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Going to the Wild, Wild West – Travels in Xinjiang

I’m on an adventure. Again. This time to Xinjiang (the ‘new frontier’) in China’s far northwest, taking in the Uighur heartland of Kashgar, Tashkurgan and Turpan on the way. I’m travelling as far west as it’s possible to go in China without accidentally running into trouble in one of the ‘stans’ – Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Afghanistan – because they all meet closely and uncomfortably together in the corner of the world I’m off to. 
“What on earth would possess her to go that far-flung corner of China??” I hear you ask, “and drag her whole family and guile-less parents-in-law along too?” Well, it’s the October National Holiday, a whole three days of public holidays which I have creatively extended to eleven or twelve, and I think it’s time we all visited China’s western frontier. This photograph is probably proof enough of the incredible landscape that awaits us, and having arrived yesterday I can tell you it’s even more amazing and beautiful than I had imagined. 
Prepare to be enchanted by Xinjiang.
Travels on the Silk Road

The Beer Hunters of Yongkang Lu

Meet Grégoire Prouvost and Cédric Bourlet, two of the coolest French guys you’ll ever meet. Together with friends Alexandre Godvin and Samuel Pierquin they run a boutique beer store on Yongkang Lu called Cheers In, at the opposite end of the street to the Shaxian Snacks restaurant

Three of the four friends hail originally from Lille, in a part of France close to the Belgian border where beer is a way of life. Passionate about beer, they were frustrated that some of the best beers making their way to Shanghai were available only in restaurants. Now they can boast the best selection in the city, with beers from twenty three countries including France, Belgium, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and India.

Cédric, on the right, has the official title of ‘Beer Hunter’ (it’s on his business cards and everything), a job I’d really like to explore. He has managed to hunt down every possible interesting beer that makes its way to Shanghai, and bring them all together in one place. “So, what do you do for a living?”  “Oh, I’m a Beer Hunter.” There must be queues around the block for his job. Gregoire, on the left, is the ‘Ideas Brewer.’ 

One of the joys of Cheers In is that every beer is available as a single bottle purchase, so for the price of an extremely average bottle of wine you can sample six different boutique beers from around the globe. It’s a difficult choice, given the enormous range of high quality beers, so I started by asking Grégoire and Cédric to point out thier favourites.

La Chouffe, a Belgian beer from the Ardennes, is Grégoire’s favourite beer, and available only from their shop. It’s a very refreshing drop. According to La Chouffe’s website, this is an “unfiltered blonde beer, which is re-fermented in the bottle as well as in the keg.  It is pleasantly fruity, spiced with coriander, and with a light hop taste.”  To my palate, it does have a very lightly hopped fruity taste, which belies the 8% alcohol which is gonna hit you about two thirds of the way through.

Cédric’s nominated another Belgian beer, Orval, as his favourite. It’s a beer I first tried at Southern Barbarian alongside a plate of deep-fried honeybees, which the beer matched to perfection. Orval is a Belgain Trappist beer, made by Cistercian monks and their helpers, and is so popular here in Shanghai they can’t keep up with the demand. Orval has wonderful complex yeast flavours, with touches of caramel and malt and just a small amount of acidity. “For Belgians, it’s the best beer in the world!” Cédric says. 

Orval had also been my favourite beer, until I tried Tripel Karmeliet – still brewed to an original 1679 from Carmelite nuns. Brewed with barley, oats and wheat (hence ‘tripel’), this is the best beer I’ve ever tasted – fruity, creamy (thanks to the oats) and with a slight citrus acidity. Those nuns obviously knew quite a few things about beer, and despite trying to make improvement the brewery has never bettered the nuns’ recipe.

Vedett White is the shop’s most popular beer, Belgian or otherwise. It’s very drinkable, but really has none of the interest or complexity of Tripel Karmeliet, Orval, or La Chouffe.

The store has such an interesting variety of beers, like these graphically labelled ones from England’s Brew Dog craft brewery. These guys are interesting – they started in 2007 with a tiny bank loan and have grown to a £6.7 million turnover in just four years, by selling equity shares to everyday beer lovers. Clever marketing aside (who wouldn’t want to be able to say they own shares in a brewery??) their beer is good. Definitely worth trying.

Coedo, from a Japanese microbrewery, is extremely difficult to source, but Cheers In have managed to exclusively stock all four varieties incuding the frequently sold-out Shiro. If you love the light clean flavours of Japanese beers, you should enjoy these. Stoke Gold is a New Zealand pale ale made with organic hops. 

There a couple of other organic beers available too which I’m yet to try – Samuel Smith’s Organic Lager from England, and  Jade, France’s first organic beer. 

Other firm favourites they stock include Rogue Dead Guy from the USA, Cooper’s Ale from Australia, Kingfisher from India and China’s own SinKiang Black Beer. 

