This dispatch comes to you from the ancient Chinese city of Suzhou, first built in 514 B.C.
An ancient Chinese proverb proclaims, “In heaven there is paradise, on earth there are Hangzhou and Suzhou.” I have not been to Hangzhou, but I can attest that Suzhou does indeed possess the makings of a heaven on earth.
Marco Polo was the first westerner to sing Suzhou’s praises. It’s no wonder the Venetian traveler found this Chinese city to his liking considering Suzhou, with its intricate canal system, is called the Venice of the East.
Venice is one of my favorite cities, so its eastern counterpart had a lot to live up to.
Suzhou did not disappoint. To the contrary, this Sino-paradise earned its way into a top slot on my list of favorite places.
The ancient canal system, still intact, serves as the foundation for Suzhou’s alluring charm. Throw in verdant city gardens pregnant with spring’s blossoms and you have enough to inspire millennia of poets, artists … and two humble tourists.
As described by a friend we met in Nanjing, “Nanjing is like a man; Suzhou is like a woman.” I didn’t quite know what she meant at the time, but after just one day in this eastern Eden, I get it. Permitting gender stereotypes, Suzhou shows a softer side of a nation increasingly identified as an industrial powerhouse. An underlying echo of romanticism pervaded as we leisurely admired the city’s finely manicured gardens, bonsai groves and canals.
There are plenty of sights to keep your itinerary full for 3-4 days in Suzhou. Here are some highlights from our stay:
Tiger Hill Pagoda under construction.
Tiger Hill: A quick bus ride from our hostel, Tiger Hill is a hillside area replete with gardens, canal bridges, lazy waterways, women picking tea leaves, temples and historical sights that date back to the city’s founding. The most famous monument, the Tiger Hill Pagoda (Yunyan Pagoda), was built between the years 959-961 during the Northern Song Dynasty. Like Suzhou, the Tiger Hill pagoda too has an Italian twin, in this case, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The pagoda’s lean — about 3.5 degrees to the north — is very apparent, but unfortunately while we visited, the pagoda was under construction and scaffolding obstructed our entry and photos. Still, Chris and I spent the afternoon strolling around Tiger Hill’s beautiful and expansive grounds, fully taken with the beauty all around us.
A pagoda in the Humble Administrator’s Garden.
Humble Administrator’s Garden: This was my favorite of the city gardens we visited. I dragged Chris around every nook and cranny of this place. I loved it. We didn’t leave until the garden closed and they kicked us out.
White porcelain pillow – Song Dynasty (960-1279) Doesn’t look very comfy!
Suzhou Museum: Chris loved this place. He dragged me to every nook and cranny … and it was free! It offers a great collection of Chinese artifacts and artistry chronologically organized telling the story of Chinese history, and highlights the artistic and philosophical Chinese literati tradition, which apparently had a strong foothold here in Suzhou.
Chris sitting along the canal in the Pingjiang District.
Pingjiang District: Specifically, Taijian Long Lane — an area of Suzhou that is still reminiscent of its ancient architecture and structure. Narrow passages packed with tourists and the occasional motorbike make for a busy scene along the canal, but respite awaits at the many mellow bars, cafes and restaurants lining the water. Chris and I sipped on a beer at a cafe along the canal and watched as boats slowly paddled by. It was lovely.
Fried soft shell crab? Not exactly.
Guanqian Street: Goodbye ancient China, hello ultra commercialism! Gucci, Prada, Hermès, oh my! This place was bright lights, big city central. Chris and I ducked down a side street and were pleased to find the China we could afford. Street food and local restaurants full to the brim. We sized up the many foods on offer, and the first to move me to pull out my wallet was fried soft shell crab on a stick … or so I thought. Those three fried crabs impaled along a stickwere, in fact, not soft after all. Just regular ol’ crabs. So … I guess we eat the shells? I made one hearty attempt at chomping into a claw and bowed out. Chris took down all three, spitting out only the big claw shells. He’s so hardcore.
A three course meal and two big beers at Lao Shi Tou restaurant costed us 50 yuan … about 8 U.S. dollars.
Lao Shi Tou (Old Stone) Restaurant: This restaurant was right down the street from our hostel, and I suspect was owned by the mother or aunt of the guy running our hostel since he was very persuasive in his pitch. We dined there on our first night and loved it so much it became our go-to lunch spot. It was authentic, no other tourists in sight. Only downside, lots of men smoking cigarettes. Ah well.
