road and home to the world famous Terracotta Army as well as many other historical treasures. I’m not sure if I’ll have any net connection while I’m there so may not be able to update around here for a week or so but expect lots of pics when I get back.

Xin nian kuai le! (新年快樂 – Happy New Year!)

Collective Conciousness

There can be no doubt that we are now at a point of being inexplicitly dependant on the Internet. The more I think about the evolution of the internet the more I am convinced about the emergence of a new collective conciousness which has formed an almost symbiotic relationship between man and machine through which we are now globally connected. There is almost no part of our lives which it does not touch and if it were to collapse tomorrow the results would be devastating.

For a quick recap of how it all started check out the short film below –

Looking at what’s going on in the world right now; we have the outsourcing of jobs, the open-sourcing of software, and the crowdsourcing of just about anything to anyone with the right skills. All of this and much more is taking place because of the global platform which is the internet and crosses previous boundaries of language, culture, territory and even law. Some people and places are further down this road than others but the direction is irreversible and is disrupting everything we knew before.

As well as being a communications channel, taken at an abstract high-level, the internet could be seen as an intelligent superorganism feeding off electricity and the input we give it filling endlessly expanding data centres with every conceivable thought of mankind. Whether this can truly be called intelligence has yet to be determined but in essence we have added another another dimension to our reality allowing us to move beyond physical constrains (more about the 10 classical dimensions in the mind bending video below).

We could perhaps give a further analogy of an ant colony where the ants appear chaotic but operate as a unified entity, collectively working together to support the colony. From one perspective the internet is also a chaotic mass of unstructured conversations with no central organisation but underneath amazing things are happening. One of the most obvious examples would be Wikipedia where a comprehensive encyclopaedia has grown from the work of millions of individuals, each a tiny part of the bigger jigsaw puzzle. This is more than mere facilitation.

In our rapidly changing world where the old systems are crumbling around us I think there are some interesting implications for what the future holds, the potentially seismic shifts ahead, and how the internet will play a key role. Whilst I can’t profess to have thought this through to the ninth degree here are some key points I think are prudent to consider –

  • The end of central power hubs and physical jurisdiction of governments
  • The end of professional monopolies (education, law, medicine…)
  • The end of traditional media (newspapers, tv, books, magazines…)
  • The formation of new political and economic structures
  • The emergence of new concepts of identity (real / virtual), friendship and community
  • The blurring / erosion of nationalities and culture
  • The redefinition of freedom, privacy, anonymity and accountability
  • The growth of a new underclass of people without internet access or skills to use it
  • …anything I’ve missed?

I’m not even sure its possible to conceive the potential magnitude of the change that these factors will bring when combined and I’m sure there is much which is beyond our current imagination but we can be certain that the world is going to look a lot different in 50 years time. I still like my e-brain idea which isn’t looking so far out two years later. We live in scary and exciting times!

Secret Restaurant

For lunch today I was guided to one of Shenzhen’s secret underground restaurants. “What is a secret restaurant?” you might ask. Basically it’s an unlicensed establishment inside someone’s “home” and is only underground in so much as there are no signs to point you there and only a few locals will know about it.

Secret Restaurant

More chillies than you could comfortably eat in one afternoon.

After giving the secret code word and exchanging a secret handshake we were hustled into a dimly lit room with dark wooden furniture which the proprietor claimed was over 100 years old (OK, I made the first bit up). In these restaurants there is no menu and no advertised prices. You simply get what they decide to cook that day and pay by leaving money on the table when you leave.

Chinese Restaurant Kitchen

Whilst this is a bit of a gamble my friend assured me that the food was very special but in China that usually means you’re about to eat some part of an animal you’d rather not. I decided to take sneak peak in the kitchen to see what they were cooking  and try and ascertain what lay ahead…

Ingredients

Luckily it appeared that monkey brains and pigs eyes were not to be served today but instead what I thought was beef at first turned out to be deer and various other dishes. I considered it probably wise not to ask where the deer had come from and tucked in.

Lunch is Served

Accompanying the food was also some home made beverage which tasted strangely like sweet communion wine and no doubt also illegal! In China the police often turn a blind eye to illegal activity as long as it doesn’t cause disruption and they get their cut . Outside my apartment there is often a street restaurant at night which some migrants set up on the pavement complete with tables and chairs and an open BBQ.

I almost laughed when on the way out the owner gave me his business card and asked me to come again!

New Year, New Look

I’ve been using the wonderful K2 WordPress theme by Michael Heilemann for over 3 years now (and before that its predecessor Kubrick) but it was starting to look a bit tired and frankly I was bored with it. I didn’t have time to design something from the ground up and having searched high and low for a suitable replacement I finally came across Vigilance by The Theme Foundry which combines minimal looks with powerful features. After creating a child theme to customise the CSS a bit you’re now looking at the finished product (although will be tweaking over the next few weeks).

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How things looked prior to Jan 9th 2009

The new theme is a bit wider than the previous (180 pixels) and looks a lot nicer on today’s widescreen displays whilst still working for those with lower resolutions. I’ve only tested it with Firefox and Safari so if it doesn’t look right for you in IE then I suggest you upgrade to one of these fine browsers!

Any feedback positive or otherwise would be greatly appreciated. That’s one of my new years resolutions complete 🙂