I did not know what to expect of Beijing. Mostly what you hear in the news amounts to something like smogSMOGsmogsmawgSMAWWWWWG. And yes after speaking to people who live there, the smog is real. But it’s also a city whose history reaches back 3 millenia and that was an imperial capital for much of its existence. Consequently it’s filled with magnificent and ancient palaces, temples, parks, gardens, tombs, art treasures, and the very end of the Great Wall. The Drum Tower our second Airbnb was in the shadow of and that we walked by everyday has casually been there since 1272. But it’s also one of the largest cities in the world with the second busiest airport in the world. It’s a city where you can get rooftop drinks and Spanish food at Migas, try a locally brewed Osmanthus flower infused beer at JingA and walk down a dark alley and find yourself in a gin microdistillery housed inside a hutong and filled with Norwegian and Russian expats. It is, in short, a fun city. However, as I noted before in my Shanghai post, we did come during an auspicious time: after the holidays when factory production grinds to a halt and the skies are a pretty shade of ‘parade blue’. Like Shanghai it’s a city of contrasts, of gleaming silver buildings and crazy traffic interspersed with sleepy little alley houses with worn stone walls, faded red doors and the occasional skinny stray cat meandering around overgrown potted plants. I quite liked it.
BEIJING TO SHANGHAI HIGH SPEED TRAIN:
We took the high speed train from Shanghai to Beijing, a comfortable 4 hour ride. We brought some instant ramen bowls and some breakfast pastries we had bought earlier. The trains have roomy seats and there is plenty of free hot water (perfect for tea and instant ramen) and a snack cart. We had some trouble indicating we wanted to buy the iced honey green tea and something that appeared to be passion fruit juice but in the end after a lot of aggressive pointing and a patient lady working the snack cart we were able to secure our drinks. Good thing we bought them when we did because the lady after us essentially bought the ENTIRE snack cart. She nonchalantly handed over 5000 rmb (about $780 USD) and just indicated she wanted all the packaged meals in the back as well.
Randomly, I was intrigued by the fact that tomatoes in China appeared to be treated like a fruit. On the snack cart you could buy fruit salads and they all had grapes, melons, and cherry tomatoes in them. We also saw a plate of dried fruit that had crystallized dates, apricots, figs and cherry tomatoes bunched together. On the other hand watermelon seems to be treated like a vegetable, our relatives ordered it as a side dish during our meal and people ate it together with the glazed fish and noodles. The more you know (insert rainbow sound effect).
The other interesting thing noted while peering out the train windows was that was that probably 80% of what you saw outside your window between Shanghai and Beijing were either small rural towns like the ones seen below or empty developments. Huge developments. The so-called “ghost towns” that CNN loves going on about. Unlike the drive from say LA to SF where after you leave the Valley and before you reach Oakland literally all there is are straw-colored hills and spotted cows and swaths of the I-5 that smell like fertilizer and claim to be America’s Strawberry or Garlic or Artichoke Capital. So compared to the relative nothingness of that it’s crazy to see these bunches of thirty or fifty apartment buildings sprouting out of the ground in the middle of nowhere. Concrete towers, taller than any of the tallest buildings we have in San Diego or LA, surrounded by dirt roads, fields, mist, and abandoned cranes. What CNN doesn’t tell you is that across these ghostly buildings, are huge signs proclaiming “SOLD OUT”. The Chinese government apparently wants to urbanize China and is planning on moving something like 300 million people out of the country and into cities. The plan includes moving people into huge urban mega-metropolis, which are being built to fit a tidy 50 million people. Isn’t that insane? Kind of explains the abundance of “ghost” cities. So chill out CNN ;)
After arriving in the Beijing train station we took a subway to our Airbnb. Our Airbnb was housed in a hutong. Hutongs are very typical of Beijing and are alleys composed of many traditional style courtyard houses. In our hutong the owner was actually a Russian who rented out each room as an apartment in the hutong. The downsides were that it was a bit of a walk to the closest subway (~20 min) and depending on your aesthetic either minimally or spartanly furnished with Ikea standbys. The plus sides were that it was clean, well-priced, renovated and we really enjoyed the resident kitties who patiently waited for you to unlock the hutong’s front door so they could come in and out and go about their day. Also although the neighborhood wasn’t very fancy or particularly well-located the alley opened up into a street with probably 50 small little mom and pop type restaurants and bars. So I guess well-located depends on your priorities :)
Another theme with our Airbnbs in China was: disregard the entrance. To get to our Airbnbs it was not uncommon to walk through poorly lit trash strewn alleys, or past a communal kitchen splattered with grease and a darting cockroach or two. But the apartments themselves were all well-renovated, clean and graced with modern amenities. I’m guessing the owners make a killing buying a small, old apartment or house and then completely doing up the insides. Consequently we often got the feeling the neighbors weren’t too pleased about the backpacked 老外 (foreigners) constantly streaming in and out at all hours.
Our first stop was Tiananmen Square. It’s fairly crowded and you have to go thru some security to get in but it was cool to see the famous portrait of Mao as well as they had some decorations still up for the holiday celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. No need to set aside too much time for this too as you mostly just walk around, take some pictures and then proceed to the Forbidden City or Temple of Heaven.