Sheng jian bao at Yaba Shengjian restaurant.
Yaba Shengjian Restaurant: Famous in Suzhou and beyond, this place has a reputation for having the best sheng jian bao around (delicious fried pork dumplings). Our friend Brett recommended it to us (Thank you, Brett!). He said that we’d recognize the place by the line spilling out the restaurant’s door and around the corner. Sure enough, the line was long but it moved fast and the lady at the counter was helpful in picking out our order when we fumbled to know what to do.
Suzhou, like Nanjing, is located in the Jiangsu Province, which has its own style of cooking. Jiangsu cuisine or Su cuisine for short, makes up one of the eight culinary traditions of China. One thing I noticed while dining out in Nanjing is that the typical dishes seem to have a subtle sweetness. The presence of cloves and star anise could be detected but didn’t overwhelm. This subtly sweet flavor profile was true of sheng jian bao as well. This culinary masterpiece combines elements of a sesame seed bagel, savory doughnut and pork stew — did I mention there’s both meat and broth inside? It’s like bitesize soup in a bread bowl. So delicious!
Come take a stroll through Suzhou with Chris and me in this video (you may need to allow some time for the video to buffer):
And here are some more photos from our stay in Suzhou:
Greetings From the Future, in the South Capital, Dear Readers!
Apologies for the tardiness in our dispatches from a tomorrow, which due to VPN issues, fun and an explosion of learning about Chinese culture, is actually some time last week … or earlier. Let me catch you up to speed.
After visiting Beijing, Qingdao and Tai’an, we stopped through Nanjing. With a population over eight million, Nanjing is one of the largest commercial centers in eastern China. While, the idea of touring mega-cities raised second thoughts, we were fortunately convinced to make the trip.
Maria’s former co-worker grew up here, while a friend of mine is currently studying at Johns Hopkins’ Nanjing University partner program for graduate students studying Chinese. Needless to say, my poor attempts at Chinese (beginning with pointing and ending in frustration) were not needed for our dinners with Brett.
Let’s back up and give some historical context to Nanjing fueled by little more than my curiosity and wikipedia …
China’s history goes back thousands of years, but we can break things into dynastic blocks to make the more modern end of things understandable: (Is it more complicated than this? You bet! While I recognize some of our readers are Chinese citizens and brilliant westerners with advanced degrees, we’re just trying to explain why this city is so interesting. Also, I’m not going back thousands of years to neolithic stuff. We’ll start year 1000.) 960 AD-1279AD is the Song Dynasty, 1279-1368 A.D. is Yuan Dynasty (Ghengis Khan’s grandson, Kublai started that one), the Ming Dynasty was 1368-1644 A.D. (ceramics, vases…you’ve heard the name) the Qing Dynasty was 1644-1912 (The Last Emperor … go watch that movie tonight), followed briefly by the Republic of China at 1912-1949 (Chang Kai Shek lost a war to Mao and ran off to Taiwan, bringing that government to the former island of Formosa), and the People’s Republic of China from 1949 to the present.
The city’s name tells us a bit of its history. We began our sojourn in Beijing, whose Chinese characters are 北京. “北,” meaning “north,” and “京,” meaning “capital.” Nanjing’s characters are “南京,” or “south capital.” It was actually the capital of China for some time. After the Ming Dynasty tossed the Yuan out of power (the Mongols) they moved the seat of power to Nanjing, from Beijing, and built a city wall that still surrounds much of the city, providing gorgeous views of Xuanwu Lake (stay tuned for video footage). There are numerous reports that Nanjing was the largest city in the world during the early Ming rule, before the Ming relocated the capital to Beijing in 1421.
In an effort to keep this readable, I will now fast forward hundreds of years to several historical facets of Nanjing, which coincide with places we visited. There are, literally, thousands of books to expound on how important this city is, but we were only there for a couple days, and I want to talk about a Jesus cult that started a war involving people who abstained from sex and didn’t cut their hair. On to the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. Haven’t heard of it? Are you a movie producer? Take note and do further research!
Ever have a bad day? Ever failed a test? Have you ever watched those ads at 3 a.m. after a couple beers and thought, “I could totally become a motorcycle mechanic!”
Hong Xiuquan wanted to work for the Qing Dynasty. As such, he took the requisite civil service exam, which had a very low pass rate and was very stressful. Hong failed this test four times in a row. After a defeat, some people turn to a bottle, some to the Bible, some to yoga. Hong was likely trying to turn to the Bible, but with a bottle in his hand, all while in downward dog.
