Last year I took a three-month trip through China and Southeast Asia, keeping an on-again off-again diary for the whole trip. This is the second part of my Excellent Asian Adventures.
Day 4: Do Indoor Voices Exist?
Location: on the wrong side of the road between Beijing and Gubeikou, China
Please let there not be a car around this next bend, I said to myself, my eyes half closed, my jaws clenched tight, and my feet shaking a little in the brand new, synthetic-material, fully breathable, quick-drying ultra-socks that Adri thoughtfully bought for me just before this trip.*
It was not a fully unselfish purchase, as those who know my feet can attest to.
My wife Adri and I were in the back of a hired car along with another traveling duo we'd met that morning. We were being driven to the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall, near the small town of Gubeikou. Our driver had been on and off the phone all morning, yelling angrily in short, staccato bursts.
Being driven by anger is something you should always avoid. Being driven by an angry driver even more so. Add to that a twisting mountain road with sharp inclines on either side, and the fact that the driver was very casually driving in the oncoming traffic lane, shifting gears, and steering, all with one hand tied up on the phone, and you can understand my heightened state of fear.
China's a very pushy culture, and I'm not talking pushy in the way that pottery hawkers in Turkish markets or time share-sellers in Cabo are pushy. I'm talking pushy in the way that the computer-controlled drivers in MarioKart are pushy.
If you've been to a Chinatown in a major city, you know that. You can expect to be bumped into, pushed aside, crowded from behind, held up from in front, and generally ignored. In China, the concept of personal space exists sort of like string theory: they've heard of it, but nobody seems to really understand, much less believe in it.
It's even worse once they get behind the wheel. All normal rules of lane shifting, signaling, and general good road etiquette go out the window.
In the US, hearing a horn on the road generally means one of four things (and only three of them are justified):
"Hey fruitcake, I'm already in this lane. Next time check your blind spot before you turn!" is one of them.
"Hey Guy Smiley, the light just changed. Why don't you stop reading your text messages and get a move on? I have a prescription to pick up/kids to drop off/places to see/people to do" is the next most common.
"I sentence you to kiss my a*&!" is a close runner up, but usually reserved for gavel-banging cartoon judges.
All other uses of the horn signify one and only one thing: "Hey everybody, look at me, I'm a jerk!"
Here, horns seem to have a different meaning entirely. They exist to announce just one thing to all traffic, whether it's oncoming, orthogonal, merging, keeping up with the flow, or standing still: "I am moving along this trajectory and I will not, for any reason, be it life, limb, liberty, or minor paint damage, be swayed from my decision. All consequences from this point forward will be borne upon your shoulders. Come at me, bro."
It doesn't help that hired cars and taxis in China do not have seat belts in the back.
It's the only country I've been to where when you overtake on the highway, the oncoming traffic is expected to swerve around you, swaying dangerously close to the totally unfazed old men riding three-wheeled motorbikes at Hoveround-speeds. It's also the only car I've ever been in which was overtaken by a minivan while we were in the process of overtaking a bus, all in the width of a two-lane road.
And did I mention the loud phone calls? I did? I feel like they're worth talking about again, as it wasn't just our driver who was engaging in them. In fact, every phone call I've heard since coming to Beijing has been conducted at top volume, whether it's in the subway, on an elevator, in a restaurant, or from an otherwise completely tranquil alleyway. Conversations in general take place at high volume, but the phone seems to amplify the effect.
I have three possible theories to explain it:
- Phones in China are built with very weak microphones.
- I know that Cantonese makes use of tonality as a part of speech. Perhaps Beijing has its own dialect which also makes use of volume. I plan on testing this theory by listening to phone conversations throughout the rest of the country.
- There is some form of natural selection going on here that happens when populations concentrate. China is now at such a high population density that it has entered into a self-reinforcing cycle where only the loudest people in each generation can be heard and progress in society, thereby surviving (in evolutionary terms) to produce ever-louder generations. China's relaxation of the one-child law can only augment this inevitable progression towards total cacophony.
