Kenji's Excellent Asian Adventures, Part 1: Beijing-Bound

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Almost exactly a year ago today, after three and a half decades of East Coast life, my wife Adri and I packed up our New York apartment, shipped it off to the netherworld of long term storage, drove across the country, shaved my head, bought some big ol' backpacks, and hopped on a plane to China, where we spent over a month traveling before moving on to Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Australia. It was meant to be the vacation of a lifetime, but as much as I promised my wife that I wouldn't be working, it seemed almost criminal to pass up the opportunity to keep a travel diary. Sure it meant taking an hour or two out of each day to keep track of everything that happened to us, everything we ate, everything I thought, but now, reading back on it a year later, I can say with confidence that it was worth the trouble.

I've shared a few of the highlights of my trip with you in the past. My foreigner's survival guide to ordering Peking duck, my take on the best dishes in Sichuan and in Xi'an, or the amazing fried soup dumplings of Shanghai, but China is not all just noodles and dumplings. As a country currently going through a massive transition from a largely sleepy, rural, agrarian life to economic and cultural powerhouse, there's never a dull (or particularly clean) moment.

Here now is the first part of my Chinese travel diary in an only slightly abridged form. Hopefully it'll make you want to hop on that day-long flight yourself.

Check ou the rest of my Excellent Asian Adventures here.

Day 1: Beijing Bound

Location: Beijing, China

It's 4:07 a.m. here in Beijing. Adri and I arrived a few hours ago and just got back from eating the most delicious 4 a.m. food I've ever had in my life. That's the reward for a 24 hour journey, I suppose.

Our plane—a new flight from San Francisco direct to Chengdu—was something that called itself a "Dreamliner," which roughly translates as "newish airplane made with composite materials that features really awesome windows that work sort of like those glasses that automatically turn into sunglasses when they get hit by the sun except you can control the tint with buttons at your seat."

The windows were awesome, especially because their manual controls get shut off after take-off, which means that the oblivious old lady who's sleeping with her eyeshades on in seat 27F can't accidentally render your entertainment system useless by leaving her shades open for the whole-13 hour flight.

That is, of course, only if that entertainment system was working in the first place. I really look forward to long flights. They're an excuse to catch up on all the new movies that I can't ever justify spending the time to watch unless I'm stuck on an airplane. Unfortunately, the entertainment systems at our seats had no audio, which is rough when you're going to spend over half a day sitting in the same position. I unsuccessfully tried to use that fact to wheedle my way into a first class seat, but the managing flight attendant wisely decided to give me a polite but firm no. Had she said yes, I would have spotted the weakness in the airline's seating policies and I undoubtedly would now be scouring China's heavily-censored internet for instructions on how to sabotage in-flight entertainment systems for a lifetime of free seat upgrades.

It struck me, as we touched down amid the low warehouses and symmetrical apartment complexes, how much the city of Chengdu looks like a series of capacitors and microchips set into a giant motherboard when viewed from above.

I could also mention that the lady behind me kept sticking her feet up in between the seats, so that every once in a while I'd feel a pair of besock'd toes bump up against my elbow, or that I spent my flight from Chengdu to Beijing sandwiched between a fellow who kept spitting peanut detritus into my ear as he shouted across the aisle to what could have been his best friend or worst enemy or perhaps just a casual acquaintance (I've quickly come to realize that tone and volume seem to have nothing to do with interpersonal relations in Chinese interactions), or that the one bag we reluctantly checked never made it to Beijing (though Air China swears it'll be delivered to our hostel tomorrow afternoon), or that we waited over an hour for a taxi at the Beijing airport.

I could mention all these things, but I shouldn't. I am no longer a cynical New Yorker; I am now a happy-go-lucky, world-traveling West Coast dweller, and I should be counting my damn lucky stars.

After all, I'm on the first day of a vacation that started by flying half way around the world in a giant metal cylinder, all for free (my wife, Adri, works wonders with airline miles), and if that's not something that I should be satisfied with, then I don't know what is. So no more complaining. Instead, how about some food?

Adri and I walked out of the hostel doors shortly after arriving around 3 a.m., asking if there was any food available anywhere at this hour. We were told the 24-hour convenience store around the corner would have some snacks, and they did. Scary-looking bright red hot dogs available in two forms: naked (twirling in 7-Eleven-style hot dog rollers) and rolled into big steamed buns. The Chinese, the Japanese, and church potluck-goers all seem to have a thing for dough-wrapped wieners.

