Annie Bananie en Europe

A blog about travel, life, and everyday tidbits

Category Archives: Miscellaneous

My stories 05: Everybody’s Changing

“So little time
Try to understand that I’m
Trying to make a move just to stay in the game
I try to stay awake and remember my name
But everybody’s changing
And I don’t feel the same
You’re gone from here
And soon you will disappear
Fading into beautiful light
Cause everybody’s changing
And I don’t feel right…”

The song “Everybody’s Changing” has been on my phone ever since I discovered it, and I remember very distinctly the circumstances under which I first heard this song. It was October 26, 2017, my final week in Glasgow. I was having lunch with a friend at Chaiwallah, a cafe/restaurant nearby the University of Glasgow that popped up a few months before. (Side note: the site of the restaurant used to be a public toilet but has since been revamped into a cafe. As far as I am aware, at the time of writing, the cafe has closed down.) The space was small but cozy, fitting only approximately 15 customers. I wasn’t very close with the friend with whom I had the lunch date, and within the less than one year that I had known her, we never had a one-on-one conversation. Yet, there was an unspoken mutual bond between us, so it was only natural to finally have a chat with her in a relaxed atmosphere, before I left Glasgow for good.

We ordered our food, and mine was a sandwich with sweet potato, avocado, onion, and cheese. Though the portion was small, it turned out to be one of the best sandwiches that I’ve ever had, but in fact, food was not the spotlight of this meal. Our conversations were light but pleasant, brief but memorable. We talked about God, aspirations, relationships, the past, the present, the future. And then I heard it – a song played in the background that instantly caught my attention. I don’t know what it was that appealed to me. The instrumentals? The voice of the lead singer? The vibe? It didn’t matter – I knew I had to find out the title of the song and who sang it. Thankfully I had Shazam on my phone, which opened up promptly despite my phone usually being sluggishly slow. I told my friend, “I’m sorry, give me a moment, I like this song.” She smiled and waited. In a few seconds, “Keane – Everybody’s Changing” appeared on my screen, and it was like a dose of epiphany…of course!

Keane. I should have recognized that voice, and I shouldn’t have been surprised. “Somewhere Only We Know” and “Perfect Symmetry” were songs by Keane that had significantly impacted various phases of my life, and now, “Everybody’s Changing” made its way into my heart. The song speaks of embarking on the walk of life while all of a sudden realizing that nothing is the same anymore. It speaks of the struggle to accept change in order to stay alive in the game of Life but at the same time, trying to remain true to oneself and remember one’s own identity. But in this day and age, we are all sacrifices of our own products, aren’t we? When we are twisted, bent, and scarred beyond recognition, is it those around us who have changed, or is it us and only us?

Just imagine the sweet potato, avocado, and onion fusing together in a warm cushion of cheese – oh it was lovely!

(This short essay was written on January 16, 2019.)

Regaining my love of reading

COVID-19 has allowed me to pick up the habit of reading again and I’m loving it. It’s strange, sometimes I would wonder how I spent my time after work pre-COVID. I then realized how much time I wasted doing…nothing? Or perhaps nothing meaningful, shall I say. I would maybe scroll mindlessly through my phone or watch short videos that don’t require much thought, and before you knew it, it would be time to sleep. The cycle repeats day after day till I’m numb toward my perception of time, and then there’d be the perfect excuse of “I don’t have enough time”.

Then COVID hit and all of a sudden I found myself in quarantine/lockdown with all the time in the world. There’s only so much on my phone that I could mindlessly scroll through before I’d go crazy, especially during COVID when the news is either about conspiracy theories or overly sentimental positivity that does nothing but exploit emotional vulnerability. So then I turned to books – physical, paper novels. I had made the resolution to read more since the end of 2019, and COVID just seemed to make that resolution easier to achieve. For a long time, I had forgotten what it felt like to be immersed in adventure through flipped pages, to be gripped by the rich emotions of imaginary figures, to be able to experience worlds I would never have otherwise even known of. I had forgotten what it was like to have to force myself to NOT start a new chapter in order to not sleep too late (last time was Count of Monte Cristo) or to anticipate the gleaming introduction of a new book. I loved reading – and I wanted to regain that love.

Books on the small shelf of my rented home – can’t wait to move into our own home soon and get a nice big bookcase!

