Maocai, delicious Chinese food

China is famed for its cuisine, I’d imagine only India and Italy rival it for popularity worldwide. I personally couldn’t choose between the three! Of course, one of the best things about living in China was eating authentic Chinese food – at ridiculously cheap prices. At times it was hard to find things as a vegetarian, there were no menus stating what I could like I’m used to in the UK. We’re spoilt. I would usually reject any food that’s been in contact with meat but I couldn’t live by this rule in China. I’m sure I ate things cooked in meat stock – I picked at noodles that had been ordered with pork (despite me specifically asking the local to pass on my message to the chef for NO meat). Safe to say, it wasn’t always plain sailing…

Sichuan food has a reputation for its spice, they cook with the Sichuan pepper. This ingredient creates a weird numbing sensation. Sichuan food was great, perhaps the most disappointing meal was the hot pot. Everyone asked ‘have you tried the hot pot?’, they’re obviously very proud of it. In my opinion, it’s nothing special, our particular favourite dish was similar but much better – ‘Maocai’. You pick your own ingredients, normally different types of meat as well as vegs – of course I just went for veg and tofu, they had so many types of tofu. The chef then cooks the ingredients together in a big vat and pours on the spicy stock. It is delicious! I’m not sure the photo does it justice but you get an idea.

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We had it a least twice a week, it was becoming an addiction. To feed the cravings we found a restaurant in London that offered Maocai but, sadly,  they couldn’t confirm it was vegetarian. As tempted as I was I couldn’t use the ‘well I’ll starve otherwise!’ excuse this time. London is a bit different to a Chengdu suburb! I had to order another Sichuan dish – Mapo tofu. Also delicious to be fair.

If anyone plans to do a trip to China – don’t just visit Shanghai and Beijing, venture over to the west and try the incredible food from this region. I miss it everyday!

3 WEEKS UNTIL CUBA

The trip to Cuba is happening very shortly, at the moment this is the plan for our 17 days there:

  • Havana
  • Vinales
  • Santa Clara
  • Trinidad
  • Cienfuegos
  • Playa Giron
  • Havana

These are things I absolutely must do:

  • Smoke a cigar while drinking a mojito
  • Ride in a ’50s car
  • Snorkel(scuba dive if I’m feeling brave)
  • Learn about the revolution, see Che’s mausoleum
  • Practice my Spanish with a local or two

If you’ve been to Cuba and can give me any last-minute suggestions or tips – don’t hesitate!

 

Chongqing, China

If someone asked you to name China’s big cities, you’d probably name the ones towards the coasts – Shanghai and Beijing in the east, Hong Kong and Guangzhou in the south. The west of the country is less densely populated but there are two giants that you won’t find anywhere near the sea – Chengdu and Chongqing. Chongqing will be the topic of today. It’s a city I had never heard of before arriving in China. If I remember rightly, Chongqing used to belong to Sichuan province until it became its own area, it’s now one of only four cities directly under the control of the national government. About 30 million people live in the Chongqing area.

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One of the ‘things to see’ in Chongqing is the Liberation Monument, located in the middle of the city’s business and shopping district. The skyscrapers make it look tiny but apparently it was the city’s tallest building back in the day. The monument was originally built to commemorate the Second World War in 1945. This changed a few years later to commemorate another huge event in recent Chinese history – Mao’s revolution. As the photo might indicate, it’s not the most awe-inspiring thing in the world.

The next tourist attraction we visited was the ‘Ciqikou’ old town. The Chinese like to recreate aspects from their long past, we came across a few ancient towns during our time there and they’re pretty much the same thing. You’ll find the ‘typical Chinese’ architecture with market stalls. Chongqing is famous for its spicy hot pot so we bought something containing chili peppers, thinking it would be interesting to try and it looks appetising. We, stupid foreigners, didn’t realise it was meant to be used as a kind of giant stock cube… I started biting into it and a couple of women started laughing at me. It rained while we were walking the streets of the old town so we stopped for a well-presented and expensive tea.

One of the reasons I wanted to visit Chongqing was to see the Yangtze river, it’s one of the longest and most famous rivers in the world and I was expecting to see something quite amazing. In hindsight, it’s just a lot of water so I don’t really know what I was hoping for. The water was brown and the sky was dark (with pollution probably), it wasn’t the image I had in mind. We crossed it on a cable car which showed off the skyline well.

