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Monday, December 30, 2013

The prerequisite retrospective . . .

I rang in New Year 2013 with friends, but not with the special somebody I wanted to be with, and that sorta set a precedent for the rest of the year - a lot of time with my heart and soul in one place, my body in another and my head often missing in action. It hasn't been an easy year but, looking back, I've learned much from it and gained in the learning.

And now, as we prepare for 2014, I'm reasonably at peace. I won't spend this New Year with a special somebody either, but I will spend it with new friends, and that is pretty special. I'll also spend it in a new country that I am just beginning to scratch the surface of, for good and bad. And I'll spend it, as I did Christmas, connected via the interwebs to a huge network of friends, family, colleagues and fellow adventurers that make my world that much more exciting.

Two years ago, as I cooked a special New Year's meal for my intended, my plans for where I would be today were not where I am now. But that's always the way with plans, isn't it? The trick to enjoying life to its utmost, which I admit I forgot for a while this year, is to accept the blows life deals you, roll with them and bounce back up. Or even better, to use an aikido philosophy, accept the energy aimed against you, welcome it and redirect it.

So, no New year's resolutions, as I'm not a believer in them, just a choice to continue to look for the best in everything and treat myself and others the best I can. To continue to try to be kinder, more considerate and try have more empathy for others. And to ride this wild roller coaster called life as long and as well as I can.

May 2014 bring you all love, light and laughter, good friends, good health and peace. And for those of us who welcome such things, may it bring excitement, adventure and really wild things.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 20, 2013

and a pukeko in a ponga tree . . .

It's almost Christmas . . .

It won't by any means be my first Christmas away from home - I think I've only had one Christmas with the "right" weather in 10 or 12 years. That, for Antipodeans, means a day of scorching sun during which you laze at the most convenient gorgeous water hole, scoffing strawberries and cherries and fresh stone fruit, and possibly some cold glazed ham.

For most of my childhood, Christmas was spent at Eskdale River, where we would swim and play ball games and climb trees and gorge on fabulous food.

In Australia, the Brits would take over Bondi beach and everyone else in Sydney would find a quieter, cleaner piece of coast - luckily that's easy in Oz. But by that stage, I was working, mainly in restaurants, so I would offer to work Christmas so those with families could spend it with them. Tips were good and you're guaranteed a Christmas dinner when you work in a hotel, bar or restaurant.

I also offered to work Christmas when I returned home and fell into journalism. It was always an odd day to work as a reporter - half "Fluffy Bunny" stories and half tragedies that were more tragic because of the day. Christmas is always good for a couple of tragedies, if you look in the right places.

So I'm accustomed to not having a typical Christmas, but I seem to have formed a few traditions of my own along the way. In Dunedin, New Zealand, if I wasn't working at Christmas, friends and I would spend it at a favorite Chinese restaurant that served great (for Dunedin, NZ) dim sum.

There's some irony in remembering that this year, as I wonder where I can go for a meal that isn't Chinese, pizza or wings - the main choices in my immediate neighborhood.

In Korea, I experienced my first winter Christmas and my first white Christmas, and it was much more traditional. Ham, turkey, rare roast beef - all the trimmings. And eggnog - that's where I first encountered eggnog (I could make my own here, a great chef friend sent me a recipe, but I'm a little wary of imbibing raw eggs in China).

And I've adopted friends' seasonal traditions also. I've been scouring the Western marts for a piece of corned silverside because a dear friend's mother makes corned beef for New Year (and it makes great hash), and two years ago, I cooked it for the first time. That is now part of the season for me.

So, this year, my first in China, I'm interested to see what may become part of my own Christmas tradition. It definitely won't be a tree and gifts and children, but I plan for it to still be full of joy and wonder and appreciation.

And the gifts may not be wrapped, but instead at the other end of an international call or skype but. hey, if that's my Christmas, I will be thankful for it.

I hope you are all thankful for yours . . .

Friday, December 13, 2013

Have yourself a merry little Christmas . . .

Tis the season . . . 

The week before Christmas, when I was 17, my mother had just left an brief, ill-fated, ill-matched marriage and was living in rental accommodation two doors away from a gang headquarters with my younger brother and sister. 

Prior to the marriage, she had worked incredibly hard for many years, saved every cent she could and almost paid off the house we lived in. She cashed that in when she married, put it into her new relationship (it's a family trait to give your all to what you believe in) and, when it didn't work out, walked away with nothing financially (we're also fiercely proud).

I wasn't there at the time. I'd left home and left town and was pretending to be an independent adult in a city as far away as I could manage at the time. I don't know what she was thinking, because it was something we could never ask her about, but I imagine she felt she'd let us down, with Christmas fast approaching and not even a tree, let alone gifts. Decorating the house at Christmas had always been a big thing growing up.

That's only what I imagine, because I was hours away, until I got the call to come home.

Mum was in hospital, having tried to burn down the house with herself in it. She had, of course, put my younger brother and sister in a cab and sent them to my sister's before she did so. She always looked out for us before herself. 

She survived, was put into a psychiatric ward and didn't recognize us for months. Family and friends rallied round and found a new house for her, we did the best we could as children going through trauma but we also bumped and rubbed and abraded each other in the process. I think that we, the children, have forgiven each other for the blame that was thrown around recklessly at the time, but we were never really close before and have been less so since.

I believe we do try to understand each other, and why we are who we are.

So I know, firsthand, the pressure this time of year can put on people.

I also know the alternative . . .

That Christmas, and birthdays, and all the festivities and dates we celebrate are simply that - dates. That, yes, it's all marketing, and Christmas is just a date taken by the Christians from a pagan festivity to make it their own and then taken by corporations to make it their own, as with Thanksgiving, and Easter, and every other Hallmark Card occasion we are expected to celebrate (read: buy gifts). 

But, and this is a big BUT, they can also be reminders to truly celebrate the people who matter. 

How about we stop treating them as mandatory celebrations and start treating them as reminders?

"Hey, it's Christmas, have I told you how amazing you are?"

"It's your birthday, let's celebrate you being in the world and part of my life!"

Even, "I am so sorry you are gone, but I thank you for all you taught me and am happy I knew you."

We have options - we always have options.

The year my mother succeeded in ending her life (forgive me if I sound at all flippant here, I am anything but), she did so at the end of November. I couldn't face going home so instead went to stay with a dear friend in the US. She and her son were going to Chicago to visit her mother for Christmas and invited me along but I really wasn't up for a family Christmas. Another friend invited me to go to Seattle with him and his partner to spend time with his family. I wasn't up for that either.

