Monday, February 13, 2017

The girls' first week--and the kids making the move

The girls have been here more than a week now. We've found a Chinese nanny, ditched her and found another one -- this one should be much better, not only because she lives in the same community which is more convenient, but because she is our age, rather than a grandmother. There's a big difference in parenting style as well as language and physical capabilities. More on that another time.

Hannah's had her first week in the German kindergarten and all is well so far; lots of play, after school activities (like hip hop, running and things) and the like. So far she is managing ok with the early starts and lack of a lunchtime nap as long as she goes to bed early in the evenings. Not sure yet on how the German is coming along, but let's give it a few weeks and see.

Andrea's had a few job interviews and things look quite promising. They're happy in the apartment, sparse as it is until our things arrive in Shenzhen in a few weeks. We've bought a few things locally which should arrive this week or next week which will make things more interesting.

The kids have found some Chinese, Kenyan and Foreign friends, and hopefully will make some close friendships. They've enjoyed their weekends at some of Nairobi's best fun fairs and shopping malls. Yesterday one of them organized a special kids' activity for Valentine's Day that kept them busy with arts, bouncy castles, games, lego, face paining and even cake. It's an incredible shopping mall of which more another time. Today we spent the day at a fun fair, all day, in the heat and sun--without anyone getting sunburnt which is a big achievement! Every day is dry, hot and sunny.Every evening is nice and cool.

Last weekend we went to a coffee plantation in the countryside that has some kids activities and also went to a kid's birthday party (in a very nice house). Andrea's seen a local food market as well as the supermarkets; we've also been to the local crafts area with locals making all manner of things out of wood, metal and clay (such as beds, playground equipment and plant pots).

I think it is fair to say the kids have been spoilt with their weekends and their friends. But at least they are happy; as is Andrea. It is actually incredible how easy the move has been for Hannah... from before we left, telling her we were going to China, until coming here (via a couple of weeks in Europe). Maybe it is because she was excited to learn German in Kenya; maybe it is because she remembers the move from Beijing positively (and still remembers some of the people there who she saw occasionally) and how she had no problem making new friends again--and indeed is always making new friends in England, Germany and eslewhere; maybe it is because she just picks up positive vibes from us; or maybe it is just because she was excited to spend the 2 weeks in Europe so leaving China was easier.

Obviously we did our best to talk about the positives, not say things about not seeing people again and raise the possibility of seeing some of her friends again. But honestly I think it is all down to Hannah. She is always open, quick to make new friends. Obviously we don't quite know what is happening at the new kindergarten with her teachers and friends but if Hannah is happy then it must be alright. Leah of course, as a 2-year old, has less to worry about, less understanding of what is happening, and less ability to say anything anyway! But she's been fine (almost too fine!) never seeing the nanny again who she loved for almost two years.

It is, in summary, amazing how well we, as people, can adapt to new places, jobs, environments, and people. But it is much more incredible that kids can do it, when they can't think logically, of big pictures, or even rationally much of the time.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Life in Nairobi and Life on the walk to work

As with moving to Shenzhen two years ago, I'm alone for a month so I'm in a simple regular routine involving walking to and from the office, cooking dinner in the evening whilst watching something on TV (such as the Crown or Sherlock) and relaxing at the weekend with some running and even swimming in the pool too.

We've intentionally chosen to live in one of the apartment complexes with many others from Huawei so that the kids will have other Chinese kids to play with and keep their language skills.It is an area with a significant Chinese presence; not too far from the Chinese embassy and with at least a dozen Chinese restaurants within a few miles as well as a couple of Chinese hotels and office buildings built by Chinese. We're also planning to employ a Chinese nanny for Leah to keep the language skills up (the nanny being a grandma who is here with her family but with some spare time on her hands).

The area, suitable for Andrea, is also the main hub for NGOs and start-ups in Nairobi. Like much of Nairobi, which is mostly a combination of suburbs around a downtown, it is fairly green with some gentle hills. We have lots of birds and also some monkeys that come by looking for food.There's 3 large shopping malls within a ten minute walk; one of which has a cinema. All of which have metal detectors that you need to get through before being allowed in (a shopping mall in another part of town was subject to a large terrorist attach a few years ago, from Somali terrorists angry at Kenya's role in Somalia).

Safety is of course a concern in Kenya--particularly in comparison to China, probably one of the safest places in the World due to the large number of security cameras, police and security guards, and enforcement/punishment of crime among other factors. Kenya has made tremendous progress in recent years, with more security cameras and police, as well as security in shopping malls. There's also many private security employed by different apartment complexes and houses. However there is no denying the risk is real-which means not walking alone outside at night in particular, though in general during the daytime it is safe. This is something we'll need to adapt to (more taxi, less walking).

In fact the walk to and from work is quite pleasant. The temperature it not too hot, the skies blue and the sun shining (there is a rainy season though at some points of the year). Along the way I walk past quite a lot which I'll list so it gives a sense of Nairobi. I walk from a suburban area towards downtown but about 2/3rds of the way to downtown veer off to one of the main business districts, which is also not too far from the main government buildings.
- a couple of boutique style hotels
- the Chinese Xinhua Media Agency,
- the China Center,
- some road widening,
- a Christian hospital and a couple of churches,
- several Matatu stops,
- a couple of busy junctions where there are policeman at rush hour directing traffic (though a smart traffic light system may be coming in the future, even where there are traffic lights in Nairobi, they aren't used much with policemen preferred),
- the new buildings for Nairobi Hospital (a private hospital) and several other health centers (dentists, opticians etc) as well as the Kenyatta National Hospital (the largest public Hospital) and its Medical Training College,
- a company selling solar panels
- a second-hand car shop
- the National Library and their unfinished new building,
- the European Union Embassy,
- the Japanese Embassy,
- several banks and insurance companies' headquarters
- Coca-cola's office
- the Teacher's Union building
- several shacks which serve as hairdressers or restaurants
- several newspaper and snack stands and a few shoe-shining guys
- 3 or more beggars (always in the same spot every day, all day long)
- 5 or more local street sellers, usually selling fruit, breakfast of some kind, or something else
- several motorbike taxis hanging around on the corner

Saturday, January 07, 2017

New Year and first experiences living in Nairobi

New Year has never been a particularly big deal for us in China (though it is a long weekend public holiday) but it is a slightly bigger deal in Kenya as most people take the Christmas-to-New Year (and often more days afterwards) off to go back to their village. The most significant consequence of that? Absolutely zero traffic on the roads over New Year! Even on the Friday before New Year's which was a normal working day (in theory) there was no traffic at rush hour (a week later the traffic at rush hour is definitely back!). 

Over the weekend I met some friends for lunch along with a walk and run in the fantastic Karura Forest (somewhat like the Lane tradition in the UK, yet it was 25 degrees here, rather than 5 degrees in the UK!). There is a wonderful cafe in the forest with great views, a small playground and good food. I suspect we'll be going there regularly. The forest itself has a variety of routes for walking, and I returned there on New Year's Day for the 15km run (it covers most of the man paths in the forest) which has been a regular weekend activity for me in previous visits to Nairobi and is still really nice. 

I had to dodge a deer and see a monkey run away from me and it always smells very nice. Much of the route is on tracks, usually with a gradient though there are some stretches properly off-road through the woods and up or down some steep inclines. It is mostly in the shade so it is not too hot.

I've been walking to and from work to get some exercise (35 minutes walk) and since it is quite cool in the mornings and late afternoons (low twenties) it is pleasent. It only heats up to the high twenties during the middle of the day (which today I took advantage of to use the swmming pool in our apartment complex for the first time, even though the water was pretty cold). I also did some shopping for the apartment, though we'll be trying to get by on the basics until the stuff from China gets here.

Kenyan supermarkets are very similar to those in the UK and very different to those in China. All the usual Western brands and products as well as food items (even Branston Pickle, which goes well in a toasted cheese sandwhich, since i'm not much of a cook). And cheaper than it was to buy the same imported products in China. It also seems like many of the shopping malls have outdoor kids playgrounds which is nice. It is a nice shopping experience and exciting to have easy access to certain little treats (the mince pies are cheap now post-christmas!) though I have forgotten how little food one actually gets through when living alone and only really eating one meal a day.

As would be expected, with the low average incomes, many things that are produced/provided locally are quite reasonable, and this includes cinemas. It seems like Kenyans aren't really into the cinema yet as prices are low and seats always available.  I've taken advantage of that (and I recommend the film, Why Him? as a surprisingly good comedy) with the local cinema a ten minute walk away.

Kenyans enjoy going out to eat and drink (the middle classes, obviously) and apart from the local snack stalls and restaurants downtown, in the suburbs all the restauants are basically bungalows with large car parks, outdoor seating, and a barbeque for grilling meat. It means most restaurants are quite hidden and also spread out down various leafy lanes. There's a range of Chinese restaurants as well as other international cuisines. I'm looking forward to exploring more of them in the future!

Sunday, January 01, 2017

A new adventure: Moving to Kenya

On Thursday I finally flew to Kenya to start a new job and a new life; having spent almost 2 months off working through various recruitment approvals and processes as I moved from Huawei HQ to Huawei Kenya. Andrea and the girls will be here in a month after stopping by Europe.

