We love our hutong house. What is a hutong, you ask? Well, it’s the old name for an alley between the courtyard residences, but nowadays, “hutong” is used to refer to a type of neighborhood or house in the old hutong alleys north of the Forbidden City. We live on JiaoDaoKou Bei Tou Tiao (JiaoDaoKou North First Street), just east of Andingmen Nei Dajie (Andingmen Inner big street).
We’ll talk more about hutongs later because they define Beijing as a unique world city. But, in the meantime, here is a video walk to our front door from the main street.
And now we enter our “hutong” courtyard to get to our front door. This was my mom’s favorite part.
Lastly, a view from the roof deck looking over the old courtyard.
These were taken in the winter, so no leaves, and it’s a bit bleak. It’s taken me a bit to figure out how to deal with the GoPro. Sorry about the finger in the videos.
Why yes, I am arbitrarily changing the rules of this countdown in the middle (at the beginning) of it, and expanding it out to broader China. For one thing, I can do what I want. For another, I have not written a single thing about the places we’ve been in China, and now we’re riding the psychotic horse of time toward the burning stable of leaving this place, and only by fitting these journeys into this construct will I actually get around to telling you about them.
So this week, our friends Jeff and Allison were in town from New York, and in addition to showing them around Beijing and taking Jeff to every Mexican restaurant in Shanghai, we made a side trip to Hunan province. What do you know about Hunan? Anything? Perhaps just that the food is supposed to be spicy? Well, Hunan is Mao’s home province. It is also home to the Zhangjiajie park, which looks like the landscape in the movie Avatar, because the movie Avatar’s landscape was actually inspired by this park. (Was that sentence English?)
Were we to do this trip over, we would probably skip Changsha and head straight for Zhangjiajie, but that thought did not occur to us until long after we’d booked our tickets. Not that Changsha is a bad city. In fact, if you want a taste of a second-tier Chinese city, where millions of people in China live and work, Changsha is as good a place as any to experience. Possibly even better, because the food is quite strong, which we learned when we accidentally ordered an $80 lunchtime feast for three at the Fire Palace (Huo Guo Dian). The staff told each other to avoid our table so that we couldn’t order any more. I blame the dim sum-style service: I am unable to control myself when a woman with a cart is pushing spareribs and bacon on me.
Anyway, Changsha has an embroidery museum (where all the work is for sale, so I’m unclear on whether museum is the correct translation) and, probably more importantly, a giant statue of young Mao’s head. Because Mao was from Hunan. To get to young Mao’s head, you have to first go to the river island and then either take a tram or walk to the southern end of it. We are vital youngish adults, and the park is quite nice, so we chose to walk, which took about two hours. We all complained a lot about that, though — so this is my way of telling you it’s better to take the tram. On the plus side, we got to experience the three-star bathroom en route. I think that rating was a bit optimistic.
Anyway, look at those majestic flowing locks! Also, the super to-scale chin mole. Think he was mad about that? I think I might have told my sculpting team to photoshop that out. Young Mao’s Head is number 95 in this countdown.
We trammed out of the park, thankfully, and at the entrance to the subway, I finally seized my opportunity to try a snack that I’ve spied around Beijing a few times. Basically, these dudes drive little flatbed go-carts, onto which they strap humongous wheels of what looks like fruitcake. In Changsha, I learned that when you buy some of this fruitcake, the vendor makes you use a trowel to cut your
own slice, and then charges you by weight. Which is how I ended up with a $25 birthday cake-sized granola bar. Because that’s what this snack is. A glorified granola bar. (Lesson here: I have no spatial awareness, and, as my friends pointed when I failed to give a reasonable counter-offer to a swindling cab driver, I have the bargaining skills of Barack Obama.)
The good news is, the granola bar was delicious, and it fueled our hiking adventure in Zhangjiajie, so I’m giving the snack its own place on this countdown. Consider that number 94, just above Changsha itself.
Okay! Zhangjiajie! Number 93!
You’ve seen Avatar, right? Well, its scenery is based on Zhangjiajie, which looks to me like another planet, because I have no frame of reference for topography like this. Words don’t fail me often, but I think instead of me trying to describe the expanse of sandstone karsts that comprises this place, you should just look at a photo or several:
Because this is China, park-keepers have really capitalized on that Avatar connection, and you can have your photo taken with massive plastic statues of the Avatar aliens all over the place.
Also because this is China, you can ride up one of the karsts in a glass elevator.
When we rode it, a bunch of people complained that the foreigners were too tall (which is to say, us) and should have to move to the back. But before we could offer to switch, they said, “They don’t understand.” And so I pretended like that was true and enjoyed my window view in the front. (We weren’t actually blocking anyone’s view, which became evident when everyone collectively said, “oooooh” when we broke into daylight.)
