Man, it's taken me so long to finish all of our China posts....but I really did want to get it done, so here it is.....
It was pouring like crazy when we left the Wushan fish restaurant, so we decided to take a cab. During the drive back, the Missus talked the cab driver into stopping at a location where She could take a photo of this:
So while the cab driver took a smoke break, the Missus climbed up a median and took Her photos.
Upon first leaving Beijing, the Missus had Her mom talk to Mr Li. We wanted to thank and pay our respects to all the great folks who took great care of us during our time in Beijing. So we decided on having everyone together for a banquet. Mr and Mrs Li picked us up and drove us through the streets of Beijing, where "he with the most nerve has the right of way." And after going through a series of stops and gates ended up on the second floor of an empty restaurant. But this wasn't just a restaurant.....it looked like we were on a military base, and this looked like the VIP/Officers club. It was nice to gather and have a meal with all the wonderful folks whom we had the pleasure of meeting in Beijing.
Once the dishes started arriving, Mr Li asked the Missus why I hadn't brought out my camera....sheepishly I had the Missus explain that "tonight is for friends....no pictures". Which didn't last very long. I did restrain myself and only took photos of two dishes that Mr Li and Mr Doo explained were very special. The first was a very tasty deer tendon dish.
The second this delicious fish and beancurd dish.
It was another wonderful night. I really am indebted to these folks for welcoming me and really making me feel welcome.
The Missus and I didn't sleep much that night. We spent much of the night reminiscing......we'd done so much in our time in China.
The Missus' soul may reside in Beijing; but Her heart remains in Her hometown of QingDao.
It was a great time revisiting all of those places that the Missus held in Her memory.
I was amazed and touched at how the Missus' family just welcomed me into the fold, as if I'd always been part of this wonderful clan. And of course, there were all those banquets...even two in one day! But what I remember most fondly is the soulful cooking of Fifth Aunt.
We had a chance to visit Jinan and meet relatives whom the Missus doesn't even remember.
I got a chance to meet some serious foodies, as the Aunts and Uncles here are really serious about their food.
In Hangzhou, I had a chance to visit West Lake(Xī Hú) which looked post card perfect.
And had a couple of chances to taste what is arguably Hangzhou's most famous dish Dongpo Rou a couple of times.
Suzhou remains one of the places I'd like to revisit. There's an amazing air of delicate artistry to the city. The Missus tells me, even the accent is rather delicate. The canals and gardens are studies in aesthetic design and beauty.
Nanjing, the "Capital of Six Dynasties" was our next stop. A proud city, with it's own unique beauty.
And it's own special dishes.....
There's a saying in Chinese that "two places ten miles apart don't share the same habits". We found that true of food as well.
There are times when grand descriptions of places really don't live up to expectations. I'll say this much, the Army of Terracotta Warriors exceeded my expectations.
As did the food!
I appreciated the the stick to your ribs flavors of Qin Cuisine.
In Chengdu/Jiangyang we met my Father In Laws family. Though we didn't have much time in the area, we managed to have a memorable dinner, with a dish that tasted like no other I'd ever had before.
We didn't know what we ate until we came home and the Missus saw the restaurant's sign.....
There was so much we had done....so much we had seen.....we dozed off and before you knew it, the sun had risen over Beijing, morning had broken. The ever gracious Mrs Li took us out breakfast before we left for the airport....the new Beijing, pumpkin porridge.
With the more traditional youtiao.....
In my mind, this is the China I visited.....so much is changing, so new, so quick, and yet, the backbone of tradition exists. I hope that history, the pride in declaring where you came from, the sense of identity, never goes away.....
We couldn't leave Beijing without visiting the Missus' favorite site, the Temple of Heaven (Tiāntán 天壇). We caught a bus to the southeastern side of Beijing and entered the beautiful compound of halls, temples, and gardens.
In spite of the crowds, there's still a sense of tranquility here. There aremany older women doing various forms of dance and other exercise. There are three main compounds on the temple grounds. The main one being the Hall for Prayer of Good Harvests, where the Emperor would come during the winter solstice to pray for a bountiful harvest.
The three tiered round structure is quite stunning.
One could literally spend a week exploring the gardens and structures, but we had a couple of hours.
So here are a few places that I thought were interesting. They may not be the most well known sites around the Temple of Heaven, but I enjoyed the stories and history. It's these little things that keeps me entertained.
So why not start with this.......yes, it's a wall.
The wall surrounding the Imperial Vault of Heaven is known as the "Echo Wall". It is said that one can hear the other when on opposite sides of the North wall. We tried it.....but I think the courtyard was too noisy and it didn't work out.
And then there's the door to the right. It's just a door, right? Yes, but there's an interesting story about this door. In the year 1779, Emperor Qianlong was 70 years old and not quite the robust healthy man he used to be. The walk to the Hall of Prayer was getting difficult. His ministers convinced Qianlong to build this door. He would be carried here on a chair, then walk the short distance to the hall. According to the story, Qianlong was worried that his descendants would become lazy and abuse this convenient door he declared that only his offspring that reach the age of 70 can use this door. So it's not called the 70 Year Old Door. Interesting tidbit, none of the emperor's after Qianlong lived to be 70, so he was the only one ever to use this door!
Then there's this.
In a design of three levels of marble stones stands what is know as the circular mound altar. There's a lot of symbolism, much of which refers to the number 9. The inner wall represents heaven. The most entertaining part of this was watching people queue up to have their photo taken standing on the Heaven's Heart Stone in the middle of the top level.
I heard it's supposed to be good luck......
