Being English, the idea of my typical summer holiday is a stifling drive to the beach. Well, not a proper beach, as it’s England. You could certainly say it was sandy, but it takes the cheek of some over-zealous busybody working for the council to call it a beach. Like clockwork, upon arrival the dark clouds inevitably roll over and the family arguments begin. Perfect.
Here in China, my natural cynicism is swiftly disposed with when faced with such a vast and bewildering array of options of unique experiences and sights. The question of where to go can be a confusing one when armed with a Lonely Planet that looks twice as daunting as War and Peace and three times as big. Many foreigners are drawn to a familiar itinerary of locales – Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Yellow Mountain, Guilin. Everyone ostensibly returns with similar stories, so last summer I decided to do something a little different.
If you’re happy to get a little out of your comfort zone and cast the net a little wider, a whole other world awaits you. Another China sleeps out there, somewhere beyond the leering megacities and rustling bamboo. Verdant meadows of wildflowers too numerous to count, desolate deserts where the dunes rise up as mountains, skies so big they stretch on forever. So what are you waiting for?
Xinjiang, which translates as New Frontier, is aptly-named. If you ever look at a map of China, Xinjiang is the big empty space in the northwest corner. It’s bigger than Tibet. It’s bigger than France, Spain and Germany combined. It’s bafflingly huge, and yet more people live in Shanghai’s metropolitan area than in the entire province. Xinjiang is universally gorgeous, and our first destination, Kanas Lake (喀纳斯湖), took us to the very edge of the Heavenly Kingdom.
There is an old proverb in China: Heaven is high and the Emperor is far away. Nowhere does that feel truer than at Kanas Lake, a dormant watery brute nestled between the towering Altai Mountains. Getting there is no easy task. It took thirty-six hours from our little flat in Hangzhou to the alpine valleys. After flying to Urumqi, a bus sped us into the sunset, the desert sky erupting in a bloody crimson, and when we awoke we found ourselves trundling through the sweeping foothills, a sea of grass punctuated with the white tents of Kazakh nomads. We reached the lake in the afternoon and took up an offer of accommodation inside a Kazakh family’s ranch – a little group of rugged log cabins perched above the valley basin. Each morning we awoke to the gentle sounds of grandpa’s lute playing and the cries of eagles, and threw open the cabin door for that first breath of crisp country air.
The peaceful lake is bordered by mountains carpeted green with grass and trees, and in the distance looms Friendship Peak, where the borders of China, Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan meet. Many of the visitors and staff here are Siberian or Kazakh, and all incredibly friendly and curious. The glacial valley at Kanas defies description: so big that a camera lens can’t capture it all, dwarfing the little Kazakh and Tuvan villages that meekly crouch below.
A range of hair-raising activities are now opening up at Kanas, including whitewater rafting, rock-climbing and paragliding. There are lots of hiking trails around the lake, and campsites for those who can go without a warm bed and don’t mind the high altitude’s cold nights. Just don’t expect to be going swimming – I decided to go for a dip and nearly froze inside two minutes. I was lucky not to fall victim to one of the monstrous fish that live in the depths of the lake. The local legends of mysterious creatures dwelling beneath Kanas have recently been given credence by several shaky handheld videos that have surfaced in recent years, so if you come, come with a video camera! Kanas is recommended for its placid alpine beauty, the circling eagles, the still quiet and the sunset at midnight. Devoid of foreign tourists, it has that indefinable sense of detachment from the rest of China.
Back to Urumqi then, which is a great stopping-off point and the centre of Xinjiang’s transport network. You can expect to go back and forth to the capital city a few times if you spend a long time in the province as the city’s bus and train routes connect the province’s disparate urban pockets.
Our next stop was Turpan (吐鲁番), which at 154m below sea level is the lowest place in China, and having been originally settled thousands of years ago is the cradle of civilization in this part of the world. Famous for its grapes, the Turpans grow them by the million in their little oasis town to make wine or dry them in one of countless dusty brick outhouses to make raisins. Over the years Turpan has proven to be a veritable treasure trove for archaeologists, who have discovered hundreds of dinosaur fossils throughout the county, well-preserved by the dry desert climate. Many of these can be seen in the wonderful (and free) museum.