Hong met a Christian missionary while at a low water mark. There was likely some depersonalization going on, a bit of depression, and a whole lot of “what does it all mean?” Hong began to believe that he was Jesus Christ’s brother. Hong then believed his brother wanted him to set up a heaven on earth. Fast-forward a bit and you have the Taiping Rebellion, one of the largest wars in history.
Haven’t heard of it?
More people died in the Taiping Rebellion than the Civil War … and it was contemporary to the Civil War.
Also … more people died in the Taiping Rebellion than WWI.
The Taiping Army, headed by Hong Xiuquan, overtook Nanjing and used it as the capital for their briefly-lived empire. The city was renamed “天京” or “Taijing”, which means, “Heavenly Capital.” They ran their affairs out of the Presidential Palace, which is the same building complex that Chang Kai Shek and Sun Yat Sen ran the Republic of China from during the years proceeding Mao.
We toured the presidential palace, which I would highly recommend even for those that aren’t particularly interested in history. The grounds were an interesting mix of traditional Chinese gardens and modern architecture with a heavy western influence evident throughout.
Other places worth visiting:
The Nanjing Massacre Museum: While my tone is normally sarcastic, I’ll have to leave that at the door for a moment. Japan’s treatment of Nanjing during WWII is a part of history that most Americans are not completely aware of. I would implore you to do your own research on this incident as I am not rightly qualified to do it justice. What I can say is that while numbers from differing sources vary, 200,000-300,000 deaths (noncombatants) is a fair number, reflected in Nanjing’s well curated and viscerally moving museum. Spending an afternoon here tells a grim tale of what happens in incidents of extreme tragedy: the best and worst of humanity both available.
The Old City Wall: Like most Chinese tourist sites, this costs money to use. I forked out the 30 yuan to go for a run here, twice, but was a bit heartbroken to think, “why can’t everyone use this?” I have since been told that one can purchase a yearly pass at a fairly reasonable price. (My debt to the U.S. Forrest Service in unpaid car passes for access to trailheads have spoiled me.)
The wall gives one an interesting view of both old architecture (the wall itself, several pagodas in the distance), the naturally gorgeous (Xuanwu Lake), and the progressive (buildings like rocket-ships and mildly polluted sunsets that glow orange and allow you to stare directly into the sun).
Experience Local Hospitality (“我请你”or, “let me treat”): We met a group of three locals who invited us to dinner and refused to let us pay. There were raised voices, I had my hand on my wallet, there was good food, I kept my money. If you ever get a chance to repay the favor, buy somebody from China a snack today.
(Starting to the right of Maria) Meet Egeria, Joy and Chao!
Furthermore, our friend Brett, who is American but has been in China long enough to become unduly generous, took us out to dinner. Brett was able to show us a bit of the nightlife and how a foreigner might find creature comforts in Nanjing. Want to know where to get Indian or Tibetan food on a Tuesday in Nanjing? How about a Belgian wheat ale? Brett’s your man and can explain it to the cabbie in numerous Chinese dialects.
Zebra Bar (a shameless plug for new friends): Across from the hostel we were staying at was a typical foreigner-friendly bar, which for three days a week is run by Gael (from the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Paa (from Ghana) who have built an entire menu around African food. As a former D.C. metro resident, I’ve had Ethiopian sponge-bread, but this stuff was otherworldly. Fufu, spicey fish, and chicken … it was great.
Did I bury the lead about two Africans living, working and studying in Nanjing? Possibly.
Both Gael and Paa are studying architecture in a language they began learning within the past three years. They both speak three or four languages. How’s that for impressive?
(From left to right) Meet Paa and Gael!
Purple Mountain: We didn’t get there but are told that it is great. To be honest, Taishan was the preceding trip to this, and I couldn’t deal with another stairstep-to-oblivion day trip. That said, we could totally live in Nanjing and will give it a shot the next go-round.
Our next series of tales of tomorrow come to you from Nanjing in the Jiangsu province in eastern China. Chris is preparing our substantive dispatch from this future outpost. In the meantime, I wanted to share a short piece reporting on a furry phenomena here in China.
In the future, people love their pets just as much as we do back home in the present. At all times of day, you’re likely to see dogs being walked and caged birds being fed. Look around and you’ll see pampered pups on every street, strutting along in the height of doggie fashion. Sometimes, owner and pet may even be donning matching outfits. Now that’s love.