The third is my favorite explanation because it creates a Vonnegut-esque future scenario in which even the quietest Chinese whisper is screamed, Yosemite Sam-style at the top of the lungs. It'll be interesting to see whether loudspeakers or aural-impediment devices will become the dominant market force in the future.
All of this is to say that by the time we reached Jinshanling, we were in a heightened mood to appreciate the peace, quite, space, and tranquility of this relatively un-touristy part of the Great Wall. Our tour guide was a petite Chinese girl who was wearing a barbie-pink sweatsuit and baseball cap. One of the two other people in our shared car asked her if she had other matching sweatsuit-baseball-cap combos like, for instance, green. She let out an embarrassed giggle and let us know that to wear an all green sweatsuit-and-cap combo would be inappropriate for a girl like her. I'm trying my hardest to understand the culture but I'm still learning new things every day.
She led us up a steep trek up to the start of the walk then left us to our own devices for several hours. The walk along the wall is punctuated by even steeper ups and downs, often over broken stones and un-repaired stairs, but thankfully the cold water saleswomen seem to have set up a one-per-watchtower rule amongst themselves, which means you don't have to worry about being harassed too much. I'm led to believe this is a major problem at the more touristy Badaling and Mutianyu sections of the Great Wall.
And dammit, I'm writing this in the hostel bar and they've just set up their "make your own dumpling" night (this happens at every hostel on Friday nights, I think), and man am I hungry after a day of trekking, so I'll just let the pictures do the talking.
Needless to say, the Great Wall is one of the greatest sites you can visit. And that's coming from a very excitable but extremely cynical seasoned traveler. No exaggeration.
Day 5: Holy Crayfish, Batman!
Location: Mystery Train Station, Beijing, China
Crayfish season is a big deal around here. How big? Big enough that you see ads like this on the subway:
"This soccer game is so damn exciting that I'm going to bite the head right off this crayfish, shell and all!"
"I agree with you so much that I'm going to crush this crayfish in my bare hand until its juices run down the sleeve of this shirt I'm wear... wait a minute, why am I dressed like an airplane captain?!?"
They seem to say.
Also, apparently crayfish, beer, and couches are only for the men. This poster does, however, accurately portray the coupling situation here in China. One of those three men is going to end up single and lonely.
Day 6: Rou Jia Bing, Beijing Yogurt, and Liangpi. You Want to Eat These.
Location: Beijing, China
We ate a sandwich for breakfast this morning, and it was good.
Adri and I did our standard "let's walk down the street and stop when something looks good to eat" routine after leaving the hostel on our way to Tiananmen square. Turns out that sleeping in until 10 a.m. is not a good idea if you're going to wake up hungry. The Chinese take their meals early, which means that if you peer into most restaurants at 10, all you see is stacks of empty bamboo steamers that once housed delicious dumplings. It's good incentive to get up early.
What you can find any time is these:
Adri made the good point that while I've been gifted with a huge appetite, a boundless love of adventure, and a moderate ability to string words together—all hallmarks of a decent food writer—what I lack is the guts. And she meant that literally. Occasionally my mouth writes checks that my intestines just can't cash.
As I've mentioned, Beijing is not the best place to be when you need a bathroom stat, or if you're used to Western standards of hygiene. I walked into a public restroom to find a cook from the restaurant next door squatting over a toilet with a cigarette in one hand and a cell phone in the other (screaming into it, of course). These are the types of things you don't want to see right after having eaten at said restaurant, particularly when you realize that these restrooms have no running water.
To help alleviate the situation that has quite explosively developed since arriving in Beijing, I've been sticking to a rigorous self-prescribed formula of pro-biotics, taken in the form of these little pots of heavily soured, moderately sweetened yogurt, served at nearly every cold drink kiosk in the city (that's every 20 feet or so).
We bought our yogurt and started walking back to the hostel, when my food radar registered a solid bleep.
