Hole-in-the-wall restaurant leaves hole in the stomach

I’m a big believer in giving second chances. And if you’re a restaurant that serves great dumplings for less than $2 a serving, I’ll even give you a third, fourth and fifth chance even if the occasional batch leaves me feeling a little green.

Such was the case at my favorite neighborhood dumpling joint, 杭州小吃 (Hangzhou Snacks). The place has all the characteristics of a Chinese dive restaurant. Limited seating. Few spouts for hand washing. No bathroom. And dirt-cheap prices.

A middle-aged man runs the restaurant with his wife. He’s short on words and smiles but always remembers what I want: two orders of dumplings and a tall, cold bottle of Yangjing beer. The man often smokes cigarettes while he cooks, occasionally looking up at a TV mounted to the wall to read a headline on the 6 o’clock news.

The man takes care of the steamed buns and dumplings, while his wife boils the soups and serves the vegetable and rice dishes. She’s the charmer of the two, and not averse to greeting me with a smile when I settle my bill.

The dumplings are comfort food, the Chinese equivalent of my mom’s salmon patties and mashed potatoes. But for a foreigner with a weak stomach, eating there comes with a risk. As one of my friends eloquently put it: “I go there regularly. After eating their dumplings, I also have to go regularly, if you know what I mean.”

But, like a girl who refuses to leave her abusive boyfriend, I kept coming back, until a recent bout of food poisoning that forced me to see a doctor. His advice? Stay away from the hole-in-the-wall restaurants and street food. “Even we don’t eat that stuff,” he said.

That was two months ago, and I’ve since heeded his advice. Still, there are days when I pass by the restaurant, spot a bowl of fresh dumplings steaming up the window and think about stopping.

My heart says go, but my stomach says hell no.

 

Red duck district

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My favorite roast duck restaurant in Beijing, Liqun, is a bit tricky to find if you’re a first-time visitor. It’s located in a hutong, or alleyway, and the neighborhood isn’t particularly well-lit at night.

Fortunately, someone came up with the ingenious idea of drawing a series of ducks on the side of a building nearby. So once you get close, all you have do is — literally — “follow the ducks” … and then eat them, of course.

A silver anniversary China wants to forget

Last week, I stayed at the Raffles Beijing Hotel, one of the oldest hotels in the Chinese capital. Built in 1917 on Chang’an Avenue, it has been a part of some of the most significant moments in modern Chinese history.

When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, a banquet to celebrate the occasion was held at the hotel, and Chairman Mao Zedong danced in the lobby. Forty years later, in the spring of 1989, the hotel served as the base for many foreign journalists covering the student protests in Tiananmen Square.

The view from my access-restricted balcony at Raffles Beijing Hotel.

The view from my balcony at Raffles Beijing Hotel.

I could see the square from my sixth-floor room, but the door to the balcony, where better views could be had, was locked. A letter from hotel management said “the hotel has received notice from the Public Security Bureau that there will be activities held along Chang’an Avenue.

“Therefore enhanced security measures will be put in place by the Chinese government, which are beyond the control of Raffles Beijing Hotel. From Tuesday, May 20th to Friday, June 6, 2014 we are obligated to lock windows and balconies facing Chang’an Avenue.”

I’m not aware of any “activities” planned during that time period, but June 4 marks the 25th anniversary of the government crackdown on the student protests. Each year, authorities step up security ahead of the anniversary and references to it are blocked online on the Chinese mainland.

The letter from the hotel.

The letter from the hotel.

Chinese healthcare: a bargain with a bother

I went to Peking Union College Medical Center on Tuesday to have my ankle examined. I sprained it over the weekend and wanted to make sure I didn’t break anything.

The traffic outside the hospital was bumper to bumper, and most of the parking spaces for bikes and electric scooters were taken. It’s like this every day, said Liang, a nurse who met me at the entrance. Liang works for Vista Medical Center, which provides medical translation when my company’s foreign employees need to visit local hospitals. 

Peking Union College Medical Center was set up in 1921 by the Rockefeller Foundation. It’s regarded as one of the best in China, and is where the Communist Party leaders go for medical treatment. Continue reading

As the ankle turns

I sprained my left ankle over the weekend. I wish I had a good story to go with it — that it happened as I pushed a child out of the path of a moving bus, or dove to catch a 500-year-old Ming Dynasty vase that was falling from a shelf.

