The city has changed since I was last here 5 years ago prior to the Beijing Olympics. It seems more open, less reserved but, if the taxi drivers and hawkers are anything to go by, perhaps a little less friendly. Prices have risen and of course the RMB is stronger against the euro. Western food and drink – coffee for instance – are more freely available in good quality but with prices higher than in Dublin. Local and regional Chinese cuisine is still fantastic value and quality, if you know where to look.
We started our second day in Beijing with a visit to Enter the Panda HQ and a chance to see Shane in action in his office and meet his business partner Dave. Then we took a taxi down to the Bell Tower (Zhonglou) and Drum Tower (Gulou) climbing the steep steps of both, soaking up the ambience of an earlier age. The Drum performance was worth the climb as were the hazy views over this surprisingly green city and across heavy traffic to the misty outline of the Forbidden City.
We whiled away an hour, during the muggy lunch time heat, with one of those over-priced coffees on the rooftop of The Drum & Bell Bar which overlooks the courtyard between the two towers, and then we wandered the hutongs, including the jazzed up Nanluoguxiang, where kitsch meets tradition.
But wander off the beaten tourist track by even 50 metres and you are rewarded by the realisation that, scratch the surface, and Beijing has not changed all that much. Modernity is only a thin veneer on age old traditions.
As evening closes in and the day-trippers depart, families come out to play and socialise, their only children gathering in small groups, heads shaved back to encourage the hair to grow darker and thicker. Old men and women walk circles, sometimes backwards, in the courtyard between the towers, taking their daily constitutional with determination. Lean men, and the occasional woman, plunge into the murky waters of Houhai lake, narrowly avoiding lingering tourists in their pedal boats while one ungainly swimmer tortuously swims the length of the lake. Friends play badminton, rusted bikes lean up against brand new 4 wheel-drives in the narrow hutongs; men crouch down on their hunkers to play mahjong or cards, eat noodles or to cook kebabs – “Chuanr” on hot coals; one even improvises and enhances the smoking flavours by applying a hair dryer to stoke the coals. Any surface, any time, anywhere will do for an impromptu game of cards – the bonnet of a car, the pannier of a bike, a patch of broken wall.
This is no picture post-card. It’s a living, breathing city with a cacophony of sounds, smells and sights that jangle your senses and, when you least expect, it you stumble on a patch of peaceful green or a bench beside the water.
We ended the day with Shane and Shan in Dali Courtyard – a gorgeous restaurant in the hutongs serving Yunnan food for lunch and dinner with no menu. Every table gets the same dishes distributed to diners from large silver platters.
The 11 dishes went something like this:
- Chilli beef with cucumber
- Wilted greens with a soy dressing
- Fried “haloumi-type” cheese
- Tofu tagliatelle with fresh mint and chilli
- Tender stem shoots of a cross between a cucumber and courgette plant (which resembled tender stem broccoli) with sliced garlic
- Stir-fried wild Yunnan mushrooms
- Shredded pork with mixed herbs and chilli, served with wafer thin pancakes
- Butterfly shrimp with deep-fried oriental basil leaves
- Stir-fried broccoli
- Dry-fried buffalo with potato and sesame seeds
- Butterflied lake water fish barbecued on lemon grass with a chilli, coriander and mint oil dip.
And all that, washed down with Dali beer, came to about €77 for the 4 of us.
It was a lovely way to end the day in such a peaceful setting and with the discovery that Yunnan cuisine is well able to measure up to that from Sichuan province.