Without much of a chance to process Seattle yet, I’m already writing about the January Beijing trip. Thanks to getting sick, I have time. At least something good came out of all the phlegm.
On the days nearing my flight, my parents (dad in particular) bombarded me with news about the ‘airpocalypse’ pollution problem in Beijing and the recent N1H1 flu in the area. Beijing is supposedly 25 to 40 times more polluted than the USA. Whereas the air pollution index maximum should be at about 500pm (below 100 is a healthy level), Beijing’s was at 700-800pm. And so, while Beijing’s children and elderly were warned to stay indoors, my friends and I frolicked around the city (and lost about 1 year of our lives).
The Beijing folk aren’t oblivious to the situation (even though I hear there’s a news blackout about it) but there were plenty of locals who smoked like chimneys (maybe they thought that since it was that bad already anyway, another smoke wouldn’t hurt). Walking around in pollution that dense (visibility down to 100m in some places) felt like being in an eternally fogged (dystopian) city movie set. By noon, our hair smelled like smoke and chemicals while our nostrils were blackish.
It snowed the very evening we arrived, as though we were being welcomed by the city. Lovely sight. Other times I would’ve relished having snow on the tip of my tongue, but I dread these may be frozen white chemicals falling from the sky. Either case, a friend still attempted a snow angel and there were snowball fights. By the second day, I was already plagued by an itchy throat.
The Wangfujin subway station, located in Beijing’s counterpart to NYC’s 5th Avenue, served as the base location for our city adventures. For the first few days we went around Houhai, a trendy area with vintage clothing stores, monster/fantasy inspired shops, and a street full of food kiosks, small cafes, and random shops. In that area we braved the squatting type public toilet, which reeked from a mile away and had no cubicle doors. In that area I bought a pair of large furry earmuffs, which I still can’t believe I bought. They’re so big, it’s like your head is sprouting 2 furry little heads on each side. There was a takoyaki stand where the delicious balls were served in small balsa boats, which is what my 12RMB probably paid for. After much walking, we found that obscure Hu Tong pizza place (the Duck confit pizza is recommendable) where it looked like the slums, but upon entering was an entirely different, hidden world. The following day, we dropped by a mall full of snowboarding stores, stocked up on snacks and instant noodles (thought we’d starve, or have to hunt for animals, on the ski resorts), and explored other parts of the city.
On one of the days in between snowboarding, we visited the tourist trap which is Wangfujin, where you can find the most exotic things from fried centipedes and scorpions to a drink called old lady’s piss. There’s the usual sugar coated fruits, souvenir items, panda hats, hup-tooey spitting sounds, and the steaming pots holding varieties of dimsum (with a sneezing vendor). We tried the gigantic lamb choar (roasted lamb leg, 30RMB) and sticks of lamb choar (10 sticks for 5RMB?) until we could choar no more.
For the other smoggy days, we visited the Sanlitun area, which is like a Beijing counterpart to the Greenbelt cluster here in Manila. We had the best lunch at Tairyo, where infinite amounts of teppanyaki steak, gindara fish, sashimi, sushi, salmon, oysters, shrimp, scallops, fried rice, sake, red plum wine, yogurt, bottled water, cake, and beer went inside our bellies, and only for 200RMB. There was also Element Fresh, an organic, vegetable-ey, trendy looking place. (filled mostly with expats and women). It was okay food, priced steeply. On the underground parts of the mall, I hoarded Meiji chocolate covered gummies (which I already finished :( ) at a gourmet market, a Quicksilver store where I found my almost dream jacket, and other stores. One curious place was the The Scent Laboratory where you can find Demeter room scents like cannabis flower, pruning shears (which smelled good), holy water (also good), rain (also good), dirt (smelled like beets), tarnish (blech), paperbacks (musty and smokey), gin & tonic, among other interesting types. There was also The Scent Of Departure line featuring scents of different cities like Munich, Doha, Vienna, Budapest, Miami, Singapore, Tokyo, and Frankfurt (my favorite).
Then there’s 798 Space, the art district in the Dashanzi area, which was oddly quiet compared to the bustling art flea-marketsy place I imagined it would be. Could be because it was near Chinese New Year. There were galleries were repurposed military factories and warehouses, hipster cafes, and design and clothing stores scatted about. What made me happiest was seeing this fat white cat, whom I stalked and who stopped, sat, and posed for the shot. Ugh. SO CUTE. I LOVE YOU.
On the way to the art district, we had a cheap, delicious crepe sandwich thing for 7RMB.
Since some of my friends lived in Beijing for a year to hone up on Mandarin, we visited the Wudaokou area, their old neighborhood. We had dinner and drinks at Pyro pizza, and witnessed some Europeans drunk dancing/performing carrying stunts, a large hairy belly (unfortunately I was the only one who saw it), and a pukingly drunk ‘Hell girl’ making out with some caucasian asshole. Near Pyro Pizza, there’s a bakery (forgot the name!) with absolutely delicious eclairs. I could finish an entire box (around 12 pieces?) of those light, creamy pieces of heaven.
Our last meal was spent at a dingy restaurant famous for their Peking duck, located in an older, slum area of the city. None of us even dared go near the bathroom because, as a friend said, it was stinkingly, authentically, Beijing. The walls were lined with pictures of foreign diplomats and celebrities who’ve eaten there. The owner was once the chef of Beijing’s finest peking duck restaurant, who decided to open up his own place. It was a delicious last meal.
I hope that Beijing clears up soon. Not that the pollution would really stop me from going back (except that flights have just been cancelled). Other memorable elements of the trip would include eating KFC eggtarts during freezing walks home, snowboarding (which deserves its own post), Ban zhou (our Beijing hero who took care of all things snowboarding and is one of the best Beijing people I’ve ever met), the occasional glimpse of a hot skier/snowboarder, gentlemanly friends who carried our stuff (should have shopped more), snowy mountain slopes seen from way up high, my million sheets of tissue for the million times I blew my nose, wearing bathrobes around the Wanlong, hoarding Oreo products, Darren’s magic medicine (which worked the first couple of days), strange Chinese TV shows (where we found a Chinese version of Ogie Alcasid in the China version of The Voice, etc), Chonker smells, and Nong Fu spring water. Before I forget, I’d like to thank my End of The World boots for keeping me warm (and ready for any Chinese zombie attack).
Of course, the most meaningful part was getting to know acquaintance-friends better while getting to know old friends in toilet-knowledge level depths. In this trip I realized how old we’re all getting (at the rate we got tired, talking about real estate/marriage/investments/quarter-life crisis, plus the appearance of some fine fine wrinkles!). But more significantly, there was the grateful realization of having grown up with brothers who are more and better than I could have ever asked for. The past ten years have brought about maturity, new people in our lives, and even more of the same stupid jokes. We don’t see each other as often as we used to, but we’ve reached a point where we don’t really need to, and still be great. Plus now, we’ll always have Beijing.
May this be the first of many great adventures for 2013. Looking forward to the next one.