Instead, I stayed in Alexandria and walked my friend's dogs and threw sticks in the snow and spent Christmas Day helping feed homeless people at the Washington Cathedral.

And learned, in the depth of my despair, a little gratitude. Learned that the most important thing isn't the gift or the wrapping, but the care and love that goes along with it. No matter who it is for . . .

This Christmas, I'm missing someone else from my life. And, as always when you truly care, sometimes it hurts so bad it seems unbearable.

But it's not. I'm alive, and by being alive I carry within me the lessons learned from my mother (who, by the way, was an incredible person, please don't misjudge that) and all those I have loved during my life, and I hope the painful parts have served to make me better understand the pain of others.

And the only presents I desire are those I already have - the love and friendship of those I love and care for, the care of friends and colleagues, the understanding of my family.

I will try to offer the same in return . . .

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Art of Breathing (continued) . . .

Beijing . . .

It brings to mind images of Tian'anmen Square, the Great Wall, Peking Duck and, increasingly, bad air. Really bad air. Air so bad that the air quality monitor on the Beijing Embassy has measured it some days as above 500, which was previously considered the top of the scale (an air quality index of 301 - 500 is considered hazardous).

The view from my apartment on a 'moderate' air day.

The most serious concern is particulates of less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM 2.5) as they are small enough to get into the lungs and blood stream. Air quality, or lack thereof, is a big factor for most foreign workers considering moving to China and a constant topic of conversation for all who live here, both locals and expats. The country is working to improve the air quality but that will take time. Ways to alleviate the problem until then are to use masks outside and air filters inside. The problem being, in this country where most things are cheaper than in Western countries, air filters are exorbitantly expensive.

Someone who noticed that earlier than me, and came up with a solution is Thomas Talhelm, who came to China last year on a Fulbright scholarship. Noticing that most commercial air filters cost from $600 - $1,200 or more, he started to look at how they were made and how they worked. Being a self-confessed data nerd, he bought a HEPA filter, strapped it to a fan he had modified, tested the results with a particle counter and published them on a blog called Particle Counting.

In a land known for reverse engineering, he reverse engineered expensive commercial filters and came up with a DIY solution for a fraction of the cost. He published the results and started giving workshops on how to make your own HEPA filter but also, after people told him they were having difficulty sourcing the materials, he and two friends (Anna Guo and Gus Tate) ordered the parts in bulk and selling the kits for 200 RMB - less than $33 at today's exchange rate. They will also ship them anywhere in China at no extra cost.

The three admit they are not experts in air pollution but present data and video of the effect the DIY filters have on PM2.5 and PM5 and, with my trusty Honeywell HEPA filter shorted out, I decided it was worth spending $33 to test the results myself.

And I am impressed. Since inadvertently killing my commercial filter, I'd been waking each morning with sore, streaming eyes and a sore throat - not good symptoms for an asthmatic with the worst of the pollution expected during the fast-approaching winter. Those symptoms disappeared the morning after I bought, assembled and set up my DIY filter and my breathing feels like it's improved even when I venture out into the often cruddy air.

My DIY Hepa filter and the dearly departed Honeywell it is replacing.

I have a fairly large apartment so will buy another one or two DIY filters to take me safely through winter's worst.

My next task, finding an effective mask I can bear to wear for when I venture out . . .

Friday, November 22, 2013

Don't Tip the Unicorns . . .

I know right, this was supposed to be the continuation of "The Art of Breathing," and I promise you that will come, probably, almost definitely tomorrow.

But . . . I've just had a fun, funny, playing with words chat with a friend that reminded me of who I am, where I come from, why I sometimes don't fit in and why I should stop trying so hard to do so.

In the course of things, her imaginary island and unicorns were mentioned (unicorns not being imaginary but hoping that humans are only a bad dream) and, she and I being wordsmiths and fools, we ended up with her asking me to pass her the unicorns and me telling her not to tip them.

Because, as I have been told often in Asia, if you tip the unicorns, waitresses, taxi drivers or any other creature that makes life easier for you, "you spoil it for the rest of us."

Do NOT tip the unicorns, just pass them my way . . .

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Art of Breathing . . .

Growing up in New Zealand, I never really thought about clean air - it was, literally, as natural as breathing. I suffered asthma as a child but, like many asthmatics, grew out of it and never thought about it again until I began traveling overseas.

During my first overseas sojourn, to Melbourne, Australia, I developed a nagging cold I just couldn't shake. Or that's what I thought, at least. When a doctor asked me to describe my symptoms, I said it felt like I was wheezing (my younger sister had more serious asthma so I was familiar with the symptoms), the doctor did some tests and told me I was correct. Unaccustomed as I was to the different pollens and histamines in Australia, my asthma had returned but wasn't more than a minor problem.

Until I moved to Asia, that is.

Seoul in 2001 was a shock to my system and I experienced my first asthma attack - a terrifying experience as I was not in the habit of carrying my inhaler with me. Tougher emissions controls and tighter regulations on industry mean Seoul's air is now much cleaner but I have taken maintenance medicine for my asthma almost every day since then. (The exceptions being because I hate the idea of ingesting any chemical daily so tried a few times to do without - before learning the hard way that I really need asthma meds to breathe in Asia.)

Obviously, considering China as my next place of employment meant considering many factors - salary, saving potential, travel and writing opportunities, relationship impact, lifestyle and living conditions. Top in the living conditions column was the quality of air, or, in China, lack thereof. I laughed it off, telling friends I would purchase air filters for each room, particularly as my utilities were being paid as part of my remuneration package. I was more concerned than I let on, however.

As I was right to be. The world media has been covering the pollution problem here and the stats are readily available and frightening, as are the photographs and first-person reports. The country IS doing what it can to alleviate a problem many developing countries have already experienced - London during the Industrial Revolution, Los Angeles and Chicago much more recently - but any solution must be multi-faceted and will take time. And is unlikely to happen in my time in country.

Not such a nice day in Beijing - the US Embassy lists the current air quality as 161 on a scale of 0-500, 0-50 being 'Good' and 301-500 being hazardous. ' "Unhealthy" AQI is 151 - 200. Everyone may begin to experience some adverse health effects, and members of the sensitive groups may experience more serious effects.'

