December 23rd: Not Quite Christmas

With the international schools closed, the expat family compounds abandoned and businesses reverting to Chinese rule, Shanghai has shed most of its foreigners for Christmas.  Migrating east or west, the laowai retreat en masse from whence they came, in most cases with an empty suitcase or two to fill up on Marmite, Angel Delight and Shreddies (or for the Americans: Peanut-butter flavoured anything)

Eating Christmas

Eating Christmas

For those of us left behind, it’s a little strange.  Imagine living in your house, but where somebody has temporarily borrowed your favourite sofa, or replaced all the TV channels with Russian-only dialogue documentaries about disused warehouses.  It all feels very empty.

So what else to do on a Saturday than to visit that most British of institutions – Marks & Spencer, in an attempt to try and feel a little more “Christmassy”.  We needed to buy a few crackers for Monday’s Christmas Eve meal with Ryan and Elouise so also decided to stock up on mince pies and a few other winter essentials.  At ridiculous prices.

Nikki kept us company last night (Saturday) with our last trip of the year to the heart of the former French Concession district for another steak pie at Glo London (now officially “off menu” but somehow rustled up quickly by the chef).  And a final pint of the year in the Shanghai Brewery – purveyors of the smokiest of stouts (this is a good thing).

As most people have discovered by now (although apparently a few are still clinging to hope/despair), the world didn’t end on Friday.  Fortunately, our local Chinese mobile service provider kindly sent us a helpful “don’t panic” text message on Thursday evening which is clearly explained by the following direct translation from Google: “The end of the world untrustworthy the cult crap possession evil intentions; cheated cheated join the church, once into sets of Woe accompanying; Almighty God is a cult, people misuse the doomsday scrambling; Science polish up my eyes, cults, ghosts escape invisible! Shanghai Anti-Cult Association

Meanwhile, on my UK mobile, t-Mobile* sent me a “Welcome to Uganda” text-message on Wednesday night.  Felt to me like I was in a bar, playing pool with JB, but apparently I was elsewhere.

So Happy Christmas to one and all.  Back in the New Year…

*or whatever they’re currently called.

December 16th: Gothic Karaoke Swimming Pools, Part 2

Bron in Haven... All peaceful before the other guests arrive

Bron in Haven… All peaceful before the other guests arrive

To be fair, all birthday invitations were sent out with a disclaimer: “This could be the best/worst night of your lives”.  I’m hoping in reality it wasn’t that black and white, but I’m certainly leaning towards the former.  So on Friday night, 2 days in advance of my actual birthday, I and 25 other people (colleagues and Shanghai friends) were entertained by a giant karaoke screen and a small swimming pool, featuring a swim-up bar and a shiny metal horse.  So far removed from anything I would ever do in the UK that it had to be done.  In fact, I’m pretty certain that if anyone had invited me to such an event in the UK I’d have steadfastly refused to take part in anything so crass and vulgar.

We had a great night.

The only photo of the night I'm going to upload!

The only photo of the night I’m going to upload!

Earlier in the year, Rachel, Grace, Bron and I had a meal in Haven, a gothic-styled restaurant and had a wander around afterwards.  We discovered the swimming pool at the top of the grand, sweeping staircase.  Discovering it was available for private hire, it seemed the right thing to do to reserve it for a strange birthday party.

With only a few willing to brave the pool at the start, by the end of the night the large majority were in the water.  Even those who had neglected to bring their swimming costumes (nothing dodgy here – the venue offered guests free bath robes, probably not intended to be used in the pool, doubling as impromptu bathing outfits) felt the urge to take a dip.  I think those present would agree that we don’t really need photos of people in swimming attire plastered over the Internet – so I’ve uploaded just one photo from the night from a safe enough distance!

Stefan left a few belongings there and went back on Saturday to collect them.  “That was a wild night last night!” said the staff.  I don’t think I’ll ever have another birthday celebration quite like it.

Welcome to Thames Town...

Welcome to Thames Town…

Today (Sunday) Bron, Stefan and I went out to Thames Town – a bizarre area of English-architecture inspired buildings and housing on the outskirts of Shanghai.  Built in 2006, the town was supposed to attract up to 10,000 residents but instead lies pretty much empty; a ghost town featuring a man-made Thames river and unoccupied fish & chip shops.  Probably the fact that it’s so far out and 3 miles from the nearest Metro has a lot to do with it.  Worth the visit though – yet another one of Shanghai’s many bizarre tourist attractions.

