Beijing and Around 北京和北京省: China’s capital has changed beyond recognition since we first visited in the winter of 1990.
Despite the changes, I still get a buzz every time I arrive. Many of my favourite haunts have disappeared, but new ones have opened.
For us Beijing is the Beijing of the hutongs. Getting lost and exploring the nooks and crannies of these ancient streets is the highlight of any visit to Beijing. Every visit, despite the constant encoaching development, we find new hutongs.
Then there are the monuments. Few cities in the world hold such emblematic buildings as the Forbidden City, The Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven.
Outside Beijing there is the Great Wall. When we arrived in Beijing in 1990, the Mutianyu Section of the Great Wall had just opened to visitors and we had the opportunity to have this section exclusively to ourselves.
While Mutianyu is now a popular section with domestic tourists, there are sections of the wild wall still waiting to be explored less than 100 kilometers outside Beijing.
Once ubiquitous and now no more: the red landline telephone in your local shop.
During my many visits to Beijing over the last 20 years, I was always struck by how convenient it was to make a landline phone call from just about anywhere in the city, and especially in the hutongs. Just about any small shop 小卖部, be it a liquor store, veg or meat shop, dumpling store or dry cleaners, they all had one or two red telephones on the store counter from which you could ring anywhere in China very cheaply. You just asked for permission, picked up the phone and paid the store owner a few Mao 毛 at the end of the call.
Over a period of just a few years, the Chinese started embracing smart phone technology to a degree that leaves many western countries lagging far behind, scenes like the one in the photo above have ceased to exist. The last time I visited I couldn’t find one single shop that had a landline phone outside, and with my mobile not working; I was quite desperate!
Beijing Hutong life: Enjoying a drink and a game of cards.
Photos of the week
Beijing Hutong life: These photos was taken in 2004 just before the mass demolition of Beijing’s Hutongs to prettify the city before the 2008 Olympic Games. The whole area where the photo was taken (Di’ anmen Inner Street and Di’ anmen East Street) has mostly been demolished and rebuilt and much of the vibrant street life has been lost forever.
Huanghua Cheng 黄花城 Walking the Wild Wall: 2001. We are picked up at 7.30 sharp by Sue Lin in his shiny black car and leave Beijing via a four-lane road, lined with old trees. The road looks innocent and pleasant enough, but apparently people get killed here everyday. Although Sue Lin is a good driver, we ourselves experience a couple of near misses, due to the crazy manoeuvres of other vehicles.
Huanghua Cheng 黄花城 Walking the Wild Wall: 2001: Not so easy to get to
It’s supposed to be only 60 kilometres to the village, but it takes us more than two hours. We have to stop and ask for directions a couple of times and once we even have to backtrack a bit. We don’t mind at all, because the scenery is absolutely gorgeous; we are surrounded by those dark, rolling mountains that I remember from my first visit to the Wall, so many years ago.
In fact, our route takes us quite close to Mutianyu. From time to time we can actually see crumbly bits of the Wall, running along the tops of the hills. At the foot of the mountains there are fields of corn, wheat and beans, and small villages. There is a busy traffic of donkeys and carts because this is September and the harvest is in full swing. We are in the middle of the real, rural China, we have seen so little of on this trip, and so close to Beijing as well!
Huanghua Cheng 黄花城 Walking the Wild Wall: 2001: A Great Lunch
Our journey ends at the refreshment stall of an incredible old lady who whips out a copy of ‘Lonely Planet’ and explains all the pros and cons of the two possible routes. She proudly shows us her collection of photos, taken by and with foreign visitors.
Apart from selling drinks, snacks and film, she also keeps the most amazing toilet: it’s a concrete box, open to the air and entirely without doors, so that you have to climb over the wall to get in, or out. Most importantly, it’s clean, airy and quite pleasant.
Tianning Temple and Pagoda A Beijing Hidden Gem: Gazing out of the taxi window, stuck in one of those infernal Beijing traffic jams on our way to the cavernous Beijing West Train Station 北京西 for the umpteenth time, I always found my eyes fixing on a huge pagoda majestically rising above the sprawl of residential buildings. I can’t count the number of times I said to Margie, “we must find out what it is”.
