在内蒙古吃羊肉

While in Inner Mongolia we had the opportunity to try Mongolian food.  It was pretty expensive for Chinese food but we were in the middle of nowhere and pretty damn hungry so the only place we could find was this tourist trap.

Milk Cracker
One of the various foods made from milk.

They started by serving us Mongolian tea.  Once again I was reminded of Tibet – turns out Mongolians drink butter tea as well.  The tea was served with several other things made from milk – some small crackers, cakes and biscuits.

Mongolian Tea
Mongolian tea comes served with various extras.

We started out with Mongolian vegetables.  Or Mongolian vegetation.  It tasted like grass.  Don’t ask me how I know what grass tastes like…

Mongolian Vegetation
Tastes just like grass.

We ordered a bunch of lamb meat and dug in.  The lamb was pretty fresh – we were in Spring after all.  I volunteered to do the carving, which it turns out is extremely difficult with two knives and a round bowl.

Lamb
Lamb meat!

They also had blood sausages – basically like black pudding from back home.

Blood Sausage
In my country we call it black pudding…

And that’s what it’s like to eat food in a yurt in Inner Mongolia.  It was pretty expensive tourist trap, but at least our bellies were full.

Yurt
Waiting for a taxi.

Mausoleum of Genghis Kahn

Near the city of Ordos in Inner Mongolia can be found the Mausoleum of Genghis Kahn.  This is not the resting place of Genghis Kahn, since it is unknown where his remains actually lie.  Rather, it is a collection of his treasures and  a holy place.

Entrance Gate
The entrance gate to the Mausoleum of Genghis Kahn

Originally there was no fixed mausoleum – instead Genghis Kahn’s treasures were protected by the “Darkhad” who would wander around Mongolia so people could perform ceremonies in Kahn’s name.  In the 50s the government of China put a stop to this, forcing them to build a permanent mausoleum instead.  The 500 Darkhad were reduced to less than a dozen.

Genghis Kahn Statue
A statue of Genghis Kahn atop one of his holy horses.

During the Cultural Revolution the Mausoleum was destroyed, but has since been rebuilt.  As a result of this, many of the treasures housed here are replicas of the originals.  This doesn’t stop people visiting to pray – one of the locals said that people generally visit once per week to pray to Genghis Kahn.

Holy Horse Sign
People are reminded not to approach the holy horses.

One of the first things we notice on entering the Mausoleum site were the signs warning us not to approach the ‘holy horses’.  We didn’t see any of these horses while exploring the site, but my guess is that these horses are supposed to be the descendants of Genghis Kahn’s horses, and that they wander the site freely.

On approach to the Mausoleum
On approach to the Mausoleum.

As we approached the mausoleum we spotted the ‘sacrifice site’ to the right of the Mausoleum.  Approaching this reminded me of Tibet:  an alter covered in bright and colourful flags and scarves.  Many of the flags had Tibetan script written on them – this was definitely a holy place for Chinese Bhuddists.

"Sacrificial" Altar
The altar covered with Tibetan-Bhuddist flags.

Inside the Mausoleum we saw the treasures of Genghis Kahn.  Many were replicas and obviously fake (unless Mongolians used simplified Chinese back in the day), however the giant jade statue of Genghis Kahn was hugely impressive.  There are also several coffins for members of Kahn’s family – each contained within their own yurt.  Unfortunately no pictures are allowed inside the Mausoleum so if you want to see it you’ll have to pay a visit yourself.

Leaving
Leaving the Mausoleum.

 

Homeward Train

In rural China, many parents give up on raising their children themselves so they can go to the cities and work. They work so they can provide their children with an education and go on to have the lives the couldn’t have themselves.  The Chinese New Year is the one time they can go home to be with their families.  Living in Shanghai you realise how many people in the cities are immigrant workers.  The city is almost like a ghost town during the New Year – nearly everywhere is closed because everyone has gone back to the countryside to see their families.

