Beijing Winter Wonderland

北京 Beijing Winter Wonderland

Beijing Winter Wonderland. We had planned to visit Beijing, the Nujiang Valley in Yunnan, and the Ice festival in Harbin over the Christmas break. The dates for the Christmas and New year holiday at the university in Madrid would have been perfect. Unfortunately, due to unforseen circumstances we had to cancel the trip.

However, our friend Fu Dawei has sent some fantastic photos of the coldest winter in Beijing for many years. We hope you enjoy them!

The pictures remind us of when we first visited Beijing in the winter of 1990.  However, in that year the temperature was around -6 to -8 degrees. This year it is hovering around -15 to-17. As you can see from the next photo you have to wrap up to keep warm.

Beijing 1990 – 2007

Up until the 1950s, Beijing was an architectural wonder, an almost perfectly preserved metropolis from the pre-industrial era. Many ancient towns and cities exist around the world, but Beijing was enormous: 62.5 square kilometres (25 square miles) large including lakes, parks, palaces and of course the Forbidden City, the emperor’s home. Surrounded by some of the greatest fortified walls of antiquity, it was a microcosm of ancient China, a city that symbolized the political and religious ideals of a system that had existed for twenty – five hundred years. Ian Johnson, Wild grass, p. 101

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Part One- Beijing 1990

Stepping out onto the concourse outside Beijing railway station into the sharp winter sunlight we saw the number 20 bus pulling in. “That’s the one!” I shouted to Margie. We stormed it with the rest of Beijing. The descending passengers didn’t stand a chance as the mob rushed the opening doors. I tried to use my backpack to annihilate any opposition in my quest to get a seat. However, despite my efforts, the old ladies with their jabbing elbows still managed to get on before us. But we did get our bums on those precious seats in the end. Two foreign tourists getting off the bus looked at us in total shock and disgust. But, hey, we had already been out in Western China for 2 months, and when in Rome… Welcome to Beijing 1990.


It’s a long time ago, but Margie kept a diary, so the memories come flooding back every time we reread it. I remember a cold, hazy city. The sun, though occasionally glaring, was more often weak and blotted out by a polluted sky (worse than now). When the clouds covered the sky, snow sometimes fluttered in the air, but mostly melted before it had time to settle. The people looked pretty poor, though there were some inklings of an incipient urban sophistication we hadn’t seen elsewhere in China. Something was happening but we couldn’t quite put our fingers on it…..

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The Uninvited 不速之客

The Uninvited’ – a novel by Geling Yan (A Book Review)



The Uninvited 不速之客; Scratching beneath the surface of Beijing’s modern façade, Geling Yan reveals a world of inequality, corruption and sycophantic banality. The main character, Dan, is an unemployed factory worker who lives with his wife, Little Plum, in their old factory’s run-down accommodation on the outskirts of Beijing. By accident, Dan realizes he can earn a nice living and enjoy the pleasures of China’s finest cuisine by pretending to be a journalist.

In modern-day China, journalists are often invited to functions in order to write positive reviews about whatever corporation or society is holding the event. They are wined and dined in lavish style and then, to top it all, they are paid “money for your trouble” to reward them for their attendance and encourage the publication of favourable articles. The banquets are bizarre and farcical; for instance, the bird watchers’ society culminates its event by serving up one of China’s most endangered birds.

The Dark side of Beijing

Dan’s life becomes more complicated when he meets the famous painter, Ocean Chen, and the determined and ambitious journalist, Happy Gao. From this point onwards, Dan is taken on journey of discovery that will immerse him in the bowels of Beijing’s less savoury side. Quickly, the thin veneer of a stable, dynamic and modern city is peeled away and its rotten core revealed. Exploited prostitutes, money-grabbing constructors, crooked policemen and judges, as well as vain and self-centred artists are all woven into a web of corruption.

Irony and humour

Despite the biting irony of the book, ‘The Uninvited’, is often humorous and consistently down to earth. The main characters are likable and real and the plot unravels unexpectedly. Definitely a good read.




Huo Guo 火锅, the fiery hot pot from Sichuan and Chongqing, is undoubtedly one of those great culinary experiences you should try when you visit China. It’s not a meal to have on your own, but something to share and savour in the company of friends. I’ve found that between 4 – 6 diners is about the perfect number, but on many occasions it’s simply a case of ‘the more the merrier’.

 What exactly is a Huoguo?

A Huoguo is a giant pot of boiling broth to which you keep adding the fresh ingredients you have previously selected from the menu. Accompanying the Huoguo there are a variety of dips into which you dunk the ingredients, once they are cooked. The creamy, sesame sauce dip is the most popular and definitely our favourite. However, in Chengdu you will often find a sharper, sesame oil dip, heavily laced with garlic.

