Ancient and Modern Beijing

>> Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Temple of Heaven

Being jet lagged sucks. It’s probably the worst thing about travelling (aside from the flight delays which happened all too frequently), it totally throws me out of rhythm and my comfort zone. But travelling isn’t about being routine or comfortable. The great thing about travelling is the unknown spontaneity of everything. Never really knowing where your next meal is going to be, when it’s at and whether you’re going to be lost just looking for it.

We did plenty of that on our recent Asia trip, kicking things off in Beijing (after a 2 hour flight delay which resulted in me eating everything at the airport including a stale starbucks chocolate chunk cookie to pass the time. Who says travel days are light eating days must not have been stuck at the airport with nothing better to do but I digress). Beijing, the capital city of China, a city still coming to grips with its capitalism in a communist country. Everywhere you look you could see pieces of old and new China, contrasting Ming dynasty palaces with the new large five star hotels and the mega shopping centers. It was quite a sight indeed.

Forbidden City
We were told that Beijing is set up as a cross, with the main road running straight through the city from north to south. Starting from the bell and drum towers through the Jingshan Park, the Forbidden City, Tianenmen Square and the Temple of Heaven. Nothing reminded me of olden day China more than the Forbidden City. Walking through the vast complex gave me the shivers. I couldn’t imagine how one could spend their entire lives in between the walls, seeing nothing more than the 9999 rooms within the city. Actually less since most of those rooms would be restricted to the Emperor and his high advisors only. I found it quite interesting to have the entrance of the Forbidden City begin at Tianenmen Square with Mao Ze Dong’s well-known portrait identifying it’s entrance. It definitely reminds you that China is still a communist country. If you’re near this area, JianShan Park is not to be missed since it allows you to see all of Beijing from different viewpoints, the highest pagoda in the city.

Great Wall
We had the opportunity to set up a private tour to the Mutianyu portion of the Great Wall, which I highly recommend over the Badaling area. Less touristy, therefore it wasn’t overcrowded, since most tour groups go to badaling. It was a unique experience to walk the great wall. There is a saying in Chinese that roughly translates to “You’re not considered a true Chinamen unless you’ve climbed the great wall”. So I guess I am now a Chinamen? I’ll just stick to Chinawomen, thanks. Through our private tour they also took us to a lovely restaurant near the Mutianyu area which served traditional Northern Chinese cuisine. We got to sample the locally grown eggplant, a very well known chicken dish (gong bao jie ding) and delicious tofu.

Seeing as there were so many places to see and things to do in Beijing a quick summary of other interesting sites include: Summer Palace (you can literally spend all day here…or more if you have the time, definitely pay for full entrance fee to climb the pagoda), Olympic Plaza (site of the 2008 summer Olympics), Temple of Heaven and Beihai Park just to name a few. If you’re ever planning to visit Beijing, be prepared to spend at least 5 days straight sightseeing and eating your way through the capital of China. In a city that’s so diverse, no matter where we went there was food to be had, even at locations where you least expected food to be served, you would be surprised to find a small food stall or a tiny outdoor restaurant serving up traditional small eats.

Pan Fried Baos
Since this is a food blog, there was no way I was leaving out all the delicious foodie eats I experienced around Beijing, from the street food to Peking duck. I sampled it all and no I did not try the bugs. To be brutally honest, nobody local actually eats the bugs, they’re more so to attract tourists and they do. We (yes, myself included) all flocked towards all the stalls selling the bugs so we could take endless shots of how those creepy critters are being sold at the market. However, if you look really closely, nobody was actually ordering them. Instead everybody got the delicious skewers of grilled beef or lamb sprinkled with a bit of spicy peppers over top. They were amazing and well priced, I ate my fair shares of them and left the bugs for all the photographers out there. We tried several food streets ranging from the famous Da Dong food market to the Wangfujing market which is just down the street and more hidden equaling better prices and more local selection.

Some of my favourite street foods included the meat skewers, Shaolongbao aka Shanghai soup dumplings, stinky tofu (yup I said it, ate it and it was amazing, stinky but amazing) and the king melon. The melon is cut in to slices and placed on a skewer, they looked like really big cantaloupe slices from afar but tasted amazingly sweet, just like honey. One thing not to be missed is this eggy crispy crepe snack that’s sold along the streets, not necessarily in the food markets. We ran in to one outside the Summer Palace, I had no idea what it was when I ordered it, but my stomach my hungry and it smelled good when I saw somebody else order it. If you see a stall with a portable burner that looks like a crepe making flat top, eggs on the side and a bunch of crispy fried wrappers on top you’ll know you’ve found it.

Crepe Goodness
We also had the opportunity to eat at little shops along the busy street by our hotel and tried several including congee (rice porridge) shops, steamed bun shops and noodle stalls. They were all equally amazing. It was a treat to be able to walk down a street and sampling food items as we went. Since most places was an eat and go establishment, they didn’t find it odd that we just sat down for a bowl of soup and headed off. Although, I think they found it more so odd that we were stopping by their neighbors shops shortly after leaving theirs. Most of the shops will sell congee with pickled radishes and you tiao (Chinese donut) first thing in the morning and then convert to selling meat dishes with rice or noodles later in the afternoon. You could literally eat yourself up and down a street all day and continue to try new items on the menu.

Street Market
Of course we couldn’t leave Beijing without trying the ever famous Peking duck. Since it wasn’t our first time eating the dish, we already came with some preconceptions as to what the dish would taste like. My friend who used to live in Beijing suggested that we try one of the restaurants that she quite enjoyed as opposed to the typical touristy spots and we did. The skin of the duck was not crispy like what I’m use to here in Calgary, but more spongy and definitely lacking in the five spice department. The duck meat itself was super tender and extremely juicy, which highly showcased their preparation skill and the quality of the meat. The order came with a bunch of different dipping sauces (most of them were sweet and sour), veggies (ranging from cucumbers to pickled cabbage), wrappers as well as steamed bread. There definitely was a lot more variety then what is served here, where all we get are wrappers, hoisin sauce, cucumbers and green onions.

Peking Duck
It was interesting trying all the different combinations of items in the wrappers and bread, but I’d have to say I still enjoyed our local Calgarian version a bit more, as did my husband, now if only we can get the duck to be just as tender and juicy here. We did find another Peking duck place on our last day in Beijing that served the duck similar to Calgary, which is surprising. I guess they’re starting to alter their duck as well. I hope not though, since it’s better to try something new and different when travelling.

Shiao Long Baos
So with our bellies full all the time, we managed to trek our way through Beijing a bit at a time. All of it culminating in to a great experience, which unfortunately included jet lag as well. At least that prepped us for our next locale, Xi’an and the Terra Cotta Warriors!


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