Chinese Whispers 2

Beijing

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  • Beijing is China’s capital and has a population of 22 million. I wrote before of the four direct controlled municipalities, Beijing is one of them.
  • Beijing was called Peking in our day – The name Beijing was adopted in1958 but only became compulsory in 1979.
  • Our hotel in Beijing was right beside the Summer Palace. Right beside is probably a misnomer – because it is actually a connected part of the complex reserved for those who weren’t of high enough status to command a room inside the palace itself. A lovely place despite its historical, lesser status.

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I note the step at the entrance to many buildings – something about keeping spirits out. It doesn’t make the building very wheelchair accessible though.

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  • The GDP per capita is increasing daily as we go from Chongqing (US$12,019) to Chengdu (US$ 8,770) to Beijing (US$17,278), the quality of the high-rise is also following the same pattern, getting less utilitarian and architecturally more interesting and obviously wealthier.
  • The Summer Palace was built in 1750 by one of the emperor’s to celebrate his mother’s birthday! It was used as a summer escape for the emperors and empresses and their families and was burned down in wars and rebuilt in between. It was eventually turned over to the Chinese people in 1912. Denis and I took a walk around it in the afternoon. It was full of Chinese tourists. Chinese schools are on holidays so there are lots of Chinese tourists about. (August is not the month to visit China!) I asked our taxi driver in Chengdu how long were school holidays and he said two months though there is pressure to reduce the length so that Chinese children could learn more! I thought this was interesting because in Ireland there is the same pressure but it’s because of childcare costs. He also mentioned that in China, grandparents are very involved in minding children while two parents are out at work.
  • I was imagining what it might have been like back in the day to move the 25 km from central Beijing to the Summer Palace with its lovely cool Kunming Lake. The garden occupies 290 hectares and the lake roughly occupies about three quarters of that area. The garden is full of bridges, temples, courtyards, halls, towers, galleries, gates, and more – all buildings in beautiful very old Chinese style, very colourful pagoda style. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site.

 

 

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Buildings/Gardens in the Summer Palace have names such as “Hall of Benevolence and Longevity”, “Garden of Virtue and Harmony”, “Hall of Nourishing Pleasures” and the one I really liked “Temple of Timely Rains and Extensive Moisture”. The temple was built as a place to pray for rain and since it worked it was renamed to its present name.

IMG_6850Kite flying

Ice-cream buying  – Note – “Russian style Pure Taste Milk Ice Cream”

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  • The former, full-time residence for Chinese emperors and empresses in central Beijing is called the Forbidden City. I would have liked to have visited it but we couldn’t get tickets when we arrived at our hotel after lunch. In hindsight it might have been just as well as the crowds would have been huge plus we would have needed a longer time. The Forbidden City was the palace for almost the last half millennium until 1912. It served as home for the family and the centre of government. It has 980 surviving buildings. Like the Summer Palace it’s a UNESCO world heritage site as the largest collection of preserved wooden structures in the world. Construction lasted 14 years and required more than one million workers!
  • The other place I would have loved to have visited was the Great Wall but again time did not permit. From the centre of Beijing it would have been 1.5 hours to the Great Wall at Mutianyu.
  • We had dinner with friends in a restaurant owned by one of the group and his wife. The food was Vietnamese and delicious.
  • We were up early for our 6.45 am flight, some photos en route to airport

 

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  • The flight was a bit turbulent owing to thunderstorms in Shenzhen but nothing too bad.
  • Shenzhen is a very interesting city. It’s one of the four largest and wealthiest cities of China, it’s located immediately to the north of Hong Kong. Our taxi driver, who lives in Hong Kong and crosses over to China daily for work, suggested we take a trip to Hong Kong. We nearly did and only with his questioning did we remember that though we had a visa to China that was valid for three months, It was only single-entry, thankfully was no trip to Hong Kong. Whatever about testing US immigration officialdom, I certainly would not like to have tested Chinese
  • Shenzen’s population is 12 million. That figure does not account for the large population of migrant workers living in the city. It was one of the fastest growing cities in the 90’s and 2000’s. Just putting it in personal terms – when I left college, Shenzhen had a population of 30,000 people and today 12 million.
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Blue is the population with permanent residency

Red is the population with non-permanent residency

  • Shenzhen was designated China’s first Special Economic Zone in 1979. Special Economic Zones were part of China’s opening up to the world in the early 80’s. China first opened up four cities and one province. These zones were more free market economy oriented and operated without control by the Chinese central government in Beijing. They offered tax and business incentives to attract foreign investment and technology. In later years further areas were added.
  • The GDP per capita in Shenzhen is US$25,790. That’s quite a jump! (For reference, our previous cities – Chongqing (US$12,019) to Chengdu (US$ 8,770) to Beijing (US$17,278)).
  • There were noticable green areas in the city. 
  • Our hotel occupied a few floors of the second tallest building in Shanghai the KK100 building. IMG_6947Reception was on the 96th floor, from there there were amazing 360 degree views over the city. 