Since this is the Missus' favorite place in Beijing, I'm sure we'll be visiting again. On this day, we were getting hungry and decided to find a restaurant MrD had told us about the night before. So we caught the bus. There's an interesting side note to what we saw with regards to the boom in China. It seemed that many of the traditional manners we being forgotten by the younger generations. The bus we caught was full of middle school kids, chatting on cell phones and smoking cigarettes!! Being cool I guess. When an elderly woman got on a couple of stops later, not one of them stood up to give her their seat. Not the way I was raised so of course I gave up my seat......but stuff like this bothers me. In this China, both parents have to work, so children seem to be raised by grandparents. Children are also treasured so they seem to be treated like they're the most important thing in the world. Nice, but not without consequences. I saw a grandmother try to scold her granddaughter for poor behavior on the bus. Instead of being sorry, the little girl made a fist, reared back, and slugged her grandmother! On the bus, in public.....
Anyway, we got off the bus in the general vicinity of where we thought the Wushan Fish Restaurant was. But of course we couldn't find it. So the Missus eventually called MrD on the phone...first question, "What restaurants are around you?" Like I said MrD, being the foodie that he is, uses restaurants as his main landmarks. He doesn't know the names of the streets! The instructions were something like, "from hot pot restaurant you need to go two blocks, there you'll see the lamb restaurant, keep walking until you see the baozi place, then make a right....."
We got to the restaurant just in time......there was a torrential downpour just as we got there. Funny thing, the place was right across a huge bus station. If we knew that, it would have been easy to ask for directions. But as MrD said, "I don't catch the bus, so I don't know about bus stations...." You gotta love it!
The interior of the restaurant was very modern and the patterns on the wall were made of post-it notes which had been filled out or signed.
Typical of restaurants of a higher tier in China, the menu was a large and book like, full of photos and descriptions.
After going through the menu, we made up our minds and the Missus placed our order as our tea arrived.
We started with what was called stir-fried purple cabbage, but was more of a purple cabbage slaw, like the Missus' relatives in Jinan made and what I make at home.
This wasn't particularly flavorful, more bitter than anything.
The radish sprout salad was much better, balancing the pungency with some acid.
Then of course, was the Wushan Fish. This Sichuan style of cooking fish is really popular in Beijing. The fish looks grilled, but it is really marinated, fried, then roasted. We chose the "No 1 Hot and Spicy" flavor and sole as our fish.
While it looked spicy, it really wasn't that hot. I wished everything was a bit more crisp instead of kind of water-logged, making it seem greasy, and perhaps a bit more of the multitude of flavors they call guaiwei (怪味 - strange flavor). The fish iteself was not bad and as you can tell it isn't bland, but nowhere as good as the "ugly fish at Mocuomen.
Still, it was a nice meal and we were full, even though we didn't order any carbs. It was time to head back for a nap.
A couple of months back, my good friends and I had one of our all too rare get togethers, this time at Little Sheep. During the conversation, "Xian Jiao" and I mentioned that even though hot pot is very enjoyable here in the states; it pales in comparison to what you'd get in China. Xian Jiao should know, she spent over half a year in Beijing.......
Which leads me to Mocuomen.......well actually it was Mr.D who led us to Mocuomen. I'd mentioned Mr.D in a previous post. That was the first meal of the night.......only Mr.D would make hot pot a dessert!
The front of Mocuomen really doesn't look like much....at least to me, just another shop on a street.
Like many other places, the restaurant was located upstairs and looked very modern, sleek, and very clean.
I told the Missus to have Mr.D go easy on us, because, heck, we'd just finished off a pretty hefty Xinjiang style dinner...full of lamb, bread, rice, etc......
So while Mr.D did order hot pot.......
So while the sauces seemed to be routine....instead of the usual "yuan yang guo", split hot pot that most folks here are used to, this was a milky, lightly herbal, "bone-soup" style broth that was quite luxurious, coating your mouth and tongue......
It did quite nice as the "broth" managed to coat whatever you dipped into it as it did you palate. It also allowed all the flavor of whatever you let take a short bath in the huo guo come through.
We had shiitake, tripe, intestine, bean curd sheets, and a bunch of other items........
This was really quite good, but the clincher was when this arrived.
I agree, doesn't look like much, minced shrimp, bound with some starch...... But then, Mr.D called one of the servers over. With two spoons she proceeded to created little shrimp dumplings for us......the shrimp flavor was distinct and quite good, but the texture is what made this stand out.
These basically just exploded in your mouth......then melted away....into a shrimp flavor ether. The Missus and I are still talking about this.....
The last item to arrive topped everything else. It really didn't look like much.......in fact, they call this "ugly fish" and it is indeed fairly...well, fugly.
It's more well known as Wushan Kao Yu.....the fish is first marinated, then I believe deep fried...finally it is probably roasted. There was an amazing amount of flavor going around, Sichuan Peppercorns (indeed Wushan is a county famous for its three gorges in Chongqing), chilies, a bit of sweet, and bit of guaiwei("strange flavor"), that savory-spicy-sweet-sour-mildly nutty, amazingly delici-yoso flavor. The fish was veyr moist with a nice bit of oil to carry all the flavor along. The version here had won some kind of award.....and I could see why.
This was an epic ending to a fun night of eating.....Mr.D kept the Missus in stitches all night long. And even though I don't understand Mandarin, laughter is contagious. And unlike the cousin of a friend of mine who used to crack jokes in Illocano to his family, then punk out on the folks who laughed along who didn't understand the language to feel superior ("tell me what are you laughing for...tell me what I said, ha?")....Mr.D understood.
I wish I could tell you where Mocuomen was, but I wouldn't know. You can however ask Xian Jiao. You see, I recommended this place to her before she left for Beijing. I guess she really enjoyed it, since we're still talking about it to this day.
During the last leg of our trip to China, we ended up back in Beijing. The son of a former coworker of my MIL, whom we really hit it off with during a previous dinner, offered to take us to dinner. We knew this wasn't going to be an ordinary dinner. You see, even though MrD was born and raised in Beijing, he and his wife are truly food lovers......they don't know the names of any streets or even addresses. Navigation around Beijing is done via their own internal GPS, it's based off restaurant locations! This was to be illustrated in a pretty funny way a bit later on during our stay in Beijing.