The store has such an enormous variety the choice can be a little overwhelming. If you prefer, you can use their website to help you choose (which country? strong or light flavoured? high or low alcohol? how expensive?) and have it all home-delivered just in time for Australia vs Russia in the Rugby World Cup. 


Cheers In
25 Yongkang Lu near Jiashan Lu, Puxi

永康路25号 (靠近嘉善路)

Ph +86 21 64188400

Yongkang Lu’s Shaxian Street Kitchen

I’ve been cycling past Shāxiàn Xiăo Chī (Shaxian Snacks) twice a day every day since I started university, and its always packed with people sitting on orange plastic stools on the pavement, eating and looking very happy. It’s packed at 8am with the breakfast trade, and packed again at 12.30pm for the lunch rush, usually a good sign of excellent food within. 
I’m always on the lookout for new places to eat (who knew?) and a busy spot almost always equals good food here in Shanghai. I don’t need a rating in a book, I just needs the ‘bums on seats’ score. By that measure, Shāxiàn Xiăo Chī should rate highly. It’s the first in a series of posts about the food vendors along Yongkang Lu I’ll be bringing you over the coming weeks.
I took a seat outside, and was handed this well worn laminated sheet of which I could read nothing except the word ‘noodles’. So I did what I usually do, which is to say, I took a wander around all the other tables, pointed out dishes, then had a look in the tiny cramped kitchen to see what was looking good. 
There was a huge pot of gently simmering dark tea coloured broth smelling enticingly of star anise, filled to the brim with tea eggs and duck legs balanced in a row along the edge, and skeins of white and cream uncooked noodles, alongside tin steamers lined with woven grass mats on which neat little jiaozi (dumplings) were waiting to find a home. 
For three of us I ordered a selection and waited to see what arrived. The table we had taken outside on the pavement was directly under the kitchen’s window facing onto the street, and every minute or so the cook leaned out and, through the roar of the wok burner, yelled a question, then popped his head back in to continue cooking. Would I like rice noodles or wheat noodles? Did I want both kinds of dumpling? Would I be needing extra rice?  

The first dish arrived and bowled me over – deep-fried jiaozi, filled with pork and seasoned vegetables, sizzling straight from the wok via the kitchen window to our table. I burnt my lips on the first one, but went ahead and ate it anyway, crispy and savoury little parcel that it was. I’ve never seen regular jiaozi cooked like this, and it’s a genius idea. Deep-fried dumplings – fabulous. We dipped them in the dark brown vinegar provided in an old sprite bottle.
Cold beer came next, and this was seriously, seriously bīng de, the ice-cold state of beer that is so hard to achieve in Shanghai even in the depths of winter, when really just leaving the stuff outside for five minutes is al that’s necessary. The bottle was so frosty little wafts of icy smoke were pouring from the sides, like one of those scientific TV shows where they pull a test tube out of liquid nitrogen. Seriouly cold. 
Then the duck tàocān fàn, the ‘set meal’ consisting of a quarter roast duck, tender and moist, a slice of marinated beancurd, a tea egg, some stir-fried sprouts and bok choy, and a mound of rice, also served directly through the kitchen window to our table.
Lastly, a tin tray of steamed jiaozi, all gone in a second before I even got my lens cap off to take a photo, and these wide soft rice noodles fried with egg and scallions. Even though we were pretty close to full at this point, we ate every morsel of this last dish. It was smooth and soft and salty and slippery. Delicious.

Our bill for three people, for your interest:
Steamed jiaozi 10 pieces
Deep-fried jiaozi 10 pieces
Stir-fried noodles with egg and scallions
Roast duck with stir-fried greens, tea egg and rice
Large icy cold bottle of TsingTao   
TOTAL = 38 yuan ($6)
Hope you can grab a seat there one day and try it for yourself.
Shāxiàn Xiăo Chī (Shaxian Snacks)

Yongkang Lu, at the intersection of Taiyuan Lu
Open 7 days

Introducing: Yongkang Lu

Let me introduce you to Yongkang Lu, a perfectly lovely old street that has been right under my nose all along, but I’ve only recently rediscovered. Thanks to friends living nearby, I’ve been kept me up to date about the addition of a wonderful boulangerie/fromagerie and a boutique beer vendor, and the opening of quirky new shops and cafes. They’ve all moved into Yongkang Lu since I last visited for the specialty foods festival at Chinese New Year, and the whole street has the aura of revitalisation and excitement. I’m going to feature some of them over the coming weeks.
Yongkang Lu runs east-west, from Taiyuan Lu all the way to Jiashan Lu, itself a vigorously lively street with a daily riot of fish-gutting, vegetable chopping, card games, street barbers and angle grinders. Halfway along its length Yongkang is bisected into neat and quite opposite halves by Xiangyang Lu, a street struggling to become trendy but thanks to constant hammering roadworks and a cartel of noodle and snack stalls has been able to resist gentrification for now.
The west side of Yongkang Lu is lined with leafy plane trees, and this end of the street is quiet and relaxed with small local shops selling dumplings, stationery, fruit and vegetables. It’s a lovely street to walk along, busy without being overwhelming and with very ittle road traffic.