The truth is I injured it while walking out of a video game-themed bar. It was dark. I had been drinking (a little). I was angry, after inexcusably losing a few games of Connect Four, and worst of all, not paying attention.

I missed a step and heard a crunching sound. Within a half hour, my ankle had swollen to the size of a baseball. Since then I’ve been on a steady diet of Advil, and tomorrow I’ll go to a hospital to have my foot X-rayed.

That I would injure myself while living in Beijing is not surprising. This city is full of broken-legs-waiting-to-happen for the inattentive. Pedestrians locked into their cellphones ignore bikers when crossing the street (I’ve dodged, and cursed at, more than a few). Motorists routinely drive within inches of bikers and pedestrians to get them to speed up (That might be OK in Grand Theft Auto, but not in real life).

Beijing's mean streets aren't for the timid.

Beijing’s bustling streets aren’t for the timid.

Many old homes in Beijing have an elevated doorstep, which — according to traditional belief — helps keeps the evil spirits out (Never really understood how this one worked, unless evil spirits are 6 inches tall).

Beijing subway, where pushing is never optional.

Beijing subway, where pushing is never optional.

Underground, cleaning crews at the subway station in my neighborhood have an odd habit of mopping the floors around rush hour, as if they have a sinister streak and are trying to invite disaster. Getting on and off the trains can be dicey during peak times, as pushing and shoving are the preferred means of getting through a crowd (Even old ladies can be vicious).

A couple of years ago, I hiked an unrestored section of the Great Wall. The stairs were crumbling in many areas, and it was easy to trip if you didn’t watch where you were going. How horrible would it be to turn an ankle out here and then have to hobble back to civilization, I thought.

At least it would have been a good story.

The Great Wall, where if you're not careful the next step could be your last.

The Great Wall, where if you’re not careful, the next step could be your last.

Fly the smoggy skies

This is your Captain speaking. It’s 4:30 p.m. local time, March 6, 2024, and we’re beginning our descent into Beijing, although you could never tell by looking out the window. Visibility is at 5 feet and shrinking. The weather forecast calls for cancer-causing smog, followed overnight by acid rain.

Masks will be dropping from the ceiling in the next couple of minutes, but don’t be alarmed. If your final destination is Beijing, you must put on a World Health Organization-approved pollution mask before leaving the airport. If you’re traveling with a small child, please make sure their mask is properly secured before putting yours on.

Smog.

Beijing, from 20,000 feet.

Our cabin crew will be going around in a few minutes to hand out anti-acid tablets. Unlike the masks, these aren’t required, but I highly advise taking a few just in case that lamb meat you order for lunch turns out to be diseased rat. That actually happened to me once, and I got so bloated that I looked like a woman pregnant with twins in her third trimester.

Pollution masks fall from the ceiling. A few people who were asleep during the announcement scream, but quickly calm down after they realize the plane hasn’t lost cabin pressure; they’re just landing in Beijing.

A few more things to tell you while we prepare for landing. Recently, there have been scandals involving baby formula, bottled water, fruit and vegetables containing high levels of pesticide, recycled cooking oil … (turns to co-pilot, voice barely audible: Bob, I know I’m forgetting something) … oh, and fresh air in a can. If, like me, you have a pulse, then you’re probably concerned about at least one of these things. However, all of these items are for sale in our duty-free catalog and can be purchased using Mastercard or Visa.

One more reminder: if you’re outside and your mask gets undone, don’t run. Just lie on the ground and dial 120. Medical personnel with oxygen tanks will respond within minutes to assist you.

It’s been a pleasure having you on board, and we hope you enjoy your stay in Beijing.

The USA isn’t the only melting pot around

To practice my Chinese, I make an effort to strike up conversations with strangers in Beijing. One thing I’ve discovered is that almost none of the people I meet are from here.

They come to the Chinese capital from all over the country to study or work, and make up a significant portion of the city’s 20 million residents. Nearly one in three people in Beijing are migrant workers, according to China Daily.

