We sat on our small plastic chairs outside in the atmospheric little alley, or hutong, and gaped at the young Chinese woman in astonishment, furiously trying to think of what she could possibly think we might want to do with the massive leg of mutton she was presenting in our direction. Not presenting with a smile, either, like it could possibly just be a crafty joke to suggest the two of us might actually eat such a thing in its entirety, but with a rather grim set to her lips and a hard stare like she was daring us to admit we weren’t up to it. Of course, to us, the fact that we weren’t seemed incredibly obvious, but then we have the benefit of having spent the past 3 weeks eating a mere fraction of the food we’ve been served by a wide variety of hearty Mongolians, a people who brandish their oversized appetites with pride, voraciously devouring the livestock of Asia like old Genghis himself is watching from above, fierce and stern and ever-quick to judge your worthiness as a Mongol by the amount of sheep fat stuck between your teeth. Anyway, even though we were now in China, it still took quite a bit of work to convince her, through a deft combination of hand signals and looks of terror, that under no circumstances did we want her to grill and serve that monstrosity on our behalf. Well, to be accurate, we convinced her to pawn us off on another guy who spoke a bit more English, and then we managed to convince him that a mere plateful of chopped mutton grilled up on skewers would more than adequately meet our carnivorous needs for the evening, especially when combined with a number of other grilled items such as corn on a stick, mushroom skewers, potato slices and bread (that one seemed pre-cooked). In fairness, this restaurant’s entire “thing” was to place a bucket of burning embers in the hole in the middle of your table to allow you the atmospheric and fun option of doing all the hard work yourself. Once we got all the ordering sorted out it turned out to be a great meal, one of our best in Beijing, plus by the time they figured out that we wouldn’t be needing the fire and spit to cook a hunk of lamb we had already drank a couple beer and settled in so they clearly didn’t feel comfortable bumping us to a tiny little table, the type obviously reserved for small children, sickly types not up for the challenge of competitive mutton feasting, and tourists like the unfortunate German couple that arrived after us and got steadily downgraded until they were almost out of sight down the street. Meanwhile, as we struggled to even finish the last of our little skewers, two young, thin, guys had sat down at the table next to us, happily ordered an entire leg of mutton themselves, and proceeded to devour it with gusto. With gusto, and plenty of beer and a box of some clear alcohol that we didn’t recognize but seemed very effective.
A few days later we tried another unique spot on our little street – this time it was a “grill your own meat, and anything else you’d like to see sizzling and spitting hot grease on you and your clothes”. We chose two variations of beef, one which needed to be cut with the pair of industrial-strength scissors the woman helpfully both provided and demonstrated. I made a mess of my pants, as was to be expected, and also messed up on the video I thought I took of Laynni skillfully brandishing both a spatula and the scissors, but other than that it was a culinary highlight, some great beef, mushrooms and zucchini (all grilled to perfection, if I do say so myself). Another great meal came on our first full day when we stopped for lunch at a busy little noodle shop where you could see into the kitchen and watch them masterfully manipulating the rubbery dough/pasta/play-doh into increasingly long strands of hand-pulled noodles, all while huge flames flared up from the wok behind them like they were the devil’s minions slaving away at an everlasting pot of Beelzebub’s Beef Noodle Soup.
