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Little Adventure in Big China

June 2, 2015

Writing a travelog was never part of my plan. But yesterday, half of the comments were asking to hear about some of the adventures from my recent trip, so I’ll share and try to make it as interesting as possible.

To do that, I’ll need to break it up into chunks. So I’m going to have to move rather fast. The major takeaway from the trip is that Beijing is huge. Having just returned from the city, it’s still hard to wrap my head around just how huge it is. And there is really nothing on its scale in America. It makes Paris, London, and New York seem like charming small towns.

But it’s not just the city that’s huge. Everything about it is big. The malls are gigantic. The streets are like raging rivers. The parks, temples and monuments seem to go on forever. With the size and scale of everything, the Great Wall is remarkably well proportioned for the area. Which, by the way, also has a history and a culture that is equally vast.

I came to town knowing very little. There were a few sites I wanted to visit, a few things I wanted to eat, but I was really hoping to explore for myself and get a better understanding of the place. So much went undone. So many foods went uneaten. So many parts of the city went unexplored. So I’m going to have to go back.

Let’s start at the very beginning.

Tuesday night we arrived at the airport. It probably goes without saying, but it’s huge. A graduate student from Peking University (let’s call her CP) was sent to pick us up and make sure we made it to the hotel. Not speaking a lick of Chinese or being aware of any cultural norms, this was a tremendous help.

It was pushing midnight Beijing time, and we were exhausted, so there was no food that night. There was plenty of food on the plane, which is a subject we can save for another time.

There were two tools I downloaded to my phone in advance of the trip which proved invaluable. One was an offline map of Beijing that worked with my phone’s GPS so I could know where I was without international data roaming. The other was Pleco, a Chinese to English translating tool for which I bought the extension that could translate pictures of Chinese characters using the phone’s camera. That was amazing, and became my lifeline for the next few days.

Day 1

I woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed. CP was going to be swinging by to take us out to lunch and on a tour of the Summer Palace. Breakfast came with the hotel room, but I was feeling a bit more adventurous than that. So I hit the streets to see what I could find. That was when I discovered the the city blocks in Beijing are unthinkably long.

My first stop was an ATM which was an adventure in itself. The security guard who seemed puzzled by my presence was very patient while I fiddled with Pleco to explain I was looking for an ATM. Which, incidentally, aren’t installed at a height for tall Americans. To make matters worse, my card didn’t work at the first bank. But I had better luck at the bank down the block.

But perhaps the best stroke of luck that day was finding the neighborhood dumpling shop. That little red corner take out joint from the pictures yesterday. I had passed a few restaurants, but this one had a small but steady line of locals picking up their morning buns.

So I went up and pantomimed my way to three scallion buns and one cup of whatever special beverage the lady behind the counter thought I should drink. Identifying the buns was easy since the tops were decorated with a small piece of the filling. That technique also helps the seller to keep track of which ones are what.

I do love scallion buns. The scallions, by the way were magnificent. The hot, tender, handmade bun was stuffed full of silky and aromatic greens and balance with little specks of scrambled egg. I was sold. The drink was a freshly ground soymilk, which I also loved.

Before leaving, I made sure to take a picture of the menu, as I would later load that into Pleco and learn about all the other delights I could get from this counter.

CP showed up at noon and we went to the Chinese restaurant on the grounds of the Global Village (where we were staying). This wasn’t the place for Peking duck, but I did have duck on the mind, so we had sliced duck, cold yam with blueberry, boiled dumplings, shrimp with bacon and luffa, mustard greens with garlic, and fried rice. CP was amazed that not only had I eaten luffa before, but that I could identify it with just the visual cues. Thank you Ala Shanghai. That, by the way, was a delicious dish and the highlight of the meal. Although boiled dumplings are always fun.

The Summer Palace is amazing. CP was an incredible tour guide who told us all about Empress Cixi and some of the stories about the building of this massive estate. Built against a lake, and with plenty of shade, it was a great place to spend a hot afternoon. The air feels much cleaner amidst all the trees, and while these tourist sights are crowded, it’s far from the hustle and bustle of the streets.

Back at the hotel, Mrs. Fussy gave CP a small gift for showing us around. We had prepared and brought all kinds of gifts for the people we would meet, as we tried our best to adapt to the local culture. Luckily I think expectations for Americans are pretty low.

Speaking of Mrs. Fussy, she was there for work and had a work dinner. Which meant that I was on my own. So I decided to try and explore some more of the Haidian district where we were staying.

Working off old information grabbed quickly from the Internet before getting on a flight may not be the best way to travel. The Peking duck place I wanted to eat had either moved or gone out of business. From my handy dandy Pleco app, I could tell that the sign was saying the storefront was for rent. Bummer.

So I was left with nothing but my wits. Which is to say, I totally failed to find something delicious for dinner. But it was a learning experience.

The first place I seriously considered and then rejected was some kind of burger stand. I had no idea, but on a street full of empty businesses, it was mobbed. Maybe it was one of those donkey burgers I had heard of, but regardless I wasn’t in the mood for a burger. So I continued to wander. There were fancy restaurants, but I felt sweaty and gross and was wearing sandals, so I passed on those.

Then I walked by a totally packed restaurant that was selling mutton soup. I would have loved to try it, but the thought of eating soup on a hot day really didn’t work for me.

I should have gone into the dumpling shop that I passed down a side alley. It looked promising, but I was reluctant to hit two dumpling joints in one day. That was my first big mistake. In the end, out of a combination of desperation and heat exhaustion, I stumbled into a mall. There I found a restaurant where I ate roast duck dumplings, shrimp dumplings, spinach with almonds, and a cooling iced green tea with orange and lime.

On the walk back home I passed a public square where several dozen people were roller skating on one side, and several dozen other people were ballroom dancing on the other. I guess on hot nights nobody wants to stay indoors. But it was surprising that in one of the largest cities in the world, the residents engage in these kind of public community activities.

Maybe that’s one small example of how communism and capitalism intersect in a modern city with deep roots in the past. I don’t know. But what I did know was that I was excited to have found that morning dumpling place, and I had decided to eat as much of the menu as I could over the rest of my stay.

Tomorrow I would have the whole day to myself, and I decided that would be a good day to leave Haidian and explore some other parts of the city.

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