Desert walks
Arabia/Saudi Arabia
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Desert walks

Against everything else in life, the desert seems never to change. As I stepped from the car the memories sprung back to life. My feet crunched over the same crackled rock. My lungs filled with the same hot, arid air. My ears bathed in the same silence. My eyes took in the same sweeping, majestic landscape.

There is something about the desert, even this close to Riyadh, that cannot but impress, swell the imagination and fill the soul. In its sameness, its stillness and its expanse, it is like nowhere else. If vistas of brown rock and beige sand will never be homely, nor as restful as lush green or as welcoming as the yellows and greens of the English countryside, there is something endlessly special in the deserts of Arabia. Something that holds us captive and makes us yearn to return.

Comforting food
Arabia/Saudi Arabia
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Comforting food

It is said of Hong Kong, not entirely unfairly, that it is a food lover’s paradise. Cuisine from across the globe can be sampled in restaurants big and small, fancy and simple, good and bad. From the appalling flavours dished up by hate-filled waitresses in the local restaurants near my flat in Mongkok, to the lavishly expensive, intimately indulgent and quietly excellent restaurants hidden in the nooks and crannies of Central, Wanchai, and Causeway Bay, Hong Kong has it all. One need never be bored: there is the best of East and West and everything in between.

In contrast, the cuisine in Riyadh is a little simpler. Rice and chicken dominate in most Saudi-style restaurants while American chains serve up underwhelment-on-a-plate. Regional highlights can be found with Lebanese, Morrocan and Yemeni restaurants that hide surprisingly delicious food behind astonishingly bland presentation and a complete lack of atmosphere.

But in truth, Riyadh has great food, if only you stoop to join the queues at the local, neighbourhood restaurants. Here, with plastic tables and chairs, with disposable wafer-thin plastic tablecloths, with flies buzzing from one table to the next, is where the truly tasty can be found. Here, without a menu in English or even a menu at all, is where wondrously warm service can be found: not just service with a smile, but impassioned service with grin, a babble of welcoming words and a delight that sets the scene for food that is simple, comforting, enormously filling and just what is wanted.  From the freshest falafel to tangy shawarma to authentic locale-specific curries to barbecued meats and chicken.

Far from fancy, it is the sort of food you always wished your local had.

The 106th Double-Tenth Day
Arabia/Saudi Arabia
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The 106th Double-Tenth Day

In the quiet of gardens, water splashes from fountains, an eerie tinkling in otherwise silent air. In the cool of dusk, lamps cast their electric glow on the underside of the leaves in trees, their ever-stretching branches thrown into fluorescent dances of shapes and of greens and greys.

106 years ago, disgruntled soldiers near Wuhan in China faced arrest after details of an anti-Qing plot were leaked to the authorities. The men turned mutineer and by the next day, by the morning of 11 October, had established a military government.

Away at the back of Riyadh’s diplomatic quarter an empty street slowly fills with cars. Their graceless hulk crunches over dusty tarmac. Figures start separating from the gloom and drift to the end of the road.

The Qing struck back as winter began to take hold of China. Imperial forces slowly gained ground against the mutineer-revolutionaries. Yet progress was too slow. Soon Sichuan, Ningxia and Shanxi were slipping from the Emperor’s grasp. The winter of 1911 was to be the winter of the Qing.

Golden light spills out of a single gate where smiles gather and hands are shaken. A red carpet runs up to the porch and into the house. From the back, voices drift over food. It is 10 October: Taiwan’s National Day, also known as the Double-Ten Day. We are standing in the garden of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office. The links between Taiwan and Saudi Arabia are celebrated, as are the links between Taiwan and the region. The hospitality cannot be matched: all are made to feel special, all are made to feel uniquely welcome. We have gathered to celebrate with Taiwan, the Riyadh autumnal cool the perfect blanket to a feast. And as we leave, happy and delighted, it is we who are thanked even when it is we who must do the thanking.

On 1 January 1912, Sun Yat-Sen proclaimed the foundation of the Republic of China.