Meanwhile, other than that incredible shank of lamb, the largest and most impressive thing we saw while in China was a little something rather grandiosely referred to as “The Great Wall of China”. It is pretty huge, I’ll give them that, but unlike other impressive walls we’ve seen around the world this one didn’t have any clever graffiti, not even any wallpaper, and I couldn’t find a single place to hang a jacket or hat. Nonetheless, building such an immense structure would represent quite a feat of engineering with today’s modern technology, never mind what they had to work with over the course of the 2,000 or so years it took to complete about 500 years ago (namely some very primitive pick-axes and a few million eminently expendable slaves). We had one false start when we arrived 10 minutes before the train was to leave for Badaling, the closest and most popular section of the wall, only to learn that not only was that train sold out, but that the trains were completely sold out for the entire morning and that our thoughts of purchasing tickets at that point were so ridiculous that they had even decided to close the ticket offices altogether until at least noon, at which point they would consider starting to sell tickets on the afternoon trains. That line starts right over there, behind those other hundred people. Well, as you might expect, that one didn’t end up happening, the entire idea easily abandoned in favour of an afternoon spent enjoying the mixture of beauty and streaming masses of humanity around the Houhai Lakes. We rented cute little women’s cruiser bikes with baskets and nice soft seats, cruised around through the crowds, I somehow hurt my shoulder while trying to take a photo and riding at the same time, then spent a while entering and then exiting a number of lakeside bars whenever we learned, yet again, that far and away the cheapest drink on the menu was an $8 bottle of beer, somehow surprised and disappointed anew each and every time. A nice afternoon and a fine consolation, especially since we had much bigger plans for the wall, anyway, and the Badaling idea was just going to be an added bonus. Therefore, the next day, after examining a number of painful-sounding public transport options, we hired a private driver to take us to Gubeikou, a distant, little-visited and mostly original section of the wall. Original, meaning crumbling, rugged and occasionally treacherous, but with an amazing sense of history and a quiet solitude that far exceeded our already high expectations. A terrific introduction to yet another of the 7 Wonders of the World (actually 8 because the Pyramids were included as “honorary” even though they didn’t get enough votes last time around), leaving us with just one left to see – if you count the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro as a legitimate choice – or completes the list if, like us, you don’t, and simply admire the Brazilian teamwork in managing to skew the voting enough to get their little statue onto the list. From there we hiked about 4 hours to another more popular section called Jinshanling, sometimes along the top of the wall and through a number of fascinating watchtowers in varying degrees of decrepitude, sometimes along a winding path down below the wall in order to avoid certain militarily-sensitive areas (the actual differences between any of these middle-of-nowhere sections remains completely lost on us, but no one asked our opinion, so the detour it was), eventually emerging at the top of yet another steep hill to enjoy panoramic views of the partially restored and ultimately more picturesque Jinshanling area. The best part was that it was only here that we encountered the very first other tourists of the day and even at Jinshanling there were only a couple dozen others. A stark contrast, I’m sure, to what we would have experienced at heavily-developed, thoroughly-restored, train-filling Badaling. The uncooperative weather, mostly cloudy with sporadic periods of light drizzle, was surely partially to thank for our unexpected seclusion, but the tranquility was a more than fair reward for the fact our photos lack a bit of colour, or that the light wasn’t bright enough to get my eyes to really pop the way I like.
Beijing itself was also something of a pleasant surprise, because even though it is far from perfect it is, on the whole, a lot cleaner and more orderly than we imagined based on its reputation. We couldn’t help but remember all the furor leading up to the 2008 Olympics, when they were desperately trying to Western-up the place, dumping vast sums of money into public transport in attempts to turn their buses and subway systems into something at least remotely usable by outsiders, rather than just places tourists go die or end up at an emergency call box, and diligently trying to convince their stubborn populace that spitting on everything and smoking at babies just aren’t what we’re used to in the prim old West. Well, although I hadn’t been here before the Olympics so have nothing to compare to I have to admit what they have going on now is pretty impressive. We used the subway system several times per day and found it clean, efficient and easy to understand, although still very busy and full at basically any time of day. On the afternoon of our last day in Beijing we actually managed to procure seats for the very first time, a momentous achievement even if it didn’t happen until we were about 90 seconds from stop. It seems as though half the city gets around by either bicycle – both pedal and electric – and every major street not only has dedicated bike lanes on both sides but actually cordons them off with fences just to make sure none of the cars get any ideas. Even the vehicles, though, seemed surprisingly well-behaved, readily obeying the insanely-long traffic lights (we routinely had a 90 second countdown when crossing streets) and, for the most part, sticking to their lanes and only using their horns when they needed to express profound disappointment in the unseemly behaviour of their fellow drivers, the way God intended.
One area in which Beijing seems fairly unique, at least in our experience, is in their focused dedication to security, both with regard to public transportation (security check and bag screening at the entrance to every subway station) and their popular tourist attractions (security check, bag screening and overpriced ticket purchase at the entrance to every site). Better safe than sorry, seems to be the idea, just like when considering buying cold fried chicken from the guy on the street who can’t seem to stop scratching the inside of his thigh.