It's a big deal. I think the change surprises others (who never thought we'd ever leave China) more than us. There's several reasons for the move such as work and education but it's one step closer to Europe and time for a new, and interesting adventure, after spending such a long time in China.

China is still an interesting place of course, though it is probably changing less nowadays, and I remain interested in seeing how the future there evolves. None-the-less, whilst hoping we don't regret leaving one of the safest countries in the world and one of the easiest and most convenient lifestyles there is, a new adventure is exciting and interesting personally and professionally--some things are in place and others are not, but over the next few months we'll work things out as a family.

I expect a whole new raft of blogs if I find the time about the new experience and the new life--and some updates on how things are going. As ever the blog is part a personal diary and reflection and part an update for anyone that is interested.

So come to Kenya--a place with easy-to-get e-visas, fantastic climate year-round, and a relatively safe and mosquito-free environment plus of course national parks, beaches and much more. It is one of the most dynamic and leading countries in Africa and a bit of a shining light....long may it continue!

The consumer benefits of a very large market

China is a large country with a large population--and this causes many challenges but it also creates many opportunities, not least because almost the entire population speaks (and reads) the same language, and is of the same ethnicity.

For technology companies it is hugely helpful to have such a large market speaking the same language, using the same regulatory system, having similar interests, and even using the same banks. When trying to scale up services this makes it much easier to invest money and get fast results at a large scale compared to having to do this across multiple countries where none of these factors are true. This is one reason why many of the Chinese technology companies are so successful and able to invest in innovation: because one single service can quickly be rolled out to several hundreds of millions of people.

There is also a whole ecosystem that works together at large scale: the same suppliers and distributors are often nationwide and thus good partners for companies. And with such tremendously large and dense urban populations, like Shenzhen for example, which are also fairly wealthy, with good infrastructure, and with many relatively wealthy people within them, it is a consumer's paradise.

Having lived in Shenzhen you can find a dozen providers of organic food who will bring food to your door daily, that you order in advance on an app, hundreds of restaurants nearby who will deliver food to you (also ordered on an app or by phone if one really prefers) directly or indirectly (through a delivery company), and millions of locally manufactured products that will be at your door within 24 hours. In fact there is almost too much choice!

Then of course there are the additional services. Shenzhen has more than a dozen trampoline parks (last year there was only 1), more than 4 large theme parks, a wildlife park, multiple beaches, hundreds of parks, hundreds of shopping malls (all with cinemas, playgrounds and more inside), several exhibition centers and so on. No matter what you are looking for, you can find it simply because there is such a large market. Even if you are part of a very niche market, that would be sizable enough for someone to cater to it--whether it is a strange hobby or a weird product.

As so many things are made in China, even things that the Chinese don't want you can still buy in China--such as a toasted cheese maker (though online rather than taking up space in shops). But it is also imported products.I don't think any Chinese would eat smoked salmon but its easy to buy online from a company who imports it and then sends it across the country to your door still frozen within a day due to the good logistics system (and suitable packaging). I also don't know who would want to buy a Christmas advent calendar but there are several available; or Original Source Tea Leaves Shampoo - but even that is available online that someone has already imported into China and can send to you. In fact even this availability of imported goods is only possible when you have such a large domestic market.

Governments have been able to invest in infrastructure; companies have been able to invest in services and supply chains; and consumers get a fantastically convenient life. Spoilt......

Saturday, December 31, 2016

An early birthday party and getting the balance right as parents

Since Hannah would not be in China in a few weeks for her actual birthday, we needed to have a birthday party (and kind of a leaving party) for her close friends.

We opted not to go for the outside option (previously we had done this before at playgrounds/with cooking and a popular option nowadays is trampolining) and instead go again with the at-home option: a very traditional party with a theme (the film" Frozen"), games (from "musical statues" to "treasure hunt" to "pass the parcel"), a cake made by the birthday girl's mother and so on. The parents were happy to ditch their kids for a few hours. We struggled to keep tensions from boiling over and an eye on everything, but it was a success.

I had a very careful balancing act with timing the music for "pass the parcel" to ensure everyone got something and to manage expectations for all those who did not actually win the final prize (which was then shared with everyone else anyway) and Andrea and I had a similar challenge with the "treasure hunt" outside (where we did some of the games).

The kids made pizza and caused lots of chaos: it was a fairly stressful 3 hours but they all enjoyed it which was the aim, of course. Except for Hannah who enjoyed some of it, but had a massive breakdown during some of the games. First when her ball didn't go in the circle in her early attempts and she was told to go to the back of the line and wait her turn to try again (yet some of her other friends got the ball in the circle earlier than her), and then during the treasure hunt when she had trouble accepting she could not be the first person to find every single "treasure". In fact such a possibility was hinted at in the weekly newsletter about birthday parties!

Just as predicted, Hannah had been very excited for several days (several times each day asking how many more days until her party), was also a little stressed, and was keen to be the center of attention. Hannah has always liked to be the "leader" and "number 1" - which she often is, with a younger sister who looks up to her - and we like to encourage her to be proactive and approach other friends and so on, but we do also have trouble striking a balance in saying it is ok not to always win, for others to win, and for you still to be happy. Clearly we still have some work to do! I think it will help when she moves school. We'll still want her to be extrovert of course and to make new friends, but in a school with more European kids of her size and more extrovert personality (many Chinese kids, especially girls, are quite introvert) she will have to adapt. She has done so before when playing with older kids in other environments, so I'm sure she'll be fine.

It is a tricky balance: supporting a child to grow according to their personality and what is needed to be successful and happy - a balance between extroversion and introversion; leadership and teamwork; strong willingness and compassion and so on. Of course everyone has their own personality, but we all need to adapt based on context and environment to some extent.

Another difficult balance to strike is around spoiling children. We don't think we spoil our kids. They have a nice life, and they have most things. We let them have fun but they don't always get what they want (such as ice cream every day, a little electric sit-in car, roller blades that will only be used once, limits on fair ground rides and so on). Certainly we try to ensure we get what we want and that our kids listen to us, but it's not always easy (especially when children are tired)... lots of compromise and another balance: between rewards, punishments, and trying not to always have to use rewards or punishments as a motivational tool! We think it's ok so far but we continue to learn as parents.

Having said all that, giving Hannah three parties (of a sort) in China, England and Germany won't help!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Chinese Food (and drink)

The last few days in China have led me to reflect on Chinese food since it will be something that will not be as readily available once we leave China.

China has a large variety of food that varies by region, but with so much internal migration there is a lot of each region's food available in other regions - and what most restaurants have in common is a large menu!

There are a lot of favorites that I'd always tend to order--usually vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, green beans, stewed radish, egg and tomato for example. We're not a fan of cold dishes (a requisite "starter" in China) too much but the smashed cucumber with garlic is good. Meet can be hit and miss in China with some highly variable quality: especially chicken, with lots of bones, and pork with lots of fat so beef is a safer bet and lamb is quite rare (though fantastic when cooked with cumin). From very spicy to sweet and sour or just fried with onions or other vegetables, there is a lot of choice. You can also go for meet cooked in a sizzling pan, or in a pan over a candle on your table, or of course cook it yourself in a hot pot on your table (or in another different style, have it cooked for you in a pot after you select it). It can also be BBQ'd in small skewers or even with a whole animal on a skewer in front of you.

We never used to go for fish too much, but have much more since having kids and finding a style of cooking fish that the kids would like and some fish without too many bones, or at least that enables easy removal of the fish off of the bones. Then of course there is the sort of deep-friend fish in sweet and sour sauce where the bones seem to get fried into smithereens and disappear!

There is the interesting presentation and approaches to combining foods: such as putting diced meat in a small bun to eat it, or putting ice cream inside a hollowed-out, warm, loaf of bread. Both of which are fantastic by the way.

The Chinese love their rice, and also their noodles - and there is a huge variety of noodles, both in how they are made (thin, wide, sliced, diced and more) and what they are made out of (including Spinach for example) and they'll come with anything under the sun if as a main course, on its own if at the end of the meal. Then there is also dumplings, more from the North, but available everywhere in various connotations, normally boiled or steamed (in which case it is not a dumpling strictly speaking), but occasionally fried. Usually dry, but also available in soups; usually filled with something (and it is amazing to watch how fast some cooks can wrap dumplings) but also sometimes without - just the dumpling skin.

Deserts don't really exist thought here is some sweet dishes and desert equivalents in Southern China especially Taiwan and Hong Kong with dim sum and shaved ice (an old favorite of mine was dipping a fruit in molten sugar and putting that in water to cool and go hard).

There's the raw spicy from Sichuan and the hot spicy from Hunan. There's the sweet and sour from the North-East; there's the lighter food from East China. There's the meat heavy food from the North-West, the preference for noodles in the north, rice in the south, and even bread in the North-West.

It is fairly hard to define Chinese food in general unless one talks about how it is eaten: mostly shared dishes, and always with chop sticks (the Chef will slice everything up small in advance). It's also mostly cooked in woks that are multi-functional allowing boiling, frying, steaming and everything in between in one pot. Unfortunately the Chinese still like to use a lot of oil in most of their cooking - it certainly makes it more flavorsome, but also makes it much less healthy.