Fortunately, just as we were about to submit to fate and enter the brightly lit shop, we caught the faint but undeniable aroma of hot coals. You know when Toucan Sam gets a sniff of Froot Loops and he floats away on the visible vapors that lead him to the bowl? It was kind of like that, if those vapors were occasionally overtaken by random scents like cat pee, human vomit, and overturned garbage cans. Nevertheless, we found the source: a small shop with four young folks watching a World Cup match, drinking liters of beer, and grilling skewers of meat on a live coal fire outside.

I find that with most restaurants, it's pretty easy to negotiate a deal even if you don't speak a common language. Point at something, rub your first two fingers and thumb together (the universal symbol for "how much?"), nod in approval, and you're good to go. This gets complicated when what you are trying to order is small pieces of meat on a stick. Does five fingers mean five pieces of meat per stick? Or does it mean five sticks? Or perhaps it means five yuan (about 75¢) for one stick? Or perhaps five yuan for five sticks, each with five nubs of meat?

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We planned for the worst and hoped for the best and ended up getting more than we thought we would.

First up, a plate of peanuts, boiled in salted water flavored with star anise. I've never loved boiled peanuts, but these guys were tasty, and a good accompaniment to the incredible cheap beer. Ah, Beijing, where the beer flows like water, and the water flows like grimy streams down the sidewalk.

Next, our skewers. Turns out it was three skewers, each with five pieces of meat, and each for five yuan. Not a bad price, especially considering this was some of the tastiest street-meat-on-a-stick I've had anywhere. Alternating cubes of lean lamb meat and straight-up lamb fat, seasoned generously with salt, cumin, and ground red chili. The fat cubes were crisped up like the edges of a perfectly-cooked steak, rendering their juices over the lean meat. Our hosts, who very politely offered us cigarettes when they lit up (I can't remember the last time I saw someone smoking in a restaurant, but I'd guess the opposite is true for Beijing residents) got a kick out of saying "you're welcome," when I sheepishly offered a xiexie. It was the least I could do for such tasty lamb.

(Check out our own recipe for Beijing-style lamb skewers.)

Walking down the dark street back towards our hostel, I had just finished telling Adri that given food this good, barring the loud noises and incessant loogie-hocking, China and I were going to get along just fine, when we spied a man and woman bent over, working in front of a giant wok set over a roaring gas flame, steam rising in a thick plume through a skyline of metal steamers.

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OMG, this is everything I hoped and wished for, I said to myself. As we got closer we saw the duo cutting off balls of fresh, stretchy dough, rolling them out on a floured table top, stuffing them out of a big bowl of seasoned pork, and pleating them into tiny crescents at breakneck speed.

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Six yuan and 30 seconds layer, Adri and I were sitting in front of a steaming array of a dozen of them. We got chastised as Adri poured black Chinkiang vinegar directly over them, the vinegar flowing straight through the wicker steaming tray and onto the table below. Silly foreigners, didn't you see the bucket of small grab'em-yourself dipping dishes stacked pushed into the traditional dipping-dish-bucket at the back left corner or the restaurant?

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Have you ever had that Total Recall-style experience that made you realize you've spent your whole life living a lie? That's what happened to me as I bit into the first dumpling, feeling the pliant, stretchy, delicate skin pulling away between my teeth as the tiny nub of mildly seasoned pork released its juices.

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Suddenly, even the best of those five-for-a-dollar dumplings I ate so many of in New York were revealed as the slipshod My-First-Dumplings that they are. Even my beloved Qingdao Garden in Cambridge, whose steamed zheng jiao were my gold-standard up to this point, now seem clumsy in comparison.

As we were leaving, we spied the dumpling team folding a different kind of dumpling, these ones made with a leavened dough pleated into a drawn purse-shape, sort of like miniature xiao long bao, the soup-filled dumplings from Shanghai.

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I've never seen dumplings like this state-side. The juicy pork filling was the same, but the skins were a softer, more absorbent dough. Still plenty stretchy with just enough structural integrity to hold back the juices within, but porous enough to absorb a good amount of vinegar and chili on dipping.

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Any dumpling experts out there know what these are called?

Here's a pretty good rule of thumb for a tastier (and perhaps more dangerous) life: If you are in Asia and see smoke or steam coming out of a dark alleyway, investigate. I plan on following through with this rule several times tomorrow as we explore the alleyways of Beijing's Nanluogu Xiang neighborhood.

Day 2: Hot and Sour Soup is Gloopy Everywhere

Location: Beijing, China

SO MANY DUMPLINGS.

This morning we woke up late, took a left from the hotel down Chaoyanmen Nanxiaojie, and stopped at the first steamed bun shop on the block. It was run by two old ladies who seemed very confused as to exactly what we wanted, which makes sense. I would be confused if two aliens, complete with funny hats and brightly colored clothing,* stood in front of me gesticulating wildly and making noises that I couldn't possibly comprehend.

