Dining in the Dark

For Andy’s surprise birthday party, Michelle organised a surprise dinner. But, it was a surprise dinner with a twist… the dinner was a surprise for everyone! We had no idea what we’d be eating whilst dining in the dark!

Upon entering the foyer, we were met with a bright, strange conconction of drawings that made up a wall mural. There were octopi, flying animals, pirates, princesses, aliens, volcanoes… it made about as much sense as the name of the restaurant: Trojan Fairy.

After we placed all our belongings in a locker, we lined up, hands on each other’s shoulders and shuffled in after the waitress. The first part of restaurant has glow-in-the-dark stickers on the wall – to lead the waitresses I guess. Then, you step through another curtain into darkness. Real darkness. Let’s say blackness. I kept thinking my eyes would adjust. I kept thinking that vague shapes might come into view. But they never do.

We sat around exchanging jokes about taking our pants off and the like. It’s a really weird situation. Especially if you stop to think about what hand movements and facial expressions you use – even when in the dark! We slowly pieced together our surroundings, feeling for the edges of the table, and listening to our neighbours. It is true that your other senses are heightened when one is missing. I was a lot more aware of the chinese being spoken in the background. Other diners’ conversations were so much more prominent, and I found myself having to focus quite intently on the discussion around our table to prevent my mind from wandering around the room.

We’d organised to be there early, so our presence would be an extra surprise. The clever waitresses played Happy Birthday on the piano, so we’d know when he arrived. We tried to sit in silence whilst listening to the birthday boy being brought to the table. I giggled first – I just couldn’t hold it in any longer!

Our waiter came around and explained where our spoon and napkin were. We were brought our drinks – beers, juice and wine. Note to the restaurant: thin-stemmed wine glasses are not easy to find in the dark, and don’t show up on night-vision goggles. Sorry about the tablecloth. We complained a number of times that Cheryl’s juice hadn’t arrived, only to find out during the last course that it had been delivered but she hadn’t found it on the table yet!!!

Our first course was a ‘Russian salad‘. I was concerned that my biggest problem would be making a mess and getting food everywhere, but in fact, it was tricky getting it on the spoon! I served myself a number of spoonfuls of air.

Pumpkin soup was next. Slurping became the new noise around the table, in an attempt to make sure most of it got in our mouths and not down our fronts.

The main course was steak. An odd choice, yes, but they cut it up for us in advance. In theory, this would be hilarious, however, steak in China is generally not great. Without being able to see what we were eating, I occasionally ended up with a tough bit of gristle or fat. I would’ve much preferred a stirfry. Nic and Cheryl ordered the vegetarian mushrooms, which turned out to be just that – a plate of mushrooms!

As our main was taken away, so was our spoon. And we were instructed to eat our cheesecake by hand. In theory, fine, but when you’ve spent the last 3 courses using your hand to help get food on your spoon, it’s not perfect!

Overall, it was the experience that made the evening!! I would imagine it would be incredible if a chef like Heston Blumenthal was in charge of a place like this. He could play around with the textures and flavours so much! It would be crazy to have squishy gooey things that turn out to be delicious, and to play around with savoury and sweet.

Of course, there were costumes to dress up in after dinner!

My only wish is that we could see a video of how the night played out, or at least a photo of the mess we would have left behind on the tablecloth.


Fake Disneyland/Copyright Infringement Park/石景山游乐园 Shijingshan youleyuan

On another Asiaobscura adventure, we jumped on Line 1 subway to the far west of Beijing. Bajiao subway station is almost the last stop, which means enduring a loooong trip on the busiest subway line in Beijing! But we stuck in there and after only a short walk from the subway station, we found ourselves at Shijingshan Amusement Park.

For those of you confused by the title of this blog, this amusement park is famous for blatantly copying Disneyland, as well as a number of other famous children’s brands. I think the photos will speak for themselves.

It’s great value for money. The entrance ticket is only about 30 yuan ($5) and you pay per ride. The little kiddy rides vary from 5-15yuan. And the bigger things up to 50yuan. I would suggest bringing food though, as there were only pitiful ice-creams and stale popcorn. But if you brought a picnic – it would be extra awesome!

However, don’t bring any butterflies. They’re banned.