The Turpan people are largely Uyghur, and the pace of life is lazy to say the least. Residents dress in colourful clothing, donkey carts shuffle languidly through the dusty streets, and families sleep outside in the open air together, all sharing one oversized bed. There are a wealth of places of interest near Turpan. We hopped on a minibus for an hour to Tuyoq (吐峪沟), a tiny oasis village in the shadow of the Flaming Mountain (火焰山) and surrounded by scorching desert. Tuyoq is an ancient holy place for Muslim pilgrims – the first Chinese man to convert to Islam is buried here – and it is said that seven trips here is equivalent to one trip to Mecca. Settled over 1500 years ago, to this day only 300 people live here, eking out a living from their modest vineyards, selling dried fruit and mulberry juice. The Uyghur locals insisted on taking us into their homes to stay for lunch with them. I’m not sure what we ate, as their Mandarin was just as bad as mine, but it was quite palatable. If you’re looking for a very special experience where you can really engage with local people and their culture, this is the place.
Later that day we had time to check out Jiaohe Ruins (交河故城), a must if you are into ancient cities. The largest, oldest and best-preserved earthen city in the world, a visit to Jiaohe is like stepping into a time machine. Perched atop a natural fortress of towering cliffs and settled over 2000 years ago as a major trading station on the Silk Road, the city was one of the busiest and biggest in the world at its peak. Strolling around the immense buildings you can really imagine a bustling city of merchants and traders, but don’t stay too long, as the intense heat will melt you into a puddle!
Our last stop in Xinjiang was the gorgeous Nalati Grasslands (那拉提草原). It is said that Genghis Khan discovered the thin valley hidden in the west of the province when he was leading an expedition through the cold and barren mountains. The freezing temperatures and lack of food almost finished off his exhausted and famished army, until one day they were confronted with endless green pastures. Nalati is picturesque enough when you’re a tourist with a bellyful, but to Khan’s troops it must have seemed like heaven itself. It is recommended you travel here in June to August, as this is when the blue skies and green alpine forests are complimented with the countless yellow dots of wildflowers dancing in the sun. Cast your eyes up and you’ll see the clouds heaving their bones over the mountaintops. A sight to behold! The valley’s foothills are inhabited almost entirely by Kazakh nomadic herders whose tents sit lethargically every kilometer or so, interspersed with flocks of goats and cows. If you are lucky, you may even see the nomads hunting with trained eagles – a traditional practice handed down from generation to generation.
We pressed on to Zhangye in Gansu province, a beautiful overnight train ride past the Tianchi mountains, 100km of wind turbines spinning languorously and a heart-stopping sunset over the desert. This Silk Road city was the birthplace of Kublai Khan and home to Marco Polo for a year and maintains a sleepy feel despite its size, with young children splashing in the fountains. The main draws here are the Reclining Buddha Temple, the statue of Marco Polo and the beautiful park, where a local man asked me to marry his daughter. No thanks, chief. The main reason people come to Zhangye is to see the Danxia landform: 500 square kilometres of arresting rainbow-coloured mountains, formed by sandstone and mineral deposits over millions of years. It’s a singular, psychedelic spectacle. The best time to go is a sunny day after rain, where the mountains shimmer gloriously in the sun. Unfortunately when we went, there was a terrible storm. Despite this, the landform was still unearthly and preternatural.
Our next stop was the big one: Badain Jaran desert (aka Badanjilin desert 巴丹吉林沙漠). If you’re sick of busy, ugly cities, then this is the place for you. Mysterious, miraculous and utterly isolated, the desert is difficult to get to but so, so worth the trouble. First you must get to Alashan, a one-horse town at the edge of the desert, and then rent a driver who will take you into the desert. Good research is a must here. I travelled with Mr. Fan, who was born to camel herders in the depths of Badain Jaran forty-five years ago. He’s lived there all his life. The rollercoaster ride through the desert is something I’ll never forget. The first hour is a rally race across scrubland and gravelly sand, but the following seven hours are where the real fun begins. Some dunes reach up to 500m high and every uphill struggle is rewarded by a sweeping vista as you clamber over the apex, followed by a terrifying plunge back down the other side. Our driver took absolute delight in using the dunes as skateboard ramps for his 4x4, tearing up the side, skidding 180° and diving back down.
The desert is a dreamlike place: constantly shifting and too vast to comprehend. Without any trees or buildings for context, it’s difficult to get an impression of just how big everything is. The dunes are really mountains in their own right, and there is nothing but sand, sand, sand in every direction, yet even here there is life. As we were enjoying a swim in an oasis, two wolves appeared on the crest of a high dune, eyeing the herd of goats watering with us. Later, camels plodded in to drink and cool down from the baking 45°C heat. After an 80km drive we pitched up and watched paralyzed as the sun tumbled down behind the horizon, burning the sands a golden red. A calm came over us all. We hadn’t seen a single soul all day and were completely alone in this gorgeous wilderness, the luckiest people in the world. In Mr. Fan’s one room house beside a mirrored lake, his wife cooked us dinner made with a grass that grows in the oases. In the soundless desolation of night the sky was so clear you could see the silvery belt of the Milky Way silently gliding across the black. The sunrise over the lake was even more extraordinary, and we felt utterly alone.
