Beijing, 30 March 2014

We’ve had a bad air day here in Beijing.
smog in Beijing
Actually, we’ve been having a series of bad air days, after a relatively long period of good air days. Due to the change of weather patterns as we move from winter to spring, I imagine.

In any event, these days of high particulate levels have led to an efflorescence of masks on the face of pedestrians.
beijingers wearing masks
When my wife and I first arrived here four years ago, the local population stoically accepted the situation. The official government position at the time could be summed up as: “air pollution? what air pollution?” So the masses followed the party line and officially shrugged off the decision by some foreigners to wear protective masks as weak-kneed and effeminate. At most, they would don surgical masks
a common enough habit here, although used more as a way to control the spread of the common cold.

Then, about a year ago, with the change in party leadership, the government made it publicly known that actually there was an air pollution problem, and almost overnight Beijingers started wearing protective masks. Such is the power of the party …

My wife and I, though, are made of tougher stuff and have considered all these mask wearers, Chinese and foreigners alike, weak-kneed and effeminate. That is, until now. Because even we, tough nuts though we are, have begun to think that maybe we should also be wearing masks on bad air days, before we get hit with an irreversible case of asthma or worse.

But what masks should we wear? And here, I have to say, aesthetics will play as much a part in our decision as efficacy. Efficacy alone would suggest wearing some sort of gas mask. The problem is, gas masks – at least in their traditional form – are fantastically unaesthetic. Consider this photo, taken in London during the Second World War
gas masks WW2-1
The Londoners in question were taking part in a drill, to make sure they knew how to use their masks in case the Germans dropped gas bombs.

Or how about this one, also from the Second World War, of some bizarre outing in the woods by a bunch of people (scouts?), all kitted up in gas masks
gas masks WW2

Can you imagine us all walking around Beijing looking like this? Already walking around in the smog is depressing enough. Having people looking like this looming out of the fug around you would be enough to give you a serious case of the heebie-jeebies. It would be like meeting a streetful of Edvard Munch’s screamers; one would begin to start screaming oneself.
The Scream lithography
The more modern gas masks have a friendlier design, showing as they do the face of the wearer.
gas mask-modern
I mean, at least you could smile at each other as you pass on the pavement and give each other moral support in this time of trial and tribulation.

But I feel that wearing even such a user-friendly gas mask would really be over the top. After all, we are only being subjected to excessively high particulate levels and not to massive leaks of poisonous gas, which these gas masks were presumably designed to deal with. Good design must be “fit for purpose”, as they say; these gas masks fail on this criterion.

A somewhat pared-down version of these gas masks is available in China, which has the “snout” but not the eye coverings.
And that is precisely the problem which I have with this particular mask design. It would make the wearer look somewhat porcine
pig snout
So we need to look further afield for an efficacious but also aesthetically pleasing mask. I have found these on the web and/or seen people wearing them on the street:





My wife and I have debated the relative merits of these masks. Always assuming that we take the final plunge and buy masks, she would go for the fourth, which gives her space to breathe; she has tried the last mask and found it suffocating. For my part, I would go for the second mask, which I find pretty cool.

Of course, the best would be that NO-ONE has to wear masks. But for that to happen, the party is going to have to take some painful decisions. We will see …

Smog in Beijing: http://www.csmonitor.com/var/ezflow_site/storage/images/media/content/2013/0114-smog/14755543-1-eng-US/0114-smog_full_600.jpg [in http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Latest-News-Wires/2013/0114/Heavy-smog-in-Beijing-prompts-uncharacteristic-government-transparency-video%5D
Beijingers wearing masks: http://www.thestar.com/content/dam/thestar/news/world/2014/02/24/pollution_soars_in_china_rare_industry_shutdowns_reported/china_smog.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterbox.jpg [in http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2014/02/24/pollution_soars_in_china_rare_industry_shutdowns_reported.html%5D
Mask-medical: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2013-10/21/132816417_11n.jpg [in http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2013-10/21/c_132816417.htm%5D
Gas masks in WW2-1: http://www.moneyandshit.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/partisans-in_World_war2.jpg [in http://www.moneyandshit.com/partisans-in-gas-masks-during-world-war-2n/%5D
Gas masks in WW2-2: http://charlesmccain.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/hist_uk_20_ww2_pic_gas_mask_mock_london.jpg [in http://charlesmccain.com/2013/12/2768/%5D
The Scream lithography: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/5/50/Munch_The_Scream_lithography.png [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Munch_The_Scream_lithography.png%5D
Gas mask-modern: http://img.xxjcy.com/pic/z14f386f-0x0-1/industrial_gas_masks_product_mf27_full_eyepiece_gas_mask.jpg [in http://www.xxjcy.com/manufacturers/z6a4a78/iz28e1a63-mf22a_type_gas_masks.html%5D
Mask-1: http://gdb.voanews.com/B8CC4108-6777-4820-9381-2F5CFE6AB98E_mw1024_mh1024_s_cy7.jpg ] [in http://www.voanews.com/content/study-finds-coal-pollution-cuts-north-china-lifespan-by-five-and-a-half-years/1697648.html%5D
Pig snout: http://kristilowe.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/istock_000012723567small.jpg [in http://kristilowe.com/tag/pig-snout/%5D
Mask-2: http://www.allergyasthmatech.com/ProdImages/model_photo copy[1].jpg [in http://www.allergyasthmatech.com/SP/Air_Pollution_Mask/101_373%5D
Mask-3: http://www.loftwork.jp/~/media/Images/Event/2013/20131218_frog/r_04.ashx?h=402&w=537 [in http://www.loftwork.jp/event/2013/20131218_frogdesign/report1218.aspx%5D
Mask-4: http://www.myredstar.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Totobobo.jpg [in http://www.myredstar.com/smog-living/%5D
Mask-5: http://www.pri.org/sites/default/files/story/gallery/huang.jpg [in http://www.pri.org/stories/2013-11-11/beijingers-don-masks-defend-themselves-against-dirty-air-and-make-fashion%5D
Mask-6: http://www.i-m-s.dk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/china-air-poll.jpg [in http://www.i-m-s.dk/pollution-finally-a-front-page-story-in-china/%5D
Mask-7: http://www.theworldofchinese.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/top5-masks-master.jpg [in http://www.theworldofchinese.com/2014/02/the-top-pollution-busting-face-masks/%5D


