Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Feast for the Eyes as well as the Stomach

I remember when growing up in north London in the 1950s and 60s that one of the pleasures that one looked forward to was going out to dinner, which on the whole was not something we as a family did on many occasions. It usually meant a birthday or some other celebration was coming up, and invariably a really special occasion meant “going Chinese”.
 
Of course I was pig ignorant in those days about Chinese food. Usually it meant Cantonese style cuisine and it was de rigeur that we ordered sweet and sour pork, fried rice and lychees out of a can to finish off. It was accompanied by jasmine tea; and sometimes on really special occasions we had deep fried battered bananas with ice cream as well!
 
When I was in my teens I discovered Peking Duck – and we would go right across to the other side of London to a restaurant in the East End in order to get it.
 
London in those days – and even now to a certain degree – catered for a very westernised palette. Little did I know until very much later how varied and very different food in China is to what we had been brought up to believe.
 
Having now been in China for nearly two years, I have been keen to improve my education in this particular subject! But last week I was taken to a restaurant by my friend Zhijuan to try out a cuisine that I had never encountered before – and I can only wonder how I could have missed out on such wonderful food all this time!
 
The restaurant is called JinJiaChun MianShiFang (晋嘉春面食坊) and it’s located in the Huilongguan area in the north of the city. I was taken there after spending an afternoon teaching English to Chinese kids – of which more in a later blog.
 
 
Unlike many restaurants that have stone lions or PiXiu guarding their portals, you can spot this one immediately – it has stone dragons.
 
 
The restaurant specialises in ShanXi style cuisine. ShanXi – 山西 – is a province located in the North China region and is also called Jin – 晋 – after the state of Jin that existed here during the Spring and Autumn Period. ShanXi literally means "mountain's west", which refers to the province's location west of the Taihang Mountains. It borders Hebei to the east, Henan to the south, ShaanXi to the west, and Inner Mongolia to the north and is made up mainly of a plateau bounded partly by mountain ranges.
 
The province has a rich cultural heritage, with more than 70% of all ancient architecture in China built before the Liao and Song Dynasties. The Yungang Grottoes, for instance, with a history of more than 1,500 years, is one of the largest cave clusters in China and comprise 53 caves and over 51,000 stone statues, representing Chinese Buddhist cave art from the period of 460-525 AD.
 
ShanXi actually has over 35,000 relic sites that include architecture, grottoes, houses, murals, and sculptures with distinct features, giving ShanXi the nickname of “ancient Chinese culture museum”. Small wonder, therefore, that this restaurant chooses this as the main decoration theme on one of its walls.
 
 
Zhijuan and I first order TuDouQieZi PaYouMian (土豆茄子扒莜面), which is a typical local speciality. It consists of fried vegetables made up of potato, aubergine, green peppers, tomato and spring onions, mixed with a tomato sauce…
 
 
… and they all sit on top of steamed rolls made of oat flour – known as YouMian WoWo (莜面窝窝) – which form a honeycomb-like cluster into which the sauce and ingredients slowly fall. Truly scrummy!
 
 
Next up, a dish that is found all over China, but almost probably originates from SiChuan (四川). It requires the use of an ingredient unfamiliar to most Western cooks: Dried Cloud Ear, also known as Wood Ear fungus and in China as MuEr (木耳). YuXiangRouSi (鱼香肉丝) normally contains pork, chili and green vegetables. The way it is cooked in ShanXi uses vinegar, soy sauce, sugar and chilli together with doubanjiang (a spicy, salty paste made from fermented broad beans, soybeans, salt, rice, and various spices), which give it a slightly sweetish taste.
 
YuXiangRouSi is generally understood to mean pork shreds prepared in the manner of fish; and translates as "fish fragrant pork shreds", even though there is no fish in it! Its unique quality can be attributed to the shredded fungus and green shoots, which contribute to a flexible yet strikingly crunchy texture.
 
 
Up next is MaPuTofu, which probably needs no introduction. Another dish, basically regarded as coming from SiChuan, the fact is that everyone makes it these days.
 
