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April 03, 2007

Taking in Beijing's Culinary Delights (and the Odd Fist Fight)

Is there room in the back?

Day 26: My first night in Beijing, I bathed in an eighteenth-century palace, rode on a bus more packed than I thought possible, and ingested the spiciest cabbage in existence. This was before the fight broke out.

Let's begin with the palace. It was built as a residence for a Ching dynasty prince, and later turned into a Sichuan restaurant, which was something the prince never saw coming. According to lore, it was Deng Xiao Ping's favorite place to go for dinner, and in 1995 it was fashioned into the China Club Hotel. The China Club is something all too rare: an expensive hotel with character. I'm not sure my room was the prince's actual bedroom--you probably need to own a Gulfstream for that--but that was okay with me. My room, I thought, just might have been the quarters of the prince's favorite concubine, and that her spirit would visit me during the night. (No such luck, as it turned out.)

The China Club Hotel

The bathroom was such that I couldn't decide which looked more appealing: having a bath, or taking a shower. I struggled with the decision for a good eight minutes, then decided to do both. Not long after, my guide, David Spindler, arrived. David Spindler is a man who grew up in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and is one of the world's foremost experts on the Great Wall of China. Over the next two days, the plan was for David to lead me on a hike over a 450-year-old stretch of wall. But before we could start that, there was a more pressing issue: dinner.

We walked out to The Avenue of Eternal Peace and hopped on a bus, with an atmosphere at odds with the street on which the bus was driving. Before I describe the bus though, I should say a thing or two about Beijing. The first is that the city is not so crowded that visitors are swept away by a pedestrian riptide, as many might expect. Navigating the sidewalks of London or New York, in fact, is more of a challenge. The second thing is the drivers are nuts, and so are the cyclists, and the pedestrian for that matter, but all three ingredients work together in a kind of surreal clockwork. The third thing is that Beijing has a lot of excellent modern architecture--more, in fact, than any city I can think of, though I hear Shanghai is similarly strong in this department.

My room at the China Club Hotel

Which isn't to say the whole city is one big eye-popping modern wonder. There are vast swaths of it that are merely okay, and vaster swaths of drab communist-style apartment blocks, though the funny thing about drab communist-style apartment blocks is that you also find them in capitalist countries.

So about that bus ride. In Beijing, when you get on a bus, you buy a ticket from the conductor, which is also how it works in Britain. Ours was a foul-tempered, sharp-faced woman standing on the seats next to the rear doors. She would yell at customers as they fought their way on the bus, yell to them between stops, and yell to them as they fought their way off, barking out missives and orders, handing out tickets, taking money, then whipping her head around to shout at someone else. This is all quite normal, I'm told.

Who let the gwailo on the bus?

The restaurant we visited is called Fu Jia Lou, and it specializes in food on the verge of extinction. Mention Fu Jia Lou to a local under seventy, and their face will pucker. The dishes here are throwbacks, traditional yet bizarre Beijing culinary fare that no one seems to want to eat anymore, the Chinese equivalent of tripe, gizzard and pig's feet (which are, themselves, the Western equivalent of hamburgers and pork chops in China).

One of the dishes David ordered was Jiemo Dun, or cabbage in mustard sauce. Not the most appetizing sounding culinary creation, you're thinking. So it may come as a surprise that the English language just doesn't have what it takes to describe cabbage in mustard sauce, and the reason is this: We have a habit of calling the intense sensation associated with hot mustard or wasabi, "hot." This is peculiar, because the sensation they cause in the mouth is actually more like an intense, burning cool feeling, not all that dissimilar to what happens when you gargle with Listerine. We need a new word for wasabi/mustard burn, and we also need a scale with which to measure that burn, preferably a logarithmic one, similar to what's used for earthquakes.
The Jiemo Dun registers about a 9.2. It seems innocuous at first. You transport a piece to your mouth with chopsticks, pop it in and think, "Well that's nothing to get excited about," chew a bit, and then you find that you're on a kind of inner journey. Your eyes close, there is a needle of bright, cleansing, icy pain burrowing towards your brain, and you slap the table with open hands and issue sounds that aren't quite syllabic, alarmed, but also surprised that the intensity shows no sign of abating. As the pain recedes into memory, you open your eyes and say something woefully not up to the experience, such as, "Wow, that's some cabbage, people."

Jiemo Dun on the left, onion-less onion rings on the right

I was on my third cabbage trip when the fight broke out. One second we were eating Jiemo Dun, as well as fermented bean soup and a dish I can only describe as onion-less onion rings, and the next second someone was hoisting a chair with the aim of using it as a projectile. A heaving crowd formed and there was shouting. I looked at David with an exquisitely stupid expression that asked, "Is this an authentic Chinese fight, or do they just do this for the tourists?" David said only, "We should move."

We moved. We got up, headed for the back of the room and from there took in the spectacle. As fights go, it was your standard spontaneous dust-up. Just the odd close-handed flail, which you could easily miss if you weren't paying close attention, and nothing in the way high-speed punching or walking on air, like in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There was no clear winner, but I've always been of the opinion that brawls make for exhilarating, not to mention cheap, entertainment, so long as the opponents are evenly matched and so long as I'm not one of them.

Such incidents, David assured me, as the restaurant settled back into normalcy, are extremely rare in Beijing. So we finished our food and ordered a bottle of sorghum liquor called bai jiu, which has a mild taste of plums, and sipped it as our pulses eased back down to normal. The total cost of the meal: seven dollars.

