We’d arrived in Beijing and managed to find our way to the hostel in a hutong close to Tiananmen Square. Red Chinese lanterns dangled gracefully from the ceiling, the smell of spices and sizzling meat wafted through the air. It’s the heart of ‘proper’ Chinese cuisine and we were hungry. So we went to McDonalds.
I know, I know, I’m probably going to get flamed for admitting it as much as one of their rival’s burgers, but the simple fact is we were all craving some ‘normal’ Western food, and for the first time since leaving home, all the familiar eateries were everywhere. It’s a strange juxtaposition looking at the big golden arches of one of America’s iconic restaurants, or the Colonels smiling face shining brightly across the most famous square in China. Capitalism at its best in the most communist of countries.
It was a nice treat however, and as Santi said, it was a taste of home, of something familiar after weeks of totally unfamiliar meals, but we vowed we wouldn’t fall into the trap of living on fast food.
So that night we ventured for some Chinese fast food in a typical ‘snack street’, at Wufujing. It was a walk which took in Tiananmen Square and past the entrance to the Forbidden City, with the famous sight of Chairman Mao’s portrait hanging on the wall. Music and dancing fountains entertained the crowds, while scores of police and military prowled the area. The only problem was the fog – visibility wasn’t great, so photographs would have to wait.
Wanfujing snack street is a market just off the main shopping area in Beijing city centre, complete with all the familiar high street names like H&M, Zara, Nike and even a C&A (Remember them!) Glowing with bright red lanterns, red neon, plenty of friendship shops and sweet stalls, it was a hive of activity – not least from the dozens of scorpions trying to wriggle off sticks.
Yes, this is one of those places that brings it home how our cultures differ. Its like that HSBC advert that you sometimes see, where the little girl in Cambodia picks some insects on a stick and has them covered in hundreds and thousands. Except on the ad, you don’t see anything moving, nor trying to wriggle off a 15inch kebab stick lodged up its backside.
Scorpions, tarantulas, some kind of pupae, starfish, sea horses, snake – you name it, you could find it for sale, and more importantly, you could deep fry it and eat it. Another aspect to all of this is the smell – the aroma of sweet and sour from your local takeaway this was not! When insects are fried, they give off a horrendous stench, one which should, in reality, put people off. But it doesn’t, and many people quite happily wander around chowing down on something that would be one of the worst-ever food challenges on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity.
Undeterred, despite the stench flipping my stomach from time to time, I knew I had to try something. I found a place selling deep-fried ice cream in little pancakes. It was ok, not what I was expecting though, and basically a bit of milk in a pancake. Next up was a ‘chicken’ skewer. Galli bought these, and we double checked with the man cooking them on the grill.
“Chicken?” we asked. “Yes,” he nodded.
It didn’t taste, or have the texture, of chicken, but if I’m honest again, it was quite nice. It was another bit of mystery meat – it could have been chicken, but then again, it could have been dog or aardvark. We’d never know, and besides, the spices and chilli masked whatever the proper taste was.
Food sampling done, it was time to head back to the hostel. The metro is surprisingly easy to use, and we were back in no time. We all had a beer before heading to the room, and with 660ml of China’s finest Tsingtao on ice at 5 Yuan – 50p – we could have had a few more, but tiredness was creeping in. It had been a long day after arriving from Mongolia. We went to the room – only to find a smiling Arion sat on the spare bunk bed! Somehow he’d managed to check into the same room as us, which was a shock when we first walked in!
I had planned to spend three days in Beijing, before moving on for a few days in Shanghai and then flying to Bangkok at the weekend, around Sunday 6th November, as I still had to get a visa for Vietnam ready for my organised tour that begins on the 11th of November. My thinking was that I needed a good few days in the Thai capital before the tour started to ensure there was enough time for the visa to be granted and stuck in my passport. But over the last couple of days, I’ve had a brainwave – if there’s a Vietnam consulate in Beijing, I could buy myself some more time in China.
I searched the internet – which is easier said than done in China thanks to all the website blocks and bans – but sure enough there was a visa office for Vietnam at the embassy. Details were sketchy and mainly in Chinese, but there was a map and so the next day, Tuesday, was an admin and visa day.
I got up early – the map showed it was close to a metro station to the west, not too far from where I was staying. Thinking I’d be done within a couple of hours, I left Santi and Galli having a deserved lie-in and said I’d try to meet them for lunch at the hostel.
The weather was foggy yet again – to the point you could hardly see to the other side of Tiananmen Square. I got off the metro at Yong’Anli, and according to the map, I needed to be at 32 Guanghua Road. Except the pin in the online map seemed to be in a different street. With no sign of any embassy, I turned round and walked the other way. Again, no sign. I stopped at a chemists, who all looked at me blankly, while a taxi driver also had no idea what I was saying despite me pointing to the map. Finally, I stumbled across a soldier stood on a box outside a fairly heavily protected building. It was the Sri Lankan embassy, and thankfully, all the other embassies were nearby.
The online map and directions had been completely wrong. I had been searching for almost two hours, but finally found the Vietnamese embassy complete with armed guard at 11.45am. The guard looked at me and motioned that he was hungry, which I thought was a bit odd. And then I saw the sign which gave me the delightful news the office had closed for lunch fifteen minutes prior to my worn-out arrival.
It didn’t open again until 2pm, so I walked around and stumbled across a Starbucks, complete with free wifi. I didn’t have time to head back to the centre of the city, so bought a coffee and made it last as long as I needed to update my blog. China has blocked WordPress, which I use to update my website, but i found a workaround via a downloaded $5 programme – the only problem being its painfully, mind-numbingly slow. Two hours later, and back in the visa office, I joined a queue. It was made up of visa agency staff, each with around 60 Chinese passports to process.
It was 4.40pm by the time I got back to the hostel. Santi and Galli had gone out with the key, so I was locked out too. A little cheesed off with the whole visa shenanigans, I consoled myself with a 50p beer. My first day in Beijing was almost over and I’d managed to see a bit of Vietnam and a big chunk of America in Starbucks.
All was not lost however. Arion used his Chinese skills to find a good place for dinner. It helps when you speak the language, as all the menus are written in it.
He showed us one that’s a typical Beijing noodle dish. It was lovely – thick, well-cooked noodles with a type of soy sauce, and a side order of Kung Po chicken, my favourite takeaway dish back home. It was a winner – really tasty, even the chopsticks were managed by everyone, and to save problems in the future, we cleverly took pictures of the words on the menu so we could simply show them again at future mealtimes.
Following that was desert of some classic street-hawker sugar coated fruit, known as haws,and an early night. We had a trip to the Great Wall booked for the next day, and it meant another 6am start!