The highlight of the trip happened by pure coincidence. In China we were on a teaching programme and there were about 80 teachers, the majority of us were based in Chengdu but some were sent to Chongqing. While we were walking around on the first night we bumped into some of the others who lived there – remember the size of this city – they invited us to watch a football match. Chengdu doesn’t have a team at the moment so Chongqing were our ‘local’ team – of course I was up for going! I even bought myself a counterfeit replica shirt. Who said it was Asian tourists turning up at our games? It’s European tourists invading Chinese league games! ‘We’ played one of the Shanghai clubs who had an ex-Chelsea player in their side, I think we lost…

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To be honest, I didn’t love Chongqing and I felt lucky we’d been given a place in Chengdu instead. The city seemed vast and industrial, the sky was always grey – even by Chinese standards – the buildings were huge but not beautifully-designed. It almost felt oppressive. I doubt it would be on many itineraries, for good reason. It’s probably one of the few places I wouldn’t go back to in China.

The Giant Buddha, Leshan, China

It’s time to start writing about China. In 2016 I lived in China for almost 6 months, February to July. It was my first experience living in another country, actually… it was my first real experience living independently away from mum and dad. And what an experience it was! All the cliches are about to come out here: China is really like nowhere else I’ve visited – I had photos taken of me because I’m blonde and pale. I’ve never felt like a celebrity before! It was surreal. I urge you to visit the People’s Republic of China, the culture shock might be very real but it’s worth it. The photos do wonders for your ego! In regards to China, so far I’ve only written a post about the Great Wall. How typical. I’m not disparaging it(did I use that word correctly?) but everyone who visits China will visit it – for good reason, it’s amazing, iconic, ancient and so on.  But now I want to talk about something a little less famous, in this post I am going to talk about…
the Giant Buddha of Leshan.

Leshan is a city near to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. We lived in a suburb of Chengdu, probably the biggest city nobody seems to have heard of. 14 million people call Chengdu home! I am looking forward to blogging about my old home, it was my favourite Chinese city. Of course, I’m very impartial! We managed to do a few ‘local’ trips whilst there. (Local includes 10 hour coach journeys, btw). In May we took the high speed train for a little day trip to a local attraction, the bloody big Buddha! He’s been impressing people for over a millennium. Apparently he took 90 years to complete, work finally finished in 803. He’s aged well! I think the detail is pretty incredible when the age is taken into consideration. 1000 years of wear and tear on top of the lack of modern technology. Round of applause for the workers!

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To be honest, if I was visiting Chengdu/Sichuan for only a few days as part of a trip to China, I wouldn’t recommend visiting the Buddha. I am glad I did it but we had the luxury of living there. No doubt about it, he’s impressive and the local grounds and very peaceful. However, there are better things to see and do in this part of China. Unless he holds some sacred significance to you, I wouldn’t call it a must-do. It’s a 7/10 kinda thing. You’ll be able to say you’ve seen the biggest Buddha statute in the world… but I doubt that’s on your bucket list. I’ll end by saying that I strongly urge anyone planning a trip to China to visit Sichuan though, I’ll write more about ‘my’ province soon.

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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

I’m finally writing about Kuala Lumpur which means I’m finally finishing the southeast Asia trip from 2015… better late than never! So let’s wrap up Malaysia and Asia in style with KL. Well… maybe ‘ in style’ isn’t the right phrase to use. If I’m being honest, I wouldn’t say we finished the trip with one of the best places. When I think of the countries we visited during the 9 weeks, Malaysia usually comes to mind last. Maybe it’s because it was the one we added in a rush and hadn’t planned as much for. The likes of Vietnam and Thailand were always must-dos for us but Malaysia kinda tagged along. It was a good addition, I liked Malaysia but I doubt I’ll return. Of the three places we visited there KL was probably my least favourite. Langkawi was a little bit like paradise, George Town felt different in its own cool way. KL was just a big city to me. That’s not to be critical, big cities are great and I’m sure it’s fun to live there but I didn’t come away in awe. Sorry to any KL fans/residents.

I’ve had to look through my photos to remember what happened, of course most of them are of the very impressive Petronas Towers. The Petronas Towers held the record for the tallest building in the world until 2004 and, as you might expect, they’re absolutely massive. They’re not as iconic as NYC’s skyscrapers but I liked them, I’m a fan of symmetry.

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A theme of Singapore/Malaysia was multiculturalism, this was apparent again in KL. The city had all the usual influences: British/colonial, Chinese and Indian. Diversity is fantastic, it enhances any city. You couldn’t imagine any major city without it. Below you can see a mosque, a Taoist temple and a church. I’m an atheist but religions are often heavily linked to a place’s culture, even for a non-believer it’s interesting to visit places of worship. The old man in the Taoist temple kindly told us our fortunes for the coming year, that’s where I found out 2016 was going to be the year of the monkey. My year!