Denis and I went for a runIMG_6946

Some photos from the park we ran in. Note the elaborate root system of the fig tree. I have a fig tree as a house plant at home – this shows me what’s possible if I keep feeding it!

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Playing Board Games

One of the abandoned rental bikes I wrote about previouslyIMG_6951

We met an Irish guy working in Shenzhen for dinner. Listening to his perspective was very interesting. We left after dinner for our one and half hour flight to Shanghai. 

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  • Unusual for me, I slept until midday as I had a bad tummy bug overnight. By lunchtime I felt a bit better and got up as I did not want to miss seeing Shanghai. I was able to get plain white rice and a fried egg – the tea and toast equivalent in China – perfect convalescent food.
  • Shanghai is another of the four direct controlled municipalities of China and the most populous city in the world with a population of more than 24 million as of 2014. Its GDP per capita is US$17,125, (note, less than Shenzhen).
  • We went on a tour of Shanghai. The taxi cost 150 Yuan, (less than €20) per hour for three hours. It was great value and a great way to see the city. 
  • First up we went to see the Jade Buddha Temple, founded in 1882

  • We then went to see Jiangnan Silk – a place with an exhibition of how silk cloth is made and then a shop where one could buy beautiful silk clothes, bed linen including duvets and more. Native to China, we learned about the life cycle of the silk worm, it’s the larva or caterpillar of the Bombyx mori moth. The whole life cycle takes 46 days. Silkworms eat mulberry leaves. The cocoon containing one larva is made of one thread of raw silk 1,000 – 1,200 metres long, that is over 1 km, yet is only the size (and shape) of a small bird’s egg! The process of making silk is to like unravelling a spool of thread – finding the start and then unravelling the cocoon. By machine, the silk from the cocoon is unwound and a thread can be combined with other threads to make a stronger thicker thread. IMG_6992IMG_6996 (1)IMG_6997If the cocoon contains two larva then the two threads making up the cocoon are tangled together and cannot be unwound like the single. Those are used to make duvets. First the mat of threads are stretched to about a six inch square size and eventually it can be stretched using four people, each holding one corner to stretch the mat of threads to duvet size. Each layer is wafer thin. A duvet is made by piling up layer after layer of silk, the number of layers determining how warm or cool the duvet will be. 
  • Next we drove by the Bund which is ten blocks of old buildings. Settled by the British after the first Opium War, it was here that the big trading companies built headquarters, most of them in grand, neo-classical style. From the Bund we could see the very modern skyscrapers of Pudong rising up on the other side. IMG_7018
  • We had dinner that night in an Italian restaurant in the Bund and had a wonderful view of the Shanghai skyline. While the others had a gorgeous dinner, I ate plain pasta and olive oil – it too tasted gorgeous to convalescent me.

China some overall impressions

  • Though we only saw big cities, the China we saw was prosperous with nothing at all grey about it
  • Western brands abound, Western shops were side by side with small Chinese shops/stalls selling street food or cheap manufactured goods. The contrast was marked. 
  • People were very polite. People were very happy looking. People were well dressed.
  • Though I think they are very polite, we are here in the airport and there’s a guy slurping every morsel of his food beside me as I write. Using chop sticks he slurped noodles with some topping, then ate a fruit plate, followed by an assortment of cakes, followed by soup! I was surprised to see savoury soup coming after all the sweet cakes. Having heard the slurps with the noodle dish, my heart sank when I saw him choosing soup! (PS. I’m now beside a young couple who together are slurping from a container of pot noodles! Slurping seems to be de rigour in chop sticks etiquette!)
  • Staff at the hotels we stayed in went out of their way to be helpful. Examples: The girl at our hotel in Chongqing accompanied us to the neighbouring restaurant to show us exactly where it was and help us to order our food. When we were planning a short tour of Shanghai, the guy at the hotel planned the tour with me and then wrote the list of places we wanted to visit in Chinese for our non-English speaking taxi driver. (I had the same list in English).  He made sure we had both the taxi driver’s and his number if any problems arose. I could list other examples – Overall the level of service was excellent.
  • Eating dinner at night, I felt I could be anywhere in the world
  • My abiding memory of China will be stacks of apartment blocks. China definitely manufactures goods, but in my mind China also manufactures apartment blocks and cities. A recent Guardian article states that there are 102 cities in China with a population of more than one million according to the Demographia research group. Many of these cities are little known outside the country – or even within its borders. It states that according to consultancy firm McKinsey, by 2025 China will have 221 cities with a population of at least 1 million. That will mean an explosion in construction of buildings, roads and transport systems. One reason is that the government is actively encouraging rural residents to urbanise. China aims to have 60% of its people living in cities by 2020, up from 56% currently, and the World Bank estimates a billion people – or 70% of the country’s population – will be living in cities by 2030. Thousands of government officials have campaigned across the country to convince farmers to move to newly built urban districts, turning centuries-old villages into ghost towns.(It’s beginning to sound a bit like rural France though probably much worse.) China is developing Westwards away from the Eastern coasts. In addition, the Chinese government has set a target for 30% of buildings to be prefabricated in the next 10 years. The article also mentioned that newly built apartment blocks already have a cookie-cutter feeling, with identical 30-storey buildings visible from the window of nearly every high-speed train ride. The uniform construction can create an eerie scene, one city indistinguishable from the next.
  • China’s one-child policy was introduced in 1979 and began to be phased out in 2015 when two-child families became allowed. By one estimate there were at least 22 ways in which parents could qualify for exceptions to the law towards the end of the one-child policy. A person we met made the comment that the one-child policy made prima donnas of that one child. He also said that in many cases during the restricted period, couples sometimes just paid the fine, to have the second child, kind of like the opposite of child maintenance 🙂 The fine was called the “social child-raising fee”. The Chinese government claimed that the one-child policy prevented 400 million births but it’s disputed if this number is true because fertility rates were declining anyway for other reasons. At the airport we observed a number of two-children families, (how I was certain was the two children were dressed the same). I read on Wikipedia: As part of the policy, women were required to have an IUD surgically installed after having a first child, and to be sterilized by tubal ligation after having a second child. From 1980 to 2014, 324 million Chinese women were fitted with IUDs in this way and 107 million were sterilized. Women who refused these procedures – which many resented – could lose their government employment and their children could lose access to education or health services. The IUDs installed in this way were modified such that they could not be removed manually, but only through surgery. In 2016, following the abolition of the one-child policy, the Chinese government announced that IUD removals would now be paid for by the government.

