I Don’t Speak Cantonese

My very last trip was to a small town called Zhaoqing 肇庆 in Guangdong province, just a few hours’ drive from Hong Kong. It was a three day field trip for a class I took on Confucianism. I knew I wouldn’t know anyone else on the trip, so that was okay. What I didn’t know, however, was that the field trip would be conducted entirely in Cantonese. Even though the class was taught in English. Great.

We went to some pretty cool places, but since I didn’t understand any of the explanation and no one was nice enough to translate for me, I really couldn’t learn anything more than what I could see.

We went to an old Hakka village, which was pretty cool to look at, but honestly I have no idea if the place had any historical significance.

Also a couple of temples: one Confucian temple that used to double as a school, and one for the Dragon Mother, a goddess in a local folk religion. Or something like that.

We also took a boat tour around the lake at the Seven Star Crags park, which was gorgeous…

…and hiked to a very beautiful waterfall in Dinghushan.

We had a bit of free time each day, so I got to do some people-watching, too.

It was definitely cool to see a part of China that wasn’t a huge city completely overrun by tourists like Beijing is. That being said, I don’t feel like I really got anything out of the trip. We saw so many beautiful things, but I never knew what I was looking at. I wish I had known beforehand about the language issue – I still don’t understand why they didn’t tell me. I would have rather gone on another trip with friends instead.

Scorpions Taste Like Bacon

Today was the last day of my Chinese class. For whatever reason, it ends three weeks before all the rest of my classes, so now I have five day weekends. For the oral portion of my final, I had to choose a topic and talk for two minutes – I decided to talk about my trip to Beijing! Here’s my script, in case you’re curious:

上个星期我去了北京旅行。我的朋友都不会说汉语,所以我跟北京人说了很多普通话。我们在北京玩儿得非常好!我们参观了前门,天安门,故宫,天坛,还有 颐和园 。颐和园的风景最漂亮。那儿有一个很大的湖,可以坐船。我们在金山岭长城走了四个多小时。走完以后,我们太累了!我们也去了王府井小吃街。那个地方有很多好吃的菜。我吃了冰糖葫芦,羊肉串儿,煎饼果子,还有麻团儿。这些东西都很好吃!还有,我吃蝎子了,吃得坏!我很害怕!

Of course, now I have to tell you that same story but in English, but I really don’t know where to begin. I had an amazing five days in Beijing. I was with a couple Americans and a ton of Danes, and I was the only one who knows (well, sort of knows) Chinese, so naturally I got quite a bit of practice in! Sure, I was speaking in broken sentences the whole time, but it was great to talk to real people outside of a classroom.

Our hostel was right by 前门 Qianmen, so the first day we mostly walked around there. Qianmen means “front gate,” meaning that was the southernmost gate on the wall that used to surround Beijing. A ton of places in the city end in 门 “men” because they used to be gates!

In addition to the actual gate, Qianmen has shopping (regular and market-style) and tons of food.

My first meal in Beijing! The best thing about being in restaurants was speaking Chinese to the waiter/waitress. I can’t tell you how many times I asked 您有没有英文菜单?Do you have an English menu? First thing I noticed right of the bat was that restaurants serve a lot more vegetables than the ones in Hong Kong. The one on the right was my food – chicken with peanuts, cucumbers, bell peppers, carrots, and onions. I miss veggies! The little cakes in the center are fried pumpkin with a bit of red bean inside.

Beijing street food is generally amazing, but especially in Qianmen. Everywhere you turn there’s a little counter selling all sorts of cakes, buns, fried tofu, hot dogs, and corn on the cob. One of my favorite things was 冰糖葫芦 bingtanghulu, skewers of candied haw berries. They have just haws, haws covered in sesame seeds, or haws cut in half with orange slices in the middle, and even skewers of candied strawberries, grapes, pineapple, or kiwi. I like the plain haws the best, but you have to look for ones with cuts down the middle – that means they’ve taken out the seeds, which can be pretty painful if you bite down on one accidentally. It’s a bit more expensive when you get it that way, but even then it’s only about 8元 max. The ones with seeds are a cheap as 1元.

On the second day, we got up bright and early, left the hostel around 6am for 金山岭长城, the Great Wall at Jinshanling. It’s a couple hours northeast of the city, but I’d say it’s definitely worthwhile to make the trek all the way out there rather than going to the 八达岭 Badaling section which is much closer. There’s nothing I hate more than pictures with people in them, and once you’re all the way out there it’s pretty easy to get some gorgeous shots of the wall without any tourists, whereas Badaling is super crowded. That also means it isn’t as well restored in some places, but that can be good, too. We walked for around four hours; I didn’t realize it would be so steep in some places!

