After a happy, prolonged period of stabilisation and life-altering romance, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and travelling.
“Oh ****!” I cried, as S went crashing to the ground in a crumpled heap, a rising cloud of dust blocking my visibility as I skidded my bike to a crunching halt.
I sprinted over to her where she lay winded on the floor clutching her ribs, her bike wheel still spinning on the earth beside her. “Are you ok?” I asked, relieved to see that a section of the wooden fence lining the trail had succeeded in breaking her fall. “Yessssshhhh!” she gasped, half grimacing, half laughing as she tried to sit up. She’d grazed her leg a little in two places, but otherwise seemed to have gotten off lightly. “I killed the fence!” chuckled S as I helped her up, nervously glancing across the countryside half expecting to see some angry axe-wielding farmer striding towards us. “Well…” I said, brushing earth and grass off her jeans, “you certainly left your mark on Yangshuo”.
Perhaps under different circumstances the crash could have derailed the day’s activities. But for S there was no question of turning back. The verdant landscape of Yangshuo County was just too damn beautiful to let anything spoil this perfect day. So we got back on our bicycles and continued through the dreamy countryside, the winding pathway taking us through sparkling green paddy fields, the afternoon sky dominated by Yangshuo’s signature karst-studded peaks, a piercing collection of multi-shaped limestone pinnacles that truly have to be seen in person to be believed. We’d had so many amazing travel experiences during our year in China, but it felt like this place was going all out for first prize.
Eventually we came upon a tiny settlement, no more than half a dozen shacks by the side of a dirty-grey section of The Yulong River. There was a pair of grubby children playing tag around some bushes and a handful of adults washing dead chickens in the water. They greeted us cheerfully as we passed through and then we were cycling again, a further twenty minutes or so until we reached the crumbly magnificence of Yulong Bridge in the little town of Baisha.
Disembarking, S and I sat on the riverbank a while swatting flies and watching the odd bamboo raft float by. It turned out the bridge was seven hundred years old, while the word Yulong referred to meeting a dragon. Tickled by this, I decided to clamber up to the bridge in search of mythical creatures, but all I found was an old hunchbacked woman plodding across with a bulging sack of branches on her back. I felt a little guilty about photographing her, but she was just too perfect a specimen and what with her awkward posture I’m not sure she even noticed me.
It was another half on hour of pedalling before we reached the village of Xiatang. As soon as we saw the sizeable collection of bamboo rafts gathered at the side of the riverbank we knew we had to take a cruise along The Yulong. S and I were so enchanted by everything we barely even tried to negotiate the price. Our captain was a smiley man who insisted on dragging our bikes onto the raft with us, which made things a bit of a squeeze. He was just a wiry little guy but had real strength, rapidly propelling the three of us, bikes and all, down the green water with his bamboo pole. That river cruise remains a defining memory of my first year in China, a wistful hour of blissful laziness staring up at the sky and the Tolkien-esque scenery.
We decided to stay in the actual town of Yangshuo for a couple of nights. After our biking exploits it seemed wise to take a day off, which we spent napping at our hostel and idling around Yangshuo’s trendy cafes. It turned out to be the perfect day for doing nothing, as the heavens opened mid-afternoon for an almighty downpour. It was amusing to see the little souvenir market empty within seconds, backpackers scrambling off in all directions, stall owners pulling out their awnings to protect their wares. One poor little old lady got completely caught in the ensuing storm, reduced to little more than a hobbling umbrella-with-legs creature. Once again, my empathy didn’t extend to my camera-finger. S also discovered a cooking school that day and had her heart set on taking a class. So we popped in, spoke to the friendly woman at reception and signed up for a three-hour session.
We arrived at Cloud 9 Restaurant the next morning to a warm welcome from a Chinese woman called Jane. “Nice to meet you!” she grinned, “today I will be your tour guide, chef, teacher… and I hope friend. Are you ready to go the market?” And so Jane took us off to Yangshuo Farmer’s Market to buy our ingredients. Along the way, she explained how we’d be whipping up a three-course feast of deep fried stuffed eggplant with pork, stuffed green pepper with pork and sizzling beef with mixed vegetables. There were no complaints from our side. “Do you cook well?” she asked us, with a mischievous smile. “Uh…. S yes,” I answered, “me… not so much”.
The market was massive, comprising of three covered halls and over two hundred vendors. Jane expertly marched us around to grab what we needed, giving tips on how to get the juiciest peppers and choice beef cuts. I spotted some wacky stuff as we went, from funky multi-coloured cobs of corn and shiny white rolls of sticky tofu rice to a stall exclusively selling large flappy pigs ears, a dark brown mound of mushroom-like things that made my stomach turn.
Back at Cloud 9, Jane led us up to the rooftop to two huge kitchens and a balcony overlooking a pretty lake. Ironically, the view also included a massive McDonald’s. One of the kitchens was chock-a-block with a large group; the other was all for us! Putting on our supplied Cloud 9 aprons and silly chef hats, Jane directed us to our fully equipped workstations and wasted no time with small talk.
“Ok we start with deep fried eggplant!” she sang and off we went, following her clipped instructions to the letter. We sliced carrots, chopped chives, diced onions and did our best to cut the pork into very fine strips; a point Jane was very strict about. “Finer!!!” she barked, over and over again as I flailed hopelessly with my knife. Cutting our eggplants to form an open pouch, we mixed everything in by hand, adding teaspoons of salt, sugar, white pepper, corn and oyster sauce. Happily for us Jane had pre-prepared the batter, an incredibly thick paint-like liquid comprised of wheat flour, corn starch, egg, salt, custard powder, soda and water. Then we dipped our eggplants into the batter, before dropping them gently into our oiled woks.
