Saturday, December 29, 2012

China: Exploring Beijing and the Great Wall

It has been a very long time since I have posted anything here and no doubt in the interim we have lost some of our few, but hopefully ardent, followers. Perhaps we can win you back. Many things have transpired during our lapse in posting and the excuse I feed to T when he encourages me to write a blog entry is not exactly true. I tell him that I have nothing to write and yet surely, a move to the other side of the world ranks a few lines? We live in Seoul, Korea now, a big change from Northern Virginia. The view out my kitchen window is no longer a leafy suburban street, but a cityscape.

We’ll be here for about three years, which means sometime in the latter half of 2015 we’ll make the traumatic transition back. But we are not thinking of that right now.

Although I actually do have a lot to say about our new home, mainly positive, this is not what has finally prompted me to break my silence.

In November I slipped across the Yellow Sea to China for a long weekend. During my four days away I visited Xi’an and Beijing. It was my third trip to Xi’an, where I once again visited the magnificent tomb soldiers of Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di. You are now allowed to take photographs of the soldiers (Bing Ma Yong) and I took advantage of this change of rules.

And then we went to Beijing.


Beijing was a homecoming that I both dreaded and anxiously anticipated. I lived in Beijing in 1991-1992 and then again from 1995-1997. I turned 21 in Beijing. I encountered my first winter in Beijing and first felt the warmth of a heating system there. I met a Russian for the first time in the dorm halls of Beijing University, along with Jordanians, Iranians, Pakistanis, Rwandans and Congolese, to name just a few. Sure I had read about these countries before, but frankly there just weren’t that many Russians running around the University of Hawaii in the early 1990s. In many ways, I “grew up” and became an adult in Beijing. It is a city that more than any other has made me who I am today, for better or worse.

In the interim 15 years since I left I returned twice, once in 2003 and once in 2004. Both visits were brief, yet both times I was able to witness the rapid changes that the city was undergoing. Since then I have read, with equal parts dread and fascination, of the even more monumental transformation that both the country and its capital city have experienced. Part of this was on the account of the Olympics, part just the natural progression of things. My greatest fear, and a selfish one I admit, was that the changes would be so great as to render the Beijing of my memory unrecognizable, divorced from its past, without soul.

You see, the ancient “northern capital” had always been one of those places where you walk the streets and feel the history seep into you and taste it on your tongue as you round your mouth around its distinctive dialect. One day in the Beijing of my memory I was going somewhere, I don’t remember where, in an older neighborhood, I don’t know where, just walking down a crowded hutong (alley) when an old woman approached from the opposite direction, limping, relying on a walker for support. Something made me look down at her feet and it registered instantly that they were miniscule, less than four inches in length. It was my first encounter with feet that had been crippled from binding. It wasn’t my last such encounter on the streets of Beijing, but I knew that if or when I went back, that that hutong would probably no longer exist, nor would the racket of the knife sharpeners and bike repairmen shouting out their services. Nor would the tangible reminders of the city’s imperial past.

Thus I dreaded going back, even though I knew at some point I would have to go. And so over the Veteran's Day weekend in November, I went. Our trip was short and I'll admit that I hadn't the courage to return to the university district, tucked away in the far northwest corner of the city. I used time limitations as my excuse, but I know that at some point I'll have to return there and witness the much reported changes made to a place that lives so vividly in my memory that I can still taste the coal dust from the furnaces on my tongue.

This post is about what I found in Beijing - the contradiction of outright prosperity, and non-stop commercial activity with control, surveillance and yes, continued repression. And the overwhelming relief I felt as I made my way on foot through the older parts of the city with the growing realization that throughout all the changes, and even perhaps despite the changes, the Beijing of old still exists, soul intact. This, I feel, is something worth writing about.

I am glad we went to Xi’an first. I understood very quickly that at least in the provinces, China has retained its character and culture. We stayed in a Chinese apartment converted into tourist lodgings, something that would have been unheard of when I lived there. The units were charmingly decorated with replicas of the terracotta warriors, making the place reminiscent of a Dicken’s novel.

The warrior standing guard over the balcony freaked me out late at night though.

