China

I was so excited to go to China as I’d never been to Shanghai before and I knew it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity to play badminton against the best players in the world. One thing I wasn’t looking forward to was the food though – I’m not a fan of Asian food at the best of times and I knew coming here it would probably be all that was available for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but I was determined to make the best of it, and try as many new things as I could. Going away is one of the key times when I think it’s so important to remind yourself that consistency is key and being relaxed about nutrition is a vital part of the mental side of a balanced lifestyle – a week or two off will make zero difference in the long term.

When I’m on holiday, I go all out and eat and eat everything I want to  (watch out Dubai 😛 )and to be honest I believe that everyone should – after all, most people only go on holiday once a year so you may as well make the most of every minute! However when I’m abroad with work or badminton, it’s often difficult to eat the treats which you’d choose on holiday – if I was away with Marcus we’d be searching out the best restaurants/cake shops, etc. but when I’m with a big group of people who aren’t into food, it’s common that we’ll just eat at the cheapest/most convenient place.

In these situations I often find myself having to eat a lot of foods with extremely poor nutritional value, which I don’t even like! As everyone knows I’m a huge advocate of balance, and I fully believe that everyone should treat themselves to foods they enjoy every day, whether they’re at home or away, but one thing that I don’t find particularly enjoyable is eating bad foods when I don’t actually want to or I don’t actually enjoy it! To be honest, a lot of the time when I was eating sweet and sour chicken or other takeaway-style Chinese foods I was just craving pizza or a burger and chips!

Competing against the top players in the world who train more in a day than I do in a month was obviously always going to be a huge struggle but I wasn’t prepared for how much my own body would let me down. I’m in the gym a fair amount but playing badminton is just so different – I can’t remember the last time I played a tough competitive match and it was worlds away from my usual gym sessions. I rarely ever get DOMS usually, but after one badminton match I had it so badly that I couldn’t even walk, so trying to warm up and play again was a huge struggle. It was an incredible experience though, and I feel so lucky to have got the opportunity to travel here and experience what it’s like to compete.

If there’s one thing I can nearly always be guaranteed to enjoy it’s the hotel breakfast buffet. I have to admit it was more Asian than I was expecting for a Swiss hotel chain – I was pretty disappointed that I couldn’t find cereal anywhere!! I have mountains of it at home but it didn’t even cross my mind to bring any here because I thought every country in the world had cereal. Here though, it’s impossible to find. There was none at breakfast, only huge pots of congee (rice porridge) – huge disappointment when I thought it was real porridge, and I went to the supermarket to look for some, only to find that they sold only two varieties, one of which was a (tiny!) bag of muesli for $12!! To make up for the lack of cereal, at least there were pastries, waffles, mountains of bread and huge jars of nutella.

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My breakfast each day consisted of bread, waffles, pastries, nutella and a lot of eggs (my only attempt at protein). I think my record was 9 which my room mate found hilarious..

They had a surprising number of coffee shops and bakeries which I wanted to visit but unfortunately we drove past a lot of them on the bus. I still got my fair share of their amazingly soft breads though – they have bread stuffed with everything here, which as you can imagine is my idea of heaven! My favourite from the hotel buffet was a coconut stuffed brioche roll.. I filled an entire tupperware with them each morning to snack on for the rest of the day!

One evening after our match we headed out into the rain to find a restaurant (La Defense). We walked for what felt like forever in the pouring rain and were completely drenched by the end of it! I decided to go for the best of both worlds, and ordered a mix of Western and Chinese food. I wasn’t actually sure what I was going to get, as I just pointed at pictures on the menu, and the waitress didn’t speak a word of English.

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I didn’t do too badly though – I ended up with steak, some fried green veg (which was definitely not broccoli like the waitress’s translator claimed it was!) and a huge basket of fries (which randomly also came with toast and a fruit salad.. lined with lettuce and mayonnaise!!), dumplings and the most amazing pork buns.

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They were the most incredibly soft bread rolls which were hollow in the middle so you could stuff them with a delicious pork and mushroom mix. Miraculously I still wasn’t full afterwards, so I headed to a supermarket to buy some chocolate for dessert.. which I had with a Grenade bar back in my room. Those things will forever be lifesavers when I want something sweet!

