LEISURE HOLIDAY IN BEIJING
Unwind At China's Northern Provinces
Beijing/ Chende/ Tianjin
It was nine in the morning when we boarded a Malaysian Airlines flight to our dream getaway, Beijing. Our group totalled seventeen and out of this number, eleven of them are from the restaurant hospitality trade. Only four members are not connected to us but we embraced them as our new found friends. Welcome to our world on a quest for culinary adventure.
Six hours later, we were thrilled to land at Beijing International Airport. I looked forward to viewing the capital of China, a place teemed with history. Beijing occupies an area of 16,800 sq. km and houses a population, currently at 16 million. This is quite close to our total population in Peninsular Malaysia. We share a same time zone but gosh, the sky is bright as early as four a.m and does not get dark till eight in the evenings. They have the four seasons and this month of July is the summer. The weather is quite identical to ours, hot and humid. With school holidays around, the whole city is thick with tourists.
Gingko trees are planted everywhere as the slight of it is as common as our tropical coconut trees being grown extensively in the rural areas. As China is going to host the Olympic Games 2008, the whole place in Beijing gets an extended air of activity. Planning such a worldwide sports event is in itself a major undertaking. Wooden structures are erected at many venues, a stark contrast with the beautiful historic buildings alongside.
Today is reputed to be the focal point of this tour as we are going to see one of the Eight Wonders of the World. The Great Wall Of China is really great as the total length spans some 6,500 km and was the only visible man-made structure seen by the astronauts who viewed Earth after they set foot on the moon 35 years ago. According to our tour guide Lim, he reckons one would need 500 days to pace the full length of the wall. How about that?
The next significant stop was at the huge royal tombs where late emperors of the Ming dynasty were buried. One of the massive and sprawling imperial tomb was opened for public viewing. It was 18 meters underground and temperature reading dropped to 20 degree celcius as exterior temperature was around 32 degree celcius. There was no spooky feeling as one feel the cool air forcing its way out.
Travelling works up an appetite so we tried the famous Mongolian Hotpot similar to our steamboat. The Mongols introduced their taste of dairy produce, mutton. This is the main ingredient for the firepot. At Tong Lai Shun Restaurant, a Muslim restaurant of over 100 years, it served halal food. The mutton topside meat has beautiful marbled fats and sliced paper-thin. You blanch the meat in a central firepot filled with boiling stock. Eat the cooked meat dipped in a special sauce. It has no gamy taste and the sauce is prepared with a combination of seven ingredients. Comprising sesame peanut sauce, pureed chives' juice, chilli oil, Chinese cooking wine, cooked prawns' oil, fermented white beancurd and soy sauce. Minced Chinese coriander and minced white sections of spring onions can be added if desired. A selection of sliced chicken meat and beef are available too. After this wonderful meal, we had a ride around the city. I noticed many restaurants had signboards which bore a very similar name to the original eatery of Mongolian Hotpot. Can be rather tricky for tourists to work out the true-blue.
The climb of many steps leading to the first point of the Great Wall Of China had taken its toll on a fair number of our members, who generally do not do much physical exercises. Today, we may have to struggle and keep pace with ten thousand scores of people who have lined up at the gate entrance to Tian An Men (The Gate Of The Heavenly Peace) for a glimpse of Chairman Mao's Memoriam Museum. Coupled with a weekend and school holidays, the crowd jostled for space with a sea of umbrellas to shelter off the sweltering heat.
It was an amazing afternoon as we walked across the street to view The Forbidden City. This is definitely something not to be missed as this extraordinary huge palace used to be the official residence of former late emperors, queens, concubines and the royal households. It was also the country's administration centre. Official occupancy began during the Ming dynasty and Qing dynasty. It has housed a total of 24 late emperors for a span of 500 years. The total built-up land area is 720,000 sq. meters, has 890 different chambers and a total of 9,000 bedrooms. The inner courts are bared of big trees, mainly because too many birds may perched on tree branches and chirpped noisily besides the disadvantage of being hideaways for assasins. A beautiful Kunming Lake and Longevity Hill formed the serene background. It was the ideal recreation garden for past royals. The United Nationals Educational Scientific And Cultural Organization had obtained an order for China to preserve this splendour as a heritage for the world to see and know the country's rich history and culture. Impressed with the beauty, we were all thankful to have viewed the magnificent building.
