Culinary Delights in China

Just to give you some context, I was one of those kids when I was little that was a pretty picky eater (true story: I convinced myself I hated water chest nuts, but one day my sister gave some  to me and said they were white carrots and I ate them. Go figure). Now that I live in foreign countries, I’ve had to leave that aside and be open to what I eat. In Peru it wasn’t as difficult because at least I could read the menus. In Beijing it’s a little different– I can recognize probably ten Chinese characters total, so when I go to a restaurant, I have to hope the menu either has English translations or pictures just so I can order.  This isn’t too much of a problem in Beijing, but when I went to Harbin, this was quite a challenge. Our hotel’s restaurant had no pictures, and so I ordered dumplings because that was the only food word I could think of (mmmm jaozi, you were a delicious savior that night).

Although it can be sort of intimidating to go to a restaurant unsure of how you’ll even manage to order, what comes to the table ultimately makes it all worth it! I have had some of the best food I’ve ever tasted here, and Chinese food from China leaves what we call Chinese food in America in the dust! There is also a huge variety of what you can find, between restaurants with international twists and specialty foods from a distinct region or town in China.  I’d like to outline a few of my favorites so far.

picture of colored dumplings

For anyone unsure about what they want to eat, dumplings (or jaozi) are definite way to go. They’re pretty easy to eat, even if you aren’t that proficient with chopsticks, and they come in practically unlimited flavors and fillings, so if you have some dietary restrictions, you should be able to find some dumplings anywhere.

My favorite so far have to be the dumplings at this little restaurant in Chaoyang near the Liangmaqiao subway stop, Bao Yuan.  When you order several different kinds of dumplings, they color  them so you can tell the flavors apart! I know, it sounds sort of weird (purple dumplings, ew?). It’s just that they color the dough a little bit, and I think it looks pretty cute.   They also have a large menu of dumplings, as well as other dishes, so it’s a great lunch or dinner place to go to.   One of my favorite non-dumpling dishes of theirs is this sautéed eggplant which comes topped with cilantro, garlic, chili pepper, and crunchy noodle. If you mix all the toppings together, it makes for a really delicious mix of flavors. I’ve also never had eggplant the way I’ve had it here, where it’s incredibly soft. Anyone who doesn’t like eggplant just hasn’t had it cooked like this!

I should have taken a picture of this eggplant dish before it was all mixed up, as it looks a lot better that way, but hopefully you still get the idea anyway.

eggplant dish

eggplant dish

As much as I love dumplings though, the cuisine here is far more diverse than that, and it’s been great to go to some small restaurants that specialize in regional foods. I went to have some really spicy food at a Sichaun restaurant near the Westin Chaoyang, which certainly helped clear my sinuses during the allergy-inducing weather lately.

fried chicken and chili dish from a Sichuan restaurant.

fried chicken and chili dish from a Sichuan restaurant.

I also tried some food from Xinjian, an autonomous region in northwest China heavily populated by the Uyghur ethnic group, among others.  This food was fascinating because the people in this region are traditionally Muslim, and I noticed a lot of influence from neighboring countries in the cuisine. I chose to have a side of yogurt with my meal, which was  great for balancing out some of the spicier dishes our group ordered. The lamb skewers we had were also a big hit, and we ended up ordering a second round for the table.   At Chinese restaurants in general, most dishes are served family style, and on larger tables they’re put on lazy susans so you can spin it around to grab some of any dish.  I like this format because it doesn’t commit you to eating any one thing (especially if you have no idea what it is and just ordered based off a picture). It’s also a plus if you go with a group, and you can just decide to eat what everyone else orders, which works out perfectly for me, since there’s usually at least one Mandarin speaker at the table!

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suckling pig (a Niajo specialty)

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Garbanzo beans with potato, sausage, and tomato.

Another great thing about Beijing is that there are plenty of restaurants if you don’t like Chinese food (hey, we all need some variety now and then).  There’s a fairly new part of Beijing called SanLitTun which is a huge conglomerate of modern shopping centers and international eateries. My favorite section so far is the Nali patio, which is reminiscent of an indoor/outdoor space typical of Spanish housing compounds.  Inside is a whole array of restaurants, including several Spanish restaurants. I like these because even if I don’t know the Chinese or the English doesn’t make sense, I can figure out what I’m ordering from the Spanish on the menu! This past week I went to Niajo for their monthly wine and food tasting night. The theme was Segovia, and they featured a different wine from the region with each course. The food was amazing, and my friend and I ate every single thing they put on our plates.  I will be keeping an eye out for the next tasting night, as it really was a treat to find some authentic Spanish food so far from Spain!