The power move was to do some hiking, because most people bus around the park and never get too deep out onto the trails. The first day, we hiked up the mountain to Huangshi Village, arriving just as the fog settled so densely into the forest that we could see approximately nothing (a real shame, since signs all over the park proclaimed that he who goes to Zhangjiajie and does not see Huangshi Village may as well not have come at all.) The second (much more clear) day we took the bus up to the top of one of the mountains and hiked down, which was considerably less difficult.
I think the only thing to do here is add in some nature-porn, because I could write a lot of words about this spectacular place and never really capture it. Before that though, I’ll mention for fellow travel planners that we stayed at a place called Taitian Hotel, and while I have no basis for comparison, I think you’re kind of messing up if you don’t do the same.
A of all, it was quite nice, quite reasonably priced, and run by the nicest people in the world. B of all, it was situated about a five-minute walk from the least crowded entrance of the park, from which you could hop on a bus and cruise around for free all day. And C of all, it made some excellent food, which was lucky, because there was not one other restaurant located nearby. This was probably the best food we ate in Hunan, though — strips of salty bacon with green chilies, savory and substantial pork broth, crisp-edged soft potatoes, and fried kudzu root, which was like super savory gelatin.
It had a decidedly home-cooked flavor to it, which is a common thread in a lot of the best dishes we’ve had here.
Okay, you guys, it turns out I do feel a little guilty for writing about a burger before writing about Chinese food, because the Chinese food here is a) damn good and b) totally different from what you can find in the States. You know why Calvin Trillin’s poem about running out of Chinese provinces from which to eat was so terrible? (In addition to being hideously offensive to Chinese people, I mean.) Because the US hasn’t even scratched the SURFACE on regional Chinese cuisine. When is the last time you had Yunnan pineapple rice or potatoes? Xinjiang naan and lamb? Guizhou noodles? That’s what I thought. SIT DOWN.
Anyway, the first few months here, I basically just went to restaurants and marveled at how little I actually knew about Chinese food, despite the fact that Chinese food was possibly my second most consumed cuisine in New York City. (The first was Mexican. The first is always Mexican.) Once that shock had subsided, and sometime after I learned that you never eat rice and noodles in the same meal, I began to wonder why, oh why, certain Chinese dishes haven’t gone super viral in my trend-obsessed home country. One of these dishes (or, rather, group of dishes) is Chongqing noodles. These noodles obliterate ramen in terms of deliciousness and therefore are ripe to command a similar cultish following that propels a boom of Chongqing noodle restaurants, from basic to fancy, in every city across America, preferably before I return to the States. (HINT HINT, capable chefs.)
Chongqing noodles follow the pattern of a lot of Chinese noodles, which is to say they’re wheat noodles in sauce and/or soup, possibly gussied up with some meat or vegetables (I mean, I guess you could say this about literally any wheat noodle in the world, so this is entirely unhelpful). Most regions of China have their own take on niuroumian (beef noodle soup), and Chongqing is no exception — the version here is flooded with chili oil and Sichuan peppercorns, which give it a distinctive tingly heat that basically lights your face on fire. Rob is so addicted to the Chongqing niuroumian that he has been steadily eating his way across all of the Chongqing noodle joints in the land in an effort to try every bowl. I’m partial to a different Chongqing specialty, wanza mian, which combines starchy yellow peas with ground pork in oil that’s more ma (tingly) than la (spicy). Most Chongqing noodle joints add broth to this combo, but our favorite place, Pang Mei (which actually translates to Fat Sister, although I think someone has changed the English name to Decent Sister), gives you the option to eat these without soup, which is definitely the way to go. I’m a soup person, but the broth just dilutes the pepper hit.
Ah, Pang Mei. Every time we go there, which is at least twice per week, Rob says, “I’m not kidding, I think this is the best restaurant in the world” as if he is observing this for the first time. Sometimes he follows it up with, “I’m not kidding, these are the best dumplings I’ve ever had,” referring to the chao shou, or pork-stuffed wontons in spicy soup, that we occasionally order alongside our noodles when we’re feeling extra fat and sassy. Other than that, we don’t really deviate, or at least we didn’t until the other day, when I got up the nerve (okay, Rob forced me) to forgo the wanza and try the shuang jiao ban mian, which is a tangy and spicy dry noodle with green and red peppers. Also quite strong.