In the early evening, we set out for a place to savour tea. Tour guide Lim, ventured to the back portion of the shop where one can order Shanxi noodles but did not look special as it was rather similar to our Malaysian panmeen. Main difference lies in tapioca flour was added to the dough, to give it a springy touch. The cook's skill in slicing the dough was incredible. His left hand moulded a dough and placed it on his left shoulder. His right hand deftly wield a special-designed knife to shred at the dough with amazing speed. Fine, lengthy noodles flew their way into a pot of boiling water nearby, never missing a single strand. Scalded noodles are drained and mixed with a braised stock, garnished with some condiments like Chinese celery, chilli oil and taupan sauce (bean sauce).
According to Lim, cooks of olden days were shaved bald and wore white caps to perform this feat. The doughs were placed on their heads then. This art calls for terrific skills.
Evening was free of activities so Mrs. Sia Say Tee, her daughter Boon Chin, daughter-in-law Chai Ching, son-in-law Mr. Chu Tiong An, Richard & I decided to enjoy a trishaw ride. We employed three trishaws to roam around. Finally, we barged into a Shanxi restaurant for supper. The Northern cuisine is noted for its spicy noodles, floral-coiled noodles, saucy pig's ears, saucy pig's trotter, spicy eight wonders sauce, Chinese escargots, skewered mutton meat and a pot of good brewed tea. The coiled noodles was interesting as the noodle strips was placed in dimsum baskets to steam. The surface looked like a bee's nest and you pick up the strands to eat with a unique mushroom sauce. Condiments of pickled cucumbers, carrot strips and minced garlic made it all the better. Cost came to £88.00 or RM44.00. This is a terrific deal at an inexpensive price.
After a simple breakfast at the hotel, out coach driver took us to the southern edge to view The Temple of Heaven. The land area is outrageous, a total of 2.73 million sq. meters, probably tripled the size of 'The Forbidden City'. The origins of this place dates back to the time for sacred prayers performed by the former emperors since 1420. Yearly, they will pray for adequate rain for agricultural crops growth, bountiful harvests reaped and well-being for their royal families. After this, we had a Hutong (lane) tour on trishaws, viewed the a factory that produces Jing-Tai-Lan (Cloisonne Ware), The Confucian Temple and The Big Bell Temple where the copper bells are reckoned to be the largest in the world.
Dinner was served at a Sichuan restaurant, not far from our resident hotel. The food is authentic as it had the strong spices and was mouth-burning. Hot taste is associated with Sichuan cooking as their Mapo Taufu, Twice-cooked Pork had us breaking out in sweats. Another dish named 'Fish Cooked In Water' sounded simple enough. The cook heated up some oil to stir-fry Sichuan peppercorns, dried chillies and spring onion till aromatic. In goes the beansauce, Sichuan peppercorn powder and fiery hot small peppers. Water was added in for flavours to fused together. Live fish was sliced into pieces and cooked in the above concoction. The cooked fish slices were removed and placed in a big bowl. Hot oil was drizzled in and Chinese celery was scattered on top. The waitress removed all surplus chillies and peppercorns before serving it to us. Fish was sweet and smooth textured, it must have been a good beansauce as it smelled fragrant. But the spicy degree had deaden our tastebuds momentary. This preponderance of hot, spicy food has its roots in history as geographical factor of Sichuan is bonded by mountain ranges and the climate is cold.
It rained in the middle of the night and cleared the hot air. With a wet morning, all roads were choked with traffic. At midday, we were whisked to this Archery Watchtower over the Qian Gate. This gate was right in front of Tian An Men as it was built on good fengshui area. An hour later, we proceeded to a lecture hall. A fengshui master gave us some insights on good omen. Naturally, we all bought some decorative pieces as it may nurture good blessings.