There’s a whole variety of food here if you’re willing to look for it, and sometimes the best way to find restaurants is to just walk around until you like the look of something. I’m glad I have such a long time here that I can go exploring and see what different types of cuisine this place has to offer. Each meal is an adventure for the palate waiting to be  tasted!

Gorgeous sushi rolls at a Japanese restaurant in Chaoyang district.

Gorgeous sushi rolls at a Japanese restaurant in Chaoyang district.

Sneaking into the Forbidden City

FB Entrance

Well, I didn’t really have to sneak, because the city is no longer forbidden to ordinary citizens without an Emperor living there. 😛 Carrie and I continued in our journey of visiting places without doing much research ahead of time, and we had an enjoyable afternoon walking through the grounds.

The best way I found to get there is to take the Beijing subway to Tian’men Square, which is right next to the Forbidden City. You can’t get much better than paying RMB 2 (roughly 30 cents) for a subway ticket.  It was good to go there during the off season because there were quite a lot of people there today, and I can’t even imagine what it would be like on a weekend in summer. As we walked in, we found a guide right away to show us through the massive complex which is about a kilometer from one gate to another.  Since the layout is pretty straight forward, I suppose we could have gone without a guide (or a self guided recording), but then we would have missed all the history as we walked through.  You could conceivably spend an entire day here because there are multiple halls filled with artifacts from different emperors. I am not much of a museum person, so we only went into a few of these places, and instead focused on admiring the architecture of the different buildings.

FB Courtyard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Forbidden City is the largest palace compound in the world, and it was used to house the Emperor, and even had an office, gardens, and soldiers quarters at the entrance.  There are a few large courtyards that were used for ceremonies. The buildings are painted gold throughout because that was  the color used for the emperor.

FB RoofThe roofs of the buildings are marked with animal statues, and the double roofs on the buildings were used for warmth.  The second roof provided more insulation for the buildings.  I can imagine it would get quite cold in the winter. I was lucky to have a clear blue sky day when I visited today, especially considering the bad weather Beijing was having last weekend.

As with every large tourist destination, there are the traditional things to see as well as the opportunities to be hilariously touristy, thanks to enterprising individuals.  If I had wanted to, I could have dressed up in a costume to walk through the area during my tour.

FB Costume

The advantage of having a tour guide who kept us moving is that we were able to avoid the many vendors selling refreshments and those offering to make us a DVD of us “flying” over the city (are movies of people flying over the Forbidden City a thing?). Of course, it turned out our tour guide had her own agenda for us.  We walked into a very low trafficked area at one point, and she explained it was an office for the nephew of the last Emperor.  We got to walk in and there were a few rooms of gorgeous antique pottery. After a few minutes, the Emperor’s nephew himself came in.  He is actually a renowned artist and calligrapher, and offers calligraphy to raise money for restoration of the Forbidden City.  Although we hadn’t budgeted to buy scrolls (which run between 100 and 250 USD depending on size), it was interesting to look at a few samples.  Meeting an Emperor’s nephew was also a great opportunity for me to use some of my sparse Chinese, since I can in fact say “nice to meet you” in Mandarin.

Our guide, Lily, outside the office.

Our guide, Lily, outside the office.

After that, we continued through the rest of the complex, which ends with the Emperor’s garden.  The trees there are old, some even 300 years old. I liked the garden the best because it was really relaxing. I suppose if I ran a country I’d like a nice quiet place to walk through.  There was even a small building with a roof for playing chess.

FB Garden

Our tour concluded with the garden where we said goodbye to our tour guide.  There isn’t the option to walk through the gate we entered through, so we had to go out the entrance by the garden, where apparently all the rickshaw drivers hang out just to get tourists to take them up on their transport.  It was one of the few times here (so far) where I was completely bombarded with all sorts of people trying to sell me tours and approaching me to take their vehicles.  It was somewhat frustrating, and Carrie and I just kept walking- it’s not like we can take a rickshaw half way across town.  Unfortunately the area behind the Forbidden City is sort of a weird layout, and it took us almost 30 minutes to find a cab.  Next time I go there I will have to figure out the quickest way to get back to a metro stop instead.  Still, it was really interesting to spend a few hours wandering through the area and seeing the architecture, and learning some of the history of China. If you’re planning on going to the Forbidden City, wear walking shoes and also decide how much time you want to devote to the different sections.  The entrance fee is 40 RMB in the winter and 60 at other times, so it’s quite reasonably priced if you choose to walk through on your own.  The signs for the artifacts in the museums are in English as well as Chinese, so you can still learn a lot from them. Behind the garden are two famous parks to visit if you have extra time afterwards. For me, it’s one more UNESCO world heritage site visited!