I was fairly critical of KL at the start of the post, some might even say I was a bit harsh. The place itself didn’t blow me away. True. But I did tick two things off of my bucket list: I swam in an infinity pool and I saw monkeys, wild monkeys! That’s not bad going, thanks KL. The Air B&B we found had a shared communal rooftop pool with pretty decent views…

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And I’ve saved the best ’til last… these little rascals below. I’d been on the hunt for monkeys for the whole 9 weeks with little success and then when hope was almost lost… Batu Caves came to my rescue. The caves have been made into temples, they were still constructing one when I visited – I carried a tile up the stairs! I was rewarded for my good deed, as once I was up there I was completely spoilt. There were monkeys all over the place. I was able to get so close to them, they definitely weren’t afraid of people – some people were afraid of them though. They could be a quite aggressive, especially if food was around. I kept away from food and snapped away, I could’ve watched them for ages. The trip to KL was worth it for this alone. The next step – letting a monkey climb on me. I’d better book another trip to Asia!

 

Penang, Malaysia

I wanna start writing about China but I’ve still not even reached the end of the 2015 Asia trip. My laziness strikes again, let’s resume with the penultimate stop – Penang. After lounging about by the pool in Langkawi for a few days it was time to jump back into ‘proper travelling’. We took the ferry back down to Penang to explore the state’s capital, George Town. The fact a place in southeast Asia is named ‘George town’ is quite a big clue that it might’ve had a history of colonisation! George doesn’t sound like a very Asian name to me! Here’s some European-looking architecture, we’ve seen quite a bit in southeast Asia by this point. It’s not all that special, I know.

The next thing you’re about to see is far more interesting, don’t worry. Southeast Asia isn’t just temples or relics from when those horrible westerners ruled, oh no! George Town is famous for its street art, you won’t have to walk very far to find some but you might need to have your eyes peeled! The artwork can cleverly blend into its surroundings, one of my faovurite pieces is the two kids on the swings, see below!

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George Town is a cool place, it’s colourful and multicultural with all kinds of cuisines available to try. I remember having a pretty good curry, a pretty random rice dish and some pretty delicious tofu satay skewers during the time we stayed there. Day to day being vegetarian is no problem for me whatsoever, it’s not even something I think about anymore. However! When I travel and a country has a particular dish that I (probably) won’t be able to try, I do feel… I don’t know the word, not regretful, maybe annoyed(?). I really wanted to have satay skewers whilst in Malaysia, you can imagine that I was very happy when we managed to find a place doing a tofu alternative. God bless you tofu, you weird flavourless sponge. Here’s a picture of me eating said skewers complete with cute girl being nosy.

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George Town was probably my favourite place in Malaysia, admittedly we only visited 3: Langkawi and Kuala Lumpur being the others. It’s got a good feel to it, I like a place that’s had a range of influences. One negative to finish on though! I remember the heat being particularly oppressive here, for southeast Asia that’s saying something! Take some strong deodorant.

Part 1: Barcelona, Spain

At the moment I’m living in Catalonia, about 90 minutes south of Barcelona on the train. My town is pretty… sleepy, it’s very nice and I’m sure it’s about to get busier now the weather’s improving but it’s not an international city with lots of history. Trips to Barcelona are needed. When I found this job I decided that I wanted to get to know Barcelona and I think, so far, I’ve learnt a lot about the Catalan capital. It’s a place I’d visited a few times when on family holidays but it was always far too hot in July/August, the weather wasn’t conducive to sightseeing. Amazingly the Barcelona metro remains too hot even in February.

The first trip to Barcelona, since I became a local, was in September. I had only just arrived and a friend came out to visit, we looked online to see if tickets were available for a Barcelona game. They were! For about 60 euros each. Ouch. Pretty extortionate but seeing Messi play live was/is on the bucket list so it could be justified. Off we went to the Nou Camp to watch arguably the biggest team in the world, it was all set. I logged onto the stadium’s wifi to check the team and…. tragedy strikes: Messi, Suarez and Iniesta are all on the substitute’s bench. Long story short, Barca lose to a team I’d never heard and Messi, Suarez and Iniesta all play for about 30 minutes, they do absolutely nothing. I still feel cheated and will be returning to properly watch Messi play.

During this first trip we also took in some culture, it wasn’t purely to watch the football! We visited Parc Guell to see some of Gaudi’s work, I wanted to see the funky lizard I’d seen on postcards and souvenirs but sadly it was hiding. Stay tuned for part 2!

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At anytime of year you’ll spot Catalan flags flying from windows across the state/province/country(I’ll cover all bases). There are different variations but the one pictured below is based on the Cuban flag, everything is clear if you choose to fly this one: you want independence. The topic is huge here, some people are so sure they’re going to become independent. It’s something I still don’t fully understand, I’ll sit on the fence and be an ignorant foreigner. In September it’s Catalan Day so there were even more flags out than usual. Normally I’m not a fan of flag-flying, I wouldn’t want to see the English or British flag hanging out of windows back home. However,  I like this picture taken on the most famous street in Barcelona, Las Ramblas.

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