When we first came to Beijing, Pang Mei was a closet-sized cubby off of Xiang’er hutong — the kitchen was actually in a glorified closet. Unlike most restaurants here, there was no picture menu, so it took a lot of trial and error (and finally help from a Chinese-speaking friend) to nail down the things we like. (In this period, we also learned that lung is just a casual thing on the menu at most corner restaurants here.) And then it took even longer to realize that the kitchen was giving us foreigner-level spice (which is not very much spice) and learn the vocabulary to insist upon a very spicy bowl of noodles.
About the time we finally conquered our orders, Pang Mei closed its doors to “remodel,” which we learned when we tried to go one night and found ourselves gaping at a demolition zone behind a tarp. “It’s gone FOREVER!” we wept, because that is usually what “remodel” means in America, and frequently in China, too. Luckily, this is a happy story. It turns out Pang Mei was just expanding — it usurped the space next door and built a real kitchen, which caught on fire shortly after the restaurant reopened, and forced it to close again for a week (this was also upsetting).
Anyway, around the same time the place reopened, it must have done a TV show, because now Pang Mei is packed every time we go there, even if we go there at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday like jobless hobos. It also has photos of its eight most popular dishes hanging on the wall, which is a sure sign that it’s moving up its attempts to cater to foreigners (although, people still snap surreptitious cell phone photos of us every time we go, so apparently not a lot of foreigners have caught on).
Unfortunately, I think this onslaught of business has foiled our plan to hang out in the kitchen and learn how to make these noodles, so my new life goal is to make enough money to bankroll an outlet (or chain of outlets) of Fat Sister in America. Want to invest? Email me. I’m poor.
Why yes, it DOES feel a little wrong to write about a cheeseburger before writing about Chinese food in this countdown, now that you mention it. Be cool and roll with it. There is plenty of Chinese food to come. And I told you in the last post that the order here is arbitrary.
We didn’t even try to imagine how China would feel before we came to Beijing, but we would never have guessed that had we wanted to, we could have basically just lived our American lives here, but with more Chinese food. In fact, people who visit us keep asking us what we miss from home (presumably so they can bring us that thing as a gift), and other than reasonably priced Champagne and better coffee, I can’t think of a damn thing. And Beijing even has one American thing that’s better than that thing in America: the Great Leap cheeseburger.
Whoa, I realize those are Fighting Words, because how could China do a cheeseburger, the very essence of America, better than America? Well, gauntlet thrown, I guess: I was worried we had China goggles (i.e., this burger seems better because the competition is scrappy), but every time Rob is in the States, he says he thinks about this cheeseburger. (Also, true fact, I’ve eaten this burger twice this week.) (Also also, I think the owner of this place is from the US, so that helps.) Crucially, Great Leap is not trying to do a fancy burger — which is good, because I’m a sell on the hideously fancy burgers that have proliferated on American menus over the last decade — so no prime cuts of beef, expensive cheeses, caramelized onions, or whack-job ingredients go into the making of this thing. Rather, this is the platonic ideal of the classic (and I am a strong buy on the classic): Two thin, griddled patties, crisp-edged and juicy, are paved with gooey American cheese, stacked with crunchy dill pickles that cover the circumference of the burger, drizzled with a tangy special sauce, and served between toasted halves of a sesame seed bun. A friend insists that the power move here is to add bacon, but I fear modifications, because what if it isn’t as good?! I would be DEVASTATED. Because the effect of the original combo is so good, I always eat the thing as if I’m a snake — basically, I just shove it all in my mouth at once and swallow, and then it chills like a lump in my esophagus until I can wash it down with enough Cinnamon Rock Ale. (So graphic! If I still had an editor, they would tell me not to tell you that! But I write this blog and can do what I want!)
Great Leap Brewing gets a separate entry on this list for a trio of reasons: the first is because that cheeseburger is only available at the Xingfu San Cun location (Great Leap #12), and if we’re just going for beers, we like the original hutong location (Great Leap #6), because that place feels like a light-strung backyard, an ideal place for sitting around and philosophizing wildly over too many brewskis. (The burger Great Leap, and the third sibling — pizza Great Leap #45 — feel more like typical American brewpubs, which is to say they’re decorated with exposed cement/brick walls, shiny tap fixtures, and a lot of dark wood.) (Also, I just learned, in the course of writing this blog post and having Rob edit it, why the Great Leaps are numbered so weirdly — it has to do with their street address! Of course! Numbering them according to some bizarre expansion plan obviously makes no sense!) (Just adding another parenthetical here for good measure.)
Second, Great Leap was the first craft brewery in Beijing, and it ushered in a brewery boom, the fruits of which we have been enjoying all year. Actually, we basically only drink at craft breweries at this point, which, to my earlier point about the not-foreign life that is possible here, is a lot like what we used to do in Colorado. I’m a lazy journalist these days, so I’m not going to write all about the history of Great Leap, but if you’re at all interested, I highly recommend this podcast with Great Leap owner Carl Setzer — it’s also an interesting look into doing business in China, which sounds hard.
