April 1, 2010:
Beijing. We glided into the capitol city of China on the heels of a major dust storm, the air clogged with the yellow-brown sand of the Gobi Desert, a day later than planned. In typical fashion, I had gotten airsick during the second of two tumultuous descents into Japanese airports the day previous, and had spent the night in the Narita Hilton trying to regain the stomach for flying. When we awoke on Monday morning, the air had the putrid ochre tint of a Vegas showgirl's foundation makeup, and visibility was down to several blocks around our hotel in the Chao Yang District. Not aware of the government issued health alert that advised wearing a particle mask and limiting time spent out of doors, I walked for several miles around our hotel in the morning, checking out the embassies of a number of countries including the USA, Korea, the UAE, and Germany. I headed back to our hotel, the Beijing Renaissance, when my lungs started to hurt, and tested out my Mandarin skills by ordering a bowl of hot, garlicky and spicy beef noodles in broth. Delicious, and around $1.40 US dollars the bowl. Now we're talking.
In the afternoon, I studied the map of the city and compared it to the subway map the concierge had given me, then hoofed it over to the subway stop I had noticed earlier in the day. For 2 RMB, or about 30 cents, you can take the subway anywhere in the city with as many transfers as you need. It's brand new (completely rebuilt for the 2008 Olympic Games), super clean and logical in the manner of a good underground transportation system in Europe. You just wave the ticket over a magnetic reader to enter the gate, and deposit the used ticket in the front of the gate when you exit the system. The tickets are then recycled. If you tend toward claustrophobia, you might want to consider using surface transportation (bus or cab), as even during non-peak hours the subway can be very crowded. Typically when I assumed a car to be full, another ten or so people would jam their way inside, with those already standing jostling for standing space and something to hold on to.
I ascended the stairs at the "Tien An Men East" station and encountered the largest public square I had ever seen. It's huge even when the streets are not blocked off once a year for Communist Party officials to review the troops, and is bordered by Mao Tse Dung's Mausoleum, the Great Hall of the People, and the State Museum. I hadn't really counted on doing quite this much walking in a day, but toured the square and headed south toward the Forbidden City in my trusty Salomons. If you do this tour, wear your most comfortable shoes, as you will end up walking several miles if you do the complete trip to the south gate of the Forbidden City and back to Tien An Men. Don't be surprised if you are stopped by police or Red Army soldiers and asked to display the contents of your bag, especially if you are a good looking Caucasian female. The crush of tourists, and the incessant hawking of photos, postcards, corn-on-the-cob, furry panda hats and almost anything else you can vaguely relate to the Forbidden City or the country of China is a little overwhelming at first, but you get used to it. I was able to pass for a Chinese guy from some other part of China to most of the professionals, and managed to stay unencumbered by souvenirs by keeping my hands in my pockets and constantly muttering "Bu Yao" - "don't want" in Mandarin. They got the picture pretty quickly. God help you if you display even the slightest interest in any of their wares. One good rule of thumb is to never buy anything in the main tourist zones - anything you see there will be available for one fourth the price (or less) elsewhere in the city.
The Forbidden City is incredible. Much of the northernmost section is currently being restored by workmen, and the rythmic din of their hammering resounds through the courtyards for most of the day, with the exception of lunch hour. The city was home to the Imperial family, their court, and many of the merchants and artisans who supported them day in and day out, during the Ching and Ming Dynasties. People lived their entire lives within the confines of the Forbidden City's walls, and from certain angles you can get a true sense of what it must have looked like in centuries past. The complex is immense; just when you think you've come to the end, you pass through a doorway and another gigantic pavilion presents itself. The most intriguing part of the city is the southern end, which contains an assortment of small temples built on and around unique volcanic rock formations.
Day two was spent traveling to and walking the grounds of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. I briefly debated whether to take a cab or not. For those of you who think Seattle traffic horrendous, Beijing traffic will leave you open-jawed. Imagine the rudest driver you've ever encountered in the US, cutting people off right and left, darting into too-small gaps, and leaning on his horn at the slightest sign of slowing down. Multiply by about 2 million, add a bunch of pedestrians and ancient bicycles weaving to and fro on the same roads, and you get some idea of what it's like. I decided on the subway, which still looks spotless and functions flawlessly almost two years after the games. Two "kwai" and one transfer later, I was there.