So I turned to my first plan - air filters so at least my apartment would have clean air. I had a US-made filter in Seoul so shipped that to China and found a voltage converter for it but, in a moment of inattention, moved it from my bedroom to my study and plugged it in without the converter. Bye bye Honeywell HEPA filter, at least until I find an electrician who may be able to resurrect it.

With winter approaching and many warnings of how bad the air gets during winter, it was time to find a replacement. I started looking, and found the brands here ranged from 3,000-13,000 RMB ($500-2,100) or even higher, and started to consider having a friend ship one or two from the states.

Then I found the solution . . .

(To be continued, time to venture into the smog to go to the gym and the market - a mask will probably be my next line of defense)

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Apologies . . .

The Opening Up piece below had the wrong link, a result of housekeeping the blog while way too tired, but has now been corrected. My bad . . .

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Opening up . . .

I've spent the past week touring Hunan province on a very busy media tour so am a week late uploading this, but here is the second story I have written for China Daily, on a New Zealand practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine . . .

Friday, October 18, 2013

Market day . . .

With working a Sunday through Monday evening schedule at my current job, I get a virtual long weekend every week - Friday morning through Sunday afternoon when I need to be back in the office at 1630. It makes it possible to take mini-trips as I did to Seoul last month and plan to do to many more places, as in addition to everywhere in China I want to visit, there are many other fascinating countries within a few hour's flight.

When I stay in Beijing for the weekend, it becomes my nesting time, particularly as the days get shorter and cooler. A usual Friday routine has become to visit my favorite food market, Sanyuanli, to which I introduced a friend today.

Located just four bus stops and a short walk from where I live, Sanyuanli is my go-to place for my weekly stock of vegetables, herbs and herbal tea supplies and also has just about anything else one might require for cooking, including kitchenware at a few hardware stores at the rear of the market.

There are hundreds of stalls, of which I have found firm favorites to which I return each week, while also keeping an open eye for specialty items I might want. The front of the market is dedicated to fruit, all of which looks fabulous but most of which I can purchase at better prices elsewhere so I walk through there quickly, replying politely to greetings but not stopping to buy.

There is then a section with many imported products, plus teas, nuts, grains and spices. There is a tea store I also stop by, even if I'm not buying anything, as the sisters who run the stall are always friendly and welcoming and make me practice the little Chinese I have learned thus far. The younger sister (mei mei) speaks reasonably good English but seems to like to teach me new words in Chinese and I definitely need the help.

rice and grains
dried fruits and nuts

the tea shop
 Thanks to her, I now have a extensive selection of herbal teas that I mix and match to try new combinations, both hot and iced. She also has beautiful cardboard canisters she gives me to store them in (inside ziplock bags for freshness).

Just past the tea lady is the meat section, which my friend, who is basically vegetarian, found a little hard to take. She had to shield her eyes and run the gauntlet, while I find it rather fascinating. I haven't bought pork or beef there as I'm a little wary of both here (although I eat both when the canteen serves it so I admit I'm inconsistent), but there is a particular stall I frequent for chicken and am happy with in terms of both price and quality. I was even more reassured when I met a Chinese friend at the market on Saturday morning and found we both prefer the same chicken vendor. The seafood section is next, which seemed a little less disturbing for my friend, but I think she was glad to get through both.



Once past the dead creatures (tho some of the seafood is still alive), we come to my favorite part - the vegetable section. My first stop here is always an old lady who always has the most amazing fresh herbs - basil, mint, cilantro/coriander - plus other things not found most other places. She doesn't always have a huge selection but did this time, with fennel, witloof and rocket as well as more conventional lettuce and cabbage varieties, plus beets, potatoes and sweet potatoes (one of the sweet potato varieties here is just like kumara in New Zealand - which makes me happy). There's another stall that is primarily different varieties of tomatoes, and a couple of vendors who carry only mushrooms, both fresh and dried, in a wider range than I knew existed.

The produce is beautifully displayed and the stalls look like artworks.
bags of fresh basil and mint for only a dollar or two

a riot of color

Today's swag for me was fresh basil and mint, asparagus, bell pepper, radishes, tomatoes, red onion, ginger and garlic, a good grater and an electric mixer from the kitchenware store (winter = baking time), a large bottle of olive oil, some peanuts, dried lemon slices from the tea lady and a bag of mushrooms. A quick stop across the road at a liquor store scored me a bottle of Grant's whisky at a ridiculously inexpensive price (less than $US11.50) and I'm a happy gal.

A neighbor dropped off an organic cabbage, carrots and beet yesterday so for dinner, I poached a chicken fillet with ginger, garlic and lemongrass (tea), then sliced it and added it to shredded cabbage, grated carrot, finely sliced red onion, fresh basil, mint and crushed peanuts. I'm fighting off a cold right now (tho it could just be the crud in the air giving me a sore throat and snuffly nose) so plan to make a hot toddy tonight with lemon (dried and some fresh that my friend gave me), ginger and garlic steeped with a little lemongrass, with New Zealand honey, fresh mint and Grant's whisky added before sipping.

I do like my market day . . .

Friday, October 11, 2013

Opening up to the universe . . .

Depression . . .

It's a dark cloud that creeps up without you noticing until one day, you simply don't want to get out of bed, don't want to face the day, don't want to think any longer.

You look for ways to dull the pain, through medication, self-medication, distractions or entertainment - anything to stop the mind from dwelling on your failures and inadequacies, all the wrong choices you've made and people you've let down.

It's an unhappy place I've spent a lot of time in of late, not helped by being removed from my support networks, both physically through relocating to a new country and virtually by having no computer access outside of work. It reduced me to a shell of myself, neglecting friendships (sorry Tania and others), enduring my life rather than living it, losing my voice - all the while beating up on myself for being so weak, so self-absorbed to feel so sad when I have so much more than so many.

Thankfully, I am stubborn, even when depressed, and, as a survivor of a loved one's suicide, hold that as an absolute prohibition. So the morning I spent considering how to painlessly and conveniently end my life (not as easy as one might think, when one really thinks about it), was an all-bells alarm that I needed to deal with this.

But how?

I tried to access counseling, but finding the right person to talk to is difficult enough without adding in the cultural and language differences I face in another country. I tried to make friends but that's not easy when you feel you have nothing to offer and can't understand why anyone would want to be your friend. Fortunately, I have friends as stubborn as me who don't put up with that and who kept reminding me I am my own worst critic (as many of us are).

But, while doing these things, I also reverted to something I learned as an awkward, shy, constantly scared child - that if you act as if you're confident for long enough, you eventually gain confidence. So I tried doing the things that happy people do, in the hope some happiness would rub off.