I could go on forever, but I won't. I also won't try to even list my favorite dishes. I can't cook much Chinese food which is a real shame - it is not particularly hard from what I can tell and is usually just a mix-and-match of ingredients around a few ways of cooking mostly. I love the fact you can take-away any leftovers; and you can usually order food from the local at all hours (or online if so inclined).

Certainly being able to read Chinese is of immense help (even if there is a menu in English the translations can't be relied upon), though there are also frequently photos. I do still vaguely recall my early days in China of eating the same few dishes all the time (that i could pronounce in Chinese) and of lots of pointing (usually at other diners' dishes, sometimes in the actual kitchen). Though there are a million food related words with every part of an animal named differently, every variation in vegetable named differently too. It's not just the difficulty actually finding English names for some of the vegetables that are in the Far East, it is that there is not such a name (or maybe it only exists in Latin!) - 10 different type of mushrooms with different names, for example.

Few meal times would be complete without tea, of course; but also without alcohol from the many different kinds of hard liquor that the Chinese drink (usually awful to my tastebuds) to the lighter (sometimes sweeter) liquors that are quite nice to the generally bland-but-passable lagers and the new-ish tendency for wine.

The endless competition and entrepreneurial nature of China does mean some higher quality and more innovation, that is welcome... though queuing is common at popular restaurants. This also leads to the ready availability of Korean and Japanese food (not too bad), Western food (usually awful pizzas or french fries with something or a all-you-can-eat buffet) and even some Thai or Vietnamese food (highly varied). There's also western bakeries, though they're still outnumbered by Chinese bakeries with their very sweet breads and rolls, the tendency to put various fluffy things on top of the bread, or the desire to stuff the breads with sausages, cream or something else.

I think it is time to end this post for the meantime without even going into the supermarket experiences, the Chinese wet (and dry) markets, the passion for dried (and highly preserved) food and also the cultural connotations around certain foods (like giving and eating sweets for prosperity) or how it is eaten (the customs around serving others, paying and so on). Suffice to say, it is a special aspect of living in China and I foresee one that will be missed.... despite the odd Chinese restaurants overseas, it is certainly not going to be the same!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Vietnam nine years later

So back in Vietnam 9 years with the family (including my dad) after a previous trip. A quick comparison of photos shows some differences: no trekking in the hills in the rain on this trip, but instead visits to indoor and outdoor playgrounds (we actually wanted to visit an indoor water park but it was closed) and purchasing Elsa (from the movie Frozen) clothing at the markets; less visits to bars in the evenings too! My previous visit was longer - about 10 days so I could also see more places (the Demilitarized Zone, Hue, My Son and Sapa for example) than this 6 day trip.

Actually aside from traveling with children this time around (which also means getting less done and moving somewhat slower), the rather crappy weather also affected things - cool and overcast on the boats at Halong Bay and raining in Hoi An disrupted opportunities for going to beaches or swimming - a particular shame for the kids.

In terms of Vietnam: well Hanoi still has insane amounts of motorbikes, but it also has an increasing number of cars (noticeably more than 9 years ago) which makes it much more dangerous; although some roads do seem to be better. The old quarter is still delightful though I don't recall there were so many cafes and hostels there last time. There is still a lot of very local food everywhere on the street (though Andrea was disappointed with the pho, and we tried several). There might be even more clothing markets now that Vietnam has significantly ramped up its manufacturing base (and our hotel this time was right next to a specialist Christmas clothing market). The Thang Long water puppet show has not changed at all (it is interesting reviewing the photos from the previous trip and seeing that it is literally identical in every aspect) and the same grand buildings remain in the French quarter too (though this time with some Christmas decorations reflecting the time of the year).

We didn't go to the Ethnology Museum, but instead went to the Police Museum which was fairly interesting, even with an old motorbike and sidecar the kids were allowed to play in and some kid-size police uniforms they could wear. We also popped by the Vietnamese History museum which really lacked English descriptions of the big picture of what was happening, so the English descriptions of photos of certain people or of certain objects didn't add much value for us.

I don't recall visiting the Hoa Lo Prison last time but it was worth a trip this time: somewhat predictable and not hugely informative, but still. Hannah was a bit scared. A new Vietnamese Women's Museum recently opened too - a nice idea, and fairly well done but only vaguely interesting. I suppose it would be more interesting for those new to Asia who did not know much about women's role in family life or traditional clothing and the like.

Halong Bay is still an incredible place to visit with almost 2,000 limestone peaks jutting out of the sea. It didn't look as incredible as before when it was sunny with clear skies; and it didn't feel as special without viewing the fantastic sunset and sunrise from the top deck of the boat (or indeed sleeping on the boat as it was too cold this time or sunbathing on the boat as the kids preferred drawing), but it is still a real highlight of Asia. Hannah did make it up the 500 odd steps to the viewing platform and enjoyed the large brightly lit cave. She also made friends with some of the others on our tour and both her and Leah enjoyed the rowing boat ride to see the monkeys in the lagoon and making Spring Rolls for dinner on the boat.

Hoi An also remains a real highlight of Asia with several streets of old wooden housing that has not changed much in centuries, as well as some more colorful French buildings in there too. Nowadays almost every building in the old town is a tailor and every building in the rest of the town is a hostel or hotel (several hundred show up online at very cheap prices making it hard to choose!). Not something that kids really enjoy looking at but beautiful for adults. Unfortunately due to major flooding a couple of streets were literally under water and unpassable but otherwise we could see most of what was there. The buildings are very well preserved and there are some delightful cafes and shops.

Apart from spending significant time in the fantastic Dingo's Deli (an Australian restaurant/cafe on the edge of town with great cake and both an indoor and outdoor playroom that are suitable for kids on rainy days) we also did a half-day cooking class. Despite a very wet visit to the market to buy the ingredients it was successful with Hannah helping out a lot, Leah partly watching and partly sleeping, and some good food. Definitely more kid-friendly and suitable for bad weather than hiking or visiting temples!

A good 6-day trip, despite some very average weather, which is cheap to visit from Hong Kong (and with cheap hotels, food and domestic flights, a cheap holiday overall). Certainly recommended for others--even those with kids!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

A final weekend in Beijing?

The family and I took a short trip to Beijing over the weekend. I needed to pop by the Social Insurance Fund office to sort some things out. This was the first time I had been to Beijing in more than a year (the previous time was itself the first time in almost a year before that) and it will likely be quite a while before I am back again. So what does one do when one is planning a "final weekend" in Beijing?

First, arrange for some babysittng for the elder child: Mrs Chen, who used to see Hannah on a weekly basis when she was in Beijing cried when she heard she would be able to look after Hannah for a few days - and then promptly went and stocked up on chocolate and sea food! Second, schedule to meet some friends - not that many are left, but the all-encompassing We Chat serves its purpose well (even for Hannah who met her first best friend with whom she had played almost every single day for the first 3 years of her life, though it was not very successful with the friend not showing much interest in Hannah any more). Third, arrange a hotel - hotels are cheap in Beijing in mid-December. It is winter (a few degrees above zero in the afternoon, a few desgrees below zero the rest of the time), it is coming up to Christmas and Chinese New Year, the air is polluted... anyway, with a large supply of hotels, and few domestic or international tourists or business travellers, a good 5-star international hotel can be grabbed cheap.

We had to eat Peking Duck, of course, with our oldest Chinese AIESEC friends, most of whom now have their own kids, or are soon to have them, though many have also moved to Shanghai or overseas. The private rooms eaily available in Chinese restaurants are fantastic (and also necessary when the main rooms get very loudy and/or smoky) and more Western restaurants should consider this!

Andrea and I did some Hutong walking with Leah - from the Lama Temple past the "in" hutong of the beginning of this decade (Wudaoying) all the way to Beiluoguxiang and its older sister, the "in" hutong of the previous decade (Nanluoguxiang) which suitably enough was being renovated again. When I first went there in 2004 there was one cafe on an alley way, and that was it. A few years later it went though successive transformations with literally a hundred new cafes, bars and shops as well as a dramatic widening of the alleyway, and then this spawned out into all the neighboring alleyways. Then the subway came and now the latest renovation.

We couldn't walk down it due to the latest renovations (also including electricity grid upgrades) so we sauntered off down some of the neiboring ones which have not yet been dramatically changed, past a great little market, past the original Great Leap microbrewery and alongside a newly renovated canal to reach Hou Hai, the lake. Hou Hai was "in" even before Nanluoguxiang... originally a short strip of some upmarket bars, and then a hanfdul of lower market bars, it exploded into line upon line of lower market bars, cafes and shops. And it is still going strong actually more than a decade after that explosion began. The upmarket things have moved into other hutongs near by to be more hidden and exclusive, while the rickshaw drivers consider to ply their trade offering to take guests on tours of the hutongs and the lake. 

The transformation of the hutongs are well commented on--from the original large mansions a century ago to smaller dwellings, and now spruced up again in some parts (and destroyed in other parts). The latest change seems to be a policeman on every other corner in the hutongs. The liveliness of the hutongs in this trendy and in-demand area has certainly diminished but a community feel remains in some of them. 