Beijing, 24 March 2014

Jean Renoir, son of the French impressionist painter of the same name, was a good film director. In fact, he is considered by some to be among the greatest film directors of all time. He made such classics as La Grande illusion (1937) and La Règle du jeu (1939). So it was with some anticipation that some years ago my wife and I went to see The River, a film he had made in 1951, on location in India, in English, his first in colour, and which won the International Prize at the Venice Film Festival.

The River

Bad, bad mistake! The theme of the film – loss, love lost, love found – had all to hold one. The problem was the actors. They were all, to a man and woman, dogs – it’s the only word to adequately describe the appallingly amateur acting that we were subjected to. To this day, I ask myself what on earth happened in the making of this film. How did Jean Renoir lose control of his creation? Was it lack of money? Loss of talent? – was he getting too old for the job? Was it working far from home and in a foreign language? Mystery …

The worst actor by far was an Indian woman, Radha Burnier by name. She later gained a certain fame by becoming president of the Indian branch of the Theosophical Society (fame defined here as having an entry in Wikipedia). But that was still in the future when she acted in this film. I literally gritted my teeth every time she appeared on-screen and droned out her lines tonelessly. And then, at some point in all this hideousness, she acted out a dream sequence. For some reason which I cannot now recall, this dream required her to dance a classical Indian dance. What a transformation!  This ugly duckling of an actress morphed into a beautiful dancer. We were treated to a powerfully expressive, supremely graceful performance of Indian classical dancing.

I immediately forgave her all her poor acting.

I was forcefully reminded of this episode a few weeks ago when, during a long flight back from the US, I decided to watch An American in Paris, a film also made in 1951, directed by Vincente Minelli and with Gene Kelly in the lead role.


It was an exceedingly silly film, with the lightest of plots (love lost, love gained, the whole with a papier mâché Paris in the background), but at least the actors could act. It also had a good musical score by George Gershwin. So I smiled indulgently and let myself be carried along on the silly frothiness of it all. At some point, though, Gene Kelly went into a tap dancing routine. My attention suddenly snapped into focus. What a dance! Light-hearted though it was, it was a superb rendition, a wonderful example of what a highly accomplished classical dancer can do with the hypnotic rhythms of clicking shoes.

In a way, I think these two threads of dancing come together in Spanish flamenco dancing – the syncopation of tap dancing fusing with the sinuous, sulphurous eroticism of Indian classical dancing, which also carries its own brand of stressed rhythm with the use of feet bangles. Staying in the film medium, I give here a wonderful example of Spanish flamenco from Carmen, a 1983 film directed by Carlos Saura.


It’s a remake in the flamenco style of Bizet’s famous opera of the same name. Here we have love exploding between Carmen and Don José

but alas! it all ends badly

Ah, the madness of jealous love!

I cannot end without bringing in tango, that most sultry of all dances. Which is just as well because that allows me to introduce a final clip from the 2005 film Je ne suis pas là pour être aimé


in which two lonely people, Jean-Claude and Françoise, find a common love, and love, in tango

Ah, l’amour, l’amour! After a few taps of my toes and a pirouette, I turn in for the night.


The River: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/7/77/La_Fleuve_1951_film_poster.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_River_(1951_film)%5D
An American in Paris film poster: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:An_American_in_Paris_poster.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_American_in_Paris_%28film%29%5D
Carmen film poster: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Carmen_by_Saura.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carmen_%281983_film%29%5D
Je ne suis pa la pour etre aime poster: http://www.bestofneworleans.com/imager/french-cin-club-je-ne-suis-pas-la-pour-tre-aim/b/original/2222223/686d/f8df3e30_je-ne-suis-pas-la-pour-etre-aime.jpg [in http://www.bestofneworleans.com/gambit/french-cin-club-je-ne-suis-pas-la-pour-tre-aim/Event?oid=2222222%5D


Beijing, 22 March 2014

A few days ago, as I was walking to work along my piece of canal, I saw, sitting on the lower branch of a willow tree, a small bird which I had never seen before. I’m not a birder by any means, but I do appreciate a beautiful or graceful bird when I see one. This bird had a wonderfully variegated plumage, really very handsome. By the shape of its head and bill I was guessing it to be a member of the woodpecker family. Intrigued, I sidled forward to have a better look. The bird cocked its head, kept a wary eye on me, and finally decided I had invaded too much of its private space. With a quick flip of its wings, it was off, dipping and lifting across the waters of the canal. I finally lost sight of it among the willow trees and buildings on the other bank.

