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Lanterns, Lanterns, Lanterns!!

The Nanjing Lantern Festival was a spectacular weekend enjoyed by me and about one hundred and fifty thousand million Chinese people. That’s no exaggeration, I counted every single one, and got elbowed by at least half of them. If I had a romantic notion that I would waft along the banks of Nanjing’s canals, my path lit by the soft and gentle light of a lantern’s glow, I was obviously in some other country, and some other century. 
Wake up Cinderella! This is the new China! It’s more like Vegas than Confuscius, although it was next to his temple that we jammed ourselves along waterways lined with rows and rows of red lanterns, saw scenes from Chinese stories and legends as giant lurid neon-coloured lantern-scapes, wore crazy flashing battery operated hats and jostled for fairy floss and dragon-shaped toffee-on-a-stick.  Then, sugar-high just hitting, we hopped in a flashing, flashy pagoda-shaped motor boat for a whizz round the waterside lantern panoramas (life of Confucius, life of Donald Duck, brace of swans, huge dragons) to the relaxing sounds of a pre-recorded commentary. 
Head buzzing with total sensory overload, I finally made it to bed just in time for the fireworks starting. I haven’t had a fireworks-free slumber for, oh, about fourteen or fifteen days, so it was great to hear them setting off around midnight, and after a brief rest for sleep at three am, starting up again with renewed enthusiasm at around four.  What a show!

Happy Chinese Valentine’s Day Lantern Scene

Giant Dragon Lantern

Cheeky Laughing Lion Lantern

Nanjing’s City Wall

Nanjing’s old city is surrounded by an immense and impressive stone wall, built almost 700 years ago. In sections you can climb to the top and walk along a path trod by those who went before – friends, foes, invaders – Nanjing’s history hangs heavy in the air at every step. 
To ensure the quality of the bricks used to build the wall, they came from five different provinces, hence the colour variation, and were imprinted with the name of the brickmaker and the location of the brickworks. Despite 700 years of sun, rain, war and sorrow, these can still be clearly seen on the bricks’ surface. History you can touch.

Train to Nanjing

This weekend I’m off to Nanjing for the Lantern Festival, but first I have to brave Shanghai Railway Station in order to get there. All my trips so far have exited from Shanghai South Railway Station, an architect-designed masterpiece of a modern station,  more like a UFO than a transport hub. On the other hand, Shanghai Railway Station, I’d heard, is one place in Shanghai you need to carefully guard your belongings. And your children. And your chickens, if you have them.

 Thousands of people pass through this station every minute of every hour, most dragging bags and suitcases, a few looking shifty and dragging sacks and boxes, and an occasional downright dangerous looking character carrying nothing but three mobile phones. Hmmm……
Our waiting room was one of twelve massive caverns, each one seating 1000 people with standing room for another thousand. I love railway waiting rooms for the sheer diversity and colour of the travellers encountered there, and these were no exception.  We shared ours with grandmothers on mobile phones, a group of Buddhist monks and two really annoying  British businessmen loudly discussing what they disliked about their wives. 

Mr Willis

Great things are happening at 195 Anfu Lu in the French Concession. Downstairs is a fabulous bakery, Baker & Spice, who do a great line in sourdough, cornbread, pastries, coffee and cakes. Their little lumberjack cakes are the perfect thing with a flat white and a newspaper. Across the hall is La Strada, whose specialty is wood-fired pizzas. They’re good, very thin and crispy, with great crust.
But the real star here is Mr Willis, the upstairs restaurant. Craig Willis, the chef, is Australian and his expertise really shines in simple but well-executed dishes using spanking fresh produce. Today I ate succulent roast chicken with sweet roast pumpkin, a delicious clay-pot mushroom risotto, and a big, fat slab of pavlova. This classic Australian dessert was cooked perfectly (according to me), although every Australian likes theirs a little different (usually how their mum made it). Crisp meringue crust and soft marshmallowy centre, topped with fresh whipped cream, berries and passionfruit…fabulous!
But if you’re planning a lunch at Mr Willis, I suggest you don’t ride your bicycle home through Shanghai peak-hour traffic with a basket full of Baker & Spice goodies balancing precariously on the front of the bike, and two glasses of very fine Australian white under your belt. 

