How I Love Beijing!
The flight from from Guilin to Beijing is 2.5 hours and as we approached Beijing I could see a ceiling of smog. I have been told the city’s population is over 20,000,000 which is hard to fathom. It is a huge city and when you fly toward the airport you see apartment block upon apartment block one next to the other — a whole skyline of them. I couchsurfed in the old city centre, in a hutong. Hutongs are narrow alleyways that zigzag inside Beijing’s 2nd ring in the centre of the city. They consist of one storey buildings/dwellings with courtyards that are hidden behind the entrance-ways. The city centre is full of young and old people, small shops, and lots of cafes, food stalls, and cheap restos. There are not many tall buildings here and I was situated in the northeast corner of the Dongcheng District which includes Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and many other such sites (these are all more toward the middle and south of this district).
My Couchsurfing hosts took me, a Russian tenant of theirs, and her visiting mother to the Great Wall on my first full day in Beijing; on the way we stopped off at KFC to pick up chicken to eat when we got there. This felt like a bad omen. BUT! They made up for that by stopping at a halal resto with typical Beijing snack food when we returned to the city. We ate savoury as well as sweet dishes: fermented soybean soup that you dip fried dough into (not the tastiest thing I’ve eaten but I did not hate it) , sheep’s intestines, a mung bean custard, a few cold noodle dishes, a kind of very soft thick grit-like soup that you mix with what tasted like a ground sesame seed sauce, and more….. The table was filled with these Muslim specialties – a “cuisine” that is called hui cai and which often includes mutton. My first real Beijing food experience was exactly what I had hoped it could be and quickly erased the memory of KFC at the Great Wall.
The Great Wall is surrounded by mountains. I was surprised that we didn’t see more tourists when we were there. We went there via the Mutianyu entrance (the one President Clinton went to — though not President Reagan or the Queen of England). We took the chairlift going up and walked down. There is a chute/slide that one can take down and I would have loved to try it but my hosts wanted to walk down.
Xian Hong and Zhen Ou — my hosts – speak very little English so our attempt to talk to each other was pretty funny. Luckily we each have patience and a sense of humour so we laughed a lot!! They were SOOOOOOO generous of their time – taking me around to various sites, essentially taking me under their wing. The two of them insisted on treating me to everything and were unbelievably kind. There seemed to be nothing I could do to repay them… but I came up with an idea. I took them, my friend Xiao Xi, who I met in Shuhe (Lijiang, in Yunnan Province), and the Russian women, out for Peking duck and I bought Xian Hong two Cordon Bleu cookbooks (in Chinese) since she has been to France a few times and mentioned how she’d like to learn how to cook French food – particularly dessert. I also bought her a Chinese dessert cookbook and got the two of them flowers. It wasn’t easy to find a way to treat them, but I was pleased that I succeeded.
On the second day of my stay in Beijing , Xian Hong and Zhen Ou took me to Art Zone 798 (which I had mentioned wanting to visit). Art Zone 798 used to be an electronics warehouse that was built in the 1960s in conjunction with East Germany. Now it is filled with galleries, small and large (including PACE Beijing and a North Korean museum) as well as shops and studios. Ten years ago it had mainly studios with some galleries but rents went up and many artists had to move elsewhere (about 4km away to a new artists’ district).
We started at Zhen Ou’s brother’s studio, A-One Design Studio. His brother, Professor Shi also teaches at Tsinghua University, Beijing. He is a well known designer in both China and elsewhere and his wife helps him but is also an interior designer. Here is an A-One Design Studio lecture given by Shi: http://spaces.kisd.de/netzradio/2011/01/18/a-one-design-studio/. I went back to the studio a second time and spent the morning listening to Chinese music with Professor Shi, talking about art and design, and using an app that has voice recognition and translates accordingly. This tool was very necessary since his English is not good and my Chinese is worse. He is a man who appears to love life and I was pleased to have the chance to meet him and even join him for lunch. Here is a video created by one of the student interns at A-One studio: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMzg3MTk3ODQ4.html (please click “Turn Off Chinese” to access this video)
The week I arrived in Beijing coincided with May Day which is a four-day celebration in China. The streets were more crowded than usual so, since I am not inclined to visit places just to tick them off a list, I did not go to the Forbidden City. Instead, I spent one day walking around Beihai Park and the lake in the middle of Beijing with Xiao Xi. She and I went to the Temple of Heaven and the surrounding park and then we went taste testing teas with Xian Hong before going out for supper.
I do love Beijing. I particularly love the area I stayed in since it was so central to everything including buses and the subway for destinations that were beyond walking distance. Mind you, as I mentioned above, my hosts did tend to take me places; every morning they called me from their home (I had my own tiny apartment in the hutong, while couchsurfing) to ask what my plans were and the next thing I knew they, by some coincidence, were on their way to see me and show me around! If i lived in Beijing this is the area I’d choose to live in.
Other food I ate: donkey; shuan guo — a broth kept hot under fire in a copper pot with a cone in the middle with mutton and vegetables added to it and a sesame seed sauce that has a little chili mixed into it.
A couple of observations:
- In Beijing, waiters and waitresses stand looking over your shoulder until you have decided what you want to order
- In China: babies’ and toddlers ‘pants are not sewn all the way to the crotch to make for easier diaper changing and toilet training which is done on the street (sometimes in a discreet place, sometimes literally on the street — in either case it is a brilliant design that should be adopted in the west!)