MrD and his Wife ended up taking us to two dinners....in a single night! The first stop was through a gate on some side street....I really had no idea where we were and neither did the Missus.
Once the car was parked we walked through a set of doors.....
And then through another set of doors.......
We could quickly tell what type of restaurant this was by the decor.
And by the photos in the menu....since I couldn't read it! This was obviously a Xinjiang cuisine restaurant, which got me kind of excited, I've had lots of Islamic Chinese food, but at that point in time, I really hadn't had very much honest to goodness Uyghur style dishes. There is a difference. From what I understand, most Islamic Chinese that we have here is based off of Beijing and Shandong style Halal cuisine, whereas true Xinjiang cuisine is based on what is eaten in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region.
This photo really got me hungry......it's called Kao Quan Yang (烤全羊) in case you feel like ordering it!
The name of the flat breads might sound familiar, it's called Kao Nang (烤馕), as in "naan".
One of the most popular dishes of Xinjiang Cuisine is Rice to be Eaten with the Hands (Xinjiang Shou Zhua Fan 新疆手抓饭). The problem for me was to remember to eat with my right hand as I'm left handed, and you know why that's a problem in Islam, right?
The rice was much richer than I thought it would be. It was very "mutton-ny".
Next up was the Xinjiang style Stewed Mutton (Xinjiang Shou Zhua Yang Rou 新疆手抓羊肉)
Which was very simple and basic in flavor.
Up next, was a variety of Chuanr......
Your basic "meat on a stick". I'm not a big fan of kidney, but I gotta say that it was my favorite along with the meat that was grilled on the reused and highly "seasoned" wooden skewers..... nothing like layers of flavors from kebabs of the past I guess.
Man, this was a load of food! But of course, this was just our first stop!
During the homestretch of our trip to China, we returned to Beijing. Of course we had to have Bei Jing Kao Ya (北京烤鸭), aka Peking Duck. In doing my research, I'd come up with a short list which included the old favorite Quan Ju De and the very popular Da Dong. So what we did was poll the Missus' and my Mother In-Laws friends and acquaintances. It seemed an interesting divide, the older generation, more steeped in tradition told us to go to Quan Ju De established during the Qing Dynasty(1864) and long the gold standard for Peking Duck. The younger generation preferred Da Dong, lighter, less fatty, using more modern techniques. To make matters more difficult, there was the possibility of Bian Yi Fang, home of the other Beijing Kao Ya, also established(1855 or 1885) during the Qing Dynasty. The differences in the duck are vast, Quan Ju De makes what they call "hung-roast duck" where the duck is roasted in a wood burning oven fueled by, if I'm to be believed what I was told date wood. Bian Yi Fang makes "closed oven" or "braised" duck. In the end, after being told that, "If you intend to return to Beijing, I'd suggest Quan Ju De, it is considered the original and most famous. Next time, try whatever is most popular, be it Da Dong or whomever might take its place." Which made sense, plus the Missus had Her first Beijing Kao Ya at Quan Ju De and I thought this would be a nice touch to a day where we'd explore what was left of "Her" Beijing.
We took the bus over to the Tiananmen area and walked over to Quan Ju De. We arrived and were escorted up the elevator to the dining area, which was quite busy.
Our Server went over the whole, long-winded spiel about the age and heritage of the ducks served here....maybe even the family tree for all I know. At the end, the Missus ordered.
When our duck arrived we were handed a card with our duck's serial number and some information. I made sure to tell the Missus, "it's ok, only a number....if our duck had a name, we wouldn't be able to eat it."
Our duck arrived and was carved for serving......
I recall being amazed at the waves of rendered fat rolling off the duck as it was being carved. This was going to be one rich meal.....
We both loved the Tian Mian Jiang, also known as sweet bean paste, sweet noodle sauce, or plain sweet duck sauce. It's not hoisin, Tian Mian Jiang is more savory and much more salty than hoisin.
The pancakes for the duck were very thin, you could almost see through them and had a fine mild stretch.
You are of course, waiting for the duck photos, so here goes:
As is customary with this type of duck service, the meat was carved and placed on a plate. Slices of meat covered by skin. I gotta say, this wasn't the neatest presentation I've ever seen.
The really crisp skin was placed on another plate....this was really great stuff.
Crisp, yet light, after the first "crunch" it almost melts in your mouth. The rest of the duck was rather oily and a bit on the rich side, but the meat had a nice flavor to it.
We also each got a small bowl of bone soup, something the Missus usually really enjoys, but this one was too funky for Her, having a strong almost offal flavor.
I kinda liked it.....very thick, with a real "wild" flavor.
We also needed something with a nice crunch and a bit of bitterness to offset the rich duck so we went with some simple gai lan.
No big deal..... Overall, this was a mixed bag...not quite as good as expected, except for the crisp skin. The Dan Bing and Tian Mian Jiang were excellent.
As we finished our meal, the Server told us to go upstairs where we could see the ducks being prepped to roast. For me, this was actually the highlite of the meal.
The ducks were hung getting ready for the ovens which still burn fruit wood. A couple of years back there was a big uproar when Quan Ju De made the decision to go with electric burning ovens. The backlash was so bad that the decision was reversed and the chain still uses the wood burning ovens for roasting the ducks.
After lunch we got on another bus as the Missus tried to find our way to Her "roots" in Beijing. I've done earlier posts on the Missus and QingDao, where She spent Her childhood. The Missus ended going to high school in Beijing, so we set-off in search of the school, heading down streets turning into various hutongs. We first managed to find where my Father In-Law first taught in Beijing. Originally Furen University, formed by the Order of Saint Benedict, Furen eventually merged with Beijing Normal University. The Missus made sure to stop and take a couple of photos for Her father, telling me that this is one of the few places that looks almost the same as She recalled.
