Adventures of Life in Beijing

36 Hours in Luoyang

Recently, I made a quick weekend trip to Luoyang in Henan province. I joined a tour group called Foreigners in China Network, designed for “laowai” like me to travel around without the hassle of booking train tickets, reserving hotels and navigating the changing landscape of post-pandemic tourism in China. There are still many places that foreigners are not welcome, and traveling with a Chinese guide just smooths out the lumps.

We met at the train station at 5:30 a.m. for the 4-hour high speed train to Luoyang,  the jumping off point for the trip. Our group consisted in part of another American family, an Iraqi embassy cultural representative,  a London IT guy, a couple from India, my Indonesian friend, and a guy who thinks Beijing winters are tropical compared to his hometown of Philly.

We packed a lot into 36 hours. I could tell you all about the Longmen Grottoes, with their 1,500 hundred year history and 100,000 buddhas carved into caves and niches along the river side.

 

 

 

 

 

This cave has over 15,000 Buddhas carved along the walls. See the tiny rows on the right ?

We strolled the streets of Lijing Ancient City, passing vendors selling fresh pomegranate juice, traditional snacks and handicrafts.

 

Lijing Gate dates from around 600 A.D.

 

 

We visited the Kung Fu training school in the Songshan mountains, made famous by the actor Bruce Lee in his 1970s martial arts films where he played a Shaolin monk. It’s currently home to hundreds of young martial arts practitioners who master their school work along with their leaps, kicks and splits.

 

 

 

And of course there is the Shaolin Temple itself, set in a tranquil forest with a view of the mountains. It’s history dates from around 500 A.D.

 

 

 

and the Stone Pagoda Forest, with over 250 stone stupas which serve as monuments for deceased monks.

 

 

As  I worked my way through China’s greatest hits and checked off a few more UNESCO World Heritage sites, (China has 55), I realized my favorite part of the trip wasn’t something you could put on a magnet or T-shirt.

It was the people.

Like these ladies. We can’t always communicate, but a smile and thumbs up sign are universal, and I had a few encounters like that.

 

 

And then there’s this man practicing calligraphy on the street corner, who smiled when I pointed to a few characters I knew and then penned a poem for me.

 

And these dancers in their colorful costumes, who were happy to pose for a photo.

 

And this dude on the Segway who kept us company while we were waiting in line for tickets. He struck up a conversation in excellent English with the American family in our group, then quickly ran off to buy presents for their family before we all parted ways.

 

Outside of our group, we didn’t see any Western tourists. I felt like a rock star, with giggling teenage girls following me into the bathroom, and people asking for photos with me. Some parents pushed their kids to practice their English on me, which usually resulted in tears, since the kids were afraid of the “da bizi.” (Literally, “big nose” which is slang for foreigners, used in places where Westerners are rarely seen).

Other times, they were curious about us and wanted to know what we thought about China, like this man.

 

He told us he had seen some really bad things on social media about how Westerns hated Chinese people, and so he was surprised to see us.  He wanted to know what we thought about his country. I could hear the earnestness in his voice. He wanted us to love China as much as he did.

I explained that I think China is a beautiful place, but right now it’s a little difficult to be here because there are places I can’t go, or I get questioned by the police. Finding a hotel is often problematic.

“Oh, it’s for your safety,” he told me. I think sometimes Chinese use the word “safety” when they really mean “security.”

“But no matter what the governments say or the politics are, I want to very much welcome you to my country. My family welcomes you too,” he said before reaching out to give me a big hug. Showing this kind of affection in public to a stranger ?  A foreigner? It’s unheard of. I was moved, almost to tears.

This was the China I was hoping to see.

 

 

 

Comments (7):

  1. Paula

    October 4, 2020 at 2:28 pm

    As always you capture the heart of your visit. Yes, it is always the people.
    Enjoy and keep writing.

    Reply
  2. Paula

    October 4, 2020 at 2:30 pm

    It is always the PEOPLE! Continue the adventure!

    Reply
  3. Jan Arkills

    October 4, 2020 at 2:52 pm

    Your travels give me hope of our travelling again with new eyes

    Reply
  4. Marlyn

    October 4, 2020 at 7:00 pm

    Beautiful post! Especially enjoyed the young man who wanted to get your opinion about China. Your story wanted me to reach out and give him a hug.
    Marlyn

    Reply
  5. Jeannie

    October 5, 2020 at 1:58 am

    Good and beautiful people everywhere. I love hearing your stories of the wonderful people you meet. That is what you will remember of your time in China.