And I found, as I often do, that the universe is waiting with gifts and life lessons when we take the time to listen.

My happy list was fairly simple, as most profound things are.

Looking after myself was top of the list. Good food wasn't a problem - I have long been a believer in that - but a drastic cutback on alcohol was definitely in order, particularly when I was using it as a way to avoid thinking or feeling.

Mindfulness was another - allowing myself to feel bad about bad things, but not allowing them to make me feel I was bad. Taking the time and focus to experience each day, good and bad, rather than simply getting through it.

Gratitude was intellectually easy, as I have traveled and seen enough of poverty and despair to realize how rich my life is, but being thankful in my head and my heart were two different things. But, like confidence, the more I practiced gratitude, the more real it felt. I've advised a young friend to make a list each day of what he has to be thankful for - I took my own advice and have started to feel truly thankful.

In with looking after myself was to exercise - something I've always tried to do but a habit I lost in the past year or so, which not coincidentally was when I started on my downward slope to depression. Having gotten back on track with that, I find myself working out not solely to lose/maintain weight as has long been my main reason, but because it makes me feel good. I've always wondered about the runner's high people talk about but have realized it's simply a result of letting our bodies do what they were designed to do, which is not sitting at a desk for upwards of eight hours a day.

As I said, the universe was waiting with tools to help me, when I became ready. A neighbor left the schedule to a yoga studio she had started attending and I joined, and now spend at least one class a week challenging my flexibility while calming my mind and feel blissed out afterward. The practice also makes me more aware of my body - how I sit, stand walk, what I feed it, how I relax. I'm eager to go to each class, and feel great for doing so.

I joined a gym and found the hardest exercise is stepping out my door to go there or finding time to do so. But I'm doing both. Again, it has made me more aware of this amazing machine of muscle and tissue I live in, and how what I ingest matters. It's much more tempting to drink chamomile tea after work than a glass of wine when I know I want to work out the next morning, and much more pleasant to do so. Having noticed the effect regular exercise was having on my mood (I found myself singing to myself last week, something I hadn't noticed I had stopped doing until I started again), I then found this TED talk by clinical neuroscientist Steve Ilardi, in which he states that 30 minutes of brisk walking three times a week has proved to be as effective as taking anti-depressants, while also enhancing cognitive functions. (Scary stats from the talk - one in five Americans takes a psychiatric drug every day, there has been a 300 percent increase in anti-depressant use in the last 20 years.)

I also, through my yoga studio, met a Chinese medicine practitioner I interviewed for an article (coming) who was leading a workshop on aligning the head and heart and sees herself as a seeker of happiness. (She has just released a book if anyone is interested in learning more, and I'll link my article when it is published.) I'm reading the book, in e-mail correspondence with the writer and learning from her experiences.

I'm not Miss Happy, by any means, but am definitely back to seeing the positive in life, not the drudgery. And I'm finding my voice again . . . 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Some Belated Balance . . .

I have long been an admirer of yoga but not a very successful practitioner. My first introduction to the practice was a class so physically intense and beyond my capabilities it put me off for many years. But many of my friends are yogis, and not only do they as a rule have strong supple bodies capable of contortions that amaze me, but most of them have a palpable sense of balance in the mental, emotional and spiritual parts of their lives, as well as the physical.

It's certainly no secret I could use more balance in my life, so I've continued, intermittently, to catch the yogic bug. I started classes again in Seoul shortly before leaving there for China but they still just didn't seem to suit.

But like any new skill, it all comes down to finding the right teachers. Which I've achieved here in Beijing, and I have to say I am hooked.

A friend who lives a floor down from me recommended the Yoga Yard in Sanlitun, an area that is a major expat hang-out in Beijing, and I noticed they had a weekend introductory class so signed up to check them out. Then signed up for a passel of courses and have been attending a 90 minute class Tuesday mornings since then, and feel quite out of sorts when the class isn't on (as happened last week because of the holiday schedule.

I joined a gym here also, as part of the "getting old, need more maintenance self-improvement plan" but can see me spending more time at yoga than doing cardio and weight work there. The teachers are amazing and guide the class seamlessly from one pose to another, with no two classes exactly the same, and do so in flawless English and Chinese. I can feel the muscles I use in the poses just as I would  from working in the gym but the experience is incredibly calming and grounding also. Mediation in movement would be the best way I can describe it and the center itself is a relaxing haven. I've found my safe place, and I even enjoy the 30-40 minute bus ride there on a double-decker bus, as I usually manage to take a front seat up top and watch daily life in Beijing, which is endlessly fascinating.

So, I've finally discovered yoga with teachers I like, trust and respect. I may not be balancing my whole body on one hand for some time yet, if ever, but it's definitely helping me balance the rest of life a little better.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Kiwi in the kitchen . . .

just a quick link to my first article for China Daily

I am astonished by the food level here - better than Korea, and I am not sure why that surprises me . . .

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Service will be resumed shortly . . .

The Kiwi has been quiet of late primarily because of technical problems - her computer became terminal and China doesn't exactly have Internet cafes on every corner. However, she hopes to be back in business next week with a spanking new computer and connection.

Watch this space . . .

Monday, August 5, 2013

A great day at The Great Wall . . .

The number one recommendation in the Lonely Planet guide to China is one most visitors also have at the top of their personal list – the Great Wall. On my first, very brief visit to Beijing close to a decade ago, I visited the wall, as do most tourists, I am sure. Alas, like many of those tourists, my visit was much less enjoyable than I had anticipated. My tour, again like many others, seemed more geared toward steering the tourist dollar to vast halls of souvenirs, jade factory outlets and Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners than to experiencing the man-made wonder that is the Wall. The LP guide has a first person tale of woe titled “Badaling Blues (or Journey to the Great Mall)” in which an 8-hour trip included a mere 75 minutes on the Wall, completely missed the Ming Tombs on the tour guide’s advice but managed to fit in two jade factories, a dried fruit and roast duck shop, and an exhibition on Tibetan culture where the writer was asked to sign a Buddhist talisman then belatedly told the cost.

My own tour years ago was similar except with different outlets and it’s well known the tour guides get a commission for the people they funnel through such places, particularly if they spend well. There was a video making the rounds of the Interwebs here last month that showed a tour guide aggressively berating his group at such a store because they weren’t spending enough.

