Challenging food

What a strange time to be in Beijing – yesterday was the sixteenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Passing by Tiananmen Square, hundreds of tourists packed the square, many probably unaware of the relevance of the date, but with more police and army than usual in case of demonstrations, and with no mention of the anniversary in the media.

Caroline is in Beijing for work, and we’ve been out seeing the sights. On Friday night we went out for some hip Beijing dining in the Houhai area, a sprawl of bars and restaurants surrounding a lake north of Tiananmen Square. Boats meander and candles float on the lake while, after getting through dozens of people offering massages and cigarettes, you walk along a busy, buzzing avenue packed with locals, ex-pats and tourists, trying to get a seat in any one of the packed-out eateries.

The Chinese enjoy eating offal – it’s just when you see some menus you realise that the only part of a duck you can’t eat is the quack, as they say. We checked out several menus, and some of the food on offer was, for a westerner, or at least me, challenging. Examples include duck jaw, barbecued duck tongue, goose intestines, barbecued bunch of chicken feet, beef muscle bunch and dog in jelly. Described in very clinical terms, and in often confusing Chinglish, this wasn’t helping my appetite. I’m not criticising, I’ve got no right – while I can’t see myself going for goose intestines, at least people make full use of animals here, and know what they’re eating, when in the UK we get identically shaped lumps of reformed, mechanically recovered meat in cardboard boxes. I did find it strange that dog was on the menu when pet dalmations and terriers were playing with their owners around the lake.

I was told that the Chinese aren’t too friendly, and aside from being grunted at by a few locals, so far I’ve not generally found it to be the case. Speak Chinese, or at least make the effort, smile, and you get a smile back. It is now compulsory to learn English in Chinese schools, so students and school kids approach you with anything from a hello-how-are-you to a long chat about what you do, where you’re from and what they do – usually the people that approach you, as was the case in India, have a ‘line’ – they want you to buy their calligraphy or use them as a tour guide – but I’ve spoken with a couple of students and doctors who are just curious and friendly.

‘Tourist attractions’ are frustrating places. I went to the Forbidden City but didn’t go in because it was hot and crowded, and I got into a foul mood and lost interest. Today, the Temple of Heaven was covered in scaffolding and it was raining – and there were crowds of tourists and touts offering fake watches and umbrellas. Major tourist attractions are like nightclubs to me – I pay to get in, and almost as soon as I get in I’m pissed off and itching to get back out – the Taj Mahal was exactly the same. Tomorrow I’m walking the Great Wall of China between Jinshanling and Simatai, so I’m hoping for sunshine and fewer people.

Old grumpy guts signing out!

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