Peru’s Sand Dunes and Wine Country

I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Paracas/Ica area of Peru several times (it’s an easy four hour trip with something for everyone, so I find myself finding excuses to go there plenty), and thought I’d share my best travel practices for the area. Believe it or not, in my four trips there, I still haven’t seen everything! It’s a popular destination for backpackers and families alike. You’ll see as you read that there is something there for everyone, whether you want an adventurous or luxurious vacation in a sunny part of Peru. I’ve included a quick summary/fact sheet at the bottom of this post, so if you’re unfamiliar with the area it’s a nice jumping off point to get you started.

 Huacachinero Hotel
First off- getting there:
Those with their own vehicles can drive down the Panamerican Highway right to Paracas or Ica, which is around 4 hours each way. I prefer to take the amazingly dependable Cruz Del Sur bus instead. Their seats are comfy, the movies are passable, and there’s a lot less stress involved when I don’t have to see that much of the road.
Second- where to stay?
Here you can surround yourself with luxury, or embrace the backpacker life, and everything in between.
  • High end hotels- Hilton, DoubleTree, Hotel Paracas, and Las Dunas are among the favorites if you’re looking to stay in a resort with pool services and activities for adults and children.
  • Mid range- El Huacachinero. This hotel is literally feet from the sand dunes, and it’s my favorite stay, since it’s economical while still offering excellent service, a delicious restaurant, a pool, and convenient location to the sites.
  • Just looking for a cheap bed- there is an array of backpacker hostels throughout Ica and Huacachina perfect for those who just want a place to crash, but will be touring around outside the majority of their trip. Some restaurants even offer a work for lodging type of arrangement, so everyone will be able to find something no matter their budget.
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Now, on to the fun stuff: What to do while you’re there?
1. My personal favorite past time is to ride around on the sand dunes. It’s difficult for me to accurately explain the dune buggy rides- they take a standard Ford engine bloc and put them in these crazy buggies that hold from 5-10 people. The drivers mostly grow up in the area, and have to be thirsty for adventure. They’ll make sure you’re strapped in to your seat (hold on to the handrail if you’re scared), and take you all over the dunes, zipping uphill fast, and hovering for a second just before big drops, so that you see just what you’re getting into…. It’s a great way to get your adrenaline pumping while looking out to the sand as far as you can see all around you.  Along the tour you will occasionally stop for some excellent views of the sand dunes, and to sled or board. The drivers bring along sand boards, and prep them with candle wax first for more speed. If you’re not a proficient snow boarder (like me), it’s best to lay on the board head first and sled down the dune on your stomach. Braver souls with more balance can stand on the board and fly down the dunes that way, too. My favorite time to go is around 4:30 pm, since the tour ends with a nice stop on top of the dunes to watch the sun set over the sand.
2. Wine tours!
What better way to relax in the desert climate than visit some gorgeous and historical wineries? The wines in this area are mostly sweet wines, so if you’re looking for vino tinto, you’re better off heading to Chile or Argentina to sample the Malbecs there. Still, the experience in Ica is worth it, and they do get quite creative with their wines there. The artisanal wineries offer great little tours to learn about the process, followed by tastings of their wines and piscos. Pisco is a clear alcohol made from grapes, and it’s usually between 40 and 45 % alcohol. It’s delicious mixed with ginger ale and fresh limes! Also, bottles of even the smoothest pisco are only about 35 soles (around 15 US dollars), so you can’t beat this for the price! After all the wine tastings, it’s a great idea to enjoy a nice meal at one of the restaurants along the Huacachina oasis. Also, it’s best to plan so you can see take the wine tours on days that aren’t Peruvian national holidays, as many of the wineries are closed for tours.
Pisco Winery
3. Islas Ballestas
If you’re staying in Paracas, you’re already set to go right out to the boat tours to visit the islands. If you’re staying in Ica, you can arrange transportation through your hotel or tour company to get you the hour to the coast.  Taking a boat tour around the islands will bring you in sight of sea lions, Humboldt penguins, and several species of birds. You’ll also see the curious trident shape in the sand, which has been around for hundreds of years (admittedly, my memory about this sand thing is a little foggy).
4. Nasca Lines
Confession: I haven’t actually seen these yet, but I’ll include it on the list still, because you’ll hear about them in any guide book on Peru. I recommend not taking a plane from Nasca to fly over the lines, as these planes are reputedly unsafe, and have resulted in deaths. If you wish to fly over and see these interesting crop circle-like shapes, I suggest flying from Lima, where the planes actually have to go through safety checks! As for me, I’ll take the pictures, thanks.
A Wrap-up:
I hope you’ve enjoyed my only slightly expert guide to the area. Ica and Paracas are relatively small towns, so they offer a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of Lima. Still, it’s worth throwing out a few words of caution. Huacachina, because of the bars and large amounts of backpackers, can be extremely noisy around the holidays, and few of the hotels have air conditioning. This won’t be the best place to stay if you’re looking for a completely restful respite. Also, Ica is still suffering damage from a large earthquake several years ago, so you will see some run-down buildings, stray dogs, and mototaxis galore. As a safety measure, it is always prudent to ask your hotel front desk to call you a cab, rather than catching one off the street. Most cab rides within the city will be from 5 to 10 soles.
With that said, Ica and Paracas are great places to visit with family and friends. I’ve found the best time of year to go is August, as it is sunny all-year round and offers a great break from the dreariness of the Lima winter.
Want to take these tips on the go? Take a look at my fact sheet summary of Ica and Paracas: IcaFactSheet