From our observance, the most popular breed by far is the poodle. We noticed this soon upon arriving in the future, but poodles are turning out in unparalled numbers in our current locale, Nanjing.
An animal photographer, I am not. Those curlycued canines move too fast for my iPhone shutter. I assure you, for every poodle depicted below there were 10 more that escaped my lens. When close enough to the dog owner to ask permission, Chris would politely express our request in Chinese. I took a simpler approach of pointing at my camera and smiling and nodding frenetically at the owners until they indicated consent. My interest in their dogs seemed to please most.
This goes out to our animal lovers back home. Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you, the poodles of Nanjing!
Let me start by saying, if I never see a staircase again, it’ll be too soon. If ice were available to me, which it is not, and a bath tub, also not available to me, I’d make an ice bath and immerse me my lower body in it.
This is the aftermath of ascending the estimated 6,660 steps to the top of Mount Tai (Taishan), located in Tai’an city in Shandong province. I learned that “shan” means mountain, so though it’s more commonly called Mount Taishan in English, that’s redundant, like saying Mount Tai mountain.
Travel writing is awash with superlatives. Every site you visit will be either the biggest, oldest, longest, deepest, highest or most something. It’s these qualifications that make places worth visiting, after all. When it comes to Mount Tai, it is the most sacred and most famous of the sacred mountains in China. Here is a description containing another “most” from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization:
Settled by humans as early as the Neolithic (a Dawenkou site is nearby), the mountain has been worshipped continuously throughout the last three millennia. The mountain was an important object of the cult worship of mountains even before 219 BCE, when the Qin Emperor, Huang Di, paid tribute to the mountain in the Fengshan sacrifices to inform the gods of his success in unifying all of China. On the mountain there are 12 historically recorded imperial ceremonies in homage to Heaven and Earth, about 1,800 stone tablets and inscriptions, and 22 temples, which together make Mount Taishan the most important monument in China, a world-renowned treasure house of history and culture.
I’ll add another superlative to the commentary: Mount Tai stands out as the religious pilgrimage with the most butt-kicking lower body workout.
Sure, it’s a tough climb up those nearly 7,000 stairs, but we weren’t in it alone. We struggled along with hundreds of other pilgrims, mostly Chinese, to reach the temples at the top. As I climbed step after step, I marveled at the sights around me: forests thick with evergreens, hawks soaring overhead, tree branches adorned with red ribbons, and perhaps most notably … the startling footwear selection of my fellow climbers.
What are some of these people thinking? Chris and I, like typical American tourists, are fully outfitted in athletic apparel. And I might add, appropriately so. This is no stroll around the block. Yet, many around me are dressed like they came directly from the office and, in some cases, like they’re planning on hitting the dance floor directly after their climb. Maybe they know something about what awaits us at the top that I don’t?
Let’s just say, it’s a humbling experience. Here I am, sucking wind and dripping in sweat, and just then a teenage girl saunters by, perfect hair and heeled boots clicking, as if she could have just as easily been on her way to H&M at the mall but instead decided to make the 3-4 hour climb up Mount Tai. And don’t even get me started on the little old ladies and men out here with us. Whatever their secret is to longevity, we need to figure it out in the West.
I will say that everyone was using walking canes. Chris and I could have purchased a cane or picked one up for free at the hostel, but we didn’t think they would be that helpful. I guess we were wrong.
All said, it took Chris and me nearly three hours to climb up the mountain, which includes time spent checking out the many temples lining the mountainside along our ascent. Once on top, the views were breathtaking and the temples awe-inspiring. We watched as women chanted and people lofted joss sticks and other offerings into a blazing fire pit.
Though my legs are still in pain, and I have to walk down stairs backwards for the time being, the reward of the view from the top was well worth the climb. My favorite moment of the day occurred on top of Mount Tai while Chris and I gnawed on a cob of corn on a stick … an elderly man approached us, and as we prepared to be asked to pose in a photo with him, as is a common occurrence for laowai (foreigners), he surprised us by saying, “Hello, I am from Taiwan. I am a foreigner too. Here we are brothers.”
Human history has numerous examples where disparate cultures bump against one another, intermingle, and inspire changes that people embrace. That said, it doesn’t always work. The brackish waters where African rhythmic time signatures and European stringed instruments swirled around the ears of five teenagers from Liverpool to inspire The Beatles are the same murky marshes that gave the US car market the Yugo. These cultural exchanges are sometimes accepted and sometimes rejected. Every once in a while, a vanilla bean from Madagascar becomes the most commonplace feature of a Dairy Queen in Waco, Texas, other times the French get Euro Disney.