This is the premise of the film Last Train Home directed by Lixin Fan. It follows the lives of two immigrant workers in China, beginning in 2006 with their attempt to get a train ticket home so they can see their family for the Chinese New Year.

Last Train Home
Last Train Home

During the run up to Chinese New Year, train tickets sell out.  Fast.  We see the workers talking about trying to get a ticket home.  If they sell out they might have to get an “expensive” ticket.  An alternative is to try “Ticket Returns” to try for a ticket someone no longer needs.  Later on in the film we see crowds at the train station so huge they have to bring in the police and the army to maintain order.  The film also shows how people have to squeeze onto the trains, even after they have their tickets, spending days sleeping and passing the time however they can.

The rest of the film shows how this way of living has affected the families of the immigrant workers.  The parents who have nothing to live for but their child’s education.  They doubt the choice that has led them to hardly seeing their own children, sometimes for years at a time.  The grandparents who are left to raise the children.  The children who end up feeling their parents don’t want them.  The frustration when a child chooses not to become educated, destroying everything the parents have worked towards.

You’d be forgiven for believing this film wasn’t a documentary – many of the scenes felt a little scripted or faked, but whether or not this is true the film still tells a narrative that is all too familiar in China.  For me it was an eye-opening experience, showing the hardships caused by a third of the population suddenly moving into the cities from the farms.  It puts a human face on China’s recent industrial revolution and for that it is a film worth watching.

Dive Bar Graffiti Artist

There’s a dive bar near my place of work in Shanghai known as C’s (not sure what the C stands for…).  In my first month in Shanghai I went there with my girlfriend where she taught me the infamous DICE GAME that rattles across many pubs in China.  It was your typical dive bar:  low maintenance, cheap alcohol, and plenty of graffiti scrawled across the wall in marker pen (mostly black).

Recently the bar has decided to redecorate, and has adopted a brilliant idea for doing this with minimal effort: once a month they buy a bunch of paint and provide paintbrushes and people turn up and paint the walls.  The bar gets redecorated, people get to express themselves, and there’s plenty of cheap alcohol.  Everybody wins.

007

We decided to go ourselves and contribute our creativity to the walls of this dive.  Unfortunately I had a kind of stage fright, but my girlfriend was quick to gather some paint and pick up a brush.  So I wandered around drinking cheap beer and observing what others were painting, whilst my girlfriend created this masterpiece:

016

That’s her pet fish on the right.  It has legs.

C’Scape runs the second Tuesday of every month at C’s. See you there.

A Conversation in Transit

The second time I left the country came at a point where the project I was working on at the time (Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising) got an extension.  We had been doing monstrous amounts of overtime trying to get the game finished and it had become abundantly clear that the project wasn’t going to be finished in time so we were give a 6 month extension.  Since we had spent the past few months doing a lot of overtime, our project manager didn’t want us to continue this trend for 6 more months and thus we were told not to do any overtime.  We were also strongly encouraged to take any holiday at that point rather than later in the year.  We weren’t forced, but most of us were glad to have some time go off and do our own thing, be it holidaying, spending time with the family or simply sitting around watching TV.

I was still a bachelor, I lived a long way from family, and I didn’t like the idea of sitting around at home for a week or so.  So holiday it was, but where to go?  I posted on Facebook that I had two weeks off and wanted to travel, asking for suggestions.  One of my former housemates suggested Rome, so a week later I was on a flight to Rome.

The flight was pretty standard fare, but landing in Italy I found we had to get a bus to the actual city.  Outside the bus I got chatting to someone who was on the same flight as me.  We got talking and sat next to each other on the bus to keep each other company for the journey.

Turns out she was English, like myself, and had just gotten back from visiting family.  She worked for an American soldier in Naples.  He was a single parent and she was the nanny.  It sounded like a nice job – she drops the kids off at school, has the day to herself and picks them up and feeds them at the end of the day.  She gets full bed and board so doesn’t need to worry financially.