Our lodging was around the corner of the old Muslim quarter, a still-thriving night market right outside the old Drum Tower. The area is home to many members of the Hui minority group, an ethnically Chinese Muslim population, as opposed to the Turkic Uighur minority. I made a beeline for a restaurant that served my beloved chaopianr, also known as chao duanmian. If I had a penny for each of the times I daydreamed about eating chaopianr over the past 15 years….

Really it is a very simple dish of square handmade noodles sautéed in a vegetable and lamb sauce. It is usually eaten with round naan bread, which I was able to find at a vendor across the street. As I suppose I should have expected, the noodles did not live up to those of my memory. Context and atmospheric circumstances season food in a complex way that sears the taste into memory far stronger than physical seasonings ever can.

A Hui man breaks our noodles for chaopianr.

The naan (flatbread) vendor.

Night market scenes in the Xi'an Muslim quarter.

On my return home I recreated chaopianr. I nailed it so closely that my mouth sensed their should be naan bread to go along with it. I've never recreated something so well that it elicited a corresponding sensory response such as the one I felt when I ate my own chaopianr.

Speaking of the food of memory, on the way to see the Terracotta warriors we passed a jianbing vendor. Back in the day when I was a cynical college student, we called these ubiquitous Chinese breakfast sandwiches Mao McMuffins. Now that seems crass. Still, no matter what you call it, the one that was made for me was as delicious as I remember it being.

After the obligatory visit to the Bing Ma Yong terracotta warriors, still as amazing a sight as it was 20 years ago, we had some time to kill before going back to the airport. Our guide took us to visit a family he knows that continues to live in the traditional style of Shaanxi province, in caves carved out of loess sedimentary rock. It was fascinating to see that even in the modern miracle that is China, large number of people continue to live very simple, traditional lives. This family’s cave was right under a highway overpass. Interestingly enough, their goat, who they were anxious for us to see, had an entire cave to himself in winter while the humans shared one amongst themselves.

Maize for the winter, drying in the family courtyard.

The family's prized goat.

I'd love to try my hand cooking a meal in a cave kitchen.

We arrived in Beijing on Friday evening after a long and tiring day, made even longer by a stop off at a Vegan restaurant near the Lamma temple where a dear friend from the “old” days was eating with friends. Since when does Beijing have Vegan restaurants?? Our visit with her was too short and we promised to meet up again on Sunday.

We got to our guesthouse late and as such we were not able to marvel in its loveliness until the next day. Instead of staying in a characterless, dusty chain hotel, we had chosen to stay in a converted hutong dwelling. Hutongs, as I mentioned above, are the old alleys that distinguish Beijing from any other city on the planet. The traditional hub of commercial and family life, they were labyrinths of family courtyards, shops and restaurants. They were also the first to fall to the wrecking ball in the city’s rush to modernization. I remember so clearly wandering aimlessly through old hutongs when I was a student. The noises of family life, voices from TVs and music from radios competed with the distinctive sound of wok frying foods. Of course one can easily over romanticize hutong life. Running water, especially hot water, was a rarity and many families relied on odiferous public toilets and hauled toiletries down the way to public showers. Still, hutongs were a fundamental part of traditional Beijing life and their disappearance is something that is mourned by many besides me.

Around the time the city was preparing for the 2008 Olympics, specific hutongs were spared destruction and preserved as culturally significant areas. Many old family courtyard homes were converted into guesthouses, most containing between 4-8 bedrooms. It was at one of these that we chose to stay. I was choosy about the location of our guesthouse, wanting it to be both on a subway line and also on the eastern side of Gu Gong (the Forbidden City). After much online research I chose Cong’s Hutong, just down the road from the Dongsi subway station. Owned by the Cong family, this residence has been meticulously renovated in a way that marries taste and tradition without being overwhelmingly busy or ostentatious. Hattie, the proprietress, was a wonderful, warm woman who made our stay enjoyable and comfortable. After long walks across the raucous city, the courtyard was an oasis of calm and solitude.

I’ll definitely be staying here again and would encourage others to do so as well. Check out

The guesthouse centers around a single courtyard. There are four guestrooms, each facing into the courtyard crowned by an old date tree.

The original courtyard residence doors have been kept as a symbol of things past.

The guesthouse dog is perfectly trained to greet you, but not enter your room.

