Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Driving (and eating) with Mr Zhao

The most important part of the assignment to photograph Beijing during my recent trip was the ability to manoeuvre around the gridlocked metropolis thus managing to get from one location to another to shoot.
My fate was put in the hands of Mr Zhao, my driver, and a man of considerable skill not only at negotiating the corridors of traffic chaos, but also for his ability to have the entire day mapped out to perfection, allowing maximum time not just for photography but also for lunch.
Mr Zhao proved himself adept at timetabling and at noon each day, no matter which part of the sprawling Chinese capital we found ourselves, he would lead myself and my assistant to a fragrant eatery of mouthwatering splendour. The long mornings, dust, heat and pollution would dissolve as we were seated ready for the latest installment of delicious cuisine which would have the three of us groaning as we emerged some 90 minutes later, stuffed and satisfied.
 Mr Zhao was not only a ‘foodie’ but also keen to be seen as a ‘food ambassador’ and as such each day’s menu was selected to show off the widest selection of comestibles. I Iearned that mutton was the prized meat to eat, due to its scarcity, while chicken and pork - stables of British-based Chinese takeaways - were less popular as these were considered ubiquitous and easy to source domestically. There were rich fish dishes, sumptuous selections of fresh vegetables and even an hour spent in front of a boiling vat of water eating what was termed a ‘Chinese fondue’. While my lack of bravery in tackling certain foods (a plate of organs defeated me), Mr Zhao nodded in approval at my dextrous use of chopsticks, a skill I honed as a boy.
Mr Zhao’s car turned out to be a magnificent Chinese-manufactured quasi limousine (Mr Zhao called it an “Eetch-ee” but it was actually a Besturn B70 produced by FAW Car Company). For me, it was an ice cold oasis, a cool sanctuary in the searing heat of the day as the mercury rattled 95 degrees F. While gliding through the traffic would be an exaggerated description of our low-speed perambulations, nevertheless, the whole experience of driving (and eating) with Mr Zhao leaves me restless for a return to Beijing and to the wonders of traffic jams on six lane ring roads and authentic Chinese lunches.

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