And How can it be 5 degrees one day and 18 degrees the next?  This isn’t normal.  I only do summer (t-shirt) and winter (t-shirt and coat).  This is confusing.

December 9th: Ultraviolet

For any readers about to attend or considering making a reservation at Ultraviolet, this is your spoiler alert – do not read any further.

A few years ago, a travel company in Yorkshire set-up a holiday scheme whereby guests could stay in a hotel decorated in the style of a particular country.  Each day they would travel out on a coach, returning to the hotel later the same day to find the hotel redecorated and transformed into the style of a different nation.  Mexico one day, Brazil the next.  A way to explore the world from the confines of a hotel in Yorkshire.

With the chef, Paul Pairet

With the chef, Paul Pairet

In Shanghai, Ultraviolet offers its guests something similar, but possibly just a little bit more classy.  With a requirement to book three months in advance, Ultraviolet aims to “unite food with multi-sensorial technologies” (from their website).  What this means in reality: a 22-course tasting menu, with nearly every dish paired with a different beverage.   Each dish also paired with a unique projected table decoration,  projected wallpaper (the entire room encapsulated in projections), a style of music and in some cases, an infusion of smells to allow the patrons to experience each dish like never before.

View to the kitchen

View to the kitchen

With one table and one setting only – for 10 people – the guests are picked-up at a pre-defined meeting point and taken to a  “secret” location.  All-in-all, 25 staff taking care of 10 bewildered but delighted customers.

It’s difficult to fully explain with just pictures and words; this was an utterly unique experience.   The dishes themselves would have been fantastic on their own, but consuming them in this type of environment took them to another level.

For prosperity, the menu as follows (in sequence with the first photo below):

  • Ostie: Single bite of frozen wasabi
  • Foie Gras – Can’t Quit: Foie Gras shaped like a cigar
  • Pop Rock Oyster: Flavoured with green tea
  • Micro Fish no Chips: Battered fish flavoured with capers and anchovy
  • Cuttlefish Guimauve: Sliced and served in front of us
  • Lobster Essential
  • Bread: Truffle Burnt Soup Bread – probably my favourite of the dishes.  Very hard to explain!
  • Charred Eggplant
  • Encapsulated Bouillabaisse: The raw ingredients of soup in a single bite
  • Cucumber Lollipop
  • Seabass Monte Carlo: Seabass cooked inside a bread loaf
  • Engloved Truffle Lamb
  • Wagyu Simple: Kobe beef
  • Tomato Pomodamore
  • Cheese & Salad: MW Calvamembert
  • No Shark Fin Soup: Tomato & Peach flavoured
  • Suzette Carrot-Cake: Carrots and coriander
  • Mandarine: Mandarin flavoured cake
  • Hibernatus Gummies: Gummy bears with Coca Cola Rocks
  • Mignardises: Egg Tartlette
  • Ispahan Dishwash: Dirty dishes?  All edible, including the foam.

December 9th: Bacardi and Charity

Rachel, Bron, Yulia, Stefan, JB and the unknown lady

Rachel, Bron, Yulia, Stefan, JB and the unknown lady

Bron and Rachel at the Mao Livehouse

Bron and Rachel at the Mao Livehouse

“Can I take your photo?  We don’t normally see white people at these events” asked the photographer at Saturday’s Bacardi sponsored (i.e., free) evening at the Mao Livehouse.  How to describe… A room full of (mostly) Chinese people all drinking Bacardi Breezers, with a woman on stilts walking around topping up everyone’s bottles with more Bacardi rum.  A glass cage in the middle of the dance floor containing leather-clad dancers being doused in water from a giant Bacardi bottle (I’m assuming it was water and not rum).  An on-stage dance competition featuring Gangnam style music compered by China’s Timmy Mallet.  And free Bacardi all night long.

JB and Yulia consider entering the glass cage for a dance

JB and Yulia consider entering the glass cage for a dance

Bron and Rachel at the Mao Livehouse

Bron and Rachel at the Mao Livehouse

Our Bacardi evening was preceded by a far more civil event – a meal for a local charity called Bean (organised by Teresa, a lady we’d met on the Moganshan trip) where the guests paid a fixed price to experience food eaten by orphans, standard Chinese food and a few Western dishes.  And free wine all night long.