The breakfast room, with the kitchen beyond.

The guesthouse is located on Lishi Hutong, which remains a busy thoroughfare.

On Lishi Hutong, clever and effective advertising for a hotpot restaurant.

Saturday we had a full day of walking planned. We intended to walk from the south east quadrant of the city straight into the heart of Beijing, to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, about 12 miles all told. My traveling companion was an avid walker and I too enjoy seeing places at the speed of my footfall whenever I get a chance. Besides, this would better enable me to get the pulse of the city.

Where we started, near the Panjiayuan antique market, was in an area less affected by the modernization. There I saw the Beijing of my old memories – rows of block apartment buildings, row upon row of big windows full of hanging laundry. Tiny restaurants with but two or three tables and a man in a white apron and cap standing alone at his wok.

At the Panjiayuan antique market, I am not sure how I felt about tourist trinkets commemorating (celebrating??) a dark period in China's political and social history.

From here we walked to Tian Tan (The Temple of Heaven). I hadn’t been to Tian Tan since the late 1980s and had no memory of it whatsoever. We found a large, spacious park with more walking trails than people. Perhaps because it was a rainy day there were fewer crowds about. For awhile we followed a middle-aged couple who sang a lilting duet as they strolled. It was charming.

Leaving Tian Tan we turned north, with the intention of walking up through Qianmen (Front Gate) to Tiananmen Square and beyond. We stopped off for a quick lunch at a cafeteria type restaurant. I got doufu si (tofu strands) and steamed dumplings and wasn’t disappointed. By now the rain was coming down harder and the walking was less pleasant.

Even less pleasant was what had been done to the Qianmen area. Previously it had been a raucous shopping area, full of markets of all sorts. Qianmen was where the first Kentucky Fried Chicken in China opened. I remember making the long trek down from the university district to eat those bland grainy mashed potatoes – imagine that.

Nowadays, Qianmen is a tourist zone. “Old style” buildings now line a car-less street. A trolley runs the length of it. Life size statues of Beijing-ers of old (with hair in queues, pulling rickshaws, etc) dot the sides of the walkway. The buildings are fronted with high end stores, western chains mainly. There are significant vacancies and an even more noticeable paucity of people, but again this might be due to the weather. I missed the chaotic Qianmen of old.

A Starbucks now marks the southern boundary of Qianmen and Tiananmen Square.

Beyond Qianmen to the north lies Tiananmen Square. Now I knew that we had poorly timed our trip to coincide with the huge 18th communist party congress, that once every decade meeting of senior party officials herded to Beijing to “elect” the leaders who will manage the country for the next ten years. It is a sensitive time, politically and socially, and the amount of security reflected this. Still, I was not prepared for what I saw in Tiananmen Square. Not only did we have to undergo security screening to enter the square (when did THAT start?) but we were only too aware of the ubiquitous security presence everywhere, both human and mechanized. At times it seemed almost ludicrous.

Can you count the number of cameras in this picture?

Propaganda in Tiananmen Square is nothing new, (couldn’t you argue that is the point of the Mao Mausoleum after all?) but I bet the founders of the people’s republic never dreamed of dissemination this colorful, noisy and technologically advanced. This particular clip extolled the virtues of the SARs, the Special Economic Regions, of which Hong Kong is most valued.

I was already feeling a sense of unease under the crushing weight of the surveillance and evident security presence, but it was nothing like what met me when we crossed the street and came up on the other side, near the entrance gate to Gu Gong (the Forbidden City). To access Gu Gong from the square one must first pass under that most iconic of Beijing memorials, the portrait of the Great Helmsman himself, Mao Zedong. Chairman Mao’s portrait is traditionally guarded by one or two uniformed PLA (People’s Liberation Army) soldiers. On this day I noticed there was something different, only it took me some time before I figured out what it was and why it made me so uncomfortable.

I had read in the news prior to arrival, and my friend had also mentioned it on Friday evening that since the start of the party congress a number of Tibetan monks had self-immolated in protest of ongoing repression and cultural genocide in the traditional Tibetan homeland. That explained the fire extinguishers on what had to be one of the most miserably wet and damp days of the year. The men in white athletic shoes and discordant pastel umbrellas, who stood out so incongruously from the PLA guys were obviously plainclothes police, dressed in such a way that would enable them to quickly grab their fire extinguishers and run to douse the flames of a dying cultural and religious identity.