She told me some fun stories.  The first involved the early days of her job.  One of her neighbours came round to ask for some alcohol.  She refused, naturally, but the lady kept pressing her.  She kept on refusing, thinking this lady was some kind of weird alcoholic.  In those early days the language barrier prevented her from figuring out what was going on.  Later her boss told her what was really going on – he has access to pure alcohol which he smuggles off the army base.  He gives it to the neighbour and she makes a home-made limoncello which is a famous Italian liquer.  I made a mental note to try it if I ever went to Naples.

She talked about the pain of living away from home, and possibly gave me the reason she did so (although she never said it explicitly).  She was in love with someone from her home town, but he wasn’t interested in her.  They had been together, but only as friends.  They had never had the relationship she actually wanted.  She talked about the girl he had just broken up with, making her sound like a complete psychopath.  She hated that he always ended up with girls like this.  Perhaps living so far away meant she didn’t need to think about this?

Finally we talked more about Naples.  She said that she hated driving in Naples.  The drivers there were apparently completely nuts.  I remembered reading about Italy being efficiently strict about drink-driving – perhaps this was why?  I asked her if it was as bad in Rome.  She said she didn’t mind driving in Rome – the drivers there weren’t crazy like they were in Naples.

The bus pulled to a stop.  We were in Rome.  After seeming to circle a building several times the bus eventually parked and opened it doors.  We said our goodbyes, got our bags and went our separate ways.  I set to the task of figuring out how to get to my hostel.  After spending 10 minutes dodging cars on the crossings in Rome, I vowed never to go to Naples.

Note:  To this day I still haven’t encountered driving as insane as it was in Rome, but I still haven’t been to China or India yet, so it may still happen.

Safe Flight

I forgot to mention in my posts prior to Amsterdam that flying to Schiphol was the first time I had ever been on a commercial flight.

I was alone.

I was nervous.

So, naturally, I sat off in the Wetherspoon’s in Birmingham International with a pint of Guinness to calm myself down.  BBC News was running on the TVs, and although I couldn’t hear it I could see the headlines and the talking heads miming the news.

And a plane swimming in the Hudson river.

So here I am about to embark on my first commercial flight, on my own, and I’m watching a plane crash.  And it was time to board.

‘No going back’, I thought, and I took what was potentially my last walk ever.  For the first time I sat in a plane.  For the first time I watched those safety drills famous comedians always talked about.  For the first time I watched a commercial plane leave the ground from within it’s cage.

I was holding on to my seat for the entire journey.  Every time we hit turbulence I panicked.

Then I watched England disappear.  I had left my country for the first time.  It was the furthest from home I had ever been.

I think that was the point I became addicted to travel.  I knew it was always going to be risky, but it would always be worth it.

And this feeling would end up taking me to places my family would beg me not to go.

10 Things I Did in Brighton

Brighton is a city that feels extremely ‘touristy’, yet at the same time is an amazing part of the country that has it’s own unique culture.  You’ll meet punks, eat vegetarian (well maybe not, but you can), relax on a rock beach and get drunk watching live music.  For this post, I’ve compiled a list of 10 things I think you should do in Brighton, otherwise known as 10 things I’ve done in Brighton.  To be more accurate, it’s what I did last weekend.

1.  See the Graffiti

There is a lot of of Street art in Brighton, and some of it quite impressive.

2.  Drink Some Kick Arse Coffee

The Marwood is an amazing place to get a coffee.  It feels like an abandoned building and is open until late, so if alcohol isn’t your thing, drink the night away in here instead.

3. Make a Stone Castle

Relaxing on the beach is always something to do on a sunny day.  Don’t expect any sand though – we had to make our castle out of pebbles.

4. Play Dolphin Derby

On Brighton Pier, just before you hit the rides there is a game called Dolphin Derby.  It is a lot of fun, and you can actually win this one.  We always hit the pier purely to play this game.