If one wants to avoid such annoyances, it’s easy enough to take a bus to the Wall, though you’ll need to take a taxi or minibus for the last part of the journey so may have to negotiate that price once there. Or, for those who want comfort and control of their itinerary, there are plenty of taxi services or cars and drivers willing to take you wherever you wish to go. They’re easily found under services on the Web site

I’d decided to visit the Wall when a Kiwi friend came to visit, and she arrived Friday night. I had been in touch via e-mail with a driver I liked the sound of and ended up booking him to collect my friend from the airport also, as it was much simpler than her having to negotiate getting a taxi in a country and language she didn’t know, and the cost was about the same. It also meant I could work that day as her flight was due in shortly before I expected to finish work, meaning we could enjoy a full two-day weekend together before I needed to get back to work.

All of which went exactly as planned, and my friend was happy to have no hassles at this end after a 14-hour flight from Sydney. The driver sent me a text from the airport when they made contact and they arrived at the apartment/work complex 15 minutes after my part of the paper had been put to bed.

We’d decided to go to the Great Wall on her first Sunday here and I’d booked the driver for that, intending to visit the Mutianyu section and the Ming Tombs, which are on the way and often part of any tour to the Wall. My first time, I went to the Badaling section, which was very crowded and had very aggressive hawkers, plus stopped by the Ming Tombs without being overly impressed. Then, last week, I decided it was a little silly to take a car for only two so invited two friends to join us and, preferring hedonism to history, changed the Ming Tombs visit to a stop at a restaurant I’d heard wonderful things about, The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu.

Saturday we spent wandering a small part of the inner city, enjoying lunch at Xiao Wang’s Home Restaurant in Ritan Park (hot and sour soup, beef with coriander and asparagus grilled with garlic eaten on a patio overlooking the park), then strolling through the park before looking at the Alien’s Street market (in the heart of the Russian area where you’ll see more furs than you could imagine), picking up a few essentials at Jenny Lou’s - a grocery store with lots of imported goods - and looking through the Silk Market before taking the subway home tired and footsore.

Sunday dawned fine and hot, as was expected as the country endures a heatwave, though with the customary smog-filled sky. (There have been some beautifully clear skies since I have been here but I have come to learn they are the exception and the norm is the smog. Thus far, my asthma seems better than when I lived in Seoul but I’m sure the long-term health effects here must add up.) We breakfasted on fresh fruit and yogurt, filled a cooler bag with bottles of water we’d put in the freezer the night before, met my friends downstairs and found our driver waiting at the compound gate.

Less than an hour later, we had passed Beijing’s 6th Ring Road and were driving along picturesque tree-lined country roads, often bordered by streams and with camping grounds and makeshift pools dotted among the farmlands and occasional massive factory complexes. Roadside stalls all along the way sold fresh produce (it’s stone fruit season at present and there were also many cornfields along our route, with many stallkeepers grilling the cobs on the spot) and there were also a good number of “picking farms,” where I guess you could pick your own fruit. The further we got from the city, the clearer the air became and we fantasized about living in the country while knowing, just as clearly as China’s millions of migrant workers know, that the best money is to be made in the city, especially for us “foreign experts.”

Within about an hour and a half, we’d reached Mutianyu where the first things we noticed were a Subway/Baskin Robbins restaurant and a pizza outlet. I remember, back in 1993 when crossing the equator while sailing from Thailand to Kenya, I’d half expected to see a floating McDonald’s or Pizza Hut straddling the hemispheres – it’s probably even more likely these days.

My three friends decided they wanted to take the cable car up to the ridgeline on which we could see the wall and its Ming-dynasty guard houses, but I had been given a stout wooden walking staff the previous week by a colleague who was leaving to take a job in Melbourne (first traveling by trains from Beijing to London) and I wanted to walk to the Wall. Our driver, James, escorted us to the ticket booths, where we brought tickets according to our choices (45 yuan entry for everyone plus 60 for a one-way cable car ride for my friends). Another colleague had urged us to take the toboggan chute down from the Wall and we were told we could get tickets for that at the top.

My friends headed for the cable car and I started walking, and was instantly pleased I’d made the choice as the beginning of my path passed through a series of caves full of stunning stalagmite and stalactite structures. They were not part of the Great Wall pathway itself but came before the entrance, as did several exhibition halls of similar natural sculptures plus various quartz formations and fossils. I would never had known they were there without choosing to walk.

An amazing fossil - I took this just before being told, "No photos" - a common occurrence

I was also sending photos and texts to a friend in the U.S. as I explored, which caused me to feel a little conflicted about the ubiquitous role of the Internet in our lives these days (a little less ubiquitous here where we have the Great Firewall of China, but never too far away, regardless). On one hand, it was great to be able to share some of the experience and the stunning scenery with a friend far away who may never see it in person (and who amused me highly by asking what was on the ridgeline after I’d said I was on my way to the Great Wall), on the other I wondered if I was removing myself from the immediacy of the experience by framing it for someone else’s eyes. I guess, as a writer, I tend to do that most of the time anyway, and my compromise was to put away the phone once I began my ascent proper, apart from using the camera to take photos (I’d left my camera in the car). 

"Beautiful scenery, what is on top of the ridge?"
The Great Wall of China, d-oh."

The walk was enjoyable and I was pleased to see how clean the pathways were, kept that way by workers I saw along the way sweeping and tidying and, I hope, also by the frequent trashcans along the way and exhortations to keep the environment clean. The first part of the path I took consisted of several flights of very steep steps that quickly got my heart rate up and having the Hari Raj stick (so named for the colleague who bequeathed it to me) made the climb much easier.

Once atop the wall itself, I headed in the direction I thought the cable car would terminate and walked up and down several sections as they undulated along the ridgeline, interrupted every so often with guard towers that looked out over the mountains on either side. Having passed two guard towers, I looked back to see a cable car behind me so retraced my steps, then saw when I’d gone another two towers past my starting point that the large cable car was in the direction I’d first thought. So, back up and down and down and up again, til I met my friends and turned around again to head to where the toboggan chute originated. By this time, we’d been on the Wall a couple of hours and were getting hungry so decided to head back down and meet our driver.

Vendors atop the Wall encouraged walkers to buy cold water, beer, ice blocks or souvenirs, all of which they’d ferried up earlier in the day. (A local I talked with while my friends were having name stamps carved once back below said they carried them up rather than take the cable car as the cable car cost would have wiped out a good deal of profit). I have two friends who collect fridge magnets so bought them each a Great Wall magnet from the Great Wall.