It was the perfect day for the Wall. Pretty cold in the morning, but once we got walking we warmed up quite a bit, and it was the least hazy of all the days we were there. You really could see on forever, mountains behind mountains behind mountains.

After a long day, we finally made it back to the city and went to 鬼街 Guijie, Ghost Street, for dinner, near 东直门 Dongzhimen. It’s a couple blocks of all restaurants, and at night people will set up little tables where they try to sell you overpriced souvenir crap.

We were in need of some delicious 烤鸭 roast duck, so we got some of that as well as something called 杂粮包 zaliangbao. I’m not sure if it has a real English name, but Google Translate tells me that means “cereal package.” So I’ll just stick with zaliangbao.

It’s little bowls of steamed bread, with veggies and meat that you put inside! I’ve never seen or heard of anything like this before. Such an interesting change from the usual noodles and rice.

Friday we headed first to 天安门 Tian’anmen Square and 故宫 The Forbidden City, both of which were walking distance from the hostel. I couldn’t believe how crowded these places were. There were tons of tour groups – 20 or so little old Chinese ladies all wearing the same bright orange baseball cap, following some guy with a big flag and a megaphone. In the Forbidden City, you can look inside the buildings but you can’t go into most of them, and wherever there was an open spot to look people were pushing and shoving! After awhile, I just decided it wasn’t even worth it to fight my way through. The buildings themselves are already gorgeous, not to mention the gardens, so who really cares whether or not you get to see the Emperor’s favorite concubine’s dressing room?

After that, we made our way over to 西单 Xidan for some 火锅 hotpot! I had a recommendation for a place called 海底捞 Haidilao, and it was soooo delicious, and very inexpensive. They have a few locations, and apparently they’re pretty popular – you should have seen the size of the waiting area.

Then we went to 天坛 Temple of Heaven. We got there after the actual temple was closed, but it’s a huge park, so it was still nice to walk around. There were so many trees! That’s one thing Hong Kong could definitely use more of. We also did a bit of market shopping.

Finally, the thing I had been waiting for: 王府井小吃街 Wangfujing Snack Street, a little alley off of 王府井大街 Wangfujing Street that sells tons of crazy street food. There was some normal food, of course, but I was most interested in the crazy When-In-China type food. They really do eat anything and everything in China, and in Wangfujing you can get it all, usually on a stick.

From top to bottom, left to right, that’s pidgeon; sea urchin; squid tentacles; scorpions, starfish, and seahorses; lizards and more seahorses; quail eggs; 羊肉串儿 yangrou chaur (lamb kebabs); mini lobsters (who knew they came that small?). I kept pretty tame with my choices: a corn on the cob, lamb, squid, and some chicken dumplings. I did, however, do something a little crazy. I ate 蝎子 xiezi. Scorpion. A big, huge, deep-fried black one.

Gonna be honest, I screamed a little, but who wouldn’t? It really did taste like bacon though. Disgusting bacon, but bacon nonetheless. No amount of peer pressure could get me anywhere near the grasshoppers or centipedes though. Nuh uh, no way. The scorpion was immediately washed down with some delicious haw berries.

On Saturday we headed northwest of the city toward 圆明园 Yuanmingyuan (the Old Summer Palace) and 颐和园 the Summer Palace. Yuanmingyuan was the Summer Palace for the Qing dynasty emperors until it was burned down during the Second Opium War in 1860. That’s where the newer Summer Palace comes in.

Three-quarters of the park is a huge manmade lake. Really, you see this thing and you’re just blown away. Definitely the best scenery of the trip (which I said in my Chinese final! 颐和园的风景最漂亮!)

Then we made our way back to the city, stopped by the 雍和宫 Yonghegong Lama Temple, and then 798 艺术区 Art District, basically the hipster-central of Beijing. Tons of interesting art galleries, cute little boutiques, and small coffee shops. We also went to the Olympic Park, where the games were in 2008; the stadiums were beautifully lit at night. Finally, we ended the night with cocktails at 什刹海酒吧 Shichahai Bar Street in 后海 Houhai. We found a place called the Lotus Blue that had a live reggae band! In the middle of Beijing, of all places.

Finally, it was our last day in Beijing. I really wanted to make it to the Ming Tombs, but that’s a bit outside the city and I was afraid we wouldn’t make it back in time for our flight. Instead we stopped by 孔庙 Temple of Confucius and did a bit of last minute shopping at the clothing market in 三里屯 Sanlitun. And got some more street food, of course.

