Thursday, June 30, 2016

Hailar’s National Park – where misbehaving is NOT allowed!

Though Hailar is indeed a gateway to the open grasslands so typical of the region, one of the first things that visitors to this Inner Mongolian city might choose to view is the National Forest Park in the west of the city.
 
It is clear from the outset that stroppy individuals are simply not tolerated; you either behave yourself, or don’t bother coming!
 
The tickets just work for the time write on it, the entry notices proclaim. Which means it is useless in other times and we never exchange any tickets. The tickets with no record is the only key to pass the way. In other words, I guess it’s simply no use bleating on later if we find our ticket has a record. We have been warned!
 
But wait. There’s more…
 
Please do not make the thing that breaking the law, and badthing happened, just like: shoot birds, gaming and excessive drinking, fighting, superstition and propagate the crooked ways etc.
 
I’m intrigued what “etc” might include, but there is no one to ask; so I boldly prepare to follow my minders, hoping they will be able to help me out if and when I find myself propagating crooked ways.
 
 
But before we have a chance to walk through the entranceway, we are hailed by a group of tourists, waving their phones frantically in my direction. Would the foreigner mind posing for a photo, my minders tell me. It appears that I am mistaken for a Russian (do I really look like a Ruskie, I wonder?) and when told that I am in fact British, a look of total incomprehension fleetingly crosses their faces, before they insist that whatever! – can I complete their request for some holiday snapshots?
 
Three grannie-figures jostle for position beside the handsome Brit-not-Ruskie-foreigner, and your favourite blogger does his best to make their day.
 
 
Once inside the park, the path meanders off into the distance. It might not qualify for the park-to-end-all-parks, but it’s pleasant enough all the same, though it might have been nice if the planners had added to their noticeboard no flies allowed without a valid entrance ticket. OK, so I know you think I’m being facetious, but if they can do it in Beijing, then why not here?
 
To our left we pass an intriguing display of concrete and sand. It’s for the kids, my minders tell me, though most of the kids I see take a slight diversion to the other side of the path, rather than face the concrete monster within.
 

One of the things that makes this place famous is its collection of pine trees, which it has in abundance. It’s almost like being whisked halfway across the world to Scotland.
 
The evergreen pines were famous as far back as the Qing Dynasty. The Hailar pines themselves are a variety of European red pine. Their tall and sturdy tree trunks can resist coldness and drought, making them ideal for this cruel environment with its extreme high and low temperatures.
 
 
Besides the Hailar pines, there are over 60 kinds of wild birds which include Mongolian larks, woodpeckers, red crowned cranes and parrots. There’s even a bird cage display you can enter to gawp at the aforementioned birds…
 
 
A large notice board outside helpfully tells us that the Niao Yu Forest was built in July 2007. It includes fake mountain, fake trees, fake stones and scenery rock formations. (Really... I'm not making this up!) Which match with birds of birds. Some landscape forests are planted... with more than ten decorative hushes, combining with natural. There are chicks mandarin ducks, peacocks... black swans, write swans etc.
 
I feel all the better for knowing this, but regrettably time is pressing and we pass the entrance to push deeper into the forest park.
 

Here and there we find the occasional tended flower bed, though the majority of this park is given a more natural tended-wild look about it.
 

A poetic soul is obviously behind some of the notices that grace the parkland setting…
 
Really want to live 500 years more, a notice beside a fallen tree trunk reads.
 
 
Natural wind erosion, lighting strike and crushing by snow have made my tall and straight body unable to withstand the circle of nature, so by the force of gravity, I fell. In this bustling world, as I just dedicate my whole life by seeds and shade, my stay is not worth mentioning, but I really want to live 500 years more.
 
Sweet!

A short distance away, another tree with a hole gouged out of its side…
 

… has another notice board standing as an epitaph..
 
In 1945, the Soviet Union declared war to Japan. The Soviet soldiers bomed the Japanese battlefield in ShaSong Mountain, and the shels left the marks on the tree. The tree reflects fierce war in the past.
 

