Wednesday, January 11, 2006

OK. I'm in Hong Kong now, but I finally found an internet place where you can see the page in English, so I'll do some catching up on this stupid pointless blog thing. Bird flu is no longer funny, given the situation in Turkey, so I will abandon that line for now (although I still like the sound of it better than swine flu or some of the other flus).

I did eat pigeon, keeping to the poultry theme, for dinner last night. But that story comes later. For now - Beijing.

I met Jennifer at the airport on Wednesday, Jan 4. ("Yennifer," for those of you who don't know, is a friend of mine from Stockholm and the main reason I'm here - she's studying in HK for a year and had planned to spend a few days in Beijing while her friend Ada, a local, was there to guide us around.) She was with a guy who drove us to the hostel, which was a lucky thing because we'd never have found it. It's right in the middle of downtown, but buried way deep in one of the "hutong" neighborhoods, these little alleyways barely wide enough for a small car but somehow able to accommodate a speeding taxi passing a parked sedan abreast of six bicyclists, a rickshaw cab, an old lady walking a dog in a sweater, a mo-ped, and two backpacking Swedish girls. Our street is called Nanluogu Hutong and is dotted with little bars and cafes. That first night, after our brief subglacial expedition, we went to the Passby Bar, which happened to have a back room lined with Lonely Planet books. I ordered black tea because I thought it would be somehow particularly Chinese, but it was Lipton.

Next morning, we decided to check out some of the main tourist sights. I've been on the LP research schedule so long that I'd forgotten how to travel at a leisurely pace with normal people. So I was ready for breakfast at 7.30, when it opened. Jennifer, however, was (1) not jetlagged, and (2) not a crazed maniac, so she actually slept in, as people do when they're on vacation. We had breakfast around 10 and I promised the uptight little soldier in my head that if it would let me relax for two weeks, I'd let it pick up some restaurant menus and peek into a couple of hotel lobbies. Seemed a fair trade and things were easier after that.

Our hostel, we discovered, was within easy walking distance of the Forbidden City. North of it is a walled garden, Jingshan Park, built to protect the emperors and their eunuchs and concubines from the fierce winds and evil spirits of the north. In the middle of this park is a temple on a hill (made out of the dirt left over from building the moat around the walled city) that offers 360-degree views of the city as far out as you can see. Which isn't very far, through all the brown fuzz in the air. But still, it's a cool view. We saw a Chinese squirrel up there, black with huge tufts on its ears. Always cracks me up to see wildlife in other countries; it's almost the same, but not quite. Also in the park is a memorial pointing out the tree where the last Ming emperor hanged himself before the rebels could do it for him.

A crew of Chinese construction workers walked past us on their way to lunch, and it was exciting to see what they would do when they spotted the two blonde tourists. But all we got were a couple of demure smiles, no cat-calling. I don't think they have cat-calling in China.

By the time we made it through the garden and into the Forbidden City, the temperature had dropped below the ridiculous to become just plain mean. Every time we took a photo we risked losing a finger. We walked around with our audio tourguides for a while, pretending not to be looking for the Starbucks that allegedly sits just inside the forbidden gates. Didn't see it, but we did find a warm little cafe with steamed-up windows and more people inside than out. Never was hot jasmine tea so much appreciated. You could feel it in your toes. After that it was a lot easier to be interested in things like the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, where the empresses slept, and the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the emperor's bedchamber - each night he slept on a different one of nine beds, to fool his enemies. Some of these emperors had over a thousand concubines, fellas - your meagre conquests no longer impress me.

After the tour, feet completely frozen, we tried to walk back to the hostel, which should've been a very simple, straight-ish line to our crooked little alleyway. We almost found it. But we missed the alley entrance (half those little roads don't have signs in English characters, including ours) and ended up walking for about an hour in the wrong direction. (I should mention here that I'd left my trusty LP guidebook and the only map we had at the breakfast table. Heh.) By the time we got back, we were late for a pre-arranged dinner with Jennifer's friend Ada, this adorable 19-year-old Beijing disco queen and future media mogul, at the Peking duck restaurant where her uncle works. (His job is to put Chinese herbal medicine into the food. Hmm.)

On the way to the duck place we got lost again. Sort of. The cabbie dropped us off in front of an abandoned building and gestured vaguely. We followed the gesture, vaguely, and then some girl approached us and offered to "help." I tend to be suspicious but Jennifer is nicer than I am, so we let the girl lead us across the street and down some weird alley to what she said was the restaurant on our note. Surprise! It was her family's (completely different) restaurant! So, back across the street, to where we started, where Ada and her brother were waiting. They were sweet about it.

I can't even describe the Peking duck. They brought it in to our little VIP dining room, where we'd already been eating seven or eight types of amazing little food things. Actual Chinese food, as everyone probably knows, has nothing to do with the glop they call Chinese food in the States. The chef rolled this duck in on a gurney and started slicing little chips of its skin off. We were ordered to eat the crispy skin immediately before it cooled. This was excellent advice. You dip the duck-skin chip in fermented bean paste and eat it, and then your head explodes. I don't usually get weepy over food, but holy crap. That stuff was amazing. The rest of the duck, they chop it up and you make little pancake-burritos out of it with bean paste and onions. Pretty great. Sorry if everyone else knows this, but I'd never had Peking duck before. After the meal, one of the sixteen waiters who attended us brought a card stamped with our particular duck's personal registration number. (It didn't appear to have a name, but I wouldn't be surprised.) The place is called Qianmen Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant, at 32 Qianmen Dajie, if anyone's interested.

Then Ada and her silent brother, who was sweet but spoke no English, took us to "the pub," called Vic's (in the Worker's Stadium, north entrance). It's a chic, minimalist-designy dance place that you would never call a pub if you were not Chinese. They played 50 Cent and some Eminem remixes. Almost exclusively. But drinks were pretty cheap, and it was fun to watch the Beijing hipsters dancing.

And that was day one in Beijing.

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