A Travellerspoint blog

TV Supplement

rain 17 °C

I've heard on the grapevine that ITV has launched a celebrity dancing competition in a revenge attack on the Beeb for setting The Voice against BGT a couple of years ago. Well, from what I also hear, and I don't know the line up of either programme, it won't take much to beat the ratings of what has been described as the second worst line up in the history of Strictly.

As you can see, I'm not missing British TV at all, especially when I can enjoy such wonders as American X Factor with a Russian voice over for Simon Cowell's gasps as his contestants aren't voted through and for Steve Jones' commentary - I can almost hear the Welsh accent!

The only Mongolian TV I've managed to see was one night in a ger, shared with a nomadic couple, their six month old daughter and their extended family and friends from neighbouring gers. It seems we were in the only ger in the village with a TV.

The satellite dish was picking up Korean soap/dramas dubbed into Mongolian, and although I couldn't understand a word, the facial expressions and tones of their voices gave you a good idea of the plot. They seemed to go on for hours and as I drifted off to sleep - I heard a familiar voice. It was the late night movie (late night being about 8:45pm) and although it was still in Mongolian, I heard the name Erin Brockovich...

Chinese TV is quite a delight, I've seen plenty of it the hotels in Northern China, our suite in the Fairmont Peace Hotel Shanghai and even in the cupboard of a room in down town Hong Kong. It comes in a variety of genres: news, shopping, singing, martial arts dramas, but perhaps the most unusual is quiz programmes about Chinese characters.

The first of these I saw was for school children with a similar format to a spelling bee. Each child is told a phrase and they have to transpose that into a Chinese characters on an electronic drawing pad. One by one the contestants are disqualified for failing to correctly put the lines, hooks, dashes and dots in the right place.

More fascinating is the adult version, whereby one person is given a character or set of characters and they have to tell the host what it means, giving their partner a chance to grab a prize, ranging from a toaster to an air conditioning unit. The kind of good old prizes from 70s UK quizes, although perhaps not A/C units.

It's hardly surprising that these shows exist, considering that nobody knows how many characters there are (a figure which is expanding quicker than the OED) and that you need to have a grasp of at least 2,500 to read a newspaper!

It's funny then that there are only eight strokes used in the construction of a Chinese character. I do know the character for gents toilet, and that's about as much as I need to know, oh and the word for beer.

Posted by ChipFondue 05:59 Archived in China Comments (0)

Searching for the authentic China.

semi-overcast 26 °C
View Somewhere Over The Urals. on stuartfinch's travel map.

I admit that like many people, I rely on guidebooks when planning trips abroad and it can be difficult to avoid the apparent ubiquitous monopoly of ‘Lonely Planet’. Their recommendations can quickly become swamped (often deservedly) with English speaking travelers all searching for the best and most ‘authentic’ experiences of that destination. Europeans have been travelling to and writing about China since the days of Marco Polo, each with their own perspective and agenda; with the aid of the internet it is now possible to access all these different accounts, both historical and contemporary, with ease.

So what is the most ‘authentic’ Chinese experience? We have visited places that would feature on many people’s “Top 10” list for China (or even the world) and many have been recognised as important by their UNESCO world heritage listing.

Gate of Heavenly Peace,Tiananmen Square

Gate of Heavenly Peace,Tiananmen Square

The Hanging Monastery, Tian Shan

The Hanging Monastery, Tian Shan

Terracotta Warriors , Xian

Terracotta Warriors , Xian

Sometimes we were joined by crowds of other tourists, others we had the place to ourselves to quietly contemplate what it all meant but we often struggled to identify with the authenticity of where we were visiting.

Given the age and expansive history of China it’s not surprising that many sites have been remodeled, rebuilt and restored. The Great Wall was built over many hundreds of years and started as a mud bank – the current brick fascia and ramparts weren't added until the Ming dynasty, 400 years ago. In places these have been restored so that it’s possible to walk on the wall and imagine yourself repelling (unsuccessfully) Mongol invaders, in others it is left crumbling and impassable. So which is the ‘authentic’ Great Wall experience – wandering along the original mud embankment?