Boardwalks make the trek through the pine woods easier, and they have been well laid out adding, rather than taking away from the symmetry with nature.
 

If you look carefully into the trees you also come across pieces of silk cloth hanging from the branches – a local Buddhist tradition for remembering past ancestors…
 

As I said, not an earth-shatteringly amazing park; but very pleasant none the less, and well worth the 45 minutes or so battling with the many insects that apparently have a free entry pass into this beautiful scenic parkland.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

An Unplanned Trip to Inner Mongolia

Your favourite blogger was able to cross off another of his must-visit-while-in-China places this past weekend. I’ve often thought about going up to Inner Mongolia to see what the area is like. Not for anything specific; just that it has always intrigued me in an odd kind of way. Maybe the stories of Genghis Khan and his ilk sweeping across the plains of Asia in the 13th century had something to do with it.
 
Anyway, my guardian angel obviously thought it was high time I got off my situpon; and out of the blue came an invitation from an independent TV production company with whom I work occasionally, asking if I’d like to pop up to Hailar for a long weekend to get better acquainted with one of the projects they are currently working on.
 
Inner Mongolia, for those who are geographically challenged, is the third largest subdivision of China, spanning approximately 1,200,000 square km – or 12% of China's total land mass. Although the majority of the population in the region is Han Chinese, there is a sizeable Mongol minority. Hailar is at the top of the red bit on the map, close to Russia.
 

I get up well before the crack of dawn and head to the airport. There are around half a dozen flights a day between the northern capital and Hailar’s Dongshan Airport and I stride manfully to the check-in aisle of Xiamen Airways whose 737-800 I am flying on today.
 
I’m flying to Hailar, I add helpfully to the check-in clerk as I give him my passport, but he looks at me quizzically and asks where that is. Hmmm. Not a good beginning. I show him the booking sent to me over my iPhone and he relaxes. Oh, you mean Hailar, he says. (Isn’t that what I said?) But I am used to check-in clerks not understanding my true-blue British accent, so I allow him to bask in his newly found superiority.
 
The flight is good, albeit that it leaves precisely one hour late; but it makes up for some lost time on the way.
 
Welcome to Hulunbuir the flight attendant mumbles into the microphone, as I quickly check to see where on earth I might have landed; and we are tipped out into a clear sunny day, where the temperature is already nudging 30 degrees.
 
Strange ladies in beautiful costumes are waiting for a couple of the passengers on my flight; but instead I am met by two of the crew and we head off into town.
 

It turns out that since 2001, Hailar has served as the urban district of the newly created Hulunbuir city.
 
Wiki explains that confusingly Hulunbuir is called a city in Mandarin Chinese, which is a mistranslation perhaps of the Mongolian ‘banner’, which is more like the equivalent of a county or shire as it is largely rural. Hailar (also spelt Hailer or Hailaer) is the main city of the region, located some 150km from the Russian border.
 
The Qing Dynasty founded a garrison town along a crossing of the Hailar river in 1734, to buffer their strength against growing Russian incursion into Manchurian territory. The modern city currently has a population of around 250,000, with a large contingent of ethnic minorities.
 
Hailar's extreme temperatures range from around -48 to +39; this weekend it reaches 35 degrees, before plummeting to around 15 at night.
 
The town planners have done a wonderful job of putting up statues and sculptures all over the town which immediately has a charm about it. Everywhere is clean and fresh – such a change from filthy old Beijing. The air is pure and the sky is blue. Truly a happy place before you have gone very far at all.
 

The official languages here are Chinese and Mongolian, the latter of which is written in the traditional Mongolian script, as opposed to the Mongolian Cyrillic alphabet, which is used in the state of Mongolia. It’s beautiful to look at, with each word being written from top to bottom as a true alphabet, with separate letters for consonants and vowels, in a line running from left to right.
 