After that, we headed over to a famous duck restaurant in the hopes of eating a duck. Beijing, you will remember, used to be called Peking, and Peking Duck is something Chinese from all over come here for. This place is called Chef Dong's and we were greeted with bad news. There was an hour-long wait. They let us see the kitchen, where, inside a word burning oven, there were rows of ducks, their heads still on, roasting away--and that's as close as we got. We tried two other spots, all of which were closed for the night, and called it a night.

The duck would have to wait. In the end, though, I just don't see how the duck could have measured up to the cabbage, and that's something I never thought I'd hear myself say.

Posted at N39 54.141 and E116 22.031


I am really enjoying your travels. Keep up the good work. Beijing sounds like a very cool place to visit.

Sounds like you are having a great time. I am enjoying the trip almost as much as if I where there, minuse the fights.

This is great. I am planning to travel there in August. Love your insight.

Very interesting story on the food. We just returned from Beijing last night. While there, we did get to eat Da Dong's Peking Duck. It would have been worth the wait for you. We loved it. It was our second trip to Beijing in a couple of years and we will return again in October. Now they (United) have direct flights from Washington DC to Beijing so that made it a nicer trip. As for hot food, you are soooo right. Hot isn't the word.

We also took the trip up to Mutianyu for the Great Wall. Stayed away from Badaling tourist central. It's always a very moving experience although this trip and walk along the wall was more of a 'death march' since I had been flat on my back with the flu for the previous two weeks and my first day out for exercise was walking the Wall with my wife and mother in law that came over with me. MIL's first trip to see China. I have to admit that the food (note it's not Chinese food because in China it's just 'food') takes some getting used to. I also have to admit to eating more than one breakfast at McDonald's. Just something familiar about hot pancakes, hash browns and orange juice to make a day start off just right.

I hope you get the chance to see the Summer Palace as well as the Temple of Heaven - and if at all possible, buy one of the smart cards for using on the bus and the subway. No more looking for the lady on the bus to give her money and no tickets to by on the subway either. The bus system has a 10M person per day ridership and as of today, 9M use the 'Super Pass'. It gives you a 60% discount on the bus system! Before long they plan to use the smart cards in all of the taxis as well. (I'm a transportation engineer and my meetings were with the Chinese Ministry of Transport there in Beijing among others in the transportation arena). As for the traffic and congestion and pedestrians, I've successfully used this philosophy..... When in NY watch what the NYers do, then do the same thing. When in Rome, watch what they do, then do the same thing. When in Beijing, watch what the other pedestrians do, then do the same thing. If you try to use Boston or New York or Paris or Rome or Sydney pedestrian rules in Beijing, fuhget about it!! Don't try to understand it, just do it!

As for the people, they were really nice to us (I'm black and my wife and MIL are white) and if you learn to say Thank You (xie xie) and hello and yes and no and good bye, and remain respectful, you will always be fine. But I've found that to be the case everywhere I've ever visited EXCEPT ROME!! This is true even though we have to overcome the int'l 'Bush disgust'. Most folks realize that not all US folks are Bush supporters. In Australia and France, we even received discounts on our hotel and rental apartment when we shared our feelings about our once elected, twice serving president.

One last thing, if you get the chance, go to the night market and try some of the food. It's called Donghuamen Night Market. Try the starfish on a stick. Try the snake on a stick. Try the dumplings. Try the fruit on a stick with the sugar coating. OK, my wife tried a bunch of the stuff but I only had the fruit. It was VERY good.

May all of your travels be blessed.

Tsy Chia and

type to you later....

I was thoroughly enjoying your comment until you had to let politics ruin it. That's one thing I've enjoyed about Mark's blog - the lack of political commentary. It's not relevant enough to his trip to warrant such commentary.

Ahhh 'aimcbt', to be fortunate enough to be able to travel and live without politics having any effect on attitudes, safety, or discussions. I envy you if that is possible in your life. As for me, we love to travel and whether it's in Central America, West Africa, South Africa, Australia, UK, Japan, China, Europe, or even various locales here in the US, political awareness can greatly influence my travels. For example, politics (appointed officials, political funding philosophies, etc.) play a HUGE role as to where funding will come from at the Federal, State, and local levels for projects my small company works on to make a living. Politics can play a huge role in folks' perceptions of you in foreign lands. Just like in the US, people from other lands are sometimes told things that are one-sided and they form a very strong opinion based in half truths. Many times, the first thing we're asked is "Are you American?" The second thing they do is ask about our country's politics and their understanding of what's happening. No, I simply don't have the luxury of being able to separate my life from my country's political realities. I look forward to the day when our nation's politics no longer have such an impact on my work and personal livelihood.

Mark's stories may not deal with politics but not everyone he meets can see him as an individual, as a good person worthy of judgment solely on his actions. Unfortunately, most of us, believe it or not, have to deal with previously established stereotypes and either confirm them or re-educate our new found 'friends'. It's a great trip when my wife and I can travel together and make friends based solely on who we are as individuals and as a loving respectful couple. As you might imagine, that's a rare event. Unfortunately, SOMETIMES folks see a white woman with a black man (which brings up all sorts of stereotypes about mixed couples along with their media induced perceptions of black men) and then they see that we're American to boot.

Sorry my writing was ruined for you. I guess that's why I'm just a small business owning engineer and Mark is the one making all the money writing as a professional traveler/adventurer. (smile)

Happy and Safe Travels.

type to you later....

hi there. I am a spanish journalist in Beijing. I need to contact David Spindler for an article I am writing about the Great Wall in Shanxi.
Could you let me know how to contact him?
many thanks
and keep writing! your stories anre exciting

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