Great Day at the Great Wall

Today I took a tour to the Ming Tombs and the Mutianyu Great Wall outside of Beijing. This part of the great wall is less traveled than other sections, and also has gorgeous scenery. It might have been because January is the off-season, and it was cold today, but there were hardly any people there. If you’re looking for a more tranquil way to see this famous site without lots of people showing up in your pictures, I recommend this section over others. The downside today was that the cable cars and toboggan slides to go up and down the wall were closed for the season. I guess this means I will have to go back when it’s warmer, so I can take the slide down!GreatWall

The Ming tombs were also fascinating. The first part was a long walk to the tombs which were guarded by statues. The tradition was to place animals to guard the tombs, and they were in sets of four (two to stand on guard, and two to rest at all times). Some of the animals were mythical creatures, including the animals representing justice and benevolence. The elephants are often in photos because they represent luck, and there was even a 1954-photograph of Chairman Mao with the elephant statue.

Although I don’t usually like tours for the sake of taking tours, I thought this was a really good one. Our group was only four people, and all the sites today were quiet. We met up with the tour guides at their office nearby, toured the tombs, enjoyed a traditional lunch of some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever had, and then hiked along the Great Wall in the afternoon.

No winter tour would be complete without some defrosting afterwards, so once we got back we headed down lucky street until we found a delicious French bistro. Enjoying their homemade hot chocolate was the perfect end to a nice day of seeing the sites and picking up on some of the history nearby. I hope I go on more tours later that are as fascinating as this one was!

Slip Carefully: Adventures in Harbin, China

This past weekend I took a trip to Harbin, the northern-most provincial capital in China. Many warned me before I left that it would be extremely cold, and to pack more layers than I would ever think necessary. Why go if the average January temperature is negative 18 degrees C? Harbin is home to an international ice sculpture festival, is known as the Moscow of China, and even includes a Siberian Tiger Park. What better place to bring the first friend who has braved applying for a Chinese visa and coming to stay with me! Before she got here I bought us airfare tickets and a hotel stay. I had done a little research on this, given that Harbin is a popular tourist destination, and I had heard from many coworkers who had gone and visited. You might be thinking that since I had talked to other people who had traveled there and even gotten advice on hotel locations from locals, that everything would go smoothly. I also suffered from this delusion, thinking my minimal planning would be enough to compensate for the fact that we’d be touring on our own rather than in an organized group. I should have known better than to expect a seamless trip, especially considering all past vacations with my friend Carrie have always seemed to go slightly awry (like that time I dragged her to the rural amazon or when we tried to tour wineries on a day when alcohol vending was prohibited). Anyway, let’s review this current debacle and see how we still managed to enjoy the trip despite the many challenges.