    Ireland’s abortion law make Ireland seem kind of like China – Middle-aged men in suits making decisions over women’s bodies!

Visiting China was just wonderful. Like someone, close to me, said – travelling provides a hook where you can hang knowledge. I’m looking forward to hanging a lot more on my China hook!

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Chinese Whispers 1

We flew overnight from Dubai to Chongqing. Our trip to China was short, five cities in five days. Screen Shot 2017-09-18 at 13.06.01

Chongqing

  • Our first sight of China and Chongqing on waking up on the plane was lots of high-rise apartment blocks, stacked one after the other. I read somewhere if you need something, reach out to your neighbour in the next apartment block, they’re that close.IMG_6485

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  • The apartments are stacked close together because Chongqing being mountainous, flat land is in short supply. It was interesting to see so big a city so close to high mountains.
  • There were no westerns to be seen. I have never visited anywhere before really with no tourists and no westerns. Being a city away from Eastern China, it’s not on the tourist path. Plus most of its manufacturing is for the Chinese market so western business people don’t visit.
  • The only real evidence of poverty that we saw were some very run-down looking apartment blocks and people looking to carry cases for you with a stick and rope in the train station.
  • People were generally well dressed. There was little evidence of obesity, though we later learned that obesity is becoming a problem in China.
  • Chongqing is one of China’s four direct-controlled municipalities, (the other three are Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin). It is the only municipality away from the coast. Chongqing is the most populous, the largest and the poorest of the four. Its GDP per capita is 8,770 US$. A July 2012 report by the Economist Intelligence Unit described Chongqing as one of China’s “30 emerging megacities”.
  • The population of the Chongqing municipality is 37 million, in an area of 32 thousand square miles – that’s the same size as Ireland. 18 million live in the urban area. 5 million live in Chongqing city itself – there now are other separate cities that make up the urban area.

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There was lots of construction going on

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Note the train

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  • There are three main rivers in China, all flowing west to east: 1) the Yellow River in the north 2) the Yangtze river in the centre and 3) the Xi River in the south. (The Yangtze is the longest river in Asia and the third-longest in the world, after the Amazon and the Nile.) Chongqing is an important manufacturing centre and a transportation hub in the upstream Yangtze basin.

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  •  Chongqing was created in 1997 to help with the Three Gorges Dam migration. The Three Gorges Dam is a hydroelectric dam that spans the Yangtze river and is the world’s largest power station. It was completed in 2012 and displaced 1.3 million people. The Three Gorges Dam has been very controversial – As well as displacing people, it has flooded archaeological and cultural sites and is causing significant ecological changes including a risk of landslides.
  • Chongqing apparently had a reputation for corruption and organised crime and is still the most dangerous city in China. The corruption extended from business to law-enforcement and justice. In 2009 a major crackdown took place under Bo Xilai, the Communist Part Secretary of Chongqing. Later it was highlighted that confessions were extracted using torture. A lawyer and some policeman were later charged for this. I read that Bo Xilai was considered a likely candidate for promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee. I was curious to see did he make it and checked – to find that he himself was later found guilty of corruption, stripped of all his assets and sentenced to life imprisonment. Gamekeeper turned poacher or something like that! The only evidence we saw of the city’s bad reputation is that Chongqing apparently has the highest number of security cameras in the world.
  • Chongqing has a subtropical climate and for most of the year experiences very wet conditions. It rained heavily while we were there. Was I sorry I’d forgotten my umbrella!IMG_6596
  • At breakfast in our hotel on Tuesday morning I have never seen such an array of lovely food and not many breakfast customers. Those that were there were mostly Chinese men dressed in very casual clothes, no suits. It was a buffet, I people watched. One man beside me had taken an amazing amount of food and I watched as he ate. If he didn’t like something he flicked it off his plate onto the table. He wolfed down the food with chop sticks. Later and with great elegance he delicately picked a hard-boiled egg with chop sticks. My chop stick skills have improved but don’t test me yet on hard-boiled eggs!
  • Having gone around and looked at every dish (there were many more than shown above!), I ate what I normally eat – Bircher meusli (yes they had it), fresh fruit and coffee! I liked their signIMG_6659
  • We took a train on Tuesday morning from Chongqing to Chengdu. I’ve included the whole of China in the map below – the 300km trip between Chongqing and Chengdu looks very tiny in the scale of the country!