Although the Mongolian script was defined in Unicode in 1999, there was no support for it until the release of Windows Vista in 2007 (and we all remember what a disaster Vista was, don’t we!); but the lack of support for inline vertical displays still causes problems for many software programs. The initial version of Microsoft's Mongolian Baiti font was, in the supplier's own words, "almost unusable", according to Wikipedia; while other fonts, such as MonoType's Mongol Usug and Myatav Erdenechimeg's MongolianScript, suffer even more serious bugs.
 
The heading of this map reads “Inner Mongolia Autonomous region & map”. Beautiful isn’t it!
 

Genghis Khan unified the Mongol tribes in 1206 and founded the Mongol Empire. In 1271, his grandson, Kublai Khan, established the Yuan dynasty. His summer capital Shangdu (aka Xanadu) was located near present-day Dolonnor. After the Yuan dynasty was overthrown by the Han-led Ming dynasty in 1368, the Ming captured parts of Inner Mongolia and rebuilt the Great Wall of China at its present location, which roughly follows the southern border of modern Inner Mongolia. For the next 300 years, Inner Mongolia was the political and cultural centre of the Mongols during the Northern Yuan dynasty.
 
Hailar was founded as a Chinese fort in 1734, and during the administration of the Republic of China it was the capital city of Xing'an Province. It has long been known as the "Pearl of the Grasslands", or so the web blurb would have us believe.
 
But what intrigues me more is that so many people here are carrying rah-rah sticks (for those younger than a certain age, Rah-rah is a reduplication of an abbreviation for "hurrah", which was used as a synonym for cheering when used by ‘rah-rah girls’ or cheerleaders during the 1980s). I can see it now – clubs for the over 50s… ‘rah-rah grannies’ perhaps?
 
 
But the explanation is much simpler, I soon learn. This place may well be the ‘Pearl of the grasslands’, but with that grand title comes something else … midges and insects by the trillion. If you haven’t got a rah-rah stick, you have come ill-prepared in the constant fight against the little critters!
 
Something else that is really noticeable about this town is the streetlights. Somebody in the planning department has an artistic touch and a good sense of humour. Why, it is almost as good as the streetlights in Manila!
 

And lest you were worried that “civilisation” might have made a detour around the region, you can rest assured that there is not just McDonalds to be found (have you ever seen it written in Mongolian before?) …
 

… but call girls are also using tart-stickers just like the ones you find in Beijing.
 

Genghis and Kublai would surely have been thrilled (both, it seems, were extreme womanisers, tsk tsk)!
 
Now, if you have ever watched the film Mongol (and if not, why not?) you will undoubtedly have fallen in love with the music of Altan Urag – a Mongolian folk rock band. Formed in 2002, the band's musical style combines traditional Mongolian and contemporary influences. The members of the band have all been trained in classical Mongolian music, and typically perform with the morin khuur (horse head fiddle), ikh khuur (grand horse head fiddle), bishguur (traditional horn) and yoochin (a type of hammered dulcimer), as well as incorporating khöömii (throat singing) and long song into the vocals.
 
Click here to listen to some amazing music from the film Mongol!
 
The morin khuur consists of a wooden-framed sound box to which two strings are attached. It is held nearly upright with the sound box in the musician's lap or between the musician's legs. The strings run in parallel over a wooden bridge on the body up a long neck, past a second smaller bridge, to the two tuning pegs in the scroll, which is usually carved into the form of a horse's head. Traditionally the larger of the two strings (the "male" string) has 130 hairs from a stallion's tail, while the "female" string has 105 hairs from a mare's tail. (Yes, sex is alive and kicking in Mongolian music!) But nowadays the strings are more often made of nylon.
 
So I’m particularly happy to see not one, but two horse head fiddles on display at the Hulunbuir Hotel, across the road from my slightly more modest inn.
 
 
There’s a lot of water in the town (Hailar lies on the south bank of the Hailar River, at its junction with the Yimin River) and this is one of the city’s undoubted charms. You can see from a bus map how prominent the water is in the town.
 
 
Apart from the aforementioned statues, there are also flowers in abundance, not to mention flower and plant sculptures.
 