I also went to a cafe called ‘Bistro’ close to the hotel. It was a cute, modern place, serving a mix of dishes from burgers and pastas to noodles and pancakes. I ordered a latte which had the most beautiful coffee art, as well as a spaghetti dish and matcha pancakes.

The pancakes were so soft and fluffy – they didn’t taste of matcha to be honest, they just tasted sweet but they were a pretty green colour 🙂 The place was full of all the European teams but I could see why – it was pretty much the only place I found serving Western food in Kunshan!

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When wandering round the food court at the mall, I found a cool ramen-style place too. I think they’re quite common here, but you go with a large silver bowl and fill it with whatever you want – veggies, noodles, meat, fish, eggs, etc. and they make it all into a giant soup.

Me being me, I stuffed the huge bowl to the brim and I was so worried that it was going to cost the earth as each item was priced individually.. it came to the grand total of 19 yuan (which is less than $3!). An absolute bargain, I actually managed to get something that wasn’t fried, and it tasted pretty good too 🙂 I ended up going back quite a few times – much as I love bread and sweet stuff, I love my veggies too! – and despite not speaking English, the owner recognised me as the person who needed a fork and always ran out to get one from the cafe next door when I walked in!

We had a free day in the middle of the competition and some of the team were going to visit Shanghai. I wasn’t planning on going anyway, as I wanted some time alone and needed to rest my stupidly tired body, but once I dropped out, the others did too. I still chose to spend a lot of the day alone though, wandering round by myself. To be honest, I often prefer travelling and exploring alone. I always find that in groups everyone wants to see/do different things and most people definitely aren’t prepared to walk as far as me in search of good cake! Very few people I know have as much of a love for food as I do, so I fully respect that it’s not most people’s idea of fun to go from bakery to bakery sampling all the different cakes and to be honest, I feel bad dragging them around.

One girl in my team barely eats and constantly moans to me that it’s unfair that I can eat so much (classic starve yourself = slow metabolism story and she says it so often it actually started to make me feel self conscious!) so it must be as torturous for her going to food places as it is for me watching other people sift through endless displays of knock-off designer shoes and handbags. It turned out well – they did their nails (which they said took 3 hours – my idea of hell!) and went shopping (two things I hate – classic me being a rubbish girl!) and I wandered round the different food stalls. True to form that girl came back, asked what I’d eaten, listened with a mixture of wonder/disgust when I told her, asked how on earth I was going to fit in a buffet dinner after ‘all that food’ and then proceeded to skip dinner in favour of a run.. 😀

Being abroad in a country where they don’t speak English is one of the few times I find that having a peanut allergy really sucks (aside from being not able to eat PB of course!). It stops me from simply picking up any cake or bakery item and I would have loved to try the random cookies and pastries from the roadside stalls but guaranteed at least a few of them would have been packed full of peanuts so obviously it was out of the question. Even with a local to translate (our team manager’s daughter came out with us one evening) it’s pretty risky due to contamination. I love how many random stalls there are though, with people of all ages selling the most random array of foods to locals and tourists alike.

The language barrier was a huge issue. Of course, it’s always tough when going abroad and I know that in the UK we’re generally (sorry for stereotyping for any multi-lingual people – I admire you!) particularly bad at speaking other languages, but around Europe, and much of the world, people generally have a pretty decent base knowledge of English and combined with common sense/similarity of some words, it’s possible to just about get by. Not here. Perhaps it was exceptionally bad because Kunshan isn’t a big city, but they could not speak any English. Literally not one word. Yet never have I been to a country where they’re just so persistent. They don’t give up – they just keep talking! I made it abundantly clear that I had no idea what they were rambling on about but they just keep going. They even follow you round the store just to continue talking to a brick wall. I try everything – I smile politely, I spout rubbish to them in English, I gesture frantically, but possibly what is the most complex language on the planet just keeps pouring out of their mouths. I can’t even use any vague sort of intuition to try and guess words as they write in such complicated characters, all of which look so similar to me that I could never even begin to try and memorise or distinguish common characters. I went to the mall to get a bubble tea, and I kid you not, it was a ten minute process. All I wanted was chocolate milk with the little chewy pearl bubbles inside but it took multiple people crowding round the menu, complete with various props – a kettle (hot), ice (cold), different sized cups, drawings, the lot! I tried to speak as clearly as possible, but the only phrase the three staff members (and two members of the public) could muster was ‘English vey pur’. For people who can speak both Chinese and English, I admire you 🙂 Anyway, I eventually, and miraculously left with my bubble tea which was both delicious and about 1/5 of the price of any of the bubble tea shops in London!