It took us a day to get to Hohhot (呼和浩特), Inner Mongolia’s capital, and from there we went straight to Xilamuren grasslands (希拉穆仁草原), staying in yurts on a working farm. The trip was organized by Anda Guesthouse in Hohhot, and they come highly recommended by many who have stayed there. There were about six people in each yurt, and while this sounds like a lot, it really helps at night when it gets very cold indeed. The grasslands are flat in every direction – no hills, no trees. In the afternoon we strolled up to a crude stupa, so crude it was practically a pile of rocks. Entire flocks of birds paced and twitched by a lake and then scattered and took off in unison as we approached. Herds of stocky chestnut horses and cattle roamed freely through the grasslands, and we were soon to find out that the cows weren’t just used for food.
As Xilamuren is devoid of trees, the nomads who have lived here for thousands of years need an alternate fuel source. I was unaware of this, and was quite surprised when in the early evening we were instructed by the Mongolian farmers to grab a bag and snatch up all the festering cow dung we could find. Meadow Muffins, it seems, are rich in undigested plant matter and burn up a treat. The bag becomes surprisingly heavy once you’ve got a few cow crepes in there.
Being a holiday of magnificent sunsets, Xilamuren had a lot to live up to and did not disappoint. As it fell, the sun painted golden light across the endless plains, and the immense Mongolian skies were lit with every colour from a vivid cerise in the west to royal purple in the east. Sadly, it was to be the last sunset before our return to Hangzhou.
And so the holiday was over, but what a trip it was. The whole thing was done on the cheap, without much sleep and at a dizzying pace – 10,000km in 14 days! My aim with this article is to introduce another side of China that you may not have heard of, to inspire you to go out that door. It’s not just the scenery; it’s the people, who could not be more happy and interested to meet you. In places that are really off the beaten track, many people may have not had contact with non-Asian people, and they just want to talk to you and show you their life. We met a Kazakh man named Atay on the way to Nalati, and he had nothing to his name, but immediately he left the bus to buy us lunch when it stopped, despite our protestations. He insisted we stay at his house and meet his family. The owners of our hostel in Nalati told us we were the first Westerners to ever stay there. They really make the time in these faraway places twice as special; their openness and kindness melts the heart and always makes it hard to leave. I’ll say it again: What are you waiting for?
A couple of (hopefully) useful notes on travelling through Xinjiang. Due to terrorist attacks in 2014, you should be aware that all roads between cities have mandatory police checkpoints to check your documents. Enforcement is fairly arbitrary – at some checkpoints you will be waved through without even checking your passport, but others will be more thorough. Always make sure that you have a valid passport, a valid visa and a ticket to show where you’re heading to. Secondly, sleeper trains are a necessity here. The vast distances between places may mean up to twenty hours of travelling, so overnight train journeys mean you don’t waste your days travelling and also allow you to forgo the cost of a hostel or hotel. Book tickets in advance whenever possible and to avoid sleeper buses, which are smellier, less comfortable and slower. Thirdly, good command of Mandarin is really helpful too as few people speak English in the remote parts of China. Indeed, some may not speak Mandarin, so a Uyghur phrasebook may be helpful. Fourthly, pick your time of year carefully – winter is exceptionally cold. Check online for details of local festivals: there are lots of interesting cultural experiences that you can be a part of if you choose the right time to go.
Lastly, before travelling to Badain Jaran desert, check online if permits are required, as on occasion foreigners are asked to hold one before entering the area. When I travelled, the requirement had been lifted, but it could come back at any time in the future.
Inspired by the skills of martial artists Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, 18-year old Tim Vukan and his friends were intrigued by this ancient art. After seeking guidance and training from Ving Tsun Gong Fu instructor Jan Hantelman, a connection was made for life. He shared with us stumbling across a tiny Chinese bookshop and discovering hundreds of books detailing the very art he loved. Intrigued by the images he found within the pages, he often went back to look around. It was here that he found the book that would change his life: Chinese Shaolin Kung Fu. Being the only book he found written in German, it became a part of him, attached to him day and night. After watching a live performance from the Shaolin monks in Hamburg he knew it was time…
After six years of intensive training and teaching in Hamburg and Münster, Tim took the plunge and moved to Dengfeng, Henan to practice directly at the source. Home to many academies and thousands of students, he chose to study at Wushu College where a little girl took him by surprise: “The best teacher I had was a nine-year old girl. She taught me high kicks and how to perform very difficult techniques. She taught me to be honest and kind to people.”
