Stepping off the train and into the cavernous Beijing Railway Station was like setting foot on another planet. I had spent the last couple weeks in sparsely populated Siberia and Mongolia and the shock of people and noise was exhilarating if not a little overwhelming.
My first lesson was that Chinese railway stations keep arriving passengers completely segregated from departing passengers so, as an arriving passenger, you don’t really get to avail yourself of the station’s amenities, including getting to an ATM. The prime directive is to get arriving passengers out of the station as quickly as possible. So, up I went through the arrival tunnel and outside to thousands of Chinese people in the station’s outside square. I then spent the next half hour just marveling at the size of the station and watching the crowds of people coming and going from the station.
Remembering that I had zero Chinese Yuan to my name, I headed over to the nearest ATM which was across the street from the station. Across the street is a bit of an understatement, it was across an eight lane motorway that, thankfully, sported several pedestrian overpasses. Cash obtained, I contemplated whether to take the subway to my hotel or summon an Uber car. The prospect of negotiating the subway with my large backpack made my decision easy.
I decided to walk a couple of blocks away from the train station to somewhere quieter to make it easier for the Uber driver to find me. This was a futile exercise as, walking down the street, each intersection I passed seemed larger and busier than the last. After a couple of blocks, I found a hotel forecourt and within 10 minutes my Uber driver had arrived. (Not to turn this into an advertisement for Uber, but it really is a handy service. This is especially true in a foreign country where trying to avoid getting ripped off by taxis or explaining where you want to go can be frustrating.)
After checking in to my hotel, I wandered around the neighborhood. Wangfujing is a massive shopping street with several giant malls. Further towards my hotel were several hutongs (alleyways) that I wandered in and out of. Hutongs are old neighborhoods, usually with a small courtyard in the center and housing built around communal water, toilets, and often kitchens. They are characterized by their low stone buildings and narrow alleyways.
Beijing used to be a city comprised of thousands of hutongs but they continue to disappear as they are leveled to make way for high-rise buildings. As I walked around, the noise and bustle of the city completely disappeared in these alleyways and you feel like you are seeing a way of life that hasn’t changed much in 2000 years. There is a movement to preserve many hutongs and some are being spruced up for the tourist trade and pedicab tours are available everywhere around the main tourist sites.
That evening, I headed to Siji Minfu restaurant for Peking duck. It was a Friday evening so the wait was over an hour but well worth it. The restaurant is popular with both locals and tourists with about a third of the patrons being Westerners when I was there. I ordered half a duck and Beijing style noodles. The duck is served with thin crepe-like pancakes and a variety of condiments and sauces. When first served, the waitress assembled one of the pancakes for me like a small taco so I would understand how to assemble them myself. Everything was delicious, the crispiest duck skin I’d ever had. My first meal in China was a prelude to the extraordinary food I would encounter throughout my time here.
My 2nd evening in Beijing included a trip to the Donghuamen Night Market where I feasted on an assortment of dumplings, spring rolls, and a serving of fried baby scorpions. The scorpions were just Ok although, this being my first serving, I didn’t have much to compare them to. The night market was a mix of locals and tourists, most of the stall hawkers seemed to delight in which one of them could freak out the Westerners the most with their fare of fried starfish, tarantula, and whole baby birds.
A little later, I splurged on a meal at Din Tai Fung. This is a popular upscale chain of Taiwan-style dumpling restaurants found throughout Asia and the West Coast of the US. I wasn’t disappointed; I feasted on crab, pork, and vegetable stuffed steamed dumplings enough for two or three people.
In addition to the restaurants, food is for sale from vendors on seemingly every street corner. Some of my favorites were steamed sweet potato cakes, dumplings, duck tendon on a stick, and small apples on a stick dipped in sugar. These apples were the size of American crabapples but not nearly as sour. It seemed to be the season for them as they were everywhere.
On my third day in Beijing I went to Wangfujing snack street where I had grilled chicken and baby octopus on a stick. Both were delicious but I liked the atmosphere of the night market just a bit better. The night market only sells food where snack street also has more touristy folk art shops interspersed with the food stalls. All those cheap tchotchkes just get in the way of the excellent food.