The Great Wall

The Great Wall

Looking out over The Great Wall

Looking out over The Great Wall

China’s new wealth has seen many towns and cities invest in new infra-structure. Images of Shanghai’s towering skyline are well known but it has seemed like nearly all cities in China are in the process of a building boom. Huge, 30 storey, lego-block apartment buildings are appearing on the outskirts of most cities to meet the needs of the growing population. Old quarters of towns are razed to make way for modernity and, in some cases, brand-new ‘ancient’ buildings.

In Datong, Shanxi Provence, the city government are in the process of investing in tourism by rebuilding the entire ancient city – knocking down any building taller than three stories, replacing them with copies of Ming and Qing dynasty low-rise housing (although they will actually to be used for retail) and rebuilding the city walls to the exact plan from 600 years ago. The original walls were removed as the city expanded and life become more peaceful, the stone used to build more housing. Local officials have offered money to buy back these stones for the reconstructed walls but needless to say, few people have been willing to part with what has become an essential part of their homes.

Instead the city walls have been rebuilt using brand-new stone, which gives a certain Las Vegas or Disneyland quality to the overall effect. Although there is the greater problem that the original walls had passed through what is now a communist party building, who are rather reluctant to move... So the city has just three of the four ‘defensive’ walls rebuilt.

There are many more examples of local government investment into rebuilding ancient buildings to lure in the tourist. Some look like and are used as sets for TV and film, others are plain replacements for relics lost in the cultural revolution, many have been over-restored (including, in my opinion, parts of ‘The Forbidden City’) and there is, of course, a significant chunk that were built ‘around 2008’.

The Laughing Buddha

The Laughing Buddha

Rooftops at Wang Family Compound

Rooftops at Wang Family Compound

Ancient streets of Pingyao

Ancient streets of Pingyao

Like the road-sweeper’s 40 year-old broom that has been completely replaced, in parts, over the working lifetime of its owner, few places are truly original and nor would we want them preserved. The guidebooks may describe places and ‘ancient’, ‘like it was years ago’ and even 'hoary' but the truth is that the lines between new and old are blurred in China and neither is more (or less) authentic than the other.

Posted by stuartfinch 02:55 Archived in China Comments (1)


The Peace Hotel Shanghai

You'll have to excuse me for skipping the Mongolian and Chinese food blog, because of this....IMG_6591.jpg
and this
and this
and that is all...and I love you

Posted by ChipFondue 09:40 Comments (1)

What noise does an angry Mongolian tent make?


sunny 25 °C
View Somewhere Over The Urals. on stuartfinch's travel map.

Not a yurt and pronounced to rhyme with her, hair or here - the ger is a lot more spacious than you’d think. Inside there are usually some of the mod-cons you’d expect of a 21st century family; satellite TV, telephone and other solar powered electrical items. Yet the ger is essentially governed by the nomadic lifestyle their owners live.

Ger on the steppe

Ger on the steppe

Ger at sunset

Ger at sunset



A central wooden wagon wheel is held up by posts to provide height, whist the often intricately decorated spokes and the wooden lattice-work walls give the ger its shape. Covered in layers of felt and cloth it is quite weather proof and can keep you very snug and warm when it’s blowing a gale outside, especially when the fire is lit inside the metal box that sits immediately in front of the door. The ger can and is dismantled several times a year and moved on the back of an overloaded truck or yak to fresh pastures.

After a few visits to a ger we realised that there are some common features and customs to all gers. The internal layout follows a similar pattern with door facing south, beds on either side and further furniture (dressers, wardrobes, chests, tables) at the back. It always includes a small shrine adorned with Buddhist images and texts, family photos and an array of rather kitsch horse statuettes; the type that wouldn’t have looked out of place on my Gran’s sideboard.

Ger structure

Ger structure

Horsehair in ger

Horsehair in ger

Ger life

Ger life

Considering the nomadic lifestyle and reliance on their livestock as a source of all food, there would invariably be a range of different foodstuffs and instruments to aid in their production visible in the ger. A huge vat of fermenting mare’s milk (‘airag’) by the door, trays of drying curd cheese, a wooden contraption to distil ‘vodka’ from the fermented milk, ritual wooden spoons to flick milk offerings to the sky every morning, unidentifiable parts of goat or sheep hung to cure from any convenient hook and a large metal bowl of slowly simmering mutton provide you with a complete picture. Yet it is the smell that lingers. Close, I imagine, to that of a sweaty, smokey dairy that had been wrapped in a massive blanket to fester for a while, I got quite used to it!