As I cross over busy Xiangyang Lu the ear-splitting sound of firecrackers reverberates along the eastern end of Yongkang Lu, the noise ricocheting between houses hung with washing. It’s the middle of the day but that doesn’t mean anything particular, firecrackers can go off anytime, anywhere, for anything. 
The eastern end of the street has a totally different appearance, with closely packed apartments overhanging a street almost devoid of greenery. Further along the red firecracker papers litter the middle of the road, and I walk there to see what’s happening along with a bunch of other onlookers.
It’s a wedding! A white stretch limo is parked on the street, the bonnet festooned with flowers attached with adhesive tape. I can’t tell if the bride and groom are inside the car because the windows are too heavily tinted. They may be visiting the groom’s parents in one of the nearby houses, a wedding tradition.
More eye-catching is the second wedding car, a fanta-orange fantasy of an Audi with more restrained decorations, just two small corsages taped to the door handles.
Without warning another round of firecrackers is set off in the middle of the road, drawing all the neighbours (many in their pyjamas) out to watch. Nobody tries to protect the Audi from the small explosions. By the time the crackers are finished the road is carpeted with shreds of red paper and the air is full of sulphur.
It seems, after a while and some discussion from the crowd, that the bride is in the back of the stretch limo after all, and the groom soon comes dashing out of the nearby dry-cleaners (his parents’ home and business?) before jumping in the passenger seat and taking off to the next round of festivities and pyrotechnics.

The neighbours watch on as the limo pulls away and normal traffic is restored.

Nothing left to do but have some fun with all that lovely sulphurous red paper! Now isn’t that just the sort of thing you like to see when you go for a Sunday walk along your favourite street?
Do you have a favourite secret (or not so secret) street in Shanghai? Please tell!

Excitement! Life on Nanchang Lu the App!

I’m so excited! I’m proud to present to you the very first ever Life on Nanchang Lu free App for iPhones, iPads, Androids and mobile devices. For a technically-challenged person like myself, who had to google ‘what is an Android?’ this is quite a feat.
Of course, I didn’t do it all by myself, a clever software company did it, and even gave me a little wizard to set it up. This would have taken five minutes, except I struggled for hours with the true meaning of ‘insert your 512×512 icon.’ What exactly is an icon? I don’t think they’re talking about Audrey Hepburn here, but I eventually figured it out, taking screenshot after screenshot (511×514 – damn! 515×508 -bugger!) until I got it right. There was possibly an easier way, but please don’t tell me now, it’ll kill me. 
Also, I spent several days cogitating on whether it was false advertising to call myself ‘a writer and photographer,’ in the marketing description, but I figured adding ‘champion dumpling and noodle taster’ made it all pretty much mostly true. 
Here are the best things about the app:
1. It’s FREE!
2. Even technically challenged people can easily download it to their ‘devices’ (I don’t think the remote control counts)
3. If you live in China, you can access all of Life on Nanchang Lu without using a VPN!! This is a major breakthrough for those of us behind the wall….
4. You can see full content, including pictures!
So now you need to just get it on your ‘device’. Here’s how to do it in three easy steps.

1. Go to Notice Orange’s Life on Nanchang Lu landing page here or type directly into the address bar on your device.
Choose either:
Download Android or 
Download Mobile Web App (for iPhones and non-android mobile phones)
2. The Android App page looks like this – scan the QR code, or type the blue link directly into your device, or reqest an email to be sent directly to your device. (you see how easily I write ‘scan the QR code’, when in fact I have no idea whatsoever what it means. I presume if you have an Android this will mean something to you).
3. The Mobile Web App page (for iPhones and iPads etc) looks like this. Simply type the blue link directly into your device’s address bar, or request an email be sent to your device if your typing fingers are tired.
That’s it! It’s very easy. Now you can test your eyes by reading Life on Nanchang Lu on smaller and smaller screens! 
My icon. I think you’ll find it is exactly 512×512 somethings. Pixels? Millimetres? Who knows.

