February 18th: England, Home of Simple Pleasures

Warning: Airport lounge alert. 

Thanks to the combination of a full price economy ticket, several thousand airmiles and cash for airport tax we currently find ourselves in the Virgin Clubhouse at Heathrow Terminal 3.  In the lounge they have unicorns, baths full of wine and a Piers Morgan dartboard.  The staff float around on pink clouds offering manicures, exotic eyebrow extractions and black puddings.*  Other than not actually getting on the plane, there’s no better way to start a plane journey for somebody who continues to be terrified of flying.  But I now have my way of dealing with this (not for public consumption on a blog).

Many thanks to all our friends and family who looked after us or came to see us over the last couple of weeks as we completed our mini-tour of the country (for those considering a visit to England, I would highly recommend our route of Olney–>Woburn Sands–> Olney–> Worksop–>  Southport–> Liverpool–> Banbury–> Olney–> Peterborough–> Epsom.  Worksop optional – hen parties only).  For some we know you changed your schedule to take holidays or “work” from home, and we really appreciate it.   We didn’t get a chance to see everyone so will definitely try to do so next time we’re back, whenever that might be.

I’m ridiculously tired and as ever, returning to Shanghai with mixed feelings. If nothing else, I need to get back to Shanghai to protect my waistline after nearly two weeks of pies, curries and other British delicacies.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve discovered that at my age, simple pleasures are the best.  The day after landing, we were sat in The Bull in Olney, me with a pint of British bitter, grinning like an idiot.  We’ve done little else than drive to see people, eat and drink with people, then drive somewhere else.  It’s been exhausting, but worth every single lost hour of sleep.  And with a mini-keg of beer on offer at the O’Grady’s and a never ending beer fridge on offer at the French’s (in addition to housing some lovely people), Olney still feels like home despite having other people currently living in our house.

*Some of this paragraph may be inaccurate.

Olney on a Cloudy Day

Olney on a Cloudy Day

October 28th: Only Lightly Polluted

This week Shanghai experienced its most polluted day in about six months.  Fortunately, we have the US Consulate and the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection keeping an eye on the smog for us.  The US Consulate’s figures were accompanied by a health warning of “hazardous” (get indoors now; don’t breathe for a few days).  The Chinese State’s assessment was somewhat different, describing it as merely “lightly polluted” (reduce outdoor exercise).  The discrepancy is easily explained away by the local government, accusing the US Consulate of measuring different particles sizes.  Not being an expert here, I much prefer the benign sounding “lightly polluted”.  I’m interpreting it in the same way a packet of crisps could be “lightly salted” – Ok in small doses but too much may cause your lungs too collapse.

A multi-cultural week food wise for me and Bron.  An Indian take-away on Wednesday night with Rachel and Andrea, taking advantage of another essential of life in Shanghai: the home delivery service form Sherpas (£1.50 delivery charge from any restaurant within about 5 miles of where we live.  Any restaurant but usually one selling curry.  And yes I know we should be cooking having brought an Indian shop’s worth of spices with us.)

Back to Sailor’s on Thursday night for fish & chips (counting this as English food) to celebrate JB’s last night in Shanghai (for a whole week).  Sailor’s is on Yongkang Lu, an arty sort of street full of tiny restaurants and bars, loads of Westerners and many disgruntled local residents.  A few complaints (understandable) from those that live above the restaurants saw the arrival of the police shortly after 10pm to usher everyone indoors.

Friday night’s Chinese meal was a buffet-style affair inside another KTV (karaoke) warehouse as Tim took the IS and IT teams out for three hours of singing/wailing.  An elaborate computer system, entirely in Chinese,  allows visitors to select songs from a list and add them to a queue.  Having been a few times, I’ve memorised the right sequence of buttons to take me straight to Radiohead’s “High & Dry” (no Smiths, Cure or Aphex Twin sadly; but they did have a bizarre easy-listening version of Muse’s “Plug in Baby”).  Songs are added to a queue to give everyone a go, but mysteriously my and Tim’s songs kept getting bumped to the top….

Austrian night

Nicole, Jo, Bron and Chong at Austrian night

Bron avoided the ear assault by going out for an Italian instead, so Tim and I joined her later on in Kaiba, a Belgium Beer bar that features a huge selection of beers from around the world (including London Pride).  Ostensibly the launch night (even though we’d been there about a month ago), the police were again in attendance to usher people off the street and back into the bar.

Saturday night was Austrian night, courtesy of Juliane (the only Austrian we know).  The Hyatt hotel on the North Bund apparently has an Austrian chef and manager, so why not… Juliane and Nicole fully dressed in dirndl’s, putting the rest of us to shame.  I’m not sure I’ve experienced Austrian food or drink before, but the plum schnaps, beef stew and apple strudel did the job nicely.  I also don’t know any Austrian songs apparently; even the standing up and sitting down again song got the better of me.