The Missus was able to gain Her bearings from the front of the university, leading me down the narrow alleyways of the hutong, along a path She walked everyday about 20 years ago. Her "compass memory" took over as we walked pass doorways and little shops, winding our way through the hutong, the Missus telling me that this was among the last bit of the Beijing of Her memory that still exists.
After one of the turns, She stopped in front of these gates.......
These were the dormitories, where the Missus lasted a whole week before moving back in with Her parents. Having room-mates just isn't Her thing. I sometimes marvel at still being in one piece after all these years......
After a couple of more streets, alleys, and turns we stopped in front of these gates.
This was Beijing High School number 13, Her high school. As the Missus looked past the gates, I read the sign that said this was the former residence of Prince Tao....
"You went to high school in a Prince's palace?"
"Yeah, I totally forgot....."
"Man, that's pretty neat, kind of cool....."
"Not really, I mean it wasn't important enough for me to remember...."
Just then we were jarred out of our reverie by the ringing of bicycle bells. A hoard of pedicabs came to a stop. Turns out that Prince Tao's Mansion, aka Beijing numer 13 High School is a stop on the "Hutong Tour".
For some reason, this tripped a wire and set off my somewhat weird sense of humor. I just found it funny in a odd way. Like your high school being a stop on a Hollywood Map tour kind of way...... I still chuckle when I think of it.....my wife went to high school in a former Prince's Palace that is a stop on the Hutong Tour....I know, you had to be there........
Well, at least that's what I think the name of the restaurant is.... the Missus mentioned the name quickly in passing on Her way out the door.
We already had a pretty full day, from a good-sized breakfast, then a trip to the Forbidden City, followed by some "snacks" on Huguosi Street. But the day wasn't over yet.... Mr Li was to pick us up for a Banquet Dinner at 530pm. I'll tell you this much, folks in Beijing and QingDao seemed to be punctual, I mean punctual, impressively punctual considering the traffic and other diversions. 530 meant 530, and the Missus and I both appreciated, and admired that.
At 530 exactly, Mr Li met us in the hotel lobby. We hopped into the minivan, and Mr Li's wife, ever impeccably dressed was picked up a block away. This was to be a reunion of my Mother In-Law's friends and colleagues.... and we were to meet kindred souls along the way.
As with most large restaurants in big cities, this was multi-level affair. All major meals occurred on floors two and above.
Among those attending was Mr Doo and his wife, a gentle, kindly soul, my MIL was in her element. For us, meeting Mr Doo's Son and Daughter In-Law was to be a fateful meeting indeed.... you see, they are both food lovers to the millionth degree. I do mean to the millionth degree..... we're talking about people who are born and raised in Beijing, but don't know the street names.... they navigate and get their bearings using restaurants as their reference point! This was to come to play a bit later on in our travels. They are also of the same generation as the Missus, so there was much in common especially the humor.... I could tell that descriptions and references were all so important... it was not only the joke, but how it was presented in almost a poetic manner that was key. Laughter is contagious so they say..... and I found myself laughing, even though I understand almost no Mandarin!
Everything started with drinks.... here it was a very thick Date based drink, and Shaoxing, very nice Shaoxing that was slightly warmed. You dropped in a preserved plum (i.e. cracked seed), which made it even smoother.
Now here a funny thing happened.... my MIL told me to go ahead and start taking photos of the food as it arrived! To this day and moment, I'm not sure what it was, and how it was explained.... but it just seemed that I'd arrived at Food Blogger's Nirvana. The Servers were instructed to place the dishes in front of me; everyone waited until I snapped a photo before eating.... I can't really explain it, but I am indebted..... and this was not to be the last time this happened! Was China really the land of a billion foodies???? There's a kind of pride associated with knowing "the good stuff", and appreciation is... well, appreciated.... And I appreciated the graciousness of everyone as well.
I'm sure you're now waiting for the details, and I'm going to oblige as best I'm able. But I'm sure that most regular readers understand; I'm not a food writer, I'm a food eater. Secondly, and this may, or may not be surprising.... I take no notes. My memory, and my photos are my notes. I've never taken notes on anything I've posted on.... like I've said many times, I can never remember where I parked my car in the morning.... but I can recall what I ate, and where I ate it, five, and even ten years ago. But this was a challenge..... over the course of the trip we attended a total of seven banquets, not including the huge tasting menu in Nanjing and the Dumpling "banquet" in Xi'an. In this case, it seemed that the high points are what we remember of this 21 course extravaganza.....
The Xi Hu Duck (aka West Lake Duck):
Like duck jerky, chewy, with the flavor of five-spice and other seasonings.
This was called "Mountain Vegetable with Beancurd":
In reality, I have no idea what type of vegetable this was.... but it was delicious. Mildly sweet and bitter, this was the flavor of wild greens to the "nth" factor. In fact, when we traveled to Hangzhou and Suzhou we made sure to order this when we saw it on the menu. Still it was never as good as this.
Crisp and refreshing.......
Tianmu Dried Bamboo.
We had arrived just at the end of bamboo shoot season in Hangzhou. Tianmu Dried Bamboo Shoots are a specialty of Hangzhou. This wasn't especially memorable.
Okay.... everyone knows what this is, right?
Yes, it's roast pork...... but man, this was good, among the best I've ever had. The skin was thin and crisp, with nary the impression of oiliness, nor greasiness. The pork belly melted, and I mean melted in your mouth. I really didn't need the housemade sauce, and especially didn't need any help from the bowl of sugar provided.
And yet, it wasn't the memorable item of the night.... which was for me, the Jiangnan Carp.