And finally (and perhaps most obviously), Great Leap makes really good beer. We’re suckers for the aforementioned Cinnamon Rock, the Honey Ma Gold, the Dan Cong Dark, and the Liu the Brave Chai Stout, but we’ll also order whatever’s on the Sunday or Tuesday special, when pints are just 25 RMB.
Over the weekend, one of our best friends here said, “For a blog about China you sure haven’t written much about China.” OKAY I KNOW. The truth is, I have been paralyzed with indecision about how to start, because we’ve lived here kind of a long time now, and a lot of things have happened, and it just seems sort of overwhelming to write 2,000 word blog posts about every single one of those things, you know? Thanks for being my therapist. I feel better.
In order to overcome my psychological issues, I’m gonna employ an old lifestyle journalism trick I like to call the countdown series. That is, I’m gonna write about my 100 favorite things in Beijing, counting down from 100 to 1. (These are actually in arbitrary order, listed as I think of them, as are all countdowns in lifestyle journalism. DO NOT tell anyone I let you in on that secret.)
Anyway. Number 100: The Muxiyuan fabric market and Number 99: Fei Fei Tailor
Our friend Ami (who deserves her very own entry in this countdown because she has been integral in my enjoyment of life here) first took us to Muxiyuan last summer when she was looking to have a pair of shorts copied. As happens to me at all wholesale markets, I felt immediately overwhelmed to the point of despair: basically, Muxiyuan refers to at least a couple of disparate markets, each of which has rows and rows of stalls where people hawk all kinds of fabric, from boring old men’s shirt patterns to pettably soft jersey to brain vomit-y silks. I cannot discern a logic to where things are located in the market — it’s sort of just all mixed together — which means if you don’t buy a fabric when you first seize upon it, good luck ever finding it again. I have horrible commitment-phobia when it comes to picking out a bolt of material for a dress I will then have to conceptualize and describe to a tailor, so shopping like this sort of made me want to take an entire bottle of Xanax and then maybe lie down on the dusty, dusty cement for awhile. Luckily, Ami is an old pro who has a can-do attitude and a slate of favorite vendors, and she was nice enough to show us a jersey shop for tee-shirting needs, the best silk outlet, and a couple of places for wild prints (at one of those, we bought three meters of fabric that is covered in turtles that have burgers for shells). Then we walked through rows of buttons that were so sparkling I wanted to eat them (I don’t know), and petted all of the furs, which were hanging menacingly from racks, swinging in the wind.
A few months later (yes, months, I am that slow), I actually took some of my fabric to Fei Fei Tailor and had some bespoke dresses made. Fei Fei has been around for like three decades, and you can tell she is good because she is surrounded by a bunch of other shops that are also called Fei Fei and trying to profit off of her name. How does that old saying go? Blatant plagiarism is the highest form of flattery? (Actually, it’s entirely possible that she owns all of the shops, but I like to believe that I am going to the OG Fei Fei, who is superior to her imitators.) The important thing here is that she can turn out a brand new wardrobe for you, with some seriously nice stitching, in a matter of days.
I’d never had bespoke clothing made before, and so I cannot explain what happened in my brain when I slipped on my perfectly fitted royal blue silk shift, but it was a terrifying and electrifying sense of power and self-worth that I am somewhat ashamed and horrified to admit came from an article of clothing. But that’s what happened, and this year is all about soul-searching and self-discovery, and I have discovered that my soul is actually that simple.
Anyway, the fabric market-tailor one-two punch has become a full-blown addiction, despite the fact that the market is located about 100 years from the nearest subway. I no longer feel anything but true excitement about the idea of wandering the Muxiyuan labyrinth and looking for hot deals, which is a really surprising turnaround in attitude that I think underscores my personal growth here. Also, the vendors are great: They climb all over stuff and rip the fabric away from the bolts and occasionally ask you for extremely granular details about your height that turn out to have nothing to do with your purchase. One measured out shirt fabric for Rob and then turned to me and said, “This isn’t enough. He’s too tall and too fat.” Rob didn’t think that was very funny.
Pro tip for actual Beijingers or tourists that might want to give this place a shot but, like me, feel sort of overwhelmed: I have discovered that the best way to shop here is to think about a specific thing you might want to have made (I’m no designer, so usually I find a photo of a thing I like, or pattern something off of an article of clothing I already own) and then wander the rows looking for the right fabric for that thing. Buy when you see it, because unless you’re a diligent note taker, you’re possibly never going to see it again. Also, the turtle burger fabric shop is in the western market, along the western wall.