Chinese Buffet – Part 5: Hou Hai by Boat

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

After meeting with the Immersion Guides staff at their offices, a few of us headed off to Hou Hai for some evening fun. The True Run team was kind enough to offer to show me around town for a bit, but I wasn’t quite sure what they had planned. I was looking forward to kicking back for awhile, allowing someone else to lead and navigate for a few hours, so I could just take in the atmosphere of Beijing. Floating on the lake at Hou Hai was a great place to do that.

Some of the staff rode their bikes across town, while Mike Wester and I hopped in a taxi that then sat in traffic for over an hour — all part of the Beijing experience! Eventually we all met at the dock along the south side of Shichahai Lake and boarded wooden boats at River Romance:

Five of us hopped on the old-fashioned covered boat, along with our rower and a musician who began strumming on her pipa, a traditional Chinese lute:

Our evening dining excursion began with some munchies: boiled peanuts, “hairy” green beans and some sort of dried, salted cod:

Oh, and of course, a basket of beer. Gabe made sure we had a generous supply of Yanjing, the local Beijing brew:

As the boat headed north, Reid explained why the Hou Hai area developed so rapidly in recent years. The strip of bars and restaurants along Lotus Lane became very popular after the SARS outbreak in 2003, when the government encouraged city residents to spend as much time as possible in the open air. The cramped and enclosed quarters that many Chinese residents live in were likely to aid in spreading the disease, so folks started spending more time outdoors – in the parks and along the banks of rivers and lakes like this one.

After about 30 minutes, we docked near Kaorouji, a famous 100-year old lakeside restaurant, where our dinner was brought to the boat. While we waited, a woman selling lotus blossoms approached us. We bought two and Shelley showed me how to break open the blossom and eat the seeds inside. You can eat them raw, which we did (kinda tastes like bland nuts, with a nice crunch) but they are often ground into a paste and used to make congee, an Asian porridge.

The evening air was delightful and the beers were cold – what more could you ask for? This was my first authentic Chinese buffet, aboard a wooden boat in the heart of Beijing – it was fabulous, but of course, in all the excitement, I didn’t get a good shot of the food before we dug into it!

We shared plates of sliced Peking Duck, roasted lamb and scallions, mushrooms, snowpeas and a hummus-like dish that I skipped. (Still not sure what exactly it was?!) I nibbled on a duck foot also, but it was much too salty for me. Eating sliced duck in a bing (pancake) as the boat rocked and sauce dripped down my leg was the yummiest (and messiest) part of the meal for me:

Noise from the bars and restaurants along the shore began to escalate as night decended. The Lotus Lane “honkey tonk” as Mike Wester called it, was beginning to pick up. But from the water, the nightlife simply glowed – I liked being in the midst of it, yet distanced from the dizziness:

Heading back, we encountered a bottleneck of boats at the famous Yingding Bridge. Just more typical Beijing traffic, this time as we floated along. There were laughs, bumps and heckles from the other boaters as we made our way through.

Everyone was in a festive mood – it was one of those classic summer nights when everything just seems right. The last thing we did was light small candles and place them in mini paper dragon boats that we set sail on the lake.

The bright flames sparkled quickly, then disappeared into the water, merging with the neon reflections of the evening hoopla around Hou Hai.