The internet is a wonderful thing, really it is. Yes, there are dark corners where bad, nasty people show and say bad, nasty things, but overall it is a great global market square into which you can wander of an evening and, like young Marco Polo sauntering along Venice’s wharves, hear tales fantastical of faraway lands and pick up information from the furthest reaches of the globe. This burst of appreciation for the internet at this particular moment in my tale comes from the fact that at home that evening, on a whim, I typed “birds in beijing” in my search field to see what I could find. And I immediately stumbled onto the site Birding Beijing! I salute its author, Terry Townshend, a Beijing resident like myself and a dedicated birder, who has put together this wonderful site.

Terry’s site gave me the answer I was looking for. The bird I had seen in the morning was indeed a woodpecker, the great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) to be precise. This photo is from his site
Here is another from a UK site

which I chose because this woodpecker has a range which stretches all the way from China across Central Asia and Europe to my home country. It gives me an odd sense of comfort, that: part of home in Beijing.

Terry’s site gave me the answer to one more ornithological question which has been nagging me for the last few years, the identity of another bird which I have often seen here. It seemed to me quite like the magpie, although with much more delicate colouring in its feathers. It seemed to fill the same ecological niche, too, as far as I could gather. Well, Terry’s site tells me that it is indeed a magpie! (although a different member of the family, to be sure). It is the azure-winged magpie (Cyanopica cyanus). This photo of it is also from Terry’s site


but this one comes from a Russian orthinological site


which I include because the range of this magpie covers East and North-East Asia (so including Siberia).

I’m not sure “azure” really describes the wonderful shade of blue which this bird sports in its wing and tail feathers. A long hunt through various other internet sites makes me think that cornflower blue might better describe this particular shade of blue. The internet also tells me that this colour was one of the Dutch painter Jan Vermeer’s favourite colours. Is the blue in his painting Girl with a Pearl Earring the same?


Perhaps it is a slightly darker shade of blue?

Flush from these two successful identifications, I went through the rest of the bird gallery in Terry’s site, to put a name to what else I’ve seen in Beijing. He mentions the the Eurasian magpie (Pica pica), which I’ve had cause to write about in an earlier posting. It seems more common than the azure-winged magpie; I certainly feel that I see it more often. Terry does not include a picture of this magpie (too common, no doubt), so I add here a photo from another site
Eurasian magpie-2
Terry mentions the Eurasian tree sparrow (Passer montanus). I’ve seen that, of course, who hasn’t?
I think I might once have seen another bird he mentions, the eastern great tit (Parus minor)
I’m almost certain I also saw a Eurasian kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) once. I spotted it during a particularly boring teleconference for which I was a passive participant, sitting at my desk and staring out of the window while the others droned on.  I was glad for the lovely distraction of its diving and swooping around my office building.


These wonderful photos move me to cite here three poems about birds which I particularly like:

The Eagle, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

The Windhover, by Gerard Manley Hopkins

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
  dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
  Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
  As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
  Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
  Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

The Darkling Thrush, by Thomas Hardy

I leant upon a coppice gate
    When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
    The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
    Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
    Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
    The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
    The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
    Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
    Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
    The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
    Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
    In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
    Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
    Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
    Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through
    His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
    And I was unaware.

Lovely …

And yet I’m worried. Last Christmas, when we were in New York, we visited the Metropolitan Museum. On our wanderings through the galleries we bumped into four of these hanging on the wall of a corridor:


They are capes, from Peru. They are 1,000 years old, made with the feathers of the blue-and-yellow macaw.

Blue-and-yellow Macaw

How many of these magnificent birds were killed to make these capes? Such needless, selfish destruction! Nowadays, it’s not killing for their feathers that’s killing off birds, it’s destruction of their habitat. But it’s still the same: needless, selfish destruction.