I'm virtually certain you saw image upon image of the Olympic venues on TV during the summer of 2008, so I'll leave out the pictures. They're all still there, and still quite impressive for both their scope and architecture. The Bird's Nest, the Water Cube, the Flame Tower . . . the most impressive thing about the Olympic grounds really is their size. Much like Tien An Men and the Forbidden City, the scale is immense. The promenade itself is probably a mile and a half long. One can only imagine how many families were displaced to build this stuff. I checked at the Water Cube, and found that there is some sort of construction going on and you can't really go in and swim. Bummer. Rumor had it that a company had recently signed an agreement to build a hotel inside the Bird's Nest, which might actually be a good use for it. At present they charge you 50 RMB to just go in and walk around, sort of like an aluminum Spruce Goose that will never fly.
It rained on our second night in Beijing, and day three dawned clear and cold. We could see snow on the surrounding foothills, which had previously been the color of faded wheat. I decided it was the time to visit the Great Wall, which the Chinese call "Chang Cheng." Literally this means "long city," and as I drove north with the driver my wife's Microsoft Beijing colleague had kindly arranged for me, it became apparent that the name was fitting.
The Great Wall was built in sections over the course of many hundreds of years and several different dynasties to keep foreign invaders from breaching the borders of China. It's built in some of the most unlikely places over terrain that would make most backcountry skiers balk. Steep, rock-strewn and treacherous, the Wall's designers seem to have intentionally chosen the most difficult places to place their mammoth structure in between capping the obvious highest vantage points. It must have been quite a treat to have been stationed out here as a soldier for a few years.
I walked a mile or so in each direction from the main gate. At one end, there was a tram station that less physically-inclined tourists could ride up for a fee. In the other direction, there wasn't much at all but a few garrison stations and some enterprising Tibetans hawking postcards for three times their normal value. If you got more than half a mile away from the entrance, almost all of the other tourists ran out of steam and you got a glimpse of what a sentry must have gazed on for hours on end hundreds or thousands of years ago.
I asked my driver about skiing (in Mandarin, he didn't speak English at all), and confirmed that the local ski area had indeed closed March 15th. He seemed fascinated that I skied at all, much less enjoyed it. He also was animated when I told him that I drove an Audi A4, which he told me was a $90,000 car in China. I tried to explain that mine was old and not all that expensive in the US, but he still seemed impressed and I got the impression he thought I was rich. I left him a 100 RMB tip, a big deal in China, and he seemed really happy.
So much to eat, so little time. What do they have for food in Beijing? Everything. We ate Chinese food for pretty much every meal, excepting our morning stop for lattes and muffins at the neigborhood Starbucks. Cantonese food. Szechwanese food. Hot Pot. The mandatory stop at the "best" and "most famous brand" of Beijing Duck restaurant. Simple bowls of noodles and dumplings eaten quickly on the street or in dingy little local restaurants for a pittance. Everything was delicious; hot, spicy, oily and salty. I still haven't gotten up the nerve to check my blood pressure after this trip. The amazing thing about China is that there is food and entertainment for all sectors of society, in any price range, and it's all pretty damn good. Levels of cleanliness vary quite a bit, but if you stay away from cold water, ice, and fruit you don't peel yourself I think you should be OK. It worked for me.
Perhaps the most amazing meal of the trip was on the suggestion of Lindsay's co-worker "Jeff" (he picked his own English name). He really wanted to take us to the Pure Lotus vegetarian restaurant, not just for the food, but for the "total experience." Jeff didn't steer us wrong. Pure Lotus was hidden inside a courtyard near Chao Yang Park, smack in the middle of the embassy district. The uniqueness of the establishment strikes you as soon as the parking attendant guides you to a stall; thin men with trendy spikey hair dressed in long traditional Chinese silk gowns glide through the lot and hover around the entrance to the restaurant. As you enter, volumes of warm hued fabric and dozens of candle flames combine to create an atmosphere that treads a fine line between something out of the Arabian Nights and a dark memory from China's Dynastic past. Cool.