We had lunch in one of the coutyard houses at the far end of the lake, close to Deshengmen, which typifies some of the changes... the courtyard house is now a nice restaurant serving food from South-West China, with a glass roof over the actual courtyard, a children's playground in a small house accoss the alleyway, and lots of small water features and shrubs in the restaurant. Some of the food was great--some soups, eggplant, toufu, lamb and the mijiu (low alcoholic sweet rice wine). The company: former colleagues from BSR, many also now with children. 

Next--a bus. Alway the best way to see a city: with the locals and with a high view. Bus number 5 in Beijing is one of the best, going through the heart of Beijing from the north-west of the hutongs down past the Forbidden City and sweeping past Tiananmen Square to the South-east of the hutongs where we alighted. These hutongs are the polar opposite to those in the north, and in fact we find these ones fascinating. Some of them, alongside the street running South of Tiananmen, have now been totally rebuilt--and are somewhat derelict. The main street populated by upmarket chains and some old local brands; the neibouring alleways to the eat were knocked down and re-built to a plan that has clearly not worked and much of it is now abandoned after being populated a year or two ago. To the west are some of the remaining community hutongs, very tightly nested together and shooting off in all directions with lots of live (in Summer at least) and a nice local feel to them - we enjoyed the walk through as re reminisced of the previous walks.

To the east of that area, is huge trathes of hutongs that have been demolished in readiness for something big. It has taken more than 5 years to get the existing reidents out and to knock everything down. A strange site of rubble and trees with the odd resident/house remaining; and then further east some hutongs that have been superficially restored by plastering a thin layer of additional bricks around their outside to make them look modern. And then eventually out to Chongwenmen, the shopping area that is where almost all chains start their entrance into Beijing, from H&M to Burger King and much more.

And lastly, to wrap up the Hutong tour, via a detour to get a coffee and waffle, to the South, heading towards the Temple of Heaven is our favourite hutong of all, Ciqikou. A small slice or rual China existing in the capital city: residents from around China living, working, selling, buying on one narrow hutong. We loved the feel, and especially the guy selling some of the best BBQ steak found anywhere. But now, white barriers have been laid down the middle of the hutong, and along both sides, restricting any of the shops from setting out their wares. So no more vegetables, no more street snacks, no more outside eating. No more community. No more favourite Ciqikou hutong. Maybe there is a good reason, or maybe there is not. But on our last trip to Beijing we could say RIP to our favourite hutong. Indeed the hutong had only been found once we realized the best places were hidden behind newly built walls designed to hide the best places! At least that insight remains with me. Where there is a nice wall that looks out of place, go look behind it!

And then another bus - the 43, a classic that goes north-east from the Temple of Heaven passing the old Beijing City Walls and train station, up along Jianguomen waidajie past the legacies of old Beijing, such as the Friendship Store (which seems to somehow still exist from what we could tell, despite zero market for it, and no actual sign on the outside anymore), past the modern Beijing: the tall luxurious apartment and office buildings around Guomao and the CBD complete with giant TV screens as roofs for shopping malls as well as glass pyramids for malls, and where all the 3 BSR offices were that I had worked in.

Up to Sanlitun, the original bar area (though the actual original street, Sanlitun south street was knocked down shortly ater I arrived in 2004, the north street and back street remain in various forms) that has constantly re-invigorated itself with new malls, hotels, and bars; flagship shops and more besides. Dinner had to of course be Western if it is in Sanlitun, in this case some Tapas and then American at Home Plate BBQ, the scene of my "leaving Beijing" party 2 years earlier. With perfect timing one of my oldest friends in China, Chris, with whom together we had studied Chinese, climbed mountains, trekked the Southern and Northern borders of China, donated alcohol on trains, and many more adventures besides, was back in China having left a few years earlier to puruse a PhD. A last meal with him and his wife was perfect.

And if that was not enough for a day, there was still time to go all the way out to Shunyi, the home of the rich, the land of the spaced-out and the villa, to meet another of my eldest friends in Beijing, Ben, with whom we had shared thousands of moments on the football pitch, for a drink and a disappointing viewing of a football match (it really was not a good idea to try to play on a sunday night in december in beijing!).

We'd covered so much of Beijing in that day and a half I was vey satisfied. There of course are many places we could not pack in, but much of the best was ticked off. All that remained on the third day was to spend some quality time with the family, thank Mrs Chen, and to enjoy the wonders of the Hai Di Lau hotpot which we'd enjoyed just a few weeks earlier in Shenzhen too. You cannot have a winter in Beijing without having hotpot.

A quick walk around the Lidu area--one of the oldest foreign business districts in Beijing and one that has dramatically changed with new shopping malls, business parks and art districts--ticked another box. Then a final breakfast at the hotel with another old friend and 72 hours in Beijing was complete. Lots of calories consumed, some burned, lots of friends met, and lots of memories stored.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Shenzhen - a week

With my mum in Shenzhen for a week last month, what did we do?

Well during the so-called typhoon (it really wasn't) we went to an indoor trampoline park (last year there was only one in the whole of Shenzhen, now there is even one cloe to where we live so there must be at least 20 in the city so it is clearly the new thing) which is just one of the many many indoor actvities that children can do (though adults can also do the trampolining). We didn't go to any of the other children's playgrounds but there is one in every mall and we have membership cards for a couple of the larger chains.

We had dinner at the legendary Hai Di Lau hot pot restaurant which for those who do not know of it, do not know what good service is. When we went 5 years ago and Andrea was pregnant she was given a special pack of health products and a special back rest to put on the chair. When we went a few months ago the kid got their own booster pillow to ue and keep. This time we made full use of the facilities: the kid's playground which you can monitor on the screen of the tablet on each table and the free manicure for the girls. We ordered the hand-made noodles, and the chef comes to the table to twirl the dough into noodles for you to cook (a hot pot restaurant at its core is where you cook your own food in a boilinig pot of water on your table).

But what makes Hai Di Lau stand out is the small things: the children's cutlery of couse, but small gifts for the chldren and balloons; the aprons for both adults and kids to protect your clothes; the little sign they put on the table saying the table was taken and not to take the food away whilst we were all away from the table for a minute (at manicure/playground/washroom). And of course the actual service and the food are very good. In China it is a well-known chain, and it is popular. It is premium priced and you get premium service. I believe they even pay for the staff's children to get into kindergarten, they go to such extremes. Mum loved it!

We of coure had to take her to Dafen, the art village with hundeds of artists doing originals and replicas right in front of you, as well as some sculptures and other forms of art. Fascinating as always at how good some of them are: especally the likeness of the paintings of real people to the actual photos.

Mum did a day at the Window of the World (a park with replicas from around the world, plu a few rides) which the kids enjoy. She did a day doing arts and crafts, since she is exploring how to do something similar in the UK, she spent time with the kids of course, but that was about it for Shenzhen as well as some drives around town to see bits and pieces. Unfortunately there was not time to check out the multiple parks or some of the nice walking and cycling paths, or some of the other touristy theme parks or even some of the beaches.

Shenzhen is not really a place for tourists to stop by, but there is enough to do for a few days, and then it's just a convenient place to enjoy China--Chinese food, Chinese shops, Chinese skyscrapers and the like. All of which are available in Shenzhen. But as a place for living it really is one of the best places, not just in China, but in the World. Everything is convenient (from transport to shopping) and cheap (renting is cheap, buying is not) especially if one can speak Chinese; everything is digital; everything is fairly new; everything is well organized and fast and professional. The climate is good, the air quality decent, and the quality of life for families is fantastic, as with many other major cities in China with zoos, playgrounds, theme parks, beaches, swimming pools in modern complexe, playgrounds in all complexes. It's been even better than it was set-up me by my Chinese friends when I first arrived 2 years ago.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Fujian and tourism in China

A brisk 3 day trip (it should have been 4, but a typhoon warning cancelled all trains for a day) to Fujian last month with my mum brings up some of the typical issues in tourism nowadays in China which is quite interesting to share.

Fujian is the province on Mainland China opposite Taiwan. It's capital, Xiamen is a large and bustling city with a small island no more than a mile or so long and half a mile wide. A century or so ago, when the Western Countries forced China to cede some territory in key cities that could be used for the Western Countries to establish trading posts, this island was one of them and it remains full of grand colonial mansions. It is car-free, leafy, hilly and pleasant. It is also known for its pianos as all the mansions used to have them. We didn't stay on the island, but in the main city, finding a nice airbnb place that was particularly kid friendly (since with 3 adults and 2 kids its better having an apartment than a hotel).

I first visited the area a decade or so ago and found it fairly busy, but away from the little port with dumpy tourist shops it was quiet and pleasant, with some nice little beaches too. Many of the mansions were run-down, which was part of the charm of the island. Now they have built an extra two ports on the island to handle the large number of (mostly domestic) tourists! Yet most of the shops are now more upmarket and trendy; many of the mansions have been restored, which is nice, and some turned into nicer shops, restaurants or hotels. I had feared the worst, but it was better than I had expected. On the whole it's not been too badly managed, although the beaches are unfortunately not particularly pleasant with driftwood and rubbish floating around since the seas around Xiamen are very busy trade routes.