Great spotted woodpecker-1: http://birdingbeijing.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/great-spotted-woodpecker-small-1.jpeg [in http://birdingbeijing.com/birders-guide-to-beijing/a-guide-to-beijings-common-birds/%5D
Great spotted woodpecker-2: http://www.worldbirds.co.uk/images/oakes0/photos/image298.jpg [in http://www.worldbirds.co.uk/lesser_spotted_woodpecker.aspx?key=60%5D
Azure-winged magpie-1: http://birdingbeijing.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/2013-12-28-azure-winged-magpie.jpg [in http://birdingbeijing.com/birders-guide-to-beijing/a-guide-to-beijings-common-birds/%5D
Azure-winged magpie-2: http://onbird.ru/img/photo/golubaya-soroka/golubaya-soroka foto 4 (onbird.ru).jpg [in http://onbird.ru/opredelitel-ptic/golubaya-soroka-584/foto%5D
Girl with a pearl earring: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/ce/Girl_with_a_Pearl_Earring.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Vermeer%5D
Eurasian magpie: http://birdsofkazakhstan.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/Pica-pica-bactriana-adult-Zhabagly-South-Kazakhstan-province-Kazakhstan-16-September-2009-Rene-Pop2.jpg [in http://birdsofkazakhstan.com/eurasian-magpie-pica-pica/%5D
Tree sparrow: http://birdingbeijing.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/2013-10-03-tree-sparrow.jpg [in http://birdingbeijing.com/birders-guide-to-beijing/a-guide-to-beijings-common-birds/%5D
Japanese tit: http://birdingbeijing.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/2014-01-23-japanese-tit.jpg [in http://birdingbeijing.com/birders-guide-to-beijing/a-guide-to-beijings-common-birds/%5D
Kestrel: http://birdingbeijing.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/2009-09-14-kestrel2.jpg [in http://birdingbeijing.com/birders-guide-to-beijing/a-guide-to-beijings-common-birds/%5D%5D
Peruvian featherwork cape: http://www.thehistoryblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/470_Peruvian-Featherwork.jpg [in http://www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/27107%5D
Blue and yellow macaw: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6d/Blue-and-Yellow-Macaw.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue-and-yellow_Macaw%5D


Beijing, 20 March 2014

It’s the first day of Spring! The day of the vernal equinox! The moment in the year when, after a slow climb out of the short days and long nights of the winter solstice, night equals day. From now on, the days will get longer and the nights shorter, until the summer solstice in the month of June is reached and the cycle reverses.


And actually, apart from cold astronomical considerations, today in Beijing it really was a spring day! A beautiful, sunny spring day! When I walked out of the apartment building this morning, the sun shone out of a blue, unclouded sky, but there was a chill in the air. When I left the office as evening drew in, the sky was still an unclouded blue, but now there was a soft breath of warm air on my cheek. Verily, I felt like Boticelli’s Venus stepping off her shell, with the zephyrs blowing over me

birth of venus

although I will admit that she has a considerably better body than mine.

Humming quietly to myself, I made my way home, pausing for a moment under the willow trees on which the zephyr’s warm breath had worked its magic, covering the branches with a light green furze.

greening willows

Nature awakes from its winter sleep. Venus walks the land. Flora, goddess of flowers and Spring, follows in her wake.



Equinox: http://www.imd-corp.com/figures/ARIX0020.jpg [in http://www.imd-corp.com/formx_ind_display_flexible_getmethod.php?category=name&fname=%%5D
Birth of Venus: http://www.artble.com/imgs/9/b/3/416525/birth_of_venus.jpg [in http://www.artble.com/artists/sandro_botticelli/paintings/primavera%5D
Greening willows: my picture
Primavera: http://www.artble.com/imgs/6/c/a/616543/primavera.jpg [in http://www.artble.com/artists/sandro_botticelli/paintings/primavera%5D


Beijing, 14 March 2014

As I mentioned in my last posting, during our stay in Dubai my wife and I visited a small remnant of the old town saved for the tourist trade. Bastakia, it’s called. Though small, it’s a pleasant quarter, worth a couple of hours of strolling.

Bastakia Quarter

As we sauntered from lane to lane, we stumbled across the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, housed in said Sheikh’s old residence. The Centre was about to hold a talk and guided tour of the quarter, so we decided on the spot to sign up. We were led upstairs and invited to take a seat on divans. We then had a discussion with a pleasant young Emirati woman, during which she invited us to ask her any questions we might have about life and culture in Dubai. As we talked, a young fellow silently padded around filling little cups for each of us with a small amount of a clear brown liquid

coffee pot and cups

and offering dried dates to go with it.

dates and coffee cup

While the others talked, I took a sip of the liquid. It was … strange. OK, let me be frank, it was unpleasant, tart and bitter. It reminded me of the cough medicines which Matron would give us in the school dispensary as we queued up, coughing and hacking, on winter mornings. I always thought that she suspected us of malingering and trying to skive classes, so made the experience of coming to the dispensary as disagreeable as possible. The drink could also have been the non-alcoholic version of one of those herbal liqueurs which Italians imbibe after a copious meal to help digestion and which are aptly named Amari, Bitter drinks: Fernet Branca, Amaro Meletti, Ferro-China Bisleri, Ramazzotti, … I’ve always been amazed that Italians actually enjoy drinking this stuff. I silently thanked the Lord that the dates were being served. Their sweetness helped offset the drink’s bitterness.

I finally could contain my curiosity no longer and asked our hostess what it was that we were drinking. Kahwa, she said, Arabic coffee.

Coffee??! I’ve drunk coffee in many forms,



Viennese coffee, with its dollop of cream and its glass of water (I have really come to appreciate a glass of water with my coffee)

viennese coffee

café au lait served, as my French grandmother used to serve it, in a nice big bowl, with a croissant to dunk in it


Turkish coffee, which always gives me the impression of drinking liquid mud


Nescafé or other instant coffees (I’m not fussy), which in my youth seemed to be the only way the English drank their coffee


Irish coffee, which seems a sad ending for a good whiskey

Irish Coffee

of course the variety of coffees (well, more milk than coffee) that one comes across in Starbucks, Costa Coffee and places of that ilk – who can avoid the global invasion of these coffee shops?