We then bought tickets from the Beijing Mutianyu Great Wall Speed Chute Amusement Co. Ltd. (60 yuan), boarded our toboggans, had the braking mechanism explained, were told to keep our distance from the toboggan in front and to lean into the corners. I left some time and distance between me and the toboggan before mine so I could test the speed without having to worry about bumping my friend but, even with the brake fully released, there was little danger of flying out of the chute. I quickly gained on my friends who were stuck behind a woman who shouldn’t have been allowed the controls of anything faster than a supermarket trolley and we all had to ride our brakes to keep to her sedate speed. It was fun, but I’d probably have been just as happy walking down by a different trail.

Once back near the entrance, I took my friends to explore the waterfall cave, which would be a shame to miss but wasn’t obvious unless you knew it was there or stumbled across it, as I had.

Back to the car and a 5-10 minute drive and we arrived at The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu. I’d been intrigued by this place since I’d seen an advertisement for weekend grills there with live jazz in the evening and did a little research. It turns out it’s a restaurant in an old schoolhouse attached to an eco-retreat where much of the restaurant’s food is grown. Slow food, locally sourced produce, environmentally aware and, I’d read, wonderful meals, attracted me much more than the tombs of some ancient Ming Emperors.

I made a good call. 

We asked for an outdoor rooftop table and sat down to school-paper placemats and crayons with which to draw on them and were given menus with covers made of previous diners’ drawings. The major difficulty was deciding what to eat as everything looked so good but the two friends who also live in Beijing and I had decided by now that we would return to Mutianyu each season to see how it changed so we would have at least three more chances to sample the Schoolhouse’s menu while doing so.

I chose the salad of the day – fresh greens with smoked duck breast – my Kiwi friend chose a burger and surprised our American friends by NOT wanting it with cheese (gasp!) or bacon (horror!) and the others ordered grilled duck breast with polenta fries and mushroom risotto with a duck confit. Nachos and a tasty home-made salsa full of fresh coriander were brought as a complimentary appetizer and roast garlic in oil and balsamic served with tiny rolls came with the mains. My salad was excellent and my friends ate every bite of their dishes also but enjoyed them too much to offer to share. Two of us finished with affogatos while the others shared a thick coffee-caramel milkshake for dessert. 

I’d noticed a gallery downstairs and a sign saying there would be a glass-blowing demonstration so we took our unfinished drinks and headed down there in time to get seats front and center and were treated to an artist at work. The gaffer (glass-blower) started in the industry at age 17 and has been working at the art for 17 years now and was both extremely skilled and a relaxed performer. He explained to the audience each step of the way and his assistant, a young American from Rhode Island, and an English-speaking Chinese staff member did the same for us English-speakers. It was fascinating to watch a blob of glass be transformed into a beautiful vase that needed another 20 hours of slow cooling in an annealing kiln before being able to be handled. To demonstrate how hot the completed work was, the artist put a piece of newspaper inside it, which quickly burst into flame. 

My friend bought a beautiful art sculpture of lovebirds to take home with her and many others in the audience bought items from the gallery I was tempted by some of the hand-blown glassware but suspected I would only break them and then be heart-broken to have done so.

I had wanted to look at the accommodation while there but the Maitre ‘d explained it was in an adjacent village so I will return another time to check that out. Instead, we rejoined our driver for our return trip, by which the roads had become much more busy and we had one nervous encounter with a bus trying to edge us out on one side while a cement mixer barreled down on us at speed on the other. I’m sometimes happy to have become almost blase to such driving in the years I’ve spent in Asia.

As for our driver, we were very happy with his driving, his attitude and his company and the cost of hiring him for 10 hours, including tolls, fuel and parking was less than $US100. I will happily use the service again. 

Back home, we rested a few hours before regrouping at my apartment for Thai Green Curry Chicken and a salad, after which we all called it an early night.

I look forward to returning to both the Great Wall and the Schoolhouse in autumn to experience the beauty of the trees changing color, then going back again in winter when it’s snow covered and in spring when it bursts back to life.And, of course, enjoying the seasonal specials at the restaurant.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Future Adventures, Part V . . .

It's been a reasonably quiet month as I settled into the job and neighborhood a little more. I did walk to the Lama Temple to take photos one morning but otherwise have avoided exploring overly much as the air hasn't looked very inviting.

My first guest helped me sort out what I need to be an adequate host and a dear friend, the Divine Ms. T, arrives Friday for a 10-day visit, during which we plan to visit the Great Wall (in a heatwave, no less, but will take plenty of water), see Cirque du Soleil, go to lots of markets and other tourist spots and eat great food. She also plans a trip to Henan to see the Shaolin Temple and the Longmen Grottoes - my weekends are already booked while she is here so I can't accompany her but I'm trying to talk other friends into visiting so we can do that at a later time. It sounds great - an overnight train trip, a driver/guide for a full day in Henan then back to Beijing on another overnight train.

Other friends from Jeju Island will also be passing through town during the next two weeks so I hope to see them also.

Which means I'd best finish up the Lonely Planet recommended Top 30 Experiences before venturing out to compile my own list.

26. Pingyao, Shanxi

This walled town is yet another of China's entry's on UNESCO's World Heritage List. (There are 45 sites on the list, so I'm not too surprised many of the LP picks are there.)

Unesco says it is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a traditional Han Chinese city, LP says there's not another city in China like it. I may need a few more reasons to put it on my travel plan.

27. Hiking in Jiuzhaigou National Park, Sichuan

Another Unesco site, would you believe, with a number of endangered species, including the Giant Panda. It certainly looks beautiful, as seen in the photo gallery with this National Geographic article (you need to join to see the full article but there is no fee). Even better, since 2009, eco-tours have been available to take you off the the tourist filled boardwalks. I prefer to hike without a guide but in a country as populous as this, appreciate the need to have a monitor in such a place.

I'll go here if I have the time.

28. Chinese Acrobatics

This is one of the suggestions I can take or leave, primarily because it's possible to see outside of China as well. There is a well-known theater not far from me so I may end up going there at some stage,  but it's not on my must-see list. Perhaps the LP writers were getting a little tired at this point.

29. Cruising up Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong

I love Hong Kong, but I don't necessarily need to visit it from Beijing, and it may be easier to do so from elsewhere. I've visited there a few times and am sure to do so again so don't need to try to fit it into my time working here (if only work didn't get in the way of my holidays so often).