Nothing about Pure Lotus is designed for convenience. Turning tables or maximizing mixed cocktail sales is the furthest thing from their mind. In fact, they serve no alcohol here, but choosing from the array of teas and waters is a daunting task. Both the food and drink menus are about three feet long, and nothing goes by its real name, simply an ethereal descriptive phrase that means absolutely nothing in terms of food but gives you an oddly serene feeling as you read it. Fortunately the servers, mostly fashionable gay-looking guys and model-thin high-cheekboned young women, know the menu by heart and are extremely capable of helping you choose. Jeff took their advice, and ordered a wonderful Jasmine tea to start. A bowl of pickled turnips arrived, designed to stimulate the palate. We settled in and took turns using the restroom, which was a trip in itself (see photo). For what it's worth, public restrooms in China are typically of the "squat" variety; that is, a ceramic hole in the ground that you stand or squat over to do your business. Those who are less than limber, or whose balance is questionable, should prepare for a day or evening out by making use of the toilets they have in the hotel.
A variety of things that looked like meat but were composed entirely of vegetables began to arrive. Things that looked like sliced turkey. Things that looked like (and tasted like) sliced baloney. Stuff that looked like duck, complete with pancakes, sauce and green onions. Some weird bread that had a creamy sweet dressing on it. Each dish had a more outlandish garnish than the last - plants hung off plates, dry ice-induced smoke swirled around pieces of pseudo-ham, a Confucian era statue held slices of taro . . . Jeff hadn't exaggerated when he talked about the total experience. Perhaps my favorite dish was a seaweed-wrapped handroll of lettuce, strawberry and walnut. An iced bowl of longons, a sweet Chinese fruit with a hard seed at the center that we seldom find in Seattle, finished off the feast.
For our Beijing duck extravaganza Jeff picked the Quanjude Restaurant in the same complex as the main Microsoft building. He said it was the best of the "official" Beijing Duck establishments, and he was right again. When you do the Beijing Duck deal, you need to order the entire duck, which they will then serve in several courses. You also are free to order some side dishes, like vegetables and dumplings, but the duck alone was pretty filling for three of us. They'll tell you when "your" duck comes up to the carving station, which is prominently glass-enclosed nearest the dining room, and you're free to watch or take pictures. First they bring you thin slices of the outer skin, which they consider the choicest part. It's richly unctuous, bursting with flavor, warm and crispy in your mouth. Don't even think about the cholesterol, it's magnificent. Then slices of the breast meat served with both corn and flour pancakes, different than the steamed ones normally served in the states, and more akin to thin, small tortillas. The sauce is also different, less overtly flavored, and thin. You dip the duck in the sauce, brush the pancake with it to spread the sauce, and deposit a few slices of meat on the pancake. Add a few slices of green onion, then wrap the pancake up by folding first one side, then the bottom, then rolling the thing over to make a handy finger food. The waitress came over and deftly demonstated the procedure with chopsticks and a spoon for us.
Somewhere along the line they brought us a mild, cleansing soup made from the duck, some nice celery with walnuts and a fried tofu dish. At the end they present you with the certificate you see above, explain that you just ate duck number 005557, and present the check. Total for the three of us was a mere 459 RMB, with beer and tea. Such a deal.
We went to a Hot Pot restaurant that Jeff and his wife Tong Tong frequent. They gave us a checklist of choices and a pencil, and Jeff started marking our choices. Choice of broth for each person, with mild, spicy and extra spicy options. Choice of protein. We chose beef, lamb, beef throat, beef blood, several types of dried tofu and shrimp compote. Choice of vegetables. We chose mostly mushrooms, none of which I recognized except for enoki. Choice of tea and cold drinks. Jeff and Tong Tong picked a sweet green vegetable smoothy that they swear I knew about, but didn't. Choice of noodles or dumplings. We chose some cold buckwheat ones and some freshly cut egg noodles that went in the soup.
If you've never done Hot Pot before, you basically do your own cooking in bowls of hot broth with flames under them. The broth pot can either be communal or, in this case, individual. They bring plates of very thinly sliced meats (the shrimp looked like it had been run through a food processor) which you immerse in the broth until it's done to your taste. You dip the cooked meat in a tasty sesame dip, both to add flavor and cool the stuff down, and enjoy. Verdict? The medium spicy soup I ordered was actually damn hot, and quite salty as well. It worked well with the meats, but soaking the noodles in it resulted in a super salty mass that I couldn't really enjoy. The beef and lamb were awesome, the throat a little too chewy, and the blood very tasty. Shrimp was great as well. The cold noodles, which didn't go in the hot broth, were a nice change of pace and worked to cleanse the palate. If you get a chance to do it, definitely try Hot Pot, especially if you can go along with Chinese friends who can translate the menu.