Even though we were a subway ride away from almost any of the main attractions we were still extremely pleased with our hotel – a nice little boutique job set in one of the nicer hutongs. It was narrow and lively, and full of unique little restaurants like the two I described earlier, along with a little bit of everything else you can imagine – liquor and cigarette vendors, vegetable shops, seafood stands, a butcher who was constantly lined up, one bar, just our hotel, and even a little barber shop (don’t get your hopes up, I still haven’t partaken). In fact, the entire neighbourhood around us (near the Lama Temple) was very interesting, and a far cry from the busy, modern, polluted Beijing of our imaginations. And, as far as smog goes, I understand it can be sporadic, but we didn’t really notice much at all. On our way out of the city you could notice it more because you had a larger horizon but for the most part it didn’t seem too bad, and maybe some of the initiatives they’ve taken are finally paying off – the extensive public transportation system and huge number of electric vehicles in particular. It’s all relative, though, since there are still around 22 million people living there and I would hardly describe the air as “Northern Saskatchewan Fresh”. Maybe more like “Overripe Apple Funk”, or possibly “Letting Your Car Idle in the Garage Tang”.
So, although the Wall and the hutongs were clearly the highlights for us, that’s not to say the other myriad Beijing attractions didn’t have their moments as well. Strolling leisurely through Temple of Heaven Park watching people practicing martial arts in the shade (or setting up a tent and hammock in the middle of a paved area and giving their kids a blanket to play on), dodging people selling selfie sticks in huge, bare, rather dull Tiananmen Square and trying to reconcile its volatile history with its unremarkable appearance, quietly observing the monks of the Lama Temple chanting and praying (and possibly practicing hilarious impressions, I couldn’t tell for sure), fighting the crowds in the Forbidden City and marvelling at both the immensity of the complex and how few places you were actually allowed to enter (although struggling through the mass of humanity pressed up against each entrance to take a few hasty photos with our phone held high above the sea of heads was not only allowed but practically mandatory by the look of things), and wandering to the top of Jinshan Park (the only hill in the city, unless you count…no, it really is the only hill in the city) and along the shores of beautiful Beihai Lake, seeing both in a steady drizzle that severely limited the views but made the streets explode with the colours of tens of thousands of pastel umbrellas. Laynni’s boring navy blue one, rapidly falling apart with spines jutting out all akimbo, drew only sad glances and sympathetic head-shaking.
And that pretty much does it for Beijing. It was a very full week, kicked off with some captivating walks through the hutongs, finished off by witnessing a traditional wedding procession starting from the hotel rooms below us, streaming through the lobby to the street to join up with the bride’s handheld carriage and fake dragon escorts, and punctuated in the middle with a visit to what is supposedly the oldest movie theatre in the world, Daguanlou Cinema, where we had no way of figuring out which movie was actually playing as the girl in the ticket booth was unable to find a poster for it or describe it using hand gestures. We were hoping for a classic Chinese kung-fu flick with lots of implausible action and very little dialogue, but unfortunately ended up at a buddy comedy starring some bald guy who later appeared on the cover of our airplane magazine, and his apparently hilarious sidekick, a 40-year old man wearing goofy clothes and a shaggy, unconvincing wig presumably intended to transform him into a precocious teenager. His overly-enthusiastic cackling laugh and obsession with his camcorder completed the feeble makeover. Lots of slapstick comedy, which was handy for those of us who do not speak Chinese, but a few too many convoluted scenarios involving child-shaking and penile acupuncture for us to fully comprehend the plot. It was soon clear why the ticket girl was so quick to admit defeat.
Anyway, now we find ourselves back in good, old Nepal. Glad to be back because A) it is quite possibly my favourite country in the world, B) that means we are only days away from starting our hike to Everest Base Camp, and C) we couldn’t have possibly sent this from China because they treat the internet like stories told to children, where anything remotely interesting is off-limits and nobody ever references sex (unless it involves obtaining aphrodisiacs of dubious efficacy by killing endangered species, I assume). Among the sites blocked are Google (and all Google-related applications), Facebook, WordPress.com (and most other blogging sites from what I could tell), Twitter and, naturally, most sites showing European soccer scores (although I admit it was emotionally damaging to learn Arsenal lost to Olympiakos, at home, allowing 3 goals. To Olympiakos.) At least I had no problem keeping up with the Jays (AL EAST CHAMPIONS!!!), Trip Advisor is going strong with over 9,000 restaurants listed in Beijing alone, and our Hotmail account still worked like a charm so every time I sent an email I got to enjoy the pleasant burst of nostalgia that comes with using a 15-year old technology, like compact disc changers for your car, or playing Doom on your desktop computer. It’s not too often that Nepal is described as a technological wonder zone so I hope they are soaking it up with all the pride and excitement that warrants. At least for a few hours until their next power outage, at least.
Talk to you in a couple weeks when we (theoretically, at least) make it back from Everest Base Camp…