    Reply
  6. Denise

    October 5, 2020 at 7:09 pm

    So interesting!!! I love that you have made such cool connections. Enjoy and keep writing. Your blogs are amazing 😘

    Reply
  7. Ainslie

    October 27, 2020 at 2:46 am

    Such a beautiful heartfelt experience. And the place was beautiful too.

    Reply

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Pick up Sticks

Who Says You’re too Old to Play with Your food?

From meaty, cumin-scented lamb skewers to sweet, candied hawthorns, Beijing is filled with food on a stick. These fork-free dishes are perfect for strolling, sharing, dipping or indulging. If you’ve ever cooked over a campfire or savored a popsicle, then you remember that hand-held food is fun for all ages.

Local Flavors

Head to Qianmen or Nanluoguxiang to start, and grab some lamb skewers, “whirlwind” potatoes, squid or sausages on a stick.

 

Cumin-rubbed lamb skewers are a must try.

 

Called “whirlwind” or “cyclone” potatoes, think of them like fresh potato chips on a stick, seasoned with salt and pepper.

 

Choose your squid and have it cooked to order.

 

For the truly adventurous, there are scorpions, silkworm larvae and tarantulas, perhaps best left for capturing with your camera and not your taste buds.

 

They’re mostly a gimmick, but you’ll find scorpions and tarantulas too. See the starfish in the back?

 

For an experience that’s a little more off the beaten path, head to Xinmin market (subway stop Guloudajie) and spend the morning exploring the produce, spices and wet market. When hunger strikes, look for the ma la tang stand selling a variety of skewers including mushroom bundles, quail eggs, meatballs, broccoli, lettuce, noodles and much more. Don’t worry – there’s no menu to decipher; just point to a skewer that looks good and give it a try. For just a few kuai a skewer, it’s a fun, affordable outing.

 

Tofu, potatoes and broccoli are my favorites. Choose “spicy” or ”non-spicy.”


Travel the Globe

Don’t limit yourself to Chinese food. Beijing has a whole world of flavors just waiting for you to try. Grab a map and start checking off your destinations. At Athena Greek restaurant the Chicken Souvlaki comes on a suspended skewer.

Nearby Alameen offers a platter of mixed Lebanese kebabs, and a taste of Turkey is just a hop, skip and a jump away at Turkish Feast.

Branch out from curries at your favorite Indian restaurant with a skewer of cheese-like paneer or head to NomNom in Haidian District for Indonesian mutton or beef Satay with a side of Sambal Kecap, sweet soy sauce mixed with chilies and shallots. And of course, don’t forget to stop in Thailand for some peanut-y Chicken Satay.

If you’d rather take cooking into your own hands, Café Zarah offers Cheese Fondue every evening after 6pm. Each bowl of melted cheese-y goodness comes with crunchy cubes of bread, vegetables, cornichons and a bowl of pineapple.

 

A cozy evening at Cafe Zarah.

 

Cheese fondue.


Sweet Endings

Winter is the season for tanghulu, those shiny, sugary fruit sticks decorating the city like ornaments.

Round red hawthorns are the most popular, but you’ll also find grapes, kiwi slices and Chinese yams. There are even some Santa-themed ones with marshmallows and strawberries.

 

Freshly dipped in molten sugar water gives fruit a crackly, sweet finish.

 

Santa-themed fruit skewers.

Keep an eye out for purple sticky rice dipped in sugar or waffles on a stick that spell “I Love Beijing” in Chinese characters.

 

Warm glutinous rice dipped in sugar makes a filling snack.

 

Waffles on a stick make it easy to snack and stroll.

 

Find your zodiac sign fashioned in sugar candy or grab a stick full of sweet-and-sour shan zha (dried Hawthorn).

 

Floral scented gui hua cake drizzled with syrup beckons with its golden yellow hue, derived from Osmanthus flowers.

 

 

For a more interactive experience, head to Qianmen Kitchen restaurant  to make some S’mores. Roast American marshmallows over your own charcoal brazier, add some Lindt Chocolate and sandwich it all between Biscoff cookies and digestive biscuits.