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  •  Without a word of English (but with great help from Google translate), we were able to navigate to buy tickets and get to correct platform. The journey was 300 km and the ticket cost €19. The journey took 1.5 hrs. The highest train speed reached was 293km/hr. I noticed that train went through lots of long tunnels. It stopped in 2 or 3 stations en route. The train station and the train itself were very new and modern. The high rise development continued almost all way between Chongqing and Chengdu. Looking out train window lots of high rise building plus mountains were to be seen. Because it was a mountainous area, agriculture was on stepped ground. We saw a lot of fog. It was very green but that’s not surprising given all the rain. The cleanliness of the train was very noticeable, staff were very smartly dressed. Announcements on the train were in Chinese and English things like – no-smokingmaintain quietness, bring crying babies to intersections between carriages – the train would arrive in next station and would stop for 2 minutes.

Buying train tickets

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Some views from the train

Chengdu

  • Chengdu is the capital of the Sichuan province and has a population of 14 million. It is one of the three most populous cities of western China, (the other two are yesterday’s Chongqing and Xi’an).
  • Chengdu is unique in that it has maintained its name largely unchanged. Its nickname is City of the Turtle. It served briefly as the capital of China.
  • Chengdu’s international airport is one of the 30 busiest in the world. More than 260 Fortune 500 companies have established branches in Chengdu.
  • 80% of the estimated 1,500 world’s Giant Pandas are in Sichuan Province. There is a breeding centre for them in Chengdu, which is a big tourist attraction for Chengdu. There were lots of Chinese tourists around while we were visiting.
  • Chengdu was more obviously affluent than Chongqing. Its GDP per capita is US$12,019, (compared to US$ 8,770 for Chongqing.) The buildings reflected it being more affluent. Again there was a lot of construction going on.
  • Our hotel was near the centre of Chengdu. It was in a new development beside Daci Monastery and Temple, which I went to see.

Wouldn’t I love to be able to sleep as easily as this lady!IMG_6718Nearby was full of traditional small Chinese shops side by side designer shops, I was only interested in the former.IMG_6743

The giant statue of Chairman Mao in Tianfu Square, the centre of Chengdu.IMG_6737

  • We noticed lots of rented bicycles from the mobile app Mobikes and Ofo – bright orange and bright yellow. These bikes don’t have any docking stations just a lock/unlock within the App. I read a recent article, where bike renting is causing problems in China – cyclists going the wrong way and abandoning bikes anywhere and some fatal accidents. I smiled on reading: The city of Shanghai is considering a more drastic approach to limiting their [rented bikes] use: Barring people authorities consider either too tall, too short or too overweight to hop on a bike due to fears they may be too unstable on vehicles made for the average frame.

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There were also lots of motorbikes.IMG_6730

  • A magnitude 7 earthquake struck 300 km away in Guangyuan on the same day as we were in Chengdu with reports of sadly 13 people dead and over 100 injured. Fortunately it didn’t affect Chengdu.Screen Shot 2017-09-19 at 08.15.45.png
  • On Wednesday morning we flew from Chengdu to Beijing. Our flight was slightly delayed due to the earthquake. We crossed some uninhabited mountainous areas and areas with low-rise development, we’ve got so used to the high-rise that we’re now noticing low-rise.Screen Shot 2017-09-18 at 13.23.06

Chinese Whispers to be continued

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Give us this day our daily bread

There seems to be a special day for everything! I’m not thinking of the obvious ones like Mothers Day, Fathers Day. (National Grandparents Day has just passed – it was on the tenth of September.) I’m thinking of the more obscure ones like National Chocolate Day, actually it’s today, September 13th. I kind of like the sound of National Lazy Mom’s Day but I’ve missed that – it was almost two weeks ago on the first Friday of September. Now that I’ve started checking there’s far more obscure National Days than I thought. Yes there’s a National Bloggers Day on 27th October.

Anyway, I had heard that this week, 11th to 17th September 2017, is National Bread Week in Ireland and According to its own website – it is a chance for everyone to ‘Love Your Loaf’ and celebrate all that is great about Irish bread. Interestingly on reading further – it’s an English PR company that’s handling the PR for Irish National Bread Week – that seems a little odd given we’re focussing on one of our national staples.