The rollercoaster to nowhere. We weren’t quite sure what was going on with this one.

These kids were having a great time. Bouncing up and down and around and around.

It’s one of those parks where you have to take your own safety into your hands. You kinda weigh up the pros and cons before attempting any of the rides.

Clearly only this one guy was brave enough to attempt this one.

We weren’t brave enough for this ride.

For that reason, we mainly stuck to haunted houses. We tried all the haunted houses and they were weird. Weird. You either walked through or rode through on a train and were presented with a series of puppets and dolls which had light sensors and sometimes moved – there were all sorts of scenes.

The worst one was pitch black. And it wasn’t scary for the puppets, it was scary because we couldn’t see! We traipsed through hand-in-hand, not knowing what was around the corner.

There was definitely a theme of musicians in the haunted houses. Are drummers that scary???

This is the copied Disney castle. I’ve never been, but I’ve heard it’s identical!

This one I couldn’t quite work out. It’s a rabbit, dreaming of a hamburger, that’s trying to eat itself, which has a live fish and noodles in it.

And, happy rabbits all shoot guns, right?

Fancy a ride in a vegetable or fruit?

The boys braved this one. It was like the Gravitron, but without a roof. It span around and around, holding the boys into their seats. Kinda. In a dangerous way. There were a few bumps and bruises after this. But the loud disco music made up for it!

All in all, it was a fun day. I only wish I had photos of the massive water boat fight ride. Picture 8 of us wearing plastic ponchos that were too small for us, piled into two boats firing water pistols at each other. Gold.

Find more photos from this trip on the Asiaobscura website.

Have a look at my photos from an abandoned amusement park in Beijing.

Temple experiences

Sightseeing in China often involves temples. And temples. And temples. You can easily reach a point where everyone feels the same. I though I’d hit this point. Until I went to Zhejiang and experienced 3 fascinating, and totally different temples.

In Hangzhou we visited 灵隐寺 língyǐnsì. The temple was in a forest, with lots of stone carvings. This provided an amazing backdrop. The temple itself was beautiful, but nothing new. It was a small temple tucked to the side that caught my eye.

The smaller temple was in the shape of the Buddhism swastika. Each brach of the was lined with massive bronze statues of what I can only describe as ‘brothers’. That’s all I could work out from the chinese. Being a temple, I don’t have any pictures from inside, but here are some etchings of the ‘brothers’ that were on the outside of the temple.

Everyone of them was unique. They had different facial features. They had different props. They had different emotions. Why did I enjoy this temple so much? It was quiet and peaceful inside as I guess most people were in the main temple. Because of the shape of the Buddhist swastika, it was rare to see anyone at all! As you drift around the corners, these ominous figures are looking down on you, and their presence is quite calming.

I’d love to here from you if you know who/what these figures represent. Drop a comment below – I really want to know more about them!

Just outside of Jǐngnìng, there’s a small She (pronounced ‘sher’) village, called Dàjūn, set up for tourists. The outside looks very contrived and false, but if you explore inside you just might walk up a small staircase which leads past some tiny little temples used by the original village. As you walk up the staircase, you meet door after door, and each one has a tiny little altar inside.

The names of all the people who donated money to help fix up the temple, and how much they donated.

The highlight of 绍兴 Shàoxīng was 吼山 Houshan park. This park was downright eerie. There were big rocks. There were low clouds. There were menacing surfaces. There were barking dogs. And not a person to be seen.

Inside this park I experienced my favourite temple of all time. There was nothing special in particular about the temple, but the atmosphere was amazing. Outside the temple it was seriously LOUD. There were cicadas everywhere. One step inside the temple and it was silent. Except for one tiny little illuminated radio, turning circles, and playing Buddhist songs. The temple was lit by oil lamps, candles and lotus-shaped lights. It was total peace.

Laowai travel

Travelling in China as a Laowai (foreigner) can be frustrating at times. I love getting off the beaten track and exploring new parts of the country, but it’s sometimes difficult to cope with the laowai ‘reaction’ that follows you closely wherever you go.

We had particular difficulty in a town called 舟山 Zhōu shān. As we walked down the street, we were met by lots of ‘hellos’ and giggles at our Chinese. At first, you don’t notice so much, but it starts to get wearing.

