Great Wall or Bust! – Episode 1

lunch on a tour to the Great Wall

You can’t really see the Great Wall of China from space. That is just a myth. You can, however, take a bus tour there from Beijing. I found the brochure in the hotel lobby. It advertised an exciting day visiting the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall. Visiting a tomb didn’t sound very exciting to me (dead emperors!), but if you go to Beijing it is obligatory to visit the Great Wall. Otherwise when you get home your friends and family will ask you.

“What was the Great Wall like?” asks Grandma.

“I don’t know. I was too busy fighting with soggy noodles in my hot pot,” I would reply.

So we signed up for the tour. The bus picked us up promptly at 8am. It was a modern, comfortable touring bus. We were the first people on the bus. Our tour guide was a polite young Chinese girl named Lily.

“Welcome to our tour to the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall,” she said in her halting English. I think she had memorized her opening lines. Lily was an international business major at a local university, who worked on her English while leading tour groups.

The bus slowly wound around Beijing, pushing its way through the heavy traffic. At one point the driver even drove the wrong way up an elevated, curved freeway exit ramp so we could skip the line waiting to get on the freeway. I guess when you are driving one of the biggest vehicles on the road you can do what you want. Until another car comes the other way exiting the freeway at 70 mph.

We picked up an assortment of tourists, about twelve of us in all. There was a French guy, a Brazilian father and son, a family of Mongolians, and Chinese peasants from the countryside visiting the big city for the first time. Our last pickup was an elderly Chinese gentleman dressed head to toe like Chairman Mao. He was clothed in a dark blue tunic, dark blue pants, shined black dress shoes, and a cap. He looked just like the picture of Mao on the outer wall of the Forbidden City.

Our first stop was the site of the Ming Tombs. The Ming Tombs are underground (they’re tombs!), but it turned out that they were closed for renovation. Going into a cave to see a tomb of a long dead emperor is not my idea of a good time, so I didn’t really care. Lily gave us a summary of the place, most of which I couldn’t hear or understand. We all piled back into the bus.

Ming Tombs
The Ming Tombs

“Now, we are going to stop at the jade factory,” said Lily. “We will show you how jade is carved.”

Shopping is one of my least favorite activities. It doesn’t matter if I am at home or on vacation, I don’t want to go shopping. It didn’t say anything about a jade factory on the tour brochure. It occurred to me right away that this stop was pre-arranged to part tourists from their yuan.

The factory sales manager led our group along a walkway which circled the factory floor. We could look through windows at the workers hunched over their grinders, furiously turning the jade pieces back and forth to turn them into dragons and butterflies. We ended up at the showroom. I admit that some of the larger items were very impressive. They also were very expensive and hard to carry home in your suitcase too. The sales job wasn’t too obnoxious and soon we were back on the bus.

Jade Carving Factory outside of Beijing
And here is Vanna to tell you the prizes you have won

“It is now time for lunch. We will have a traditional Chinese meal and a rest,” said Lily.

That’s good, I thought. I am hungry from all of this non-touring and non-shopping.
The restaurant was a very old building surrounding a courtyard. The group was led into a large room filled with round tables. We appeared to be the only customers. Lily ordered the food for the group from the waiter who magically appeared with tea cups. There were no menus. The circular table had a large round tray in the middle of it. We were each given a small bowl and chopsticks. Even though we had talked about it twenty times, I had forgotten to bring my plastic fork. I am completely inept at using chopsticks. If I have to use chopsticks at every meal, I will starve to death in no time at all.

The Chinese peasants at the table started chattering in their local dialect, no doubt discussing which dead emperor was their favorite. We tried to talk with the French guy, but his English was even less than my French, so we didn’t get very far. The Brazilians were on the far side of the table from us, and we don’t speak Portuguese anyway. Chairman Mao stared at me intently like I was from another planet.

The food arrived in a dozen large bowls. The food servers put the bowls on the tray. There was no dinner bell, but the diners from our group instantly attacked the food in the bowls like it was the start of the Indy 500. A race to see who would get full first and get the food they wanted the most. It was a little like a church potluck picnic, with some people edging their way towards the front of the line to get the deli drumsticks and gourmet chocolate chip cookies instead of Aunt Madge’s Spam hot dish and leftover jello salad.

The tray was spinning back and forth. The hungry tourists would grab the tray and spin it towards them to make a stab at dumping some of the contents of a large serving bowl into their personal small bowl. I tried to get in the game and grab the tray. I spied some fried rice on the far side. I didn’t want the unidentified brown mush in the bowl on my side of the tray. It was probably mashed fungi. I got a grip on the tray and heaved. The tray started to spin my way. I could see the rice coming along clockwise, here it comes.