Yes we all love the smell of freshly baked bread. It’s true that supermarkets use it to encourage us to buy, buy, buy. House sellers (ashamedly – myself included) use it to improve the ambience of the house we are trying to sell, sell, sell. Scientists at UCD examined why we love the smell of bread. Their research was reported here in the Times and here on the National Bread Week website. In summary their research showed:

  • The smell of bread makes 89% of people happy
  • The favourite memory associated with bread involves mothers. A survey of 1,000 people, showed that the most popular favourite memory evoked by the smell of bread involved the word mother or mum (29%). 20% of memories mentioned the term childhood and 16% featured the word home. Grandparents also featured in 16% of memories.
  • A loaf of bread contains over 540 distinct volatile compounds, although less than 20 are believed to contribute to the aroma of bread. (That’s a laugh given that the recipe below has really only 5 ingredients.) These compounds provide 8 to 12 key aroma notes which together create the smell of bread. Alongside compounds which give off a milky, buttery and malty flavour and aroma, are the more unusual cooked spaghetti, flint, green olive, grapefruit and baked onions. So if you’re bread is not smelling beautifully, who knows maybe it has more cooked spaghetti notes than usual!

Anyway, given the week that is in it, I thought I’d include my current, favourite bread recipe – Porridge Bread. Yes I love oat flakes and given that I’m trying to stay wheat-free as much as possible, Porridge Bread is a great substitute. This is my adaption of the standard recipe.

Ingredients:

  • 1 large tub of full fat Greek yogurt (500 ml)
  • 2 tubs of porridge oats
  • 1 small teaspoon of bread soda
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 egg
  • Something to add interest – e.g. chopped apricots and walnuts, (today I used hazelnuts instead of walnuts) or raisins and mixed seeds

Method:

  • Mix all the ingredients in a bowl
  • Put into a loaf tin. (I line my very old loaf tin with (loaf tin) parchment paper which I reuse but you could just grease the tin)
  • Cook at 180°C for approx 50 mins (depending on your oven)
  • Leave to cool on wire tray

After writing this post, I got up and baked some bread. I timed it and it took eight minutes from start to having it in the oven. Had I not chopped apricots and nuts it would have been less than five!

There’s a lot to be said for daily bread!

 

 

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Seeing and learning about Dubai

A few weeks ago Denis and I got a lovely opportunity for a short visit to China with Patrick, spending a day in Dubai on the way. I’ll write here about Dubai and follow on with China. Though we needed to get a visa for China, thankfully we didn’t need one for Dubai.


I love learning about new places. I love walking around and seeing what’s to be seen. I also like keeping a good eye on my daily step count 🙂 Here in Dubai we were totally limited by the temperature, I can take heat but here it was much too hot to walk any distance outside. The Sunday we were there the temperature reached 42C – at least we were gone by the time it hit 46C on the following days! Situated in the Arabian Desert, Dubai has a hot desert climate. I could feel what this meant – this has been the hottest place I’ve ever visited.

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Dubai is the largest and most populous city in United Arab Emirates, (UAE), with a population of almost 3 million. Emiratis themselves make up less than a quarter of the population. (Just to give you an idea – Dubai’s nationalities are: 43.3% Indian, 23% Emirati, 17% Pakistani, 7.5% Bangladeshi, 4.2% Filipino, 1.5% Sri Lankan, 0.3% American, 5.2% other countries.)

As with many wealthy countries and with Dubai being so fast growing, it’s mostly outsiders who are providing the labour. One Indian taxi driver told us he’d been working here for twenty eight years. His family are back in Delhi and he visits home every year for two months. He has a visa to work here but he would need a higher monthly income (more than 10,000 AED as opposed to his 3,000) to get a family visa. (The currency in the United Arab Emirates is the United Arab Emirates Dirham, abbreviated to AED. 4 AED = 1 Euro). He plans to finish in Dubai in about two to three years and go back to his family and his farm of two cows and three goats. Another taxi driver had a very similar story. We talked with many other nationalities; Estonian, German, Sri Lankan, South Korean to name a few. Given that Dubai has neither personal tax nor VAT it is able to attract plenty of ex-pats – indeed, many Irish doctors, nurses, teachers have worked in the Middle East availing of this tax free life.

Dubai is a growing economy and trade forms a large part of its wealth. Oil was important in development of the city but now only contributes less than 5% of the emirate’s revenue. Its main revenues now come from tourism, aviation, real estate, and financial services. For example the Dubai Mall is one of the world’s largest shopping malls and is being expanded and soon expected to have 100 million visitors annually. That’s approx 2 million visitors per week, wow! It’s full of  retail and entertainment but given that I have absolutely zero interest in shopping, I didn’t visit it. Obviously I’m in the minority here!

Dubai will host Expo 2020 and already we could see signs already advertising for this.

Dubai has the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa at 2,722 ft. (Carrauntoohill – my mountain of reference for all heights is 3,406 ft!) The building was opened in 2010. Here’s a crooked photograph – the building is perfect! IMG_6368

The Dubai skyline is dominated by many tall buildings. Driving out Sheik Zayed Road, one can see skyscaper after skyscraper.


If you judge how much construction is going on in a city by the number of cranes in the skyline, there are a lot going on in Dubai!