The original hot pots from Chongqing

The original hot pots from Chongqing only came with one option: a bubbling bowl of red- hot liquid filled with chillies, Sichuan peppercorns and other pungent spices. In fact, it was a real case of ‘the spicier the better’. The massive increase in domestic and international tourism in China has resulted in a number of adaptations to the original Huoguo, with many hot pots having their spiciness toned down to suit the palates of the uninitiated and inexperienced; those people whose stomachs would be at serious risk if they were to eat the original thing.

Nowadays, a typical Huoguo bowl comes with a partition: one side is red and hot, while the other is a white and mild broth with hardly any spices. This type of Huoguo goes under various names, such as ‘Hong-Bai’ (Red & White), or ‘Yin and Yang’, as the bowl resembles the Taoist symbol. Moreover, many waiters and waitresses will discuss the required degree of spiciness with their customers,  as if they were asking how the customer would like their coffee.

The foremost and original Huoguo ingredient is meat (in fact, the traditional Mongolian hotpot, which is slightly different from what I’m describing here, is almost entirely meat-based), wafer thin slices of either lamb or beef, although nowadays you can put almost anything in a hotpot. Popular options include prawns, squid, fish balls, tiny eels, boiled quails eggs, different types of mushrooms, cabbage, cauliflower and other vegetables, as well as thin noodles. The noodles usually go in last and are drunk with the remainder of the broth as a soup.


Types of Huoguo:

There are different types of Huoguo restaurants. The cheaper ones, which can be found all over the smaller streets of Sichuan’s cities and towns, as well as Chongqing and its environs, are generally run in two ways. Your first option is a buffet, where you pay a fixed price which covers the Huoguo itself and as many ingredients as you wish to put in: you just go up to the buffet table and take whatever you want, and you can repeat this process until you are ready to explode.

 In the second type of establishment you take a basket and fill it with your choice of ingredients, all of which are stuck on skewers, and cook them in your hotpot. When you ask for the bill, the waiter counts the empty skewers and you pay according to how many you have taken. Some skewers are marked, so that for example a skewer with prawns will cost more than one with seaweed. It is always cheap, but you might want to establish the price first before going over the top. A spicy chilli oil or sesame sauce dip will accompany the food.

The more upmarket Huoguo restaurants give you a wide choice of soup stocks, such as fish head, hot and sour, extra hot, etc. and a wide range of dips. There is usually a menu card on which you tick the ingredients and the number of portions you want. These menu cards can be a bit daunting if you don’t speak Chinese, but you can always point to what other tables have ordered!

Beware of the Beer Girls!

A common feature of Huoguo restaurants in Sichuan are the ‘beer girls’ (pijiu xiaojie). As soon as you sit down, you’ll be mobbed by skimpily clad girls, most of them in cowgirl outfits complete with mini-skirts and boots, fighting over the right to plonk bottles of beer on your table. Each girl represents a different brand, and before deciding on which beer to order, ask about the price first, as these can vary considerably, depending on the brand and type. Also make sure it’s ice- cold (bing pijiu), as lukewarm Chinese beer and a Huoguo are not a good match. Come September, it gets increasingly difficult to persuade the Chinese that a beer has to be cold and once winter has arrived, you can just about forget it.

Huoguo In Chongqing

My Favourite Huoguo Restaurants: 

Chishui, Guizhou Province:

A big modern Huoguo restaurant near the Chishui river. The only pure vegetarian Huoguo I’ve ever had. The friendly owner understood my question and prepared a spicy broth from vegetable stock. The ingredients were incredibly fresh and varied.

Leshan, Sichuan Province:

The street Huoguo in any of the small side streets, all of these are of the ‘grab-a-basket and pick-and-choose-your-skewer’ variety. Choose the first one that grabs your fancy and join the locals for some serious noshing and beer drinking.

The hottest!

Anshun, Guizhou: I had this Huoguo at the night market, it wasn’t my favourite, but the hottest by miles. We realised we were in trouble when the cook dropped a great lump of solidified chilli oil into the pot and we watched in disbelief as it sank beneath a sea of floating chillies and Sichuan peppercorns.

Guijie, Bejing:

If you’re in Beijing and fancy trying a Huoguo, the restaurants on Dongzhimen Xijie, known by the locals as ‘Gui Jie’, are the best place in town. There are loads of restaurants to choose from, all of which stay open until late at night, and even in 2006 it remained an authentic Beijing-er eating area, though you can find expats and tourists as well. Beijing people are extremely fussy when it comes to food, which is why the quality of the ingredients here tends to be excellent. Moreover, some of these restaurants are taking the hotpot to new culinary heights, with three or four different stocks in one pot!

Mushroom Huoguo Zhongdian

Mushroom Huoguo Zhongdian


Huoguo Hohhot
Amazing Houguo in Hohot


Casa Lafu