I started buying books, most of them classics that have stood the test of time. Some I have been meaning to read for a while (like the Japanese work “Norwegian Wood”) but many were titles that I was discovering for the first time (like those from Honoré de Balzac). Of course, these were Chinese translations of the original works. I deliberately avoided English works for the moment because I prefer to read their original versions, which are rather hard to come by in Wuhan. That’s why most of the novels I’ve read so far were either Chinese originals or Japanese/French, translated into Chinese. (My French reading skills are only at the “Le Petit Prince” level so I won’t embarrass myself by attempting Balzac or Hugo in French…)

Regardless of depth or reading difficulty, there is something to be learned from each piece of literary work, whether superficial or profound. For example, “Norwegian Wood” by Haruki Murakami, while ruthlessly exposing the gravity of depression, made known to me two classic pieces of music, both named “Norwegian Wood” (English by The Beatles, Chinese by WuBai, and they have nothing to do with each other). “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera introduced me to the Prague Spring and Czech history. “The Sound of the Mountain” by Yasunari Kawabata (Nobel laureate) and “Paradise Lost” by Junichi Watanabe sparked my curiosity in the city of Kamakura in Japan, as it was the primary setting of the former and an important location in the plot of the latter. I’m currently reading “Notre-Dame de Paris” by Victor Hugo (a difficult read) and though I’ve never lived in Paris, my connection with France made me ponder about and want to explore the themes and motifs mentioned in the book (architecture vs. literature, piety vs. compassion, virtue vs. vice). (On a side note, I wonder how Hugo would have reacted if he found out about the fire at Notre-Dame last year.) As for “Dream of the Red Chamber” by Xueqin Cao…that’ll warrant its own essay, when I finish reading it in mid-June.

My stories 04: Tim Hortons in Dalian

In February and March, J and I were stranded in the city of Dalian in northeastern China because Wuhan was on lockdown and we were unable to return. One day, I found out by chance that Tim Hortons opened two stores in Dalian, one of which was right next to the hotel where we were staying! Since this Canadian coffee chain entered the Chinese market (called Tim’s in China), it has successively opened stores in three cities (the other two are Shanghai and Zhengzhou, and I had already visited the first one to open in Shanghai last year). About Tim Hortons, its status in Canada is like that of Starbucks in the US – you could almost find one on every other block. The Canadians’ enthusiasm for Tim Hortons is no less than the Chinese people’s love for bubble tea. It’s not that the coffee is amazing or anything, but it is the taste of home that is irreplaceable. Grab a large dark roast double/double – mmm, such rich and familiar aroma that brought me a touch of colour and nostalgia in an unfamiliar city!

Large dark roast double/double with a Cesar chicken wrap. The wrap was mediocre but the coffee was desirable. I never had the dark roast in Canada and upon trying it for the first time in Dalian, felt that it was a bit too strong. I went back another day for a normal coffee double/double and immediately that authentic, familiar taste came back. Still, my favourite was the large steeped tea double/double, which I got during my third and final visit to the Dalian location. Unfortunately the steeped tea did not live up to my expectations 😦 Maybe Tim Hortons will come to Wuhan eventually…?

Chinese noodles at their places of origin

Last week, the noodle restaurant beside my apartment building in Wuhan finally resumed business! When I saw the open door I knew I had to get myself some hot dry noodles (I had written about it briefly before). What are hot dry noodles? You ask. It is a literal translation of “re gan mian” in Chinese and it’s only the most popular street food in Wuhan. If there is one food item that represents Wuhan, this would be it.

But this post is not only about hot dry noodles. There are in fact hundreds of types of noodle dishes in China, each region with their own specialty. I thought about which types of noodle I’ve tried and compiled a list of ones that I’ve had the privilege of having in their places of origin (with one exception). This means that (1) I’ve certainly had other noodle dishes, just not in the region/city where they originated, and (2) only one dish was selected for each region (Xi’an, for example, has tons of noodle dishes but only one is showcased here).

Re gan mian (hot dry noodles), Wuhan, Hubei Province, April 13, 2020.

You know I have to start with hot dry noodles. What’s an introduction without photos?! The first is the unmixed version that you get from the shop. Usually the noodles are blanched quickly in boiling water and topped with a variety of sauces, among which sesame sauce is the main feature. You then get to add whatever toppings you want and I usually only go for green onions, pickled green beans, and sour radish. The second photo is what you get when you mix everything together – and c’mon, you HAVE to mix everything together to eat hot dry noodles properly. It may look like a mess, and sometimes it is, but oh man it is a bite of heaven in my mouth. After three months of absence, welcome back, hot dry noodles!!