A Nyonya Primer: Cafe Sambal Shanghai

There are some wonderful things about being a blogger, one of which is that you sometimes get the opportunity to meet readers (other than your immediate family, of course) who enjoy what you write enough to actually email you and ask questions, or arrange to meet, all in the name of good food. Other than a few extreme-health food bloggers (who make me feel quite nervy), or the occasional blogger devoted to making things from convenience foods, on the whole all food bloggers and their readers have one enormous passion in common – we’re all foodies, and we all love to eat. The often-er and delicious-er the better.
A long-time reader, E, who started emailing me last summer about the organic peach farm I’d visited, then over the last year has emailed other questions and several interesting food articles, invited me to dinner at the restaurant of his good friend Cho Chong Gee, a Malaysian who has run a famed Beijing Malaysian restaurant, Cafe Sambal, for many years. 
Shanghai’s Cafe Sambal serves traditional nyonya cuisine, a beautiful blend of Malay and Chinese influences that comes from descendants of Chinese migrants who intermarried with local Malays. The term nyonya, part Auntie, part madam, is a term of respect for older women, and indicates that the dishes are very traditional. 

‘The art of Nyonya cooking used to be compulsory learning for young girls. They were taught to practise cooking to perfection before marriage or they would be regarded by their in-laws as not brought up properly and a disgrace to the family.

Intense training started in early childhood; young girls were taught basic preparation, such as cutting pieces of onion and garlic, scraping coconut from coconut scraper, cleaning vegetables, cleaning fish, peeling prawns, pounding chillies with pestle and mortar, and using grinding stone to grind the curry paste.

The second step would be cutting vegetables into floral designs, cutting meat and gradual introduction to cooking. The beginner was under strict supervision of the elderly members of the kitchen.

The Nyonya are known to be meticulous in their cooking.

With the use of modem appliances, the Nyonya admits that the work in the kitchen is less tedious and time consuming, but the traditional Nyonya believes that their old methods of grinding, pounding and cooking their food is the best method.’

So E, Cho and I enjoyed a fabulous nyonya dinner together, made all the more interesting because of Cho’s love of traditional Malaysian food and its history. I just asked him to order all the things that he enjoyed eating himself – here’s Cho’s nyonya primer, if you like. 
The meal began with otak otak – a traditional Malaysian fishcake baked in a folded banana leaf and topped with kaffir lime leaf shreds and a gently spiced curry sauce. The mousse-like fish cake is kept moist and delicate by the sauce as it cooks. 
Beef satay, presented in modern day nod to the traditional beef skewers, is made from medallions of tenderloin on cucumber slices with the nutty, spicy satay sauce on top. 
One of the most interesting dishes of the night, flavour and texture-wise, was this rojak, a nyonya fruit and vegetable salad composed of pieces of crunchy cucumber and sweetly tart pineapple, coated with a paste of sweet shrimp sauce, peanuts and sesame seeds. At once savoury and sweet, the mingling flavours were the perfect accompaniment to the spicy curries to follow.

We began with a red curry of deep sea grouper, sweetened with coconut milk. The grouper fillets stood up well to the robust flavours of the curry. Then came the famed beef rendang, a dish I’m sure is the yardstick by which all Malaysian restaurants are compared. This version was soft, oozing red chili oil onto the banana leaf it rested on, and sending wafts of cardamom, lemongrass, chili, cloves, coconut and star anise into the room. Superb, complex and for grandma-style food, sophisticated.

The final two dishes were fried four-sided beans (‘dragon beans’) with a home-style cashew nut sauce, the interesting textured beans are a tropical vegetable has to be flown in fresh from southern China, followed by Malay style deep-fried honey chicken. Crunchy and succulent.
And at last time for dessert. I admitted to E and Cho that my childhood was filled with tapioca cooked in milk, milky rice pudding, and junket, all of which I hated. They immediately sought to put things to rights with Malay comfort food – sago gula melaka – tapioca with palm sugar syrup, topped with cold cocnut milk. Now had I grown up in Malaysia, I could be nostalgic about this lovely simple dish.
We also tasted the traditional and very popular bubur caca, a dessert with yam and sweet potato pieces in warmed cocnut milk, interesting, but I admit I still find these savoury desserts unsatisfying, thanks to my Western palate, but it’s one of the most popular dishes on the menu. 
Lastly arrived kuih dadar. A delicate pale green crepe, flavoured and coloured with pandan leaf, rolled around a filling of freshly grated coconut strands cooked in syrupy palm sugar. Sensational. The beautifully soft texture of fresh coconut is delectable mixed with the honeyed toffee flavours of the syrup.
Knowing almost nothing about Malaysian nyonya food, other than that it is utterly delicious, I thank Cho and E for the welcome introduction. But I suspect Malaysia is a place I should never visit – because I might never return, lost forever in a coconut and spice food heaven. 
Cafe Sambal