I have even stooped so low as to drink this Chinese version of Nescafé, which is a pre-mix of white, sugared, instant coffee to which you just add hot water.

nescafe ready mix

All in all, these coffees were good, or at least palatable. Kahwa is most definitely neither. A little more discussion brought to light the fact that cardamom is added. Cardamom … I have only the vaguest notion of this spice. Wikipedia states that it “has a strong, unique taste, with an intensely aromatic, resinous fragrance”. That’s certainly true.  Its origins are Indian, Wikipedia continues, and in fact I can’t think of a single European dish which I’ve tried to which it is added (I understand that the Scandinavians use it in some of their breads, but who – apart from Scandinavians – eats Scandinavian bread?). A little research has unearthed the fact that sometimes saffron is also added to kahwa, presumably to colour it, as are cloves or cinnamon or even rose water, but cardamom is the main spice that is used.


A little bit more research suggests that cardamom was added because it was so expensive. At first glance, that seems a strange reason to turn a perfectly good drink into an undrinkable one. But I read somewhere else that in traditional Bedouin cultures (which of course Dubai originally was) it was de rigeur to always serve kahwa to your guests.

bedouin and coffee

So of course you could show them that you had money in your pockets by putting cardamom in the coffee. Still not really a good reason to ruin a perfectly good coffee.

For those of you who might be tempted to try it, here’s a recipe which I picked up on the web:

1) Bring 3 cups of water to boil in a saucepan.  When the water boils, add 3 tablespoons of ground coffee.  Boil for 10 to 12 minutes.

2) Add 1 tablespoon of crushed cardamom, along with 5-6 whole cloves if you are using them. Stir once and boil for another 5 minutes.

3) Remove the saucepan from heat, cover, and let the coffee grounds settle to the bottom for a minute. Do not stir.

4) If you use them, add 1 teaspoon of rose water and small pinch of saffron to a coffee pot. Strain and pour the coffee into the pot. Allow to seep for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

As for me, I left my kahwa undrunk, nibbled at some more of the dates, slipped on my shoes, and joined my wife as she followed our guide for the tour of Bastakia.


Bastakia: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-BaNjm0Vd1YE/Uc2SsmcHlfI/AAAAAAAAAFM/LibNtSVNXQQ/s1600/Bastakia+Quarter.JPG [in http://junishadama.blogspot.com/%5D
Coffee pot and cups: http://arabiczeal.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/ARABIC-COFFEE-How-to-make.jpg [in http://arabiczeal.com/prepare-enjoy-arabic-coffee/%5D
Dates and coffee cup: http://arabiczeal.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/ARABIC-COFFEE-with-dates.jpg [in http://arabiczeal.com/prepare-enjoy-arabic-coffee/%5D
Espresso: http://gotgelato.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/espresso-coffee.jpg [in http://gotgelato.com/espresso/%5D
Cappuccino: http://thelittlebirdbakeshop.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Cappuccino.jpg [in http://thelittlebirdbakeshop.com/gallery/cappuccino-2/%5D
Viennese coffee: http://flaneriefeminine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/img_4591.jpg [in http://flaneriefeminine.com/2012/11/09/viennese-coffee-specialtie/%5D
Café au lait et croissant: http://us.123rf.com/400wm/400/400/shawnhempel/shawnhempel1005/shawnhempel100500087/7075391-cafe-au-lait-with-butter-croissant-over-white-background.jpg [in http://www.123rf.com/photo_7075391_cafe-au-lait-with-butter-croissant-over-white-background.html%5D
Turkish coffee: http://www.poweredbytofu.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/turkish-coffee-istanbul.jpg [in http://www.poweredbytofu.com/overnight-on-the-orient-express-to-istanbul/%5D
Nescafé: http://rithuset.com/files/large/Rithuset%20new%20nescafe%20logo%20illustration.jpg [in http://rithuset.com/illustration/new%20nescafe%20logo%20illustration.jpg/%5D
Irish coffee: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-ZOmE04kKHEs/T2NnO6j9FlI/AAAAAAAAAJ8/e7fBLQoIO3c/s1600/Irish+Coffee.jpg [in http://harvestmooncafe.blogspot.com/2012/03/st-patricks-day-deal.html%5D
Caffé Nero and Starbucks: http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Money/Pix/pictures/2011/9/22/1316705313267/Caffe-Nero-and-Starbucks–005.jpg [in http://www.theguardian.com/money/blog/poll/2011/sep/23/store-wars-caffe-nero-starbucks%5D
Nescafe ready-mix: my picture
Bedouins and coffee: http://www.bedawi.com/Odl%20picture%20Coffee%20making%20ritual.jpg-for-web.jpg [in http://www.bedawi.com/Hospitality_EN.html%5D