This becomes most apparent during Chinese New Year, when everyone who isn’t a native Beijinger returns home to celebrate the holiday with their families. Bustling neighborhoods slow to a crawl. Beijing’s notoriously bad traffic becomes manageable. I can even usually find a seat on the subway, which feels like a luxury because it’s so overcrowded most of the time.

The 40-day travel rush around the Spring Festival period is called chunyun. According to Xinhua News Agency, Chinese passengers will make an estimated 3.62 billion trips during this year’s chunyun, which is commonly referred to as the world’s largest annual human migration.

Cart puller.

A man drags his luggage behind an electric bike in Beijing. The capital empties out in the week leading up to the Spring Festival holiday, with millions returning to their hometowns.

The holiday travel puts a huge strain on China’s rail and air transportation networks. A friend of mine who runs a restaurant in Beijing said last week that his waitresses have had trouble getting train tickets home. One lined up outside a ticket office before dawn several days in a row, but came up empty-handed, he said.

I’ll be traveling during chunyun, but not to visit family. I’m flying to Yangshuo in southern China, a small city known for its karst peaks, which inspired the artwork on the back of the 20 yuan bill.

I should have plenty of opportunities to practice speaking Chinese while wandering through the countryside. And, with it being Spring Festival, I might even meet a few “real” locals.

Sometimes what’s old deserves to stay up

A 1,300-year-old town I visited last summer in southwestern China’s Yunnan province was razed by a fire on Saturday.

According to CNN, the fire raged for more than 10 hours, destroying two-thirds of the 240 houses in the town of Dukezong. No casualties were reported.

The narrow, cobblestone streets that gave the ancient Tibetan town part of its charm made it difficult for firetrucks to maneuver. Arson has been ruled out, according to the report, but an investigation into the fire is ongoing.

The ancient town of Dukezong, as it looked in June when I visited.

The ancient town of Dukezong, as it looked in June when I visited.

The town’s well-preserved wooden houses are the latest in a long line of historically significant Chinese structures to disappear, many at the hands of man. Continue reading

Postcards from Beijing

A man prepares to kick a jianzi, or Chinese hacky sack, in front of the Drum Tower.

A man prepares to kick a jianzi, or Chinese hacky sack, in front of the Drum Tower.

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Nanluoguxiang, which was built during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), is one of Beijing’s most popular hutong, or alleyways.

A couple chats at the edge of a lake in Houhai, a popular nightlife destination where many residences have been converted into restaurants and bars.

A couple chats at the edge of a lake in Houhai, a popular nightlife destination where many residences have been converted into restaurants and bars.

Jin Ding Xuan, a well-known dim sum restaurant chain.

Jin Ding Xuan, a well known dim sum restaurant chain.

Air pollution and dust are huge problems in Beijing. The Chinese government has vowed to reduce pollution by closing factories and restricting the number of vehicles on the road.

Air pollution and dust are huge problems in Beijing. The Chinese government has vowed to reduce pollution by closing factories and restricting the number of vehicles on the road.

A car after a dust storm last summer.

A car after a dust storm last summer.

The Lama Temple,  a temple and monastery of the Geluk School of Tibetan Buddhism, after a snow last winter.

The Lama Temple, a monastery of the Geluk School of Tibetan Buddhism, after a snow last winter.

A waitress at a bar on Wudaoying Hutong. With more than 350 million smokers, Chinese is the largest consumer and producer of tobacco.

A waitress at a punk bar on Wudaoying Hutong. With more than 350 million smokers, China is the largest consumer and producer of tobacco.

Inflation’s bad sting find its way to Beijing

“You’ll be amazed at how everything is so cheap here,” a friend told me about Beijing, after I accepted a job to work in the city.

And for a time, I was. A tall bottle of beer and plate full of meat skewers cost around 20 yuan ($3.29) at a restaurant near my office. Cab fares, with a flag-down rate of less than 10 yuan, were less than half of what you’d pay in a large US city.

Apartments I priced near the Lama Temple — an area popular among expats for its bars, cafes and traditional Beijing alleyways — were around 4,000 yuan a month, or $658, not bad for a city of more than 20 million.

Fast-forward three years and rent at those same apartments has increased more than 1,000 yuan ($164) a month. Groceries have also become more expensive, and that beer and plate of meat skewers now cost closer to 30 yuan ($4.94). Continue reading