5. Drink Rum and Eat Thai Food

St. James‘ Rum Bar serves man different kinds of Rum.  It can get expensive, depending on your tastes.  Oddly, it also serves Thai food.  It’s a good place to start the night before hitting the clubs.

6. Knock Back Some Tuaca

I’m told you can get Tuaca in other places, but it’s very popular in Brighton.  When you need to start getting drunk, this would be the shot of choice.

7. Eat at Grubbs

For street food, Grubbs is amazing.  I’d definitely recommend the Caribbean burgers – onions, relish and pineapples.  What more could you want on a burger?

8. Skinny Dipping

When you leave the clubs drunk and decide to go paddling, take off all your clothes first.  Otherwise your phone might decide to go for a swim, never to be seen again.  Also, because you didn’t bring a change of clothes you’ll have to put up with salty wet clothes for the remainder of the weekend.

9. Eat Breakfast on a Balcony

There are many places to eat a good breakfast in Brighton, and they all cater to vegetarians.  On the end of Kensington Street there is a breakfast bar where you can eat on the balcony.  It’s a bit of a squeeze though, and getting in and out of there is a little tricky, especially with a hangover.

10.  Get Lost

Brighton is a hard town to navigate.  I’ve been there several times and I always get lost – and I’m usually very good at learning how to get around cities.  But getting lost in Brighton is one of the most fun things to do.  There is a lot to see and do here, certainly more than 10.

Amsterdam: Beer and Horse Piss

An obvious aspect of Amsterdam we wanted to explore was beer.  If you walk through Amsterdam’s city centre for more than a minute you are bound to see a bar with a Heineken sign sticking out of it.  So we decided to visit the Heineken brewery.

The place was obviously not a real brewery.  It was more designed so that tourists could see, feel and taste each stage of the brewing process and their resulting states.

We saw how it started with malt barley mixed with hot water (mashing) in a mash tun.  Mashing generally takes a couple of hours.  The ‘mash’ is then washed to separate the liquid (wort) from the spent grain.

This sweet wort is then placed into a giant kettle, known as a ‘copper’, and boiled for around an hour.  The water evaporates during this stage, and any leftover enzymes from the previous stage are also destroyed.  At this stage hops is added to the mix, and it is this that gives the beer its bitter taste.  The more hops added, the bitterer the beer.

After this the hopped wort is cooled and transferred to a fermenter (essentially a large vessel for the beer to ferment).  Yeast is added and the beer is left to ferment for any number of weeks, depending on the kind of beer desired.

The last stage of the tour is a demonstration on how Heineken is served.  It was explained how the head is important in keeping the beer fresh; the 250ml glasses mean the beer doesn’t get warm before you finish it (unlike pints or, if you’re in Bavaria, litres); and how slicing the head of the top of the glass with a plastic spatula soaked in water helps to seal the beer.  We were all given a glass each and sent on our way after we finished.

One thing I noticed about this area was that there were two taps with a bar surrounding them.  The first bar was where the demonstration was performed, but the other tap was dripping beer, and was surrounded by flies.  This seemed weird, but I didn’t think to ask about it.  I just thought the place wasn’t being run properly.  But then I noticed it in all the bars.  Every single bar would have one tap, beer dripping from it, surrounded by flies.

I finally found out why:  beer flies are a real problem in certain parts of Europe, so every bar has one tap that is purposefully left with beer dripping from it.  This way, the flies are attracted to this one tap and happily buzz around it doing what flies do.  The rest of the taps (and everyone’s beers) are left alone, and remain uncontaminated.

Another place we heard about was Brouwerij ‘t IJ (IJ Brewery).  It was a brewery and pub attached to a windmill.  It’s own beers are more expensive, but a lot stronger, and a lot tastier than the beers brewed by larger companies.  We didn’t get to do the tour, but it is definitely one of the better places to drink beer in Amsterdam.