What was the most difficult part of your course?
The most difficult part was we had to train very hard every day no matter what condition our bodies were in. Training started at 5:30am and continued all day until 6-7pm. After three weeks of intensive training, I couldn’t walk up the stairs and suffered from heavy muscle tension pain in my legs. Once I was lying in bed, I felt calm and peaceful until the loud Chinese march music woke me up in the morning and it started all over again. This pain is necessary to understand your body. If you want to perform Shaolin Gong Fu and to reach a high level we must go further to feel what it means to have focus.
In Chinese there is a saying 先苦后甜, which means after hard and bitter work there will be sweetness. It means that we have to work hard if we want to achieve something. Everything we do is to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and to learn how to control our body and our mind in different situations. Our body is sometimes weak. Learning Gong Fu is a way to train our minds to tell our body what to do and when to stop. I learnt jianchi 坚持 – it doesn’t matter if we fail or succeed, it is more important to go on. Our body and mind each have their own language and we are able to control our body with our mind. If there is a strong mind and a clear heart, there is a strong body. Many diseases are based on an imbalance of our body and our mind. If we stay focused in the moment, we can prevent illnesses and have a happier life! Gong Fu is a way to choose health and happiness in your life.
After Henan, Tim moved to Yangshuo, Guangxi province to continue with taiji quan classes. There he met a woman who was offering taiji sword lessons and became her student, learning taiji next to the Li river. She taught him many things like Chinese cooking and the art of bartering. He felt happiness getting to know a culture which he had always wanted to learn more about.
During his travels in 2004, he really enjoyed Hangzhou. Growing up in Hamburg, he was a part of nature. In Hangzhou, he found he could still have that in the beautiful mountains and bamboo forests surrounding the city. From the beginning of his martial arts career, he often came into contact with Chinese medicine. In 2005, he decided to start studying it. In ancient times, masters of Gong Fu were often also doctors of Chinese medicine – it was a natural progression. Zhejiang Chinese Medical University offered him a place.
We hear a lot about the pressure of education in China, did you feel a lot?
The Chinese education system can be very challenging for foreigners. First to master the language and then to get used to the way of teaching. Asking questions doesn’t have much space in classroom; it’s very different to the west. Chinese students are not used to communicating with their teachers, only listening to gain information. This caused a lot of pressure while studying. Preparing for a test required memorizing and repeating facts instead of putting the theory into our own words like back home. Every culture has its own specialties, especially when it comes to education. Now, I often meet young people in the clinic telling me about their life and study and that it made them sick. Young students are often overwhelmed with pressure. I start telling them my story, hoping to inspire them to find their own way to learn.
You’ve founded your own company, how has that been? Do you have good support?
I founded Wushan TCM, a Chinese medical network, with the goal to connect the east with the west and to offer Chinese medicine education to students and current practitioners. There are live webinars and recorded online courses about the theory and practice. I also arrange local treatments for foreigners with Chinese medicine and take care of the language translations and clinical arrangements. I work in cooperation with Chinese medical doctors whom I’ve met during my studies and practice over the past twelve years. I want to help people to come to China and to gain their individual experiences.
You’ve studied tai chi, TCM and lots of other ways of healing. What would you say is the best medicine?
In our modern times a practitioner has to have knowledge from both western and Chinese medicine to offer the patients the most accurate and suitable diagnosis and treatment. Even though western and Chinese medicine are very different from each other, they can be combined in many different ways. While western medicine is treating the illness, Chinese medicine is treating the symptoms of the patient and finding the source. An example of how they work in harmony would involve undergoing surgery for an external injury (western) followed by Chinese medicine to strengthen the patient help to recover in a more comprehensive way. Both medicines have their limitations and their benefits.
I won’t say that TCM is the best medicine. I believe Chinese medicine can help a lot of people, where western medicine cannot. Above all, the best medicine is when people take better care of themselves and gain more understanding of how we can keep healthy and prevent illness. It’s about our lifestyle, our emotions, our living and working environment, our family situation, our nutrition and so much more. I want people to gain more sensibility about their lives and what makes us ill.
What plans do you have for the future?
I would like to combine my life in China with the life in the west. At the moment, I am preparing the German natural license test to be allowed to work and to treat in Germany with Chinese medicine. In the future I want to offer more lectures, seminars and tours in Hangzhou and to give more students the great opportunity to learn from professional doctors. More and more foreigners are interested in coming to China to study TCM. I want to help them however I can. The world will become more connected. Let’s become a part of it!