The name MaPoTofu is roughly translated as "pockmarked grandmother beancurd," named after an old woman who supposedly was cast out of Chengdu owing to her disfigurement. One day, a weary trader happened upon her shack and she was so delighted with his company that she scraped together her meagre provisions to create this dish, which is made from tofu and meat and cooked in a chili bean sauce, though the ShanXi style is slightly less mouth numbing than its SiChuan counterpart.
 
 
So that’s the first course, which we munch our way through prior to the “pièce de resistance” which I have been briefed beforehand is something that I should go and see being prepared.
 
 
Now, it is said that Italian pasta is a direct descendent of Chinese noodles, Marco Polo having returned to Italy in the 13th century and introduced his fellow Italians to what would become a staple of their diet; and ShanXi claims the honour of being the first province in the Central Kingdom to come up with the idea of noodles!
 
Among the various noodles, Dao Xiao Mian (刀削面 – knife-shaved noodles) are probably ShanXi’s most famous. And it is said that shaved noodles are as much a feast for the eyes as they are for the mouth.
 
Basically, a chef stands in front of a huge pot of boiling water, with a large lump of noodle dough in one hand – possibly weighing as much as 9kg. The dough is very hard, and is mixed by machine from just flour and water and left to stand for half an hour.
 
 
He shaves the dough with a thin, arc-shaped knife into the boiling water; and it is said that a top chef can shave as many as 200 bits a minute.
 
 
The tradition of making shaved noodles has been carried on in ShanXi since the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), and apparently every summer, the annual ShanXi International Noodle Cultural Festival is held in the city centre.
 
 
Once cooked, the noodles are lifted out of the pot and a sauce with mince is placed on top of them, together with a pinch of coriander. The texture is slightly rubbery and more chewy than most other noodles, but really tasty!
 
 
To wash all this down, the most common drink is not beer or hot tea, but hot water served in kettles that stand on plates on the table, and get filled by the waiting staff periodically. It reminds me of the culture of the ancient Britons when being invaded by Julius Caesar as depicted in ‘Asterix in Britain’ – and if you haven’t read that book, then your education is sorely lacking!
 
(Basically the Brits used to stop whatever they were doing in the middle of every afternoon to drink hot water and milk - I won’t spoil the rest of the story; you should read it yourself. And Julius Caesar, being the cunning strategist that he was, used to wait for them to have their water-and-milk break before sending in his crack troops. Thus was Britain conquered!)
 
 
But I digress. Although we were some of the first to arrive, it is obvious that we have been talking so much and enjoying watching the cookery ‘show’ that we are now some of the last in the restaurant. In Europe and the Middle East the restaurateurs will often dim the lights as a subtle hint to their guests that it is perhaps time they should be thinking of making a move.
 
Here in Beijing it is not yet 8.30, yet we are left in no doubt that it is time for us to make a move too when the waiting staff bring out large tubs of soapy hot water and proceed to do the washing up on some of the neighbouring tables vacated by earlier diners!
 
 
OK. Hint taken. We’re on our way. Really we are. But it was a great meal. Scrummy and Yummy! Not to mention Dee-Lish!
 
A few days later I am in the area again and this time Zhijuan suggests we try out one of the fast food joints around the corner from her office. “Why don’t we try out ShanXi style again?” she suggests. Why not indeed?
 
There’s a fast food restaurant called Xikou Popo – 西口婆婆 (literally: grandmother or old woman in the Xikou area), but once inside we discover that this is not a ShanXi style eatery, but ShaanXi style. OK, you won’t be surprised at this ‘faux pas’ as your favourite blogger is a hard-core, Genus-Expatrius, Mandarin-challenged laowai, but I wonder how many Chinese also get it wrong sometimes.
 
I turn to Wikipedia for enlightenment: Shaanxi should not to be confused with the neighbouring province of Shanxi, it advises (now it tells us!). The Chinese pronunciation of 陕西 and its east neighbour province 山西 differs only in tone, and hence when written in English without tonal marks they would be spelled identically as "Shanxi" according to standard Hanyu Pinyin Rules. One solution is to employ diacritical marks to denote the tones. Thus, "Shǎnxī" means 陕西 while "Shānxī" refers to its east neighbouring province 山西, however this requires marks which are not available in standard English character sets.
 
