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How to travel in China- Faces & Food of Beijing

I am finally starting a series on how to travel in China, based on my successful (and very enjoyable) self-organised, month-long trip throughout the country. I have been stuck with my travel blogging for more than two months now, after coming back from my Asia trip, trapped by emotion and fear. Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of places, tastes and sounds, and by the too many pictures taken and not yet organized. And that sinking feeling of being inadequate to put vivid, colorful sights and emotions in words; the fear of seeing them fade on screen. Oh and did I mention I have changed job? And that I seem to have won an award (and no, it’s not Miss Procrastination- it’s some “Under 30 Communicator of The Year” social media award)? And that I don’t know where to turn first with my life in general? In short, post- travel writer’s block BIG TIME. Then one of my pictures from Malaysia was published on the Stylist website and I though- what am I doing hoarding them?! and finally started writing.

Beijing Forbidden City Wall

Shifting from food to travel writing is not easy at all for me. Some bloggers are really good at it (see for instance Eat Like A Girl posts from Canada or Barbados). It’s one thing to do the “Oh I went to this cool place in Soho and the food was such and such but please stop serving cocktails in a jam jar” or the “I baked this cute cupcakes, oh arent’ they lovely?!” thing. Travel writing is a different affair and I’m not sure I’m ready for it, but at the same time I really want to share my experience with those who may be curious about how to travel in China without a packaged tour,  so I decided to start, use words sparingly and let the images do the talking. I will also spare you the “Day 1 – Day 2″ routine – I am way too lazy for that!

Today I’ll show some of the people. I’ve been lucky enough to meet a few, during my 24-days itinerary through China and Malaysia. I say lucky because it’s not something to be taken for granted when you leave with almost no plans, and no meetings set up, and no specific objectives in mind except eating as many things as you can. I know, it would have been cool trying to find local food bloggers etc.etc. and try and meet up. But I didn’t want to overthink or overplan, so I just went. The people we met came up serendipitously, and I could tell you they were amazing or interesting or otherwise special, but I’d be lying; these are just the people we happened to cross paths with, and that helped make my trip and my days so unforgettable. So first bit of advice when thinking about how to travel to China: plan, but don’t overplan! 

Bill, 28, tourist guide in Beijing

beijing tour guide

Bill is a History graduate, like my brother- with him, he also shares a wide smile and  brown, spiky hair and that made me like him instantly, making my hatred for the very idea of having a “tourist guide” momentarily subside.

We asked him many questions, not so much about the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven or the famed Beijing hutongs (on which he seemed very well documented anyway) but about his life- so many that in fact I almost felt I was interviewing him, but he took it gracefully. He’s from Manchuria, a region of which I only have distant memories from a past life Diplomatic History course and that- as he proudly said- was the power the Chinese were trying to shelter themselves from with the Great Wall. It didn’t work, and the rest is history.
Beijing hutong

Bill (who, like most younger Chinese, has a Western name and was restless to share his Mandarin one) speaks Manchurian, Mandarin and a surprisingly good English for someone who’s never been out of China – or in any other city than his hometown or Beijing, for that matter. And don’t think I am patronizing some poor folk with no money- he’s clearly doing well, but his priorities are clear. From a shiny new iPad, he showed us studio pictures of his wife (“she’s gained a bit of weight with the baby, but usually she’s beautiful“!) and kid, and told us about the mortgage he had to take out on a two-bedroom flat, some 40 minutes out of Beijing. His wife has left her job as a tourist guide and now runs a business online selling “healthy foods” – which seems to be a budding market in China, where EVERYBODY seemed to be very afraid of poor food safety and plain food scams.

And here come the second tip about how to travel in China: be aware (but not scared) of what you eat! 