Being in the games industry I work with a lot of Europeans.  I have since learned from my Dutch friends that Heineken in the Netherlands is like Fosters in Australia.  No one drinks it.  In fact, they call it ‘horse piss’.

You’re better off buying Grolsch.

Amsterdam: Meeting New People

The night-life in Amsterdam is definitely worth experiencing.  A huge array of pubs, bars and clubs can be found, just as in any city.  Just like in any country with a smoking ban, the smoking rooms have become the hub of social interaction – anyone who sits in one for more than 5 minutes is sure to strike up a conversation with someone new.  A while longer, and someone will pass around a spliff or two as well (these ones mixed with tobacco, so not soul-destroying like the coffee shop shit).

I ended up discussing sex with a local.  I struggled to see her concept of being in love, but still sleeping around.  She argued that relationships and sex were 2 completely different things.  I asked her what was the point of being with someone if you’re just going to sleep around around anyway.  She told me I was still young, and that when I got older I would understand better.  I must still be young, because I still don’t understand.

I met some American soldiers on leave, obviously here to experience the pleasures offered by the city.  They hadn’t touched marijuana, however, because the American military does random drug tests.  If they got caught out then they would lose their careers, and these guys (or at least the one I talked to) were in it for the long haul.

I met an Irish couple who told me about the sex show they had been to earlier that day.  They said it wasn’t really a turn-on, more kind of odd that someone next to them was having sex while they drank.  Being from the ROI, their attitude was that it was all bollocks and people need to focus on having a good time.

I ended up talking to the girlfriend, Evy, while the boyfriend chatted to others.  She had a very pretty face, and was wearing a short red skirt and a low cut black top.  We talked about Ireland a lot, especially about how the Troubles were a load of “horseshit” to them.  We eventually started talking about Irish Gypsies and I mentioned that I had Gypsy blood in me.  My grandfather was apparently a Gypsy by the name of Patrick McDonagh (our family history is a little fuzzy on this, but that’s a whole different story).

Her face suddenly changed to one of both excited surprise and of shock.  She raised her hand to her mouth.  “You’re a McDonagh?”  she asked.  After I confirmed she tugged excitedly at her boyfriend’s shirt.  “He’s a McDonagh, he’s a McDonagh!”  Her boyfriend looked at me.

“Seriously?” he said.  I nodded and he turned away laughing.  I asked her what was so special about being a McDonagh.

Apparently McDonagh is a gypsy name, and this tribe is infamous for their bare-knuckle boxing.  She suggested that I don’t want to go around Ireland that I’m a McDonagh.  I’ve met several Irishmen since, and have had various reactions to my name (one did ask me not to blow anything up).  Although, funnily enough, when I actually went to Dublin later on in life (again, another story) no-one made a fuss about my name at all.

Eventually a couple of girls joined the group; one Dutch, and one an American who now lived in Amsterdam; and since it was getting close to midnight we all decided to go to a night club together.  The club was a typical city dance club – over-the-top decoration, bottled beers, cocktails and shots flying over the bar and several people drunkenly dancing the night away.  We partied for a while, and inevitably ended up in the smoking area again.

The smoking area in this place was an unfurnished room with a large man in a  suit stood emotionless at the door.  He moved only to eject a few troublemakers who had had too much.  We sat on the floor passing a spliff around as we talked.  We chatted about the marijuana laws in the country, how each person was allowed one plant, how it’s not technically legal to smoke, but it’s allowed, how Dutch weed is better than English or American weed, and the many various flavours of weed available.  Eventually I asked the American girl why she moved to Amsterdam.

She broke off into this speech about how she had really found herself here, how she felt so free to do as she chooses and be herself.  She grabbed the hand of the Dutch girl she was with as she said she had met a special person who meant the world to her.  She said that she was in love with the city, it’s people and able to finally accept and love herself.  I couldn’t help but smile at such a passionate speech, one that I am really not doing justice here.

Then she noticed the spliff in her hand and said “Oh, and you can smoke weed!”