Thursday, March 22, 2007

Great "Eats" in Beijing

Some of our favorite “eats” in Beijing.

Beijing is one of my favorite Chinese cities. It reminds me of Chicago for a number of reasons…but mainly because it shares basically the same climate….COLD winters and hot sweaty summers, but also the beautiful wide boulevards and lovely parks. Beijing is now sprawling, and changing so fast we can’t keep up even though we visit 2-3 times a year. There are cranes operating 24/7 and the lights of the new and expanding freeways are a sign of the ongoing changes and preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games.

It’s been a while since we had time to be “tourists” in Beijing, but here are some of our favorite places and especially, some places to eat well.

We have eaten in several good dumpling houses on boulevard Chang An – the big 6 lane boulevard. This is just outside the Grand Hyatt hotel, and FULL of locals shopping day and night. Be careful in this area crossing the streets…even if they are controlled with stop lights. Cross carefully—pedestrians are targets! We love a restaurant called simply “ Dumpling House”. The atmosphere is San Francisco Chinatown. Bright fluorescent lights, cheap tables and little round stools for chairs. People crowded around eating food they bought there or brought in…go figure. When we arrive the place is always packed, and the custom is to just stand behind someone WHILE they finish their dumplings so you can quickly take over their table when they leave. OFTEN people will get up and give up their table for us when we arrive…they INSIST, and sometimes leave behind half of their food. We are usually the only Americano’s in the place.

Go hungry. There are 6 dumplings to an order. Jerry and I can easily eat 5 orders…along with 2 beers which are GIANT. The bill for that order is about $5…total, not $5/person. You will be the only white folk here, but people will be incredibly friendly. One other custom. If you want the same morning breath that you will encounter with the locals, enjoy some of the raw garlic provided in a dish at your table along with your dumplings. Warning, take your own tissues or hand wipes. Napkins consist of a little square of T.P., so you might want to have your own. No tipping is allowed—it goes to the owner and is frowned upon. Oh, one other thing. You pay for your meal at the time you place your order. The first time we were here, we didn’t understand why the waitress was just standing over us after we placed our order…it became apparent quickly! We eat only vegetarian, and all the veggie ones there are YUMMY. They come steaming hot out of the boiling water…no frying done here.

After dinner the boulevard outside has something interesting going on. There are food vendors all along the street outside cooking up fresh food of all form. Kebabs, mostly and there are some pretty unusual selections, and some that are not distinguishable and they are cooked to order right there after you make your selection. It’s fun to just walk along and see what’s happening. If the weather is nice the place will be crowded and very interesting people watching.

If you get a craving, there is an excellent sushi bar in the Oriental Plaza shopping mall under the Hyatt Hotel. There is also a big western style grocery store. The breakfast in this hotel, as in most of the western hotels is amazing. And, strangely enough, so is the Italian restaurant here! We’ve been here so often that we do sometimes eat the not-so-local offerings. Another good Chinese restaurant is Huajia restaurant. They have 3 locations

Other Beijing musts…

Try to stay as long as you can and walk as far up as you have time on the Great Wall. It’s just so amazing. The standards “tours” kind of rush you in and out with just and hour or maybe two to climb up the wall. I don’t think it’s long enough. Ask your hotel to pack you a lunch, take it along and sit down on the wall and enjoy your lunch and the most amazing scenery in the entire world. And believe it or not, your cell phone (if you brought yours) WILL work here. How is it that I can call my mother from the top of the Great Wall of China and get a perfect connection, but I can’t hear a word she’s saying from my home 2 miles from her house? Depending on which of the wall you enter, there are nice shops at the base of it that have some unusual stuff. Bargain hard!

The Summer Palace is a beautiful place. Be wary of people selling sweat shirts or t-shirts there. We had lots of fun with them, but one vendor who followed us for miles finally broke down our traveling companion Dave and sold him a shirt. After he ran off with Dave’s money, Dave realized that the vendor had given him change in Russian currency!

If someone suggests going to the “silk market” you can now say OK. Until last year I would have told you to run the other direction. The old outdoor market has been moved inside and someone has given a few lessons in the art of polite selling to the aggressive shop vendors. It’s still a bunch of cheap t-shirts, purses and so on…but some people can’t resist the bargaining and rock bottom prices. Look very carefully at anything you buy from purses, pashmina shawls, scarves, shoes, “Tommy Bahama” shirts etc. as some of the quality is very poor. This is one of the few places I worry about my wallet. The vendors actually reach out and grab your arm and try to drag you over to their stall. It’s also wall to wall people pushing and shoving—mostly Russian tourists, so just stay alert.

Have some real fun and go to the Beijing Flea Market (Panjianyuan). (We call it the dirt market.) It can be crowded too, but there is everything fun and interesting from old to new and it’s all sectioned off by product, so if you are not interested in ceramics, you can skip that isle…but don’t skip any of them! This is where you will find isles of art vendors also. It’s interesting. Be prepared to deal with lots of cigarette smoke there, even though it is outside. Remember to bargain hard – if they say 100 RMB, offer 20 with a smile and go from there! Don’t forget a big lightweight bag to drag home your prize purchases. Or if you do, there are vendors selling some cheap carry bags for $1. There isn’t anything there I would dare eat, so take along your emergency power bar or eat a hearty breakfast.

And, lastly, taxi’s here are incredibly cheap. Just be sure you have the business card from your hotel with the name in Chinese to show the driver!! Get extra’s at the concierge station. For some reason, they don’t recognize the Hyatt hotel or the Oriental Plaza shopping center as well as the other big ones. I think it is mainly a business hotel and business people are usually in cars with a driver, not taxis! And there is one thing Jerry and I have laughed about since our first trip. It happens when you get in the taxi and hand the driver your hotel card. They hold it in two hands and stare carefully at it—usually for a full minute. Then they turn it over to the English writing side, and stare at it again. Then they turn it back…and stare at it again, sometimes removing their eye glasses. And just when you think they are going to say “No…don’t understand”…they turn and say “OK…hit the meter, and you are off!”…go figure…

Have fun…it’s a wonderful place with amazing history and lots and lots to see and do. Don’t miss a thing!