However, once on the train and out of Beijing, our thoughts moved on to the new adventures that lay ahead and our curiosity in the pagoda waned until the next time we were yet again on our way to Beijing West 西站 and the pagoda again caught our attention.
Tianning Temple and Pagoda A Beijing Hidden Gem: Finding it.
Sometimes, we asked our friends living in Beijing if they knew the pagoda. Most just shrugged their shoulders and told us it was obviously the famous Bai Yun Si 白云寺 (White Cloud Temple). However, that just couldn’t be so.On the map, the Taoist White Cloud Temple is on your right as you drive west towards the station, this pagoda was on the left. It had to be something else.
With a few days to spare in Beijing on our last trip, we decided to find out what this mysterious pagoda was. And what a find!
After visiting the White Cloud Temple we headed south west crossing under the six-lane elevated highway that heads towards Beijing West train station and entered Fengtai District. From there we basically followed our instincts until we knew we had to be close. From ground level it is almost impossible to glimpse the pagoda even when you are so near. We eventually had to ask several locals to help us locate the entrance to the pagoda and temple complex.
CITS (China’s official travel agency’s description of an L Train 临客)
“L – Temporary Train In Chinese: LinKe (临客) L trains operate only during the peak travel season, such as the Chinese Spring Festival and the National Holiday. These trains are not listed in the official fixed train schedule. It is not advised to take L-trains if you have other options as they are known to be relatively slow and regularly subject to delays”.
“46 hours”. I doubted my Chinese at that moment, but the ticket seller repeated the departure and arrival times, there was no mistake. Bagging next day hard sleeper tickets from Beijing to Chengdu can be a taxing experience at the best of times, but in early August, you’ve got about as much chance as winning the lottery. Unless … unless, of course, you are willing to take the slow train 临客 , or L Train as it is known in China!
We got two middle berths, which are the best, as during the day you can escape the crowded lower berths, where everyone sits, and they have more space than the often claustrophobic upper berths.
Pandemonium broke out when the gates were opened at Beijing West Station 北京西站 to allow the passengers on. Those without reservation ran frantically, pushing and shoving the old and weak out of the way, to grab one of those precious seats. It was a simple case of survival of the fittest; get a seat or stand for 46 hours.
With a reservation in our hands, we took a more leisurely stroll to the train. Unfortunately, we found a family, consisting of two adults and 5 unruly children (not sure how that is possible in one-child China), occupying the 4 other berths above and below us.
Alive and Flipping:The Dalian Seafood Restaurant, Beijing. It was only a Wednesday night, but the place was heaving. The smartly-uniformed waitress told us we were 4th on the waiting list. My friend David, who has been working in Beijing for several years, said that it was worth the wait and that, anyway, tables moved fast here. He was right on both counts; 10 minutes later we were assigned a table and told to go and choose our meal from the magnificent displays and amazing fish tanks.
The Dalian Seafood Restaurant in the Chaoyang district, almost directly opposite the huge Landao Shopping Centre, must be one of the great restaurants of Beijing. It has certainly made it onto our list of favourites. If you are a lover of fresh seafood and fish, as we are, then this has to be one of the best bargains in Beijing. Everything looks and smells as if it has just been plucked straight from the sea. Strangely enough it is actually a Muslim run enterprise but alcohol flows freely.
The restaurant’s centre-piece is a rectangular area of fish tanks, filled with all kinds of fish and sea creatures. In front of the fish tanks, there are countless trays of (live) prawns, squid, scallops, crabs, clams, razor fish and other unnameable creatures, just lying around, waiting to be chosen, gobbled up and washed down with a cold beer.
We were all excited as we piled into the back of the mini-van. David had got the embassy driver to take us on an excursion to the old village of Chuandixia some 60 Kilometers from Beijing. I suppose Chuandixia is the Beijinger’s equivalent of Chinchon for Madrileños. An historic village with restaurants and small hotels catering mostly for daytrippers from the capital.
Chuandixia is an extraordinaryly well-preserved small stone village . It is extremely photogenic and the surrounding countryside offers ample trekking possibilities.