However, another method was adopted to distinguish these two provinces. The spelling "Shaanxi" was contrived for the province 陕西, following the Gwoyeu Romatzyh romanization system developed by Yuen Ren Chao. The spelling for its neighbour 山西 remains to be "Shanxi". This interesting spelling, "Shaanxi", is the official spelling of the province and it appears on Chinese Government's official web portal.
 
So there you have it. Easy when you know, isn’t it!
 
ShaanXi is considered one of the cradles of Chinese civilization, Wikipedia continues. Thirteen feudal dynasties established their capitals in the province during a span of more than 1,100 years, from the Zhou Dynasty to the Tang Dynasty. The province's principal city and current capital, Xi'an, is one of the four great ancient capitals of China and is the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, which leads to Europe, the Arabian Peninsula and Africa.
 
Inside, the fast-food outlet is basic, but snug and clean. On one of the walls are ropes of dried corn and garlic – which is apparently a typical decoration of ShaanXi.
 
 
The owners have taken some thought in decorating their little ShaanXi home-from-home and one of the walls also features a novel use for steam-baskets that I haven’t encountered before.
 
 
One look at the prices is enough to confirm that this eatery gives extremely good value for money. Typically 10 kwai per dish (about £1); and when the food actually arrives, they come in gargantuan portions. Zhijuan takes a take-away menu to keep at home…
 
 
The staff are extremely friendly, not least the table-clearer-upper who leers through a hole in the wall just over my right shoulder.
 
 
For our fast-feast, we start with pi dan (皮蛋) also called song hua dan (松花蛋) – otherwise known in the West as preserved egg, hundred-year old egg, thousand-year-old egg, and millennium egg.
 
They are traditionally prepared by preserving duck, chicken or kwail eggs in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, quicklime, and rice hulls for several weeks to several months, depending on the method of processing. (Ours are obviously chicken eggs, but it’s nice to see eggs still on the menu when they have been removed from so many other eateries because of the present H7N9 virus that has wiped out a few poor souls in the south of the country.)
 
Through the above process, the yolk becomes a dark grey colour, with a creamy consistency and with a slight smell of sulphur and ammonia, while the white becomes a dark brown, translucent jelly with not a great deal of flavour.
 
Apparently, the transforming agent in the egg is its alkaline material, which gradually raises the pH of the egg to around 9 - 12 or more during the curing process, which breaks down some of the complex, flavourless proteins and fats, and produces a variety of smaller flavourful compounds.
 
Some recipes involve the infusion of tea in boiling water, to which is added quicklime, sea salt and wood ash from burned oak. While wearing gloves to prevent the lime corroding the skin, each egg is individually covered by hand, then rolled in a mass of rice chaff to keep the eggs from adhering to one another before they are placed in cloth-covered jars or tightly woven baskets. The mud slowly dries and hardens into a crust over several months, and then the eggs are ready for consumption.
 
And jolly good they are too!
 
 
Next, we are brought a noodle dish known as Qishan saozi mian (岐山哨子面) which makes use of simple ingredients, such as pork floating in a sour and spicy tomato-flavoured soup with sweet vinegar and diced spring onions and with garlic and coriander. Here your blogger soon gets the hang of eating slippery spaghetti-type noodles with chopsticks (while mopping up with copious amounts of paper serviettes!)
 
 
Our next dish is one of ShaanXi’s specialities – hand-pulled dry noodles, called jing pin you po mian (精品油泼面) which – unlike the ShanXi speciality – is made by stretching out the dough by hand, rather than shaving off strips from a dough block. It comes with chicken and egg and green veggies and loads of dried chillies and garlic
 
 
Zhijuan calls over one of the waiting staff – a friendly soul who offers to let this laowai see the dough being prepared.
 
 
Inside the kitchen the chefs are throwing the dough around with gay abandon. They obviously enjoy having an audience. (Just think of having to do this every day for a living)!
 
 
There’s a super-sized dough making machine, which reminds me of some of the spaghetti making machines in Europe, but on a much grander scale of course.
 
 
We munch. We talk. And the time just flies by. And before we know it, an army of restaurant staff are scrubbing floors all around us and the lights are gradually being turned off. I glance at my watch. It is not even 9.15. People obviously eat early in this part of town. As we pick up our bags to leave, the staff all smile – a relieved smile, now that we have taken the hint, I wonder?
 