It got to Chairman Mao. He grabbed the rice bowl and dumped some into his bowl. I’m a polite and patient American traveler; I know how to wait my turn. As I reached for the bowl someone on the other side of the table flung the tray again, back their way. Away went my rice, counter clockwise to oblivion. The mashed fungi came back into view. I am hungry, but there is no way I am eating that.

The tray kept rotating all the way around the circle. It looked like some spicy chicken was coming my way. Yes, keep spinning oh mighty tray! Just then one of the Mongolians stopped the tray, dumped the last of the spicy chicken into his bowl, and let the tray go.

What stopped in front of me was a green vegetable looking substance. I had no idea what that was, and even if I did, it did not look edible by humans. I’ll pass.

lunch on a tour to the Great Wall
Chariman Mao has left the building.

The tray kept spinning. The tourists devoured the contents of the bowls like a plague of locusts. I did manage to finally get some noodles into my bowl. However, getting the noodles into my mouth with chopsticks was a struggle. Abandoning all attempts at proper etiquette, I grabbed the bowl and slurped them down. Nobody noticed my dining faux pas, they were too busy using their own chopsticks as serving utensils into the common bowls. Which didn’t bother me, but was a major rules violation according to Lisa.

When the tray stopped spinning, the food was all gone, the tourists were full, and I was still hungry.

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Beijing Hot Pot

Ask my mother and she’ll tell you that I have always been a finicky eater.  As an adult, I am certainly a meat and potatoes guy.  So before I traveled to China I was a little apprehensive.  I didn’t want to go on a self-inflicted crash diet during the trip.  I was hoping there would be something I could like to eat in a land of 1 ½ billion people. Something other than Pizza Hut or KFC that is, which are found by the thousands in big Chinese cities.

Traditionally, there are four great traditions of Chinese cuisine – Cantonese, Huaiyang, Shandong, and Szechuan.  Cantonese involves meats and stir-frying. Huaiyang is sweet and includes fish.  Shandong is seafood with steamed breads, vegetables, and noodles.  Szechuan is spicy, using garlic and peppers liberally.  None of these resemble American Chinese food that we are used to here in the US.  They also don’t give out fortune cookies in Chinese restaurants.  I’m not sure who made that up.

Beijing food is in the Shandong tradition.  One of the notable dishes in Beijing is called Hot Pot.  Hot pot generally involves cooking food items in your own personal hot pot.  The hot pot is a small ceramic bowl with a burner under it.  The diner loads various things into the hot pot, boils them for some undetermined period of time (how does one know when it’s done?  I don’t know…), and extracts the things into the diner’s small bowl.  The food can then be picked out with chopsticks or slurped.

A gate in the Forbidden City, Beijing China

One day I was walking around the area west of the Forbidden City.  My guide book suggested a local restaurant that was renowned for Beijing hot pot.  It was a small restaurant tucked away on a quiet side street.  I was the only foreigner in the area and when I walked up to the hostess, she chattered at me in Mandarin while shooing me away with her hands.  It was not exactly welcoming to this hungry diner.  I think she was saying “you don’t want to eat here!  Go away back to the foreign tourist hotel zone and eat at Pizza Hut!”

“Yes, I do want to eat here,” I said to her in English, since I don’t speak Mandarin.  “I am very hungry!  I have walked all the way across Beijing just to come to your guidebook recommended restaurant!”

She then laughed at me and proceeded to seat me in a table in the back of the tiny place.  Next to me was a Chinese family finishing their lunches.  The father was pulling tasty looking meat out of his hot pot.  The mother was slurping something out of her bowl.  The obligatory only child was wailing away at the top of his little lungs.

The waitress showed up and gave me a menu.  Of course, the menus were in Chinese characters, and I had no idea what was available.  I knew I wanted what my neighbor had, because it smelled really good.  But only luck would get me that lunch because no one in the restaurant spoke English.

When the waitress came back to take my order I had to resort to pointing at random at a few dishes.  She nodded, scribbled something on her order pad, and walked back to the cook standing behind me.  They then laughed as if they had just heard the funniest killer joke ever in the history of the world. Do you see the combination of food that Westerner just ordered?  HAHAHAHAH!!!!

In time she delivered the uncooked food that I had ordered.  She lit my burner beneath my very own hot pot.  I became aware that all of the other diners in the small restaurant were now watching to see what I would do.  I was the star attraction, the ignorant Westerner who ordered the strange combination of food to load into his hot pot!

I’ll show them, I thought.  I gathered a small handful of dried noodles and dumped them into the boiling water.  I then threw in the brown weird looking stuff.  I was hoping that was a good kind of meat and not Fido.  I added in a few small vegetables and simmered until done.  Whenever that is supposed to be, I’m not sure, but I gave it five minutes.