 
Along the banks of the rivers can be found walls decorated with simple motifs that include horses, yurts, sheep and even the occasional camel…
 
 
And while fermented mare's milk may not be to everyone’s taste, it is readily available for purchase if you look for the signs.
 

Talking of milk, you should also be prepared to try Mongolian milk tea just for the experience if nothing else.
 
It’s easy to make using normal black tea… Sauté half a teaspoon of flour with a little butter; add rice or millet and fry it for a little while. Add in the tea, plus a little salt, and boil it all together for a short while. Then throw in a load of milk and bring it back to the boil, continuing to boil it for about ten minutes. You can optionally even add some mutton or beef pieces into the brew!
 
And that’s all there is to it! The perfect (?) must-have brew to drink with every meal!
 
 
If Hailar is an attractive little city in the day time, it really comes into its own once all the insects have decided it’s high time to get some shuteye and snuggle up under their little duvets, or wherever it is that the critters get their beauty sleep.
 

The place everyone makes a bee-line for is Genghis Khan Square, with older people doing line dancing, whilst the younger generation are on rollerblades or trying their hand at go-karting or boat rides. Naturally the street food vendors do a lot of business, selling everything from meat-on-a-stick to trinkets for friends back home.
 
Genghis might well have been responsible for the deaths of as many as 40 million people (it has even been estimated that the Mongols’ attacks may have reduced the entire world population by as much as 11 percent, including the killing of around three quarters of modern-day Iran’s population during his war with the Khwarezmid Empire); but he’s certainly a popular lad in Hailar!
 
But today it’s Saturday, and GK Square is also resounding to the sound of hiphop music, accompanying a lively fashion show which has the masses reaching out for their iPhones.
 

Deeper into the square (actually GK Square is in many places more like a park) everyone is intent on crossing the zigzag bridge over the artificial lake (did I mention in a previous blog that apparently devils are loathe to cross zigzag bridges as they find it hard to make a 90 degree turn, let alone five or several of them, so they are one of the safest ways to cross over water).
 

My visit comes to an end, and with tears in my eyes I head off to the airport – just 4 kms away from the downtown area.
 
The night time lighting continues to be fabulous all the way to the airport… it’s a joy to behold, and guaranteed to ensure that Hailar’s visitors will leave with a smile on their faces, determined to head back again as soon as they are able.
 

Monday, June 20, 2016

Waste Not Want Not – BJ’s GLB Beer Festival

With a brief to sniff out the Chinese brewing scene for my daughter’s beer blog I felt it incumbent upon me to do some proper research, when my eye happened to fall on an advertisement for a craft beer fair to be held over two days in Beijing’s Galaxy Soho.
 
Galaxy Soho, I should explain, has been likened, perhaps a bit unfairly, to a pair of breasts perking up from inside the second ring road, a few minutes walk from Chaoyangmen subway Station. As such, it is a well known landmark.
 
 
“There is no entrance fee. You can come in for free. Yay!” says the blurb. And with an invitation like that, how could one resist? “Beers will be served in 360mL cups and will cost 35 RMB,” it adds helpfully.
 
It turns out 16 breweries are in attendance at the 4th edition of the Beijing Craft Beer Festival. Many I have never heard of:

Boxing Cat from Shanghai; Chengdu Harvest; Strong Ale World of Qingdao; Bad Monkey of Dali; Master Gao from Nanjing; Le Blé D'Or of Taiwan; 18 Beer of Wuhan; Devolution from Dalian and Guangtou from Shanghai are all on the billing. Local stalwarts of the northern capital are Arrow Factory, Panda Brew, Slow Boat, Jing A and N Beer.
N Beer? Hmmm that’s a new one on me.
 
 
Apparently the last festival saw over 4,600 litres of beer poured. And as an added extra this year, the rules have been changed: “All draught all the time. No bottles of any kind allowed at this year’s festival.”
 
One of the marketers goes over the top, somewhat, on his urgings: “June's summer heat is here, and it's time to sweat and get drunk again,” we are told. Hmmm. There always has to be one doesn’t there. Puerile idiot!
 