Unquestionably the most famous Beijing roast duck restaurant is Quanjude. With 140 years of survival, it must bear some good testimony of truth. Chef Huang Yong Qi has worked here for 20 years and over. We listened to his theory of a good roast. The duck's (a special breed) cavity is filled with water before putting it to roast. A special piece of fruity tree wood is embedded in the stomach cavity to seal the opening. It goes through a colouring process before being roasted in wood-fired ovens. This is no ordinary wood but comes from the date trees as it produces a special aroma. Water retained in the ducks helps to maintain the moist meat whilst the exterior is roasted to a crisp with succulent taste. In Beijing, there are an uncountable number of shops selling this delicacy but only Quanjude reigns supreme.
At 2.30p.m, we left Beijing city to Chengde, a city 250 km away. This was a popular retreat for the royals to hunt and the famous Summer Villa is situated here. Due to the rainy weather, our four hours journey had prolonged to seven hours. At 9.30p.m, we finally reached the destination. Dinner was some game meat but we preferred the spud dish. It was potatoes shredded and deep-fried.
Next, it was immersed into a golden thick syrup. You picked up a piece of the sugar coated potato and soaked it in icy cold water. The sugar coagulates instantly into a sweet mass but taste was superb.
The market near the hotel was a hive of activity at early six in the morning. The morning air was cool and crisp, we decided to peek at what they have to offer for early birds. At the end of the street was a little shop that had stacks of fried pancakes filled with either chives, cabbages or gherkins. The unassuming eatery served this delicious pancake with a vinegared dip, something to soothe away the heatiness. It is best to eat it with millet, green beans porridge or barley, millet porridge. Pretty refreshing to have a bowl of hot porridge in the early morning, probably, this is what draws the crowds.
Chengde local tour guide, Ms Zhang took us to view the Summer Villa, a former retreat for the royals from the extreme heat. What a sheer-coincidence, the fliming industry people were making a film here. We watched some film-shooting before ascending to our next destination, the Putuozongcheng Temple. As Ms Zhang led the way up, our group diminished in size. Not everyone is able to walk the length and breadth of 27 storeys high places. A quick lunch was eaten before we headed back to Beijing by coach.
Enjoyed the evening stroll to Wangfujing Street, this place is jammed with unique stuff. 88 food stalls rivalled for attention and we can’t believed what food was put up for consumption. Deep-fried scorpions, maggots, sea-urchins, blacken smelly taufoo, fried tripes and mutton offals' soups were just some of the food-ware. This is a fear factor challenge as we tried a little of each. The taste was a different story as it was crunchy and quite a delight. Another shop sold wantan soup and baked biscuits. Nothing special as the taste was very ordinary.
Very early this morning, we left the hotel to view the underground city of Beijing. A maze-like structure that has a spider web network layout, deemed longer in length than 'The Great Wall Of China'. This is a man-made place and only a small portion is kept opened for public viewing. We journeyed on to Tianjin, a city, two hours ride away. At a legendary pau shop, we tasted the superb paus. You dipped them in vinegar or chilli oil and the fillings in the paus are either meat or seafood. Long queues are a common slight here.
Tianjin is a place breaming with fine jade ornaments, antiques, cheongsam clothings, tea leaves, tea brewing sets. You can find anything associated with Chinese handicraft at this culture street right in the city hub. It was enjoyable as every item was dirt cheap.
Did some last minute shopping for clothes at the famous 'Women Street'. It was a hurry-burry shopping as we had to proceed to the airport. Had lunch at a restaurant with a wacky name. The name of this place makes imagination soar as it is known as 'The Jin San Yuan Pazhulian'. They sell a brew of 33 herbal ingredients and the cooked pig's head is infused in for taste to develop. Later, the head is removed and sliced into pieces. A wrapper made from cornflour is used to wrap the sliced meat, spring onion and beansprouts. After folding the wrapper into a neat fold, dip it into a special sauce before eating. Quite unusual a dish as it is tasty.
Eight days a trip is too short for us to cover such a vast city. We had only been introduced to the tip of the iceberg of Chinese cuisine. What we have sampled may only be a fraction of the glory of the cuisine as good cooking has always been an intergral part of Chinese culture.