 
Zaijian. Byebye. We’ve enjoyed it. ShanXi or ShaanXi style... I love them both!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Gaobeidian – A severe case of Over-inflated Hype

One of the things I love about living in China is the fact that there is never a shortage of signs and slogans to lift you up and give you pause for thought. Maybe it fits into Western expectations, nurtured over the years with tales of “Confucius… he say…” or even the little red book of Chairman Mao. Anyway, it is something the Chinese certainly do very well.

 
I was thinking of this the other day when I took a short trip out to the ‘tourism cultural village of Gaobeidian’ (高碑店地区), lauded in numerous web sites as “a destination for tours, sightseeing, food, lodging, shopping, as well as performance and entertainment.”
 
A handful of tour companies even organise visits out to Gaobeidian for around US$150 per head – but as the subway fare comes to 2 yuan (about 30 US cents) I find myself wondering what on earth can be so tempting to get people to part with an additional $149.
 
With one article trumpeting “Ancient Gaobeidian Now a Tourist Lure” to its readers, I am left asking myself who could resist? OK, the fact that not one single person I ask has even heard of the place let alone been there, should have given me pause for thought. Mind you, I guess even if I had paused, my insatiable curiosity would always have nagged me until I finally got off my situpon and made the journey out there.
 
And so, one fine spring day, I set off to the south east corner of Beijing, riding for the very first time on the Batong subway line – an extension of Line 1 – to Gaobeidian station, the next one along from Beijing’s Communication University.
 
 
The village is only a short walk from the station, though there are no signs to it at all. (Note to those daft enough to want to go there themselves… take the south east exit from the station, walk past the car dealerships and turn left at the next main intersection.) Could it be that not everyone is as proud of this place as the tourist books would have one believe?
 
 
At first glance it all looks rather lovely. On the right hand side of the road, there’s a huge lake formed from the Tonghui Canal which cuts through the north of the village. It is said that when Kublai Khan founded the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), he chose Yanjing as his capital, but had to find a solution to the problem of how to transport food collected in Tongzhou to Dadu (now central Beijing). He opted for water transport, and put a hydraulics expert, Guo Shoujing, in charge of the project. Guo diverted water into Jishuitan to create a water-accumulating pool, then funnelled it south-eastward to the Bai River in Tongzhou along the east side of the Imperial City. Kublai Khan named the man-made canal Tonghui River and Gaobeidian, as a result, became a prosperous dock serving the Chinese capital.
 
 
What the tourist sites don’t tell you, however, is that Gaobeidian also has a massive sewage treatment plant that can recover three tons of phosphorus from the one million cubic metres of wastewater it treats every day. In addition it collects 20 tons of magnesium ammonium phosphate, recovered every day. The plant processes about 40% of Beijing Municipality’s total wastewater volume and features primary and secondary treatments, methane gas utilization and sludge processing facilities. Can’t understand why they leave that out of their gushing descriptions…
 
By the side of the water (which has collected its fair share of rubbish floating in the shallows, through which numerous people are fishing) there are various objects put up, presumably, to beautify the surrounding area, such as this petrified tree trunk…
 
 
… and a sculpture with a plaque underneath which reads “The most beautiful country of Beijing” (sic)
 
 
On the south shore of the lake is a tall classical style Chinese building which houses the tourist information centre – but for me the building is totally spoiled by its western wall which has a giant TV screen built in to it. There is nothing being shown on the screen today – not even Shaun the Sheep (which plays to rapturous audiences on the TV screens of Subway Line 1) for the kids playing in its vicinity.
 
 
There’s a large statue, whom I presume to be Guo Shoujing dominating the car parking area…
 
 
… and continuing westwards along the shore is a path lined with statues in the same vein.
 
 
It is at times like these that I wish I could read Chinese, since the planners of this “tourist paradise” have not thought to give translations of the inscriptions. Why, for instance, is this woman sticking her tit into the face of someone who appears to be twice her age? The mind boggles … overtime!
 
 
And as for this woman riding her tiger, I am sure I could come up with loads of storylines for such a scenario, though I somehow doubt I would hit on the real story behind the art work!
 
