DAY 62 – Train from Beijing to Datong
The young couple facing us has been offering us snacks and candy throughout the journey. They’re from Datong and are heading home. We’ve offered them some of our prized oreo cookies but they haven’t yet taken one. When my boot got stuck in the heating grate by the floor the girl did not hesitate to bend under the table with her cell phone flashlight to help. On the other side of the aisle, an older man has been a boundless well of hacking and spitting, truly more than average, with a loogie coming out just about every 2 minutes. That’s a high average for a 7.5 hour trip, I’ll let you do the math. He has also just shaved his beard, all without ever leaving his seat. Chinese instrumental music plays over the speakers, competing with neighbours conversing and cell phones ringing.
Yesterday was our last night in Beijing after 10 colorful and exciting days in the capital. Earlier in the week, while aimlessly wandering through the tangled hutongs around our hostel, we had spotted a perfect little restaurant tucked into a tiny alleyway off the main road. Having already eaten, we decided to save this place and return to it for our final celebration dinner before travelling to Datong. The warm lights inside the restaurant and red lanterns lit outside called our name as we settled into our corner, a cosy refuge from the cold. Coats off, hats off, we shimmied into our seats, got comfortable, and were ready to tuck in. We opened the menu..and a surprise was lurking.
Brain. Brain brain brain. Starter, side, or main.
Not what we had in mind, but certainly interesting (in a fascinating sort of way). Feeling undaunted (though not quite so adventurous), we turned the pages looking for the rest of the animal. Which we found, but not in the form we hoped.
Ox tongue, pig tongue. Duck, sheep or cow! Intestines. Brain! Grilled, fried, or steamed. Whole, chopped, or skewered. The offal lover’s dream.
The only relief to be found was on the cocktail menu.
Not wanting to drink our dinner, we regrouped in hushed tones and decided to make a bolt for it. Knowing looks received from other diners only confirmed what we already knew. Rookies! We couldn’t handle the offal. Heads bowed and red-faced, we headed to the door, barely putting on our coats in our haste to escape the floodlights of humiliation. Our first Chinese walk of shame, and hopefully our last.
Apart from this brush with the ‘too wild’, China has been a delight to the tastebuds, a party in the mouth after the relative monotony of Mongolian mutton. So many flavours and options and spices and vegetables. Just beware if you decide to order a soup as a starter as portions can be misleading…
We had some fantastic food experiences in Beijing. We met Pascualino, an extremely friendly Chinese restaurant owner christened with a new name by his Italian chef. Pascualino was so pleased to have foreign visitors at his tiny restaurant, just opened, that he stepped outside to wave us off as we left. The Hot Pot restaurant we visited with our Belgian friends, where there were no pictures and no English, but where the extremely attentive staff combined use of their smart phones to google translate items they thought we would like. For most things, like mushrooms, google translate worked well (‘fungus’). For others, like ‘chins’, we still have no idea what they meant.
To get more familiar with Chinese cooking (of which there are a gajillion types) we took a Sichuanese street food cooking class at a beautiful courtyard home converted into a school called The Hutong. We discovered a bunch of ingredients we had never tried, our favourites including a homemade moon-green mung bean tofu, a Sichuan pepper (flower pepper) which is not so much spicy as mouth-numbing, a mix of chopped dried pickle and seaweed used to enhance the flavour of meat, and a sticky and salty black bean paste with chunks of crunchy beans mixed in, whose flavour far surpasses its appearance.
It’s hard to talk about Beijing without going on and on about a million details. Beijing is as varied as China is huge. Modern skyscrapers and shopping avenues right next to winding alleyways alive with street markets and honking bicycles. Live music bars competing for attention, blasting their music onto the sidewalks in a cacophony of sound to attract revellers, while families and couples amble around on an evening stroll, eating skewers of candied crabapples, fried squid, and sausages. The crabapples are delicious, the perfect mix of sour and sweet. Hip cafes and trendy stores are tucked into every corner and line the avenues while dumplings steam away on a stovetop outside and people slurp noodles while sitting on stools so small they are fit for toddlers.
We loved Beijing so much, we tacked on an extra 4 days to the 6 we had planned. We spent one day climbing up and down the Great Wall, from Jinshanling to Simatai; an area less frequented by tourists and nature’s premier stairmaster. We traversed 22 towers, sometimes using our hands to climb the steep parts, and spent many hours without crossing another tourist save for the small pack of people we were already with.
On our first Sunday in the city, we went to see the Beijing Flying Dragons basketball team play a heated game at the Olympic stadium against another team of which we still don’t know the name. There was one white guy on the Beijing team, Bobby (we think), who was definitely more brawn than brains – a fan favourite with the women but evidently milking his foreignness for all its worth. Lazy Bobby! He could barely keep up with the rest so he hung around the back, trying to nail all the leftovers. Every time Bobby finally threw something in the net, the announcer yelled ‘Bobby scoooooooore!! (somehow only Bobby riled up this much excitement from the announcer).
The acrobatic show we saw was much more impressive, with human trampolines and tap-dancing jugglers going up and down stairs and human pyramids on tiny bicycles, and other acts as varied and bizarre as they were impressive. Most I wouldn’t even know how to describe. The arts are alive and well in China! On the streets, older men use giant calligraphy brushes to draw Chinese poetry on the sidewalks with water, only visible to the lucky few who walk by before it dries. Groups of men and women take out their speakers and set them up all over in the parks, breaking out into line dances that everyone seems to know the steps to. The most wonderful part is seeing how active and involved the older generation is, playing cards or mahjong in the streets, flying kites in the parks, stretching in the outdoor gyms… Always busy doing something, rarely on their own.
Beijing delighted every sense, and even as we are just leaving, I look forward to coming back.
Till next time Beijing!