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East Asian Immersion: Beijing part I


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Every country we visit has its own unique attributes that make it virtually impossible to say that any one is intrinsically better than all the others. However, there's one country we have a special relationship with because it's Mei Ling's birthplace and the place she lived until her early twenties. Traveling to China is like going back home for her and has begun to feel that way for me as well. There's no other country where we can communicate and interact with the local population and integrate into the native culture as easily as we can in China. China is also the country most like the United States in terms of size and diversity, perhaps even more so. China's regions and large cities each have their own individual qualities that make every visit different. This was my ninth visit to China and I've realized that I would probably need fifty trips to begin to feel like I'd seen everything a traveler needed to in the country. For these reasons Mei Ling and I are on the same page when it comes to China - the only thing that stops us from going more is the number of other places we still haven't visited at all.

Mei Ling and I have traveled together to her hometown region of Heilongjiang and to Shanghai several times as well as Guangdong province. However, while I've visited Beijing on my own before and Mei Ling lived there for two years, we've never experienced that amazing and crucially important city together. That made it a natural choice for the location to base ourselves in for this six week exploration of the central eastern coastal area of China and the Kansai region of Japan. We decided that to reduce the stress of migrating around with all our belongings and three small kids to manage, we would base ourselves in Beijing and take a three shorter trips to different areas of interest. We changed our plans somewhat along the way in order to see more cities and spend less time sweltering in a Beijing heat wave.
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The worst thing about the flight from the US to Beijing was that there weren't any good red eye options so the kids were awake most of the way. That meant incessant requests of assistance with headphones, changing movies, drinks and snacks, and bathroom trips. Normally even though I almost never sleep on flights I get at least a couple of hours of being zoned out but that wasn't the case this time. When we finally arrived in Beijing in the early afternoon my brain felt like it had been pickled in brine, and it was another two hours before we finally arrived at our Airbnb. The Airbnb was a basic apartment on the 13th floor of a nondescript apartment building in the Dongzhimen area of central Beijing, not far from the Sanlitun embassy area popular with expats.
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It was still afternoon and going to sleep right away would have been a disaster with respect to getting on the right day/night schedule. Instead we took a five minute walk to a busy restaurant block where we had a huge hotpot meal. This was enough of an accomplishment that we didn't feel we had wasted the day completely and burned a couple of hours. At home we wearily unpacked and crashed into bed around seven.
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I have no doubt that I would have slept through until morning and been perfectly on schedule by day two. I was in the Marianas Trench of deep sleep when forty pounds of affection dropped onto my back. I probably would have had a heart attack if it hadn't happened countless times before. Cleo had woken up and decided she wanted to cuddle. I grasped as tightly as I could to whatever wisps of slumber hadn't floated away and prayed that she would fall back asleep, but within a minute a full-blown wrestling match was taking place on my back. Ian had woken up as well and was trying to share the real estate. After a few minutes of this I knew they were awake for real and my only chance at peace was the iPads. My phone informed me it wasn't even one in the morning. I tossed them their tablets and spent the next couple of hours in a semi-conscious fugue state trying to block out the alternating giggling and squabbling from the other half of the bed. At one point, Mei Ling opened our door and tossed in Spenser who was similarly wide awake and I gave up my attempts to catch up on REM. It's funny how all our kids of different ages, all sleeping different amounts on the plane, all woke up at the same excruciating moment in the middle of the night while the adults were on their way to complete recovery.
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In the end it worked out fine because China starts at five in the morning and we were ready for it bright and early. Our first stop was Chaowai morning market in the central neighborhood of Chaoyang, a short cab ride from our Airbnb. Within seconds of entering the market we were reminded of why the brutal flight and all the other inconveniences of traveling to China are more than worthwhile. The very first stall had an enormous heap of yang mei, one of my favorite fruits which is virtually unobtainable outside of China. Most Westerners are completely unfamiliar with it and the fruit doesn't even have a generally accepted English name, although it is sometimes called Chinese bayberry or yumberry. It is about the size of a small plum with a pit in the middle, but otherwise it is completely unlike any other fruit in taste and texture. The surface is rough and a little rubbery, kind of like a Koosh ball. The meat varies from sour to sweet depending on the ripeness of the fruit and possesses a faint fermented taste which strengthens as the fruit ripens. One of the reasons that yang mei is rarely exported is its extreme perishability. The fermented taste of the fruit becomes stronger over the course of the day after it is bought, and that process is accelerated dramatically if it is handled roughly. Just putting a bag of yang mei down on a table is enough to bruise the fruit. That's usually not a problem as I would have a hard time letting yang mei get through a day without being eaten. It was gratifying to see our kids all enjoyed the yang mei as much as I did, although Cleo seemed to be the one with the most passion for them.