Outside of Xiamen, previously a 3 hour bus ride away, but now only a 1 hour fast train ride away, in the hills are where the Hakka people live--or at least used to live. Trying to keep safe in the face of persecution from other groups of Chinese, they had fled to the hills and built the massive buildings which are almost fortresses. An entire village in one circular building (though some are also square or other shapes) where literally hundreds of people lived (the largest had 600 people living inside it and more than 200 rooms across 4 or 5 floors). The oldest were built seven hundred years ago but the most recent ones were built only 50 years ago. In fact they were designed with kitchens on the ground floor, bedrooms on the first and second floors, and grain storage on the third floor. Each had several wells, and in the middle of the buildings would be the toilets and wash areas as well as barns for the animals. They are truly unique with just a couple hundred of these buildings remaining and nowhere else in the world.

Returning to this area, again a decade later, and apart from the high-speed train, not a lot more has changed. There is some accommodation available inside these incredible buildings (known as "tulou" or "earth building") but not too much, partly due to the high cost of converting these buildings to be suitable for tourists to stay in (e.g. on-suite bathrooms etc), partly due to the dispersed ownership (each family only owns one room in each building), and partly due to the lack of interest from tourists in staying there (Chinese like their mad-dash tours where they do as much as possible in a short time and thus would just come visit for the day from Xiamen; they also like the more typical modern Hotel). It is a shame that more people do not stay overnight and experience living in these buildings, but they are a real highlight of China and thankfully being fairly well managed. I can recommend staying in the Fuyulou Changdi building.

There are fairly high entrance fees to see some of the buildings where the money is split between the local government, the local village committee and the building owners themselves which seems to work well and provides some funds for renovation and restoration. Of course many people have moved out to live in the cities so many of the buildings are sparsely populated compared to their peak period but there are farmers still living there and others looking to make money from tourists, selling tea or other souvenirs and local products. The Chinese do love their local agricultural products, and you'll often see them bringing entire boxes of apples or something or other with them on planes.

There is still not much interest in exploring the countryside, at least in this area; and China generally still hasn't found much interesting in hiking or trekking or exploring (though of course there are exceptions in some locations and with a growing domestic youth backpacker movement). It is mostly a tour bus or drive-by-car culture; take the photos; buy the souvenirs; get an introduction by the tour guide; move onto the next place.

With so many high speed trains now all over the place, it is much quicker and easier to get around; with so many places using wechat or alipay (a mobile phone based payment system), you don't need cash or cash machines any more. You have to beware the over-priced souvenirs and food, but you can find more local products to buy if you look, whilst carefully avoiding all the selfie sticks of course (it seems most phones don't even get taken out of the selfie stick any more!).

On the whole then, tourism in China is being managed fairly well. and that is nice to see.... it is not easy balancing gigantic numbers of people with cultural preservation. providing a real experience and supporting local jobs, but I think China has learned fast and has made much progress compared to the past. Although the tourists' habits have not changed as much (though fewer tour buses now and more Audis), they seem to be slightly better behaved!

Friday, November 11, 2016

Leah's words and Hannah's leadership

As Leah gets into her stride in her third year, she will likely start speaking, or to put it another way, she will use the same words that we use, and she will use more words!

At the moment she has a favorite word "yaya" (which is not a word in Chinese or English) which tends to mean either water or toilet (it is normally possible to work out which); another frequently used word is "jiejie" (which is a word in Chinese for big sister) and Leah likes using it along with the word "my" (which is a word in English) when she distinguishes between whose food, pencils, dolls or shoes she is playing with, pointing at or thinking about.

As other parents know kids tend to start speaking a few syllables and build from there, so the "m" is a frequently used one (of course the first use is "mama") and none much more so than "more" (English, of course). She just uses the simple "m" for milk. The other frequently used syllable stems from "baba" (Dad in Chinese) and includes "baobao" (Hug in Chinese).

There are some other syllables she sometimes uses, and some other words she occasionally pronounces when asked to, but then doesn't re-use. But there is a long way to go; much like Hannah, who only really got into her stride once she was close to her third birthday. These bilingual kids are slow speakers. The strange aspect of all this though is that her listening is very good, understanding thousands of different words, with just exceptions of words and concepts she cannot understand yet (such as distinguishing different colors).

It means you get to have amusing conversations with her as you have to guess everything she is saying based on context and her pointing, repeat it back to her and see if she confirms you are on the right path or not. Very one-sided, but of course we don't want to dent her confidence even if most of what is coming out is unintelligible.

She is though slowly getting more into reading and starting to listen to stories rather than just look at pictures; but she still lacks the patients to do too much and has such a strong character that she'll sooner or later decide she wants to do something else, or pick a different page in the book no matter what. Thankfully the biting has stopped now, though there is the odd bit of hitting if Leah doesn't get her way and can't explain her feelings properly.

In fact she is very very strong willed, proactively going to the toilet or taking a banana; putting on her shoes and opening the door to go outside and so on. This can be a pain when she wants to copy Hannah and refuses anything else... so even if she doesn't want or like something she will still demand it because Hannah has, and even if she does not understand something, she will still do it because Hannah has. On the whole it is great, since Hannah is such a good girl; generally very obedient, good at brushing her teeth, eating and the like.

It does sometimes lead to problems when Leah can't to what Hannah does, such as running fast or playing games with her friends, but Leah does try and play with them. It is funny how keen she is on playing with Hannah and with Hannah's friends, when she has no interest in playing with other kids her own age, instead usually seeing them as competition. And let's say that Leah definitely has not understood the concept of sharing yet! So Leah is in an interesting mindset where she is very strong willed but still very obedient to do what Hannah wants.

Yesterday evening Hannah voluntarily went to shampoo her own hair in the shower which is incredible as she usually hates that (all kids at some point put soapy fingers in eyes and then fear soap again for years, as far as i can tell). This was from the conversation earlier that morning when we discussed that she needs to wash her hair so it would be easier to brush. Her memory is fantastic, though selective...she rarely remembers what happened at kindergarten, maybe because it is so similar each day that not much stands out, but she will always remember specific things that her teacher says, such as around wearing certain clothes for the next day, and always remember other things we say and remember places we have been to before.

Hannah is definitely not shy, and is the driving force when playing with her friends; she is also actively talking to her friends at school and arranging play dates for after-school and enjoys giving instructions to others, not least Leah, who usually is very obedient. It makes me wonder whether their personalities would be different if they were not sisters, i..e. would Hannah be as bossy if she did not have a younger sister to give instructions to, and would Leah be as obedient if she was not so used to following instructions.

Thankfully Hannah's friends do like listening to her and she has 3 or 4 very close friends who she wants to see every day (and she usually does at kindergarten, though this is never enough) and normally gets to play with most evenings and some weekends.

So what is wrong with this picture which is so rosy and happy with two fantastic girls getting along so well with everyone including each other and their parents? Everything seems fine so that must mean something will change for the worse with one of the two girls, or the relationship between them, at some point, won't it?

Sunday, October 09, 2016


So, after 12 years in China,  I finally made it to Taiwan. The four of us flew into Taipei for a day and a half, then went to Hualien for 2 days and back to Tapei for 2 days.

For Chinese people, the main purpose of visitng Taiwan, it seems, is to go to the night markets. The Chinese love the Taiwanese food and particularly the large variety of snacks that are now popular across the Mainland too. For us westerners, some of that is nice, but it often involves deep frying, putting food on sticks or into balls, and so on - and sometimes its really not a big deal. So we visited a couple of night makets and certainly enjoyed some of the grilled fish, excellent fruit juices, great dim sum and dumplings, and some other bits and pieces. Night markets are always fun of course: there may be the odd person playing music, there are bright lights, there is a nice atmosphere, and you can pick and choose different foods to eat at tables or whilst standing up.

I think the Taiwanese are fairly innovative food-wise; they have more options for breakfast than the standad Chinese breakfast (I'll be honest, I am not much of a fan of the standad Chinese breakfast which consists of vegetables, deep fried dough, boiled eggs, steamed bread and rice porridge which only has any taste if you load it up with sugar!) with the incorporation of eggs and even bacon in various omelete and sandwich type dishes.

I had known of seveal Taiwanese cafe chains that were popular in China--and I have always been a fan of the Taiwanese shaved ice dessert (topped with mango for example), but had not quite expected such a large variety, supply and high quality of other more western deserts in Taiwan: things like doughnuts, tortes, and other things chocolatey (even the haagen das was cheap). Let's just say this was not a holiday where we lost any weight....

So, now that the food part is over with, I can reflect on other aspects of Taiwan: though it is much more than just Taipei, Taipei itself might be compared alongside Singapore and Hong Kong - both city-states of Chinese heritage. It has a very modern infrastructure and is very convenient and civilized. It almost seems one step up from Hong Kong, though of course still below Singapore. There are breastfeeding rooms; there are separeate queues for elevators for priority passengers (I.e. the disabled, those with buggies) and general passengers. There are playgrounds dotted around the place, plenty of public toilets, very good English signs etc. Hong Kong has much of this too, so maybe I am being harsh on Hong Kong. But I was probably not expecting Taipei to be as advanced as it is and thus I was impressed.

Whereas Hong Kong speaks Cantonese and reads traditional Chinese, Taiwanese speak Mandarin and read traditional Chinese, so at least it was easier for me to communicate with local people (though to be honest most people in Hong Kong now speak Mandarin too since there are so many Chinese tourists there) but I can't read traditional Chinese very welll (Mainland China uses simplified Chinese) so menus were more challenging.