I've done many posts on what I call "Suzhou Smoked Fish".... where the fish is first marinated then fried. I've found that there are two types, one that is fried then marinated for a good period of time, it is what I usually encounter, served as a "cold dish". Another is slightly marinated, fried, and served with almost a glaze a la minute like this...... which was one of my favorite dishes of the entire trip!
The Longjing Shrimp (i.e. Dragon Well Shrimp) a specialty of Hangzhou really didn't inspire us.
Call it looking for some great flavors.... the shrimp were cooked to perfection though.... it looked better than any version of this dish I've seen on the Internet.
The Missus really loved the Hangzhou boiled bean curd strip....
Actually, the Missus, even with Her moratorium on chicken loved the soup.... ahem, chicken broth....supreme chicken broth.
The Prawn Lion's Head.
Scallion Pancakes so thin, they were like crepes....
Delici-yoso Durian Pastry.... I mean delicious.
There were, of course a few dishes that didn't impress as much...mainly the beef dishes.
By no means bad, but they didn't "shine" quite as much.
And those that I found kinda odd.... like the sweet corn fritters with "sprinkles"..... which actually wasn't too bad:
I just had to get my "Western mind" around it.
I even enjoyed the "medicinal soup":
I really enjoyed the flavor...... I ended up drinking the Missus's bowl.... which came with its little own heating element as well. The soup was mild and cleansing, without anything overpowering.
The whole steamed fish came out soon thereafter as well.
One of the items I loved...... the "Mashed Taro in Pumpkin Shell".
Okay...... to some clean, the first thing I thought was, "wow..... poi!" And yet, it was not..... but it was tasty all the same. With the mild sweetness of the pumpkin, along with the savory attachment of the pinenuts, there was a tongue-coating goodness I enjoyed. In fact by this time, everybody had hit their limit.... but I was still going.
And yet..... there are the dishes that I don't remember.... these are captured in photos:
But I do remember the second to last dish that came out:
These were some of the largest Sheng Jian Bao I'd ever seen........
Moist, but without "soup".
And of course, the end was signaled with fruit.... in this case the watermelon was tasted like.... well watermelon..... which is not always the case here in the US.
In end.... if I'm to sum this up like the end of semester term paper, I can easily say; of all the wonderful banquets we had..... this was the most refined. And we met some wonderful folks as well!
It was also an introduction to the "social fiber", what we call the "ties that bind", you know.... that easy familiarity that is often described as "it is like we just were here yesterday." It was in full display here......
After a satisfying breakfast, we headed for the bus stop in front of our hotel, and headed for our next destination. We both loved the buses in Beijing, the routes are extensive, the prices in Beijing are usually 1 yuan (about 15 cents), the drivers and attendants/conductors serious, but usually helpful.... if not, someone on the bus will usually have some opinion of the best way to get where you need to go. The sometimes huge writhing mass of humanity surging onto the buses can be intimidating, and the crowds during rush hours can make you empathize with sardines, but off peak periods are pretty relaxed. At those times you'll see mostly students, older folks, including tons of grandmothers with their grandchildren. With both parents working, it seems that the role of raising grandchildren is left to their grandmothers. Being fairly early in the morning, we were caught in the morning rush, on bus 22....which took us to Qianmen (aka Zhengyangmen).
The Missus knew where we were supposed to go, but the question was how to get there? Access to the streets are blocked, so you need to find the right underground passage to cross the street. Of course, we ended up on the wrong side of the street a few times, but we finally ended up where we should have.
Tiananmen Square is huge, and on this day, right before the busy May first holiday, crowds were already pretty large. Hoards of people sometimes wearing the same colored caps, or jackets, being led by a "guide" carrying the same colored flag, or some other identifying object.....large flowered staffs seemed popular, lining up like little armies ready to take on the Forbidden City.
We had arrived during a unseasonal cold snap, so the wind delivered a pretty good chill.
After a pretty long walk, and a security check we arrived at the Forbidden City. It's kind of amazing, what angles can do. I think you recognize this photo from an earlier post.
Angles are everything...... if you move just a few yards to the left, this is what is actually going on.....
At the entrance to the Forbidden City. First of course, we needed tickets. While the Missus was making Her way forward in a typical "line", which makes you think that lines are really just conceptual, abstract ideas in China.....
During which time I got to watch the soldiers doing their morning exercise......
Upon entering we quickly noticed that even this early in the morning, the place was pretty busy.....
But we also noticed that the main masses were still being organized in Tiananmen Square, and these crowds were focused straight down the middle of the Forbidden City. The edges were fairly empty.....
I read that the Emperor would be carried over the stone carvings in his sedan. He would be the only one allowed to pass over the carvings. This was a long one.....
As with places like this, the grandness was impossible to capture....
And still...... the area of the Forbidden City that we found most interesting were the palaces North of the Hall of Mental Cultivation. Located up alleyways.....
Surrounding peaceful courtyards; this was living area of the Empress and Concubines. Many of the buildings feature displays that try to convey what life was like behind the walls of the Forbidden City.
Everything from restored sitting and sleeping areas to person effects are on display. There are displays of old photos of how concubines were selected, and how they rose through the ranks.
Lest you think that all Concubines were created equal, the Missus and I spent a good long time in front of this chart which details "allowances" for Concubines of different ranks. I found this quite entertaining. As with all photos, you can click to enlarge....
For example, on the third line down..... top ranked Concubines got 12 pork, while the lowers ranking Concubines got 9 1/2, 9, and 6. The next line is lamb, top ranking Concubines got one plate per day, while the Concubines of the next ranking got 15 plates per month, and so forth. The list covers everything from vegetables to chicken. The last line is coal.....
Some of the courtyards were so peaceful, you could close your eyes, barely hearing the murmurs of voices, away from guides and their megaphones, and perhaps imagine how life might have been....
We visited most of the other sights in the Forbidden City... the Imperial Gardens, and so forth....
But I knew it was time to leave when I saw this large, loud crowd in front of the, ahem, Hall of Earthly Tranquility.