I love seeing how other countries live, and how different the culture and the lifestyle is. Little quirky things make me wonder how much of a different person I’d be or how differently I’d see the world if I’d grown up elsewhere. If I grew up here I’m sure I’d love Chinese food, but would that mean that I had a dislike for all other food? I feel like in the UK, possibly due to our diverse population or possibly due to our lack of traditional foods (roast dinners.. fish and chips!?) we have an extremely broad range of cuisines, and there’s almost no mall or city where you could go and not find a huge range of restaurants, from cafes serving sandwiches and hot drinks to fine dining Michelin star restaurants, all you can eat Chinese buffets, Mexican, Peruvian, Indian, Italian and everything in between. Here it’s completely different. Everything is Chinese food. Again, maybe it’s due to the fact that Kunshan is a small place, and perhaps main cities like Beijing are different, but every stall, restaurant, cafe and street food stand sells only Chinese food.

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The street food stands sell a huge array of things – the soft brioche bread-type items which are sold everywhere in bakeries are popular on the streets too, filled and topped with everything you can imagine. They sell huge long skewers of meat (who knows what meat..), something called ‘stinky tofu’ (it reeks!), buns filled with pork or custard and I even got a battered hotdog! Every other stall seems to sell fruit juices and smoothies and there are a lot of coffee shops and bubble tea places too.. I think they just like drinks! There are big ‘candy stores’ which sell tiny packets of nuts and biscuits at ridiculous prices. Everything here is cheap but by contrast all of the candy stores are horrendously expensive. Maybe I misread the labels but each item was 30 yuan (just under $5) – for a single packaged lotus biscuit or a few nuts or a couple of squares of chocolate. When I go abroad I also love looking at the different things that the standard chain places like Starbucks and McDonalds offer. KFC and McDonalds here come with rice and stir fried veg! It’s hard to imagine a Starbucks with no paninis or sandwiches but they don’t have them here – they have a couple of standard muffins but everything else is typically Asian – red bean stuffed scone, the moussey/cream cakes they’re so fond of and green tea everything! I tried a matcha java chip frappe and it was delicious – though admittedly it tasted less like green tea and more just of sugar but it was amazing nonetheless.

They have roads, yet all of the motorbikes opt to ride on the pavements. At full speed. They’re electric too, just so that you can’t hear them coming up behind you, until they decide to beep their brains out. Everyone loves to use their horn whether or not there’s cause for it. There’s green men too so you can cross the road. Except apparently for cars, stopping is optional, so green man actually means that you’re just marginally less likely to be flattened whilst trying to cross. There are zebra crossings too, nicely painted on the road. But no one stops! There are high rise buildings and glamorous malls next to total slums and building wrecks. There are stores selling the latest technology and expensive jewellery next to market stalls selling cheap knock offs of everything imaginable. The market stalls are in the smallest, darkest, dirtiest alleys and it makes me wonder where they live, where they get their products from and who buys their things – is there really a big market for battered Nikes with the tick painted on backwards, or a Chonel handbag!?

The day of our last match didn’t get off to a good start. I slept badly and locked myself out of both our room and the safe so I couldn’t get money! I went on court around 9am and the match started okay – I won the first comfortably but I didn’t feel good, both physically and mentally. I didn’t feel confident or comfortable on court at all and the pain in my right hamstring/glute which I’d been calling myself pathetic for all week was getting more and more painful then towards the end of the second set I went for a deep lunge and I felt something twinge. I called the doctor onto court, got deep freeze and since I was warm it didn’t feel too bad and I continued to the end of the second set. By the time we switched ends and started the third set I could barely walk but I stupidly wanted to continue playing as I didn’t want to feel like I’d let myself or the team down if I didn’t at least try to play. The points passed quickly (I barely scored one) and then I realised it was just ridiculous to carry on, hurting it more each point so I withdrew. I hate doing it and I don’t think I have ever pulled out of a match before, but I’m so glad I stopped when I did because as soon as I cooled down it was agony. I got treatment and the doctor told me I had to rest for a month. I don’t mind resting but I don’t like long periods of rest and I hate it when it’s not on my own terms – I feel so lethargic – but I’m grateful it’s nothing worse. Of course I turned to food as consolation (any excuse right!?) and I’d taken a couple of Nutella waffles from breakfast 🙂