Unless its MONDAY and the Forbidden City is CLOSED. Yup. We are those people who did not check this and our one full day in Beijing where we could have seen the Forbidden City was for naught. This is ok because I plan on returning to Shanghai and Beijing. But still sadface
TEMPLE OF HEAVEN:
So instead we walked around the Temple of Heaven, a large park with a temple in the center which used to be where the Emperor prayed and made sacrifices to the gods. It was lovely to see that like in Shanghai, people really use parks here. There were tourists of course but there were also many locals playing instruments, sitting around watching games of checkers, practicing tai chi, dancing or simply out for a stroll. These were mostly older Chinese but I imagine only the retired can be out and about during a work day. There are multiple buildings in the Temple and they are lovely and ornate inside. My dad said you used to be able to walk into the buildings but now they are sectioned off and you can stare in or point your camera above the masses of people around you to try to get a good shot of the interior. There was a lovely view of the park and Beijing from the vantage point of the Temple but if you’re not there on a holiday, don’t count on seeing it.
And right around this time we decided to sprint over to the Summer Palace since Forbidden City was not going to happen. I’ll save that for the next post because there are many, many more pictures. Suffice to say I was completely blown away by the Summer Palace. It was beyond beautiful, especially at sunset and worth forgoing food to go subwaying-running all the way there. So onwards to dinner.
We had dinner at a wonderful little hole-in-the-wall noodle shop called 胖妹面庄 which I think my dad said meant something like “Little Sister’s Noodles” but which Google says means, I am not making this up, “Fat girl’s face Trang”. Dubious names aside, I had emailed the gracious (and Beijing-based) Mandy from Lady and Pups and she recommended some bomb spots for roasted lamb, Peking duck and this was her excellent rec for noodles. She recommended the 豌杂面 which Google tells me means “pea zamian” but now I don’t really trust Google anymore for Mandarin translations so if someone wants to tell me what those names really mean I would be most appreciative. Either way “pea zamian” had fresh noodles, with a miso-esque corn puree and saucy spicy ground beef. It had rich umami flavour and my dad loved this. Him and my sister ordered a large and shared it while I ordered Lanzhou style beef noodles. I have only had this noodle dish once or twice in California before and this version was 10,000x better. We actually had a 10 hr layover in Lanzhou and I was so sad that there was no time to get these noodles in Lanzhou but this version was delicious enough that I was appeased.
Another random foodcentric observation: potatoes in Chinese foods are awesome. I don’t see enough potatoes in Chinese food in the US. We ate so many dishes that had potatoes in them and they were so delicious. Think of how perfect potatoes are for being swathed in all the savoury-sauce action seen in Chinese food. One example of a straightfoward but expert preparation here was this super simple side of tofu and potatoes. Perfect for complementing the spicy salty noodles.
After ordering another soda – cold water seems to never really be an option as people believe it’s bad for your digestion to eat cold water with a meal – we were on our way home. Bellies full of hot “pea zamian” noodles and cold polar bear orange-y soda it was a good end to a long day. And I’m happy to report there were no adverse reactions to all the hot noodle broth + cold soda thermodynamics, thanks to our iron-clad slurpee-ice-chugging Western tummies.
One of my friends had relocated to Beijing a while ago but unfortunately was out of town during our stay there. Nonetheless he still managed to hook us up with the world’s most comprehensive list of Beijing bars and restaurants (compiled from a foodcentric WeChat group with a couple thousand members, nbd)(email me if you are going to Beijing and you want dis) and had a friend take us out to an awesome little gin bar housed inside a hutong. We had originally wanted to go to Capital Spirits, a baiju bar. Baiju as you may know is a traditional Chinese spirit, known for being super strong and for smelling vaguely like old trash. It is an acquired taste but the better baijus are actually quite interesting, if not good. I had tried bad baiju before and appropriately almost gagged but randomly a couple weekends ago I was at The Line Hotel in LA and met some baiju vendors who are trying to popularize it around these parts. The baiju they are selling was wayyyy better than the other one I had tried (much more aromatic vs. ‘trash smell’) and would make some interesting cocktails.
But right Capital Spirits was closed. So we went to Distillery which is another bar from the same owner that specializes in gin and soon will make their own gin. They have several gin and tonics with interesting aromatics like orange and bitter melon and the atmosphere inside the hutong is pretty neat. Note that there were exactly zero locals as the prices cater more to foreigners but it’s a cool spot. Supposedly the owner has plans to hire a rickshaw to ferry people back and forth between Capital Spirits and Distillery. Definitely want to visit Capital Spirits when I return to Beijing
And that’s a wrap for that night. Last tip of the post is that you can Uber in China and although Didi is a much more popular app, with Didi you are simply hailing a cab on your phone and paying cab prices. UberX is cheaper and People’s Uber, their version of UberPOOL, is so affordable that sometimes it was cheaper than taking the already very cheap subway (considering we were a party of 3). Especially late at night when the subway closes and there is no traffic, Uber is the way to go (just make sure you paid for that international data plan).
P.S. I don’t know about you but I’m SO sold on that red wedding dress.