Jeeem’s Travel notes
March 23rd, 2002 - Saturday
Used most of my morning getting my legs to work again. Boy am I sore. This tea situation in the morning sucks. Every day, at least twice a day, the housekeeping staff drop off a large, chrome thermos of hot water and four tea bags of SCEN TED TEA.....you think I'm joking? The packages say just that....SCEN TED TEA. I'll prove it by scanning one of them and later posting the .jpg on my website to prove it! The stuff smells like soap and tastes like something reminicent of an Ivory bar. Yuck.
I ventured out to the main hotel and played around on the internet for a while to the tune of ¥ 119. Damn thing is expensive.
Restaurants here don’t even think about opening until around 11:00 a.m., so I killed some time until 10:45 a.m. Venturing out, I didn’t have to go far, only heading down Chegongzhuang until just past the hotel to a small dingy hutong. Turning north and entering the hutong, I began to get a good feel that this one was alive in the form of authentic Beijing style.
I stopped at a small hole-in-the-wall, point & eat restaurant that was just setting up for lunch. God only knows what the name of this place was because......you guessed it.....everything was in Chinese! I was seated at a table near the front counter and given a menu that luckily had a section in English. So, "point & eat" was not going to be the score today. The proprietor handed a handful of papers to the busboy to give to me, explaining the different types / styles of cooking from various provinces. It was in English. I caught his eye and bowed humbly in approval. He smiled and nodded.
I eventually settled on jiao zhá yángrou, better known in English as, “Braised Mutton with Onions.” It took a while to prepare so I sipped the “ever-present” tea and patiently waited, taking in my strange surroundings. There is so much to see and take in, even in China’s everyday, mundane life…. plastic strips hang in every entry way, allowing to open the doors but leave the sand and dust (or rather most of it) out. Workers are constantly cleaning wherever you go. Mopping, polishing, wiping . . . . constantly. Appearances are relatively clean and orderly except in some of the smaller grocery stores and the odd shops not meant for foreigners.
A small toddler waddles into the doorway adorned in traditional Chinese dress of bright colored silks and high-neck collar wearing a cute hat. The Mandarin “chatter” begins. A child always brings smiles no matter where you are in the world.
Strange bottles of varying sizes, from a quart to well over gallon size, line shelves and are filled with brown to dark brown fluid and strange looking contents. Some have spoons, ladles or tongs in them, obviously to serve the noxious looking mixtures. Refrigerated coolers are filled with wines, beers, orange juice, teas and the ever-present Coca-Cola cans, sans English and bearing Chinese characters.
My dish arrives and it looks delicious. No bowl of rice accompanies it, which surprises me. An old pro now, I break into the chopstick container, snap them apart and dig in. Chinese eyes are on me for a bit, curiosity obviously killing them and I pass the test. Eyes avert as there is nothing to see here, just an American enjoying his meal. The mutton dish is as good as it looks. I finish my meal and resist the temptation to purchase a Coca-Cola, sticking to my tea. The tea is good enough and comes complete with the floating bits of tea leaf. I reflect on the book I am currently reading, 'Tis by Frank McCourt, where Angela McCourt complains to Frank's wife Alberta (Mike) about tea bags in America, touting that a decent cup of tea is made from loose tea. This is the first time in my life I've drank tea in this fashion.
I get up, pull on my wind breaker and settle my bill, which comes to a mere ¥ 28, which is about $2.25 U.S. Not bad. I love eating at these places. The food is good and cheap. I’ll visit here again. Other menu items on the list were: Ox stomach trimmings, Fried eggplant, eel with sauce, beef tongue in peanut satay and even more exotic delights too numerous to list here.
After leaving I continued up the hutong and began peering into stores and getting to know my surroundings until the feel began to change. The neighborhood turned out to be a bit unfriendly as I pressed on. My pace quickened as I passed a bicycle cart laden with Bok Choy, fruits and yams, noticing the peering eyes of the local folk had narrowed, telling me clearly I was not welcome.
The hutong was shaped in a “U” leading back to Chegongzhuang Lu, the main road. Finally, I was back into my environment of sorts. I can't help but wonder how many places like this exist in this city. I'm sure there are worse. Just as in America, there are places you just should not be. Trouble is, I've always seemed to have a propensity for finding them.