Now it’s show time.  I smiled politely at my fellow diners observing my every move.  I grabbed my chopsticks and peered into my hot pot.  Smells good.  Looks good.  Now if I can only get this stuff out of here and into my bowl, and then from the bowl to my mouth.  I tried to lift some noodles out.  But here is a physics lesson for you kids out there.  Once a dried stiff noodle is immersed in boiling water, it becomes like, well, uh, a noodle, you know?  I couldn’t pick up the noodle with my chopsticks.  It kept falling off.  Over and over I tried, to the great amusement of my fans. I couldn’t for the life of me get any of the noodles out of the hot pot.  If I had a fork, I might have been able to make a go of it.  But not with chopsticks.  I am chopstick-challenged.

I eventually gave up trying to use the chopsticks.  I grabbed the hot pot and starting dumping it into my bowl.  That was a bad idea.  I overflowed the bowl and dumped boiling hot water all over the table.  My audience roared with laughter.  Even the formerly wailing small child stopped wailing and started laughing.

Admitting defeat, I asked for the bill.  I apologized for making a mess and promised that next time I would do better.  The waitress smiled at me as I stumbled out the door.  At the street corner I hailed a taxi.  To make my way to Pizza Hut.

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Pirate Taxi in Beijing

Chairman Mao directs Beijing traffic

We stumbled through the door of the arrivals terminal in Beijing, looking for a ride to the city center.  I knew I had to find an ATM to get some yuan before getting a taxi.  No sooner had we got through the door than a polite, enthusiastic man in a dark cab driver uniform approached us.

“Taxi for you, come this way now!” he said.

“Cool it buddy, I need to find an ATM.”

Oops, I think that was a mistake, because he now thought it was his mission in life to lead us to the ATM.

“Yes, sir. I help you sir, ATM right this way!”

“Hey, I can find it myself” I said as we walked away.

Chairman Mao directs Beijing traffic
Chairman Mao directs Beijing traffic

It had been a tough 15 hour flight from San Francisco.  Every seat on the plane seemed to be filled with Chinese grandmothers, and they all brought home-cooked meals in leaky Tupperware, the smells suffocating me as I tried in vain to sleep.  I can never sleep on the plane, and am usually completely wiped out after a long trans-oceanic flight.  To pass the time I watch movie after movie on the tiny screen in the seatback in front of me until my eyeballs turn to moldy jello and my brain goes completely numb.

When fully alert, I am normally careful in dealing with touts who are trying to sell me something in airports.  This time I was not on my game.

We found the ATM, got some cash, and walked to the outer doors of the airport.  Our friend was back at my side.

“My car, right here.  Good ride.  What hotel?”

“Alright, you got me buddy.  Let’s load and go.”

He grabbed our bags and stowed them in the trunk.  We sunk into the back seat like marathon runners who couldn’t make it to the last mile.  As I put my head back on the head rest, the car pulled away and joined the mass of honking geese fleeing the airport road.

A few minutes down the freeway, I became alert enough to notice that there was no meter on the dash.

“Hey Lisa. Did you happen to notice anything about the car when we got in?”

Lisa was half asleep.  I don’t think she noticed anything about the car.  She just got in it because I lead her to it.

“You know, I don’t think there was a taxi light or sign on the top of the car, like on the other taxis we are seeing on the road.”

The man looked like a taxi driver.  He acted like a taxi driver.  He even drove like a taxi driver.  But I don’t think this is a taxi.

Paranoia set in.  I started fearing for my life.  It was late at night on the outer ring freeway of Beijing.  I had no idea where we were, or which direction was the right one for where we had to go.  He could be driving us to some deserted warehouse where we would be robbed, stripped, and left for dead to be eaten by communist pandas.  Do they eat meat? I’m not sure, hopefully they only eat eucalyptus leaves.

He kept driving and we kept worrying about what was going to happen.  It seemed like we drove for two hours, from one freeway to another and back again.  In time, I could see that we were entering Beijing.

Suddenly he pulled over next to a large dark building.

“Hotel. Fifty yuan!”

I didn’t see any hotel.  How could this be the hotel?  It looked like an office building. Then I noticed the sign of our hotel on the corner.  We were in the right spot, but he wouldn’t pull into the front circle of the hotel because of his dubious status.  Maybe they arrest pirate taxi drivers in this country and send them to the re-education camp.

We got out, collected our luggage, and paid the guy.  I don’t know what the proper fare is from the airport to Beijing, but it seemed ok, and he did get us there in one piece.

As we walked away I wondered if this was the future of China.  No more crowds of bicycles racing down the streets in the socialistic paradise, people too poor to buy cars.  Instead, mobile hustlers of the new car culture, looking to make a quick buck off the flood of western visitors to the Middle Kingdom.

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