Xiao mian (small noodles), Chongqing, December 31, 2019.

Next up we’ve got what we literally call “small noodles” (xiao mian) in Chinese, and it is a specialty of Chongqing. Small noodles have the same status in Chongqing as do hot dry noodles in Wuhan. They are really just ordinary noodles immersed in a hot soup – both in terms of temperature and spiciness! This one may not LOOK very spicy but pay attention to the red soup base and you’d understand how much hot oil went into it. Delicious but painful for those who can’t stand spicy food!

Dan dan mian (dan dan noodles), Chengdu, Sichuan Province, February 6, 2018.

Another spicy one here, dan dan noodles of Chengdu, Sichuan. The province of Sichuan, of which Chongqing used to be a part, is famous for its flavourful and spicy palate. “Dan dan” doesn’t really translate to anything and the noodles are consisted of minced meat and a lot of hot sauce/oil. This was a small portion as a snack and thankfully it was a small portion because heck it was spicy!

Zha jiang mian (fried sauce noodles), Beijing, December 8, 2016.

We now go north to the capital of China, where zha jiang mian (fried sauce noodles) are quite popular among locals and tourists alike. I never really figured out why they’re called “fried sauce” noodles because I definitely don’t think the sauce (bean paste) is fried. And it may not seem like a lot of sauce from the photo but it is very thick and heavy, so this was actually enough to coat all of the noodles evenly for a great flavour.

Biang biang mian (biang biang noodles) with lamb, Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, February 1, 2019.

The word “biang” doesn’t really exist in China and is a made-up character that you can’t even type on a computer. But that doesn’t stop biang biang noodles from being loved in Xi’an, where noodles are the main staple. The unique thing about biang biang noodles is how long and wide they are. The first photo doesn’t quite do them justice and that’s why I’m posting the second one for comparison – the noodles are almost as wide as a person’s mouth!

Hui mian (braised noodles) with lamb, Zhengzhou, Henan Province, March 25, 2020.

J and I had a chance to stop by Zhengzhou for a connecting train on my way back to Wuhan, so we seized the opportunity to try to famous lamb hui mian (braised noodles). This was at a restaurant that ONLY served lamb hui mian and side dishes, so you can’t even get other types of meat if you wanted to. There’s normal-quality lamb, superior-quality lamb, top-quality lamb…you get the point. We only got the normal-quality lamb but oh man it was tasty! Perfect balance of lean and fatty meat that falls apart in your mouth without chewing. And the lamb soup based was top-notch!

Yun tun mian (wonton noodles), Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, December 21, 2016.

I had to save this for the end because Guangzhou (or Canton) is my hometown and I love Cantonese food. Out of all the noodles on this list, I would think that westerners would be most familiar with this one – wonton noodles. “Yun tun” is the Mandarin pronunciation of “wonton”, which is actually the Cantonese pronunciation (though more like “wun tun”). Whenever I go back to Guangzhou I always make sure I get myself a bowl of wonton noodles at least once. My dad told me that back in the day, the original wontons only contained pork and a little bit of shrimp and are not too huge. Nowadays, most wontons are gigantic and contain mostly shrimp, and my dad complained of the authenticity and texture of modern wontons. I’m often heavily influenced by my dad, this time in particular because he is the true Cantonese local who grew up in the city. So I went and looked for the “original” wonton noodles with the pork-based fillings and luckily they still exist (wonton noodles at Wu Cai Ji restaurant shown in photo). I understand what my dad meant but you know, I don’t mind the shrimp in any case 😛

Gan chao niu he (dry-stir-fried rice noodles with beef), Toronto, Canada, August 8, 2011.

BONUS!!! I said there’d be an exception and this is it – dry-stir-fried rice noodles with beef. “Dry” has to be specified because there is a wet version – with sauce. Anyway, this is the exception of the post for two reasons: (1) It is the second Cantonese specialty and (2) I had this in Toronto, not the place where it originated. Again my dad seemed to be an expert on this dish, telling me that Cantonese chefs are evaluated on their basic kitchen skills based on this dish because it tests so many essential techniques in Cantonese cooking. Indeed it may look simple but the amount of work that goes into making the perfect stir-fried noodles takes years and years of training. And we love it!

