Wednesday, November 30, 2016

my imperial Beijing, part one

My very last day in Beijing, despite the pretty unhealthy pollution levels, I went for a visit of one of the more emblematic sights of the capital – the Forbidden City. I had been there countless times before, but a colleague mentioned that they had just very recently opened to the public a section of the western side, so I had good reason to go have a look!

And so, as on so many occasions before, I approached this behemoth of a construction, from Tiananmen Square, under Mao's picture, into the massive courtyards...

As I was headed for the eastern side instead of the super famous temples down the middle, the moment I stepped away from the usual tourist route I found myself almost alone, enjoying the sights.

There was a grove of trees that had turned gold, some of them supported in traditional Asian style with poles...

Of course, the key role the Mongolians played in the capital's history was reflected in a number of temple plaques, like this bilingual Mongolian-Chinese one. 

And unlike all my other previous visits, now you could enter some exhibition halls! Like this one dedicated to Buddhas of all sorts, kinds and sizes, plus a strange two-legged winged monster:

Also wandering around this newly opened part I came across a small temple, beautifully arranged, peaceful, quiet...

The rest of my explorations around this western part went amazing. There were alleys, small parks with ponds, long never-ending stern walls...

At some point, you reach the end and you re-enter the main part of the compound, with the usual – but never underwhelming – views of the the rest of the impressive Forbidden City...

Like every single time I had visited, by the end I was a bit tired and was only looking for the exit. But still, this was one visit I enjoyed greatly. I saw new things, and it brought back memories as well. And it left me feeling energized and wanting more, so the Forbidden City is not all I saw that last day...

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

my contemporary Beijing

Like I mentioned in another post, Beijing doesn't seem to have changed that much. It has a little, but not like when I came back in 2005 after I had left in 1999. I mean, that change was huge! But, for example, there are more upscale areas with hip stores. Or, more accurately, more old areas have given way to gentrification. One of these places is called 1949, and that's where one of my old friends not has a business called Pop-Up Beijing, where he sells antiques, artsy items, and where he also hosts movie nights and parties, including an after party for a queer film festival that was ending the night I arrived! Wow, a queer film festival? In Beijing? Awesome! Oh, that and a white bunny candy (picture below), doubly awesome, lol.

The river near my hotel had changed a bit too, with more modern buildings around and a more manicured look... There were even people fishing there!

A very cool thing, of which I saw only one by a subway station, was an automatic library! I have no idea how that worked, 'cause I saw it only on my first day when I got off the airport train to catch a cab to my hotel. Oh, and by the way, locals are so used to hearing foreigners speak Mandarin they don't even bat an eyelid anymore when I speak it!

The views from my hotel introduced my to another new thing (well, new to me): pollution. My first few days were actually very nice and clear, with the wind blowing pollution away. That allowed me to enjoy some beautiful sunrises and sunsets, for example. But my last day? Yuck! There was a thick layer of smog and the pollution levels had gone way above 200! I mean, I think we had one really bad pollution day once during the almost five years I lived there. Now they're having these on an almost weekly basis!

As bad as pollution is a terrible change, there was another good one – Adam's, the first gay bar to openly show a rainbow flag by the entrance! Beijing has had gay bars and nightclubs for very many years. At the very least since 1997. But none had ever dared publicly announce what kind of place they were. So I felt the obligation to go and have a drink to support these guys courageous and proud guys!

That gay bar was in Sanlitun, a very popular bar and shop area with a huge concentration of foreigners. And Sanlitun has changed somewhat too, with more shiny and lit-up buildings, like the Intercontinental, adding to the already hip atmosphere offered by the malls nearby.

And the subway! Whoa! I think there were like 2-3 lines 7 years ago. Now there are like 15 or 16! That's unbelievable! And the location of the stations is amazing! I could use the subway to get everywhere easily! Kudos Beijing!

Finally, there are some immense and amazing new buildings, like Zaha Hadid's Galaxy SOHO. So futuristic! The pod-like shape of the buildings, the curves, the lighting... Really incredible. For some reason they turned off the lights just as I was finishing my tour, so I took these pics just in time! LOL. Really incredible place.

So, a bit more open. Definitely more modern. Not bad. Not bad.

Monday, November 28, 2016

my edible Beijing

Obviously, one of my plans while in Beijing was to get as much local food as I could into my mouth! I didn't have many opportunities to eat out, but I think I did pretty well!

My very first day I went to meet a friend from back when I was a student and who also happened to be in Beijing for work! What a coincidence! Anyhow, we went to a Yunnan restaurant by a river not far from my hotel. Yunnan food was one of our favourites – spicy, earthy, lots of kinds of mushrooms... Not only was I having lunch with a friend I had made in the late nineties, but I was also enjoying such a fantastic meal!

But, truth be told, most of my explorations had to take place during breakfast and lunch at the hotel. Which wasn't that bad, the food was good! And diverse! I had Peking duck – sorry, being back home meant for me pushing veganism aside and having some of those familiar flavours again – and bean pancakes, I had all sorts of noodles and wonton soup, I had all the dumplings I could and – probably what made my mornings the happiest – congee (wiii!!!), I had matcha ice-cream and numerous local sweet treats... I had every single Chinese item I could at the buffet!

And when I did manage to eat outside, I was lucky too! Visiting another couple of friends from when my habib and me lived in Beijing, it just so happened that they were ordering dinner in, and when I mentioned I'd love to have jiaozi (dumplings), they ordered some from a super good place nearby and I had the best dumplings during my whole visit! This made me so happy! And this was during my very first day in Beijing! They were just as they had to, with vinegar, soy sauce, a thick earthy oily chili sauce...

On my last day, on the other hand, while visiting Beihai Park I came across this snack shop, packed with all the local stuff we used to have when walking around some of the city's parks! I can't remember the names of this things, but they sure brought back good memories!

On another night, though I couldn't get to one of our favourite places (Bellagio), I did find a place in Sanlitun that specialized in a few items like Dandan noodles (dandanmian)! Damn good. Damn good. Spicy enough. Peanut bits. Tons of delicious thin noodles... Ahhh....

Finally, on the next to last night we went to a famous dumpling place nearby. Frankly, I wasn't too excited about the dumplings, they were a bit too contemporary for my nostalgic self. They were filled with gongbao chicken, with shrimp and cucumber, with crunchy purple rice... They were different colours... I'm lucky I had my traditional ones on my first night! But why I did have that I loved was the tofu strips you see below, and Szechuan green beans! So good! So good. So old-school. So good.

And this? Well, this doesn't really fit anywhere else. And it's food. So why not? I had a six-hour stopover at Charles de Gaulle on my way back. So I had the most French thing I could find – a tartelette au citron meringuée, with a double espresso (to keep me going the whole six hours!).  

Ah... Food, most glorious – Chinese, and some French – food...