The one on the top left is called 麻团儿 matuar in Beijing and other parts of northern China, but I usually call it 煎堆 jiandui. It’s fried glutinous rice flour covered in sesame seeds, usually with lotus paste inside. My favorite is when it has red bean, so I was a little disappointed to bite into the lotus paste, but I kept eating and found that there was red bean INSIDE the lotus paste! The top right is a crunchy, eggy pastry. Bottom left is a chewy cake-type thing with red beans, and the bottom right is a flakey, buttery bun. Outside of Qianmen, most street food comes from the back of someone’s bicycle. They attach a box of food to the back and just hang around somewhere. People sell fruit, roasted chestnuts, and my personal favorite, baked sweet potatoes.

Outside the Confucian temple, we got stopped by these adorable guys from Beijing University. They were all holding cameras, so at first I thought they wanted pictures of us (that happens when you walk around with blonde people in China), but instead they asked if they could each have a conversation with us and film it. It was homework for an English class. It was seriously the cutest thing that’s ever happened to me! They were all obviously very nervous, and kept checking their scripts whenever they forgot what they were supposed to say.

My last meal in Beijing. It was good, nothing special, but what I really liked was the English translation on the menu: eggplant face. The word for noodle, 面 mian, has several meanings, one of which is face. I laughed so hard when I saw that!

My five days in Beijing were definitely some of the most memorable yet. Honestly, I wish I could have stayed longer! Being able to practice my Chinese with real people was so great, too. I’m really sad I won’t have time to make it to Shanghai during my stay here in Asia, but I guess that just gives me a great excuse to come back.

In Transit

It’s currently 5:34am in Beijing (that’s 2:34pm yesterday at home), where I’m sitting at the airport waiting until my flight leaves at 7:30. I can’t get on the wifi, so I’ll have to post this later. I’ve almost made it to Hong Kong!

Probably the only time the Beijing airport will be this empty. Kind of creepy.

This blog is about to become very different. For one, I won’t really be cooking. Mostly just eating. But more than that, I probably won’t get to be vegetarian. Everyone I’ve talked to says it just won’t happen, I’ll starve. I’ve been mentally preparing for that, but when they handed me beef and broccoli on the plane I just couldn’t do it. I’m not ready for that just yet. Baby steps. Eventually I know I’ll have to do it; I don’t really have a choice. But I haven’t eaten meat in nine years!! NINE YEARS!! I know I have to do it, and I’ll be vegetarian again when I get back, but I certainly wasn’t ready for it on the plane. And definitely not as breakfast. I picked out the broccoli and ate the rice – even that is a huge step for me, eating something that’s been all mixed in with meat. Like I said, baby steps.

Anyway, I had about two and a half days at home after I left Google. It was sad to say goodbye, but I was ready to be done I think. I wish my internship had been shifted back one week though, because the turnaround was so fast! I barely had time to do anything at home since it was all so rushed.

I do have a recipe for you though! This is probably the easiest thing I’ve ever made. Monday morning, one of my mom’s friends called saying her freezer broke, so we quickly filled our kitchen with her food. She had shrimp, lobster, ahi, and all sorts of other things in danger of going bad. We were already having my cousin over for dinner, so we decided to make it a party and grill up all of their food! We made fish tacos (beans for me) plus the shrimp and lobster tails. At the grocery store earlier that day, a 2lb bag of peaches was on sale for $0.98! I feel like I completely missed out on peach season this year, so I had to get them. I’ve had some peaches, but normally I stuff myself with them.

Grilled Peaches
(Originally from here)

Ingredients
5-6 ripe peaches, cut in half
Greek yogurt
Almond slivers
Honey
Freshly squeezed lemon juice

Instructions
1.
Grill your peaches. I did mine on a pan on the stove, but you can do it on the barbeque too. Just lay down some foil first. They took about 5 minutes – you want them soft, but not gushy. Flip them over for a bit, but for the most part you want the pit-side down. You can give them a little bit of olive oil if you want, but I didn’t use anything; for the most part, the juice will keep them from sticking too much.

2. While the peaches are going, make your syrup. Use about a 3:2 honey to lemon juice ratio. Just mix it together until the consistency seems right.
3. Serve! Put a dollop of yogurt on the peach, then drizzle with the syrup and top with almonds. So summery and delicious.

Enjoy the last of the peaches for me, since I won’t have any :(