So, why do I get so frustrated at people say ‘hello’ to me? (You must be starting to think that I’m a grumpy bugger). I think the biggest problem is that I don’t like being put in a box. I don’t think it’s fair to the millions of non-English speaking travellers through China. The assumption that every person with white skin speaks English is downright unfair. I consider myself very lucky to have been born in an English-speaking country, but if I hadn’t, I imagine that the assumption that I was would drive me crazy!

So, I don’t reply. The ‘hello’ stalkers either disappear, or keep repeating ‘hello’. The repeat offenders sometimes get in trouble if they frustrate me enough. Short, sharp Chinese snaps back at them from me. In the worst case scenario they throw “Oh, your Chinese is great!” back at me. At that point, I have to walk away. This conversation is going nowhere. Fast.

In my mind, I’m thinking, “My Chinese is crap. I’ve said two sentences”. From their side, they’re trying to compliment me. But compliments just don’t work at this point. I’m quite happy to accept compliments. But talk to me for five minutes. Look at my conversation skills. Look at my pronunciation. If we can carry out an enjoyable, interesting conversation, then you can compliment me.

The other favourite conversation starter is: “Where are you from?”. I totally understand why. Some strange-looking people are traipsing through their countryside village, covered in sweat, carrying all their belongings on their back and you want to know where they’re from. I get it. But, woah, this starts to get old. And, truly, the correct answer at the moment is Beijing. I live and work in Beijing. But if I say Beijing, this just leads to a conversation full of confusion. Again, I think of the ‘laowai’ who have been brought up in China. There are so many of them in Beijing! Walking past the local high school, I see ‘foreign’ children switching between two or three languages, one of which being Chinese, with ease. Many of these kids consider themselves Chinese. They’ve been brought up and educated in China, so of course they do! I imagine, however, that they face this ‘laowai’ frustration on a regular basis.

Some places were great though! In the little town of 景宁 Jǐngníng, most passersby were surprised by our presence and asked: “What brings you here?”, “Are you travelling?”, etc. These questions open up an conversation that naturally develops and answers all of their curiosities as we chat. As a result, we loved staying here and learnt a lot about the area and it’s people.

A lovely lady in 杭州 Hángzhōu spent a few minutes chatting whilst waiting to cross the road. Her final words were: “时间长就会了” (If you study for long enough, you’ll be able to speak Chinese). This is the reaction that I love. This is the encouragement that I need.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love China. I love Chinese people. I live here!! If I didn’t love it, I’d live somewhere else! I know that we’re unusual, but it’s just that I don’t like being treated that way. And, I think that’s in part due to my upbringing. I don’t like being singled out, I’d much rather just fit in with everyone else.  However, thinking about Chinese culture, people who are different are always treated differently. Teachers, relatives, guests are showered with gifts. Are we being respected? If this is the case, then I should be grateful. But, why do we have to be? It’s never going to feel comfortable.

On a lighter note my favourite conversation for the trip went like this:

A girl (to her friend): 啊呀!两个外国人![”Oh, wow, two foreigners”]
Zac: 啊呀!两个中国人在说中文呢! [”Oh, wow! Two Chinese girls speaking Chinese!”]
Girl (to Zac): “!” “You can say Chinese?”
Zac: No.

(Ah, sarcasm just doesn’t cross cultural divides).

All these ideas can be summed up beautifully in this song by Ember Swift.







English Translation (although no English version exists)

i am not just a foreigner
i am not just a foreigner
i am not that strange
just a person

i am not an animal in the zoo
you can’t just take my picture
not unless you pay me first, each shot 100RMB
here’s another good idea: go away!

i go into a restaurant, i want to order
i’m starving “waitress, please come quick!”
she comes to the table and laughingly asks me, “and you know how to use chopsticks?”
“please bring my food quickly!”  I’m so uncomfortable!

foreigners are not just one kind of person
we come to Beijing from every corner of the world
we all know how to speak a bit of Chinese, we are all used to Chinese food
some of us even have Chinese spouses, we are not that strange!
(rap: by Niu Mu)

i am not an animal in the zoo…

Photos from a moving window

Our adventure across Zhejiang involved many a train and bus trip. The Chinese countryside landscape is fascinating. Here are a few snaps…

Mountains, farming, cottages, powerlines. 