* I've realized that what passes as fancy clothes in China is a lot like what passes as fancy tuna in Boston. See, tuna is often caught in the North Atlantic out of Boston or Cape Cod. It then gets bought by the Japanese and sent over to auction in Tokyo. Eventually, it may well make its way back to Boston to be sold in fancy sushi restaurants. Similarly, our clothes were made in China, sold in New York at exorbitantly high prices, then brought back to their place of origin, where they stand out (though unlike the tuna, they stand out more for their dorkiness than their classiness).

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Eventually we managed to wrangle two buns, one filled with steamed cabbage and shiitake mushrooms, and the other (better) one with cabbage, carrots, and salted scrambled egg in some sort of rich, salty gravy. They were far too hot to eat immediately, so to pass the time, we bought ourselves a four-yuan pancake stuffed with WAY TOO MANY sautéed Chinese chives.

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Too many as in, we couldn't finish more than a couple of bites before admitting that it was just too sulfurous and pungent to consume. (I believe it was that scallion pancake that would come back to bite me in the bottom a few hours later.)

But no matter, by that time the steamed had cooled enough to tear into. Just like yesterday's 4 a.m. dumplings, these two buns, with their shiny, slightly tacky pellicle and tender, bread-like crumb, put the over-sweet, extra-poofy buns I used to buy twice a week for breakfast at Golden Steamer in their place.

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It's not that the unfortunately-named steamed-bun shop on Mott Street, just south of Grand (and around the corner from Serious Eats' New York office) has bad buns per se, but put in the context of straight-from-China buns, they're the equivalent of eating something advertised as "New York-style Pizza" in Europe: there may be redeeming qualities, and it may even be tasty for what it is, but it's New York pizza in basic description only. A police sketch version of the real deal.

After polishing off the buns we kept walking. Our goal today was to explore the old neighborhoods and side streets North of the Forbidden City in and around the Bell and Drum towers, Beijing's old timekeepers that operated from the 15th century straight up until the 1940s.

We made it about another half a block before we saw a restaurant with pictures of dumplings in the window. We had a long walk ahead of us, we were going to need our energy, and it looked like a half dozen dumplings for four yuan (about 75¢), so why not, right?

There was even more ordering confusion this time, as the owner of the place kept making little folding and pinching motions with his hands. Yes, exactly. We want one order of dumplings! was what my gesticulations intended to convey. There was some miscommunication on both sides that became apparent a little on down the line.

Turns out that the man was trying to say to us, "you can order dumplings, but I'll have to make them from scratch, so it will lake a long time," (there should be a universal sign for "have to make the dumplings"). Meanwhile, I apparently said to him, "please sir, find your largest plate and fill it from edge to edge with pork and cabbage dumplings, then find your second largest plate and do the same with pork and scallion dumplings, and while you're at it, please bring us two bowls of murky cabbage water to wash them down, and perhaps some tea and a beer as well. For this service I will be happy to pay you whatever you deign appropriate to charge us."

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Despite the half hour wait (a half hour punctuated by several loud, angry-sounding conversations around us),* the dumplings were pretty spectacular. This time they were of the open-ended pan-fried variety known as dalian huoshao. They're cooked like a standard pot-sticker: You fry them first to crisp up the bottom, then add water to the pan and cover it to steam the fillings and top of the skin. Eventually, the water evaporates, allowing you to fry the bottoms a second time to re-crisp them. They're served flipped upside-down so that the crisp bottoms are presented on top.

* Have I mentioned that every conversation we overhear here seems to sound angry? The only other place I've felt that way was in Germany, and I'd believe all Germans are angry all the time were it not for the fact that Germans smile and drink too much beer to actually be angry all the time.

You don't see the open-ended variety (rolled sort of like a cigarette paper around tobacco) all that often in the US, but I'd order them from time to time at Qingdao Garden in Cambridge, if only to remind myself of why I always ordered the steamed dumplings instead. Open-ended dumplings defeat the purpose of a dumpling, as they let tasty juices drip out before they can reach your mouth.

But these dumplings seemed to defy that rule. Perhaps it was the skins—freshly rolled and more porous and absorbent than the average guo tie—that sopped up juices before they had a chance to drip out the ends. We ate valiantly, dipping the ends of the dumplings in plates of black vinegar and a chili oil made with finely ground roasted chilies (Adri very astutely asked "why don't all dumpling shops in the U.S. have chili oil on the table by default?"). In the end, we managed to polish off all but three dumplings between the two of us, along with most of the unidentified (and frankly, not very tasty) cabbage water.

