Dog. Now there’s a word that should never appear in the food section of any travel blog. Ever. It should also never be put next to words like casserole or soup. But unfortunately China breaks all the rules – and so, so will I.
Here’s the thing – I love dogs. We got our first dog when I was 10 and he looked like something out of an Andrex advert; tiny, golden and a right little scamp. He came from a little house in the country where a beautiful Golden Retriever had given birth to a litter of honey-coloured pups with oversized paws. He bounded playfully over to my brother and I, licking our hands. We didn’t choose him as such, he selected us.
We called him Hobbes. He slobbered a lot, which secretly distressed some of my friends in our teenage years when he decorated their favourite glittery jeans in his gloopy, white saliva and laddered their tights in one enthusiastic bounce. But they loved him really.
He was part of the family. He would sit by me when I was sick off school, he’d wait by the front door for my mum to come home from work every day and he’d play football/puncture footballs with my brother in the garden. He even brought home a pair of trainers in my dad’s shoe size from the woods one day. Nobody asked any questions, dad just wore them for the next two years.
It still makes me wince when I think of how he just fell to the floor one day after having an operation to remove a tumour. I walked into the house to find my parents wrapping him in a blanket, stroking his head, hours after he had stopped breathing. We mourned him for weeks. And today we still talk fondly of him, laughing at his silly old ways.
So when I got to China I was apprehensive about the dog meat situation. As a meat eater I questioned whether it was right to pick and choose between which animals you consume. Should one life be more precious than another, I asked myself.
But then I imagined eating dog and immediately felt guilty of cannibalism. Dogs are pets, one of the family. I could never eat one I concluded.
We occasionally saw it on the menu and I would shudder.
I reminded myself that my condemnation was a cultural one and tried to challenge it. After all, dog eating in China stems back to the years of the Cultural Revolution where people were starving to death during freezing winters and huge famines.
But now food is in abundance. And plenty of Chinese people have pet dogs.
I found myself desperate to understand the tradition and not judge, while at the same time wanting to scream at waiters: “How can you put this on the menu?” And make large (for a backpacker anyway) donations to dog protection charities in the country.
These thoughts circulated in my mind as I toured the country, while tasting and relishing almost every other dish on the menu. But then we did a cookery course.
It started off innocently enough. A trip to the market to buy all our ingredients… We smelt the herbs, squealed at tubs of eels and snails that had been freshly plucked from their shells in front of us and asked all sorts of questions.
“What’s that numbing spice that is in almost everything and completely anaesthetises your mouth?” Colourful pepper, we were told.
“Ooh – and those amazing thin, black mushrooms that are in almost every stir-fry,” we asked. Black ear, we were told. It’s a tree fungus don’t you know.
It was all going very well when suddenly we turned a corner and found ourselves in the meat section. Or live animal section, I should say.
Our guide-cum-food-teacher promptly left us to do “some shopping” after warning us that many people found this part of the market hard to deal with and was not for the faint hearted. There were chickens in cages and big fluffy rabbits behind bars, alongside ducks, geese and other clucking, squeaking creatures that would soon meet their end.
I was not particularly phased by that. I believe if you are a meat eater you should face up to the reality of what that means. So I kept walking. And then the live animal section became the abattoir and I had to remind myself to make peace with the choice I had made.
But then I saw the dogs. It all seemed to happen in slow motion in my mind – but in reality I think it was a less than a second.
First I saw the live dogs in cages behind the butcher and, I kid you not, for a split second I thought: “Ahh, she has her dog with her.” But before that sentence could finish in my mind, it was replaced by another – that this was no pet.
Then I saw what was hanging, gutted in front of me – undeniably the carcass of a dog. And then my eyes fell to her hands, which were viciously slamming a huge meat cleaver into the flesh on a table in front of her. A dog, I concluded.
And then my eyes fell to the ground, because I couldn’t look ahead anymore. And there, by her ankles, was a cage of cats. This time my first thought was no longer of pets.
I took a photo because I couldn’t not take one. I’m sure many of you will think that is strange, and I’m sure many of you may think that photo should certainly not be posted her here. And I did not want to upset or offend anyone so I have not copied it below, instead if you want to view my images, click here.
Why do I take any pictures when travelling? To record what I see, places I’ve been and capture a life and world that is alien to me.
And why do I keep this blog? For exactly the same reasons.
This was no different. In fact, I like to think that one day, when dog is off the menu forever, these photos will become nothing more than a little piece of historical evidence. An image of times gone by. And there is a growing movement to end dog eating in China so I like to think that hope is somewhat founded.
My first rule in travelling is to accept others’ cultures. Things are not wrong just because they may not seem right to you – and it is only when you accept these alien ways of life (even if you don’t agree with them) that you have any real hope of gaining an insight into other cultures.
But sometimes you just can’t accept them. The poverty in India, the lack of women’s rights in Afghanistan, dog eating in China. I can’t accept any of them and so I suppose I have broken my first rule.
But perhaps the second rule of travelling is to listen to your own beliefs and morals and challenge them to truly understand them. And then, if you still carry them in your heart, don’t ignore them.
So I’ve broken one rule and lived by another. Dog is off the menu for me. What do you think?