A Night in Beijing
It’s no secret that my favourite way to explore a new country is with my mouth* and Beijing is no exception, especially since China is possibly the most foreign country I have been to in quite a while. Let me qualify that: by “most foreign” I mean that it has the most unknowns. The only thing I really knew in coming here was that I was going to have to make some major adjustments to be able to function and make the most out of my two weeks here. So what better way to jump straight into that adjustment period with a food tour on the evening of my arrival?
*If your mind is in the gutter right now, I commend you. But I mean eating food, you perv.
But let’s start at the beginning. I felt surprisingly on top of it all when I arrived at my apartment in Beijing, despite the 13 hours of travel. I didn’t feel too gross and I had successfully navigated getting a sim card for my phone in the airport, as well as a taxi into the city. Success!
Like any good millennial, once I had settled into my apartment the first matter of business was to figure this internet thing out. I’ve travelled to many a country where getting internet access on my phone isn’t that easy but getting a local sim card generally does the trick. China, however, is a different story. China, my friends, is The Land Without Google. That’s right: No Google. Not even a tiny little bit of Google. Nope. Nada. But I’m a smart little human and I had done enough research to know this and get myself a VPN, which would allow me to access sites blocked by the Chinese government. Not because I can’t live without Google, you see, but because I can’t live without Google Maps. I genuinely cannot remember how I got to places before that app existed. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I couldn’t figure it out. My VPN wouldn’t work and the Chinese versions of Google Maps are all in, y’know, Chinese. After a couple hours of trying to figure it all out, I realised how tired I actually was and would have been in the midst of a hissy fit had there been anyone around to listen to me. As there wasn’t, I opted to sulkily sleep it off for a few hours instead.
Sleep, I have found, is my remedy for most unpleasant things. It worked. Well, it didn’t exactly fix my VPN but it did give me enough life to try again and actually figure it out this time. This was good timing considering I had booked myself in for a food tour only two hours later and had yet to figure out where I was supposed to go – or where I even was to begin with – and how to navigate my way there. But as with most things, a looming deadline was enough motivation to get my shit together. Two hours later I found myself stepping out of a subway station and saying hello to my tour guide and another somewhat lost-looking person like me.
Within 15 minutes 5 others had joined us and thus the eating began.
We started with a traditional Mongolian-style hotpot.
Fun fact: It looks like a helmet because it is a helmet. Apparently Mongolian warriors would use their helmets to make these hotpots out in the field. So what I’m trying to say here is: I’m a Mongolian warrior KTHXBAI
Our tour guide advised us to be about 30% full to have enough room for the rest of the night. Sadly, I’m really bad at math (and very good at eating) but we meandered down Beijing’s famous Ghost Street and off into some Hutong alleyways, with a few quick stops along the way so that we could make room for the next course.
One of those stops was for a pot of suan nai – a delightfully tasty greek-yoghurt-esque drink mixed with honey and rice wine that is supposed to aid digestion. I loved this stuff and am counting down the seconds until I get my next pot.
The other stop was at a rice wine bar. We were presented with a flight of six rice wines, four of which were brewed in the traditional Japanese way (like sake), and the remaining two brewed in a typical Beijing fashion. I’ve steered clear of rice wine in the past as the smell has never appealed to me but, whaddya know, turns out I like some types! In particular, I was more than happy to drink the rice wine made with osmanthus (a small flower) and I even helped out another tour member by finishing hers. I’m good like that.
We wandered deeper into the Hutong alleys as we headed to our next food stop. The alleys are fairly dark and grim but Candice, our guide, told us how she grew up in one such alley and reminisced about the communities that bring life to those rather dodgy-looking streets. As we strolled past open windows, I peered in through the bars that covered them to see large groups of friends and family sat around tables in small fanless rooms, clearly enjoying each other’s company. It felt like I was witnessing a side to Beijing that a foreigner like me wasn’t supposed to see.
Our next stop easily broke the Hutong magic spell: donkey burgers. Now, I have eaten many weird and wonderful things along my travels but there are only a few things that I have felt guilty about. Baby crocodile tail wasn’t my proudest moment and I have to say that neither was donkey.
What does it taste like? Well, another tour member put it like this: “It’s like a Philly Cheesesteak. But without cheese. And with donkey.”
We’d been on the tour for a couple of hours at this stage and it was time for another big feed. This time it came in the shape of biang biang noodles – thick, flat, slightly chewy noodles. Interestingly, the Chinese character for biang is the most complex character in the language, made up of no less than 56 pen strokes!
We were running a little late for our final stop on the tour: a true Hutong restaurant. And when I say ‘restaurant’, I use that term in the loosest possible way; it was more like your uncle’s back shed … with a little extra decor. To get to it we turned down the sort of alleyway I would usually cross the road to get away from.
The hygiene rating on the wall announced that the restaurant had been given a ‘C’ rating. “Is a ‘C’ rating good?” asked the brave one of our group. “It’s ok,” our guide shrugged. “As long as they have a rating, they’re ok. It’s the ones without a rating that you want to worry about.” Noted.
Anyway, we were committed at this stage and welcomed the chicken wings that were brought out on trays. There were 4 levels of spice, level 1 being the mildest and level 4 being of the might-blow-your-head-off persuasion.
Despite our initial reservations it was actually a lovely spot to end our night together. At this point we had gone from being total strangers to friends-for-a-night – a phenomenon which is probably one of my favourite things about travel.
As I made my way home, I realised the feeling of being completely overwhelmed that I had started my day with had been replaced with something akin to mild ease. A night in the company of fellow travellers, interesting food, and a wonderful guide had given me the energy I needed to get stuck into Beijing, Google or no Google.