I strolled east, heading for a Kodak Photo shop I had spotted yesterday. I’ve learned to utilize my time while in a taxi or a bus to spot good landmarks and things I want to visit in the future. On the way, I strolled into an open market and got to see some really weird stuff. I ignored the stares and focused on the wonders of things Americans were not meant to see. Skinless dog, rabbit, something that looked like a pig and other macabre items were hanging on hooks, ready to be sectioned and cut. Small, crystalline packets containing dried nuggats that looked too much like insects. Insects, alive, in containers, wriggling upon one another, enough to give Steven King the willies. Next stop, a tiny bakery where I watched flour tortillas being made. These were just like back home in El Paso, albeit a bit thicker and larger, but basically the same right down to the smell when cooking, which is delicious. I made a mental note to return here.
At the photo shop I was met with giggles when I tried to negotiate a sale in English. It’s surprising how much you can get done through nods, pointing, waving and generally flailing the hands. At times I felt so stupid when I would catch myself speaking my native English, but louder and slower, somehow thinking that I could get my point across that way. Somehow, we determined that my photo order will be ready Sunday afternoon. Things don’t close around here on the weekends, it actually gets busier.
On the way back to the hotel, I stopped at the bakery for a closer inspection. While looking around I discovered my favorite glazed pastry thingies. So, after exclaiming out loud in glee, I ordered two of these heavily glazed things. I suffered a nano-second of guilt for doing so, but quickly rationalized my NEED for them. Then, on to the market where I picked up a large coke…..okay, so call me weak.
Once back, I lounged and watched a DVD called, “Rounders,” that Alison had loaned me. That was a treat. I then patiently waited for Zhang Ye (my friend whom I'd met online on 'Virtualtourist.com') to call for our exotic dinner this evening. Around 8:00 p.m. I called his home, wondering where he was and figuring he had been detained. I wanted to know so I could head out somewhere else if he was not coming. His wife told me he had been trying to contact me and told me to call his cell phone, which I did.
Seems he had been waiting in the main lobby of my hotel as the hotel could not find my room number and Zhang Ye had lost it. Already dressed, I went to meet him. I was pleased to find him dressed casually, as this had worried me a bit. His driver was out looking for me, so we had a little time to chat up some small talk while waiting. Once the driver arrived we left the hotel lobby and hopped into the car. I had never met anybody who had their own driver before...this was kinda neat. We then drove out to one spot that was reputed to be a real hotspot in dining, only to find it had been torn down. So much for the hotspot. My tourbook said that you should always call first as places often come down as fast as they go up in Beijing.
We then headed down Chegongzhuang to a food district awash in Neon. Chinese love neon lights. It’s pretty too and really gives you an excited feeling to see globs of red, blue, green, yellow and orange blinking and non-blinking Chinese characters and strange dragon symbols. Chinese love dragons too.
We were met at the roadside by both the “ever-present” green uniformed soldier and a doorman decked out in very fancy attire. This was obviously a five-star restaurant. The doorman wore a long, red jacket that went to his ankles, adorned with swirly white embossed designs. His matching hat was the traditional brimless “pot” style and he wore white gloves. This was freakin’ cool!
As soon as we exited the car, the complimentary burst of Mandarin began. You have to experience this to know what it is like. It is kinda like somebody throws a switch on inside of you, causing you to immediately feel left out. Maybe it’s just me. I began to feel like I had just been totally separated and was very isolated. One minute I was speaking English, which was a real treat after days on end of sign language and the like....and the next minute WHAM! You are reminded that you are in a very foreign country. Perhaps it's me as it brought back my days living in El Paso, when I'd be surrounded by Spanish and not knowing a lick of it then.
Zhang Ye and I were escorted into the restaurant while the driver (God only knows what his name was) parked the car. The restaurant was brightly lit and almost gawdy with bright colors, baubles, lanterns, pictures and even a patio area with a garden that was complete with a running stream, water wheel, bonsai trees, a bridge and a pagoda. Very fancy. The “waiting” area had a large mahogany table (very low to the ground) about eight inches thick and complete with wooden, barrel shaped stools. The centerpiece on the table was real, an exotic flower arrangement that would have shocked an American florist. Very, very fancy.