Bill warned us against water street vendors (allegedly re-filling empty bottles with tap water), the ubiquitous roast sweet potatoes stalls (the tins are unwashed oil tins and release bad stuff on the food), the terrifying recycled sewer oil scandal, and introduced us to the Beijing municipality hygiene rating for restaurants – “don’t go lower than B!” (not that there are many Cs in sight- displaying the signs seem to be not compulsory, so if it’s not a good rating it just gets hidden somewhere). Is is true? Is it a picturesque tale for tourist (like us) to give them a thrill and make them feel savvy and street smart afterwards? Who knows.

Beijing noodles, la mien

Against Bill’s recommendations to “grab something at McDonald and go to the next place” (the Chinese idea of tourism, for what we saw, seem to be “cram as many sights in as little time as you can”), we wanted to stop for lunch. I was afraid we’d get some overpriced tourist trap so we insisted with Bill to go somewhere local – and oh my, did we get it.

A “B” rating was proudly hanging on the wall at this nondescript eatery, the furniture had seen better days and the staff seemed to be positively annoyed at you wanting to eat at their place – an attitude not just reserved to us “tourists” but equally showered on the hordes of locals sitting next to us. The food was …well, what my Lonely Planet (if they ever stumbled into such a local place, bless them) would describe as “no- nonsense“: hearty, heavy, fresh and so tasty you’d suspect heavy doses of MSG. But as Bill explained, it was black bean paste used on EVERYTHING giving it the peculiar flavor. We really enjoyed a local version of watercress, and I discovered that of all noodles my heart lies with the Beijing version of la mien  – thick, chewy and very unrefined- probably because it reminds me of my Italian hometown Sunday treat pasta alla mugnaia.

We slurped our bowls clean, whilst Bill mostly picked from the salad and ate the noodles white, quoting that the sauce was not healthy “but it’s OK if you two eat it because it’s once in a while“. I hope my body thinks the same.

How to Travel to China tips

Probably encouraged by our “peculiarity” (his words) to open up, Bill also tried to convince us that China is the least aggressive country in the world- in fact, the West should fear Japan, which is militaristic and killed millions of Chinese in the past centuries and  mentioned the Nanjing massacre. We expressed generic solidarity (it is true indeed that anti-China rethoric is sometimes a bit extreme, and that things like the Japanese concentration camps and the Nanjing massacre are little known bleak page of history) but tried to steer the conversation clear of politics as I frankly feel I don’t know enough about the topic to have an opinion.

Final tip for the day on how to travel in China: keep an open mind, open eyes and ears, and listen more than you talk…

Enough for today. I hope you enjoyed meeting Bill and seeing some of my Beijing pictures. I still think you don’t really need a black car and guide to sightseeing, but was ultimately happy to get a glimpse of the life of a twenty-something (roughly my age) in the capital of China in 2012.

Beijing 798 art district

One of the many interactive art installations on the 798 district in Beijing

798 art district Beijing

“Ghost Street” (Chinese name: Xia Jie) – a street with an incredible concentration of restaurants, mostly Szechuan and Mongolian hotpot 

Ghost street Beijing
Mongolian hotpot – amongst the many many options, we chose a mini-chain called “Little Sheep”, it was delicious, reasonably clean and VERY cheap[/caption]
Mongolian hotpot Beijing little sheep

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9 Comments

  1. Gorgeous pictures and great tips about China. I hope to visit there (and many other places) someday!

    • Thank you! Will write more about China, I took a long trip. Would you maybe like to see a “Top travel tips” post? that’s an idea…

      • Yes! I love top tips! I especially liked that part about how they put bean paste in everything. I have always wondered why my home cooking didn’t taste like the Chinese food in restaurants and how on earth do I get that taste.

  2. I second the TOP TIPS post! :) love the whole post, good one serena! seems like you two had a wonderful asian getaway!

    • I am now sold on the Top Tips post- will do it as a wrap-up for sure :) thanks

  3. Great post and some great tips – have fun with the travel blogging! :-)

    • Thanks! encouragement appreciated :)

  4. Nicely written and very interesting!

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