Paradise and Hell Bar

A bar run by a cat.

We ended the night with Juliane and Bruce in the Paradise side of a bar called “Paradise and Hell”.  One side was kind of white, the other a tiny bit red.  Having never been to Paradise before, I now know it features a very comfortable cat that appears to manage bars, overseeing as it did the behaviour of its patrons and the delivery of new beer.

I’m writing this early on Sunday morning; knackered thanks to the workman who rang our doorbell repeatedly at 7.20 this morning.  Wrong house.  Thanks.

Austrian night

(Apologies for dodgy quality): Isaac, me, Bruce, Juliane, Nicole, Jo, Bron and Chong at Austrian night

A big brass instrument

Isaac and Juliane with the Austrian musicians

August 27th: Qingdao vs. Olney (Beer Festivals)

Beach near the beer festival

On the beach late at night…

The sea always looks more appealing in the dark.  Of indeterminable colour and levels of cleanliness, the moonlit sea offers a different perspective to that available to the normal hordes of daytime beach visitors.  On Saturday evening, following our trip to Qingdao’s beer festival, the group of people we’d adopted(/been adopted by) headed down to the beach to experience the warmth of the late night Yellow Sea .   A few people paddling (Richard heading off into the distance for a while); a few straight into the sea for a full-on swim and a few observers bemused by it all.  After a couple of hours, and with our small group now swollen in numbers, Bron and I made a dignified exit as the newcomers continued to lower the group’s average age.

Rewinding a bit…

Qingdao Beer Festival

Inside one of the tents with our new temporary friends.

Qingdao beer festival vs. Olney beer festival then.  Olney wins for beer, friends and relaxation.  Qingdao wins for sheer unpredictability.   We’d met Arey, an American bloke teaching economics in Nanjing, whilst queuing for free tickets*.  Brad, an Australian we found ensconced by an air conditioning unit, also joined us as we wandered from bizarre beer tent to bizarre beer tent.  We met up with Richard around the same time as a few of Arey’s friends appeared and managed to find a table big enough to accommodate all of us in one of the less noisy tents.  Our evening meal – home-prepared seafood and sausages  – provided for free by some lovely, generous Chinese ladies sat next to us.  I’m not sure whether it was pity or sheer generosity, but Richard, Brad and I were incredibly appreciative (the rest of the table missing out due to lack of proximity to our friendly ladies).

Beers from all over the world, but not a single British beer to be found (and I have no idea how Budweiser managed to sneak their way in).  A few decent dark German beers did the job, with the festival closing relatively early (a little after ten).  It was then that somebody had the bright idea of heading down towards the sea.

It’s a strange phenomenon in which people of different nationalities are drawn together simply by being laowai (a casual Chinese word for foreigner).  There’s a shared perspective seemingly unique to China and is on occasion one of the highlights of living here.  There’s a point at which age doesn’t come into it (as the pictures attest), but the later the night became, the older we began to feel.  I have no idea what time our temporary friends decided to call it a night.

Qingdao Beaches

Bron on one of Qingdao’s several beaches

The rest of our weekend in Qingdao was more cultural in nature; visits to various seafront exhibits and a shedload of walking along the extended coastline.  Many thanks to Anny (our Chinese Finance Director) for allowing us to stay in her house; a few strange looks from her neighbours but a great base for our Qingdao exploration.  Qingdao is a mixture of a beautiful coastline, mountains and scenery Shanghai could only dream of.  It also appears to have some of the worst roads in China, with the traffic forced to crawl along due to the potholes, divots and missing surfaces in abundance.

Qingdao Pier

Rent a terrorist

Halfway down Qingdao’s crowded, popular pier, we noticed a few men dressed as terrorists with fake guns and hidden faces.  I’m not sure if anywhere else in the world posing to have your photo taken with a fake gun pointed at you would be considered a tourist attraction.

Our trip to Qingdao was supposed to give us a relaxing break away from our recent hectic couple of weeks in Shanghai.  On Wednesday we’d been over to Isaac and Chong’s nearby apartment to experience their ayi’s Indian cooking skills.  Available for hire in October, we’ll definitely be trying to make use of her services.  On Thursday night we’d been to a strange old Japanese restaurant over in Pudong (deep fried everything) to say goodbye to Simone as she heads back to Germany, hopefully returning later in the year.

Back to work tomorrow.

*”If you’re not Chinese, ring this number for free tickets” said the online message.  We did, it worked. It saved us the equivalent of £1.