I’d mistakenly thought that we were now done, but Jane, ever the taskmaster, told us we had to continually turn the eggplants from back to front while they cooked. This took about ten minutes and when they were ready, we scooted off to the balcony to enjoy the mouth-watering results. There was way too much food (!), and with two more dishes still to prepare we knew we had to pace ourselves and resist the temptation to wolf everything down!
Much to my relief the peppers dish was comparatively easy, as we used the same stuffing mix from the eggplant recipe. Once again it seemed we’d made a ridiculous amount of food and I could only conclude that Jane’s family were going to be very well fed for the next few nights.
For the grand finale, the sizzling beef dish also required a very fine cutting process, which Jane assured us was key to ensuring its great taste. With the beef cut (badly in my case), we set to work adding salt, oil, rice wine, corn starch, egg white and meat tenderiser; before leaving it all to soak for ten minutes while we chilled by the balcony watching the gloomy sight of people filing in and out of McDonalds. Back at our workstations, we wok-fried the mix until Jane assured us the meat was “80% cooked” and therefore ready to be removed. From there we had to rapidly fry up some ginger, spring onions and red peppers. On top of that went water, soy sauce, oyster sauce, salt, sesame oil and the wildcard ingredient of chicken stock. It was at this point that the sizzling aspect kicked in! Instructing us to heat up an oily iron plate until it started to smoke, Jane then gave us the green light to pour everything in, meat and all! It was music to our ears to hear the violent reaction of the dish as it collided with the iron plate. It fizzled, hissed, jumped, spat and complained away for about five minutes, until Jane called time and announced our class was over.
S and I carried all our plates over to a side balcony overlooking Yangshuo’s main street. The food was very good and it gave us a great deal of satisfaction to know we’d created it! Of course we couldn’t finish it all and I remember feeling ridiculously bloated by the time we both admitted defeat.
The last stop in our great Asian experience came in Hong Kong, which felt like a fittingly celebratory end to our twelve-month adventure. We were no longer travelling but on holiday, in a place with modern creature comforts and spoken English. Our base for the week was the poky Hong Kong Hostel in the Causeway Bay neighbourhood of the island’s northern shore. It was a glitzy district stuffed with cafes, western restaurants and boutique shops, a place where pretty, stilt-legged women strutted around with rat dogs, invariably armed to the teeth with shopping bags.
I have so many wonderful memories from that final week. I’ll never forget S and I walking around the city’s Leighton District, where we wandered up Leighton Hill, popped our heads into The Leighton Centre, gazed up at Lippo-Leighton Tower and had my picture taken on Leighton Road. As amusing as it all was, I drew the line at making an appointment at The Leighton Hair and Nail Salon.
We paid a visit to Man Mo Temple with its whispery fortune-teller and vaults of human ashes. We rode the 800 metre long Mid-level Escalators, the world’s longest outdoor covered electric stairs and ate lunch at the delightfully ramshackle Graham Street Market, an open-air warren of market stall streets set into a steep hill.
Strolling aimlessly through Soho, we came across an excitable group of flamboyantly dressed locals chattering on the pavement. One of the men, wearing a traditional red Chinese silk vest and golden waistcoat, stopped us to reveal it was his wedding day! Clutching a multicoloured bouquet of flowers, he struck me as the most effeminate groom I’d ever seen! When I introduced myself as “Sir Leighton of Leighton Hill” the group all roared with laughter, perhaps a little too hard if truth be told. But in any case it was a fun, warm, quirky experience and S and I happily signed his wedding book with greetings and best wishes for the day ahead.
Elsewhere we took in the towering skyline of the Admiralty Business District and ambled through the vast expanse of Hong Kong Park, with its streams, observation tower and community of exotic birds in the aviary. A particularly fun evening was spent at Happy Valley Racecourse for what was my first and only experience of live horse racing. We had a great time learning how to fill in the forms and strategise over which steed to pick from the lists of runners. Sadly we failed to win any money over the evening’s eight races, but in any case I actually got more entertainment from people watching.
The racecourse regulars were a kooky bunch, almost exclusively scruffy, introverted local men with newspapers clutched under their arms and pencils behind their ears. They watched the races silently in their little groups, a victory celebrated with a sharp nod of the head and a grimace-like smile, a defeat for their chosen horse met with a weary shake of the head and gritted teeth.
On our final day we headed out to Lantau Island to see The Big Buddha, the fascinating little fishing village of Tai O and the idyllically deserted Chang Sheu Beach. It was the perfect end to our stay and yet the most dramatic experience of all awaited us when we got back to our hostel. The entire street was jam-packed with a massive demonstration (!); hundreds of people cheering on an angry, pony-tailed man perched on a small podium. He was doing a grand job of geeing up the crowd, passionately shouting into his microphone as a sea of mobile phones lit up the evening air. “What’s this all about?” I asked a pair of clapping teens. “Today is 21st anniversary of Tiananmen Square!” said the teen, shouting above the general din. “Today we remind Chinese government that we are Hong Kong and we will not accept any threats to our freedoms!”
“Are you going to miss China?” S asked. “Umm… yes and no” I replied, my head up against the taxi window as we hummed down the motorway. “I’ll miss the people… the travel… and god the food!!! But you know… I won’t miss the spitting, the foul air or having to engage in combat every time I want to get on the subway”. “Ha!” laughed S and then there was a period of silence as we both sat lost in our own thoughts. I had no idea what awaited us in The Netherlands. If I’d had just an inkling of the professional adventure that awaited me in Amsterdam, I’d have probably started hyperventilating. But I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know where we’d live, what we’d do or how we’d end up there. And of course I didn’t know that for S and I, it would be the beginning of the end.