Today, we are talking about a combination of cultural influences that make something curious, but great nonetheless. Not quite “The White Album,” but nothing that would require a mechanic in Philadelphia to read Serbian in order to perform an oil change either. Today, we are eating sauerkraut and drinking pilsner in Shandong.
A quick crash-course history lesson (apologies to actual historians, Asian experts, Chinese citizens, or people that speak Chinese at a level over and above ordering food and train tickets):
China, throughout its history for numerous reasons, has maintained a very cautious relationship with the West. In order to facilitate trade with Western powers hungry for Chinese goods, the Imperial court ceded some exceptions to a blanket policy of being closed off to the West. Territories, through numerous treaties, were leased to different foreign powers.
In 1557 during the Ming Dynasty, Portugal was leased the territory of Macau. In the late 1800s, during the Qing Dynasty, many more European countries acquired treaty ports, known as “concessions.” Many of the most famous Chinese cities have a history of Western involvement. Hong Kong was deeded to the United Kingdom from 1841 to 1997. Shanghai was actually an international settlement, combining concessions ceded to Americans, British, French, Russians and Japanese. Tianjin traded hands, was occupied by, or was shared at one time by Japanese, French, German, British and American occupiers. The former Western powers all left some influence on the area, in architecture, food or language.
(We will go into more detail on the darker sides of some of these concessions, the importance of these areas in the opium trade in the late 1800s, along with how this later influenced the Opium Wars in our post about Shanghai.)
青岛, or Qingdao as we English speakers know it today, was previously written as Tsingtao under the Wade-Giles format of transcribing Chinese to English. While that previous sentence might seem like more information than any of you need, I thought I’d toss that one out for the beer drinkers that have stumbled on an Asian pilsner at their grocery store and thought, “Why are the Chinese making pilsner?”
Germany was leased the Kiautshou Bay Concession from 1897 to 1914, of which Qingdao was the capital. This relatively small administrative city and fishing port was forever changed by the Germans. The most readily apparent evidence of German influence in Qingdao would be the architecture along with the ever-present availability of China’s first mass export to America and China’s #1 commercial export: Tsingtao beer. While one can purchase this beer in every corner shop and restaurant throughout China, along with any Publix in Florida, there’s only one town on the planet that you can imbibe this beverage fresh from the brewery … in a plastic bag with a straw.
We had the pleasure of staying with our friend Dave in Qingdao, which helped to cut down on costs and see the city guided by someone who knows the ropes. Dave was able to point us to some highlights in the town.
Zhan Qiao Pier: For those of you at home, I’ll wait for you to open a bottle of Tsingtao. Once you’ve taken your first sip, turn the bottle and look at the label. The emblem on the logo depicts the pier down the street from Dave’s apartment building. You can actually see his apartment building from there. Wave, say hello! Hey Dave!
The Beach: Qingdao, today, serves as one of the biggest tourist destinations for Chinese. While it was a bit chilly to take a dip, I took a run through town and was able to take in views of the beach. It is gorgeous, with a boardwalk meandering along the beach, which goes from the old German concession area all the way to Lao Shan Mountain, some 15 miles away.
The Old Observatory: Qingdao is divided into two halves with “old town” referring to the German concession, rife with colonial architecture, and “new town,” some seven miles away, boasting futuristic skyscrapers, golf courses and nightclubs catering to the tonier crowds. (Folks from Beijing and monied Western expats.) In the older, German side of town, there is,in fact, an old observatory, which has been converted into a youth hostel. On the roof of this building, where there is still a telescope, one can buy a Tsingtao and take in the views of the old German concession. We are told that this spot has an all-you-can-eat ribs night. While I can’t recommend the burritos, I am willing to return for the view alone.
Old Town Night Market: While many Chinese towns will have their own extensive markets, which operate both at night and early in the morning, Qingdao had a unique setup. Along with the meandering alleys where locals sell fish, lamb, pork, beef and vegetables, Qingdao had all sorts of marine life on offer. Squid anyone? Octopus? Sea cucumber? Anyone? Anyone?
Additionally, we had dinner in the middle of the night market and caught a bit of dinner theater. Comedians (the audience seemed to love it) and a magician (we probably applauded too enthusiastically for the slight-of-hand to make up for not getting any of the earlier jokes.)