Speeding along…

Farming and cottages

“I know, let’s build a spire for our gingerbread village!”

Ready to build.

Any ideas??

Anyone want to live next to the railway line?

Spires must be the “in” thing.

Daddy buildings and baby buildings.

A little bit of old China.

A neighbouring train.

The next Mawson Lakes.

Where are the trees? 😦

The next railway line under construction.

A yet-to-be-connected pylon.


The new highway that’s about to open.

Best house ever! 

We passed through a ‘toy town’. We think all the toys in China may be made here.

A colourful load.

These churches suddenly appeared on the landscape. They all had the same red crosses on top.

A little one snuck in next to the bus station.

Shaoxing-wine-bottle-shaped bus stops!

Read more about Zhejiang in my Green Tea Blog Entry.

Read more about Zhejiang in my Green Tea Factory Blog.

A Green Tea Factory

We’d had such a lovely Lóng jǐng adventure in Hangzhou, we decided to try again whilst in Shàoxīng. We knew that there was tea around. We’d seen tea farms whilst on buses doing some day trips around the outskirts of the town. We’d seen pictures of vast tea fields on ads. We’d heard that Shàoxīng is where ‘Gunpowder Green’ tea comes from – made famous by Twinings in Western countries many years ago. So, we started asking questions. Many people looked at us blankly. Some said just head to the tea area and start asking around. Hmm… what to do? We got online and found some phone numbers. Zac braved the Zhèjiāng accent and we eventually found someone who said we could come and have a look at their company!

As you’ve probably noticed, our previous tea adventures have been very rural. We’ve met the farmers, we’ve dined with families and we’ve got to the roots of the production. This time was different. We found the big sign announcing the factory, and a lovely little girl met us at the front gate. We sat in her office and sampled some of the new products for the year. Their new green tea was quite robust and delicious, and totally different to the lóng jǐng we’d had a few days earlier. The company is a collaboration with Japan, so they make a lot green tea powder for ice-creams and snacks. They also provide the green tea powder for a delicious new iced tea on the market. It has absolutely no sugar in it, yum!

We then moved into the lab for our tea-tasting! Have a taste in a lab is a completely different experience. The tea is weighed precisely, the timer is set for brewing and there is much less consideration for the temperature of the water!

We tried 4 distinct teas (left to right):

  • Mocha: ‘Matcha’ tea – the Japanese green tea powder. This is sieved and then whisked in hot water with a bamboo “brush”
  • Pingshui yinzhu: The fresh one that we tried as we came in
  • Houji cha: Looks/smells like coffee! It’s the tea that is used for iced tea and it’s quite low in caffeine (babies apparently drink it in Japan!)
  • Genmai: Green tea mixed with roasted rice. We tried a couple of combinations, and decided: the more rice, the better!

Note the weighing scales and feather duster. New tea-tasting equipment for me!

After the tasting session, we went for a wander through the tea fields. The factory has 10,000 acres of tea bushes and produces 300 tonnes of tea per year. 80% is picked industrially and the rest is hand-picked for their high quality loose-leaf teas.
You could see which tea bushes had been mechanically picked as they had a rounded shape. We walked past a beautiful blue reservoir, crossed a very thin stone bridge and sweated our pores out!!

You can see the difference between the machine-picked and hand-picked bushes.

Matcha leaves must be covered for the last part before the harvest to maintain the deep green colour

 Read more about tea:
Long Jing Green Tea Adventure!
Find out where the tea story began!

Photos courtesy of Zac.

龙井茶 Lóng jǐng Green Tea

I’m in the middle of a gorgeous exploratory holiday through Zhèjiāng, one of China’s smallest provinces. It’s famous for a number of things, but the first and foremost is Lóng jǐng Green Tea. Lóng jǐng translates as “Dragon’s well” and the tiny village of Lóng jǐng is situated just up the hill in the capital city of Hángzhōu.

