Far East FoodConnect

The fine folk at FoodConnect have achieved the impossible and made eating food even more enjoyable - because now I get paid for doing it. I've been updating them with my Oriental Adventures, which you can read below.

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Oriental Adventures: The Chinese Chamber Of Torment

One thing I'm proud of is not being a white bastard when abroad. I may be paler than a vampire addicted to World of Warcraft, and only slightly less obviously foreign than a french-speaking Martian, but I make an effort. I don't shout english at people in the hope they'll understand, I don't insist on chefs cooking nameable body parts for me, and I don't choke more than absolutely unavoidable when arriving in a new city and adapting to the regional petrochemical/oxygen mixture.

Which is why I hate how one stereotypical complaint has been forced on me. An old injury has left me unable to bend my left ankle and therefore unable to use the goddamn stone-age aberrations that are Chinese toilets.

Even in the fanciest restaurant, you are not safe. You always run the risk of encountering one of these bloody holes in the ground when you are least equipped to go somewhere else. It may be a beautifully appointed hole in the ground, paved with porcelain and equipped with motion-sensitive flush action, but the fact remains that hidden in the midst of the modern world this is a fucking pit in the dirt - as the first neanderthal might have scooped from the raw earth with his hairy hand, before neglecting to wipe and clubbing something to death. All the modern features are just to show off,a s if to say "Yes, we know all about modern advances and have decided that it's more fun to make you squat like an animal."

They do thoughtfully provide a pole to hold onto, making it the absolute least sexy pole anyone has ever clung to while peeling off their pants (an anti-stripper-pole, if you will). Unless you're me, in which case the only way to conceivably use the "convenience" is to brace yourself firmly against the walls. On a list of surfaces I'm prepared to press my hands firmly against, the walls of a public toilet are right at the bottom, only above "Napalm that has actually been ignited" and "The tonsils of a hungry crocodile."

People do use these things. If you're fortunate enough to visit a tourist attraction where the bathroom water has failed you'll see mountains of evidence, no matter how quickly you try to close the stall door in disgust. It's not as if porcelain is some rare imported material. From all the crap stuffed into the souvenir shops it's clear that it's only marginally more expensive than swearing.

Without question the worst offenses against your orifice are train toilets. A small wobbling chamber, as you cling to the pole you're shaking left and right over regular size toilet hole, like the absolute worst banner flash ad in existence. "Click on the hole to not create a disgusting mess!" In many trains the entire chamber is floored with metal for ease of cleaning. The fact that metal is amazingly slippy when lubricated with water (or water-like fluids) does not seem to occur to them.

This is real example of not seeing the root of the problem - when you find that the bathroom continually fills with human waste, you should think "Is there some design of toilet that puts more than few inches of dip between the effluent and the rest of the room?" I recommend you don't think "Let's build a vibrating chamber of metal torment, lubricated with the waste of strangers, where every second is a battle againt immersion in effluvia."

Everyone except Japanese TV executives and, apparently, Chinese train designers would agree with me.

Oriental Adventures: Chinese Coffee

Preparing for China this year, we packed two kilos of coffee and a press after the passports but before the tickets. The Chinese may understand the word coffee, they may have characters for it, they may even - god help you - try to sell you a cup of something. But they don't know coffee.

China is a tea culture. Utterly. Sipping it, slurping it, strong or weak at any time of the day. They have a thousand types of the stuff - Brewster would never have had a problem spending his millions if he’d known about Grand Red Robe tea. At five figures for fifty grams, he and a few friends could have sipped their way into bankruptcy without ever standing up, creating the first and only Richard Pryor Art House film. Coffee is some foreign devilry that they only seem to attempt with their eyes closed and oven mitts on.

I didn't know about this caffeine-shaped blind spot in the premier culinary culture on the planet last year, and ended up exposed to compounds best handled by HAZMAT teams. In one establishment a request for coffee was met like a local mob boss demanding pasta a la endangered eagle: a terrified grin followed by lots of frantic discussion in the kitchen. This wouldn't have been odd, except the place was called "Shang Dao Coffee" - and "Shang Dao" doesn't mean "We don't serve." It's a chain name, the title of this Starbucks-equivalent (also known as UBC Coffee) which has opened coffee shops throughout the country and this, clearly, was the first time someone had called their bluff.

After much behind-the-scenes scrambling they appeared at the bar with an assemblage of brass and glassware wouldn't have looked out of place bubbling behind Dr Frankenstein. It had clearly been at the hgih-price end of whatever cafe-supply catalog it had been bought from. It had equally clearly never been used, and it became excruciatingly clear that whatever instructions came with it did not include any form of Chinese.

At this point I tried to cancel the order and leave, but was asked to sit down and await my order. Clearly, they had started to make coffee and no-one was going anywhere until they finished. The resulting fluid, arrived at after only slightly less effort than the atom bomb or the jet engine, was served in a wafer thin plastic bubble tea cup. Complete with cling-wrap sealing of the top and a thick straw jammed into it. The container was so utterly unsuited for anything above room temperature, and the "cafe" so utterly inequipped to serve coffee, I had to carry the resulting scald-bomb in a plastic bag until it cooled down.

And it tasted like water.

I tried various other establishments before eventually giving up, scoring various results between "liquid" and "mud." Starbucks has spread to China but outside major city downtowns they're few and far between, ridiculously expensive by Chinese standards, and you feel like such a goddamn asshole white boy saying "I've got to get my Starbucks." You might as well arrive shouting "lookee lookee chineee" and trying to buy a wife for twenty American dollars.

Without doubt the worst coffee impersonation inflicted on me was at the Summer Palace. An ultra-popular tourist destination, the concession stand offered everything from fruit juice to Johnny Walker. The whisky would have been better coffee.