Dubai has been ruled by the Al Maktoum family since 1833; the emirate is an absolute monarchy with no elections. The ruler, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is also the Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates. In Ireland we are familiar with that family name from their interest in horses.

In Dubai with the mixture of nationalities, there’s a big mixture of dress. The dress code for women and men is not compulsory and many people wear western or other eastern clothing. I decided to learn the clothing terms – I’m familiar with many of them but decided to list them as a reference.

  • Emirati women usually wear the Abaya, a long black robe with a hijab. The hijab is the head-scarf which covers the neck and the head but leaves the face uncovered. Some women may add a niqab which cover the mouth and nose and only leaves the eyes exposed. A burka is the form of Islamic dress that conceals the most, it’s made of stiffened linen. Thus the hijab is the least head covering, niqab next and burqa is the most.
  • Emirati men wear the Kandurah (also called dishdasha or thawb), it’s a long white robe, and the headscarf (Ghotrah). The UAE traditional Ghotrah is white and is held in place by an accessory called Egal, which resembles a black cord. Younger Emiratis prefer to wear red and white Ghotrahs and tie it round their head like a turban.

Friday is the holy day and the weekend is now Friday and Saturday. There are approximately 500 mosques in Dubai with their call to prayer five times each day. Islam is the official state religion of the UAE but there is no prohibition of other religions nor their places of worship. The government subsidises almost 95% of mosques and employs all Imams. Any person held preaching racism, religious hatred or promoting religious extremism is usually jailed and deported. IMG_6365

Adult non-Muslims are allowed to drink alcohol in licensed venues, typically within hotels, or at home with the possession of an alcohol license. Restaurants outside hotels in Dubai are typically not permitted to sell alcohol.

We visited the spice souk. (A souk is a market.)

And the gold souk.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the pearling industry was important but the industry was wiped out for various reasons including the invention of the cultured pearl.

In the days before air-conditioning, buildings had a structure at the top to try and create a wind draft.

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In the old part we saw many old boats which are still used to ply trade with other neighbouring countries. Though they didn’t look up to it, we were informed that these boats carried goods – not just to/from near neighbour Iran, but also India and the east African coast!IMG_6507

Goods waiting on the pier to be loaded/unloaded.

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Dubai is one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, (UAE), a country formed in 1971 after it ceased being a British protectorate. The other six emirates are 2) Abu Dhabi (which serves as the capital), 3) Ajman, 4) Fujairah, 5) Ras al-Khaimah, 6) Sharjah and 7) Umm al-Quwain. In 2013, the UAE’s population was 9.2 million, of which 1.4 million were Emirati citizens (15%) and 7.8 million were expats. Each emirate is governed by an absolute monarch; together, they jointly form the Federal Supreme Council. One of the monarchs (traditionally always the monarch of Abu Dhabi) is selected as the President of the UAE.

Arabic is the official language although English and Indian are widely spoken.

The UAE has a Minister of Happiness, a Minister of Tolerance and a Minister for Youth Affairs. Just to show that they are serious about happiness…

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Having said that the UAE has apparently been criticised for its human rights record.

I was very interested to see little pots of Irish Killowen Farm yogurt on the breakfast buffet at our hotel. Fair play to their marketing people – this was my first time to see these particular yogurts and they are delicious. Though we had just landed, I loved seeing this little bit of Ireland here.

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Our time in Dubai was very short, little over a day, but I feel we got a good overview from reading up about the place, taking a bus tour and chatting with people – taxi drivers, hotel and restaurant staff, whoever we met. I find chatting with people really helps to put flesh on the bones when learning about new places.

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The Dingle Marathon

There is nothing quite like lining up for the 9 o’clock start of the Dingle marathon on the first Saturday of September each year. Our trip to Dingle for this event has become an annual pilgrimage, we’ve been doing it for the past seven years. The first Saturday of September marks the end of summer, children have gone back to school, autumn is well and truly beginning.

I absolutely love the camaraderie of the crowd at the starting line, the young and the old, the fat and the thin, the fit and the less fit. That starting line is one of the highlights of the weekend for me. The anticipation, the nerves, the excitement. Everyone is in good humour, I have yet to see an unhappy face in the thousands of people lining up. Each face in the crowd belongs to someone who has chosen to come down to Dingle on this first Saturday in September. Each face in the crowd belongs to someone who has gotten up early to be at the starting line for that loud bang that tells us that this year’s race has begun. Each face in the crowd has a deep understanding of the benefits of exercise. These faces in the crowd are my type of people.

This annual pilgrimage is rich because we share it with a great group of people. Denis and I are always joined by Derek and Mary and usually one or more of their daughters. Atilla and Aniko from Hungary have come a number of years – Atilla has run it a few times and Aniko took part this year for her first time. Tommy and other friends have joined us over the years, Breda came this year for her first time. Running Dingle with this group makes Dingle extra special.

Each year I feel privileged and very appreciative of just being here – another year that I am healthy enough to be among this early morning crowd. It’s not something I take for granted.