So, do I have a favourite or a ranking for these goodies? I admit that I am completely biased and I will say that wonton noodles are my favourite, followed by stir-fried noodles with beef. Unsurprisingly hot dry noodles come third so I guess the conclusion is…the taste of home is the best???

Which noodles would you like to try? 😉

East Lake, the gem of Wuhan

If there’s anything that makes living in Wuhan more desirable, it’s the East Lake. You may have heard of West Lake, which is a world-renowned tourist attraction in Hangzhou, China, but I’m sure not many people have heard of East Lake in Wuhan. I had mentioned East Lake several times in my previous posts, and I had intended to write a post dedicated to it, but it’s hard to describe and represent so much beauty in one post. But I’ll try.

Wuhan is known to some as “the city of a hundred lakes” because of the large number of lakes that can be found within the city limits. East Lake is the second largest city lake in China (the largest is Tangxun Lake, also in Wuhan) and a (mostly) admission-free category 5A scenic attraction. How big is East Lake? Well, huge! Don’t assume you can simply walk around it in one shot, as the shore length is supposedly >100 km. The vehicle of choice is definitely the bike, and this has been made easier by bike-sharing schemes in the city. In fact, public bikes usually are quite difficult to find near East Lake because of the high demand, so we often had to find them before we got to the lake area.

When cycling the East Lake, the outer shore is not the only route and is actually perhaps the road less taken. What’s great about East Lake is the system of interconnected paths constructed specifically for cyclists and pedestrians, known as the “East Lake Greenway”. These run through the entire lake region, connecting islands, parks, and different sub-areas, making it possible to explore something new with every trip. The map below shows the major paths of the different sections of the lake, but the smaller cycling/hiking paths within each region are not illustrated. Looking at the map, J and I have completed the orange, green, teal, blue, and the right half of the light purple segment by bike. I’ve walked the dark purple segment but have yet to cycle through it, and the red segment, which is the main one through the lake, remains untouched. Well I shall get to you…

Map of the interconnected routes in the East Lake Greenway system, from the official web site (in Chinese only, unfortunately).

I happen to live a stone’s throw away from East Lake and so it is one of the places that J and I frequent, especially on summer nights and weekends. During August last year, we went cycling three times within a two-week period, each time going a different route. Let’s just remind you that Wuhan is infamous for its scorching hot summers and is known as one of the “four big ovens” in China. So, going outdoor in AUGUST was unthinkable for me, but I got tempted and convinced. We did decide to go after 4 pm, when the heat has subsided a bit, so it wasn’t all THAT horrible – just had to bring lots of water. In fact, one thing I like about the greenway is that the roads are mostly flat, so there aren’t a lot of hills or rough paths and it’s a fun, leisurely ride most of the way. Along with the late afternoon wind, you almost don’t feel the heat that much and you can spend your time admiring the beautiful scenery offered by East Lake.

With COVID-19 ravaging the globe, we are still strongly encouraged to stay at home and therefore I haven’t made a visit to East Lake yet this year. But I will see you again soon, East Lake! Now you are wondering where the photos are – I am saving them for the end and here they are! Enjoy 😉

Light evening cycle in the Luoyan Scenic Area (blue segment on map, “luo yan” translates to “falling crane”). There was a tiny lone island not too far from the shore, occupied by nothing but trees. The skyline of Wuhan can be seen in the distance on the right.

Leisurely stroll in the Tingtao Scenic Area (dark purple segment on map, “ting tao” translates to “listening to waves”). A boardwalk stretches outward into the lake, leading to a small pavilion.

Another segment in the Luoyan Scenic Area, this time across from the “Wangguo Park” (“wanguo” translates to “ten thousand kingdoms”). It’s an abandoned theme park built years ago, with remains of Egyptian pyramids, medieval castles, and windmills.

Can’t remember where this photo was taken, but the greenness of it always refreshes my mood. It feels like this could be a fairyland unknown to us mere muggles…

I think this was still the Luoyan Scenic Area, but it’s clear that this was in the middle of summer as the lotus pads covered entire sections of the lake. And the remaining rays of sunlight are still trying to outshine the looming clouds that announce the arrival of night…good evening.

Nearing the northernmost tip of the light purple segment, Wuhan’s skyline is now clearly visible in front of us and feels easily within reach.

Almost arriving at the westernmost tip of the orange segment, the sun has decided to grace us with its last appearance of the day and give us a break from the heat, finally.

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