10 Food Surprises for an Englishman in China

1. Most people drink milk contrary to common Western belief. OK cheese and butter are definitely hard to find, but yoghurt sales are definitely a growth area. Expect to see plenty of imports from Europe and New Zealand. It seems that many prefer to have foreign milk and are wary of some local suppliers.

2. If coffee is found in hotel rooms it’s instant with premixed dried milk and sugar; normally from that rogue company known for selling formula milk powder for babies to people who can’t afford it and who don’t have a clean water supply!

3. There is a huge variety of green vegs that you’ve never seen before!

4. OK we know that there are many unexpected meat dishes in China but you won’t be served them everyday! Relax! And there’s a ton of really delicious cuts from ‘normal’ sources. Pig’s trotters may sound off-putting but really they’re very delicious, as are crispy chicken feet!

5. Fresh water crayfish are very common but have very tough skins and contain far less meat than shrimp/prawns. But in Changsha they’re cooked with chilli and garlic and are so delicious. And often seafood can be picked out live at your favourite restaurant.

6. I’m still struggling to open sunflower seeds after nearly 3 years of training! I’m sure I expend more energy getting the things out than I get back from the contents! While we’re on the subject of nuts you’ll need to learn to pick up peanuts one at a time with chopsticks (less than one year)!

OK, too much information, I know!

7. Lotus Flower roots are delicious. Tasty and crunchy even when cooked.

8. Spicy lamb kebabs from street vendors are v tasty. Often these street vendors may be Muslim.

9. So far I much prefer the spicy food in Hunan than dishes found in Beijing, Shanghai or Guangdong, and especially love my wife’s freshwater fish done with chilli and ginger.

10. In the shops/markets expect customers to be handling/choosing raw meat with their bare hands.

Image: use your imagination!

OK, I lied. There are more than 10! Another surprise – I love my food!

11. Baozi 包子(steamed white rolls stuffed with meat) Delicious. The price and taste vary from one outlet to another. The length of the queue outside is a good rule of thumb!

12. Chou DoFu 臭豆腐 (stinky tofu). It’s not really stinky at all but comes dripping in a thin spicy sauce.  I’m just drooling at the thought (but it’s not everyone’s favourite)! I have a choice outlet near to us but I’ve been told the best in Changsha are just outside the IDMall in the centre of town (incidentally, where the ice skating rink is) but I haven’t had an opportunity to try theirs yet. There’s also the reputedly best hamburger joint/stakehouse there too but it’s very pricey compared to Chinese restaurants. While on the subject of tofu, you’ve NEVER seen so many varieties available under one roof. Back in England you’d be lucky to find a single type at your local deli.

13. Jiaozi 饺子 (Chinese dumplings). You’ll find that there are lots of varieties from meat to mushroom. You need to find your favourite café; they vary quite a bit. One of my favourite places you can get 20 (enough for a full meal) for £1.20. I’m still waiting for a Chinese take away in Glasgow to come up with Haggis dumplings! Yum.

14. The Chinese don’t like sweet things, right? OK, then why are there huge sweet sections in every supermarket in addition to the chocolate shelves by the cash till?
Well… they might not eat deserts at the end of a meal – but occasionally will have slices of water melon. In fact if you eat at someone’s home you’ll more than likely have fruit (and those dreaded nuts already mentioned) BEFORE the meal. But at other secret times they’ll be eating those sweet things – and I can tell you some of them are SOOOO sweet; much more than a westerner might be familiar with!

And they are quite partial to sponge cake! In all shapes and sizes. We have a small local bakery that does some superb ones and one of the people servicing speaks remarkably good English – pretty unusual in Changsha. And for birthdays they’ll come up with a sponge gateaux and cream; loads of cream; death by cream!

古开福寺 gu kai fu si The Old KaiFu Temple

Yesterday we visited the temple where Yvonne and I spent our first day together over 7 years ago. It seemed a lot bigger than I remembered!

While it’s over 1,000 years old, most of it was been rebuilt about 150 years ago.

Here’s a video slideshow if you’re interested. Just click on the image.



The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month


A few years ago I led a guided walk around my locality (Wood Green, North London) on the subject of remembrance.


Beforehand I spent an afternoon in a local museum reading the original handwritten records of the bombings from WWII in the area. Explosive bombs, fire bombs, V1s, V2s etc as well as related matters like the internment of German speakers in Ally Pally. That afternoon was a heart breaking experience and I left in tears.