 
Across the road from the lakeside is Gaobeidian village proper. And it’s here that – yet again – I have to ask myself if any of the websites that have written up this tourist paradise have ever visited it for themselves, rather than relying on a marketing handout. For instance: “The main road of this dusty hamlet is lined with warehouses and showrooms that overflow with reproductions of Ming and Qing tables, opium beds, chairs, benches, stools, drums – you name it. What’s more, the merchants can custom-build whatever you cannot find in stock. Gaobeidian, long considered the antique furniture village of Beijing, is now becoming a more developed retail area … Consider it your valuable alternative to Panjiayuan and Ikea.”
 
Some of these descriptions were posted up on the web as long as six years ago; but the reality is that this place is still one large construction site, with grey two-storey pseudo-Hutong-style buildings going up everywhere. OK, regular readers of this blog will know that I am forever amazed at how inaccurate the majority of web descriptions of China’s tourists spots actually are, but if China had a trade descriptions act, this place would surely be bottom of the list.
 
I think I am probably the only foreigner in the entire area today; and I can make this claim, despite Gaobeidian having an area of 2.7 sq.km., as the entire place is practically deserted – and this on a weekend when you would expect it to be at its busiest!
 
Beijing’s Chaoyang District has invested more than one million yuan in rebuilding Gaobeidian’s Classical Furniture Street, but as you walk through the area you find, like everywhere else around here, that you have to pick your way through the scaffolding and building detritus littering every side street.
 
 
And if you do actually venture inside any of the shops (which in fairness have some stunning furniture and other artefacts on display) you aren’t left alone for a second. This, too, is another Chinese characteristic which you even find in supermarkets, where it is impossible to browse and ponder without having a pushy sales person yattering away at you trying to get you to part with your hard earned readies for something you quite clearly do not want.
 
This place has got this annoying habit down to an art form. It is impossible to wander about the stores on your own, as you are hassled the moment you step through the shops’ portals with a hard sell approach, making it a very unpleasant experience. Really, someone should educate these shopkeepers to the fact that they are actually scaring away all their potential customers. But then, you would think that basic psychology would have told them that already – or is this laowai really any different from the vast majority who may or may not ever visit this place?
 
 
After attempting three shops, and being treated in exactly the same way in each, I decide that enough is enough and start to put some distance between myself and Gaobeidian tourist village. But rather than just waste the hour long journey, I decide to explore a park adjacent to the station that I noticed on my way here. To see the magnolia bushes in bloom, you would be hard pressed to realise that we had snow here just three weeks ago. But spring arrives very fast in Beijing and suddenly everywhere is turning into a riot of colour.
 
 
The entrance to the park looks promising…
 
 
… and, even better, one is told on the inside (but only once one is through the gate!) that there is no charge for entry.
 
 
There is a helpful sign for emergency toilets – which makes me wonder what constitutes an emergency in such a situation. The answer soon becomes very clear … it would have to be an emergency to force you to use these facilities with, I suspect, the majority of people preferring to walk with their legs crossed rather than have to avail themselves of these conveniences!
 
 
A multi-directional sign points me in the direction of the “Ceneral Woods” which is in the opposite direction to the emergency loos. I mosey forth…
 
 
But just like the tourist village, these “ceneral woods” appear also to be under construction! There certainly isn’t much of a wood to write home about – ceneral or otherwise!
 
 
About the most striking thing about this park is the array of electricity pylons that can be seen from all corners of the area. I remember that my son’s girlfriend, Karen, likes the symmetry of electricity pylons and make a mental note to let her know that if ever she comes to the Central Kingdom, she should put this park near the top of her visiting agenda!
 
 
I head back to the station and am rushed back into central Beijing where I meet up with a friend. Yet another sign catches my attention – this time for a coffee stall. The sign is certainly eye catching for a westerner, but I wonder how it has been translated into Chinese?
 
The smallest coffee shop in Beijing”, it reads. No mention of the coffee’s sexual prowess whatsoever. How I love the Chinese!
 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Want a prescription? Try the Dentist!

There are times when undertaking the most basic jobs here in Beijing is guaranteed to give your favourite blogger a good laugh – and certainly makes one stop and reflect on things that are normally taken for granted back in blighty.
 