Afer Lindsay finished up her presentation and coaching duties in Beijing, we hopped a domestic flight on China Eastern Airlines for Shanghai. As our cab hurtled down the freeway into the city, the new MagLev train blew by us like we were stuck in mud. Welcome to the city of the future. We had decided on the Grand Hyatt in the Jin Mao Tower on the recommendation of the people at Microsoft Travel and it proved a good choice - pulling into the hotel and ascending the elevator to the lobby of the hotel on the 54th floor, we saw a spectacular panorama of Shanghai through the windows of the lounge and café. Friends who had touted Shanghai as the most modern city in the world had not been mistaken. After settling into our room on the 77th floor, we had a relatively exhorbitant but delicious Chinese meal of fried noodles and tender pea shoots at a windowside table in the hotel's restaurant. Even if you don't stay here, a snack or drink at the Grand Hyatt is worth the splurge simply for the view. The food is also delicious, and the staff and service superb. Life is short.
Laid out on a European-style grid by Germans, Shanghai does an admirable job of shrugging off the dusty bureaucratic drabness that permeates Beijing. Money and style rule in Shanghai. From the majestic boulevards with their spacious walkways to the international flavor of the Bund's river walkway to the manic shopping madness of Nanjing Road, Shanghai is its own city. We had very little time to sample Shanghai's pleasures, but managed to hit almost all of the highlights on Lindsay's list in just short of two days. Using a combination of subway, cab and feet we toured the residential neighborhoods near the Bund, strolled the Nanjing Shopping Street from end to end, and ended up in Yu Yuan (Yu Garden), site of the famous Town God's Temple. We ended the day in the famous Nan Xiang Steamed Bun Restaurant, where we bypassed the long line of people waiting for a table by agreeing to a 120 RMB per person minimum to sit in the VIP room. We were treated to a multi-course dim sum extravaganza that left us dazzled and almost completely bloated, but it was worth every penny of $19 US. Wandering off into the sunset, we managed to steer our way back to the river and the ultra-cheap .5 RMB water ferry that the locals seem to prefer.
There are some really cool places in China that don't always merit mention in the guide books, but Jeff as usual made sure we saw them. Chief among these in Beijing were the new artist zone "798" (Chi Jou Ba in Chinese), and the renovated "hutong" streets just off of Shi Sha Hai Bar Street near Beihai Lake. 798 was particularly cool. Someone with means seems to have decided that Beijing needed something like New York's SOHO. They found an abandoned steam generating plant, pumped in a bunch of money, and turned it overnight into an oasis of galleries, funky bars, studios and espresso joints. Arists and tourists flock to the area, which is in the northeast corner of the city between the fourth and fifth Ring Roads on the way to the airport. The same applies to the renovated "hutong" streets like Nan Luo Gu Xiang, which the government cleaned up before the 2008 Olympics. The art and attitude that fills these new "hip" zones often takes a not-so-subtle political poke at the Communist powers-that-be, but no one seems to get their feathers ruffled about it. Interesting stuff, for sure. The surge of creativity that one feels in these places is almost palpable, and quite unexpected from a society that has seemingly been slumbering artistically for a generation or more.
Politics are seldom mentioned, but the Google situation was talked about in subdued tones by those in the software industry. The Google building is right next to the Microsoft building, and our hotel was next door. Days before our arrival, Google had diverted all of its China searches, which had previously been filtered to include only results that received official Chinese approval, to its Hong Kong servers, which reflected a "rest-of-world" approach. China, which actively filters Internet content to most of its population, was actively attempting to retaliate. The Google building seemed only half-full, with developers and programmers taking an immediate sabatical and only marketing and sales staff continuing to work. By night, people were stopping by the base of the building and leaving wreaths and plaques with legends like "Thank You Google for Free Chinese Internet" on the Google logo sign, which were promptly removed by police on a regular basis. No one really talked about it, but we saw several photographers (one in the pouring rain) taking pictures of the building.
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© 2010 Gregory C. Louie