I picked up my cousin the next morning in the Beijing airport, and she was hungry, so we made the obvious choice for her first meal in China: Burger King.
This was my first chance to have the BK in China, and it was exactly the same as back in the U.S. Definitely flame grilled. Definitely too much mayonnaise. Definitely at least 7,000 calories per burger.
Here’s the funny thing about Western food in China: Chinese people, in general, don’t eat it. (Some Chinese people love McDonald’s and eat there every day, I know, but for the most part, no.) And the funny thing is that they generally have the same reaction to Western food that Westerners have to Chinese food.
Like this: You go to China, and somebody orders lunch and they order chicken claws. Or duck’s blood. Or fish air bladder. And put it on the table. Think of three things: what would be the expression on your face? What would you be thinking? What would you feel about eating these things?
I’m pretty sure most Westerner’s internal reaction would be a quickened heart-rate and the thought, blaring through their mind: Oh my god I can’t eat that what am I supposed to eat!?
OK, my point: This is the reaction many Chinese have when they see these things: Cheese, chips, pasta. They look at it like it’s dog food, and you are an asshole for even considering eating it.
So when my cousin started describing her eating habits back home, and her passion for Burger King, and particularly when she mentioned that her boyfriend goes to Burger King so often the servers have memorized his order, I knew that this trip was not going to be about exploring the many wonderful dimensions of Chinese food.
Which is, honestly, 50 percent of the reason for coming to China. For battling the crowds. For dealing with rudeness in the street and an incomprehensible language. For dealing with pollution and tourist destinations that take days to get to. The reason, so many days, is just food. You can get some of the most amazing food on earth here for dirt cheap. Some of the weirdest snails, fish, food that’s spicy or mild, barbecue that will strip your stomach lining, noodle soup that will put the color back in your face. If you’re interested in food, and you’re willing to take risks, the palette of flavors here will blow your mind. And the joy of discovering new and weird foods after being here for years and trying everything will never cease. It’s awesome. I’m not even a “foodie” – whatever the hell that term means – and I love it.
But if your idea of a good meal is a Burger King #3 with sweet and sour sauce (and I have nothing against that diet choice; everybody has the right to choose his or her own food), you are not going to enjoy it. You are probably not going to eat anything weird by Chinese standards.
Anyway, we ate Burger King. And then we got on the high speed train back to the city. And then we got on the subway and began to slog through the unbelievable crowds. Jess and I spent about five days in Beijing, and by the end of it both of us were literally afraid of the subway. It was so packed that we both had immediate feelings of fear and despair whenever we saw a subway entrance. I didn’t realize this was happening until the end of the trip, otherwise we would have taken more cabs, but such is life.
That first day we didn’t do much; we got communications set up with home so that Jess could let everyone know she had arrived safe, and chilled out. I was feeling sick from some super spicy noodles I had eaten the day before anyway, so I didn’t mind.
Jess’s first night in China was somewhat like everyone’s: she got to sleep OK but woke up several times in the night, and woke up very early in the morning. I was still passed out so she passed the time quietly, and eventually I woke up and we tried to find breakfast.
That day after we got up and about we decided to go check out the 798 arts district in Beijing, which was a long street full of galleries displaying art that ranged from OK to Good. There was nothing spectacular, but it was interesting to see what modern Chinese art consists of nowadays. The street included a gallery that showed posters of North Korean propaganda, most of it old. Posters displayed North Korean soldiers aiming guns at Americans and Japanese. My favorite featured a Korean peasant woman standing with her arms outstretched, between her arms a pile of food—bread, canned goods, beverages, and what looks like canned meat—with the caption: “Corn is the raw material for many products” (in Korean).
This gallery was small and weird, and taking photos of the posters weren’t allowed. There was a private room just off the small gallery where a Chinese man was standing, evidently sorting through papers. The room was full of piles of propaganda materials and relics that had come from Korea.
I said hello and let myself into his office.
“These are all from North Korea?” I asked in Chinese.
“Yes,” he said.
“Are they old or new?”
“They’re all old,” he said.
“How did you get them here?” I asked.
“I went to North Korea,” he said.
He was a middle aged man, handsome and tall for a Chinese, maybe five feet eight. Obviously he was pretty terse when it came to talking about his business.
“You went there yourself?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Is that difficult to do?” I asked, a little incredulous.