Jiashan Market
Lane 37A, 550 Shanxi Nan Lu

Ph: +86 21 3368 9529

Diving For Pearls in Three Feet of Water

These shining bright pearls were birthed by me – yes! delivered into the world! – by plunging my hands into the wet and dripping muscular pseudopod insides of a giant pearl-filled mussel, oozing mud and brackish pond water, by the side of a lake in Suzhou, and forcing them one at a time from their slimy mollusc nest. If that little description doesn’t make you feel squeamish, read on.
I spent last weekend in Suzhou, exactly 23 minutes by very fast train from Shanghai and once a green and enticing canal town, paired forever in history with the delights of Hangzhou by the oft-repeated and now completely untrue phrase “Above there is paradise in heaven, on earth there is Suzhou and Hangzhou”.
What was once a gorgeous old trading town, canals lined with willows, streets full of intellectuals and silk merchants (the silk industry originated in Suzhou), is now a smoggy metropolis of over 11 million people. So, yeah, small by Chinese standards. 
Suzhou now makes components for nearly all the world’s digital cameras, and is also famous for its pearls. As you can guess by the title of this post, I didn’t drive an hour out of town to find cheap digital camera bits. But I would go to the same lengths for pearls.
Suzhou has a huge pearl industry, and thanks to my intrepid friend RS (she and I battled the Jeweled Hornet together in Guangxi Province) she discovered an enormous lake where you could pick your own oysters and have them opened to look for pearls. There would even be a boat trip involved! 
An hour-long taxi ride from downtown Suzhou brings you to this gleaming, modern building, the China Pearls and Gems City. RS reassured me that there was a lake here, hidden completely by the green biosphere of Pearls and Gems City, and sure enough, she was right. 
Behind the building is a large shallow pond bordered with low-rise apartment blocks, and lined with olympic pool-style rows  and rows of coloued floats on strings, most of which turned out to be empty Sprite bottles.

We made our way to the tiny boats, and rustled up a boatman from among the six security guards on duty. Another guard acted as guide, while the remaining four helped us into enormously bulky bright orange fluorescent life-jackets. Now, at this point I didn’t suspect we were in any real danger of drowning, the whole body of water being no more than three or four feet deep at most, but I appreciate that many Chinese people can’t swim and that public health and safety is really big in China. Ahem.
Then I saw the boats up close, which explained why the life jackets were necessary.
The boatman, once we were all safely aboard, pushed out about twenty metres from shore into the murky water, the smog-filled air hanging low and heavy around us. Our guide, up front on the rickety craft, began to pull up string nets full of mussels from below the plastic bottle floats. If he thought a mussel was large and mature enough enough he would extract it from the net and place it carefully in our bucket, until we had one shell for everyone. The world’s shortest boat trip was over soon after, and we floated between the rows of softdrink bottles all twenty metres back to shore.
Now for the good part. Our guide took a sharp knife and expertly split each huge slime-covered mussel shell in half. As the halves split open, we all released an involuntary ‘aah!’ for inside each shell were about twenty pearls, nestled inside the meat. And here was I thinking each oyster only ever contained a single pearl! Only in the good old days, apparently, or if you’re a saltwater oyster (oysters grow cultured sea pearls one a a time), but the freshwater pearl mussel (seen here) grows freshwater pearls in multitudes.

Now for the messy part. The pearls are embedded within the mussel and have to be ‘extracted’ by milking them out – birthing them – one by one. 

Initially a little reluctant, we eventually all got our hands dirty once we saw the beautiful shining pearls in our hands. 

In shades of dark cream through rose pink to an occasional mauve or purple pearl, our pearls were all sizes and shapes. Six shells yielded over a hundred pearls. Six shells also yielded quite a lot of mussel meat, which was kept in a separate dish and handed over to a local man, no doubt to take it away and stirfry it.

The pearls were packed into a ziplock bag with the help of yet another security guard, and then it was time to take the pearls to a vendor inside the market to have some jewelery made. From six shells you won’t get enough pearls for a string of perfectly matched 12mm shinies, but you will have plenty for numerous bracelets, a necklace or two and a few pairs of earrings.
The inside of the market is filled with rows of jewelery-making stalls and shops selling ready-made pearl jewelery. You simply choose a spot, and show them what you’d like made, with cost depending on the quality of the clasps and fixtures. Earrings start at 10 yuan a pair ($1.50) and bracelets at 15 yuan ($2) each. It’s not an expensive process, and there is no extra charge for bringing your own pearls.

Inside, we laid out our cleaned pearls and selected the best ones for each piece. Holes were drilled on the spot, to ready the pearls for stringing. Twenty minutes later and the jewelery making was complete. Holes drilled, pearls strung, clasps attached. Unbelievable. Next time you go to Suzhou, consider a side-trip to pick your own pearls. It’s quite wonderful.
Suzhou ‘China Pearls and Gems City’
288 Zhenzhuhu Lu, near Chenyang Lu
江苏省苏州市珍珠湖路288号+86 512 6540 1281 
Mussels 50 yuan each ($8) each, including boat ride and life jackets,all pearls are yours to keep.
Taxi fare: you will need to settle on a fare before you leave downtown Suzhou. We paid 100 yuan ($16) per hour per taxi, including waiting time at the pearl market (where there are no taxis). The total round trip, plus time collecting mussels and jewelery making, took 3.5 hours. 