Time Out magazine gives its usual well-researched backgrounder when it comes to enthusing over the event; and it somehow manages to squeeze an extra day into the first day’s activities…
 

Flags showing off the logos of the participants make a colourful addition to the overall ambience of the place.
 
 
Though the show is all about craft brewing, there is a stand dedicated to Beijing’s very own Homebrewing Society – an organization “dedicated to spreading the knowledge, culture, and appreciation of real beer in China”, which started three years ago. (Members are treated to a monthly gathering, with presentations on a brewing topic, a tasting of the “style-of-the-month”, and a good atmosphere to network and share experiences with fellow home-brewers.)
 
 
It looks like the puerile idiot above has been ticked off somewhat. Later marketings counsel “One piece of advice for a day of drinking at a giant beer party: eat some freakin’ food. There’s going to be a few knock-you-on-your-ass brews at this festival, and if you neglect the urgings of your stomach, they will indeed put you out early. EAT FOOD.
 
And as if to add weight to their urgings: Some specialty beers, or beers with a particularly high ABV will be served as half-pours. That is for two reasons.
1. We want to allow everyone to try specialty beers.
2. We don’t want people getting too wasted and acting like fools or puking.
There will be well over 50 beers available at the festival. You can drink as many as you like. Have fun drinking!
 
Wuhan’s 18 Beer tries to get into the spirit of the event by proclaiming “No Beer No Joy”. But with their apparent low level of takers, at least while I’m there, maybe that should read “No Customers No Joy”?
 

Guang Tou Craft Brew from Shanghai makes it clear that it’s not really interested in potential expat customers (of which there are quite a few here today). No one speaks a word of English; and expats are visible by their absence at this particular booth.
 
 
Slow Boat – the brewery that started me off on the real ale scene in China – is featuring a Sea Monster Sea Weed Pale Ale (5.4% ABV, 24 IBUs, 8 SRM). Reading on, a little, we are given the complete back story to this brew…
 
Shen, the anamorphous dragon-like sea monster sat in a plush leather chair in his agent's, Sam Weinstein’s office. He was there looking to revamp his image. It was sometime during his existential crisis-- come to Buddha moment, if you will-- probably initiated after his rift with long time friend and mentor, Chthulhlu. After eons of terrorizing, boats, gnashing the bones of sailors and drinking their blood, he wanted to change his ways, and just as important, his image.
"What's your angle?" Weinstein asked.
"Veganism."
Sam blinked. "Are you serious."
"As a heart attack."
"Alright then." He tapped his chin for a minute. "I've got the perfect angle for you. Seaweed and beer. More specifically Slow Boat Brewery. Show the boating community you want to work with them, and promote something vegan at the same time."
"I love it." Shen exclaimed.
And thus was born the cross dimensional collaboration. Delicate and tender pale ale, with strips of dried seaweed were introduced into the boil, a light salt and umami finish for the beer. Crisp, medium body in the middle, and golden in color, this beer is sure to please any beer lover whether they be human or some immortal demon.
 
As much as I would like to try this umami-flavoured beer, I am no immortal demon (even though others might disagree with your favourite blogger) and I head instead to the tent belonging to N-Beer, a Beijing brewery I had never heard of until now.
 
“No Beer No Friends” is the catch phrase it uses, in a slight twist from 18-Beer’s slogan.
 
 
I’m glad to see that their signage boasts a web site and I determine to look it up later to get some background on this brewery…
 

But unfortunately the web site consists of a simple notice: "牛啤堂精酿网站正在建设中,详情请在下午3点后电话010-83288823." Or to put it another way - Under construction, Call +86-13683308384 for more details regarding NBeerPub and NB Craft Brewing Co.
Hmmm.
 
I look instead at their menu of beers. The first item catches my eye. Rasyberry? I ask the bartender.
Yes, rasyberry! We add them to the final brew, he adds, as if this will make it clear to the idiot standing in front of him. It is the same as number 5 – Beijinger Weisse, but with rasyberries added!
 