Yum Cha at Maxim’s Palace

One of the other Hong Kong pilgrimages is to Maxim’s Palace, City Hall. It’s in all the guide books,  and has had a recent re-fit with new chandeliers, but is it any good? Actually, yes, very good. And it has all the elements of a top-class yum-cha experience – hordes of well-heeled local Chinese families enjoying their meal alongside the few tourists, fabulous harbour views, surly waitstaff (come on – it wouldn’t be authentic if they weren’t surly) and trolley after trolley of the best dumplings, rice rolls, steamed buns, seafood and custard tarts you ever saw. But be warned – I’ve never waited less than an hour to get in, so if you’re starving when you arrive you will have gnawed off one of your arms by the time you get seated. 

Afternoon Tea Hong Kong Style

High tea at the Peninsula Hotel is a Hong Kong institution, but after seeing the grumpy faces in the long, long queue we decided to head over the road to the Intercontinental Hotel and see what they had to offer.
What a pleasant surprise it was – no queues, fabulous Hong Kong harbour views from floor-to-ceiling windows, and high tea in an art-deco inspired server with a choice of coffee or Mariage Freres teas. Delights such as rose scented raspberry cheesecake, green tea delice, scones with earl grey jelly and clotted cream, and miniature individual balck forest gateaux had me in high tea heaven. And guess what? You pay a lot more at the Peninsula to stand in a queue for an hour then sit in a dark lobby with no view.

Lamma Island

Lamma Island is about 30 minutes in a ferry from Central Pier No 4 on Hong Kong Island, but about a thousand years away in terms of its vibe. There’s nothing frenetic, noisy or crowded about it, and it has great beaches. There are no cars, just lots of fishing boats and waterfront restaurants. And space – a surprising amount of untouched space.
After a bracing walk up and over the middle of the island we walked along the main pier of Sok Kwu Wan village, looking at all the fascinating seafood in the restaurant tanks – fresh garoupa, huge squid, prawns and giant razor clams. We settled in to the Peach Garden Restaurant and ordered a whole steamed snapper, with a ginger, coriander, soy and sesame oil sauce.

And as enticing as that eyeball looks, I didn’t eat it.

Hong Kong

I’m in Hong Kong this week. Hong Kong is known as Xiang Gang (香港) in mandarin, literally meaning ‘fragrant harbour’, but it’s the word for fragrant that also means a savoury, appetising smell, or the smell of incense. A really apt name for it, don’t you think? For the next few days I’m planning to absorb all the smells, fragrant or otherwise, and as many of the tastes as possible. I’ll report back.

Happy New Year, Tiger!

In Australia, home fireworks are illegal and I’m guessing there are a lot of one-handed amateur fire-work enthusiasts who can explain why. Here in China, however, anything goes. Not that home fireworks are strictly legal, it’s just that everyone ignores the rules and sets them off anyway. But in such a densely populated city, where should you set them off? A level, fire-proof surface with no passers-by would be ideal…… about the middle of the road? OK, OK so there are a few passers by, on bikes and on scooters, but they can swerve can’t they??

Place your box of fireworks in the middle of the road. Remember not to bother about the frequently crossing powerlines overhead. Light the wick with your cigarette just as a car passes. Retreat to a safe distance of 2 metres.

Watch with excitement, and with your ears covered, as your box takes off! At least twenty fireworks, one after the other, rocket forth – stars, peonies, chyrsanthemums, spirals. and pony tails. All-banging, all-whistling, all-smoking fun! (avoid the temptation to go and poke your box with a live Super Sparkler when one appears to mis-fire).

Next light a long dragon tail of noisy crackers, looped over the closest tree. Looks pretty spectacular, doesn’t it? Lucky it rained earlier in the day…..otherwise there might be a few spot fires.

Can you imagine what it would be like inside a firework? Now magnify the noise, the hiss, the explosion, and the light by about a thousand. That’s Chinese New Year. For hours we were surrounded by a 360 degree cacophony of light, noise, sulphur and smoke, whistles, hummers, crackles, shells and cheers. The sky turned red with smoke, and the Tiger felt well-welcomed. Happy New Year!