Trans-Siberian Railway Official Start: Beijing (Part 1)
The highlight of Beijing, aside from the Great Wall, is undoubtedly the food. Sara’s sister, Sophia, and her family met us in Beijing and any time Sophia is along, it is guaranteed to be culinary bliss. None of us, including Sophia, had been to Beijing before, but you wouldn’t know it based on our itinerary. We saw most of the major sites and had some pretty amazing meals in three days.
Sophia hired a driver for us for the three days, so we were able to move fairly quickly around the city without having to wait for taxis or public transportation. While this goes against our ‘Minimize Costs’ philosophy, we were able to split it amongst six people, so it was not too bad. The driver did not speak English, but in our case, this was not a problem as half of our party spoke Mandarin. It should be noted, though, that most taxi drivers do not speak English, so it will be necessary to carry pre-printed note cards of where you would like to go. Be sure they are written in Mandarin and not the pinyin form of the language familiar to English speakers, but totally foreign to the Chinese. You can print out the addresses at the bottom of this post and hand them to the drivers.
Our first meal was the iconic noodle dish of the Northern region of China, at the famous Haiwanju Beijing Noodles. Soph and Sara were super excited about this meal, since their grandmother was from the north. This particular noodle dish is the most traditional meal to their family. Every female family member has her own little variation of this dish. The noodles were served plain in a bowl with the eight ingredients all on the side, so you can mix them in as you please. You can order the traditional one with meat sauce, or the vegetarian variation with the sesame sauce. We ordered both and everyone had a taste of each.
After the meal, we had to step out of the restaurant into the open. The pollution around Beijing is really something to experience. Just as it is difficult to fully comprehend what 120 degree weather in the desert feels like until you have actually felt it, so too is the pollution in Beijing. Sara is asthmatic and pumped herself full of medication the whole time we were there. She still was on the verge of hospitalization most of the time and probably would have had to go if we had stayed another day or two. Part of the pollution problem is due to the rapid industrialization of China and part is due to the proximity of the Gobi Desert, which tends to creep closer to Beijing every year.
One of the sites that I looked forward to the most was a visit to the Forbidden City. Unfortunately, the pollution has really taken its toll on it and I was not as impressed as I thought I would be. There are plans to restore it, but as it stands now, everything (even the indoor exhibits) is covered with soot, the paint is peeling and things are just run down. There is no shortage of visitors, though. It is packed with tour groups with matching hats following flag-waving, bullhorn-toting tour guides.
My favorite meal in Beijing was the hot pot, more well known to Westerners as “shabu shabu”, the Japanese name for this type of dish. If you have never had it, shabu shabu is a real treat. They bring you a pot of water with a heater underneath to bring it to a boil. Then they bring out an assortment of vegetables, thinly-sliced meat (chicken, pork, beef), spices and sauces and you cook your own meal, just to your liking. It is easy to fill up on a very healthy, but delicious fare. The restaurant we went to was the Honyuan Hot Pot. It served Mongolian inspired hot pot, featuring lamb, in addition to the regular beef & chicken. Each person had his own little pot, so you don’t have to worry if your dining companions are under the weather.
An interesting aspect of this trip was a visit to Tiananmen Square in Beijing at the beginning of our journey, contrasting with a visit to Red Square in Moscow at the end. Tiananmen houses the final resting place of Mao Tse Tung and has such an important history in our lifetime. Red Square houses the final resting place of Vladimir Lenin and also has an incredible history. Tiananmen itself is really not much, other than a huge open paved area surrounded by streets and buildings. It is the knowledge of the importance of this square to China and its recent history that makes it so moving to be there. Aside from the Great Wall, this was my favorite thing to see in Beijing.
We celebrated Sara’s birthday in Beijing by having Peking Duck at one of the most famous restaurants specializing in this delicacy. Certainly not the oldest of its kind, Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant prepares a more modern style of Peking Duck which is less greasy than the traditional style found in most restaurants. Sara claims it as her favorite meal of the whole trip and we wholeheartedly recommend it. It is even not too bad on the tightwad scale. All six of us were able to eat for US$120 (no alcohol included in this figure and, yes, $20 per person is not cheap, but the meal was pretty unforgettable).
The highlight of Beijing, to me, was the Great Wall (to be continued…).
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