While there was a lot more going on in Qingdao that I’m not capturing here, I am getting sleepy, and you all need your Cheerios.
We’ll be back at it just as soon as you all head to bed!
Stay tuned for Qingdao The Movie. For now, here are our photos:
Oh what marvelous adventures we have had in Beijing, our first stop in this future world where our today is your tomorrow. The sights, sounds, smells and tastes, once foreign to us, are becoming more familiar but our journey has only just begun and many destinations still await our arrival.
If only we had the time, and you the interest, for individual blog posts on each fantastical vision we encounter on our travels, but we must keep moving forward and our time in Beijing is over. We have actually moved on to our second, third and fourth destinations, but before we update you with dispatches from these newest eastern outposts, here is a look back at our adventures in Beijing.
The Summer Palace
On our third day in Beijing, we somewhat casually decided to take the subway out to the Summer Palace. The Summer Palace is perhaps most closely associated with the empress dowager Cixi, a controversial figure in Chinese history. It’s not that we didn’t think it would be a worthwhile sight to see, we just underestimated how taken we would be with its confluence of architecture and landscape design.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Summer Palace boasts an abundance of pavilions, temples, shrines, halls and bridges all set amidst a natural setting of incredible beauty.
I present to you the Summer Palace:
Lama Temple and Temple of Confucius
What cathedrals are to Europe and ancient ruins to South America, so are pavilions to China. Pavilions seem to be the mainstay for every site of historical importance: the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and so it is the case with these two impressive religious sites of worship.
The Lama Temple is said to be the most renowned Buddhist temple outside of Tibet and is still an active site of worship. Chris and I respectfully lit three joss (incense) sticks and presented them before the Hall of Boundless Happiness, which contains the largest wood carved Buddha in the world.
The Temple of Confucius, where people worshipped Confucius during the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties, was initially built in 1303, according to signage contained within the Temple. Confucius is enshrined in the main structure, Da Cheng Hall.
Photography wasn’t permitted at the Lama Temple, so these are just from the Temple of Confucius:
Many tourists are drawn to China because of its offerings of antiquity. The Great Wall, centuries old temples, shrines and artifacts dating back to pre-BCE — touring China provides a passport to the ancient world. That said, part of what makes China so compelling is the juxtaposition of the old with the new. Modernity abounds in China, especially in its urban areas. The country is seemingly on the cutting edge of most things, and the 798 Art District, made famous by artists like Ai Weiwei, is a perfect example of this contrast.
798 stands for much more than a three digit number: in Beijing these numbers symbolize the country’s cutting edge art movement led by the Chinese vanguard, unchained artistic personalities with alternative life goals. The largest, most influential art district in China – the 798 – hosts world-class international and Chinese exhibitions in the midst of former weapons factories.
And here are our photos from the 798:
Some of the photos (Nikon camera) from the 798 were contributed by guest photographer, Leviathon Murphy.
Enjoy and we’ll talk again soon. Next stop, Qingdao!
Air quality be damned! Here in the future, exercise is just as valued as in the world we left behind. Despite varying levels of pollution, Chris and I have been starting off our days with a morning run. It’s a great way to cover a lot of ground, sight seeing while getting our heart rates going.
The mornings are great for people watching too. From what we observed, the people of Beijing lead very active lives and enjoy physical activity. Many are out running and walking, swimming in the city lakes, and doing exercises and playing ping pong in public parks.
As an added bonus, running in the morning gives me the opportunity to practice my Chinese, “Zao sheng hao (good morning)!” is warmly received and returned by most, along with the occasional laughter (which can be attributed to Chris’ short running shorts and/or my running tights).
On our runs we also observe the morning commuters making their way to work or school on foot, bicycle, motorbike and car. It’s a busy time of day but not as chaotic as I had expected a city of more than 21 million to be come rush hour. That is because Beijing is an extremely vast city, geographically. Beijing’s population of 21+ million is spread out over 6,487 square miles, making for an estimated population density of about 3,300 people per square mile. Whereas New York City, for example, has more than 8.4 million packed into just 302 square miles, amounting to a population density of more than 27,000 people per square mile according to the United States Census Bureau.
On one morning run, we popped into a local eatery buzzing with morning commuters, mostly solo, quickly grabbing breakfast and heading on their way. The interactions were short and meals were efficiently consumed with little time wasted. No morning papers being read or chit chat exchanged; just order, eat, leave is the way of a busy Beijing commuter.