Beijing, 9 March 2014

I was recently in Dubai with my wife for a long weekend. If you don’t like shopping, which I fervently do not, if you don’t get much of a kick out of visiting the tallest building in the world, which is definitely my case, if you don’t quite see the point of going skiing in a mall, which I certainly don’t, then your to-do list in Dubai is really quite short. On one side of the saltwater creek which wends its way through the middle of the city


you can visit gold and spice souqs of dubious antiquity. On the other side, you can visit a small remnant of the old town, saved, so it seems, from the wrecker’s ball by the intercession of Prince Charles with the Sheikh of Dubai. You can follow this up by a visit to the Dubai Museum, housed underneath a quaint little old fort and filled with a rather pathetic set of dioramas showing the old ways of life in the sheikhdom. A 20 minutes’ walk downcreek will bring you to the Sheikhs’ old residence (or rather, a nearly complete reconstruction of it) filled with some old photos of Dubai. You can cross from one side of the creek to the other in supposedly old wooden boats which ply the waterway. And that’s it. Of the four days that my wife and I spent in Dubai, we actually only needed two to visit the city itself. We used one of the days to visit Abu Dhabi (or rather, the planned eco-city district of Masdar) and while I was sitting in a conference my wife used another to visit Al Ain, an oasis town some two hours’ drive from Dubai.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s really very pleasant to wander around without haste, poking your nose in here and there, snapping photos of this and that, taking long lunch and coffee breaks, and enjoying mild and sunny weather. But what really got my goat was a small exhibition which we stumbled across somewhere in the souqs, which proudly announced that some time this year Dubai expected UNESCO to nominate the creek and its immediate surroundings as a World Heritage Site. Give – me – a – break! The Dubai creek a World Heritage Site?! That’s ridiculous!! For those readers who may not be familiar with this UN programme, I should explain that it implements an international convention, the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, whose purpose is to protect and conserve for present and future generations cultural heritage (monuments, groups of buildings, sites) or natural heritage (natural features, geological formations, natural sites) of outstanding universal value. Please note: outstanding universal value. Those are big, big words. Put another way, the sites which are nominated as World Heritage Sites should be so fantastic that it would be a crime for me and every other citizen in the world not to do everything in our power to protect them for future generations to marvel at. Does that describe Dubai creek? I – don’t – think – so!

I had first entertained serious doubts about the World Heritage Site listings when we went on a family holiday to Finland some ten years ago. I had seen that a church along our itinerary had been listed. Intrigued, I dragged the somewhat unwilling family to visit it (to this day, my children remind me of this and other churches I forced them to visit in Finland). What we were confronted with was a small, rustic church whose three main claims to fame were (a) that it was quite old, (b) that it was made entirely out of wood, and (c) that no nails had been used to make it … this was “outstanding universal value”?? Puh-lease! My cynicism over World Heritage Site listings only deepened over the following years as everywhere I went I came across really quite ordinary sites which had been listed. UNESCO’s convention has obviously been hijacked by the tourism industry and its hacks in Ministries of Tourism to brand national sites and raise tourism revenues. And no doubt political correctness has reared its head. It won’t do for just a few countries to have all the heritage sites of outstanding universal value, every country should be able to claim at least one …

This debasing of the World Heritage Site brand is a pity, because I think there are a number of places around the world which through some magical combination of geometry, colour, light, and siting really do have an outstanding and universal value to all of us in the world and whose preservation truly deserves the concerted attention of the global community. My wife and I put our heads together, and what follows is our list. Its main weakness is that it is based only on places which we have seen – so much of the world for us still to see …

Since Dubai got me going, I’ll start with cityscapes:

– Venice, which must be the most beautiful city in the world


view from ferry

– Paris, especially the part along the banks of the river Seine running from Notre Dame Cathedral to the Eiffel tower

Paris-Notre Dame

Paris-Eiffel tower

(I find Paris to be at its best at night, when all its buildings are lit up like theatre backdrops)

– Rome, especially the Baroque part of the city

Rome Piazza Navona

where, though, older Roman urban fabric can poke through

Rome Pantheon

– The historic nucleus of Istanbul, on its peninsula jutting out into the Bosphorus


– Old Prague


– On a smaller scale, San Gimignano in Tuscany

San Gimignano-1

San Gimignano-2

which can stand for all those wonderful hilltop towns and villages scattered throughout central Italy (Siena, Todi, Gubbio, Assisi, Volterra, Arezzo, Perugia, Urbino, and on and on …)

– I will add Savannah in Georgia. My wife and I stumbled on the city by chance thirty years ago, and we were blown away


I wonder if I should I add Edinburgh? My wife is doubtful, but the New Town there is really very nice, with a magificent view over the Firth of Forth


and there is the dramatic backdrop of Edinburgh castle


What about Manhattan?

Manhattan Office Vacancy Rate Drops In Second Quarter

I’m torn. Manhattanites certainly think that the borough has outstanding universal value, non-residents may not be so sure.

After cityscapes we list a series of buildings and complexes that stand out because of the beauty of the buildings themselves, often highlighted by their siting:

– Taj Mahal, which must be one of the most sublime buildings in the world

Taj Mahal

and which can stand in for a series of wonderful Mughal edifices dotted around northern India (Fatehpur Sikri, the Mausoleum of Akbar at Sikandra, the Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi, the mausoleum of Humayun, …)

– Angkor Wat


with its wonderful faces carved in the temple walls


– The rock gardens and temples of Kyoto

Kyoto Tofuukuji rock garden-2

kyoto kinkakuji

kyoto ginkakuji

– The chateaux of the Loire in France, especially Chenonceau

Chateau de Chenonceau

and Azay-le-Rideau


– The Alhambra palace in Andalusia


with its typical Arab love of water


We don’t just list old buildings. We would add at least two modern buildings:

– the Sydney Opera House

sydney opera house 014

– the east wing of the National Gallery in Washington DC

east wing national gallery

My wife thinks we should also list Labrang, the Tibetan Buddhist monastery-town in Sichuan


I’m not convinced that it really has outstanding universal value, yet.

