Beijing existed in my mind as an abstract painting, fragments taken from my late father’s many tales of arriving in this mysterious land. Visions of tranquil ancient penzai gardens danced with the buzz of a post-modern metropolis. The city was all these things at once and still somehow more; a breathing, gyrating, living contrast to itself.
The tales from my father I had collected over time, gorging myself on them over and over until China had become a world almost entirely constructed in my imagination. When he died, I grasped those memories even tighter, desperate to seek out these corners of the world that he treasured so.
Home to some of China’s most famous landmarks: the forbidden city, the Great Wall and endless blossom gardens, temples and tea houses. A gentle gateway into the cultures of the far East. Yet Beijing was, as I found all of China, nothing as I had expected.
My entrance was uneventful, I braced for public transport chaos, yet the trip through the metro system and into the hive of Beijing was remarkably simple. The city itself was not the throbbing hum of relentless crowds and mind-boggling skyscrapers, and many of the inner city suburbs provided a tranquil space to stroll, uninterrupted, along the magnificent walls, structures and ancient housing of the gentle tree lined streets.
I stayed for a week, living close to all the things one might want. To my great pleasure we discovered a superb restaurant serving up cold noodles from the Shanxi region of Northern China. Chilled noodles tossed in sesame oil with spiralised cucumber, peanuts and chilli. A dish that would linger favourably in my memory for many months to come.
Quite the opposite of the cold jellied pig foot that has become the epitome of things I dislike of the Chinese cuisine, an anecdote not dissimilar to the stories my father would share with us as children, of bizarre foods lost in translation from his business trips into China – a fond memory full of love and belly laughs.
I explored the ornate, leafy slopes of the imperial Jingshan Park, with its twenty three manicured hectares of peach blossoms and gardens of budding peonies. A tranquil getaway overlooking the chaotic beating heart of the forbidden city below. I took a stroll through the infamous Tiananmen square, whisked away into a feeling of communist times past – a jaw dropping expanse of grey. Stony faced military guarded and the Chinese flag was high and we were overlooked by the most well known of Chinese leaders, including the notorious Chairman Mao.
Despite many claims that the Donghuamen Night Market was no longer in operation, I still stumbled upon it, completely by accident and in full, roaring trade.
Wriggling scorpions and starfish lay immortalised on skewers, impaled and displayed and perhaps eventually eaten. Or more likely disposed of, as despite throngs of selfie-wielding tourists flocking to capture the bizarre delicacies, there were very few actually eating them.
I speculated on the validity of these delicacies, and questioned whether perhaps this has all come about for the shock-factor of tourists, as I had not seen the more local parts of China feasting on such things.
Much like Cambodia, the country has come about times of extreme poverty & famine. In these challenging time the people were driven to eat whatever protein sources they could find, insects proved a life-sustaining meal. Necessity, not delicacy.
Beijing is famous for having a world class aquarium, an impressive building housed on the fringes of the sprawling Beijing Zoo. For two large attractions that are one-in-the-same land, they do not bear a striking resemblance. The Zoo was on a beautiful and large piece of land with blossoming trees and a massive variety of exotic animals. However, the care of the animals ranged from the desolate and heartbreaking through to the well cared for and clean. I’ve never had such mixed feelings on such a place. Charging merely a few coins to get in, I ponder why they wouldn’t raise admission and put more time and money into the upkeep.
The Aquarium, however, costs many many times more and it shows. Gorgeous, clean and modern with incredibly exhibits and well cared for fish. An unusual contrast, providing a reflection of China as a whole.
The visit was capped off with samplings of Peking Duck, the most magical set under a sea of ferry lights on a warm spring night, seated next to the glass windows peering through to the preparation room.
My fifteen year old self at the time was incapable of imagining the delight of this dish, the importance of when and how it is served, nor the imagination to comprehend how a pancake may be involved in all of this. Yet my father persisted – planting ideas and memories I would come to treasure for many years to come.