Taiwan has gone crazy on cycling with fantastic facilities, bike lanes and even international advertising campaigns attacting cyclists to tour Taiwan. Not something we could fully benefit from wth 2 small kids, but we did do some near Tamsui on the northern coast of Taiwan that can be reached by subway from Tapei... it is a nice town with some interesting temples and buildings founded by a missionary including a school, clinic and university as well as some impressive houses. There is a nice cycling path alongside the river which goes through wetlands. A laid-back and relaxed place... from the subway we saw several companies seem to have large offices nearby and I can see why their employees may want to live out here instead of downtown.

We walked around various parts of Taipei: some parks, momuments, "gates", government buildings and the like... some Japanese influenced buildings (Taiwan was run by Japan for a while) and some French themed design with wide boulevards. Taiwan's economy is closely tied to Mainland China's for both good and bad--though many Taiwanese companies are doing well in Mainland, many of the manufacturing and high-tech jobs have moved to the Mainland, so Taiwan is having to find new gowth opportunities (though it is larger than a Hong Kong, so it does at least have more domestic resources and a lager domestic market).

One of those is around cultural and creative parks being developed in old warehouses and factories. We visited two in Taipei: the 1944 Huashan park is buzzing and a lot of fun with outdoor entertainers and some wonderful craft shops that are genuinely interesting. The Songshan park seems mostly still under development but there was one building that had a whole series of arts and crafts activities for adults: from pottery to glass blowing; from making purses to painting and all the while whilst sipping on a coffee (the Taiwanese love their coffee).

We also visited the cultural park in Hualien - struggling somewhat I think but we did find some nice stuff. Hualien is generally a stopping off point for the nearby Taroko Gorge and the town itself has a mixture of modern shopping streets and run down back streets... it doesn't have much else to do there. We did a day trip to the gorge - many of the hiking paths were closed due to a recent typhoon making them dangerous, though we were not likely to do much hiking anyway with the kids. It was pretty, though I feel like I have seen a lot of gorges and was not as spectacular as guide books make it out to be.... maybe we need to go back another time and hike more to appreciate it better, rather than taking the bus up and down different points, with just a few kilometeres of hiking possible.

Probably the most memorable part of the trip for the kids was the visit to the Ocean Theme Park outside of Hualien: only around 6 or 7 rides, but enough for the kids, and since it was a weekday the whole place had less than 300 visitors (we counted them when they all congregated for the dolphin show) which meant 10 rides of the rollercoaster (no need to get off, just stay on and go around again) and even a few rides of the spinning cups and spinning balls (kids seem to like being dizzy, adults don't!). Leah didn't quite know what to make of the dolphin show, but Hannah enjoyed it. The park is nicely done, but is mostly for kids under the age of 8... perfect for us anyway.

On one of the last two days in Taipei we took a day trip out to some villages in the hills accessble by a local train. Strangely the little 3 carrriage train only runs hourly and is packed (even on a weekday) wth tourists which is a bit inconvenient. The villages and the scenery were nice enough. The Shifen waterfall was impressive, but the rain put a bit of a dampener on the trip so we didn't see as many of the villages as we wanted, nor did we let off the lanterns as is customary. Mostly tourists seem to go there for that, the snacks, and to see the little train line running through the center of the villages. That night, back in Taipei, we went to the Shifan night market which was more about clothes than food, strangely, and ate at a fantastic middle eastern restaurant in the student area.

On the last day we enjoyed the wonderful Miniatures Museum which was packed full of interesting doll houses and miniature replicas of houses, castles, street scenes and other scenes (Alice of Wonderland etc). It was fun for the kids, but adults probably enjoy it more: the incredible intracies and the thoughtfulness that go into many of the scenes, like tiny working TVs, actual oil paintings or newspapers alongside glasses, slippers and everything else that you'd find in a bedroom; or a scene of a street caught in a downpour with everyone running from the rain, paint spilling, and even raindrops on the telephone wires. I can't recommend visiting enough. Andrea took more pictures in there than the rest of the trip combined!

After spending a few hours with an old friend, Primrose, we flew back to China (via a simply insane border crossing from Hong Kong into the Mainland since there were millions of Chinese who were also coming back home at the same time as us after the 7-day public holiday).

A sizable island it should be higher on the list for tourists since it is easy to get around (its only a few hours by train from one end of the island to the other) with plenty of nice things to see, and some good food. If you enjoy cycling or cafes, you'd love it! If you have kids, it's a good place to visit (we even found hotel rooms for all 4 of us) too and can keep both kids and adults entertained.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

A week in China amidst living in Kenya

It seems a long time ago but at the beginning of this month I managed to break up a 10 week stint in Kenya with 1 week back in China: and what a wonderful week.

A weekend at the beach an hour or so east of Shenzhen so the girls could spend hours playing in the sand, the sea, and the swimming pool; as well as eat endless amounts of shrimps.

Daily swimming lessons for Hannah culminating in her being able to swim on her own (though she'll likely need a few more refresher lessons later on) that normally start with lots of screaming, but once she's left alone with the teacher become more productive.

Leah beginning to talk, and pronounce different sounds, though they're not quite fully formed words yet (more like half-words, at least in English; Chinese is easier).

Leah beginning to develop more emotional and inter-personal skills: deciding either to cuddle Hannah if she is upset, or deciding to also be upset "in solidarity" as Andrea puts it.

Regular story time every night with the same favorite books for each of the two; frequent "building" using wooden blocks and of course regular time with the dolls (putting them to sleep or taking them for a walk in their little buggies).

It's certainly tough not being with Andrea, Hannah and Leah in real life, and video connections are always tricky with China. Besides, seeing and hearing is not the same as being with!

Meanwhile back in Kenya I live out of a hotel, which thankfully has a fairly long menu, and another restaurant nearby. There has been a lot of sport to watch, and its nice being on a European time zone and also seeing Andy winning something. I regularly travel within China to the project sites where I am working, usually a town on an island or Mombasa. I've written about the island before and it is a pleasant change from the big city life - even just spending the evenings sitting on a balcony under the stars, or having breakfast on the balcony overlooking the sea.

Mombasa at first sight is nothing special, but hidden away, close to the coast, is an old town, which nice old buildings, small alleyways, and reminders of the city's colonial past (such as a Gentleman's club which even built a swimming pool in the sea by closing off the sides). There's also an impressive Fort, which also served as a prison for some time. Very impressive and in fairly good condition, it's survived multiple handovers from the Portuguese to the Arabs to the British and of course now to the Kenyans.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Rural Kenya

Quite a lot has happened in the last 6 months; I clearly need to blog more often, but of most interest has been my work trips to Kenya where I'm currently implementing a new project.

Back in February during one my trips here I went on a chartered UN flight (who knew they had their own airline, though not their own planes...) to a county in North-eastern Kenya called Mandera. Actually we went to Western Mandera landing, quite literally, in a field. A big, fairly flat, field, but a field none-the-less. Apart from grass, the only thing around was a fence around the field and not a single sign of an airport, or even landing strip. Landing to be greeted by several 4x4s from the local police force and our government hosts, we spent several hours visiting the local hospital and a clinic 2 hours away.

It was a fascinating visit to one of the poorest parts of Kenya, and one with some of the highest maternal and child health issues in the world. It is a very barren, sparsely populated, very dry, area (at least at the time i visited) with most of the population breeding a few animals for their livelihood and they eat a lot of meat there (in fact we had meat for breakfast as well as lunch). Many live in temporary huts that can be moved with the seasons. There was a mobile phone signal in the town near where we landed but that was not very stable and didn't go much beyond the town... once we left the town and drove past many smaller settlements we were truly unconnected.

The local hospital has been getting some investment but unable to hire trained staff willing to live there, so it still struggles to offer critical services like surgery (or emergency operations for mothers with pregnancy issues) in its theatre - the next closest hospital is several hours away. At the clinic we held a discussion with around 150 community members, gathered around a tree, and with local elders and tribal leaders leading the conversation (and also translating into the local dialect). It was very interesting indeed.

In the local village we saw the one little shop that had a solar panel connected to some large batteries and was charging several simple phones (there was also a weak mobile signal in some parts of this village); in the clinic we saw the "ambulance" which was a three-wheel motorbike with a bed on the back. All around us we saw the local people with their animals, and many of them using the animals to carry water from the (newly built) reservoir.

With such an inhospitable climate and poor geography, this is not a place with a bright future, but there is hope that they can at least have better health care, and since Kenya devolve more power and money to its 47 counties, we hear of increasing investment in public services and infrastructure from the government, in addition to the support from the UN and other charitable groups.

On another trip I went through Mombasa to a beach side resort where a major tech conference was taking place. I didn't see much of Mombasa but I briefly saw the port (since a taxi driver got lost on his way back to the airport), and experienced the ferry crossing (which really instead be a 2 minute drive over a bridge, but instead is a 20-minute ordeal waiting for, loading, crossing and unloading an ancient ferry across several hundred meters of river). At the resort an hour south, I saw some incredible beaches, but also suffered from the insane humidity.