Just this week, for instance, I had to top up my supplies of medication, for if the truth be known my blood pressure shoots through the roof if I don’t pop three pills each morning. Must be all the excitement of throwing these blogs together…
 
Now, back in the UK one just drops a copy of one’s prescription into the doctor’s surgery, returning a short while later to pick up a signed version of it and toddle off to the pharmacy to pick up the pills.
 
Not in China!
 
Here you have to see the doctor each time you want a prescription renewed and that usually means going to the local hospital. The one nearest my place of work is the China Japan Friendship Hospital – popularly known to the locals as Zhongriyiyuan (中日友好医院). It has been ranked among the “Top 10 Hospitals in Beijing” and as one of the “Top 100 Hospitals in China”; and it has even been rated "the best hospital for foreigners in Beijing" by the Association for Foreigners, whoever they are. Wow!
 
 
 
I normally half expect to see the place filled with the walking wounded whenever I visit. The area is filled with Beijing’s notorious taxi drivers, after all, who seem to take it as a matter of course to aim at the nearest thing they can find on two legs and accelerate directly in that direction. But the only blue lights I can see flashing today are on an ambulance whose crew are about to rush inside, presumably for their tea break.

 
Zhongriyiyuan is well proud of its reputation, and even devotes an entire wall showing off some of its awards to the passing millions who give not even a single glance in its direction…

 
Mind you, that could perhaps be to due to the fact that there are so many signs everywhere, resulting in the average visitor soon getting sign-fatigue…

 
But you have to give them credit for making it easy to find virtually anything in this medical utopia. Want an infection? Go to the infection Department. You’ll find it near 'Grate No 9' …

 
which is the other side of the “campus” from Grate no 2 through which I came…

 
If you want to relax or work out where you can leave your car, then you are directed to the 'Lawn, Parden, Parking Lot' (though I suspect what they actually meant was the 'Lawn, Parden and Garking Lot').

 
And you can’t accuse them of not having put in a lot of thought to the positioning of the various buildings. Want the Morgue? Look no further than the waste and sewage disposal situated slap bang next to the boiler room. A touch of genius, I reckon!

 
Today, however, I am not yet in need of the morgue, and instead follow signs to the ‘Inernational Department’.

 
It being mid morning, the corridors are crowded out, not least with the locals dining out in style along with some nurses and doctors and a few walking wounded, who all know you can get some good cheap nourishing chow by queuing up for what passes as a make-shift canteen in the principal aisle.

 
You can always tell who are the doctors, who are the patients and who are the visitors. The doctors, after all, wear white coats, while the patients walk around like extras from a film set of Schindler’s List. Almost everyone else is a hanger-on.

 
But enough of the hospital; and back to my story.
 
I approach the reception and ask if I can see a doctor to renew my prescription.

“You hybatnsh&*^$%#?” I am asked by a girl who has obviously landed the job for her international language skills.
“Err, I beg your pardon?” I reply sheepishly, not having quite caught the gist of her question.
“You hybatnsh&*^$%# yes?”
A more senior receptionist intervenes. “You hypertension?” she asks after taking my file from the aforementioned lass.
Stupid me! “Er, yes. That’s me,” I reply, handing over my hospital ID card for it to be swiped by the bar code reader.
 
“You go first cashier. Pay 100 kwai. Then come back,” I am ordered. In China they like to see the colour of your money before parting with any services. I do as I am bidden…
 
I get a slip of paper to wave at the receptionist who tells me to go round to the nurse station and try my luck there.
 
Though there are crowds thronging the area, this laowai is for some reason waved to the front of the queue and soon I have been allocated to a pretty young doctor who asks me to follow her to the consulting room.
 
Now in the UK they say that you start feeling old when you think the policemen look young. I think the same could be said of doctors. This doctor looks like she is hardly out of high school, but I guess she knows my age anyway, having quickly looked through my file that was placed in her charge as I was handed over to her.
 
I follow her down the corridor; but, alas, the consulting room is busy. Oh dear. “Maybe this room over here is … oh no; OK let’s try … errr… no, that’s busy too”. We wander up and down the corridors of the hospital looking for a free room, but every one is in use. My poor doctor is getting more flustered by the minute. Some 15 minutes later she tries the stomatology department (that’s the dentist to you and me and lesser mortals). It’s free!
 