I’ll add here a couple of the wonderful garden-parks which were created around some of the grander country houses in the UK in the 18th century.

– Stowe gardens


Stowe gardens-house

– Fountains Abbey and Gardens

fountains abbey

fountains abbey gardens-1

fountains abbey gardens-2

Which brings us naturally to our last list, our choices of natural heritage sites of outstanding universal value. We would start with the canyons in the American west. Rather than list the Grand Canyon, which some might consider the natural choice, we would list some of the smaller canyons:

– Bryce Canyon, especially lovely in winter, which is when we saw it:

bryce canyon

– and Canyon de Chelly


– We are moved to list here too the Atlas mountains in Morocco. When we first saw them, we were immediately reminded of the canyonlands in the US

Atlas mountains

but what was even better was that the locals were still making their villages from the local clay so that villages seemed to grow out of the landscape

atlas mountains-villages

– From canyons on land to canyons on the sea, and here we found the fjords in New Zealand more striking than those in Norway

New Zealand South Island Fiordland National Park Milford Sound

– From water to none, with the red sand dunes of Namibia

Namibia -Dune 45

– and back to water again, with the Amazon River

Amazon river

– from hotter to cooler, with the high meadows of the Alps in the Trentino in Italy


– from grass to trees, in this case the truly magnificent sequoias


– and finally back to grass and water, with the Scottish Highlands



Well, that’s our list of cultural and natural sites which we would consider to have outstanding universal value. As I said earlier, the list is no doubt incomplete simply because there are still lots of places we haven’t visited. We’d be interested to know how readers feel about this. What sites would they put on their own list?