Chinese Class: The Update

Thanks one and all for your comments, emails with suggestions on how to tackle Chinese characters, and general all-round supportiveness. You’ll be relieved to know that the rest of this week’s Chinese classes were not, on the whole, a fully-fledged disaster!

Joining Level 2.0 was like a breath of fresh air, and my classmates all smiled sympathetically when I told them I’d spent the whole previous day expanding my vocabulary in Level 4.4. The class is headed by Teacher Zhao, six months pregnant and her bump already so big she can’t bend over properly. Her black frizzy hair is a little on the unruly side, and sweeps down from her centre part then sticks out from both sides of her head like the gables on a roof, beneath which peeks her round and lovely face. She’s very encouraging and gives a lot of positive re-inforcement (a trait which may have been seriously lacking in that other class) and pleasingly has all her teeth so she’s quite easy to understand, compared to Teacher Butterfly.

Teacher Zhao speaks only in Chinese, peppering it with the occasional English word we may not otherwise understand (‘preposition’, for example). By applying just a normal amount of concentration and brainpower to the lessons, I can understand all that is said, answer questions, and even occasionally drift off into a daydream and come back to the right point in the lesson without too much trouble.

My class is like a miniature United Nations – a Swede, a Dane, an Austrian, a Columbian, a couple of Germans, an American, an Englishman, an Indonesian and an Australian – only twelve of us in all, which seems a perfect number for very relaxed learning. Even better, we are all at exactly the same level of speaking and listening skills, and after our first dialogue practice yesterday Teacher Zhao called us ‘all very excellent students’. From a Chinese teacher, (to whom praise does not come easily) that’s like awarding all of us the ‘student of the year’ prize. I don’t expect she’ll say it again this year….

Reading is taken by the diminutive Teacher Wang, who looks like a tiny bird, her hair pulled back in a bun and her tiny frame swamped by long black pantaloons and a Hello Kitty t-shirt enlivened with purple sparkles. She flits around the classroom and alights at a desk to ask a question, then flies off to the blackboard, where long, long ribbons of Chinese characters appear from the point of her pen. I like her very much.

Chinese Characters is the final lesson for the week, and today we met Teacher Zhou for the first time. Luckily for me, character lessons only occur twice a week, because that’s all my brain can cope with. I learnt the names of all the strokes today, the simple strokes, and the composite strokes, and the order in which they’re written, then we practiced three characters. I approach writing a new character like copying a circuit diagram, that is, I have no idea what goes where or in what order, and the end result may be benign or lethal, depending on where I’ve misplaced a dot or a dash. This class will be the most difficult by far for me, and I haven’t yet warmed to Teacher Zhou, who is very young but has seemingly already developed a completely hands-off approach to learning.

But you know what? I’m looking forward to next week. Better go out and buy a pencil case and some sharp pencils.

My First Day of University. It Didn’t Go Well.

It’s too late to back out now – today was my first day as a University student of Chinese. After two years of slogging through hours and hours of private lessons I decided it wasn’t enough to be able to speak Chinese, dammit, I wanted to read and write too.

My goals are very modest – I want to be able to read menus and recipes in Chinese. That’s it. I don’t want to be able to read Chinese novels. I have no desire to write long descriptive letters in Chinese. But if, at the wet market, I ask someone what that vegetable is, and they write down the name, it would be cool if I could read it. It would also be cool if, at a Chinese restaurant, I could avoid ordering things that look like beans on the picture menu but are actually eels. 
So last week I went to registration day to pay my fees, sit a chinese test and take possession of my textbooks. Now, having just spent the best part of six weeks away from China and not speaking Chinese, I expected the test to be pretty tricky. I walked into the testing room, all tense and anxious, and a young woman immediately put me at ease as she beckoned me over to sit in front of her. 
“Have you studied Chinese before?” she asked me (in Chinese of course). We had a short pleasant chat, she scribbled something on a piece of paper and handed it me. I assumed it was some instructions on which room to take the test in.