First, let me just come out and admit that even though I live in Beijing, my mandarin skill is abysmal. I make it around OK here, but I wasn’t prepared for the lack of English spoken by anyone in Harbin, forcing me to depend so much on Google translate to come up with key words to throw out. I guess now I can look back on it and be glad gesturing and even a few words do go a long way in being able to communicate. I also know next time I venture out, I’ll join a tour rather than try to figure everything out for myself.

Aside from the language barrier, there were a lot of other aspects of the trip that made it a little strange and unexpected, and at least I can say not all of them were my fault:

  • The weather the day we flew out was bad, so our flight was delayed a few hours, supposedly due to frost on the runway or poor visibility.
  • We arrived at the hotel, and the staff had very little English. They also wanted 300 RMB at checking which was confusing because I had pre-paid. Turns out it was just a deposit they needed!
  • The room itself- Not bad, except there was no door on the bathroom, so that was pretty weird. It also had a sign that said “slip carefully,” which we assumed meant to to be the equivalent of “caution- wet floor.”
  • The hotel restaurant only had a Chinese menu with no pictures. We ordered beef dumplings because that was the only food word I knew how to say. They were delicious though, so I guess no harm there.
  • We had really bad luck with taxi drivers, and we had to point to our tourist brochures to show them which sites we wanted to go to.
  • One taxi driver called someone and pulled over, left us in his car while it was running, and went inside some building. If we had been in Peru, I would have assumed we were in an express kidnapping. It turns out he was stopping by his travel agency buddy’s place to sell us some tickets for the snow and ice world. After using my “phone a friend” to call a Chinese speaking friend of mine and making sure we were interpreting the situation correctly, we got our tickets and continued to our destination. Whew.

Don’t worry, though, the trip wasn’t a total disaster. There were some great highlights as well, making this trip worth it despite all the hassles:

The architecture of the city was fascinating.  It has a long history of Russian immigrants, so many buildings had a Byzantine look to them. Also, everything is lit up at night, so driving was really fun. All the large roundabouts had mini ice and snow sculptures, and lantern lights were hanging all along the streets.  Taxi rides can be somewhat stressful, but being able to look out the window at all of this made the traffic bearable.

On the second day we got a cab to drive us out to the Siberian tiger park, which is like a wildlife refuge for Siberian tigers. The entry ticket includes a bus tour where we drove through the area and got to see the tigers running around, and we even saw some enjoying a chicken snack. It was really neat to see them so up-close, and see their thick fur.

Siberian Tiger

All the walking around in the cold gave us quite the appetite, so once we  got back to our hotel we wandered around in search of lunch. The place we stumbled upon was the California Beef Noodle King restaurant. Even though we couldn’t read the menu, it had pictures, so we could order some noodle bowls. They turned out to be delicious, and provided Carrie with more chop stick practice.  After warming up with some delicious spicy soup, we went back to the hotel to layer up for a night at the Ice and Snow World.

A bar in a building made out of ice!

Now, aside from hearing that this place had ice sculptures and seeing a few pictures of it, we didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into. This place was awesome! There were ice structures everywhere, and I even went down a few ice slides. They had mini restaurants inside in case you needed to warm up with some hot chocolate, there was music, an ice show, and even a KFC. Overall I was really impressed with the level of craftsmanship of the ice buildings and the attention to detail paid  to the ice structures.

An impressive snow sculpture of your favorite ice age characters

An impressive snow sculpture of your favorite ice age characters

You can view more photos of the trip here.

Even though this trip was a little frustrating at times, I am really glad I went. The ice sculptures and tigers were really rare experiences, and I’m glad I have a friend I can drag on these adventures with me. You can view her photos on her website. If you’re planning a trip to Harbin, though, I’d recommend going the easy route of signing up for an all inclusive tour through an agency, unless you’re prepared to navigate all the Chinese information yourself! In the mean time, I’ll go back to enjoying the (by comparison) warmer weather in Beijing.

Great Wall vendors

Introducing a new feature for my blog: weekly funny signs I find!

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After touring the Great Wall today I mostly managed to avoid the vendors hanging around the place. I couldn’t help but take this photo though. I’m not sure what they mean by manual dumplings!