The conference was better than most I have been to with some good updates from the government on all the key areas of work, and served to provide accountability to the conference participants on how the government was doing towards its strategy and goals. I was on a panel discussing universal access (i.e. how to ensure everyone can get access to phone and Internet services) amongst other things. I didn't participate in the pre-day playing golf that was very popular is a key networking activity in Kenya I am told.

One of the areas my project is working in is called Lamu County (not in Mandera, though that was interesting to visit in case we wok there in the future), which is on the coast and has its population on several islands as well as part of the mainland. On the island where the county capital is, there are no roads and transport is by boat around the island, by foot along the coast or through the island. Goods are carried on donkeys or, on the couple of paved paths, on large wooden wheelbarrows/pushcarts.

It is a pretty town, and the islands are picturesque; the mainland even has a few national parks but the transport is awful--taking boats of course can be expensive and slow and the condition of the one main road on the mainland is so bad that  our 4x4 broke down twice. The road was so bumpy that during 4 hours in the car, my fitness tracker thought i had walked 20,000 steps!

The area is one of the oldest settlements continuously inhabited in the area i believe, as a large trading and fishing community on the coast of East Africa, though much development has passed it by. A new, large, port is supposed to be built there soon and that has meant the main town on the island has finally been connected to the electric grid, and other islands are being electrified too (the mainland part has some grid electricity too).

We visited a number of health facilities as part of the project I am working on and spent a lot time on the road and in boats. But it was also a hugely interesting and very productive visit. It is crazy though that the whole county only has a permanent population of a couple hundred thousand people (with maybe another hundred thousand or so temporary residents from neighboring countries/counties) which is similar to just one part of the town in one of the suburbs of Shenzhen where i live. Indeed, the Huawei HQ has 60,000 people working there alone. Of course other parts of China (though not on the coast) are like this and Mandera too, especially in the Western parts of China.

It is fascinating to get to spend so much time in Kenya and by working there get to understand it better; the comparisons with China are of course difficult to make but still interesting. Looking at Kenya as a whole there are more relevant comparisons to China: Much of Kenya's economic activity is concentrated in just a few major cities; there are a couple of very successful industries in Kenya (such as flowers, tea, tourism); Kenya is a regional leader in technology and a pioneer in Africa for many things... lots of parallels with China's own development and its role in Asia!

More to come on this from me in the future, I am sure.

The girls - together - long may it last

Now Leah can climb up and down stairs, go down slides on her own, eat on her own and everything she is a real sister for Hannah. So the kids are playing in playgrounds together, sitting on the bobby-cart together, and even sitting on canons together (in an old fortress-town we visited with some work colleagues) and going to the dentist together (though Leah didn't do too well at letting the dentist into her mouth for more than 10 seconds it was better than Hannah managed at that age!).

They are brushing teeth together, reading books together, playing with dolls together, playing in the playhouse together, dressing up together, even sleeping together, doing lots of painting and drawing together (though Leah still has a long way to go here!). Normally it works out well - they like copying each other and we try to ensure it is a race to the top, but it can end up a race to the bottom too (if one starts refusing to do something the other might too). We are constantly reminding ourselves not to ever compare either of them or play one of them off against the other though... and hoping this will last a long time! It gives us a bit more of a break since they can play together a lot, but we still need to stay in our toes and be highly involved. Leah is not yet able to satisfy all of Hannah's play needs :)

In Shenzhen there is a routine involving Taekwondo twice a week, regular swimming now the pool is open (and some hit-and-miss swimming lessons for Hannah), and frequent trips during the hot summer to indoor playgrounds that are air-conditioned, as well as some trips to the beach in Hong Kong or to play in the water fountains outside some of the shopping malls downtown.

Kindergarten regularly organizes activities, often that require buying special clothes for various dances. There are constant requirements for us to do something for kindergarten - most recently there has been a theme of dinosaurs, so we've been drawing lots of dinosaurs, making dinosaurs out of play-doh, making dinosaurs out of cardboard, buying books about dinosaurs and all sorts.

The rainy season has come and gone, which was disrupting my pleasant bike ride into town, and it is full-on hot now. There are constant issues revolving around ice-creams for Hannah, who often wants several per day, but of course rarely gets them. And there is an increasing stream of friends that Hannah regularly plays with.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Winter Holidays

Earlier in the year there was time for a couple of vacations - a week in Germany with the in-laws during Chinese New Year, and then during the end of March 2 weeks in the UK and a Portuguese island called Madeira.

In Germany this time we spent a couple of days in Berlin. I enjoyed an outdoor market with excellent Gluhwein and the kids enjoyed the street musicians. We also found a fantastic indoor museum-cum-playground for children (technically a Museum for Children) with all kinds of things for kids to play in, such as tents, art activities, clothes to dress up in, and more. Greatway to spend a wet and cold winter holiday

Back in Doberlug-Kirchhain we had fun with the dog, sheep, local playground, and the two-decade old toys that are still going strong, such as the kids' piano. We also found an incredible place called Tropical Islands. One of the largest indoor domes in the world, it used to house airships (I believe) but was covered into a tropical paradise at 28 degrees all year around with a lagoon, 2 swimming pools, a beach, several water slides, hundreds of tents and hotel rooms, and a ginormous kids playground (complete with kids activities every couple of hours)... all of it boiling hot. There is also the world's largest indoor rain forest - and since it is done by the Germans it is really an indoor rain forest that takes several minutes to walk around and has all sorts of insects and animals amongst the trees.

It is a great idea; it is not cheap, but it is certainly cheaper than getting to an airport and flying overseas for a few days of beach time. The kids had a wonderful time; the adults also had a great time. Even the food there was decent (at least 6 different restaurants) and there was one of the world's largest changing rooms! Lots of people travel from all across Germany to go to it and it is well worth it. A place that we will frequently go back to again (though remember your swimming gear as the shop there is expensive!)

Andrea and the kids had more time off than me so they managed to spend some time in England as well - Leah was obsessed with the dog of course; Hannah got into painting various adults' faces and they played in the playground a lot.

At the end of March I took the the two kids back to England (the first time i had taken the two kids on my own on a flight or away from their mother for a significant period of time) - Leah was in love with her little suitcase that she wanted to pull behind her all the time, though she still loved Cocoa (the dog) more. She tried to throw sticks (unsuccessfully) though did successfully manage to fall flat on her face in the mud in the park as her feet got stuck in the mud.

We spent 8 days in Madeira, which is a Portuguese island off the West coast of Africa and was nice and warm (though not generally warm enough for swimming, it was warm enough to play with the water and sand). We saw a few really impressive gardens which the kids enjoyed--waterfalls, animals, Chinese-style gardens, Japanese style gardens, and all sorts. In one of them mum organized an Easter-egg hunt which of course was popular. Perfect except for having a sleeping baby in a buggy needing to be carried up and down stairs and over rock pools!

It is a very rocky island so there were lots of incredible views from the coast and a couple of sandy beaches, though inland there was also a lot of mist which somewhat ruined our outdoor activities there (no views, too cold and dangerous to go canyoning). It was a fairly relaxing holiday with lots of cab rides, some minibuses to explore the sights around the island and the kids playing with each other and with their aunties/grandma.

We found a museum about Madeira which had some entertaining aspects to it, such as part of a plane that Hannah enjoyed playing in and directing everyone (now we are landing, now we are serving meals, now we are putting our seat belts on....), and we found an incredible toy museum with several rooms packed with thousands of toys - cars, teddies, action figures, dolls and all sorts. In fact it was more fun for the adults than the kids, since the kids didn't really know most of the toys (some of which were very old) but we all enjoyed it.

We saw the pretty old villages and the main town that has a high street full of interestingly painted front doors (anything to interest the tourists), some interesting fish and fruit markets, a tour around a rum facility, and a couple of fantastic restaurants.The food was generally cheap there and some of the fish was fantastic; especially when cooked on a hot slab of marble in front of you. There was regular music at the restaurants and very good service.

It was a year or so after the trip to the Canary Islands (Spanish islands nearby) and another very successful sunny winter holiday.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Hannah hits 4

Hannah has made it to four years; funnily enough though we didn't expect much to change we have noticed the odd change recently. The most noticeable is one that I presume all parents are desperately waiting for almost as much as the time when you start potty training but are not sure when it will be successful. It is, of course, the time that a child begins to get over tantrums!

Yes, until a couple of weeks ago, when Hannah didn't get what she wanted (and the old 'distract her' tactic doesn't work as well as it used to when she was longer) we'd end up in long stand-offs, often involving her not coming along with us and staying in a sweet shop, near a fairground ride, or whatever.

Now that stand-off is still as dramatic as ever but is down to about a minute and once we walk off Hannah does actually run after us (crying of course) but does quickly accept reality and calm down. I hope it lasts… maybe, finally, she is learning that she can't always get what she wants, and there is a semblance of discipline appearing?

Hannah got her dream present a couple of weeks before her birthday when her grandpa turned up for a weekend (for those without kids, I'll tell you what all kids from 3 years old and up want: it's a tablet computer or similar device able to play games, watch cartoons, and tale photos) but still she was looking forward to her party. 8 friends came, mostly from her kindergarten, and all Chinese. They played, ate, cooked, danced, played some more, gave and took gifts and 2 and a half hours later left behind a happy and exhausted 8-year old.

