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Nanchang Lu Abroad: The Most Macabre Place in Paris

Stop! Here is the Empire of Death!
So reads the ominous sign as you enter the Paris Catacombes, two hundred metres below ground.
The catacombs are a relic of Paris’ past, some two hundred miles of underground passageways and limestone quarry tunnels that originally date back to Roman times and occupy huge areas of the Left Bank. They lay abandoned for many centuries, a honeycomb labyrinth of caves and passages.

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Nanchang Lu Abroad: Swooning for Macarons at Ladurée, Paris

Macarons. Pink like kisses, pale pistachio green, golden like honey, rows and rows of small meringue discs sandwiched together with ganache to make a macaron, the world’s most decadent mouthful, with love from Paris.
Macarons have been around for longer than sliced bread – since 791 in fact, and the most famous macaroni house of all is Ladurée, founded in 1862 by Louis-Ernest Ladurée with a shop on the Rue Royale in Paris. It was his wife Jeanne’s idea to combine the pâtisserie with a café and thus establish one of Paris’ first tea salons, a place where women could meet (at the time cafés were for men only).
At that time macaroons were just a single disc of meringue cooked with almond meal. It took Ladurée’s grandson Pierre Desfontaine to think of sandwiching two macarons together with ganache in the way we eat them today, taking Paris by storm.

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Nanchang Lu Abroad: The Museum of Hunting and Nature, Paris


What I like so much about the French is that they are unapologetic about the past.

Take hunting. Three hundred years ago every French aristocrat hunted, for sport. They glorified hunting. Famous artists painted portraits of them standing over their quarry, puffed with pride and lace cravats. They collected hunting horns and muskets and the heads of their prey, mounted on walls.

That was then. But rather than bow to modern social mores and pretend it was an embarrassing aspect of their history best forgotten, they have built a shrine to hunting and its glorious past in Paris.

It’s one of the best small museums in the world, and if you’re in Paris, make sure you go. Continue reading “Nanchang Lu Abroad: The Museum of Hunting and Nature, Paris”

Nanchang Lu Abroad in Paris

Paris. A city that lives as much in the world’s collective imagination as it does in reality.
For me, it was even better than I remembered. Long sunny days, glorious twilights, glittering nights, wonderful food. For a week we lived in an apartment, slept late, ate croissants like they were, in fact, good for us, and drank glasses of chilled rosé sitting on the terraces of tiny restaurants. It was glorious.
The occasion? Twenty-five years ago I met my wonderful husband Matt, and it felt like a great reason to celebrate given that we are still together, despite putting ourselves through a major relationship test of six months driving around China together in a camper van.
As with all important decisions in our family, the destination of the celebrations (coinciding with school holidays) was put to a vote.
“Where shall we go for our anniversary holidays?” I asked.

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Nanchang Lu Abroad in Hong Kong: An Eating Tour of Sheung Wan

Nanchang Lu is abroad, and my first stop is Hong Kong! (en route to Paris, London, Scotland and then Champagne)
I love Hong Kong. I love the noise, the vibrant colours, the smells, the heat and humidity. And above all – the food. Oh, the glorious, abundant food!
Thanks to the handy timing of a medical conference, my friend Doctor S. and I spent a whole week in Hong Kong staying in Sheung Wan District on Hong Kong Island, eating our way around the area each morning and evening.
Sheung Wan is just one stop west of Central on the MTR, but it feels like a regular Hong Kong neighbourhood with its local wet market and dried seafood purveyors lining Des Voeux Street West. The eats are much more local too, with fewer fancy restaurants and lots of small wonton noodle shops and old style Hong Kong eateries.
Here’s a whistle stop tour of my five favourite spots:

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The Shanghai Watch Factory 上海手表厂

Imagine yourself on a wet Sunday, walking Shanghai’s streets through the kind of persistent rain that, despite an umbrella, works its way in drips into the inside of your jacket and runs across your collarbone.

It was a rainy day like this when I visited the site of what was once the Shanghai Watch Factory (Shanghai Shoubiao Chang 上海手表厂)

The Shanghai Watch Factory was the very first in China, founded in 1958. Watches became important status symbols, one of the ‘Three Bigs’ (san da jian 三大件) necessary for a groom to bring to a marriage. The evolution of the ‘Three Bigs’ over time is a telling narrative on the startling development of China’s market economy and the sophistication of its consumers. In the 1970s the three desirables were a watch, a sewing machine (or radio), and a bicycle. In the 1980s this became a watch, a television, and a refrigerator, and in the 1990s a television, a refrigerator and a car. By the 2000s a wedding in Shanghai was unlikely to proceed unless the groom could deliver a car, an apartment and a computer. Continue reading “The Shanghai Watch Factory 上海手表厂”

Shanghai Street Food #36 Wonton Soup: Huntun Tang 馄饨汤

“Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.” So goes advice for a long life from American writer and nutritionist Adelle Davis (1904-1974).

It’s a guilty pleasure of mine, to dine out often for breakfast, and I always think of Adelle’s quote as I do so, tucking into a steamer basket full of dumplings, or scrambled eggs and hot tea. If it’s a cold day or I’m very hungry, I usually have a bowl of comforting wonton soup at the breakfast shop Fujian Dumpling Soup King on Xiangyang Lu. I like Dumpling Soup King because it has proper tables and chairs and sometimes I just want to sit for breakfast, rather than standing and walking with my food. Can you imagine trying to eat a bowl of wonton soup while walking? Messy.