It opened my eyes to the ‘new’ buildings in old streets; tell-tales signs of homes and lives destroyed by bombs. I also read the press reports of incidents, like the one where people sheltering from the bombing only to be sent to their maker by a bomb that ran down the ventilation shaft and wiped everyone out.


And then there was the opening of the local war memorial just opposite the Haringey Civic Centre. Of course, every community had their own memorials. But for this little local one, over 60,000 turned out! That’s more than fits in the Spurs ground! The war affected everyone, and everyone had a story to tell and traumas to be remembered.


So this coming 11-11-11, open your eyes to the signs of trauma that are around but most often passed by and ignored.


And lets remember those still suffering from new wars. Those with mental as well as physical scars. Those with horrific memories which are too awful to verbalise, and which may destroy the person from within. Yes remember with sorrow those killed in wars, but also the homeless vets who can’t hold it together now they are back home.


And lets look forward and be a bit more creative. Lets offer sanctuary to today’s refugees. Don’t let them be like the Anne Franks who were rejected by America to face a fate we already know about.


Let’s cultivate a little compassion.


(Photo album of Guided Walk around Wood Green: https://www.flickr.com/photos/willnewcomb/albums/72157651239099843)

10 Surprises for an Englishman in China behind the wheel

Well, not quite! I haven’t actually taken my written driving test yet, but it is imminent and these are my observations (and fears)! (Edit: test passed 2016:08:04)


1. When driving expect to make plenty of U-turns. It’s not unusual to find a lane for doing Ueys at a junction. Sometimes the U-turn lane is toward the right-hand side of the roadway, even though making a U-turn requires turning left! Don’t worry, there will be a particular phase of the traffic lights when only U-turns can be made.


2. It’s fine to weave between lanes especially if you’re a taxi or a bus driver. (OK it’s not good practice but it’s what happens).

KnitOnePearlOneKnit one, pearl one. Spot the difference!

3. Nearly everyone drives within the speed limit; life has enough anxiety without adding speed to it. In residential areas, blocks are served by narrow service roads with controlled entry/exit. Speed limit – dead slow! It’s safe for pedestrians, children and dogs! On most city roads the speed limit is 50 km/hr or about 30 mph and the main streets are multi-lane. And on the bigger roads and expressways, expect to see minimum speed limits!

SpeedLimitThe minimum speed limit in this lane is 90 km/hr
(110 in the far left lane)

4. Watch out for traffic lights; they’re on the far side of the road junction and none on your side! To the un-initiated it can seem difficult to know where to stop at a red light. There is usually a crosswalk (OK, Zebra Crossing to you and me and just a place where pedestrians expect to get killed – well that’s what it feels like anyway. Pedestrians do have right of way but drivers only ‘just’ give way! It’s not like the UK when drivers are not allowed to cross a Zebra Crossing if a pedestrian is on it, even on the far side) before the junction and the stop line is just before it even if it’s invisible! And keep an eye on the traffic light for your particular lane; it may well be different from other lanes! Sometimes the left turning lane is BETWEEN straight ahead lanes if traffic has recently merged from an elevated roadway!


5. Police hand signals at intersections are COMPLETELY different from the UK. You just need to learn them, AND generally they apply to the traffic that the police officer is looking at!


Here he’s directing traffic (not you) to turn right.


6. You need to be very aware of pedestrians on the highway AND electric bikes going any direction (often against the traffic) and riding without lights at night. Pedestrians often walk in the roadway because the footpath is blocked by trees, street furniture and electric bikes. You HAVE to give way to them!



7. When an electric bicycle /scooter beeps his horn it’s often NOT to warm you to get out of the way but to invite you to use him as an unofficial taxi – if you dare!


8. Don’t be surprised by the number of people holding up their mobile phones to their ears while driving! Even bus drivers! Always best to allow for such things! Illegal? Of course!


9. There’s a lot of honking going on in China. Even the written driving test recommends using the horn (or flashing lights) as well as indicators when overtaking. In mountainous areas expect to see this sign at a sharp bend, which means ‘honk’!



10. There’s a huge discontinuity between the standard of driving recommended by the written driving test and what people actually do (Isn’t there always? It’s no different in China). Perhaps it’s down to the low frequency of prosecutions for driving offenses? The written test very much recommends defensive driving and taking the initiative to give way. The reality is that many seem to drive in a very aggressive fashion, often ‘barging in’ in front of you and expecting you to give way. (Please note that indicators are a state secret)!

IMG_3764Our new motor. We don’t want to get it scratched!