Villagers have cottoned on quickly to Chuandixia’s tourist potential and have started opening simple hostels and restaurants. As a result, there is now a 20 Yuan entrance ticket and a small coach park at the entrance.
There are still many buildings with left over Cultural Revolution graffiti painted on the walls which makes the village an intereting open-air museum for those who can read Chinese.
Chuandixia: How to put a damper on the visit
However, it’s touch and go as to whether all of Beijing residents will take to this place. Ths driver, who had brought long his mother for the ride, something that has happenend more than once when we’ve hired a driver, couldn’t see what all the fuss was about: “Everything is old and like it was 20 years ago”, they both complained. The two of them spent the whole afternoon locked in the van moping about how old everything was. I almost felt guilty, even though we were paying them to be there.
Foreigners love it though! We bumped into several groups of expats who were spending the night there with their trekking guides.
We on the other hand limited ourselves to pigging out, exploring the alleys and eventually climbing high above the village to sit and watch the sunset while polishing off two bottles of Great Wall red wine we had brought from Beijing.
The Great Wall Marathon is becoming an increasingly popular event. People run this gruelling race for various motives. Some do it for professional reasons, others for charity and others just to test themselves. Fancy doing it? Take a look at a couple of Youtube videos to get a taste of it. The next Great Wall Marathon is on the 16th of May 2009.
El restaurante Manfulou está situado en el corazón de Pekín, a pocos minutos caminando de la ciudad prohibida y en una zona donde aún se puede pasear por los hutong, los callejones tradicionales de muros grises tan característicos de la capital china.
La suntuosa decoración interior de Manfulou se inspira en los palacios de la China imperial. Tanto en la planta baja como en el primer piso, (al que se accede en ascensor) hay amplios salones y acogedores reservados con decoración tradicional china. Una de las sorpresas que reserva Manfulou es su espectacular terraza con vistas directas al parque de Beihai, y en especial a la pagoda blanca que corona este antiguo parque imperial.
Manfulou se especializa en huoguo, o “caldero mongol”, uno de los platos más típicos de Pekín. Pero más que un plato en sí, el huoguo es una manera de comer. Consiste en una olla llena de agua con determinados condimentos que se pone sobre la mesa al fuego hasta que hierve. Entonces se van introduciendo los ingredientes crudos en la olla para cocinarlos al momento. Una vez hervidos, se sacan de la olla, se mojan en una salsa especial (la tradicional es una salsa de sésamo a la que se añade perejil y cebollino chino picado) y ya están listos para comer.
Las ollas de Manfulou son las tradicionales de cobre, aunque en lugar de una gran olla por mesa para compartir son pequeñas ollas individuales.
Los ingredientes que se pueden comer de esta manera son muy variados: todo tipo de verduras, setas, tofu, y, sobre todo, carne de cordero y ternera. Al comer huoguo, lo mejor es hacer una selección equilibrada de ingredientes, pidiendo carne, verduras, setas, tofu, bolas de pescado o marisco e incluso fideos chinos.
La calidad y frescura de la materia prima y la selección del producto son la insignia de Manfulou, que ofrece carnes de cordero y ternera procedentes de lugares famosos por sus pastos, como Mongolia Interior e incluso Nueva Zelanda. La carne es fresca, o congelada, pero siempre cruda para hervirla en el huoguo.
La cocina china es famosa por aprovechar todas las partes del animal. De hecho, para los no escrupulosos, el corazón de cordero cortado en tiras es una de las elecciones más recomendables para el huoguo. Otra de las estrellas de la carta son las bolas frescas de calamar, elaboradas artesanalmente y sin fécula.
La excelente calidad de sus productos, su espectacular decoración y su ubicación hacen de Manfulou una parada obligada para los que quieran captar la esencia de la cultura culinaria pekinesa.
Precio aproximado por persona: 120-150 Rmb
Platos recomendados: Huoguo (caldero mongol). Ingredientes recomendados (para el huoguo): Cordero lechal fresco, corazón de cordero cortado en tiras, ternera grasa, bolas frescas de calamar y setas negras chinas (xianggu).