It’s usually raining in Dingle. We expect the rain so we hardly notice it. A sunny morning is a huge bonus. This year we were fooled. The day before was an absolutely gorgeous day for driving down from Sligo to Dingle – the countryside, the views were stunning. The great weather continued into Saturday morning though rain was forecast for later in the morning. Within half an hour of the start the rain came, the sleet came, the wind came. At the end, waiting around, I was frozen – my fingers and toes were like blocks of ice. The unusually beautiful start was matched by an equally unusual, awful end. That’s Dingle for you. However no rain, no sleet nor wind could dampen our good humour.

There were eight of us this year and each of us completed our own goal be it run or walk the half-marathon (or run and walk in my case this year). Denis surprised us all by switching to the full marathon and completing it in a great time. Each of us was delighted with how we did. We all took part and we were all personal winners.

Here are some photographs …

Setting off from Benners

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Dingle Fuchsia …IMG_7212

and Monbresia – so much part of Dingle.IMG_7215

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As well as the stunning scenery, there was plenty of entertainment along the route.

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Turning the corner at Slea Head, marked by these statues, the wind was unbelievably strong. It felt like we’d be blown home. Not a bad feeling!

IMG_7261Here in Dingle on a corner of the Iveragh peninsula stuck out in the Atlantic, on the first Saturday in September, I always feel on top of the world. Here I feel I’m walking the walk (or maybe it should be running the run!) of the book Younger Next Year. Here, I always feel hugely optimistic about the next year ahead.

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Looking at mementoes of various Dingle marathons, I hope that this pilgrimage continues to be part of our lives for many more years to come.

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Life lessons

Barbara Gill was a college friend of mine. We met on one of my first days – I started first semester late but that’s another story. I arrived into the lecture theatre, sat down and she was there. We exchanged pleasantries. She said she was from a place I would never have heard of – Clonbullogue, a small village in County Offaly. As it was, I had heard of it as my father was from and had many relations still living there. We became firm friends in my first days in college.

Over the years I met Barbara’s family who were always very welcoming to her friends.

After college Barbara went on to teach and later lecture in Developmental Education in teacher training colleges in Dublin.

One summer, shortly after we left college, she and I spent two weeks in India on holiday before she went on to do volunteer work there with VSI and I to see my sister, a volunteer in Bangladesh. Barbara worked tirelessly volunteering for many causes.

In her forties Barbara came to know great happiness meeting her partner Ruth and having baby Stephen. Ten years ago this year, when Stephen was eight weeks old, Barbara was killed in a bicycle accident. It was utterly cruel and devastating. Ruth and Stephen lost a wonderful partner and mother. Barbara’s parents and siblings lost a wonderful first-born and eldest sister. A wide circle of colleagues and friends lost a truly inspirational person.

At the time of Barbara’s death I wrote a blog post about her. Unfortunately that blog is now lost somewhere in the ether. This post remembers Barbara, but Barbara didn’t get her special qualities from the ground, so to speak, her parents are also truly inspirational people.

When Denis and I were on our recent cycling trip, I often thought of Barbara. On the very last night out of the blue I got a phone call from Margaret, Barbara’s mother. It felt surreal to be talking with her on that particular night. Margaret told me that she and Bill, (her husband), were coming to Sligo for two nights, had heard I had recently moved there and could they meet up with me. Naturally, I said yes. Luckily, we would be home just in time for their visit.

A number of days later, I picked up Margaret and Bill from their hotel. I picked them up at 2pm and dropped them back at 10pm. The hours in between were a life lesson for me.

We chatted incessantly.

Margaret and Bill initially didn’t understand homosexuality, but they welcomed Ruth and later Stephen into their family with great grace. Though totally and utterly devastated by their daughter’s death,  Margaret and Bill were able to gradually put their lives back together, to continue living and not create a broken family. On learning that Barbara had a dream to build a school in Eritrea, Margaret and Bill just put heads together and made her dream come true.

Margaret spoke on the Late Late Show (as it happened the same night as a certain two Limerick brothers) and with great eloquence she was able to get the audience and the country to understand the injustice of family law in the new Ireland that was emerging. Margaret spoke in the lead-up to the same-sex marriage referendum. Hearing a woman, then in her seventies, campaigning for a yes vote was very powerful, it made a difference.

Margaret spoke and people listened.

None of us are too old to change and grow. Margaret and Bill certainly never were. That Monday we chatted incessantly. Much later I dropped them back to their hotel. I, in my fifties, was exhausted. They, in their eighties, were still sprightly.

I’m still reflecting on the life lessons I learned that day. I won’t leave it so long to meet them again – I’ve too much more to learn simply listening to them speak.

More about Barbara here and here.

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Dare I say … A weekend cycling around Lake Balaton

After my last post, you could have been forgiven for thinking that we were done with cycling for a bit. That cycle ended in Budapest … However Denis needed to stay in Budapest to meet a person who was on holidays until this week … Friends suggested we go to see Lake Balaton, (Denis had been but I had never been), plus we could use their apartment … Lake Balaton has a cycle route approximately 200 km all the way around it … We had a free weekend …

Yes you can guess the rest!