When our bill arrived, we were pretty sure that we hadn't just consumed 49 yuan-worth of food and drink, but we're both terrible at haggling and making a scene (does this classify us as suckers?), so we paid it anyway, reasoning that at the very worst, we were out a couple bucks, or the equivalent of 30 minutes of rent in the average San Francisco or New York one-bedroom apartment. I'd move in half an hour late for a stellar plate of dumplings, wouldn't you?

Some other vastly under-informed generalizations I made about Beijing in my head today (maybe other people can verify their accuracy):

  • Turns out that if you see a large group of tourists in fishermen's hats following an umbrella-toting tour guide, even in China the tourists are Chinese.*
  • Off of the main streets, there are no restrooms in restaurants or cafes. You have to use the communal toilets on the street, and for the record, most of them are door-less squat toilets with BYOTP (Bring Your Own Toilet Paper) status. The only reason you should use them is if you ate some questionable scallion pancakes earlier in the day. A packet of tissue paper and a bottle of hand sanitizer should be in your bag at all times.
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  • Despite the very clear "No Swimming, No Fishing, No Climbing, No Littering" signs posted around the gorgeous Qian Hai Lake in the center of Beijing, everybody swims and fishes, and you'll see the occasional climber and litterer as well. Actually, I'm surprised that all the swimmers didn't get caught on the hooks of all the fishers.
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  • The old-lady-with-shopping-cart-on-a-mission brigade that made me fear for my ankles on a daily basis during my commute in New York exists in real China too, but is augmented by the motorbike and bicycle brigade (I'm convinced that the Chinese characters painted on the street in what appears to be a motorcycle lane say "not for use, please drive on sidewalk, and if you have it in you, swerve precariously around slow-walking tourists.").

* There was a watershed moment some time in the last decade in which these groups of tourists ceased being Japanese and became Chinese. Old couples wearing matching Disney World sweatsuits are still Japanese, though I've seen a few old Chinese couples wearing matching Disney World knockoff sweatsuits (you've heard if Mikey and Mimi Mouse, right?).

We got back to the hostel in the late afternoon to discover that our missing bag had been delivered from the airport (joy!), but that the zippers had been locked together with a sturdy plastic zip-tie, and that the pocket knife we thoughtfully packed precisely for situations in which we may need a device capable of cutting through sturdy plastic zip-ties was trapped securely inside the bag. I suppose Adri will just have to go without underwear until we can get our hands on a pair of scissors.

Here is a funny restaurant name:

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And here is a pot-bellied pig we met.

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After an afternoon of exploring Beijing's alleyways (and public restrooms), we decided to walk over to the Donghuamen night market for some snack in lieu of dinner (we were still stuffed from the dozens of dumplings we'd eaten earlier today). Turns out there are two reasons to go to the Donghuamen night market: to gawk at Australian tourists gawking at squids, endangered species, and novelty-size insects deep fried on sticks, and to be very disappointed by the most forgettable Peking duck I've ever had.

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I guess it's kind of like New York, where it's possible to have both the best and worst pizza in the world, all within a couple of blocks.

Seriously, do yourself a favor: If you do come to the night market to gawk, avoid actually buying anything. It's all been sitting around for hours and is massively overpriced. Something just seems off about a row of several dozen food stands that all have basically the same menu, all run by people all wearing the same uniform.

After being disappointed by the goods, we decided to hit up the same dumpling joint we went to last night, hoping they might have a couple new flavors or skins on the menu. But when we got there, in pace of a quiet dumpling joint, there was a raucous restaurant serving up mostly Sichuan specialties: sliced oxtail and tripe, beef cooked in a sizzling vat of chile oil, roasted whole fish with chiles, and the like.

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We ordered a couple of big beers for four yuan apiece. Yanjing is China's version of PBR. Cool, crisp, not-too-alcoholic, and incredibly refreshing when served ice cold. Then I asked for a plate of smashed cucumbers with garlic, and some slippery liang fen noodles (clear, watery noodles with an agar-like texture made from mung bean starch) tossed with vinegar, sugar, fresh chilies, garlic, and peanuts. This may have been the first dish I've tasted since coming to China where the version I know from Chinese restaurants in the US (like Legend in Chelsea) actually trumped the version here. Makes sense, given it was a Beijing restaurant doing Sichuan food.

Adri, wanting to keep things light, decided to order a bowl of soup. We both love hot and sour soup—even the heavily-thickened Chinatown lunch special version (or perhaps especially)—so we were excited to see that what came to our table was actually not far off from what we were used to in the US. Perhaps a little heavier on the white pepper with slices of ham instead of roast pork, but everything from the gloppiness to the cheap plastic spoons was right there.