The other nice thing about Dumpling Soup King is they don’t mind if you bring food from any of the other breakfast shops alongside. Many customers like to eat something with crunch (like youtiao fried dough sticks, or crispy rice squares, or crisp-bottomed shengjianbao dumplings) with their soft, slippery soup. Continue reading “Shanghai Street Food #36 Wonton Soup: Huntun Tang 馄饨汤”

Photoessay: A Feast for the Eyes – The Incredible Spectacle of the Ten Miao Parade

As part of the Sister’s Meal Festival Celebrations, the Ten Miao Parade takes place in Taijiang, Guizhou. Miao groups from ten different village areas – women, men and children, all in their best festival dress – dance and march through the streets to the town square. It is simply the most rich, colourful, and spectacular display of ethnic dress I have ever witnessed.
Feast your eyes.

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Serendipity in Travel: Building a Dragon Boat

What I love about Guizhou just as much as its jade rivers, green mountains and beautiful people is the serendipity of the place. Surprising things seem to happen in Guizhou constantly, and if you travel through it for an hour, or better still, a day, you’ll be certain to happen across something extraordinary just by chance.

When travelling I try to stay open to the possibility of a random encounter, even if it means changing my schedule, or missing something else.

I live by one travel rule: When the travel gods throw a crumb in your path, you need to pick it up and follow the trail. Don’t step over the crumb. Don’t ignore it.

These serendipitous experiences have formed some of my richest travel memories, like the time we met Chinese National Geographic photographer Big Mountain (his real name) and accompanied him to a Miao village ancestor’s feast; or the time we visited cave-dwelling paper-makers, and the time I was invited to an impromptu house-warming feast for four hundred people.

So on my visit to Guizhou last month we drove past a group of men huddled by the banks of a green, green river, on our way to Shidong Market.

“I think they’re maybe building a dragon boat there…” said Billy, our guide. “Want to have a look?” Continue reading “Serendipity in Travel: Building a Dragon Boat”

“Beautiful Ladies! Join the Dance!” The Miao Sister’s Festival in Laotun Village

Laotun Village, population six hundred, sits quietly in a valley filled with rice paddies; unnoticed by the outside world for most of the year. Seasonal rhythms dictate the pace of life around rice-planting in spring and rice harvest in autumn. Not very much happens. 
Until April arrives.
With April comes the biggest celebration of the year for the Miao people of Guizhou Province – a courtship gathering known as the Sister’s Meal Festival. I’ve been once before, four years ago, and had a wonderful time. But to be honest, I understood very little of what I was seeing, a moving parade of colour and spectacle in a language for which I had no subtitles. 
This time, after eight visits to Guizhou’s Miao region, I felt I had a better grip on the complexities of the festival. It follows the lunar calendar, always occurring in Spring, and involves three days of festivities in multiple locations, including but not limited to: 
A parade of ten Miao groups 
Dragon dancing  
Singing competitions 
A fair
Firecrackers 
Bullfights, cockfights and dog fights 
Traditional dancing
An embroidery contest
The exchange of favours made from sticky rice and coloured eggs 
Did I mention feasting and drinking?
In essence though, the Sister’s Festival is a glorious celebration of women young and old, and the best place to see it in its most traditional form is in sleepy old Laotun Village. Women and girls from the village dress in their best festival attire and walk down to the village dancing circle along narrow paths between the houses and rice paddies.
Festival dress differs according to whether you are young and single, married, or elderly. This young Miao woman from Laotun village wears typical celebration dress covered in silver adornments and topped with an elaborate silver headdress in the shape of a peacock. The best silversmiths come from nearby Shidong township.
And yes, putting that headdress together is as difficult and uncomfortable as it looks, requiring two ‘dressers’ to assist.
A young woman’s festival jacket has sleeves and front panels heavily embroidered with important stories and motifs. This one depicts the story of a giant mythical bird that swooped down and saved the Miao people during a battle. The embroidery of a celebration jacket takes about one year.
The back of the jacket is overlaid with silver adornments – the small circular pieces represent cymbals, played during celebrations, and the larger pieces are covered with dragons.
The entire outfit weighs a tonne and means the women must move with small, ginger steps as they make their way along the village paths to the dancing circle.

Married women wear a much simpler outfit that is more heavily embroidered, with about two years’ worth of stitching in these outfits.
Even the very youngest girls dress up, but wear very lightweight ornaments.

Elderly women wear dark bronze jackets with panels embroidered in blue and purple, with a simple red striped head dress.
Down in the village circle the drum is beating, a huge beast of a thing made from a hollowed log stretched tight with buffalo hide.  It’s a strong dancing beat and someone is calling through a loudspeaker:
“Beautiful ladies! Come out of your houses! Come join the dance!”
And so they do, just a single circle at first, their silver ornaments and jewellery jingling musically as they dance only with their feet, round and back, round and back.

The drum keeps beating and the call continues, inviting more and more women into the dancing circle until eventually, it is a shimmering, pulsing circle of silver and colour.

The dance lasts for several hours, as one group of dancers leaves the circle and is replaced with another, and another, and another. Altogether several hundred women take their turn at dancing, surrounded by family, friends, and a few photographers – including me.
So…er…yes. About the photographers. Laotun is a wonderful experience at Sister’s Festival time, but also one of the last places to have really traditional village circle dancing, so it’s rather popular with photographers. For the most part, they stay well out of the action and line themselves up along the hill above the village for the best view. 
Check out those lenses!
Laotun Village – Details
Laotun is situated about two hours’ drive northeast of Kaili, in central Guizhou. 
It is close to Shidong township, so makes a nice change from the bustle of Shidong market.
The Sister’s Meal Festival is held over three days, once a year in April.
See http://www.toguizhou.com for the most up-to-date information on festival and market dates. I travelled with Billy Zhang once again, who has made all of my trips to Guizhou fascinating and fun. His knowledge of Miao culture and history is unsurpassed.