“Level 2.0” she said. 
“And the test?” I asked. 
“You just had it!” she told me. 
Oh man, if I knew that sitting having a chat was the test I would have tried a bit harder and concentrated more. Then her supervisor came in, a young lady in a very neat and shiny grey suit covered with embroidered flowers.
“How many Chinese characters do you know?” she asked me. Now, just for your general knowledge, the average Chinese person knows at least 5000 characters. You need 3000 to read the newspaper. Toddlers know around 500.
“Twenty or thirty” I said. She spilled her tea – just coming up to her lips – all over her shiny embroidered skirt.
It had always seemed an impossible task to learn Chinese characters, and most learners of Chinese have a definite preference for either the spoken or written language. I’m a speaker. You can’t shut me up and I will happily chat about nothing, everything, the weather, the government, why I like Chinese food, or why Shanghai taxi drivers are the best in China. But characters? Characters, to me, look like one long string of meaningless, but very attractive, squarish doodles. 
“Hmmm” she said, mopping at the tea on her skirt. The wide gap between my spoken and written Chinese was obviously going to be a problem. I could speak Chinese like….well…like a fifth grader. But I could only read Chinese as well as, say, a completely illiterate person. Would they bump me up, to suit my spoken Chinese? Or grade me down, to the level of my written Chinese? I kind of hoped it would be the latter, because I didn’t fancy my chances of learning a single thing in an advanced characters class. The supervisor launched into a long discussion with me, that I believe went something like this…
“Your spoken language lalalalalala written language lalalalalala class level lalala spoken language lalalala too difficult lalalalalalalala change at the end of the first week. How about that?”
“OK” I said, not really knowing what I just said OK to. I certainly didn’t want to lose face in the middle of an ongoing Chinese comprehension test. What I think she said was that she would place me in a class at the level of my written Chinese, because otherwise I would find it too difficult to keep up, but if that didn’t suit I could change at the end of the first week. OK? OK.
I arrived for my first class today at 8.20am, ten minutes earlier than I have ever been for anything. The School of International Education at Jiaotong University was already heaving with hundreds of students of all nationalities and ages, and I ran up the stairs to Room 405, where Level 2.0 Primary Intensive Reading – according to my schedule – was due to begin.
There were 25 desks in all, facing towards the teacher’s podium in a light, airy modern room looking over the nearby athletics oval. The teacher, an elderly man in a dark blue shirt printed with butterflies, had a round, kindly face, very little hair, and small crinkled eyes, and he was putting the final touches to a powerpoint presentation in Chinese. I noticed he had an old-fashioned hearing aid in his right ear, and he smiled at me as I walked in, revealing a mouth bereft of all but four teeth, three on the top, to the right, and a single snaggle tooth on the bottom, so that when he spoke his tongue found the gaps in his mouth and his words muffled. 
Taking a seat on the far side of the room, the desks began to fill – by the chatter I could tell there were some Korean students, a few Japanese, possibly an American or two, and several Russians. Other than myself and the teacher they were all under twenty five, and they looked serious. They had pencil cases. I dug around in my handbag and found a pencil with a novelty robot lid. It didn’t look very serious.
Teacher Butterfly began, without telling us his name (perhaps I missed it?). A wave of Chinese words washed over me, very fast. Very fast. I wondered when he was going to give the English version of his speech, but he didn’t – he just kept on speaking at a rapid-fire rate. Words and more words poured over my head, swirling around me. I understood almost nothing and felt a rising wave of panic as those near me relaxed back into their seats and listened. Through the jumbled confusion of the words  I concentrated harder than I’ve ever concentrated to work first through Teacher Butterfly’s muffled pronunciation, then to try and grasp a few individiual words. Lesson. Method. Class. Questions. Snatches of phrases began to materialise in my head. No English spoken. Class sizes. Then whole sentences occasionally rose to the surface of the flow of words. If you find it’s too hard, or even too easy, you can change class this Friday. This Friday? I had a major headache starting to pound after only forty minutes. How will I last four more days?
At a signal from Teacher Butterfly everyone took out their textbook. A textbook I don’t have. I looked around, but several others also didn’t have it. Perhaps they ran out? Perhaps I’m in the wrong class, I think. I become convinced of this when my neighbour opens her textbook for me to share and a dense sea of Chinese characters floats up off the page. Surely they wouldn’t put someone with twenty characters under their belt into a class like this? 
“Read the passage, then we will answer the questions on the next page.” says Teacher Butterfly. I can understand about 5% of the characters in the passage. America. China. Person. They. Country.
Teacher Butterfly flashes up a powerpoint slide with new vocabulary on it.
Descendent. Doubles and redoubles. Ancestral.  Foreign citizen of Chinese origin. Prestigious family.
Whoa. I am definitely, absolutely in the wrong class. This is way over my head. I ask my neighbour, a Russian girl, how much of the text she can read.