This restaurant is a “hot pot” restaurant. The tables are marble with decorative inlays of local “rose stone” kinda like a pink jade of sorts. In the middle of the table is a rectangular hole about a foot and a half wide by maybe ten inches, with a set of burners in it. The “pot” is brought to your table and is separated into two “compartments” each about eight inches deep and filled with a liquid broth “base” and some varied ingredients, some recognizable, some not. One side is mild and one side is “hot.” The pot is called a “love bird” pot and naturally there is a story to this. One that I am not prepared to tell here as I’m already tired of typing.
The “HOT” side is WAY out of my league. It contained Thai-like peppers that flavored the base that also includes a selection of other small Chinese peppers. While the pot is heating, a woman brings out your raw, uncooked selections from the menu. We went ultimate exotic and selected the following:
1. Duck tongue
3. Pig intestines
4. Ox stomach
The waitress also brings out thin, raw slices of pork and beef, bok choy, Chinese lettuce and dipping sauce.
There are two basic types of dipping sauce. One is an oil, probably soy or sesame oil, to which you add some chopped garlic. The other is a brown, dingy looking sauce that is primarily made from sesame but is a tad salty. To this sauce you add chopped green onions. This whole shebang happens rather quickly and appears rather ceremonial and I guarantee you this.....if you do not know what to do, which to stir, dipping sauce from dessert, what-to-place-where and the like, you would be lost. You can't ask because nobody knows English. I'm serious! Anyway, all the while you are busily preparing everything for your meal, you wipe your fingers on a moist, rolled towel in a shallow dish. Rice is totally optional and not considered a staple in this type of eating style, which is unique to only certain Chinese and Mongolian provinces.
The oil dipping sauce is mainly used for the “hot” side of the hotpot. It is said the oil counteracts the strong hot pepper and prevents your stomach lining from it’s heat. (At first I scoffed at this. Later, I thanked GOD for it) The brown, dingy looking sauce is for the milder side.
The technique is relatively simple…You pick up a raw piece of material and “dip” it into the now boiling hot pot, allowing it to cook (which does not take long) before removing it, dipping it into the proper sauce and finally eating it. I began with the rolls of raw pork, using the mild side. Not too bad but no big cigar either. I progressed to the pig intestines (very bland) and the eel (better, but not too exciting) the duck tongue was also bland, tough and difficult to strip off the cartilage without using my fingers.
The “hot” side of the hotpot was freakin’ scary hot. This stuff is NOTHING like Mexican hot peppers. Not even in the same league! It was also nothing like anything I had ever tried before. My tongue quite literally went weird on me, beginning to tingle first then it just went numb. It’s a whole different story when it hits your esophagus and stomach. I felt a warm, tingly glow followed by a dull ache in my tummy. I tried this side ONLY ONCE and then backed off. That stuff was DANGEROUSLY hot. God only knows what it feels like upon exit. Ha! (Sorry for the bathroom humor Wanda....Couldn’t resist that).
The driver seemed disappointed that I did not eat any more from the HOT side and, despite my protests, kept piling stuff on my little dish. I just avoided it, but eventually a little of the “juice” got on my regular stuff and even then my tongue began to tingle and go numb. I flashed him a “look” once, developing quite the resentment for him and trying to communicate my frustration but he either ignored it or did not understand.
I need to mention what the food looks like when it is brought out…It’s so damn pretty that you don’t want to disturb it. The raw beef and pork is bright pink & white, cut paper thin, rolled, stacked and decorated with potato rosettes, vegetables in the shape of animals and thin slivers of carrots, beans etc. Everything looks like it took ages to create. Very beautiful and very, very impressive.
Turns out Zhang Ye is the Deputy General Director of the China Securities Regulatory Commission. I have no friggin’ idea what that is, but it sure sounded impressive. His driver didn’t speak a lick of English whatsoever but joined us for dinner and spent most of his time lighting our cigarettes, serving us and motioning for the waitress to ensure our tea glasses were full. What a trip.
We ate and talked until the wee hours when it finally looked as if they were closing. A table full of Chinese guys in business suits, next to us, got pretty rowdy as they got increasingly intoxicated. Funny to watch. We also had entertainment in the form of female dancers in some pretty interesting outfits….heh, heh,……Chinese comedians and singers. It was all pretty cool, but I can’t say the “exotic” food was all that great. No fried scorpion here, so I’ll have to try it elsewhere. All-in-all it was a very enjoyable night and a very pleasant and friendly way to end the evening. When Zhang Ye's driver pulled up next to my building, we exchanged addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses, vowing to stay in close touch.