I feel it would be adding insult to injury if this idiot were to point out that ‘Beijing’ has metamorphosed into ‘Berlin’ after a simple addition of rasyberries.
 

But lest I get even more confused, the tap for this brew is clearly labelled Rasyberry Beijinger Weisse though I note the IBU markings have miraculously changed by 0.2%; but at least they are consistent in labelling it NB Carft Brewing Co.!
 
 
But let no man label me a pedant (let alone an immortal demon). N-Beer’s Rasyberry Beijing/Berlin brew is rather scrummy! Not too sweet; has a slight bite; and is very refreshing on this sultry evening.
 
 
I “borrow” a beer mat or three for my Chinese tegestology collection and move on…
 

Mindful of the warning to eat some freakin’ food, I look around me. Great Leap is serving up its signature cheeseburgers. “You know all about this masterpiece. Beef, cheese, pickles and fancy sauce on a sesame bun. Simple and delicious. Our team of five-star burger chefs is set to serve single-patty versions of THE CHEESEBURGER this weekend so that you have room for more beer.”

Vai Milano, meanwhile, is serving up five varieties of gelato: vanilla, chocolate, Stracciatella (the Italian version of chocolate chip), mango and strawberry sorbet.
 
An outfit called Andy’s Sausages is offering up… sausages.
 
While a little business that calls itself PIZZA+ has a queue stretching back to infinity. “Pizza and beer are made for each other. See, once people realized that foraging sucks and they learned how to ferment things (civilization basically started because people wanted to get drunk, look it up), they needed a source of food that lasted as long as their beer. As anyone who has been 18 knows, pizza is even better on day 2 (and 3-5, but then it plateaus). Problem solved. Civilization started, and now we have beer festivals.” I walk to infinity, but get served after only a four minute wait.
 
 
With the necessary carbs lining my stomach, I make the acquaintance of China’s very first real ale brewery, set up, I am surprised to note, in Dali – that’s in the bottom left hand corner of China in Yunnan province, for those who are geographically challenged.
 
It’s been going since 2010, and while waiting to meet the Managing Director, I order some American Pale Ale which turns out to be pleasant, though perhaps not the most amazing brew I have ever tasted.
 
I quickly swipe a couple of beer mats for my collection…
 
 
Bad Monkey Beer boasts its own web site, though it’s only later that I have the chance to experience the zany humour inherent on the front (index) page. It was posted up in February 2015, but in the intervening 16 months, not a lot has been added to the site, with blank pages and dead links throughout.
 
 
I meet Managing Director Carl Oakley (he’s the one you can see below) who originally hails from Harrow in north London; but he’s too busy holding forth in about three other conversations to be able to tell me much about Bad Monkey.
 
 
Not far away is the Master Gao tent. They’re from Nanjing and they obviously brew for a Chinese palette. With their Yin Bi wheat beer coming in with an IBU of just 10 and other brews creeping up into the low 20s, the only exception is their Mad Ting beverage, coming in with an IBU of 45. It’s a bit underwhelming in my opinion, and I certainly wouldn’t make a special visit to Nanjing to try more; though if I was in that city I might be tempted to give one of their other beers a go.
 
I ask the bar girl if can take a picture of her chest for my blog pictures, but maybe something gets lost in translation and she gets a fit of the giggles and backs off somewhat rapidly!
 
 
But Master Gao’s beer mats make an excellent addition to my tegestological collection, and she waves me goodbye after recovering her composure.
 


 
Each day at the festival features live musicians and during my visit, classical cellist Heike Kagler and Dan Taylor – a guitarist from a local group, the Harridans, strut their stuff, coming out with a “Celtic influenced blues set”, whatever that might mean.
 
 
It’s been a pleasant evening. No one is visibly wasted, acting like fools or puking. Instead there is a happy atmosphere both from punters and brewers alike.
 
Now all I need do is to find N-Beer’s taproom for my next instalment of Beijing’s real ale scene…