Behind the Olympics: Hidden Beijing or what NBC won’t tell you

Chances are, the average Olympics-goer in Beijing will walk away from the trip thinking China’s capital is some blue-sky traffic-free English-friendly capitalist paradise. Well, the capitalist part is no doubt true. But the trouble with Olympic tourism is that by the nature of such events, it’s hard to get past the veneer painted on by the host country.

I spent last year reporting from China, partly on buildup to the Olympics. Of course, most of my “Beijing expertise” comes from those countless nights getting lost in the big city. Though I’m not a local in any stretch of the word, here’s what I know about getting a taste of the real Beijing.
Drinking. I would dare to say Beijing is a drinker’s oasis in a country that rather would stick to tea. This may have something to do with all those diplomatics and their expense tabs for alcohol, but even locals are getting into the swing of things. Of course, I still remember ordering a Guinness last year in a bar and tasting soy sauce in what was probably a Bud.

That pretty much describes the level of sophistication at Sanlitun and Houhai, the two bar districts primarily geared towards expats and foreigners. The real joints are tucked away–The Tree is one of them. For up-to-date insight on watering holes, see this blog and Time Out’s “best Beijing bars” issue.

Eating. OK, I would have to agree with the guide books on this one. For a place chock full with any sort of Chinese food you could want (crawfish and hot pots are its specialty), you have to go to “ghost street” or guijie in Chinese. Then there’s the obligatory slew of Peking duck restaurants.

The guidebooks here all recommend one particular chain found near Tiananmen Square–Quan Ju De. The place has photos splattered all over of foreign dignitaries like Castro and Bush, who have made the visit. But ha! The joke’s on them. These chains are pretty overpriced and to tell you the truth, the locals don’t really go there (like eating at Times Square).

Clubbing. Beijing nightlife is experiencing a renaissance almost as unprecedented as its current architectural one. The traditionalists will gravitate towards the crowd favorites: World of Suzie Wong and GT Banana while the indie fanboys are flocking to LAN and Block 8. Oh, and to give you a taste of how crazy things are getting, the government recently had to shut down secret rave parties that were getting out of control on, you guessed it, the Great Wall.

Seeing. Yes, you’ll have to see the obligatory attractions–Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Great Wall, though I hear the crowds aren’t as bad as you would think during this time. One thought. Do not go to the Badaling Wall, unless you’re looking for something made in the 1970s (OK might have been a few years earlier). More authentic sections are at Mutianyu, Jinshanling, Simatai, and Jiankou, in increasing orders of “wildness”.

I’ve been to all four and recommend each of them, though Mutianyu is probably for more of the older crowd who want to play it safe. Some more off-the-beaten-path sights that I even haven’t seen include the “Long Corridor” and Juer Hutong.

A Canadian in Beijing: Peking Duck

Well, my trip is rounding to a close and there have been several things on my “to do before I leave” list. Eating Peking Duck is not one of them, however, but here I am poised to write about it. No, I didn’t eat any. Yes, I watched it get eaten. I heard the exclamations. I partook in the pancake portion. It was fun.

Even vegetarians can eat at a Peking Duck restaurant, I found.

My sister and (nearly) brother-in-law came to Beijing to visit a few days ago. We have been going strong with activities since they arrived, many of which were on their “Beijing-in-four-days” wish list. Since I also had my list, there were several things to check off and we’re still chipping away at the items. One of their “must-dos” was to eat Peking Duck.

I am told this is a requirement of all non-vegetarian Beijing visitors. (And all the ducks in China thank the vegetarians for their graceful exemption!)

The experience was really interesting, however, and being a witness to an age-old tradition was worth the photos and the social joy. As a bit of a farewell dinner with some of my dearest friends here, it was also filled with a lot of laughter and stories. I was so happy to be able to introduce people from my China life to people from my Canada life. I couldn’t stop smiling.

We went to a very famous Peking Duck courtyard-style restaurant called Hua Jia Yi Yuan . It was gorgeous.

The front entrance was decadant and it opened into a long corridor into a lobby with a smiling hostess that greeted us in both English and Chinese. The main courtyard was open and full of lattice work and decorative beams painted in the traditional Chinese style. Everything was made to look classic and old but it was also filled with modern furniture and beautiful woodwork that was obviously new in its polished glory.

They led us upstairs to plush red velvet, cushioned chairs and a full dining area. In fact, the place was sprawling and appeared to be nearly full on this weekend night. Everyone looked happy, I noticed, and so I knew the food would be good. Faces were multinational, which is another good sign. Places filled with only non-Chinese faces have proven (in my opinion) to be overpriced and often lacking in taste. Places with both non-Chinese and Chinese customers tend to be excellent on all counts — not too pricey and tasty.

Both proved true. The whole meal cost us each about 65 kuai or approximately $10 Canadian.

We all sat and I offered introductions all around. The connections at the table were formed instantly and the stories, food and beer flowed effortlessly.

What a pleasure it is to watch people you know and love form clear lines with people you also know and love. I have found that my friends here are not always friends with each other. In other words, I have met several different people from different backgrounds and through different scenes while here in Beijing over these three months. Putting them together at a table is not something I’ve had much chance to do. Well, at least not when I could witness the results (my gigs have been collective experiences, but I’m always on stage and not able to see or hear how things go!) and so, I sat back and watched these wonderful people engage each other and just smiled.

I felt incredibly fortunate to know them all.

Soon the food arrived. It was definitely an experience in eating! Peking Duck comes with these thin round pancakes and several cold vegetables in small piles like cucumbers, radish, lettuce (etc) as well as two different sauces, a sweet and savory option. My sister’s finance had everyone laughing when he described his “duck roll-up” as a “Chinese Fajita。” My friend Traci laughed the hardest when she followed that up by explaining that every time her boyfriend eats her Mexican cooking, he describes fajitas as “Mexican Peking Duck.” (Her boyfriend is Chinese and she is American.) We all burst into more laughter. Perspective really does depend on where you’re standing, eh?! Both descriptions are right.

Basically, you put slices of the duck meat into the pancake along with the other ingredients of your choice and then you roll it up and eat it in your hands like a little sandwich pocket. I found it fascinating. I ate a vegetarian version of that as well as several other dishes that were ordered off the menu. I was not lacking in food!

By the time we were done eating and had talked ourselves into a dull roar, I looked around and noticed that we were the only table still occupied. It was about 10:30 at night and the place was deserted. I marvelled at how insular our table had felt for me to have not even noticed a single other table depart from a once packed dining room. It made me smile all the larger. The people I was with were absorbing, to say the least. It was a great night.

When we left, we posed for photos in the lobby and chatted for awhile about the “wall of fame” and the separate room off the corridor for the live fish to swim their final rounds of fish tanks before heading for the kitchen. This is very common in China where the restaurants want to give the customers a view of the freshness of their product. I silently reminded the fish that not everyone comes there to eat them and then turned to go.

We walked out to the sidewalk still chatting and laughing, seemingly not without energy for more stories and anecdotes about China and culture and the travelling bug. This halting goodbye outside became another ten minutes before we finally filed into different taxis and waved farewell.

Duck was apparently delicious. For me, the whole night was delicious. The company, the food, the atmosphere, the vibe. I felt filled with good fortune to have met such wonderful people here and to have such a wonderful family.

Life is full.

And so were our stomachs.

[Pictured from left to right: Stuart, Traci, Me, Rui, Temple (my sis) and Steve (her finance)]