It tasted like they'd made it in a washing machine, and forgotten to drain the detergent first. Despite the very real taste of soap and dishwasher detergent it also managed to be gritty and dirty - they hadn't even taken their old washing out of the machine before stirring in some grinds and charging me for the drippings. Somehow dirt and detergent were co-existing in this solution, setting aside their eternal enmity to attack my tastebuds instead.

The moral? Delight in the delicious food, savour the delicate teas - but if you want to be awake to enjoy any of it, bring your own coffee.

Stupids Suing Science

I'm Cracking things up again with the comedy, this time detailing 7 (Stupid) People Who Sued the Scientific Method. Because nothing sums up the modern age like an astrologer suing NASA.

UPDATE: Nealy 2,000 Diggs! Well done, Internet, you're proving smarter than people say!

Oriental Adventures: The Great Wall

Just like every other visitor to China, I've been to the Great Wall. And just like every other visitor, I've taken loads photos. But unlike any other visitor I'm not going to show anybody - because they're laughable. Ridiculous. Pathetic. Trying to communicate the sight in photos is like trying to communicate Beethoven's Fifth symphony in morse code.

If you ever meet someone with a camera which can truly show you what the Great Wall is like, say "Thank you Mr Scott" because that's a transporter and it's just teleported you onto the damn thing. It’s the only way to get it.

Xin and I took a shortcut up the wall with a ticket to the “pull trolley” ride, which we assumed was a cable car. Assumptions are dangerous things in China, the sort of danger that sees you strapped into a screaming and squeaking adapted childrens ride carting thousands of people up a hill every day. When you’re held down in a plastic seat, part of a chain of fifty people being labored up a high-grade slope is when you remember all those “Illegal death trap collapses; purees forty” headlines. Which don’t help one bit.

Once you get up there the view is unbelievable. The horizon is a legendary scene as drawn by a genius five-year old - the peaks and mists are perfect but there are just far too damn many of them. There just can’t be that many mythic-looking mountains visible from one place – surely the Earth would be lopsided and start spinning off its axis. Epic, cragged peaks as far as the eye can see in some directions, you're on top of the epicest and some crazy bastards built a goddamn gigantic wall on the thing half a millennium ago.

You have to watch your step, when you're climbing into the sky. To call the steps "uneven" would be to miss your only chance to call architecture "murderous". Sloped, uneven (and in places concave) steps, steep hills; there are places you could start falling and never stop. You'd be liquid before you hit another level section and then just flow along the gulleys between the bricks. This leads to an unusual situation where you’re surrounded by three hundred and sixty degrees of one of the greatest views on the planet, and you’re scared to look up from your own feet. There’s a great comment on humanity just waiting to be made there, but if there’s anything that’ll blast petty sarkiness out of your skull it’s six megameters of massive wall.

We climbed to the “North Eighth Tower”, the highest point possible on the wall section we visited (in fact the highest point visible from where we were, and since we could see approximately forever from there that means it was pretty high.) Climbing towards the bricked up guard house everything else fell away – even the other mountains dipped below the walls as you strode up the path to a stone door in the middle of the blue sky. It looked like where God would live, but since nobody came out to scold me for giving my body a helping hand during puberty, we have to assume he wasn’t home that day.

We returned the way we came. We could have kept going along the wall and found another route, but since the Great Wall is the only building in the world where you can actually end up in Vladivostok if you take a wrong turn, we decided against it. The trolley ride down again proved to be a lot more fun – if the uphill battle was a Japanese movie of slowly building tension and dread, the ride down was a Western action movie. Specifically that bit from the “Temple of Doom”, screeching brakes, improbable turns over pits and all.

Oriental Adventures: Beijing Air

Looking out the window as the plane pulls in to Beijing airport, there's definitely something mythical about the sky - the horizon is obscured in mists, and the light seems to catch in some kind of magic in the air. Then you get off the plane and realise that it really is "magic", in that sulfur and dark burning chemicals are often associated with witchcraft.

Beijing's air quality is a famous issue - it's kind of inevitable when you build a city on the edge of a desert and add three and a half million cars. But to really explain the texture of the air all ten million citizens would need to be burning plastic as a hobby. One of the first banners I saw in the airport - before even getting to the security checkpoint - was "SINOPEC: Petrochemical Partners of the Olympics" Which mean that either the Chinese have a secret and significantly more awesome internal-combustion competition going on, or the fact the air has more flavor than many meals isn't entirely natural.

Some days its like there's a fifty per-cent paint fill across the entire atmosphere. Those are the humid ones, and they're the worst. One day I couldn't see four blocks down the street. Other days it's marvellously clear, but since those are the days a cold air system has simply shoved everything out of the way you can't really appreciate it - any body part you expose to the fresh air won't feel it for longer than thirty seconds. Conversely, it can get worse in the summer - which is why I have never and will never come here in the summer. Something about sulfur combining with warm water then falling in the sky makes me not want to be there when it happens, and that something is "dissolving in goddamn acid rain."

Websites that make you (seem) smarter

The all-dominating network of Luke-ness continues to expand its borders - behold Sites That Make You (Seem) Smarter, with the fine folks over at smartlifeblog.com. Folks with impeccable taste, might I add.

Left4Dead Bursting With Life

I've been writing about Left4Dead, because gosh-darn if it isn't absolutely fantastic.
Pictured: Good Advice

And, tarnation, but it seems like my articles t'ain't doin' so bad on the old Reddit neither. You can check 'em out here: Weapons Wisdom and Witch Hunter.

Crap Criminal Excuses

I first noticed this article had gone online when I got a long hatemail from someone called NRA_4_EVR. So I must be doing something right. Find the crappy criminal excuses that enrage gun nuts right here!