Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Shanghai to Shenzhen

Don't have time to read? Have a listen!

  It was supposed to be a simple transaction: I bought tickets for a flight to Shenzhen, the airline should supply the plane and get me there. I think these things work differently in China.

  The time was 16h50, we were standing outside exit 7 of Shaanxi South Road metro station waiting for Shahnaz to exit. She would be dog-sitting while we went away to Shenzhen and Hong Kong during the Chinese New Year holiday.
  Our flight was scheduled for 19h15 from Hongqiao International Airport, Shanghai's other international airport. It's closer to our house than Pudong (30 minutes by metro vs. 1h45), and local flights from there are generally cheaper.

  The dog was sitting at our feet as the warm Shanghai air swept leaves and takeout boxes around the empty street. Exit 7 on Nanchang road is usually pretty devoid of cars, but the fact that most of the city was already deserted due to the upcoming celebration made it seem almost eerily quiet. Dundun stifled a bark and hopped; we couldn't see her, but Shahnaz must be near. Within 5 seconds we saw her head pop up above the top step of the escalator, her hair blowing across her face from the surge in air coming from the metro. She grabbed the lapels of her grey, speckled jacket and walked toward us. Dundun was itching to run up to her. "Woof woof," and off she went!
  Shahnaz's coat and fingers got a good nipping as we told Dundun to calm down and stop biting. "My fingers aren't treats Dundun!" she said as she pet our pup. "Ready to go?" Shahnaz inquired.
-All set. Thanks for taking care of Dundun while we're away.
-No problem! Thanks for giving me a break from my roommates!
We handed her the leash and some keys, and off into the metro we went.

  Line 10 is great. Not only is it a three minute walk from our apartment, but Anna-Lisa's school is only 20 minutes away, and Hongqiao airport is only 25 minutes away! We went through the security check, hopped into the metro, and 25 minutes later we were at terminal 2 of Hongqiao airport. Painless so far.

Baggage Suggestions

  The official baggage allowance on China Eastern flight MU5357 from SHA to SZX is one checked baggage of 20kg and one carry-on of 5kg. The actual allowance is pretty much anything you can carry with you.
  Now, maybe the airlines are more lenient because it's Chinese New Year and people are going back home to see their families, or maybe the check-in staff just doesn't care at all; regardless, people were checking in all kinds of weird things: taped up moving boxes, sewn up mesh bags, oddly shaped boxes and bags, tied up packs, really anything they could wrap their belongings in. And it wasn't just one per person; people were checking in five or six each. And what they didn't check in, they just carried with them: backpacks, purses, travel bags, carry-on luggage. It was a thrilling, if somewhat worrisome experience. All those boxes, packs, bags, and luggage will end up on our plane! Hopefully it won't weigh us down.

  We eventually reached the counter and checked ourselves in. Again, absolutely no regard for baggage allowance! The smartly dressed check in counter attendant asked if we had anything to check in. My 80L backpack was sticking out at least a foot above my head, she had to have seen it. "No. Nothing," I casually replied. And that was it. We were through. Easy enough.

Next Stop: Boarding

  So far so good. On to the boarding gates!
  I forgot what it's like to travel by air outside of the USA's sphere of influence. A quick glance by a security guard, a simple wave of a constantly-wailing metal detector, and we were through. Are you kidding me? I was still wearing my WWE Championship-belt-sized, metal belt buckle and no one asked me to remove my shoes! Amazing.

  The walk to the actual gate was fun. The way was littered with high end boutiques, coffee shops, and restaurants. We glanced around and continued on our way. Gate 55-72 --> We're heading in the right direction.
  Over this walkway, through this corridor, down this escalator, and... voilà! Gate 64, in view.
  Now we play the waiting. (I know, it sucks. I would much rather play hungry hungry hippos)

  And a waiting game it was. As usual in China, and much like the baggage allowance, departure times are merely a suggestion, by no means must any airline adhere to them in any way. The moment we sat down, we heard notice after notice announcing the delay of every single flight departing from every single gate surrounding ours. Was this some kind of Chinese New Year miracle? Were we being spared the wrath of the angry horse, whose year was swiftly coming to an end? We sat anxious and hopeful that, for once, our booking might depart on time.
  18h10, so far so good. We're supposed to board at 18h35.
  18h20, still looking bright.
  18h30, we're getting antsy. Will we be boarding soon?
  18h40, our hopes are wearing thin. We should have boarded already but there have been no announcements. Please, Jade Emperor, if you truly exist, let our flight depart on time!
  16 February 2015, 18h47. Mark that down as the exact time at which we learned that the Jade Emperor does not truly exist.
"The plane for flight MU5357 is now being cleaned, boarding will take place later." And that was that. The most useless word anyone can ever utter, and one of every Chinese person's seemingly top 10 favourite English words: "Later."

The importance of precise language

  What does later even mean? Nothing. It's just a catch-all word to cover your ass. And I guess that's what everyone is always trying to do here. "Later." Is that 10 minutes? or 10 years? If boarding happens at all, it would inevitably happen "later."
  Well we soon found out that "later" meant 19h25 as a China Eastern employee was startled out of an apparent nap behind the boarding counter and hopped up to softly say: "飞行到深圳,现在登机。"  Translation: "The flight to Shenzhen is now boarding." Let the mad rush begin.