Tim Vukan has been studying and practicing Chinese medicine for more than ten years at the Zhejiang Chinese Medical University in Hangzhou. He founded Wushan TCM in 2008 to connect Chinese medicine practitioners and students by offering Chinese medicine online courses and training tours to enable an authentic education in the theory and clinical field of Chinese health cultivation methods. To learn more, visit the website at www.wushantcm.com.
I first visited Georgetown, the capital city of Penang Island, Malaysia, in 2008. This was just before Georgetown gained Unesco World Heritage designation. I vividly recall the beauty of the decaying historical buildings dating back to the late 18th century British colonial rule. The multi-coloured shop houses with peeling paint stood stoically, telling countless stories of the centuries gone by.
In 1786, Britain established Georgetown to rival the Dutch trading port Malacca in a bid to gain control of the important trade routethrough the Straits of Malacca which connected Europe, the Middle East and India to the west with China, Southeast Asia and Japan to the east.Georgetown began attracting Chinese, Indian and Malaysian merchants and settlers. Each group broughtalong their language, food and religion making Georgetown a very special mix of cultures living together in harmony.
Georgetown’s Unesco World Heritage zone is a compact, easily manageable area that you can walk around in two to three hours. Start at the grand KapitanKeling mosque, built in 1801 by Indian Muslim settlers with its Mughal-style domes and Indian-Islamic minaret, from where the call to prayer can be heard five times a day.
Then wander around Little India with Bollywood music blaring from shops and colorful silk saris on display. Tantalizing skewers of tandoori meattempt you to stop and nibblewhile tables piled with samosas and Indian sweets are hard to resist.Then further to the north, near the coastline are the British colonial buildings that now house banks, western bars and restaurants.
Turn a corner and head towards the Chinese area with colourfulclan houses, temples and shops. Bustling hawker stalls line the streets, selling Penang’s famous street foods like CharKwayTeow, Chee Cheong Fun and HokkienMee. The Chinese community has roots from Hokkien, Cantonese and Hakka and they here are a linguistically talented bunch who easily switch between conversations in Cantonese, Mandarin, their own Chinese dialects, English and Malay.
By the time I visited in 2008, much of the historic area had fallen into disrepair. Then came the Unesco World Heritage designation breathingrenewed life to Georgetown and historic buildings were restored and converted into cafes and boutique hotels. Previously, Georgetown mainly offered budget guesthouses and one very top end hotel. Now, there’s a growing range of boutique heritage hotels for visitors to choose from.
Campbell House was one of the first boutique hotels to open in Georgetown, and work on converting the building into a hotel began even before the Unesco World Heritage listing was announced. The owners, wife and husband team Nardya Wray and Robert Dreon, both saw the potential in Georgetown and had faith in its future. Nardya has a personal history with Penang, having been born in Malaysia before moving to UK andthen often returning to Penang to visit family.
Robert and Nardya bring with them a wealth of knowledge and experience, both coming from successful careers in London’s luxury hospitality industry.The couple embarked on restoring the hundred-year-old corner shophouse, completely gutting the building down to the original beams and structure.Working tirelessly over three years, they lovingly restored the building and filled their dream hotel with antique furniture sourced from around the region.
Campbell House offers eleven suites, each with an individual character representing a different element of colonial Malaysia, such as the Colonial Room with a four poster bed or the Sari Room graced with a headboard made from sari silk.
The rooms are luxuriously appointed and feature modern fixtures and technologies like flat screen TV’s, Nespresso machines, chilly central air-con, rain head showersand newplumbing. You may be staying in a heritage hotel with antique furniture, but you will not lackfor any modern comforts.
Campbell House is located on Campbell Street, right in the heart of Georgetown and makes a great base for exploring the city. The next street over is LebuhChulia, one of the main roads of Georgetown, where you’ll find many bars and street food.
Leaving behind the chaotic colourfulstreetlife and stepping into the peaceful tranquility of Campbell House, the first thing you will notice is the lovely lemongrass scent. Then the friendly receptionist will get you checked-in and pull out a map to show you where to find the best food and attractions.
Respecting the original architecture, there are no elevators in this three story house, but the hotel staff will use a clever pulley system to get your luggage to the top floor. Smoking is not permitted indoors, but you can do so on the rooftop terrace.
As is the tradition in Malaysian houses, guests have to leave their shoes in the public area before proceeding upstairs to the rooms. This ensures that the living areas are immaculately clean and you get the warm feeling that you are an honoured guest in a private house. Each guest receives personalized attention and you can even make special requests for breakfast to suit your dietary needs. The library invites guests to lounge and chat with each other and we had many lively conversations with our fellow travelers there.