After this I was done. We put off visiting Gu Gong for another day and made our way back to our guesthouse via the eastern route, through the huge shopping district of Wangfujing, site of even more monumental changes, or so I was told. If Qianmen was unrecognizable, I don’t know what Wangfujing was. Perhaps a bit of Hong Kong grafted into the Beijing skyline. In other words, not the Wangfujing of my memory, that is for sure. While I was pleased to see that the permanent “construction” scaffolding and obscuring tarp no longer covered the huge Catholic cathedral on the street, the church stood incongruously next to humungous high-end stores, including an Apple store and puzzling innumerable shops selling western wedding dresses. One building did catch my eye. In its original lettering, Beijing’s once largest Bai Huo Dalou (Hundred Goods Building, or Department Store) remained. It had definitely been given a facelift, and I can guarantee you that in the old days, when it was a state-run behemoth complete with shop girls napping across the glass counters there were no Cartier adverts gracing the building front.

That evening we were pretty exhausted. We had a simple meal near our guesthouse of more chaopianr, as well as some of my other old favorites, including tudou si (potato slivers), as well as yuxiang qiezi (eggplant in a fragrant sauce that is supposed to be reminiscent of fish, but is actually vegetarian). I also got some lamb kabobs that in no way matched those of my memory.

As a side note, I remembered reading somewhere before my trip that the Uighurs, the ethnic Turkish Muslims in China, had all but disappeared from Beijing. And in fact I saw none in any of the Muslim restaurants. They seemed to have been replaced by the ethnic Chinese Hui Muslim minority. This may be an inaccurate overgeneralization, but from what I saw, the Uighurs were in fact gone. The only Uighur I did see was manning a cash register at a provisions store way outside the city limits on the way out the Great Wall.

But I get ahead of myself.

On Sunday we had arranged for a driver who works for my friend to take us to the Great Wall. I had said I wanted to go to a place that was as far away from the hoards of tourists that flock daily to the Wall. So Tom took us to an area known as Shui Chang Cheng (Great Wall by the Water). Here the Wall dips down into a lake and reservoir. I had never been there before and it was truly stunning.

Willows mark the road to Shui Chang Cheng (Great Wall by the Water).

Traffic jam in a village on the way to the Great Wall.

Approach to the Great Wall.

The day was absolutely glorious. Clear, windy and terribly cold.

Tom had a “secret” approach to the Wall. If we paid a peasant woman a fee for trespassing through her apple orchard, we could access the Wall from a remote area, unrestored and completely free of aggressive peddlers, gondolas and life-sized plastic Wall “Guards.” It was a fantastic plan, only we hadn’t realized that this remote section of unmaintained Wall would be coated in a sheet of ice. Normally that might not bother us but this was a sheet of ice at a precipitous angle straight down. Couple that with the now whipping wind and we decided to turn back.

Sliding down the ice covered Great Wall.

The problem was that Tom had planned to meet us on the other end, at the point where the Wall meets the water. We had no way to reach him unless we went back to the peasant woman at the apple orchard and appealed to her softer side. It was at this point that I was gratified by how much Chinese I was able to remember. Not only did she let me use her phone to call Tom, but she insisted we go into her house and fed us fruit from her orchard and delicious hot tea. It was a wonderful half hour visit. She really was beautiful, although when I told her this she demurred and blushed, her hand immediately smoothing back her hair.

She is one of my fondest memories of the trip to Beijing.

My other great memory was of the afternoon I then spent with my old friend and her daughter. On the way back to the city, Tom dropped me off at her house, taking my travel companion back to Beijing where she attended Mass at the big Wangfujing cathedral. My friend, her daughter and I had about three hours to catch up and get reacquainted (we hadn’t seen each other in nearly a decade). Then we went out for dinner at a jiaozi (dumpling) restaurant. Oh my, was there ever anything more suited to my gustatory desires than an entire restaurant devoted to jiaozi (one of my favorite foods)?

We also had more doufu si (tofu slivers). It was a perfect meal.

