Sunday, September 19, 2010

'It's complicated': Impressions of a first timer in China

China is complicated and how I feel about it is even more so.

China is a contradiction - from the tradition that requires you to pass things to a person with both hands (apparently to signify you give all of yourself with the proffered business card/payment) to the soaring modern skyscrapers casting shadows over botanical gardens. From the military precision with which they run events (I was treated to a special visa channel at the airport and road closures to get us to the conference quickly!) to the cyclists on the road who travel against traffic, across traffic, on pavements and crossings, and just about everywhere apart from in the same direction as everyone else.

The people are exceedingly polite - on thanking a waitress for retrieving the bill I was told it was her 'greatest pleasure' to serve me. On taking a swim in the empty hotel pool 2 members of staff I had never met before appeared from nowhere and stood at the edge. I mimed to them if they would like me to leave, assuming they were perhaps waiting to clean the pool. One replied, "No Miss Jayne, we are here to take care of you." Feeling slightly outnumbered and a little uncomfortable I left shortly after. Standing up in restaurants or at the hotel reception was also not allowed, I was ushered to a seat everytime I tried to do something for myself. Whether a national habit or a sign of the excellent service at Le Meridien hotel I am not sure.

This politeness however does not stretch to the roads. One morning I witnessed a small collision on a chaotic crossing - nothing unusual in most parts of Asia. Except 5 hours later I passed the same spot and the parties involved were still there, still arguing about who was to blame, and still causing massive disruption to the traffic.

And what about the spitting. There is nothing polite about hoicking up a huge ball of phlegm and depositing it at your neighbours feet. Taxi drivers expectorate out the window and you pray it doesn't fly back in with the wind, straight into your face. (Maybe this is why Chinese passengers sit in the front seat?!) Even women join in this disgusting habit, and even at temples. It appears nothing is sacred when it comes to the spitting habit.

My reaction to the food caused disappointed in myself. I love traditional Thai, Malaysian, Indian, indeed anything but it appears my taste buds will only accept Western versions of Chinese food. I could find nothing appetising about giant sea creatures in large washing up bowls on the steps of restaurants and the fact that I could not read mandarin and thus identify what it was I was being served did not help matters. On visiting a night food market I was shocked to find myself physically retching. How is it that what some culture's call delicacies I can only describe as akin to faeces? I was repulsed by the food and thus disgusted with myself.

In a land that is famous for historic Great Walls and terracotta armies its surprising to find bling on every corner. Lights from one end of a skyscraper to another, signs blinking everywhere, adverts where you least expect them. Bridges, beaches, lamp posts - if they stand still for long enough they get dripped in twinkly lights. In Xiamen they build motorways on the beach. In 5 mins you can travel from a tranquil Buddhist temple to the beach which consists of sand, sea, concrete pillars and an elevated 4 lane highway - and this is a tourist attraction. Interesting.

Fancy a taste of the celebrity lifestyle? Well the pointing, staring and photographing side of celebrity anyhow. As a white woman with blue eyes and travelling solo I seemed to be the biggest tourist attraction in town. It is actually rather endearing when families kick their father out of the group shot so that he can take one of you with the family instead. And if they happen to know the word 'Hello' everyone from children to grandparents will have no qualms at shouting it at you, repeatedly, delightedly, until you are not sure what to do and gingerly make to leave.

My experience of China sparked a myriad of reactions. Some good, some ugly, some surprising. China is an experience in itself and despite what this post may lead you to believe, it's an experience I can't wait to repeat. When it comes travelling I believe any reaction is better than none!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

What not to do in Belfast - and a couple of things you should try

There is only one thing you shouldn’t do on a weekend trip to Belfast and that is pack inadequate clothing. I have visited this chilly city many times over the past couple of years, and although I have seen this historical city with its lush green surrounds develop and regenerate into something ‘grand’, my inability to dress appropriately remains unchanged.
Cheap Ryanair flights to Belfast ‘George Best ‘City Airport and clear, direct roads means you can traverse from London Stansted to the heart of Belfast in under 2 hours. The Belfast landscape however is best seen from above. Head towards the Belfast Castle where you can take a stroll around the grounds and surrounding hillside and get an illuminating panoramic view of the city and its harbour. The gardens of the castle itself are small but well tended and it appears the gardener has a penchant for cats as several are hidden amongst the flower beds and mosaic tiles – you’ll have fun trying to spot them all whatever your age. From there jump back into the car and take more of those clear, direct roads north towards the Giants Causeway. It’s likely you will be chasing dark, ominous, low lying cloud all the way to the lands end, praying they do not burst before you reach your destination and making the picturesque journey a dramatic race to the finish. After only 1hr 30 on the road however you can explore this beautiful coastal landscape and view one of the world’s natural wonders. Formed by volcanic activity hundreds of years ago these hexagonal rocks are a wonder to observe – and climb. Take a circular route to see the best of the site, heading firstly downhill towards the water’s edge and climbing to the top of the cliffs for a bird’s eye view afterwards. At this point adequate clothing becomes absolutely necessary as the full force of wind blasts straight from the Atlantic Ocean and whips around your head. Steady footing and sturdy footwear are a must unless you were planning on an icy dip.
By then you should deserve a hearty Irish lunch. 15 minutes along the coast is the sea side town of Portrush, complete with obligatory amusement arcade’s and ice cream vendors – operating even in the arctic conditions of winter. Perched on the rocks overlooking the harbour is the Ramore restaurant, serving a great combination of steak, champ (mashed potato and spring onion for the non-Irish readers!) and the BEST BANNOFFEE PIE EVER – as named by me. Back in the City Centre you’ll find the trendiest new bars and restaurants near the renovated Victoria Square Shopping Centre – a modern mall to keep the shopaholics happy. The location of the Malmaison Belfast hotel is perfect for sampling the shops and bars and like the rest of its sister hotels rarely disappoints, if boutique style and great location is your thing. From there it’s a short stumble to Cafe Vaudeville, the self titled ‘Luxebar and dining establishment’. Contemporary styling, hearty food and a buzzing atmosphere it’s a great way to end your day – just don’t forget your coat!