Lake Balaton is a freshwater lake and the largest lake in Central Europe. It’s really different (for us Irish folk anyhow) in that in summer its water is very warm. It’s not deep – the average depth of the lake is 10 ft – you can walk out a good bit in very shallow water. In winter the lake often freezes over such that you can walk, skate or cycle side to side – now there’s a thought!Screen Shot 2017-07-21 at 20.04.20

The northern end of the lake is mountainous, volcanic and is a major wine region, famous for its white wine, an Olaszrizling. The southern side is well developed with tourism, and was a traditional destination for Hungarian and even East Germans and others before the fall of communism. In fact it was often a meeting point for families and friends divided by the wall.

Last Thursday we took the train from Budapest to Balatonboglár where our friends, Aniko and Atilla’s, have their apartment. Who said inter-railing is just for youngsters!

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Balatonboglár is on the southern shore. Our first glimpse of Lake Balaton from the train. IMG_6133.jpgAs soon as we arrived at Aniko and Atilla’s lovely apartment we went for a swim in the lake. It was amazingly warm. On Friday morning with the fancy new additions to our cycling set up we set off in an anti-clockwise direction around the lake. I won’t do a day by day account of our trip but just talk about some highlights.

As we cycled along I was doing some numbers in my head. Hungary is a landlocked country with a population of 10 million. Assume the lake is an amenity for Hungarians plus say 10 million from neighbouring states, then a 200 km coastline is an amenity for a population of 20 million. In contrast Southern Ireland, an island nation with a 1,500 km coastline, is an amenity for a population of only 5 million, a big difference. The fact that the weather in Hungary is much warmer, the lake water is beautifully warm, it was July and school-holiday time, it was not surprising that Lake Balaton was very busy.

An early highlight for me was watching the owner of a restaurant where we had breakfast one morning, nonchalantly picking a the basket of figs from a tree in the garden and adding them for our breakfast. Seeing us in cycling gear, he asked me where we were cycling to, when I answered, he looked at me incredulously and asked if I realised how far that was!Screen Shot 2017-07-21 at 21.17.10

I didn’t tell him how far we had come.

We visited Keszthely, our first stop on the northern coast. I loved their use of umbrellas and what looked like patchwork in the town to create colour. At the end of this street is Festetics Palace.IMG_6150

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This shot looking out over Keszthely is so typical of Hungary, beautiful old buildings mixed with communist-era utilitarian construction.IMG_6159

On Saturday morning we cycled on to Szigliget and climbed up to Castle Szigliget, the ruins of the medieval fortress built on a volcanic hill by the Benedictines in 1260. IMG_6184

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I loved the notice of planning permission that the King granted the Benedictines back then to build the fortress!

” … sithence barbarians and tartar tyrants destroyed our country it is hereby decreed: let fortresses be built and castles erected in all estates of our crown where our people may hide in times of persecution and be delivered therefrom … therefor an island in lake Balaton where a mountain convenient for erecting  fortress abundantly and effectively suitable for these purposes be given to the church of St Martin of Pannonhalma…”

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Cycling along the northern side on Saturday was much tougher than I expected. And that was after lugging the bikes with all the gear up to see the castle that morning!

On Saturday evening we stayed at friends near Balatonfüred. Our friend works as a lawyer in Budapest but in his spare time he has a small vineyard, makes wine, cheese and salami, grows an array of vegetables and fruits, and is a yoga teacher. I love where you know people for one talent and discover that that’s just one of their many.

The view from the house over the lake was beautiful. We had an appetiser overlooking the lake and dinner at a neighbouring winery. It was very interesting to taste their own wine, salami, and different varieties of peppers and tomatoes from the garden. Hungarians love peppers, they call them paprika. Interestingly they could only tell the heat of the different pepper varieties by taste not by look. I like peppers and tried different ones, one innocent looking one was fiery hot! IMG_6201

The land is on a hill and the house is built into the hill, the roof is covered by earth thus it is cooler in summer and warmer in winter. Below are photographs of the winery with its beautiful vaulted ceiling, which like the house they had built themselves.

On Sunday we set off again on our bikes. We had intended completing the circle of the lake and returning to Balatonboglár but then changed our mind and instead decided to visit Tihany. We went to see its Benedictine Abbey, whose charter to build dated back to 1055. This charter is one of the first Hungarian language texts. The present church was built in the 18th century, in Baroque style.

 

The view of the organ and of the pulpit. I was thinking wouldn’t a priest gain authority preaching from this very ornate, raised platform on the right below.

 

Dust is no respecter of place 🙂

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Outside the church there were plaques to the boys from Tihany lost in each of the World Wars. Again, such awful waste of life!

 

There were beautiful views over the lake. Though this photograph was taken around 9am, the darkness was due to rain about to come.

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Nowhere is safe from mosquitoes!

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We sat out the rain in this very pretty coffee shop nearby.Screen Shot 2017-07-25 at 17.34.17

Soon we and bikes were back on the train to Budapest. Denis and Atilla taking steps to to ensure that this was the last of the cycling!IMG_6268

The bikes will soon be wrapped in plastic for their much faster return journey to Ireland!

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