[The first in a series of travel essays from China, New York, and Israel]
The Airport Express elevated train flies past the stagnant Tuesday evening traffic and I’m welcomed to the city by the corporate offices of Mercedes, Caterpillar, and Microsoft. Through the haze and rain shine the bright yellow lights of an Ikea. Did I take the wrong plane? Nope. I’m in Beijing, back in China for the first time since I studied for a semester in Shanghai over three years ago.
A few things quickly come back, the most important being the pace of life. Everyone is rushing from the airport onto the shuttle, fighting for a spot at the automatic ticket machines, and rushing through security. The concept of a line is more of a suggestion than an imperative. Off the train and on the streets it’s very similar. Despite a little green man signifying its ok for a pedestrian to cross the street, I’m nearly run over when a car making a right turn doesn’t yield to my presence. More cognizant of my surroundings now, and keeping an ear out for the ubiquitous car horns and bike bells, I manage the rest of my two weeks without further traffic-related incidents.
The best way to get around Beijing is on a bike. While the subways are cheap, fast and cover essentially everywhere you want to go, biking allows a more tremendous freedom across the 6,000+ sq mi municipality. As a daily biker in Chicago, where drivers and idiot editorialists are always complaining about cyclists, it’s refreshing to ride in a more bike-friendly city. There’s a bike lane on nearly every street, including the highways, although that term itself can be quite vague. While there are more people on bikes, there are also more people on motorbikes, bikes carrying wide-load cargo, pedestrians, parallel-parked cars, and vehicles riding in the opposite direction. And while road bikes and fixies are growing in popularity, the most common bike is a slow-moving cruiser. Rarely is anyone seen wearing a helmet or equipped with lights at night, and while it is almost a requirement to run red lights, no one zooms through them in the way many Chicago cyclists do.
How have I already written so much about this city without writing about the food? For anyone amenable to Chinese cuisine outside of Panda Express, the culinary possibilities are endless. There are ubiquitous street food vendors, fresh fruit stands, vegetable markets, and an unrelenting supply of competing restaurants. The easiest place to begin on the street is with baozi (包子), steamed bread often filled with meat or veggies: Super cheap and a great way to start your day. Likewise, jian bing (煎餅) is a crepe-like fried egg pancake made right in front of you. At Y4 (~$0.64), it’s one of the best things to take advantage of before the RMB catches up to the USD.
While street food is great for grab and go, restaurants are a totally different ball game. While the menus often have pictures that make ordering relatively easy, don’t expect an American level of service. I would sometimes find myself rushed to order, as the waitress would hover right over the table as I perused the menu. Other times I was completely ignored and had to call over the waitress. Don’t be offended or think your getting the shaft on service because you’re an obvious outsider; everyone has to do this to get drinks, the bill, etc. Then again, in the service industry in China, the average restaurant waitress feels no need to deliver quality service or try to upsell. As a waiter in Chicago, it was hard for me to get used to not tipping. When we did have particularly helpful service, I left a bill on the table, only to be chased down after I left by the waitress thinking I had forgotten my change. I told her it was for her but she still insisted I gave it back.
The last time I was in China, I wasn’t quite the culinary adventurer as I am now. I did try snake, which was pretty delicious, but I neglected the duck brains. This time around, I was ready to get weird with out. Just east of the Forbidden City (which marks the central point of Beijing) is Donghuamen. Dozens of stalls line the street luring in more tourists than locals willing to try something weirder. While the seahorses, centipedes, and silk worms didn’t look too appetizing, I did indulge in some deep friend scorpions (crispy) and regretfully took two bites of a starfish (utterly disgusting). Luckily I found a restaurant a block away that offered more enticing, if not too far out dishes like garlic spinach, grilled eggplant and potatoes, and the Sichuan classic Mapo Dofu (麻婆豆腐). While beer culture isn’t as intense as it is in the States, a simple meal is often well complimented with a Yanjing or Tsingtao. My major splurge was dining at Da Dong for Peking Duck. Served with slices of cucumber, cantaloupe, creamy garlic, pickled vegetables and a pancake to wrap it all in, the 12-hour cooking process produces a bird that is almost perfect on its own. For simpler meals, don’t write off cashew chicken or sweet and sour pork as not “real” Chinese food: they’re just two more dishes a Westerner can count on when the salty taste of starfish just won’t leave your mouth.
If you’re really feeling homesick in Beijing, it’s not that hard to get a good (gasp!) non-Chinese meal. True, it can be hit or miss (I’ll pass on a Chinese Bloody Mary in the future), but I did find fantastic crepes at the French-Vietnamese bistro Little Saigon, a delicious bacon cheeseburger and fries at the Vineyard Café, and the most pleasantly surprising of all, a footlong veggie burrito that’s on par with any I’ve had in Chicago (where we take our Mexican food very, very seriously). Led here by a few friends in the know, the Wudaoying Hutong is a great place to discover what expatriates can bring to a historical Chinese neighborhood. The hutongs are one of the best attractions to Beijing. The historical alleyway neighborhoods have been some 80% demolished to make way for drab, bland, skyscraper apartments that seem to dot the skyline of most Chinese cities. I’d never been impressed much by Chinese architecture outside of the dystopian future looking Shanghai, but the hutongs give Beijing an architectural individualism that separates itself from the rest of China. While they tie Beijing to its centuries old history, some architects are looking for ways to modernize the hutong.
It’s this appreciation for its past as well as its fearless embrace of technology and the future that has made China the power it is today, not just economically, but in the arts as well, as evidenced by the fact that Chinese author Mo Yan just won the Nobel Prize in Literature. His work is regarded as containing a classic Chinese poetry and drawing on his upbringing in rural Eastern China, but supplementing it with ideas of magical realism and Even the badboy of China’s art scene, Ai Weiwei, wouldn’t desecrate a historical urn with a Coca Cola logo if he didn’t recognize the importance of the past.
Likewise, a trip through Beijing’s 798 Arts District shows that their contemporary art scene can be just as creative, inquisitive and controversial as anything New York produces. The dragon created from oil drums was the standout for me, again combing the appreciation for classic Chinese themes with a modern twist. Coincidentally, there was an art and design festival happening, and many galleries were presenting their work in the former industrial area, complete with abandoned factories and railroad tracks.
Andrew Hertzberg is a staff writer based in Chicago. His next essay will discuss Golden Week, Beijing nightlife, and the point of foreign travel.