 

Lastly, don’t rule out ice cream just because it’s winter. Beautiful rose-shaped ice cream and vibrant fruity popsicles (at Nanluoguxiang) will make you forget how cold it is outside, even if just for a moment.

 

Chinese Medicine

When my brother and I were little, we spent summers with our grandparents in Denmark. My grandmother didn’t have a drier, so she hung all of the clothes on the line. They smelled like sunshine, but were so stiff and sharp that we pretended to sword fight with pointy wash cloths.

My body feels like one of my grandmother’s line-dried wrinkled wash cloths. We are less than two months into Beijing’s winter but the extreme dryness and cold temperatures have wrung every once of moisture out of my hair, my skin and my lungs. The level of static electricity means I look a bit like Einstein when I return from shopping and take my hat off.

If it were possible to bottle some warmth and humidity from Florida, I’d ask you to send it to me. Add a pinch of salty ocean air too please.

I’m in a Chinese Medicine chat group and I saw a post recently for “Moistening Yam Tea.”  The recipe promised to “benefit my Qi, nourish my Yin and promote fluid production.” I have no idea what that means, but since slathering my skin with gallons of lotion only goes so far, I’m willing to try anything that promises moisture. Maybe it will work like a Bounce dryer sheet, softening my skin, reducing stiffness and eliminating my static cling.

Out of the five ingredients listed, I recognize two: Chinese yams and licorice root. I like licorice (my roots are Danish after all), so how bad can it be? (Chinese medicine concoctions in general aren’t designed to taste good).

 

I took a tour of a market recently about 30 minutes away, and I know they have a Chinese medicine shop. (It’s called a wet market, really, but I don’t want to scare you into thinking they sell snakes and bats. The most exotic things I saw on my visit were  eels, frogs and turtles.

 

I think he’s trying to escape.

 

 

Do they kill them for me or do I have to do it myself?

 

Turtle soup anyone?

 

So I hopped on the Subway to Xinmin market and found the Chinese Medicine shop. I had a photo of the recipe with Chinese characters, which I’m hoping the doctor understands because I can’t tell astralagus root from licorice root.

 

The red board contains combinations of ingredients for a variety of ailments.

 

There are a variety of dried teas, flowers and herbs for sale.

 

“How much is this going cost?” I asked the doctor. I’m not sure what maidong is, but if it’s as pricey as ground dragon bones, I’ll just rub my hair with a Bounce sheet instead.

She takes a little note pad and adds some figures, and shows me: 150 kuai, a little over $20 bucks. I give her a thumbs up, and she measures the ingredients.

 

 

I wanted to take a picture with her, but felt a little embarrassed to ask. Just as I’m practicing the words in my head, she hands me my purchase with a smile and comes out from behind the counter and starts taking a video of the two of us. I’m guessing I’m the first foreign customer she’s had, and she wants to brag about it on social media. I wonder how many followers I have on TikTok now?

A lifetime supply of moistening tea.

 

She was quite excited to capture me on video. I’ve been filmed in restaurants, hiking, in the elevator, shopping…..I always wonder what they do with the videos. No one ever asks permission.

 

“How much of this stuff should I be drinking?” I asked in the Chinese Medicine chat group.

“It depends on your constitution,” came the reply. “Just brew a big pot and drink it as you need it.” How will I know when my constitution has had enough ?

I measure out the ingredients and brew a pot.

 

Getting the potion ready for brewing.

 

The doctor was kind enough to number the ingredients according to the recipe so I know which ingredient is which.

 

It’s not bad. It’s earthy, with hints of licorice, spice and leather. Oh, wait, that was my wine from last night. Wrong glass.

I add a few more pieces of licorice root (at least I think I did), close my eyes, and think of chocolate as I take another swig. It doesn’t taste like chocolate, but I can pretend.

Honestly, it’s not bad and I manage to down a pot a day. It’s only been a few days so I don’t have any data to report. I’m hoping in a few weeks I’ll feel less like a wrung out wash cloth and more like a rehydrated sponge. But you can go ahead and mail that package with the tropical, Florida humidity. Throw in a few Bounce sheets while you’re at it; they cost almost as much here as ground dragon bones.