Remember the other day I was expressing my frustrations with China and my poor first impressions of Beijing?
Well, wouldn't you know it, I've softened up quite a bit! I had some time to explore Beijing and--sure enough--I found some parts I liked. Thankfully my hosts (who are both from Shanghai) wanted to ensure that I saw *their* favorite parts of Beijing before leaving. Though they made it clear that they much prefer Shanghai to Beijing.
(I'm going to try to add some photos to this update, but they will probably just clump together at the top of the bottom of this post. It pains me to not provide commentary for each, but things are tricky since I'm doing this secret-style through my email to elude the long arm of the Chinese law. I will probably come back later and clean up all of the formatting. I'm just trying to keep things somewhat timely, yo.)
They took me to the Ho Hai area, which reminded me of my beloved Taikang Road in Shanghai. There were food vendors, quirky shops, and lots of people strolling. Character abounded! It was not at all sterile and dirty and blase like the rest of Beijing I'd seen. (OK, it was a little dirty. But it's China!)
I found a woman frying baby octopus in batter, so I went for it. I love me some baby octopus, but this was just OK. There was too much sauce on it for my liking, and I found myself just picking out the octopus from under two sweet sauces and a buncha fish flakes. You can understand.
Then I was almost convinced to try some bugs on a stick. (Andrew Zimmern's got nothing on me! Except… wait… he actually eats this stuff.) If there was a sampler bug stick, I probably would have gone for it, but the guy I was with said the scorpions are all crunch and not much meat and I was just put off by the plump grub-like things. Still, if they were offered at a restaurant, I might have gone for it. I try to be a little careful with the street food. Hmm…
They also took me to the Forbidden City, which was overwhelmingly amazing. It's this walled city where all of the emperors (and their wives and concubines and servants and ministers and tons of other hangers on) lived. It was in operation from something like the 1400s until 1912. It was amazing to walk around and imagine what it was like back then, bustling with people of a different sort (because, let me tell you, it was bustling with every tourist in Beijing). I have zillions of pictures, so maybe I will do a separate post on it later.
Tiananmen Square is basically across the street from the Forbidden City (once you get outside of its outside-outside walls, that is). There is a huge picture of Mao… and then… the square. Yeah, it's pretty crazy. I think most interesting for me was the reverence that the guy I was with explained to me that he--and most Chinese, even of my generation--have for Mao as the founder of "modern" China.
Then we took a tour of Ji Xiaolan's home. He was a famous writer during the Qing dynasty (he was active in the last half of the 1700s) and someone that the two people I was with grew up reading in school. I was not familiar, but his works have been translated into just about every language and he was all tight with the emperor and stuff. (Like, the emperor sent him a mirror from Italy at a time when most people needed a clear stream to see themselves, so you know they's was TIGHT.)
But the best part of the day was taking a rickshaw ride through the Ba Da Hutongs. A hutong is basically an old-school Chinese neighborhood that snakes around in narrow alleys with old guys playing cards, old ladies hanging laundry, and lots of birds in wooden cages. It is the real deal.
As if I needed any more real deals, we went to a restaurant that served donkey meat, among lots of other kooky (to my American sensibilities) offerings. Even I couldn't get down with the donkey meat.
So basically, Beijing redeemed itself to me. Though I'm pretty sure it's a little less clean than Shanghai. And, as I mentioned before, English is harder to come by. But still. I left with a much better feeling about Beijing than my original take.