And then the strangest thing happened. As we approached the huge doors of the Forbidden City, Soldiers moved in. The crowds trying to surge through the doors were being pushed out, a stray arm or two getting around the before they were slammed shut. The absurd thought went through my head, "oh-oh, Barbarians at the gate!" Folks were herded to the front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, and a rope barrier was put up, and used to move people away....
Folks seemed to be in a big rush.....
This being China, land of secrets.... no one bothered to tell anyone anything. But at least I took some good photos of areas that were crawling with people a few minutes before.
A few minutes later a party of people, I'm assuming VIPs arrived through the front gates of the Forbidden City. They walked into the Hall of Supreme Harmony, and the rope boundaries moved along with them. Hmmm, I'd now been forbiddened within the Forbidden City.... it was a good as time as any to leave.
As we got on our bus, the Missus had another destination in mind. On our way to the Great Wall, the gentleman driving us had a discussion about what else? Food with the Missus. Born and raised in Beijing, he'd be as good a source as anyone. We were after some traditional Beijing Snacks, and were told that you'd have to know, and go to the Hutongs to experience real Beijing food. What's out on the main streets are the big restaurants, the KFCs, various regional restaurants, and such. But there was one place we could check out. Huguosi Street.
Back in the Qing Dynasty, Huguo Temple (Huguosi) was famous for its temple fair, held on the eighth day of each lunar month. The fair is no longer, but Huguosi Snack Shop carries on the snack tradition. Though there are many locations of Huguosi Snack Bar, this is the original location, founded in 1956.
Walking down the street through the construction dust we entered the packed to the seams shop.
The Missus got in the endless line........
While the Missus looked over the menu of snacks, some of them having a lineage of over 600 years, with names like "Donkey Rolling in the dirt", I found us two seats on a shared table.
Here's what the Missus got. Some of which She hadn't even heard of before:
Looks like fried tofu, doesn't it? These were cubes made from mountain yam, with mung bean in them. Firm, and slightly chewy, these had some heft to them. The flavor was mildly sweet. Overall, not bad.
I'm not sure why the Missus ordered the "every thing that''s leftover" soup. Basically, offal soup.
Whoa.... this was hardcore stuff. A few sips was all I could manage.... the Missus only one.....
This one is called "Chao Ge Da" (炒疙瘩), literally "stir fried flour knots".
The peanuts and pickled greens were very mild. The knots of flour were very doughy, and pretty tasteless. Supposedly, during the early days of the PRC, a woman and her daughter ran a snack shop. A customer requested a special snack, and thus this was created.
Not my favorite dish in the world.
Your basic Beef in bread......
The meat was delicious, the bread was on the dry side.
And finally, something I enjoyed, but the Missus didn't. This is called "Miancha", but there's no noodles (Mian), and I can't for the life of me figure out how tea (Cha) comes into the equation. I'm sure there must be some really great story.... but I haven't been able to track one down.
It's basically millet porridge mixed with sesame paste and some salt. It's quite heavy, but I enjoyed the savory nuttiness of the sesame paste. The Missus, not real big fan of sesame paste didn't care for it.
The Missus also picked up some snacks to share with Her Mom later on.
That's the "Donkey Rolling in Dirt" on the left side..... Wan Dou Huang, "Pea Flour Cake" on the right.
I left stuffed, mostly because of the Miancha, but the Missus wasn't satisfied yet. She noticed this tiny, busy Jiaozi shop on the street.
And some mutton and celery dumplings sounded great. This shop only sold dumplings in quantities of 25! 12 yuan(just under $2) for a batch. And so we ate 25.....
A bit too much celery, but a good combination.... you could still make out some mutton-ny flavor. The wrappers were decent, but nothing to write home about. What I liked the least was the really bad vinegar..... way too sour. Tell you what though... there was no doubt these were hand made.
And while this Lu Rou Hua Shao (Donkey Meat in Sesame Bread) shop looked tempting.
It was time to go......
The Missus however decided to stop at the snack shop across from our hotel.... to stock up on Suan Nai (yogurt), and while there She grabbed one of these.
At first I was hesitant, I'm not a big fan of wowotou, nor had I enjoyed the Corn Meal Bao I had at a Shenyang Restaurant in the SGV a few years back. This was pretty good, the corn meal bun was much more moist than I thought it would be, and the filling of preserved radish was delish.....
Man was that some eating for the day...... however, in a few hours we had a banquet to attend!!!!
Is what the Missus told me on the flight to Beijing. The Missus repeated this as I arose from a post Lu Rou Huo Shao and Suan Nai induced coma. Evening had come around, and though I'd probably not eat dinner, the Missus set out to provide evidence. And it didn't take very long to prove Herself correct. On one of the side streets stood the University's "restaurant row" of sorts. Though many of the little carts and folks grilling meat on open braziers had been "cleaned up", there was still a good bit of activity.
It was a mecca of little restaurants for students, single guys, and other workers. Here are a few photos of some of the places.
It seemed like mostly hot pot and Sichuan style shops, though I loved the effort one of places put in with the "Engrish" sign. Laobester Soup anyone?
A few blocks away a Jian Bing stand was doing steady business.
Though this stand made the "crepe" on the traditional round griddle, it too was stuffed with lettuce, or a type of cracker.
So we decided to pass. Plus, I really wasn't very hungry.
The Missus did get Her "corn fix" at the stand next door though......
The Missus said the corn tasted strange.... as in "like dirt" strange, so I made Her discard it. It was a nice little stroll, and helped us make a few plans for.....
....the next morning. The side wasn't quite as crowded at 6am, though the sun was up and brightly shining.
Nearer to the street, the various shops were a bit busier, and it was easy to pick out the one we wanted to try. You look for the line........
The Missus was sure that this was the right choice..... She raised Her nose in the sir, much like our mutt Sammy, sniffing, and said, "this is old school youtiao."