  About 150 people all sprang to their feet to rush to the gate, but none faster than +Anna-Lisa. "Pick up your bag, we're boarding!" I heard, as she sprinted away, leaving a cartoonish, Anna-Lisa-shaped dust cloud behind her. Not bad. At least we're first in line.


  We boarded the plane first and sat in our seats. For the second time that day I would rather have been playing hungry hungry hippos, but we were playing the waiting game.
  20h10, there's an announcement! The flight will be leaving soon. Soon! Finally a word with some meaning. It might not have any truth behind it, but at least there is less ambiguity. At least we know we'll be leaving today!
  *CLUNK* A towing vehicle begins to pull us away from the gate. "It's 20h15, if we take off in the next 15 minutes, we can still catch the metro," I think to myself. Yeah right. "Due to heavy traffic, the plane will have to wait to take off," is the first thing I hear after that thought crossed my mind.
  "It looks like we're gonna have to take a taxi," I tell Anna-Lisa as I pull out my phone to find the hotel's address in Chinese.
  Was that movement? Is the plane moving? Will we actually depart in time for us to catch the metro?
  We hear engines. Yes! I immediately take back everything I ever said about the Jade Emperor. He exists! Of course he exists. And he's here to watch over us.
  We take off. It's 20h25.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Sunny Shanghai Sunday

Don't have time to read? Too bad!

Sunny Sundays in Shanghai are heaven sent. In a twist of climatological fate, the cold weather subsided on Sunday and the sun was allowed to shine at its shiniest, casting its warm blanket over the city. Skies were blue and fluffy white clouds puffed around. Clean blankets and sheets waved in the cool, fresh breeze as Shanghaiers moved about town with lighter steps. Even the animals seemed to have a spring in their steps as they ran, hopped and sniffed around the sidewalks. The leafless trees seemed to almost bob with life as the sun's rays illuminated their colourful branches swaying in the draft.

Warm walk

+Anna-Lisa and I decided to take advantage of the weather anomaly and walk to the grocery store with the dog. Good times were had by all.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

The Tuna Ceremony

It was a boring Monday. The 19th of January 2015. Only the 3rd Monday of the year so far, but it was about to get a lot more interesting. 

Back in October, when +Anna-Lisa was in Hong Kong for a visa run, she met a guy named Daniel. Daniel is Italian, he was also on a visa run, but he works in Shanghai. He works for a guy named Jacky Xue, the owner of a group of restaurants. His most recent endeavor being Primo. 

Now Jacky was trained in Milan by a very famous Italian chef. His restaurants are a fusion of Chinese tastes and Italian food. What does that mean? It means while the ingredients are fresh and amazing, they are not typical for Italian cuisine; they are closer to Chinese cuisine. But the preparation and dedication to culinary excellence is definitely Italian.

So where am I heading with all this? Relax. I'm getting there.

Jacky isn't your ordinary chef. His love for the methods of food preparation that he learned in Italy don't stop at Italian cuisine. He explores. He tries new things and incorporates different flavours and textures. His latest venture: Bluefin Tuna. And boy did he succeed. 

Like any spectacular unveiling, the build-up should whet the appetite, be it for food or any other type of content, and I hope I've managed to whet your appetite for both of those. Now onto the main course.

Bluefin Tuna

The Bluefin Tuna is a magnificent beast and nothing to trifle with, so it's no wonder that Japanese people will often celebrate a catch with a ceremony worthy of its greatness.

On 19 January 2015, Jacky Xue, head chef and owner at Jacky Group in Shanghai, provided his best clients with an exclusive carving of a 1.70m, 60kg, Bluefin Tuna. The freshly skinned and fileted fish was prepared and served to those in attendance, along with an endless supply of Berlucchi Franciacorta. For about 4 hours, Jacky and his staff worked tirelessly; carving, cutting, slicing, searing, marinating, and cooking the beautiful red flesh of this beastly marine brute.
We were lucky enough to be invited by Daniel. Thanks to him and Jacky, we had an amazing night, ate some amazing tuna, took some amazing photos, and will have amazing memories.

Jacky, with the veiled tuna before him, giving a little explanation of what is about to happen
The unveiling

Two chef de partie anxiously awaiting orders
The Japanese tuna master triumphantly raises his conquest above his head 
The final flank 
Beautiful chunks of red tuna flesh 
The aftermath 
Jacky hard at work filleting in background 
Can't wait to eat 
But first, let me take a selfie 
Lightly seared goodness 
Heaven on earth...en cutting board
Looks good 
Jacky showing off his work 
Jacky working hard 
A sprinkle of this, a dash of that... 
Enjoying a well-deserved glass of wine 
Look at that tuna! 

Anna-Lisa and Daniel 
My beautiful wife 

See the full Tuna Ceremony album on Michael Dino Cotugno's flickr page.