Just over six years ago our son Shane travelled to Beijing for what was intended to be a brief visit to a friend who was studying Mandarin there. Thus began a personal voyage of discovery which led to him settling in the city, starting a business called Enter the Panda Ltd. and finding the love of his life Shan to whom he is now engaged. But that is his story.
We visited him in 2008 prior to the Beijing Olympics when he was still a student and got our first experience of Shanghai and Beijing, taking in all the usual tourist sites, including the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall. That was a typical tourist experience giving us a sense of the “otherness” of the place and some day I will attempt to recall those first impressions, formed while Shane was barely finding his feet in the city.
This summer we travelled back with a different purpose – to spend some time with Shane and Shan in Beijing and to travel into the far northwest to Xinjiang province to the city of Urumqi to meet Shan’s family – an important part of the ritual of “betrothal” in China. We were also to be joined in Beijing near the end of our holiday by our daughter Claire and her Welsh husband Mike who live in Sydney Australia, so the trip provided a rare chance for a reunion with our far-flung offspring and their other halves.
I kept a diary while I was there and over the course of several blog posts I hope to convey some of my impressions from this my second taster visit to this vast country and to give a glimpse of its contrasts and contradictions.
The Upper East of Beijing
Shane and Shan live in north-eastern Beijing on the outskirts of the Chaoyang District just outside the 4th Ring Road and well off the tourist trail. The area is known locally as the Upper East and is much quieter than central of Beijing. We stayed in a hotel nearby – the Rosedale Hotel and Suites – and used that and their apartment as a base for a week exploring the tourist sights we missed first time round. The hotel was fine, a touch of jaded and not very well-maintained elegance, but with spacious, clean and comfortable rooms.
We arrived early on a Sunday morning in late June on a misty, humid day, the mist sometimes turning to teeming showers and the first thing that struck me was the air quality. The foggy air catches the back of your throat so that you feel you have a chest infection coming on or have been engaged in a serious bout of passive smoking. There is a pallor over everything, a damp, soggy greyness so that I perceived the city in shaded outlines.
Then I began to notice how surprisingly green and liveable the city is. Once you get down to ground level from the tall apartment blocks, there are trees in abundance lining the streets and on a Sunday afternoon the place teems with ordinary family life, children with their parents using the streets as a playground, older men and women out walking, locals careering around the streets on bikes, rickshaws or mopeds narrowly avoiding the cranky taxi-drivers with their hands permanently ready to blast the horns. At the street-side, high-tech self-service library an old man plies his ageless trade of sharpening knives.
798 Art District
We spent the afternoon visiting the 798 Art District nearby, a fascinating place hewn out of the remnants of old factories whose occupants have been relocated further out of the city. The eclectic mix of art galleries, designer shops selling handcrafted leather, glass, clothes and jewellery and art installations scattered around low-slung buildings against the backdrop of industrial chimneys provided many contrasting images of China old and new.
Our Sichuan meal – Yuxiang Kitchen in Lido Square
Beijing is one of the few cities in China where you can sample a wide variety of cuisines so we set out to find food from a different region each night we were there. Our first stop – Yuxiang Kitchen – was just a short walk from the hotel and a local neighbourhood favourite, packed with families out for their Sunday dinner.
There isn’t a clear distinction between starters and main courses, the dishes come thick and fast and are meant for sharing. We started with Sichuan pickle, a type of vermicelli made from a green vegetable described locally as “fern” and served with a sour garlic chilli sauce and Thousand Year Eggs – in this case quail eggs, described as “persevered” on the menu, and I must admit that this was the one dish that I had to persevere to eat.
There was a delicious black pepper beef sirloin dish which wasn’t strictly Sichuan but Shan chose it because she felt we might appreciate something a little less spicy on the palate, the fantastic dish of dry-fried French beans with minced pork and preserved vegetables which I have been trying to recreate at home (See Fried Green Beans recipe and my first attempt at cooking them) – and cold noodles with a spicy Sichuan sauce, shredded chicken and cucumber.
The piece di resistance was sliced whirlpool fish cooked in boiling oil, wild Sichuan peppers and chilli oil. You strain the fish out of the boiling oil being careful not to choke on the bones which you are supposed to spit out, or to eat too many of the Sichuan peppers which numb your tongue and lips and which, if consumed in quantity burn on the way out as well as the way in!. We washed it all down with Yan Jing beer.
The head of the fish is regarded as a great delicacy and, in a private room within earshot, a Chinese man complained loudly and bitterly that there was no head in his fish dish “I am not a tourist… I am a local… I know how these things should be done…” Of course we wouldn’t have known what the rumpus was about without the benefit of our very own interpreters. Less than 12 hours in Beijing and we were already getting insights normally only available to locals.
To be continued…