We pile inside and I am invited to sit in the dentist chair while she sits on the accompanying stool. This has to be a first for me – getting a prescription sorted out expecting any minute to be asked to open wide!
 
But instead, the door bursts open and the actual dentist – who is returning to what he presumes is an empty office – marches in, unzipping his flies as he does so, while heading for the private loo on the other side of the room. He stops short; does a double take; realises this is his office after all; nods cursorily to the doctor while zipping himself up again and heads for the loo again, from where there soon emanate the sounds of a dentist seeking relief from a very full bladder.
 
My doctor carries on as if nothing has happened. It is obviously par for the course in this award winning sanatorium.
 
Despite having been clearly told, on the last occasion I was here, that patients can only get a three month prescription supply, I decide to chance my luck and ask if I can have six months’ worth of pills. Maybe it is because she is still flustered from having walked me round in circles previously; or perhaps she is still very green about the gills. But she punches in 6 months to the computer, and out comes my prescription, no questions asked.

 
I thank her profusely as we head out into the crowded corridors once more, leaving the dentist to enjoy a belated spot of privacy.
 
I look at the prescription and realise that I am going to have to part with over 4,200 of the readies – something I had not expected, having never thought for one moment I would get away with a request for so many pills. So instead of making for the pharmacy, I walk back along the corridor-come-canteen and out again into the sunshine, determining that I will return later during my dinner break.
 
Now, one major problem in China is that because of fears over forgery, the largest bank notes they have here are only 100 yuan – that’s about £10. I carefully count out 43 of the said notes and stuff them into a large pocket before retracing my steps from the morning.

 
I head for the pharmacy department which is slap bang next to the cashiers. In complete contrast to this morning the corridors are empty. No doubt the lack of portable canteen facilities is one of the reasons for this.
 
I wave my prescription at the pharmacist who makes the Chinese equivalent of “tsk tsk” and points me in the direction of the cashier.
 
Kerching … I count out my pile of banknotes which the cashier places into the obligatory note counter (to make sure there are no duds in there) and I get another receipt complete with red chop mark which I take back to the pharmacist.
 
He takes one look at the prescription and a shadow falls across his face. “Máo! Wu shi ar ma? Máo!” he splutters (which for those of you whose Mandarin is not quite up to it, roughly translates as “No! 52? No way!”)
 
It appears the poor guy is incensed that I am about to deplete his stock of drugs … You see, in China, most drugs are sold in week-long packets of 7 pills. One of my pills is only half the required strength, so I need two packets per week. Hence 6 months’ supply equates to 52 packets of one particular drug; I also need 26 packs of another and 13 of yet another which comes in handy fortnightly refills. That’s 91 boxes all told.
 
Perhaps it is as well that I cannot understand more of this fellow’s invective. His face is going bright red and he shouts over to the nurses’ station for someone to explain to this laowai that he is being asked the impossible.
 
Another pretty young doctor comes over at this moment (Golly – two pretty young doctors in one day. What a hospital!) and gets into conversation with the red faced little man. I ask if there is a problem, but am ignored by both of them until eventually I am asked to go and sit down ‘over there’.

The nurse is summoned over, given a load of instructions and all but runs off down the corridor. The doctor comes over to me and asks if I would mind waiting a few minutes while they get in some more supplies, and then strides off to greet another patient leaving the area – and me – totally isolated.

 
I watch the tank of gouramis across the way for a few minutes, but eventually come to the conclusion that this is going to be a long wait. I take out my new(ish) iPhone and start a new round of Candy Crush, managing to reach four new levels before the nurse returns, weighed down by a plastic bag bursting at the seems from little boxes of pills.

 
The pharmacist is nowhere to be seen as she hands over my piles of boxes to me – luckily I found out last time I was here that you are expected to bring you own bags with you. You certainly won’t be helped out by someone offering you a plastic bag.
 
I stuff the boxes into two shopping bags and stagger off, discovering that outside, night has finally fallen in the interim. I pass the hospital shop near ‘grate 3’ but as I don’t need any cigarettes or Coca Cola I make my way straight home.

 
I am now the proud owner of what looks like a lifetime’s supply of medication, pondering on my next challenge … getting my employer to cough up 90 per cent of the bill!