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Day Two: Beijing Bearings

June 3, 2015

It was great to have a native Chinese speaker pick us up at the airport and show us around on our first day, but CP had to get back to her everyday life as a graduate student at PKU (which I’m told is like the Harvard of China).

Here’s the interesting thing. When we took cabs with her, there was a lot of conversation back and forth during the trips between her and the cab driver about locations and directions. The only reason I mention that is because on this second full day, I would be traversing this giant city, and my plan involved both the subway and cabs. Without speaking any Chinese, this would be an adventure.

For any good adventure, it’s best to fuel up, so I made my second stop to my new favorite dumpling shop.

Armed with the translations of the menu, this second visit was a much more interesting meal. It’s very possible that in my excitement, I over-ordered a wee little bit. From my SF Chinatown days, I remember that two was a bad number of dumplings to order. I can’t remember why, but it had something to do with numerology.

So I got three of each of the following:
– Spicy snow pea dumpling
– Milk skin dumplings
– Hot bean curd bun
– White trailing plant and noodle bun

Don’t ask me what “white trailing plant” might be, but it was spicy, crunchy and delicious. Everything was delicious. The only surprise was that when I took a sip of what I thought was freshly ground soy milk, it turned out to be a warm red bean drink. That was a happy accident, because it too was delicious.

Oh yeah, and that massive load of food & drink cost a whopping two bucks. For real.

On this day, when sitting on my little bench I spied a bit of a commotion on the opposite street corner. There a vendor was making another kind of breakfast street food. It was a combination of a crepe and an omelette that had a crisp piece of fried goodness in the center, a little bit of meat, and a whole lot of seasonings. It looked and smelled fantastic, and I swore I’d find a way to eat one before leaving town. But this morning with my heavy dumpling load it just wasn’t happening.

What would be happening was a train ride down to the center of Beijing. I had the address for a hand pulled noodle place, and was told it was just north of a specific metro station. So I went out in search of it.

The subways are amazing. Super easy. Super intuitive. And the trains come every three to five minutes. It’s incredible. What I didn’t figure out on my first trip was that the tickets are only good for one fare. I thought it was like the BART where I could just load up a card with money, and keep adding as needed. So I paid 7 RMB for my 5 RMB fare. That’s less than a buck for the 35 minute train ride.

Regrettably, I couldn’t make sense of the building numbers, nor did I have the Chinese characters for the restaurant in hand. So I abandoned the search and headed off for the nearby Temple of Heaven.

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Wow. This was where the Emperor would engage in the annual harvest ceremony. I would love to see a reenactment of these ancient rites, because it sounded magnificent. On the south end of the temple grounds, the Emperor would change into his festival vestments. A calf would be sacrificed and lit on fire, lanterns were raised up massive poles, wine was offered, sacred tablets were procured, and everyone would march up to the Imperial Hall of Heaven where the Emperor would pray for good harvests.

I didn’t see all 273 hectares of the place. Actually, I walked the ceremonial route backwards by starting at the north gate and ending up at the south gate. It was here where I planned to take a cab to Wangfujing street.

The Beetle Trip Offline Map app has these handy “taxi cards” for popular tourist destinations. They include the name of the site and the street address in Chinese. So I had intended to flag down a cab, show the driver my phone and be whisked off to a late lunch.

But there weren’t many cabs to be found. Eventually I flagged one down, showed the driver my phone, and he said “no.” I don’t know why he said no, and I had a momentary flash of concern. It was hot, I was tired of walking, and the nearest train station was at least a 30 minute hike away in the afternoon haze.

My search for another cab driver who might say yes continued, and within a few minutes, I was on my way. It took about 20 minutes to get to Wangfujing (traffic is terrible in the city), and the ride cost about $4. So not only is everything really big here, almost everything is ridiculously cheap. Except for gas. That’s crazy expensive.

Let me get this out of the way now. No. I did not eat the scorpions on a stick. I did eat a fried pancake filled with sliced duck meat which fantastic, fried dumplings that looked good but were decidedly mediocre, and candied hawthorn berries on a stick. I regret eating the dumplings and not having room for the stinky tofu, which was being fried to order in the alley. But that duck pancake made up for a lot.

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After the first night’s dinner failure, I decided to accept the invitation to Thursday night’s business dinner with Mrs. Fussy and her crew. It was at a restaurant on campus, and it allowed me to try a greater variety of dishes than I would have been able to sample on my own. That’s really the biggest downside to tackling a city solo, is that you’ve only got one mouth and there’s only so much you can cram down it without ill effect.

So I took the train back to the hotel, showered some of the city grime and sweat from my body and made myself presentable.

Surely I’m missing some gems from the dinner. There were so many dishes, and no menu. Everything was ordered in advance, and we were in a private banquet room. But I especially enjoyed the lotus stuffed with glutinous rice, the whole fish (apparently there’s always a whole fish), the sour poached tomatoes, spicy wood fungus, smokey mushroom soup, boiled dumplings, chicken with peanuts, jellyfish in spicy sauce, braised ribs, cold sliced beef, boiled lettuce, and some kind of shredded “cabbage.”

The food comes out in waves, and you finally know it’s over when the watermelon is served. Or at least that’s how it worked at the end of May, on the cusp of the annual watermelon festival.

What I didn’t mention is that all day long I was drinking bottled water like a fiend. Tap water is not potable in the city, and bottled water is sold everywhere. As far as I could tell it ranges from 2 RMB at convenience stores and newsstands to 6 RMB for the fanciest brand deep inside popular tourist attractions where there are no other options.

Which means it maxes out at a buck. I’ll tell you, it doesn’t take too long to get used to the new normal of everything being shockingly inexpensive.

By almost all measures the day was a success. Filled with confidence, I was ready to handle my last solo day in the city, where I was finally going to eat something I’d been looking forward to for months.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 3, 2015 2:12 pm

    Way to leave us hanging!
    Also, that fried pancake looks delicious!

  2. Ryan H. permalink
    June 3, 2015 7:46 pm

    Sounds delicious! I had the same experience getting used to how cheap everything was in Peru. Once you get back to the States, everything feels like a rip-off.

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