Rooms are cleaned twice a day, and atnight they will leave iced tea and some sweet treats in the fridge. The soft and fluffy king-sized feather-topped bed is so comfortable, there seems to be a magic spell around it because as soon as you lay down you almost immediately fall asleep.
Breakfastis served in their Italian restaurant from 8am-12pm, so guests can leisurely sleep in or go out for an early morning walk before temperatures get too hot and still have ample time to return and enjoy breakfast.The breakfast spread includes a basket of freshly baked bread, a selection of housemade jams like coconut, orange marmalade and pineapple, a large platter of fresh fruit and a choice of entrée such as Eggs Benedict or Welsh Rarebit.
Their Italian Restaurant, Il Bacaro, draws on Robert’s Italian roots and offers an alternative to local cuisine. As much as I love curries and fried noodles, sometimes you just crave a fine Italian meal. It’s become a trendy dining destination for travelers and locals alike.
Georgetown is a city you can come back to again and again and never grow tired of.The Unesco World Heritage designation came just in time to save many heritage buildings from demolition. Though developmentis bringing about changes, its soul and authenticity still remains, just a scratch beneath the surface. The introduction of a heritage hotel like Campbell House means you can now visit Georgetown and stay in style and comfort.
Campbell House is a World Luxury Hotel Award winner and is ranked #1 on TripAdvisor for B&Bs in Georgetown. Rooms range from 600-800RMB per night.Air Asia flies from Hangzhou to Penang, transferring in Kuala Lumpur.
The Hyatt Regency welcomes Raul Avendano, a 31-year-old chef from Chile, to “spice up” their restaurant and buffet. This South American hottie creates a flavor so refreshing it will whip your taste buds into shape and wake you up from a world of slumber. This talented chef started his career in the hotel business studying administration, but after one year he decided it wasn’t for him. He changed majors to be in the kitchen and everything fell into place.
“When I put on my uniform and take my knife, I feel different. I get this intense feeling, just taking the raw ingredients and transforming them to something incredible.”
Raul has been cooking in top hotels all over the world. After four years traveling in Mexico, he moved on to Macau to open a new branch of the Banyan Tree. He was also the chef in the pre-openings of Dubai’s exclusive beachfront bar and restaurant Zero Gravity and the Grand Hyatt Casino Hotel in the Bahamas.
His Mexican Flautas are a good place to start if you are unfamiliar with Latin cuisine. Succulent chicken breast cooked in a tomato base and wrapped in a crispy flour tortilla, topped with sour cream and fresh salad. Next, we tried the Pork Loin Roulade with onions, garlic, dried cranberries, nuts and apple sauce, pan seared and finished to perfection in the oven. This was served with roasted potatoes and a chorizo-like sausage. If that wasn’t tantalizing enough, the final surprise was the Green Lamb Chops marinated with lemon and served on a bed of creamy quinoa risotto that really got our tongues tingling! We managed to have a chat and find out ‘more’ about the man himself for all you readers of MORE Hangzhou.
So Raul, you have quite the resume! Can you tell us which of your experiences have been the most rewarding so far?
A great place for me to work was Dubai. It was challenging at first because of the religion and restrictions. In Chile, we like to cook with red wine and experiment with new ingredients and spices, but there I could not use alcohol or pork. But, the supply of fresh meats, vegetables and spices was endless and we had good contacts with the suppliers. In the end, I really honed in on other techniques and flavors. It was a memorable time.
We all know how difficult it is to get certain ingredients here. Why did you choose China?
The fascination came from when I was a kid, you know. Growing up, I loved the Chinese movies with Jackie Chan, and I was amazed by the different culture and, of course, the food! Then I worked Macau and I learnt so much! I thought “I’m here! I’ve done it.” China is a place that people from the west think they know until they arrive here and it all opens up. It’s a whole new world. After I left Macau and went back to South America, I thought… “Something is missing in this kitchen… the woks!” Working on a line with these tools and producing a different taste was incredible, and I am happy to be back working with a talented group of individuals.
What’s the greatest difficulty you have here?
It has to be the language. I’m learning slowly but it will take time. I always say “I have no problems, just challenges,” and because I have no problems, I have more time to find solutions. I love working in this team. To these chefs, it isn’t just a job, it’s their passion and that’s what make this food very special.
Where did your motivation come from? Did your mum cook at home?
Oh no, my love for cooking comes from my Dad’s side of the family. My aunt and my Grandmother, they have good taste. My teachers too, they really inspired me to do more. I hope the people in Hangzhou can be open to try new flavours and enjoy eating my food as much as I enjoy creating it.