When inside we were expected to follow a few simple rules. Leaning over or standing on the threshold was considered rude, as was crossing your legs when eating. We slept with our feet towards the door and respected the family’s treasured possessions, especially those on the altar and the horse hair hanging from the central anchor rope – each taken as a memento of a favourite horse. Other, more ‘western’, social norms were not observed. You entered without knocking and could expect to share the food and drink available – Mongolian hospitality is rightly renowned.

Curing meat

Curing meat

Our hosts for the night

Our hosts for the night

Inside a ger

Inside a ger

I have many fond memories of nights spent in a ger; sharing a single bed to keep warm, watching Korean soap operas dubbed into Mongolian, the stars, the poos with views but right now my lasting memory is a lesson learned on our final night in a ger. If you should trip, the metal fire box that keeps you snug and warm, should not, if at all possible, be used to break your fall…



Off to China nursing sore hand.

Posted by stuartfinch 07:33 Archived in Mongolia Comments (1)

Food Glorious Food!

semi-overcast 10 °C

We've just returned from 14 days travelling around southern and central Mongolia (formerly Outer), but more about that later...

Food Glorious Food…Well, as I should have expected from the former capital, capital and major tourist destinations, there wasn't going to be glorious traditional fare - take the picture quiz at the end of this post to see if you can identify which places we didn't visit whilst in Saint Petersburg, Moscow and Ekaterinburg.

Saint Petersburg, was our first port of call and the starting place for our journey to Oz. Stuart doesn’t think we’ll make it that far, but I’m determined to follow in Dorothy’s footsteps and find the Wizard and a way back home…Where the devil are my slippers!

We arrived late at Hotel Vera and we decided to eat in the hotel restaurant, which had some Russian dishes on the menu, I chose a plate of pickles to start with followed by plamen, which is Russian ravioli, usually tightly filled with minced packed cow and pig*, but sometimes fish then cooked and served in a herby broth with a large dollop of sour cream on top, this was delicious, but then anything with a large dollop of sour cream on top can’t be bad.

  • I say cow and pig because they use all of the animal in Russia, you don't know which bits, but they taste good, if seasoned correctly.

The starter of a plate of pickles, a traditional starter for Russians, and if you like your mushrooms and cherry tomatoes pickled, a lovely starter for you too. The mushrooms were pickled in a slimy vinegar and the cherry tomatoes took on a very strange taste, sort of sweet and sour. The other pickles were your bog standard gherkin, silver skin onions, mini corn and the obligatory sauerkraut.

The mushrooms are under the red onion, and there where they should stay...forever!

Stuart’s dinner was Russian chicken en croute, but with minced chicken which gave it a soggy sponge texture, not nearly as bad as the mouth feel of the mushrooms though.
The ramakin is full of melted butter...yummy!

After five nights of tourist type food we asked the hotel receptionist to recommend a local restaurant with good Russian food, she wrote down the name of a restaurant a few streets away and we headed off.

By this stage, I'd pretty much grasped the art of reading Cyrillic (Н is pronounced Ne, И = He & Л = L, thus my name is Cyrillic is written НИЛ), but all of this doesn't help when there are no street signs and the restaurant decides to update its fascia.

We eventually found it and settled into a very empty, ye olde style Russian eatery, something which all the guide books tell you to avoid at all costs. The menu looked perfect, meat, pickles, more meat and cheese.

Stuart waiting for service in a Saint Petersburg traditional Russian restaurant

Firstly, we had Russian pasties filled with potato and onion; and cabbage and cheese.
2013-08-04_Pasties.jpgThis is mobile photo, so they don't look amazing, but tasted fantastic.

Here are a few more dishes I consumed in Russia, most of which I've already shared on FB.

Goat cheese and beetroot salad with balsamic dressing, not really Russian, but really tasty.

Steamed salmon and red caviar cream sauce, served with boiled broccoli; and boiled and breaded cauliflower.

Raw fish amuse bouche.

Salty beef stew and creamy mash.

Raw fish starter at lake Baikal

A platter of tinned cherry beef (from top left going clockwise), fried potatoes (soggy french fries!), roasted egg plant and cheese; and pork escalope covered in cheese with baked potatoes covered in cheese...you gotta love cheese...especially in Russia!