We ended the evening in a cocktail bar.  It’s winter: a hot rum cocktail is always going to be a winner.

Tuesday evening’s encounter at a venue called “Ultraviolet” deserves a blog of its own (coming soon) – primarily so I don’t spoil it for anyone considering going.

Argos Collection Point near People's Park in Shanghai

Argos Collection Point near People’s Park in Shanghai

Work continues to be demanding, challenging but never dull.  Friday night’s quick drink after work – somewhat necessary since we left the office around 8pm – lasted a little longer than planned.  But for once we managed to have a lie-in on Saturday – either so tired as not to notice or the many construction workers who normally start at 7.30am every weekend decided to have the day off.  A late start and a trip to a nearby Argos pick-up point made for a very relaxed Saturday.  Marks and Spencer – please note – we’re British and desperately in need of mince pies at this time of year.  But £5 for a box of six!  Come on…

A more exciting-than-planned journey to work on Wednesday.  Advice for foreigners during most conflicts in China, big or small, is generally “don’t get involved”.  When you’re sat in the back of a taxi, stopped in the fast lane of a motorway having been side-swiped into the wall by a lunatic driver, it’s difficult not to.  A police car arrived – as if by magic – about 30 seconds after the incident (literally), and after a little pointing, shouting and smoking, forced the drivers to follow to a safe place: the chevrons by a slip lane.

My Mandarin skills not being sufficient to understand loud, shouty dialogue, it looked as if lunatic driver was pointing at the taxi’s damaged front wing and exclaiming “Look at the dent in the right hand side of your car that you forced me to make”.

20 minutes later we set off again.  We took the taxi, rather than the Metro, as we needed to get to work earlier than normal. Alas.

Today (Sunday) – yet more music with Felix.  Going well…

December 2nd: Shanghai Islands

The eggtray decorations (with Isaac, Chong and Bron)

The eggtray decorations (with Isaac, Chong and Bron)

Why pay for expensive paintings or photographs with which to decorate your bar when you could instead affix empty eggshell cartons to the wall.  Or maybe a little polystyrene packaging.  This in keeping with the bar pump “just for show” and the world’s wonkiest darts.  But since this was the only bar available to us on the resort of Sun Island (“The only natural island in Shanghai”) we had little choice.  Until 10pm when they decided to close.

Mao Pagoda - acting as a lighthouse in the river

Mao Pagoda on Sun Island – acting as a lighthouse in the river

Isaac, Chong, me and Bron (thanks, auto-timer on camera)

Isaac, Chong, me and Bron by the Mao Pagoda (thanks, auto-timer on camera)

Sun Island is about an hour to the West of Shanghai, and lies in the middle of Huangpu River.  A retreat sort of place, with golf, go-karting, horse riding, spas, etc, at the visitors’ disposal.  We didn’t know we were going there until lunchtime on Saturday when Chong suggested it as a random thing to do on a Saturday in (near) Shanghai.  So yet more hot springs, a bit of swimming and an adventure challenge called “Find anywhere on the island to have a drink after 10pm”.   Another excellent, relaxing weekend away from central Shanghai (although hailing from Ireland, Isaac understandably took some cheering up after attending the Blarney Stone’s closing party the night before – one of Shanghai’s best “local” type bars is to be replaced with yet another Italian restaurant).

Today (Sunday) I’ve spent a few hours playing guitar whilst a German bloke sang.  One of these encounters that could have been horrendous, ending after a 5 minute creative nadir, but instead ended with a few songs taking shape*.  And since The Rolling Stones are (somehow) still going strong, this means I’m not too old to be in a band.  For the record – if a bloke called Felix suddenly starts releasing songs on iTunes and they sound like compositions I’ve been forcing Bronwen to listen to for the last few years, I hereby declare the songs (but not the lyrics) were composed by me.

Other than the weekend, a fairly quiet week for us.  Although somewhat unfair that Bronwen’s trip out of the office on Wednesday was to a building literally 2 minutes from where we live, whilst my trip on Thursday was to the Argos warehouse in the middle of nowhere until 11pm.  Nowt like a warehouse near midnight.

*Jude – this is what you avoided by escaping back to Canada!