If you would like to join the taste fiesta, then head down to the Hyatt Regency hotel for their Latin Festival which lasts until April 10th. The buffet, which includes the dishes we tried, will run you 348RMB from Sunday to Thursday and from Friday to Saturday 368RMB (both prices have a 15% service charge).
Raul is in the process of creating a whole new a la carte menu that will be available after the festival with other dishes of Latin taste to tease you too! For more information on this, go ahead and contact the hotel or pop by for a sneaky peak at Raul himself hard at work in Café at the Hyatt. Buen Provecho!
To be honest, this is not exactly how I saw my Saturday morning going. After a good deal of persuasion, I had given in and decided to come to CrossFit Qiantang to see what all the fuss was about. Standing in a room full of about twenty-five athletic-looking sorts limbering up, little did I know that I was about to experience what would be one of the more intense twenty minutes worth of exercise I had done in my life.
In the car on the way to the gym, after having signed up for the class, we found out what the WOD (workout of the day) was. That day it would begin with 150 Burpees, a movement which involves going from standing to lying, to standing and a jump to finish. Then, 100 Wall Balls, requiring you to throw a medicine ball to above a line high on the wall. These two exercises were to be completed as a team, shared and in rotation. The final part, 5x200 meters, would be an individual effort.
After stretching and warming up, we were put into teams of three, our team name placed on the board, thereby riling up the competitive spirit in each and every athlete present. As the countdown began from ten, the crowd erupted, and as the music got louder, the tempo in the room sky-rocketed and the anticipation became unbearable.
Then, the room exploded as the battle for supremacy began, each team pitted off against each other in an effort to achieve the best time. During the next twenty minutes, I found strength in me that I didn’t know existed as my team and trainers (and even the opposition!?) spurred me on to reach the finish line in as fast a time as possible.
So this was my experience of CrossFit, a way of working out that has taken countless countries by storm and is now rapidly spreading through the mainland of China. For a better explanation of what CrossFit actually is, I spoke with the founder of CrossFit Qiantang, The General. Summing up my experience perfectly he told me, “It’s all about stepping out of your comfort zone. CrossFit is fun, but at the same time it can be brutal because it pushes you to your limits. The purpose of CrossFit is to train at your threshold area, which means you need to push your margin out.”
What is CrossFit?
CrossFit has three core fundamentals: constant variation, functional movement and high intensity. The first, constant variation, aims to improve your overall fitness, offering new and completely different workouts each time, using muscles you never knew you had, in contrast to a more focused improvement that some sports or traditional gym training offer: “We want every single one of our athletes to have a great general, broad fitness, which means they are prepared for the unknown,” said The General. In addition, you only find out the WOD after having booked the class, so if it’s something you don’t like, there’s no backing out: “You have no idea what you are going to be doing that day, just like real life. Life is unpredictable... CrossFit is the same thing.”
Functional movement involves using non-artificial movement – many gym machines promote a movement that is not entirely natural, whereas functional movements are more daily-life based and can therefore be used more in everyday situations.
High intensity is fairly self-explanatory, the benefit being you can put in less time but get more benefit. Rather than spending countless hours on a treadmill, CrossFit can condense this into around fifteen or twenty minutes of actual workout time (not including warming up or down), and yet offers results to match and even surpass longer, less intense workouts.
Why do CrossFit?
Aside from obvious health benefits, the most valuable thing CrossFit can offer is community. Looking lost on my first time in the gym, I was warmly received by trainers and members alike, as they approached me to introduce themselves and confess their great love for CF. Jenny had been CF-ing for around six months and was quick to praise the social aspect CF offers. She’d been working out in traditional gyms for years, rarely meeting anyone new: “I would be next to a guy on a treadmill every week for five or six years and have no idea about his name or who he was. Coming to CrossFit, there is a real feeling of community; everyone is very friendly and a strong bond is formed.”
This bond can only serve to improve your workout input as when you are making that final push, those around you shouting your name are sources of admiration and inspiration, team members who want nothing more than to see you do that extra rep, sprint that last 100 meters. They expect nothing less than 100%, and that is exactly what you should give them.
Furthermore, CrossFit supports and encourages its members to leave their comfort zone behind and do things they never thought they were capable of. The General explained, “The vast majority of people in this world only want to do the things they can do well… we like to give you something that you’re not good at… just use four or five hours a week to do this and your life will change completely.” So rather than doing something which comes easily to you, something you’re used to and can handle with relative ease, why not improve yourself by doing something you’re terrible at. Makes sense, right?