Borscht on the train from Saint Petersburg to Moscow, and then again on the train from Moscow to Vladimir, and again on the train from Vladimir to Irkutsk, and again.....you get the picture.

This is rice and meat (I think it was cow?) with carrot and peas, again on a train. I would have compare it to British Rail food, but I haven't tasted that in decades.

My beef stroganoff and a glass of wine t 10:30 pm: during the White Nights in Saint Petersburg. White Nights refer to the fact that the sun doesn't completely set during late June and July, but they carry on during August for tourist purposes.

Stuart's specially made sorrel soup was delicious!

And now test your knowledge of international high street food brands, answers on a postcard please...

You should recognise the colours and font, if not the words.

You'll know the name and it's the first branch of his restaurant in Russia, he chose Saint Petersburg.

I haven't seen this chain on England, but there are many cool outlets in Goa!

Again, you should know the font and the fact it begins with M!

No more clues...

Sign up to the blog now because we won't have FB foe a few months in China.
Love and miss you

Posted by ChipFondue 06:43 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

Overheard conversation

sunny 20 °C

Our long-distance train journeys have changed subtly as we have ventured east as they have become increasingly filled with international travelers. Consequently, what started out with what felt like an intrepid journey alone, where we had to learn train etiquette the hard way, it is now a more social activity comparing plans, notes and previous experiences with fellow passengers. On our most recent trip across the border into Mongolia we shared a carriage with French, Swiss, German, American, Austrian, Indian, Dutch and Chinese nationals to name a few. Invariably the language of most international conversations is English, which resulted in this overheard conversation…

“Oh yes! You can get Starbucks in China”
“Yes, the Chinese love the Americans”
“You mean all things American, not all Americans”
“Except Google”

I was reminded that less than 7% of the world’s population will travel internationally this year and no matter how homogeneous we become as a global population, I am one of a very fortunate few to experience this.

Posted by stuartfinch 22:23 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

I spy with my little eye...

...something beginning with T

View Somewhere Over The Urals. on stuartfinch's travel map.

One thing is self-evident by the length of time we have spent on trains playing “I spy with my little eye, something beginning with T” and that’s Russia is vast. So huge in fact, that after a week travelling eastward and in our fifth time zone, we have only just passed the half-way point to Beijing from Moscow. Travelling for days at a time can be monotonous but the regular stops, at sometimes unsociable hours, provide a break for some exercise and a brief encounter with local entrepreneurs who tempt you to part with your cash for handicrafts or fridge magnets. The ubiquitous presence of these fridge magnets is just one small way in which this country is clearly more unified than I had previously expected.

For over a thousand years this region has been ruled by great leaders from Vladimir to Vladimir, via several Ivans, Romanovs and Communists. I apologise to those of you reading who have an interest in History for my rather glib resume of Russian politics but my point is that other regions of the world are comprised of many different indigenous groups and are divided along these lines. Russia is not. There is a proud nationalism that seeps into every conversation we have; often forcefully stated by men whilst slapping their chest “I, am Russian!” There are no longer hammer and sickle insignias plastered in every public space to subdue the population and although Lenin is a regular feature in town squares, neither he nor Putin can take credit for this sense of unity.

Gone too are the grey tower blocks and food queues I remember Sue Lawley reporting on back during the cold war. Bread now comes wrapped in several convenient packages – all of which denote a different shelf-life. Wrapped in paper your loaf will last until the following morning, a plastic bag and it will last a few days but wrapped in its own cushion of atmosphere, plump like a pillow, and it could potentially resist the effects of thermonuclear warfare (and tastes accordingly!)

Food shopping involves a lot of pointing and guesswork in a country where you can’t converse and struggle to read the alphabet, colour has come to the fore as a means of communication for us. It was Alastair who once told me that a brand really ‘needed a colour’ to be effective (what is the colour of Easy Jet, Coca Cola and Barclay’s? – there you go) but colour sends different messages throughout Russia. The painted stonework and gold leaf in the palaces impart wealth, the colour of uniforms reflect your job or rank and the colours of the onion domes denote to whom the church is dedicated. The prettiest of which has to be the blue with gold stars on the Cathedral of the Birth of the Mother of God in Suzdal. I spent an evening reading about the origin and meaning of onion domes thanks to the detailed if somewhat academic work of Prof. Dr. S. A. Zagraevsky - recommended to those with an interest in Russian religious architecture