30. Beijing's Hutong

These narrow alleyways can be found in much of inner Beijing and range from crowded shantytowns, many of which are due to be torn down and replaced, to upmarket areas with bars, businesses and eating places in teh restored one-story houses. Many expats choose to live in the hutong and a friend who has been here some time has promised to take me exploring those near where she lives.

So that's it - the LP recommendations perused, considered, accepted, rejected or put in the, "If I have time" file.

Stay tuned for more on the adventure as it happens . . .

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Paying it forward. . .

I have my first guest staying at the Beijing apartment (I need to learn the equivalent of “me casa” in Putonghua) and it’s been fun so far. He’s a very intelligent son of friends who is on summer break from his US university and spending it in China. (His Dad is a journalist in Shanghai, and the son studies Mandarin so China is a very intelligent decision for him to make.)

I’d never met the First Guest before the subway stop meet, but have already had fascinating conversations on the United States, China, the world at large, how they interact and how much the citizens of the various countries are willing (or not) to go outside of their comfort zones to complain about things they disapprove of.

So, a very welcome and insightful guest, and I thank you for lending him to me First Guest’s dad. (I give most real people titles on my site as I don’t consider it fair to invade their privacy just because the have the misfortune to know a writer. Of course, if someone really pisses me off, right to privacy be damned – I’ll probably name and shame them then sell their details to ID bandits. Thankfully, nobody has ever annoyed me to that extent.)

Back to the First Guest, who has proved to be a perfect and entertaining guest. He would have been welcome regardless, but it’s refreshing to find he’s someone I would choose to know and converse with. I have traveled much of the world being looked after by friends of friends. My last major indulgence was three months and 6,000 miles on a best friend’s motorcycle on a roundabout tour of the United States, every night of which was spent staying with other friends, or friends of friends. That is something that should, and must, be paid forward. I owe those people much more than I have repaid yet, but have them in mind always in my travels and seek things they would most like to send them. (A warning, you there in Byron, Ar-Kansas – one day there will be a “Knock, Knock, Mo-Fo” at your door, and you KNOW what you’ll be answering it to . . . )

So, I’m hosting my first visitor and practicing for the arrival of the amazing Ms. T next week, and doing okay, it seems. And then I did a damn fool thing, which close friends of mine will not be surprised by, as it’s a regular occurrence. I lost my wallet.

I think the problem is, I don’t really like owning things, because then things begin owning you. So I divest myself of them whenever I can and see what comes back to find me. My long-suffering friends all know this and have trained/bludgeoned me into checking in regularly to let them know I’m okay when I go off the grid – I’ve also convinced them of my aptitude at survival. But I definitely get anxious around possessions that start to matter too much to me. One of the reasons I travel so much is because the moment I feel secure and the place/job/relationship doesn’t challenge me or teach me any more, the instant in which I feel content and think “I could stay here forever,” I realize I won’t be there much longer. The gypsy gene kicks in and sabotages the plan. White picket fences? it asks, let’s see how good a bonfire they can make!

I’m new in China, I speak barely a lick of the language, don’t understand the culture and am just learning the country through my job on the major paper here. Which, being a newspaper, mainly covers bad news stories of crime and corruption. So I gave up hope the moment I realized it was missing, and started making lists of what needed to be replaced, canceled or done without. Thankfully, I’d learned from my last lost wallet episode and don’t keep unnecessary things with me anymore.

I then got a call from one of the amazing admin staff we have here, to tell me a store had found my “parcel.” The “store” manager (it turned out to be a restaurant) had found my health insurance card, called the insurance company, been directed to the admin officer and she had called me. Not bad for a Saturday when nobody is working.

I collected the wallet, with everything intact, which had been found outside the restaurant where my taxi dropped me and I paid and got out. All my cards, all my money, were there (I gave most of the money to the restaurant manager as a thank you).

Thank you also instant Karma, thank you Kharmic credits, thank you to all those who pay it forward. Thank you God, extremely hard-working guardian angel and universe.

I appreciate you all . . . 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Future Adventures, Part IV . . .

I've been in China almost a month now and have not yet been out of Beijing, as there is so much for me to explore here and much to learn in case of the day-to-day logistics of life. I got to the courtyard outside the Forbidden City - No. 3 on the Lonely Planet's guide to China I am taking these "30 Top Experiences" from, and will wait for my fabulous wahine toa (woman warrior in Te Reo Maori) friend to visit early next month to explore the Palace Museum, which is what they call the inner city.

With my work schedule being night shifts Sunday through Thursday and a 1700 start on Sundays, I almost have a three-day weekend each week so, from next month, will plan at least one mini-trip each month. My first, in August, will be back to Seoul rather than traveling here in China as there are a few loose ends I need to tie up there and people to see.

But, on with the Lonely Planet recommendations:

21. Labrang Monastery, Xiahe, Gansu

From Lonely Planet:
"If you can't make it to Tibet, visit this more accessible part of the historic Tibetan region of Amdo in Gansu. One moment you are in Han China, the next you are virtually in Tibet."
There is a Monlam (Great Prayer) Festival in the Tibetan New Year, which will be early March next year and seems an ideal time to visit, so I have time to decide on this one.

22. Dunhuang, Gansu

Also in Gansu but a long way from Xiahe and the Labrang Monastery, Dunhuang was a major stop and natural staging post on the Silk Road. Also known as Sha Zhou, or the city of sands, Dunhuang is an oasis on the edge of stunning desertscapes. Images online show the city and Crescent Lake nestled among soaring sand dunes and caravans of people on camels traversing the desert.

An added extra is the Magoa Caves, also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, one of the greatest repositories of Buddhist art anywhere, and the lesser-visited Western Thousand Buddha Caves, that are excavated out of the cliffs. 

There is an airport at Dunhuang and I can't resist the idea of being part of a camel caravan so I think this one makes the "to do" list.

23. Cycling Yangshuo, Guanxi

Guanxi is also home to the Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces, where I definitely intend to go, and the two are reasonably close. A recommended half-day trip is to board a bamboo raft with bike from Yangshuo to Xingping (15 km) then cycle back south, crossing the Li River by ferry just past Fuli then again by bridge just out of Yangshuo.

That sounds a great mini-trip to combine with the rice terraces -- I just need to research the best time of year to do so. There's an airport near Guilin, which is about midway between the two sites.

24. Mt Kailash, Western Tibet

Mount Kailash is not only considered sacred to four religions (Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and the shamanic Bon-po) but is the source of four major Asian rivers -- the Indus, the Sutlej (a tributary of the Indus), the Brahmaputra and the Karnali (a major tributary of the Ganges).