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When I got back to the hotel I went out in search of cake. I didn’t want to walk far as it was painful so I wandered a couple of minutes to a cute cafe called Le Dolce Vita which Marcus had mentioned he thought I’d like. He was right – it was beautiful and their motto was ‘desserts bring happiness’ – true story! It has decorated like an English tearoom and they had an amazing display of cakes. The type of cakes that look better than they taste, but still – look at them! 🙂

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I was so tempted to just order the honey toast because it looked amazing! It’s basically a huge slab of toast with ice cream, sauce, chocolate and various other toppings but I was on quite a tight budget since I hadn’t changed any more currency (still locked out of my safe!) and I was much more in the mood for savoury food anyway after the Nutella waffles I’d just had. I went for a black pepper pork tortilla wrap and there was a coffee deal to get a caramel latte with two macaroons for only 2 yuan more than a standard coffee (even though the macaroons were 12 yuan each, but I wasn’t complaining!) so I went for that 🙂 The latte was lovely and I saw other people being served coffees with seriously impressive coffee art!

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The wrap was so good – I was just expecting a standard wrap (how good can a wrap be!?) but it was so delicious – the outside was buttered and toasted and the filling was warm and delicious with a mix of sauces. It came with a little side salad and some garlic oil breadsticks (and four pringles…). The breadsticks were so moorish and when I told the waitress how nice they were she brought me another couple of pots! I’ll be honest, the macaroons were pretty bad – a little soggy and the filling was way too sweet, but I’ve had plenty of bad macaroons to be fair.. good macaroons are hard to find! It was a lovely place, though very overpriced compared to other food places here – I guess it was westernised and that was why.. the quality of the food was certainly a lot better than any of the street food places here. My huge bowls of ramen at the mall cost 20 yuan and I stuffed them full of meat, tofu and tons of veggies. By comparison, a latte, warp and two macaroons cost 100 yuan – literally five times the price, and the honey toast I wanted was 80 yuan – over $12! I guess I just didn’t expect London prices in China but it was a lovely little place nonetheless 🙂

That evening I planned a spontaneous trip to Shanghai and I spent time doing recon on time out to see what I could see and eat there (let’s be honest mainly what I could eat!). It was so difficult – Shanghai is a huge city, I didn’t have 3G to use maps when I was there and all of the place names sound so similar to me, plus their time out is far less comprehensive than ours. That said, we still had an absolutely incredible day! We ate dumplings and the famous xiaolongbao at Din Tai Fung, indulged in custard buns, Dairy Queen, frozen yogurt, chocolate muffins and iced lattes and finished the day with an all you can eat world buffet in a revolving restaurant overlooking Shanghai! I literally rolled home, but it was so worth it! I’d definitely recommend both the places we ate lunch/dinner at so I’ll do a separate blog post on those later 🙂

I had an incredible week in China and it far exceeded my expectations. I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to experience badminton at a world-class level and travel on an all-expenses-paid trip to a country I probably would never have otherwise visited. I was lucky enough to be there with my boyfriend and to have the loveliest room mate. I share with her at most tournaments we go to and I love her to pieces – she’s genuine, kind, funny and one of the sweetest girls I know. She takes everything light-heartedly which compliments my personality perfectly as I often have a tendency to take things (which don’t matter!) too seriously but she’s always guaranteed to put a smile on my face 🙂 As many of you will know, I’m the absolute worst for comparing myself to others, and at points I definitely felt useless, self-conscious and frustrated when I compared myself to all of the other full-time players there. It felt strange to be surrounded by such talented athletes when badminton is at best a hobby for me and that combined with my complete lack of self confidence made me feel embarrassed at times and forget just how lucky I am! My time there went so quickly but I have tried new things and made amazing memories that will last a lifetime 🙂 To end on my usual note about balance, if you’re travelling to a new place then go and embrace the experience wholeheartedly! Try, eat and do things that you never usually would, try not to let any irrational thoughts negatively impact your time there and remember that in the long-term, making memories and enjoying the experience is far more precious than worrying about those extra couple of pounds or those missed workouts 🙂

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