September 18th, 2011
Glimpses of Beijing
We were in luck the next day, for that international chiller, Mr. Stewart “Stigg” Motta, was in Beijing as well, preparing some fresh greenhorns to be taken out on wild adventure through Inner Mongolia and Qinghai. We were able to meet up with him for brunch at a fantastic Beijing-style restaurant where we ate under the watchful eye of Chairman Mao.
We ordered more of that fresh cucumber dish, which Motta was quick to point out to us is not as good here in the north as it is in Yunnan, for they they dilute the purity of the dish by adding hot peppers. I’ve never been one to complain of excess hot peppers, but I had to agree that there was something not quite perfect about this iteration of the dish.
In addition to that, we ate a large messy dish of cabbage with bean sauce, a mixed mushrooms and broccoli dish, and a dried mushrooms and bok choy dish. It was a very vegetable heavy breakfast, which was exactly what we needed having traveled for so long in lands where green vegetables were few and far between. We were sorry to not get to spend more time with the man, and embraced warmly before wheeling off.
We spent the rest of that day, wheeling around Beijing, comparing potential venues for our upcoming talk, which we had tentatively entitled “Choosing Freedom”. MCK met us and guided us around to the possible locations of our presentation which he had in mind, starting in the posh San Li Tun district.
Our tour of potential venues certainly cemented one thing in our minds, Beijing was doing just fine , packed with expensive and posh places to bring a bunch of people together to discuss issues of Honesty, Freedom, and of course, Wheeling.
This city was also positively flooded with foreigners. As we wandered through modern-art-strewn, high concept bars and hotels, we could not help but find ourselves mildly disappointed, having for so long enjoyed the spotlight of being an uncommon sighting. In Buryatia, people raised an eyebrow at us – we were just two more gweilos.
That night, we ate with MCK at a DongBei Restaurant.
MCK had been living in China for a number of years by this point, and his Chinese was top notch. During the ordering process, he began doing shtick with the waitress, refusing to tell her where we were all from, and asking her to guess. She first guessed France, but then hit America. I can see where she was coming from with the French I guess though.
It was another greens-heavy meal, with a garlicky squid and greens dish, a large plate of pickled bamboo, and some small, deep-fried fish, which we dipped in a kind of plum salt.
We realized as we were eating that we could have instantly solved any misconceptions about our nationality by just keeping the Maui Jims on throughout the meal. MCK in particular seemed now just one leather jacket short of being a serious chiller.
We spent a fair amount of our days in Beijing working on correspondence for you, dear reader, and preparing our talk on choosing freedom.
But we were able to get a little wheeling in each day, and to eat some fantastic food. So forgive me if I only relate some of the highlights:
Take for instance this, the symbol for Yong Jin bicycle company. If only one day we could have a company with a symbol that savage.
We ate a meal of Guangxi food, which delicious, including these fried rolls of pork fat, fried eggplant slices which we dipped in vinegary, chutney-like sauce, and some very loud and tasty dandelion greens.
We had a wonderful evening with a Grinnellian who we were introduced to through the Taiwan bureau. When I was first met Maggie, she spoke to me like we knew each other, and indeed her face looked familiar but I couldn’t remember from where. Then it all came rushing back to me, once she mentioned that she had built a dress out of feminine waste disposal sleeves and my mother had purchased it to hand in our living room in Iowa.
Along that same dresses-made-of-unconventional-materials vein, we also encountered this dress made of broken pottery near Mesh, the wine bar where we decided to give the presentation.
We were also able to do our first “dinking” of the trip on the Speed TRs. “Dinking” is, of course, a technical term for when you transport an extra person on the back of your cycle. Now in all technicality, some dinking had happened in Uzbekistan, but that had been during a time when the bike had been commandeered by a rogue pottery saleswoman.
We also went to the Russian district of Beijing, where they have a giant embassy and a few Produktis and Traktirs. We even considered for a moment buying some of this Chinese made Kvas, but it was the color of Urine, so we purchased Baltika beer instead.
We ate at the “White Nights” restaurant in Beijing which served up some very interesting interpretations of Russian food.
We also stopped in to Beijing Sidecar, the business run by Nils, the Danish fellow we met in a Hutong when we were last in Beijing.
His shop was quite amazing, and we ran into his associate, who we were not surprised at all to find was riding a Dahon to work. We even got to witness the proud new owner of a giant sidecar motorcycle come it to give it a first ride. We were sorry, however, to learn that Nils had had an accident and was actually back in Europe recovering in a hospital. We send our best wishes, brother.
The morning before we left for Harbin, we went strolling through a kind of hutong turned posh shopping neighborhood, where advertisements like this one for a laptop pretty well sum up the vibe.
We had one last meal in Beijing at a popular looking Sichuan restaurant. We made some mistakes in ordering, and ended up buying a giant and expensive fish, which was brought out to us flopping and live, in order to prove how fresh it was.
But perhaps the mistake was in our favor, for it was strikingly tasty, and served up in a huge chafing dish, just sizzling in oil and nestled in chili peppers.
And then we were off, racing through the steamy night, rolling fully loaded towards the train station. As we were rode, we were becoming decreasing startled by the presence of Brooklyn hipster-types on fixed gear cycles, riding amidst the traffic. Beijing was a shockingly globalized city.
During our time in Beijing, the crystal clear air that we’d wheeled through the first day, had steadily degraded the longer we spent, and as we rode now, sweating, and whipping along, the Beijing pollutant haze that we’d experienced our first time in the city had returned, giving the city a hazy and mystical feeling to it.