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After buying our yang mei we slowly perused the rest of the market, which was dominated by fruits and vegetables. We also bought some amazingly huge and sweet mulberries which stained all our fingers purple. At the back of the market we found the food court where savory tripe and noodle soups were being served at very basic stalls. We all ate ravenously in this most local and authentic of all the places we could have chosen for breakfast.
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We took another cab to Shengfu Xiaoguan Market, a more upscale but no less authentic produce market to the northeast of our Airbnb. This market was inside an enormous warehouse and had a large meat and seafood area as well as fruits and vegetables. Here we bought cherries and several varieties of grapes, some of them as large and shiny as plums. I took the kids by the seafood stalls where live shrimp would frantically launch themselves out of their bins onto the floor of the market. We would probably have hunted for another food court but I could tell the kids were starting to sag. Cabs were completely unavailable at this point due to the morning rush hour but we were able to figure out which bus would get us close to our Airbnb. All three kids were asleep as soon as their heads hit the pillows. It was still just nine in the morning.
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We let the kids sleep until late afternoon while we worked on logistics, which was probably a mistake. We went straight from the Airbnb to dinner in Sanlitun, which has historically been a popular locale for Western expats. I had been in Sanlitun on my previous visit to Beijing in 2008 and I didn't recognize the environs at all. Previously it had been a collection of high end bars and clubs mixed with numerous less salutary establishments, but now the area was filled with skyscrapers and high end malls. Mei Ling had found a promotion for a seafood restaurant which allowed us to feast on an enormous platter of fruit and shellfish for a surprisingly affordable price. Afterwards we followed a narrow waterfall down the center of a staircase which turned into a stream that coursed along the lower level of the outdoor mall. Despite the late hour we could see a lot of people sweating furiously in a high impact aerobics studio with glass walls. Those less fitness-inclined had a wide selection of restaurants and cafes they could patronize. I realized that a lot had changed in Beijing in just a short time, and Mei Ling confirmed that the government was actively modernizing and gentrifying the larger cities. Cleaning out the cheap entertainment and the street markets was one prong of a larger effort to reduce the migration of Chinese from rural areas to the major cities, which were becoming unsustainably overpopulated. While there were certainly benefits to this approach, we would find that some of the changes were destroying what made Beijing so unique and interesting. The new Sanlitun was certainly a pleasant place to eat and shop, but it was now much like any high end shopping neighborhood in Korea or Taiwan.
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The kids hadn't make much progress on their jetlag, thanks to sleeping most of the previous day, so we had another early arousal the following morning. That allowed us to hit two more morning markets. Xinmin vegetable market is located just north of the second ring road, adjacent to one of Beijing's many canals. I'm always amazed by the sheer size of the stacks of fruits and vegetables in Chinese markets. The kids had fun getting splashed by the frantic carp in the live fish tanks.
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Back near Dongzhimen, Sanyuanli Market has a reputation for produce that is so high in quality that restaurant chefs shop there. We didn't have the facilities or the energy to cook our own meals at home, but we saw some of the most beautiful and colorful seafood that we've ever come across in a market.
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In the afternoon some local friends of Mei Ling's Chinese friends in Miami took us out to a Beijing duck restaurant near the historic center of the city. Apparently it was a very famous restaurant but I was so exhausted from dealing with the kids since three in the morning that I can barely remember the meal. Fortunately it seems I took a couple of pictures.
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After a long afternoon nap it was time to go out on the town again. Beijing may have lost their street markets, but they still have several somewhat pedestrianized areas that they call food streets. Nanluoguxiang is a narrow road in an area of the city center which has preserved its old-fashioned character. Most of these small streets, or hutongs, have disappeared during the modernization of Beijing and the remaining ones have subsequently become something of a tourist attraction in their own right. Nanluoguxiang has been developed into a combined shopping street and food street, but the street food was limited to a couple of stinky tofu and skewer vendors. Most of the shops lining the streets were selling souvenirs, clothes, and contemporary fast food. The scene definitely didn't lessen my nostalgia for the clamorous Beijing street markets that had all disappeared.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 14:55 Archived in China Tagged travel china beijing blog tony sanlitun friedman dongzhimen nanluoguxiang sanyuanli

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