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We didn't quite expect to receive an entire half gallon of the stuff, but who's complaining? Certainly not Adri.

Day 3: Good God Are Jian Bing Good

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Location: Beijing, China

Today Adri and I hit the Forbidden city, which is totally awe-inspiring in a way you can't really fathom until you are there. It's much, much bigger than I thought it would be, and surprisingly less busy. I mean, it was busy, but the way Adri made it sound (she was here back in 2007), it was going to be like riding a 12-city-block-sized rush hour subway car. Once you get out of the main flow of traffic, there are some surprisingly beautiful and secluded spots within those massive walls.

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The greatest part is that the English translation of what are undoubtedly regal and auspicious Chinese names for the various halls and pagodas end up all sounding like locations from a Zelda game. You enter the Gate of Supreme Harmony and can then head left to the Hall of Military Prowess or right to the Hall of Literary Glory (I'd suggest the right), before coming back to the Hall of Heavenly Purity (outside of which, if you so desire, you can nibble on chicken burgers, popcorn, and Coca-cola just as the Emperors have done since the Ming Dynasty).

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The most awesome parts of the Museum are behind paywalls (as is usually the case), but it's worth the extra 10 RMB to enter the clock and watch gallery, which is packed with ornate watches made in England, the US, France, Switzerland, and China, all dating from the 17th to 20th centuries, and some of them worth more than I will ever earn in my entire lifetime.

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Notice how everything is sort of a hazy beige color? I'm not sure if we were just unlucky with hazy weather or if it's the infamous Beijing smog, but it was like that every day we were here. It makes for some nice atmospheric long-distance photos, but I'm not sure what it did to our lungs.

The Treasure Gallery along the Eastern wall is also worth the extra admission, especially for the small garden housed within it, packed with roughly pitted stones carted up from Southern China, and far, far less crowded than the Imperial Garden that leads you out through the north wall (through the awesomely-named Gate of Divine Prowess).

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To be honest, the best sight-seeing part of the day came after we left the Forbidden City and headed up into Jingshan Park, which makes for a wonderfully calm and tourist-free stroll after the craziness of the Palace Museum. The pathways are gorgeous, the trees and rocks are beautiful, and if you're up for a climb, you can head to the pagoda at the top of the hill in the center of the park (built from the earth dug out of the moat around the Forbidden City) for a spectacular view of the Forbidden City to the South (it's more fun if you say ruthless Emperor-type things in your head to the ant-like peasants milling about below. "Prepare my litter" or "fold me an excess of dumplings!") and the White Pagoda to the West, which looks sort of like what the Pope's hat would look like if his head were the size of a Mt. Rushmore carving.

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But enough sightseeing.

This morning we had jian bing, China's version of the French crepe, for breakfast. It's a dish so damn delicious that I can't fathom why it hasn't become a staple food in Chinatowns all across the U.S. It's essentially a batter-based crepe cooked with an egg smeared into one side, along with cilantro and scallions, that then gets brushed with a few sauces (a thick soy sauce, a hoisin-like bean sauce, and a ground chili sauce), then folded up, often with a baocui inside. The baocui is a puffed, crisply fried cracker that's a specialty of beijing.

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Essentially what you've got is a bit of carb-on-carb action, crisp wrapped in soft. We ordered ours with a piece of battered fried chicken wrapped up in there with the cracker. As the whole thing steams, the inner cracker softens a bit, but you still get an awesome mix of texture and flavors, especially with that chicken, which had a bit of a Colonel's 11-secret-herbs-and-spices thing going for it.

We split one for breakfast but were so full that we ended up almost skipping lunch. The only thing we ate in the afternoon was a few more of those tasty lamb skewers doused in cumin and chile powder. Not nearly as good as the ones we ate on the first night, but still pretty damn tasty.

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It was only as we were walking back to the hostel after downing a few more lamb skewers that we realized that we've eaten nothing but snacks since arriving in Beijing. I mean, dumplings, meat-on-a-stick, folded-up-things-in-paper-pouches and bar food are all well and good, but perhaps it's time for a real meal?

Good thing I got a tip from Megha Rajagopalan, Reuter's Beijing correspondent, on where to feast on the best Beijing duck in the city. Adri and I canceled our reservations for the ultra-modern Dadong and have our sites set on the more classic Siji Minfu to taste Beijing's most famous dish in its home town for the first time.

Read all about it here and stay tuned for the next part of the adventure, in which we visit the Great Wall, get really excited about some crayfish, and deal with the fallout of foreign bacteria attacking our native fauna.