Of course the meal was made even better by the company. My friend’s daughter has transformed from a little girl into a lovely, confident young woman full of intelligence, humor and poise. It was such a joy to see them together.

At dinner my friend had told me of the peasant woman who used to sell vegetables from an outdoor stall in my old neighborhood. She was my go-to woman for produce, not only because she was always friendly and smiling when most of the other vendors were not, but also because she made it a point of not cheating foreigners. She was also terribly smart. She told us that she wanted to sell us the produce that we used in our (western) cooking, not just the staples of the Chinese diet such as radishes, cabbage, green onions and garlic chives. She said that if we gave her seeds to the vegetables we wanted her to sell, she would grow them for us. So people provided her with arugula, basil, red lettuce and cherry tomato seeds and away she went. Now, I was told, she was a millionaire with six huge grocery stores across the city. My friend took me there after dinner. I went through the store with my jaw dragging on the floor. It was the size of about three Whole Foods stores. The wine section was the size of an average Safeway back home, full of wines from every part of the world. Jenny (the proprietor) even had her own wine label. The store also boasted a full-bakery, a gourmet cheese section, a butcher and freezers full of western foods, from frozen waffles to Cool Whip. I couldn’t get over it.

But the best part was yet to come. From out of nowhere my friend pulled a woman towards me. It was Jenny, looking exactly the same as she did when I had last seen her in 1997. I was sure she wouldn’t recognize me, a customer from 15 years previous. But when she saw me she shouted and started hugging me, tears in her eyes. This of course brought tears to my eyes and there I was, clutching my old produce merchant in the middle of her busy grocery store. She said that I had been one of her first customers and I told her I remembered her for the fact that she used to sleep on top of her vegetables at night to protect her merchandise from theft. How things had changed. Jenny was upset that I was leaving the next day and made me promise that the next time I was in town we would get together for dinner. I was more than happy to agree.

Jenny and me in her supermarket, crowning a day that I am sure not to forget anytime soon.

The next morning before leaving for the airport my travel companion and I walked back over to Gu Gong (the Forbidden City) where we wandered through that amazing labyrinthine palace complex most memorable as the backdrop of the movie The Last Emperor.

The area to the east and north of the Forbidden City have always been a favorite of mine and I was pleased to see that although much had changed, still more had stayed the same. We wandered through Beihai Park to the north of Gu Gong where we watched people write calligraphy on the pavement with water pulled from the lake and a large group of women in an aerobic dance class, set to a pop version of traditional Chinese music. The atmosphere here was so vibrant and positive that it made me feel secure in the knowledge that the city would be okay.

  A lone fisherman on the eastern approach to Gu Gong (the Forbidden City).

Temple offerings at Bei Hai Park.

Merchants just north of Gu Gong.

This sense was reinforced by the group of young lovelies who got onto our subway car as we made our way back to the airport. As I eavesdropped, again reveling in the magical and mysterious reappearance of my Chinese language skills, I learned that they were shop clerks enjoying their day off by taking a trip to the zoo. As they admired each other’s clothes and asked how much each other’s boots cost (all more expensive than my own footwear) I realized that there, in the sprawling capital city at least, life was better than it had been previously for the average citizen. With the girl’s cloying perfume lingering in my nostrils I thought about the changes that the city had witnessed and how, regardless of this, the inherent soul and character of the city remained intact. I remembered another subway ride we had taken and how I had fallen into step with someone who could only have been an internal migrant laborer (distinguished by dress and facial characteristics). When he turned to look at me he had smiled and said good morning. I remember that moment so clearly. I’d never been greeted by a migrant in the old days. Considered almost sub-human back then, they would have never raised their downward gaze to greet a foreigner. Now he could look me eye to eye as my equal. How is that anything but an improvement?


  1. A very, very, enjoyable post. Thank you Heather for sharing.

  2. I will probably never go to China, unless work takes me there (which is unlikely). So I enjoyed visiting vicariously through your post! Thank you for the detailed write-up and lovely photos. The best part was Jenny!

  3. Thank you Nicola and Veena. I am glad you enjoyed the post. I enjoyed writing it. Yes, Jenny was truly the highlight of the trip for me. I am glad that comes across in the post. I went back to the guesthouse on the subway with a silly grin on my face the whole way.