Some go to church, others go to CrossFit
For most, CF is more than just a workout. It’s way of life, a way of thinking that seems to make people want more from themselves. For one member, Adriana, CF was the missing piece of the puzzle, and after discovering it, her life came together, leading her to quit her job and become a shareholder in the company. Like many of the members here, you too may find yourself starting a new chapter of your life. Discover a new you, meet new friends. There’s really no excuse, so go on down and meet the CrossFit Qiantang family.
Give it a shot
For those of you thinking of joining, the first step is to sign up for one of their trial classes, either on Saturdays at 10am or Wednesdays at 8pm. The Saturday morning class will include members, so you’ll have a chance to meet the whole gang, something I strongly recommend, whereas the Wednesday evening class will include prospective members only. Also, many different membership schemes are available depending on your availability, ranging from a one-off drop in fee to a five-times-weekly membership.
Etienne Jeanne, guitarist with gypsy jazz band Three of a Kind, has been living in China for almost ten years. His Russian bandmates are based in Paris which means he mostly gets to play with them when he returns to France in the summer. This year however they are recording a new project in April and are hoping to embark on a world tour next year. I asked Etienne some questions about the band and the musical genre of gypsy jazz.
How did you meet your bandmates?
The three of us met in Paris in 2002. I had just moved to Paris when I was 18 in order to start my career as a professional musician, and met Aliocha and Vladi separately while doing gigs in Paris. It was the beginning of the "gypsy jazz revival" at the time. They were performing in an old Russian cabaret every week. I went to jam with them and found we had a strong connection right away so we decided to form a band. We've remained friends ever since.
How do you define gypsy jazz?
Gypsy jazz is a musical genre developed by the late great Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli in the late 30's, on the initiative of Hugues Panassié and Charles Delauney who wanted to build and promote a unique type of European jazz. That is why the Hot Club de France were the first "strings only" jazz quintet ever, innovating jazz music with a totally new sound never recorded before.
Is gypsy jazz the hardest genre to play on guitar?
It definitely requires strong guitar skills to play gypsy jazz, but not only that. A certain knowledge about jazz and gypsy culture in general, and an acuity for improvisation are also important.
Do you think there is a large audience for this type of music?
There is undoubtedly a large audience for gypsy jazz as this type of music is getting more and more popular. When I started to play this music, it was kind of a geek thing known principally in France and a few countries around (England, Germany, Holland, Italy), and now there is a Hot Club in every major city in the world, such as San Francisco, and even in Beijing! This style of music is pleasing to the ear, non-aggressive, and visually strong as you can see guitar players and violin players going crazy on their instruments! Plus it involves the guitar, which is the most popular instrument in the world, so people tend to identify themselves with it even more, especially metal guitar players.
What's the best thing about playing to a live audience?
Two things; the reward of an intense practice at home for years when people are clapping their hands, and the freedom to re-arrange our tunes, improvise, and make people surprised with a brand new show each time. To record is to leave a trace in time, to play live is to feel carefree again.
Where's your favourite place to play in Hangzhou?
I personally like to play in JZ Club because the venue is well adapted for live performances. There are many other places in Hangzhou offering the possibility to watch live bands, but not enough in my opinion. That is why I still need to work in Shanghai regularly since there are more opportunities. Fingers crossed about more musicians coming to Hangzhou in the next few years.
Has Chinese music had any influence on the music that you play?
Chinese music had an influence on the way I write originals indeed, we also cover a few songs from the early 30's Shanghai jazz repertoire.
Which bands are you following at the moment?
In the field of gypsy jazz, there are a lot of good musicians upcoming from all around the world although I think this type of music is precisely the legacy of Django Reinhardt, and hasn't really improved yet. People tend to copy the "authentic gypsy style" too much instead of working on their own interior music, which I think wouldn't have been the wish of the creators of this revolutionary musical genre.
If you would like to see Three of a Kind playing live, you can check them out at the venues below.
April 2nd @ ABC Café (Starts at 7:30pm)
1/F, Changjian Mansion, 415 Huanxing Rd, Binjiang, 滨江环兴路415号长建大厦1楼
April 8th @ Amigo (Starts at 9pm)
8 Yugu Rd, 玉古路8号
April 17th @ JZ Hangzhou (Starts at 9:30pm)
6 Liuying Rd (Nanshan Rd) , 柳营路6号（靠南山路）
April 22nd @ Reggae bar (Starts at 10:30pm)
131 Xueyuan Rd, 学院路131号
April 23rd @ Schänke (Starts at 9:30pm)
Room -3 and 2-2, Building 32, Qingchunfang, Qingchun Rd, 庆春路青春坊32幢1-3室和2-2室