The place was run by two sisters and their brother from Anhui. Though they all looked barely out of their teens, they worked with calm efficiency. The young lady handled the demanding crowd, eager to grab their food and go, with a very gentle, "please don't worry, no need to rush, we'll get you your food soon." While the young man made the fried crullers up fresh.....
Cutting the dough with the skill acquired through countless "reps", the young man stretched and twisted the dough just before lowering it into the hot oil.
The dough puffed up proudly, and was deftly turned several times.
Then removed to the basket next to the wok. The young man looked a bit alarmed when he first saw me taking a photo..... possibly thinking I was the "food police" perhaps? He gently spoke to me in Mandarin, when I answered, "I'm sorry, I don't speak Mandarin" in English, he smiled, and moved his index finger as if snapping photos on an invisible camera, and went back to work. I guess it all made sense to him now......
While the Missus was placing our order and paying, I found us a couple of seats in the crowded dining area. The Missus also ordered some porridge and youtiao for Her Mom back at the hotel. This porridge had been prepared a bit ahead, and was given to us in sealed cup.... I guess they've got their bases covered.
While the Missus enjoyed Her porridge.....
And a couple of tea eggs, I had a couple of Baozi.....
The Baozi filling was quite tasty, the tops nicely steamed, but the bottoms a bit soggy. I was quite full after four, and couldn't quite believe how folks, like the two young men on the next table could chow down two dozen of these.
Over the years, the Missus had told me that the youtiao in the states could never measure up to what She grew up eating in China. She fondly recalls walking down to the youtiao stand every morning, with an old pail that was to be filled with youtiao to be eaten with the families morning porridge. She has tried to articulate what made the youtiao in China so perfect, but I could never understand.... until this morning. This youtiao, looking very humble, was amazingly light, and airy, not overly doughy like what we've usually had in SoCal. The exterior has a gentle "crackle" of sorts, but is not too crusty. It is not oily in the least, and has a mildly yeasty flavor, though I'm sure the oil it is cooked in may not be the cleanest in the world. It is also the perfect vehicle for dipping into porridge.
It was the best of several youtiao we had on our trip. For me, be it so humble, it was a revelation. For the Missus, it was comforting..... so much had changed in Beijing over the years, but this had not.
Warning: This is pretty long post..... just so you know.....
As we were on the jetway exiting our flight from Seoul, one of the gentleman to the right of me let out a "huuuuaaackkk p-tew", and spit out a good sized ball of phlegm. I laughed, nudged the Missus, and told Her; "hey, I've just been welcomed to China!"
We arrived in Beijing at around 9pm. My MIL's good friend "Mr Li" was there at the airport to pick us up. The Missus had refused to really look at a map of Beijing until just before we arrived. She was bemused at what She saw..... When She had left Beijing, there were two "Ring Roads" completed, and work was almost done on the 3rd Ring Road. Beijing Normal University, where the Missus went to college, and where both Her parents taught was inside the 3rd Ring. At that time the location of Beijing Normal University was considered to be suburban, and to some almost rural, now with six ring roads circling Beijing, BNU is thought to be pretty close to the center of Beijing. All perspective I guess..... Having traveled a bit, we both know that the first day we arrive in a new city can be a bit confusing, but the Missus thought that She'd at least recognize some of Beijing...... She didn't.....
Yes, Beijing was huge, approximately 6500 square miles. On websites such as this one, Beijing's size is calculated to be the same as all of Belgium! My Mother In Law had managed to keep in touch with, and entertain friends, relatives, and former colleagues over the years. This proved to be quite fortuitous, as Mr Li, generous and gracious, made sure that all went well with us as we arrived. We stayed at a hotel located right at the gates of Beijing Normal University, and still the Missus didn't recognize a thing. It was late, almost 1030, and pretty cold for this time of the year, breaking into the mid-30's, but the Missus and I set out for something to eat. Deciding to stay close to the hotel, the only thing promising was a place making Shaanxi style food.
I'll just say that the food wasn't very good; a poor interpretation of the style of food we'd have later on the trip. Looking at the few tables with customers, it seemed that most folks choose this restaurant as a place to have a couple of beers than for the food.
Especially disappointing was the classic Shaanxi Dumplings in Sour Soup.
I'd rather not dwell on this meal.... it was just sustenance......
As is usual on our trips, we got up early, like 5am, and was up and about by 530. The Missus decided that She wanted to explore Beijing Normal University, so we were off.....
There were landmarks the Missus recognized, but many of the structures were newer, or the building done around the structures had changed the viewer's historical perspective.
With scores of cars, extensive bus service, the subway, and reasonable taxi service, we didn't see many people riding bikes, and the bikes stacked and covered in dust was evidence of the fact that this wasn't the Missus's bike-riding Beijing any longer.
Of course the Missus had to check out one of the cafeterias to see what the food was like nowadays.
The Missus concluded that not much had really changed in this department over the years!
Instead of street stands, there were now various food vendors across from the cafeteria. This one specialized in Jian Bing, the folded crepe that the Missus loved.
The process was different from how things used to be. The shape of these before being folded was square, and the crepe pretty thick, almost like a tortilla.
Also, nowadays it seemed like a variety of fillings were used. But the most disconcerting thing was that youtiao once the standard filling of Jian Bing was no longer offered. In this case it was replaced with a lettuce leaf!
Still, we'd need some fuel for what lay ahead, so we bought one. It wasn't very good. Too thick, and very bland.
As we walked around the campus, the Missus was amused at the interest I displayed in a particular room.
I guess it was all the thermoses, many with cartoon characters, or writing on them that caught my attention. The hissing and gurgling noises emanating from the room also piqued my interest. The Missus laughed and told me this was the "hot water room". Students dropped off their thermoses in the morning before heading off to class. On the way back to their dorms, they filled up their bottles and had enough "hot water for the night."