I don't know the names of most of the kids, or indeed most of the parents, but I think Andrea and our nanny do. Though as I understand it the party invite list conversation started a couple of weeks ago and went something like "Hannah, which friends do you like the most and want to invite to the party?" and "Hannah, can you and the nanny talk to the friends and their parents over the next week at collection time to invite them". Andrea has some time on her hands as she doesn't start her new job until next month so did most of the organizing, whilst I was mostly on photo duty and general supervision (including of Leah) whilst also being responsible for getting hold of a red bike that morning and getting it wrapped up somehow.

All went well (though the bike is a bit big, it should be fine in a couple of months, and last her several years) and maybe it will be the first party she'll remember when she is older?

Meanwhile Leah has continued her rapid development, trying to run now, practicing using forks and spoons, and beginning to argue with her sister (over toys, naturally). She gets very vocal, though currently only has the standard mama and baba as words. She's got most of her teeth and a large belly from her non-stop eating (and drinking). Sometimes she sleeps really well and gets her 12 hours a night; sometimes she wakes up once or twice and needs comforting back to bed, but she is a great little toddler and really happy to walk around all day long. Today at the indoor playground she mastered walking up the 3 stairs of a small slide and going down the slide herself. It is the age where all the basics are there so simply combining various things leads to many different "firsts".

I'm sure the kids are going to have a lot of fun during their month in Europe coming up; and their grandparents and uncles/aunts (and the associated pets) will have even more fun playing with the two of them. It will be the first time they see them walking and playing together and interacting (rather than just Hannah playing with Leah, though that was also fun). Now that we have got Hannah past her tantrums, I wonder if we are going to be facing another major issue to deal with instead: the fighting between two kids who both want the same thing. How long will that issue last (maybe until we are bankrupt buying two of everything)?

And lastly we are just about to enter the Chinese New Year month, when there is no kindergarten, everything closes down, and everyone runs home for at least 1-2 weeks during this period. All the Christmas decorations have finally come down everywhere to be replaced with red Chinese lanterns and I seem to see monkeys on sale everywhere…. For an already shaky economy, the low of the holiday may not help; although it should stabilize the dodgy stock market since there will be limited investment activity (and limited expectations of any too)!

Monday, January 11, 2016


Back in my very first days in China I had popped over to Macau for a couple of days and a night from a regular trip to Hong Kong. I remember the impressive Portuguese architecture, some sleezy prostitutes, and a casino. Fast forward more than a decade and Macau has become the world's largest gambling destination, with 2-3 times more revenue than Vegas; it had joined up two islands with landfill in order to build some of the world's biggest casinos and hotels (and indeed, biggest buildings by floor space); there is a bridge being built between Hong Kong and Macau (at 30km or so, it is insane); and the little place has changed dramatically.

Originally a Portuguese colony, it was also handed back to the Chinese around the same time that Hong Kong was (from the British) and then it promptly opened up what had been a monopoly in gambling licenses (to one rich Hong Kong tycoon) and the floodgates opened with the Chinese getting very rich and having a large appetite for gambling needed to be satiated (it's illegal in the Mainland). Plus of course much of the rest of Asia came over to gamble to.

It is very different to Vegas: the gambling games are mostly different to those popular in the West, the minimum bets are high, there was until recently little else apart from gambling to do there, and the place is tiny. Now it is seeking to have people stay for longer (with more shows and theme parks), and to broaden its income into other forms of tourism (there is a nice museum in the grounds of the old fort, some impressive funding for reconstruction of old buildings and museums explaining them, a great app for walks exploring Macau and free wi-fi covering much of the islands etc).

We went there a couple months ago just for a day and enjoyed walking around the old town with very impressive churches and sqaures alongside the famous Ruins of St Paul's Church (which only has one wall standing at the top of a large flight of stairs), as well as a quick trip to the Venetian. The egg tarts there are still delicious. We went back again for the three-day New Year's Eve weekend where there was a good fireworks display and we had more time to explore the two islands off the mainland (though which are now one big island since the land between them has been filled in--there is still some water between them and the mainland part of Macau though which is crossed by bridges).

There are well signposted walks, a few old buildings, and some sleepy fishing folk alongside a couple of nice beaches. A world away from the casinos. We spent more time in the incredible Venetian and the massive City of Dreams; Andrea, Hannah and my dad went to watch a decent show there; we got to know the police station quite well as we searched (successfully eventually) to get a bag back that we had left in a taxi); and we generally had a good time there.

It is an interesting place, but it is very small. Hong Kong seems big in comparison (and it is) - partly because it has more diversity to its economy, it has a lot more islands and more countryside, it has a lot happening, and it feels like a real city. Macau just feels like a few districts next to each other with a lot of tourists going in between them. It's quite a nice place to take kids: they love the Venetian of course; there are several expensive kids play areas in the hotels; many of the hotels are kid friendly (though not that cheap); there are playgrounds dotted around the city; the beaches are fairly sparse (at least at this time of the year) and clean; and there's no need to walk too much.

It is a fascinating place to visit for a couple of days, though I'm not sure I'd want to live there as it really is so small and so dependent on casino-hotels (which are starting to struggle now due to the economic slowdown, restrictions on Chinese going to Macau, and corruption crackdown that discourages people flaunting or spending their money that may be illicitly gained). The older parts can get totally over-run with tourists (as can the casinos) and the transport is not great, due to a lack of taxis and poor planning of the bus routes (we found many of the buses on the popular bus routes were always full at busy times).

Now it's 2016, our kids are rapidly growing up and playing with each other and life is moving on. Let's see what this year brings!

Monday, December 14, 2015

On the road in Kenya

Since Cape Town I spent a few weeks not going anywhere as i renewed my visa and prepared to launch a report. But by the end of November, I was in Kenya, London, Geneva and Brussels. After a short rest back in Shenzhen, I am now back in Kenya as i try to finalize a project we're launching there.
It is a shame to travel so much and leave the family behind, especially at such interesting times in their lives, but when work takes you to a country you can sometimes get to understand a country better; though just as often the opposite happens! Thankfully my work normally entails me learning more about a country through meeting colleagues, customers and other partners.
Occasionally I end up spending weekends in these countries since my trip takes more than a week. It's not ideal, but I have used this chance to get out of Nairobi. On Saturday I climbed Mt Longonot, a volcano that most recently erupted 150 years or so ago. The view of the crater at the top was great, and so was the view of the neighboring lake and countryside. There was also another crater which was formed during the recent eruption and you can see where all the lava flowed because there is dense forests on top of the fertile lava. After lunch in the town I was on a boat on the lake checking out hippos playing in the water, birds living their lives on the water, and some animals (giraffes, zebras and the like) living alongside the water. A wonderful little boat trip - and interesting too to see the locals enjoying the national holiday on the public beach alongside the lake.
On Sunday, instead of taking a driver around, i took the public transport system, which mostly is a system of private minibuses. Common across the developing world, it can work quite well if you don't wait a long time for the minibus to fill up, and you don't keep stopping en-route to pick people up and drop others off. They can be a touch hairy at times due to the speed they drive at, but their a fairly efficient form of transport, cheap and very well used. The largest problem they cause is the chaos at the bus stations with all the minibuses competing with each other for customers and an immense amount of hooting going on. I also think there are just too many of these things on the road clogging up the roads in many places! 
The minibuses are usually highly personalized by the owners/drivers with decoration internally and externally, customized soundtracks blaring out inside, and all sorts of lights and luxuries. I'm not sure if it is to help them stand out and attract customers, because drivers just like it, or if there are other cultural reasons (i.e. as a form of self-expression). It is a great way to meet local people of course as everyone gets packed inside, though hard to communciate with them due to the loud music!
I had to take two minibuses to get to my destination: Hell's Gate National Park, actually next to the volcano and lake of the previous day. It is the only National Park where you can freely walk around to see the animals instead of having to stay in cars, this is because there are no dangerous animals like lions or buffalo. But on the strensous 18km bike ride we did see a lof ot zebras, giraffe, deer, monkeys, baboons, and other animals. It was great to get so close to them and wonderfully peaceful and serene. It was also very scenic. I did some mountain climbing as well as a couple hours hiking through a gorge.
In face the gorge is one of the most specatacular i've seen. It is quite small; only about 20-40m high, and at its narrowest, just a metre or two, but the different layers you can seek in the rock as the water has eroded it are fascinating and really impressive. A highly recommended trip.
Back on the road, you see what may be "typical Africa"; large expanses of countryside that is seemingly un-used; some smallhold farms; dusty and chaotic towns alongside noisy roads; animals just wondering around (either with their owners, or without); people just sitting around (either at their shops, or just watching the world go by); and of course the interesting style of shops and roadside businessess, often colored in one of the main mobile phone companies' branding as they sell airtime or mobile money services.
A while ago I basically stopped bargaining when i was travelling. If i know a price, I'll set it from the outset; if a price is ridiculous I'll walk away, but I'm usually fairly relaxed about paying a bit more than I should as the kind of people that are benefitting are certainly poorer than me and can do with the money. It also means you can get better service and extra help if you need it. I wasn't very well prepared for this weekend's excursions so I had to buy a small backpack, raincoat (thankfully that was not used), and a cap (though after I had already got a bit burnt).