Undoubtedly, Chris and I were unexpected patrons for this restaurant — foreigners, red faced and sweaty and sporting running clothes — and we bumbled through our exchange with the woman dishing out the food. Chris wanted baozi (steamed buns and a safe bet when it comes to eating local food), but I wanted to try something new.
Along with baozi, soup is a common breakfast food in China. There were a few different options, and I chose one with a hearty looking redish brown broth. We attempted to ask what it was, and the woman said doufu, which means tofu and sounds pretty much the same as it does in English. I’m fond enough of tofu, so I gave the thumbs up. (Note: when you find yourself in a country where you don’t speak the language, you end up giving the thumbs up a lot. This is likely where the perception that Americans are constantly giving the thumbs up comes from.)
I wish I could report that my exploratory order was happily received by yours truly, but I must confess I had my first food regret leading to a mild crisis of weighing rudeness and embarrassment against my distaste for what turned out to be a thick, gelatinous stew of brown syrupy broth and mushy tofu. The white soft tofu was recognizable enough, but the texture of the broth, unnoticeable in its pot prior to being ladled into my bowl, gave me some alarm.
What could this strange dish be?
My mind immediately leapt to my guidebook’s mention of blood soup. Though uncommon in the U.S., many countries’ cuisines use blood as an ingredient in different foods. The Irish and British have their blood (black) pudding and the Chinese have duck blood soup. And now I was concerned I was eating it.
Chris astutely pointed out that there were no ducks in sight so my fear was highly unfounded. Still my mind had made a leap of logic and the irrationality proved hard to dispel.
I turned to my neighbor who was eating the same soup and gestured toward the soup and said the word, jiurou (pork), trying to guess at what this could be. She laughed and said no. I didn’t know the word for blood and even if I had, pointing at soup and uttering, “blood?” to a stranger, if in fact it wasn’t blood, I realized could understandably frighten said stranger. Furthermore, knowing that an open ended question of, “What is this?” would only get me an answer too complicated for either Chris or me to understand, I gave up trying to figure out what it was that my bowl contained and set about finishing as much of it as I could. With Chris’ help, we ate more than half of it. Since we also finished up all 12 or so baozi, we figured this effort would satisfy the restaurant owners and not offend too greatly.
Upon arriving back to the hostel, I promptly showed the English speaking staff a photo of the soup and to my great relief, they told me it was bean curd soup — also called tofu jelly (hence the texture).
So, no blood. Phew.
Since this incident, I have done a little research into duck blood soup and found that it is a signature street food of the city of Nanjing and is listed as #4 on a list of iconic Nanjing foods to try. Chris and I will be visiting Nanjing in a few weeks and now that I know what goes into the soup, I may be up to trying this local staple. I just wasn’t mentally prepared for spoonfuls of blood quite yet, especially first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. Of course, traveling is all about trying new things, so bring on the duck blood soup please!
Descriptions of Beijing are rarely complete without an adjective pointing to size. “Big,” “very big”, and “huge,” would be appropriate, but many of you at home, in the present, may not be aware of what kind of “super huge,” we are seeking to describe. China’s capital is large in both population, boasting somewhere north of 20 million people, as well as area. Walking around most of Beijing (with some exceptions) is a decidedly tamer experience than Manhattan. Those of you who have travelled to Jacksonville, Florida (the largest city by area in the continental United States) will understand the experience of a 2 hour drive beginning and ending in the same city.
Our trip to The Great Wall of China involved a three hour trip on a bus to Jinshanling from our hostel, one mile north of the Forbidden City. Jinshanling is in Beijing, on the border of Hebei Province. The Wall was initially built to keep out the Mongolians, who previously controlled what is now Northern Hebei Province as well as the currrent Chinese province of Inner Mongolia.
There are several places to view The Great Wall near Beijing, with Badaling being the easiest to access and thereby the most popular. While I was averse to the extra time and money needed to get to Jinshanling, the experience of walking on the Great Wall without thousands of other tourists was well worth it.
We hiked about four miles in total, from Jinshanling to our pickup point at Simatai. The above picture shows Maria sporting a red sweater given to her by my Grandmother. The red sweater, which is a color revered in China, got a lot favorable comments from the locals on the Wall.
We will have more videos moving forward, as we slowly, but surely, figure out how to use iMovie.