Zac, my husband, had previously travelled to Hángzhōu on business and had attempted to buy some tea. However, every tea shop he visited had outrageously high prices (more expensive than Beijing!!) and the quality just didn’t seem up to scratch. As the streets of Hángzhōu are lined with Lamborghini and BMW shops, it’s easy to see why this happened. Zhèjiāng’s recent history includes a lot of China’s entrepreneurs and massive export companies. Apparently, a large percentage of the world’s shoes come out of Wēnzhōu, a major city in the south of the province. So, there’s money. Big time.

When we knew that we wanted to explore Zhèjiāng, Zac got back in touch with his driver from the previous trip. The guy had chatted about tea and seemed to know what he was talking about. We gave him a call, he asked us which car we’d like (money!) and he picked us up one day in his black Audi. He was a no-nonsense kind of guy. He told us where the best tea was and took us there. When we asked if there were any other places where we should go, he said no. This is the only place for lóng jǐng.

When we arrived at Lóng jǐng village, he parked the car right next to the actual Dragon’s Well! A little grandma grabbed our arms and handed us a bucket with a rope. We plunged the bucket into the well and drew up icy cold water. We washed our face and hands in the cool, sweet water. It was the best tasting water I’ve ever had.

We then followed him a short way up to a house behind the well at 狮峰山 (shīfēngshān – Lion’s Peak Mountain). We were welcomed by the loveliest lady who used lovely slow Chinese to explain all about her teas.

There are two harvests a year for lóng jǐng and the smaller of the two happens in Autumn. For this farm in particular, they don’t pick the leaves, they just cut them and place the cut leaves back into the soil as fertilizer. It is impossible to use chemicals on Chinese tea; it would affect the flavour too much. The biggest harvest is during Spring, around “Tomb-Sweeping Day” (清明节 qīngmíngjié). There are 2 types of  lóng jǐng, named according to their harvest time. The first is 明前 míngqían, which means ‘before Tomb-Sweeping Day’ and the second is 雨前 yǔqían, which means ‘before Guyu (谷雨)’ – the rain period following Tomb-Sweeping Day. Míngqían is the more popular of the two, and we tasted this one first. For a green tea, it is reasonably robust, and one batch of the tea can be steeped (泡 pào) about eight times and maintain it’s flavour.

Then, the lady brought out her best tea: 极品龙井 (jí pǐn lóng jǐng – high grade). And we were overwhelmed. We thought the last tea was amazing. We thought the last tea smelt wonderful. We thought the last tea looked bright and green and fresh. Until this one.

This tea was much more delicate, but it had a beautiful fresh, sweet flavour. There was absolutely no bitterness. The flavour coated your tongue and stayed in your mouth much longer than any other green tea I’ve tasted. This one can only be steeped about 4 times. It was 10 times the price of the last one we tasted!!! It was also a beautiful looking leaf. It was like a small opening bud, and each leaf had more than 3 parts. The leaves don’t break apart when brewed either – they maintain their perfect shape. The tea farm only produces 5 jin (2.5 kg) of this tea every year. It was like the baby of the 2 previously mentioned teas – if it was left on the tree for longer, it would become the others.

Once drinking that, there was no going back. We weren’t leaving without buying some, especially since the price here was about 1/3 of what she sold it for in Beijing. Our tea lady said that there was once a guy who paid her almost double the price so that she would handpick the best leaves so that they were all the same size (we weren’t that fussy)!

However, we thought we’d better try our favourite ‘green’ tea whilst we were here – white tea. White tea is from a different tea bush (same species) and this white tea is called “Bái lóng jǐng” (White Dragon’s Well Tea). It was hilarious – after our amazing previous tea, this one came out and the colour just SHONE! It was so much brighter and more vibrant than her best one! The flavour was beautiful, but still didn’t rival the jí pǐn lóng jǐng.

As we sat and chatted to this tea lady, she continually munched on the leaves from the teapot (she also said that Mao was a big fan of eating tea leaves). She said she drinks about 1 jin of tea a month (0.5kg), but an average tea drinker would probably take 3 months to drink that much. At one stage she held out both her hands and asked me to feel them and tell her what was different. Her right hand had very thick, tough skin with a few callouses – this is her ‘wok’ hand; the hand she uses to roast the leaves in the wok. It’s pretty special moment to realize the personal attention that all of these leaves have had from her!