“Yes,” he said.
“How did you do it?” I asked.
“Yeah, it was a big pain. It was really hard. But it’s business,” he said. “Just business.” As if that explained everything.
I nodded and left his office. After two years in China I guess I’ve become used to this level of response from folks, even about topics that are super interesting: One or two words, something vague and meaningless. Most American collectors of old things like this would be happy to smother you with information about the object of their obsession, but this Chinese guy could only spare five or six words. Oh well, there was nothing I could do about it. I bought an overpriced postcard showing a reproduction of one of the photos and we headed back to the hostel.
That night we had dinner with Natasha and Nick, Beijing style hotpot, which was great (although Jess, naturally, couldn’t eat it). We went back to the hostel to get ready for the Forbidden City, which turned out to be a small disaster.
We slept in the next day and got to the Forbidden City late, and it was a teeming mass of screaming people, basically. The Forbidden City is enormous and expensive and hot, and it turns out that if you go there in the summer, you should get there at opening time in the morning or literally do not bother to go at all. It’s horrible. Please take this as a warning: go early in the morning or do not go. Again, it was horrible.
But I won’t write much more than that here, because this is just the number 1 tourist attraction in China, or maybe number 2 after the Great Wall. So there’s no need to write anything. Some people love it, some hate it. I fall on the hate side. It’s loud and crowded and miserable, and the tour guides spout meaningless drivel about the place. (This all wasn’t quite clear to me last year, but now I am certain of the diagnosis.)
We went back to the hostel after an endless day of crawling through the Forbidden City, and relaxed. Beijing, and China in general in the summer, is full of cicadas, which form a huge roaring sound in the hot noontime sun. We realized that Emma, the girl in the hostel in Beijing, had bought a pet cicada and was keeping it in a small cage hanging from one of the small trees in the courtyard of our hostel. I chatted with Bobby, one of the owners and she told me that the hostel would be renovated. She told me that the hostel, prior to their occupancy, had been a home for several families. The center of the courtyard had been full of small brick structures that people also lived in. But soon it would all be torn down.
I asked Emma what she thought of this, curious at how the people who worked here would feel about this courtyard house (which was originally hundreds of years old but which had been renovated over the years anyway) being rebuilt. “I think it’s good,” she said. “When they’re done it will be better.”
So we soldiered on. The next day we tried to go to the Great Wall, but couldn’t make it because we got started too late, so we tried to go to the military museum, but it was closed on Mondays, so we went to the Temple of Heaven, which was nice. That night I went to a club with Natasha and Nick called “Chocolate”, a Russian club in Beijing that offers live music (in Russian) every night. The place was only half-full but it was awesome. The music was really good and we got a hookah for pretty cheap, the drinks were OK and they actually got me to dance, which happens once every time an angel in heaven gets killed by the devil, who punishes those on earth in celebration (by making them see me dance; usually three or four angels have to die to make me sing in public).
The next day we went to the Great Wall. We went to Mutianyu Great Wall, which is the one I would recommend. It’s not so complicated to get to. You take a public bus to a small city outside Beijing called Huairou, and then when you get to Huairou you hop off the bus anywhere and get into one of the cabbies offering rides to Mutianyu. It’s 20 yuan per person, or something like that. The ride is nice, and I remembered it from the year before. One thing we did that was new was go up the side of the wall that had a SLIDE you could ride down. This is, I have little doubt, the best slide in the world. Do not go to Beijing without doing it.
And that was Beijing. We had dinner with Nataha and Nick again our last night there, and we left them at the subway. Natasha waved to us as our train pulled away, and she kept waving for a really long time. The last thing she said was, “It was nice being China buddies with you.”
For some reason when I travel, I get “emotions”, which meant that I was really sad to see them go. Natasha in particular had been one of my favorite people in China, but now she was leaving. And we were leaving Beijing. And soon I would be moving away from Sanming. Traveling boils your life down to two basic experiences: movement and change. And those can be two of the toughest experiences to deal with, as well as two of the best. So after 5 days in Beijing I felt, weirdly, like I didn’t really want to leave.
But there were things ahead in Xi’an, namely these: friends, food, and things to see. So we went to bed (it seemed like Jess was acclimating to the time change) and got ready the next day for our flight to Xi’an, several hundred miles west of Beijing, the old capital of China.