What is the disk-shaped object that man is holding in his hands? my eyes said to my brain. I'm not sure, let's ask the nose, the brain responded responded.
Smells faintly of cilantro, with perhaps a hint of braised pork and soy sauce, replied the nose.
At that point, as often happens, my feet took charge of the rest of my body and turned us in the direction that the man had just come from. It was all I could do to tell my mouth to call after Adri and tell her I was being involuntarily led away.
The source of the food was a small window a half block down, with a queue of three people and one dog in front of us. I peered into the small window and liked what I saw.
See, this was a rou jia bing shop. Bing is the Chinese word for all sorts of dough-based products. When they're flat and crepe-shaped, they're called jian bing (and you can read about the awesome ones I had yesterday). When they're thin, stretchy, and pliant like a tortilla, they're called bo bing (you've probably eaten them wrapped around moo shu pork or Peking Duck). When they're disk-shaped, lightly leavened dough that's split and stuffed with meat, the sandwich is called rou jia bing.
We watched as our man ripped off individual balls of dough after kneading the large mass on an oiled surface for several minutes. Eventually, each ball of dough got stretched and twisted around like a coiled snake before being placed into a cooker that simultaneously steamed it while griddling the top and bottom.
The result is a flat disk that in many way resembles a Venezuelan-style arepa, but with a much lighter, fluffier inner texture.
While the dough-man made the bing, the woman up front fished out large chunks of braised pork from a vat of stewing liquid. I'd seen the woman in front of me ask for a particularly fatty bit of belly, and after some emphatic pointing, I managed to score the same.
The pork was braised in a sweet and savory broth that to me tasted of soy, Chinese wine, and sugar, along with a couple of warm spices—star anise, cinnamon, and Sichuan peppercorn, perhaps a couple of others.
She placed the chunks on a large chopping block, tossed a handful of cilantro and cooked hot green horn peppers on top, then chopped it all together with a cleaver.
She then split the bun and piled the mixture inside before wrapping it up, drizzling it with a bit more cooking liquid, and handing it to us.
Not too shabby for a 10 a.m. meal. There's an awful lot going on in there, though the predominant flavors are sweet, savory, and fatty, with just a touch of heat and freshness from the cilantro and chilies. But it was the bread that stole the show. Nicely crisp on the outside, tender, hot, and moist, with just a bit of stretch on the interior.
It's a dish that's actually far more common in Xi'an (if you live in New York, you may have seen a version sold as "Chinese Hamburgers" on the menu at Xi'an Famous Foods), but as we all know, the freshness of bread can make or break a sandwich, and seeing as we saw this particular bun being kneaded, shaped, and steam-griddles right in front of our faces, it doesn't get any fresher than this.
It also happened to have a higher ratio of cilantro and peppers mixed into the filling, as well as more filling within the bun than any version we would try after heading to Xi'an a few days later, where they're EVERYWHERE.
A bowl of liangpi noodles—hand-cut steamed wheat starch noodles tossed with cucumbers, sesame sauce, and chili oil—and a pork-filled bing is the burger and fries of Xi'an, if a burger and fries were something you ate morning, noon, and night.
Ironically, the best liangpi we've had in China so far were also in Beijing, on that same afternoon, in fact.
We bought them off a street vendor. The woman, who was dressed in heels and a very un-workmanlike knit top, folded a large, circular sheet of steamed starch like a business letter on top of a bamboo chopping block, then sliced it into half-inch strips with a heavy cleaver before adding them to a bowl and tossing them with blanched mung bean sprouts, shredded cucumber, a ladleful of sesame paste, some soy sauce and vinegar, and a good amount of chili oil.
Are those croutons?, asked Adri, talking about the cubes of spongy-looking staff that sure as heck looked like croutons. But nope, they're cubes of super-absorbent once-frozen tofu. Perfect sauce-soppers for a perfect sauce, if you ask me.
Let me leave you with a picture of how hot and humid it is here:
Now doesn't that just whet your appetite?