The following is a useful guide to driving in China

Could YOU drive in China? Here’s a video from YouTube to give you a taster! (NB You only need watch the first minute to get a flavour of things!)

Surprises for an Englishman in China looking back over recent British politics


This is MY blog so I’m going to have a rant!

Ever been so angry you’re spitting blood?

Well that’s precisely how I feel at the moment after the most gigantic constitutional cock-up in modern times in the UK.

I’m angry at almost every section of the community I can think of.

Angry at Cameron for playing poker with the constitution in order to ‘bring into line’ his right wing UKIP leaners.

Angry with Labour for not making sure that the terms of the referendum were adequate. If a golf club wants to allow women members it has to have a 2/3 majority in favour before it can go ahead. Isn’t it at least reasonable that 60% should have been originally required before a major change in the constitution could be made?

Angry with the Brexit leaders who conveniently went back on all their promises within a few hours of the result being announced. And angry that the yellowbellies promptly resigned and refused to face up to the consequences of their actions.

Angry with Labour for being so pre-occupied with their own internal politics that they forgot to slam the Tories.

Angry with so many Leavers that they appeared to ignore the facts and the experts in favour of a ‘myth’ perpetuated by the right-wing red-tops over the last 20 or 30 years.

Angry at the disgusting racism and xenophobia that have been exhibited following the Brexit result.

Angry that this Brexit result has probably put an end to the UK as we know it. I’m sure Scotland will push ever harder now for independence. And the North of Ireland?

Angry that the people least affected by immigration (the biggest argument for Brexit) were most pro-Brexit and vice-versa. My old area of north London has a huge and divergent community of immigrants (Turkish, Greek, Polish, West Indian etc etc) and it voted 75% to Remain.

Angry with the young who failed to turn out in the numbers that could have made a difference.

Angry with the old for being so insular (and I note that there were several ‘vets’ from WWII who were vociferous Remainers).

Angry with hypocritical business people (like James Dyson who was very happy to take EU money for development but then went and moved his factory to Malaysia at the expense of British jobs AND called for Brexit)!

Angry that the Brexit result has caused major financial upheavals right across the globe.

Angry with the government who set up an ‘advisory’ referendum but then refuses to allow the House of Commons to vote and choose the legal course of action.

And personally angry that the dive in the exchange rates has caused a huge drop in my pension. Who knows what will happen to my pension ‘pot’ with the huge slump in the stock market.

And a few things to be happier about?

Happy that people who have come to the defence of the victims of racism; those that contributed £1,000’s to enable a fire-bombed bakery to get back on it’s feet; those who have stood up to the numbsculls who verbally abuse minorities on public transport.

Happy that Sadiq Khan and Mervin Rees (mayors of London and Bristol) who have come out and given statesman-like callings for the different communities to pull together and to care for each other (but why haven’t the party leaders been doing this? – OK Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland has been doing a fine job).

Happy that a Brexiter foresaw a small majority result and set up a petition calling for a 60% majority requirement for a second referendum. I know he’s not happy since he never thought Brexit would win and that Remainers would be signing his petition. But his concept was correct.

Happy for personal life: my wife; my cats; my friends; my home; my health; that I’m not homeless, on the street or suffering from addictions.

And I have one more prayer

The USA, are you listening? The British have been extremely stupid over the last couple of months. Can you learn something from us? PLEASE come to your senses and reject Trump. [Edit 2016-11-11. America! What have you done?]

Spoilt or What?

When sitting on my favourite spot for contemplation I considered that I was becoming spoilt! Our new house has a combination toilet in the en-suite shower-room which has a heated loo-seat. Yesterday I took a bath (in the spare bathroom) and was ‘shocked’ when I came to sit on the traditional loo. Aaagggghhhh, it’s COLD!

Yes we’re one of the few households with these new combination loos (toilet and bidet in one).


Isn’t it interesting how quickly a technological development can become an ‘essential’ for modern living! Remember the old Bakelite telephones hard-wired to the junction box in the hallway compared to the latest smartphone, or the 12 inch B&W set we grew up with (bought to watch QEII’s coronation in 1953) compared to todays’ large HD screens, or ‘push-bikes’ with a single gear compared to lightweight index-geared quick-released wheel jobs so widely available today (OK, if you live in Amsterdam or some other places, old ‘bone-shakers’ are still the norm).


For now I guess I’ll have to accept that I’m spoilt as it’ll take a long time, if ever, for combo toilets to become the norm.

And why have a bidet in the first place? – DON’T ask!!