I have also taken a slightly unnerving interest in fashion, shoes in particular, which seem to be statement pieces for the many ladies we have seen tottering along cobbled streets in the most unsuitably unstable footwear. As ever, colour sends a message here too with a direct correlation between the amount of neon worn and how little is left to the imagination. Many Russian men wear the blue and white striped muscle vests of the paratroopers, partnered with very short shorts; they look like they’ve stepped out of a Jean Paul Gaultier ad. We witnessed the drunken antics of several hundred celebrating national paratrooper’s day with flags, marching bands and plenty of vodka. This was exciting and fearful in equal measure!

We have now reached the shores of Lake Baikal for a few days rest and self-flagellation with birch twigs in the town’s banyas. Neil has been impressing me with his ‘Baikal facts’ the most memorable being that if the world lost all other sources of fresh water, there is enough in the lake to supply all 7 billion of us with water for 40 years! Here, it is grey and raining. Still, how else do you expect the world’s largest lake to fill?

PS The answer to the ‘I Spy’ question was tree – it’s always tree…

Posted by stuartfinch 05:41 Archived in Russia Comments (1)

TV Dinners

rain 22 °C

As Stuart and I were planning this escapade, I decided to blog mostly about the love of my life and along side Stuart my love for food is well known; as well as making it and delighting guests with my creations, I love eating it!

So my blogging was primarily going to be about regional foods, a potted history of the food and what it tastes like. I thought that if local people are surviving on the cuisine, then I should be able to eat it and survive too.

It could turn out that it's the same food I eat at home, but with a different name or slightly different ingredient, or it could be offal. I would, where possible, try and find out what a foodstuff was made from before woofing it down, but if I couldn't do that then the 'point to the item on the menu to order and poke around with a fork when it arrives' technique would be used.

However, upon arriving at our hotel (the tale of this journey will be told in a later story), I realised there are three loves of my life, that being foreign TV. I t's one of the first things I do when I get to a hotel room, if there is a TV...on it goes, well I need to know if there are any episodes of Cagney and Lacey I missed.

Having found a news channel, this time it was the good 'ole BBC, sometimes it can be one of the wonderful American broadcasters, oh how I love to see the World though their eyes. Then I trawl though the rest of the channels hoping for something that might broadcast in English, or American, but loving it when I find a programme or series I'm familiar with and listening to the marvellous dubbing into the local language.

So there you have it, I will be mostly blogging about my eats but also my TV treats, and sometimes I might mention Stuart....

Errors and omissions - if you do spot any, keep to ourself, it's not due to me lack of understanding of the English language or gammer, it could be die to my fat fingers getting used to this keybord, dodgy transportation or inability to type in tthe local script...I will of course try and prof read when I can...hope you enjoy reading.

Posted by ChipFondue 21:42 Archived in Russia Comments (2)

The night before last

I love living in London.

I moved here 17 years ago and I still get a thrill whenever I cross Waterloo Bridge on a bus – the best view of the city, especially at twilight. What I have asked of this city has changed over the years; from cocktail bars and nightclubs to, more recently, quiet pints and good restaurants. London is all things to all people. I have spent nearly all of these years working in the same school and like a comfortable pair of slippers it feels safe and familiar. I enjoy work and feel privileged to be able to say that but, like all well-worn slippers that get a bit tatty and frayed around the edges, it’s time for something new.

And so, it started with a simple question “What would you like for your birthday?”

Reaching 40 was more of a game-changer than I had bargained for, after all, I can remember my Dad’s 40th birthday celebrations; we used to rib friends who reached this age when we were still ‘young’ and in our 30’s; this was the age of a colleague and dear friend when I first came to London and he was therefore ‘old’. Now I am.

What started as an almost flippant response to the original question has developed from hare-brained idea, to the back of an envelope (quite literally), to maps on the wall and eventually reality. I believe that we only got here by sheer bloody mindedness and awful lot of help and inspiration from family & friends (you know who you are – thank you). There will surely be ‘lands of many contrasts’ and ‘endless skies’ (thought I’d get these clichés over with quickly) but what lies ahead is unknown and that’s almost certainly the point.

Posted by stuartfinch 15:20 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (1)

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