Buddhists believe a "kora," or pilgrimage around the mountain (three days is the recommended time for travelers but most Tibetans complete it in a 15-hour day), can atone for the sins of a lifetime. (I wonder if that includes sins not yet committed?) Others simply believe the journey will bring good fortune.

Interestingly, Lonely Planet says nomad tents along the walk provide beer as well as other snacks and beverages -- I can see this becoming a Tibetan adventure reminiscent of "The Way," although the ashes will be metaphorical ones of my many sins.

I may have to do this one.

Nos 26 through 30 still to come . . .

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Being strong (take 2) . . .

I received a response to a recent post from a person very dear to me, which commented on how strong I am, and feel the need to respond.

Because, unfortunately, this has become the medium on which we communicate, while he ministers to someone who presents herself as not strong but with whom I have very much in common.

I’m not strong, but I’ve been an actor so I can easily appear to be. Cut me, I bleed; hurt me, I bruise; break my heart, it breaks.


I watched my mother be cut, hurt and bruised by the world, and eventually broken, and I vowed never to have that happen to me. (Apologies to siblings and family, I know we don’t talk about this, but I’m a writer, so that’s what I do.)

I remember coming home at around age 8, and there was an ambulance outside my house loading my mother inside. She had locked the door to the bathroom and slit her wrists in the bathtub. The first responders put my brother (age 10) through the bathroom window to unlock the door – I’ll forgive him anything for that.

The Aunties rallied, as they do, and took us away. I had already seen the bathroom covered in blood, but when they told me my mother was in hospital with flu, I believed it. We were very good at keeping secrets in my family.

Mum came home, life went back to as normal as our life ever was, but her suicide attempts continued. She was an amazing woman who didn’t get that fact. She was also part of the generation that grew up being told being Maori was something to be ashamed of, and she took that on board. Wrong place, wrong time for her – as I travel, I wish she were with me often.

She isn’t.

I was teaching a morning business class in Korea when I answered a call from a brother I barely spoke to. “Mum’s passed,” he said. (For the record, I hate that term – what did she pass? Her university exam? Kidney stones?) He was telling me she was dead, at her own hand. I dismissed my class, went home, then went to the United States to stay with a dear friend and not talk for three months (significant, if you know me). I was too angry with my mother to go home for the funeral, others in the family are still angry at me that I didn’t. I also needed to deal with my guilt at the relief I felt that the regular crises were finally over.

Not that something like that is ever truly over as it leaves scars on all those who remain behind.

So, no, I’m not strong. I am stubborn though, and probably brave (defining bravery as being scared of what life might put in your path but forging ahead anyway). I have seen and experienced some of the worst the world can do (I’m not for a moment comparing my experience to the worst the world can do, but I’m also not sharing the worst of my experiences here), I’ve seen it break a wonderful woman, and I vowed at an early age I would not allow it to do that to me.

It won’t. That doesn’t mean I don’t bruise, bleed and hurt. But I will endure.

I’ve also seen and experienced how wonderful the world can be. I never forget that. I only wish I could have shared that with my mother.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Tea and Sympathy . . .

It's the rainy season here in North China, although South China is experiencing a heat wave and droughts, and I woke this morning to another day of constant rain. I was tempted to have a lazy day and stay indoors but broke the top of my glass teapot so decided to venture to Sihui market again to buy a replacement and stock up on some tea. Sihui is a huge market that has it all, including a meat market, a tea market, spices, clothing and household goods, and seems to be a supplier to hotels and restaurants as well as the individuals who go there. I went there last week to purchase linens and bath mats for my apartment and left with a teapot also that was exactly what I'd been looking for at a fraction of the price I'd seen elsewhere (25 kwai rather than 200 and up). At that price, I didn't mind making the trip to replace it.

The shopkeeper recognized me from last week, which probably isn't too surprising as I didn't see another foreign face on either trip, so poured me a small glass cup of green tea (the cup was almost a shot size, but far more elegant) and gestured for me to sit down. Again not surprisingly, she had next to no English and my Putonghua is still non-existent (I keep answering in Korean by accident) so our transaction was conducted mainly in mime, with a few quick looks at my phrase book or referral to my Pleco app. But we got along swimmingly.

I wanted to buy some loose tea as well, and had established last week that she didn't stock chamomile, so I settled on chrysanthemum, of which she had several different types, sorted according to the age and quality of the flowers. I chose some small, high-quality flowers and she told me the price per kilo. A kilo is a lot of tea but, as I said, these markets deal with a lot of wholesale customers. She understood the English for half, but not quarter, so we settled on half-half and she showed me the .25 weight on her scales as she scooped it into a bag for me. She then offered another flower I have yet to work out (the name sounded like huanggang but huang simply means yellow so I'll look more carefully at it once I return home). I wasn't sure so she brewed a pot of the two mixed for me to taste.

And introduced me to the Art of Tea - a serious business in China.

Having read about the Art of Tea on a friend's blog, I already knew brewing tea was an act of ceremony and it was here also, even though performed in a brisker fashion for this laowai. The flowers were placed in a pot and hot water added, then the first brew was poured out on the tea pets.

The tea tray, with tea pets in front left corner

Yes, I said tea pets.

As explained in Brian's blog:

A tea pet symbolises wealth and fortune and is basically a small work of art made of different kinds of clay, just like the tea pots, and is normally placed on a tea tray. During the ceremony, tea is poured over them and over time they darken and mature into …errr… darker and more mature – and even coloured and shiny – tea pets! (I told you it was messy!) Many people have large collections of them. A popular type is Jinchan (a type of three-legged toad, which is said to be able to spit out money - perhaps because it sounds like jinqian - meaning money!

Being an animal lover, I was happy to meet some tea pets myself.

She then refilled the pot, let it sit a little, then poured me a  cup of the tea, which did taste much better than chrysanthemum on its own. She then explained, mainly with gestures and examples, that if I refilled the water more than three times, I should remove or replace the yellow flowers after the third time. And, because I had explained when I arrived that I had broken the lid of last week's teapot, she also told me to hold the top on when I poured my tea. I shall obey both directions faithfully.

I bought 250 grams of the yellow flowers also, paid and thanked her and headed home with a quick stop at the spice store for a large tub of Tom Yum paste.

I could easily start collecting teapots living here.

Another successful mission in The China Project . . .

NB: "Tea and Sympathy" is one of my favorite Janis Ian songs, of which the lyrics are particularly meaningful to me right now.