Dubai creek: http://www.guiaemdubai.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Dubai.creek_.jpg [in http://www.guiaemdubai.com/dubai-creek/%5D
Venice-aerial view: http://weddinginvenice.net/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/venice.jpg [in http://weddinginvenice.net/blog/aerial-view-of-venice%5D
Venice-worm’s eye view: http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8149/7667954390_2eafc258f6_h.jpg
Paris-Notre Dame: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a2/Notre_Dame_de_Paris_by_night_time.jpg [in http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cattedrale_di_Notre-Dame%5D
Paris-Eiffel tower: http://wallpapersus.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/eiffel-tower-sunset-architecture-city-cloudy-dusk-famous-river.jpg [in http://wallpapersus.com/eiffel-tower-sunset-architecture-city-cloudy-dusk-famous-river/%5D
Rome Piazza Navona: http://www.bonjouritalie.it/uploaded/images/Piazza_Navona_Evening.jpg [in http://www.bonjouritalie.it/en/news/46/PIAZZA-NAVONA-the-Roman-s-playroom-.html%5D
Rome Pantheon: http://www.dewereldwonderen.nl/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/pantheon-omgeving.jpg [in http://www.dewereldwonderen.nl/andere-wereldwonderen/het-pantheon/%5D
Istanbul: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02012/istanbul-biennial_2012683b.jpg [in http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/8796386/Istanbul-biennial-art-at-the-crossroads-of-the-world.html%5D
Prague: http://www.discoverwalks.com/prague-walking-tours/wp-content/blogs.dir/5/files/4/not-many-people-can-show-you-this.jpg [in http://www.discoverwalks.com/prague-walking-tours/prague-castle-tour/%5D
San Gimignano-1: http://www.roma-antica.co.uk/custom/San%20Gimignano.jpg
San Gimignano-2: http://www.hotelilponte.com/writable/public/tbl_galleria/grande/v961b38120234375.jpg
Savannah: http://www.shedexpedition.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/gingerbread-house-Savannah-Georgia-1899-Carpenter-Gothic.jpg [in http://www.shedexpedition.com/savannah-georgia-best-quality-of-life-and-visitor-experience/%5D
Edinburgh-New Town: http://www.stravaiging.com/photos/albums/places%20in%20Scotland/towns/Edinburgh,%20Midlothian/IMG_9890.jpg [in http://www.stravaiging.com/blog/edinburgh-world-heritage-official-tour/%5D
Edinburgh-castle: http://waimhcongress.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/edinburgh_-_calton_hill_nov_12_0.jpg [in http://waimhcongress.org/location/about-edinburgh/%5D
Manhattan: http://www.elikarealestate.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/nyc001.jpg [in http://www.elikarealestate.com/blog/manhattan-sales-time-high/%5D
Taj Mahal: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c8/Taj_Mahal_in_March_2004.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taj_Mahal%5D
Angkor Wat: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02381/Angkor_wat_2381155b.jpg [in http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/cambodia/9638352/Canals-may-have-sped-up-building-of-wonder-of-the-world-Angkor-Wat.html%5D
Angkor Wat Gods: http://www.urbantravelblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Angkor-wat-gods.jpg [in http://www.urbantravelblog.com/photos/angkor-wat%5D
Kyoto Tofukuji rock garden: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_bWbsTZVSaLw/S8uzFo1o2mI/AAAAAAAAAO4/tq11td38q3I/s1600/april-13+141.jpg [in http://kyotofreeguide-kyotofreeguide.blogspot.com/2010_04_01_archive.html%5D
Kyoto Kinkakuji: http://img.timeinc.net/time/photoessays/2011/travel_kyoto/01_kinkakuji.jpg [in http://content.time.com/time/travel/cityguide/article/0,31489,2049375_2049370_2048907,00.html%5D
Kyoto Gingakuji: http://lookjapan.org/photos/ginkakuji-temple.jpg [in http://lookjapan.org/kyoto.html%5D
Château de Chenonceau: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d0/Chateau_de_Chenonceau_2008E.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Château_de_Chenonceau%5D
Château Azay-le-Rideau: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d2/Chateau-Azay-le-Rideau-1.jpg/1024px-Chateau-Azay-le-Rudeau-1.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Château_d’Azay-le-Rideau%5D
Alhambra: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/22/Detail_Charles_V_palace_Alhambra_Granada_Spain.jpg [in http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Detail_Charles_V_palace_Alhambra_Granada_Spain.jpg%5D
Alhambra-2: http://www.earthalacarte.com/images/destination/1370429824_0!!-!!4.jpg [in http://www.earthalacarte.com/destinations/alhambra/%5D
Sydney Opera House: our photo
East Wing National Gallery: http://www.greatbuildings.com/gbc/images/cid_2880204.jpg [in http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/East_Wing_National_Gallery.html
Labrang: http://korihahn.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/dsc_0423.jpg [in http://korihahn.com/2010/11/01/beijing-to-lhasa/%5D
Stowe gardens: http://www.landscapearchitecturedaily.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Stowe-Landscape-Gardens.jpg [in http://www.landscapearchitecturedaily.com/?p=2599%5D
Stowe gardens-House: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-9CU7qypYuhw/UTi58Pz-zXI/AAAAAAAABjU/t5dzpqANduk/s1600/photo+%286%29.JPG [in http://theelephantandthepirate.blogspot.com/2013/03/day-tripping-stowe-gardens.html%5D
Fountains abbey: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-yHJdJ-LcSwI/TaSbP30qvOI/AAAAAAAACZQ/Mt-9gkW8Wj4/s1600/Fountains+Abbey+reflected+blg.jpg [in http://saltairedailyphoto.blogspot.com/2011/04/fountains-abbey.html%5D
Fountains abbey gardens-1: http://www.gardenvisit.com/assets/madge/studley_royal_and_fountains_abbey_980_jpg/600x/studley_royal_and_fountains_abbey_980_jpg_600x.jpg -[in http://www.gardenvisit.com/garden/studley_royal_and_fountains_abbey%5D
Fountains abbey gardens-2: http://www.gardenvisit.com/assets/madge/studley_royal_and_fountains_abbey_980a_jpg/600x/studley_royal_and_fountains_abbey_980a_jpg_600x.jpg [in http://www.gardenvisit.com/garden/studley_royal_and_fountains_abbey%5D
Bryce canyon: http://www.mikereyfman.com/Photography-Landscape-Nature/Bryce-Canyon-National-Park-Utah-USA/big/MR0105.jpg [in http://www.mikereyfman.com/photo/photo.php?No=5&Gallery=Bryce-Canyon-National-Park-Utah-USA%5D
Canyon de Chelly: http://believegallup.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/canyon-de-chelly.jpg [in http://believegallup.com/canyon-de-chelly/
Atlas Mountains: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/81928810.jpg [in http://www.panoramio.com/photo/81928810%5D (Toubkal National Park)
Atlas mountain village: http://www.destinationlemonde.com/images/17/photo1-ag.jpg [in http://www.destinationlemonde.com/images/17/photo1-ag.jpg%5D
Milford Fjord New Zealand: http://globalconnection.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Milford_Sound_Fiordland_National_Park_South_Island_New_Zealand.jpg [in http://globalconnection.com.au/product/new-zealand-south-island-post-convention-tour/%5D
Namibia-Dune 45: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/54/Dune45_Sossusvlei_Namib_Desert_Namibia_Luca_Galuzzi_2004.JPG [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dune_45%5D
Amazon River: http://assets.worldwildlife.org/photos/1818/images/story_full_width/meandering_amazon_%28c%29_WWF-Canon__Andre_Bartschi.jpg?1345553423 [in http://worldwildlife.org/tours/the-great-amazon-river-cruise%5D
Alps in Trentino: http://hqscreen.com/wallpapers/l/1280×800/67/alps_italia_italy_trentino_alpi_1280x800_66754.jpg [in http://hqscreen.com/alps-italia-italy-trentino-alpi-wallpaper-66754/%5D
Sequoia national park: https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-lABhQdL_8II/UwXlmbxPEuI/AAAAAAAArw0/VfGi2Htb0jI/sequoia-national-park2.jpg?imgmax=1600 [in http://www.latheofdreams.com/%5D
Scottish Highlands: http://timeforbritain.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/scottish-highlands1.jpg [in http://timeforbritain.wordpress.com/beautiful-scotland/%5D