There was one building in particular we had to find. And after searching around a bit we found it.
This was the Chemistry Building in the university. As we entered and walked through the halls, the Missus spoke of how new this building was when they lived here. Her Mother would lecture in auditorium sized classrooms such as this one.
The Missus would always emphasize that you could always hear Her Mother no matter which row you sat in, loud and clear. No microphone or other aid was necessary.....
As we walked out of the University and down Xingtan Lu, we decided to have our "real" breakfast at this little shop.
The drill here was the same as at any of the perhaps tens of thousands similar shops in Beijing. You enter, walk up to the counter and place your order. You pay (you always pay first), and your order is either brought out to you, or as in this case, you walk over to a table, hand the receipt to one of the folks working there. Food was plopped on a cafeteria tray, and you were good to go.
In this case some Millet Porridge.
Along with the ubiquitous preserved vegetable.
Which tasted pretty good.
Perhaps a Tea Egg, one the Missus's favorite things.
And a couple of Baozi. In this case one pork and one preserved vegetable.
The steamer baskets of Baozi were just sitting on a table, so they weren't very hot, and the dough was kinda soggy. But the preserved vegetable filling was very good..... I decided to have another. I don't recall the specific price, but it was somewhere south of $2/US for the two of us.
We returned to our room and got ready for the morning festivities. When planning our activities for Beijing, a visit to the Great Wall of China was first on the list. Most people visit Bādálǐng, the most popular destination for a visit to the Great Wall. Reading up a bit, the parts that stood out to me were the phrases, crawling with tourists and hawkers, visited by millions, tourist trap, and even a theme ride (!). Looking for alternative, I noticed a hike, of either 10 or 11 kilometers, depending what you read, from Jinshanling to Simatai. But 10 klicks? Usually, it's the Missus who takes me on what I call "death marches". And here I'm wanting to do this to myself? I think China really went to my head! There was one roadblock..... for reasons not clear to me, my MIL insisted we NOT do it, and go to Bādálǐng instead. But somehow, during our trip from the airport, Mr Li convinced my MIL that Jinshaling to Simatai is a wonderful experience. Mr Li even set-up a driver to take us the 125km to Jinshaling (in Hebei Province) , drop us off, and pick us up in Simatai. Arriving in Jinshaling, we paid our admission(40 rmb), and made our way up the path..... after walking a bit I looked up and saw it.
This is one of those cases where no photo can ever capture the grandness.......
We back-tracked a bit and went to check out a couple of other towers. Depending who you talk to, we did something like 37 towers. Ever watch CCTV? Then this sign might interest you....
Apparently the view of the Great Wall shown every morning on CCTV was taken from the East Square Terrace.
The views are exquisite. You notice the different location and sizes of holes in the wall? The smaller holes drain water, and go to the "China" side. The larger holes on the other side? We were told, "water to China, and rocks to Mongolia"! LOL!
And in the beginning there are signs along the way.
A bit further down, and the signs stop.
You'll also start noticing the amount of stairs..... you go up to 37 towers, then you come down 37 times. You also start noticing that parts of the wall here isn't restored. Those 45 degree angle ascents and descents get a bit more difficult.
You'll notice that portions of the wall have collapsed, and there are a few portions where you cross a thin strip of stone with no handhold, but even for me, a person who really doesn't like heights, it wasn't too much.
Still, after six or seven kilometers, I was getting really short winded when climbing up to the towers. There were times when I thought my MIL was right. But whenever that thought entered my mind, I just had to turn around and look at the view......
And I'd instantly know the effort was worth it.
When you get to the Simatai portion of the wall, you'll have to pay another 40 rmb. What happens if you don't want to pay? Do they throw you off the wall? The wall here is restored, but not quite as nicely done as Jinshanling in my opinion.
You know when you've pretty much made it when you see the "rope bridge", which sounds great, but is pretty much over-rated. You also have to pay 5 rmb to cross.
Think you got it made? Not so fast as you have to climb up another good and long set of steps, then read the sign 1300 meters to the parking lot..... But in the end, it's all worth it.
Our driver picked us up, and we headed back to Beijing. When we got back to Beijing, while I was taking a shower, and a short nap, the Missus went hunting for one of my favorite things in the world. Suan Nai, which translates literally to "sour milk"....... AKA yogurt. She returned to our room with a good variety.
Strangely, the most expensive version was our least favorite. It wasn't sweet nor sour enough, and very thick, almost like gelatin.
We enjoyed the regular, very cheap store brand more.
But our favorite, by far was this brand.
I thought it was just sweet and sour enough, and at 1.8 rmb, about 25 cents, it was a bargain to me. I sucked down three like there was no tomorrow.
About that time, the Missus's Mom knocked on the door. She'd had lunch with her uncle, who has lived in Beijing for at least 6 decades. They'd gone to lunch..... I heard at several places, and she'd returned with this for us. Lu Rou Huo Shao:
Basically donkey meat in sesame bread, and man it was good. I mean really good..... and no it doesn't taste like a$$ - no pun intended.
It looked like thin slices of brisket like meat, along with skin, tendon, liver, and intestines, which provided a balanced flavor. Think of it as wilder than beef, but not as gamey as venison. There's a bit of sweetness in there as well. I've read that donkey meat is pretty tough, so most preparations include a good stewing or braising. You gotta love my MIL, She knows how much I enjoy good food, and always thinks of me when She finds something tasty! I could just imagine a good donkey meat restaurant, right next to the Cuy stand! I'd be the first in line.
Being so wiped out, we took a short walk in the evening, but I wasn't very hungry. With the prospect of another full day ahead of us, we got to bed early. The Great Wall, Suan Nai, and donkey meat...... after an inauspicious start, things were looking up!
I know this was a long post, so thanks for hanging in there and reading!