“Um…all of it…” she says, deadpan. Man, why is she so young and smart all of a sudden?
I rechecked my schedule. Bizarrely, it confirmed that this is the room I should be in for Lesson 1: Room 405. There must be a mistake. 
I struggled through the next hour, translating rapidly on my iPhone, taking pages of closely written notes, trying desperately to rewrite the characters Teacher Butterfly has scrawled on the board in a kind of Chinese running writing, where everything mashes together into a few fluid strokes. It’s hopeless, but I have learnt several new words that might come in useful one day – chái mén 柴门  ‘a woodcutter’s family’  and  jiăgŭwén甲骨文 ‘oracle bones’. If I ever write a Chinese novel about soothsayer woodcutters one day, those words are already memorised.

From what I understood of the lesson we seemed to be ranging from Han Dynasty history, through to ancient methods of divination, all the way through to differences in Chinese characters for copper and gold. I was terrified I would be asked a question, as Teacher Butterfly randomly picked names from his rollcall, but miraculously he never picked me. Everyone else in the room seemed to know exactly what was going on.

At the break, convinced of an error, I raced down four floors to the administration office to check my schedule, but there were already twenty other students waiting. More and more panicked I scanned the master schedule on the main noticeboard, all in Chinese. After 15 minutes of frantic and unsuccessful attempted translation I asked a fellow student for help. “There you go” she said. “Room 405.”

My shoulders slumped, defeated, and I walked back up four flights and took my place again in 405 for another 90 minutes of complete confusion. I realised I had completely misunderstood the supervisor on the day of the test. What she obviously said was “For your level of spoken Chinese we will put you in a class way beyond your level and see if you sink or swim. If you find it too difficult, too bad, you can’t change at the end of the week. OK?” She was getting me back for making her spill tea on her shiny skirt.

By now I was feeling desperately unhappy. Why had I chosen to sacrifice six months for nothing but hideous hard graft, when it was likely I would fail anyway? Why was I the only clueless student in a room full of Russian child geniuses? Despite my catastrophic thinking I had begun to sync with Teacher Butterfly’s rhythm, and I could now understand around half of everything he said. He talked about horses, concubines, turtles, shells, blind people (mángrén 盲人), the difference between odour and stinkiness, and the chinese word for a dog’s bark. Hugely useful vocabulary, especially the concubine stuff.

Ten minutes before the end of class I glanced across to the next desk. The Japanese student there had pulled her schedule out and it was resting casually on her books. It was completely different to mine. I looked around the room – three other timetables, all different to mine.

And then it dawned on me. I’m in the correct room. For Monday’s class. But today, dear people, is Tuesday. Yesterday was Mid-Autumn Festival, so no classes. And as it turns out, on Tuesdays I should be in Room 408 with the normal non-geniuses and regular guys. No doubt they’ve been wondering where the hell I am, a question I’ve been asking myself for the last three and a half excruciating hours.

“What class is this, actually?” I nonchalantly ask the Russian girl, as we stand to leave.

“This class? It’s Level 4.4, Highly Advanced Intensive Reading and Chinese Characters.”

“Thanks” I whisper. A wave of relief washes over my stupid, stupid head, and a phrase from the lesson comes back to me. It’s clear I was a mángrén mō xiàng 盲人摸象 – ‘a blind person feeling an elephant’ which is to say, I was unable to see the forest for the trees. Tomorrow, I’m sure, will be better…….

Please send some good vibes and words of encouragement because you know, I could sure do with some. Or a spare brain, if any of you have one handy. As I walked to the subway it suddenly struck me that there was a positive side to this debacle after all……I mean, I understood almost half of advanced Chinese 4.4…….at least the part about the woodcutters and the oracle bones. Tomorrow’s Chinese 2.0?  It’ll be a piece of cake.

Sweet Almond Jelly

What’s the loveliest thing to eat when it’s hot, steamy and humid outside? Summer is having a final gasp here, even though at times I think I can smell the first breaths of autumn on the early evening breeze.
When the weather’s close and humid like this I love to eat jelly, soft, slippery, cold and sweet. This recipe for Chinese almond jelly, flavoured with sweetened condensed milk, has a fresh and delicate flavour and takes all of five minutes to make. It calls for agar-agar, which you can find easily in Chinese food stores, and almond powder – more difficult to track down but almond essence can be substituted instead.  Once cold cut the jelly into little diamonds, pour over some coconut milk and eat it with fresh fruit and a dainty spoon. 
Sweet Almond Jelly  
Serves 6-8
  • 5g agar-agar strands
  • 500ml water
  • 100g white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon almond powder (substitute 1 tsp almond essence)
  • 4 desertspoons condensed milk
  • sliced fresh fruit and coconut milk to serve

  • heat water and add agar-agar strands, stir until dissolved
  • Add sugar, stir until dissolved
  • Add almond powder and condensed milk, stir to combine
  • Pour into a flat baking tray and refrigerate until firm
  • Slice diagonally into small diamond shapes and gently spoon out into a bowl
  • Serve with coconut cream or water and sliced fruit