Adventures of Life in Beijing

This is the first in a series of posts on my reflections of living in China during the Coronavirus outbreak.

The events of the past few weeks swirl around in my mind as I try to make sense of things. How did we get to this new-normal where temperature checks and mask-wearing are part of daily life?

We first heard about an outbreak of pneumonia in Wuhan in mid-January. No need to worry, I thought. Pneumonia’s not contagious right? Besides, Wuhan is over 1,000 kilometers away from Beijing. I quickly  forgot about the news reports and started packing for our upcoming ski vacation to Japan over the Lunar New Year holiday.

Fast forward two weeks. By the end of January all public events in Beijing had been cancelled and school was closed until further notice due to an epidemic of a new coronavirus.

This wasn’t simply a few octogenarians in Hubei with a case of the sniffles; this was a major epidemic brewing that would alter our daily reality in many ways.

We heard it all started with a snake. Or was it a bat? Does anything good ever come from snakes? (Remember what happened in the garden of eden?) Did people fall ill from snake bites or eating snake soup? Later the blame shifted to the pangolin, whose scales are prized in Chinese medicine, making it one of the most heavily trafficked mammals in the world.

 

 

“Coronavirus? Isn’t that what happens to you when you run out of Corona?” My husband jokes.

”No, that’s what I’ll need to survive in-home quarantine when school doesn’t start for two weeks,” I replied. On second thought, you’d better make it tequila.

 

 

Advice poured in on social media on how to stay healthy. Chat groups argued endlessly about the various types of masks and which ones were preferred. Given the shortage, some people resorted to drastic measures.

 

How does he breathe?

 

 

I haven’t seen it, but apparently even dogs are covering their snouts.

 

Really?

China’s rich history of traditional medicine meant many tips for beating the virus focused on strengthening our immune systems. Here is some of the well-meaning advice I received.

  • Cut at least four whole garlic cloves into small pieces, add boiling water and drink garlic water twice a day (this surely will keep the virus away, along with vampires and my husband).
  • Coat each nostril with Vaseline (which is difficult to find here and almost as expensive as maple syrup. If I’m going to stick something up my nose I’d choose the syrup ).
  • Whatever you do, don’t  let yourself get thirsty. Drink every 10 minutes, preferably warm water (do you think I could substitute a salt-rimmed margarita twice a day instead?)
  • If you must go out, place a slice of ginger under your tongue.     (under your mask of course).

 

And it’s not just social media watching over us. Shortly after the outbreak began, fliers appeared on our doors from the local government, reminding us to wash our hands and check for fevers. Banners hang in public places urging proper hygiene.

 

Banners around town remind us to take care

 

Local parks, which thankfully have saved my sanity and negated my need for tequila, offer a platform to encourage public caution as well. In addition to banners, loudspeakers blare instructions in Chinese, urging us to wear masks, wash our hands and avoid gatherings. I’ll be a very clean, (hopefully sober) hermit by the time this thing blows over.

 

Loudspeaker inside the bear reminds me to wear a mask, wash hands and monitor symptoms

 

As the epidemic brews, we make final preparations for our ski trip to Japan, where the only face mask I’ll have to contend with is ones to keep away frostbite.

We don our masks leaving Beijing, and I struggle to breathe through the thick fabric. I’m either going to suffocate or be consumed by a deadly virus. Either way I’m a goner. I take my mask off and breathe freely, garnering suspicious looks from fellow travelers, all of whom are sporting  some kind of face protection, from black Darth Vader-ish numbers to flimsy Hello Kitty masks. We pass through security, apply a liberal dose of hand sanitizer and board the plane to Sapporo where a cold Asahi awaits.

 

 

 

 

Comments (20):

  1. Ainslie Lewis

    February 10, 2020 at 12:03 pm

    Thanks again for a well written blog spiced with humor and authentic emotions. There are many BSF Leaders praying for you and your family. We are praying for your health and your safety as you travel and your husband as he stays back in China.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 11, 2020 at 1:20 am

      Thanks for your kind words – I appreciate the prayers.

      Reply
  2. Maggie Sigiani

    February 10, 2020 at 1:45 pm

    Keep praying for you all!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 11, 2020 at 1:20 am

      Thank you Maggie!

      Reply
  3. Jackie Lewis

    February 10, 2020 at 2:02 pm

    Continuing to pray for you and your family. Keep the information coming.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 11, 2020 at 1:19 am

      Thank you Jackie- more updates coming soon!

      Reply
  4. Alison

    February 10, 2020 at 3:15 pm

    Have the tequila!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 11, 2020 at 1:19 am

      Ha ha – I’m not even sure if they have that here. I know I can get the Coronas though😂

      Reply
  5. Wanda

    February 10, 2020 at 11:51 pm

    Great blog… love your humor and transparency! Praying for you and your family.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 11, 2020 at 1:18 am

      Thanks Wanda!

      Reply
  6. Holly McCsll

    February 11, 2020 at 3:24 am

    Although it’s a very scary subject, you had ne laughing out loud! We are praying for you guys!!

    Reply
  7. Holly McCall

    February 11, 2020 at 3:25 am

    Although it’s a very scary subject, you had me laughing out loud! We are praying for you guys!!

    Reply
  8. Erin

    February 11, 2020 at 4:16 pm

    This is great! Thankful for your sense of humor in a scary situation. Continued prayers…

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 11, 2020 at 11:07 pm

      Thank you Erin.

      Reply
  9. Laurie Pytosh

    February 12, 2020 at 3:18 am

    Wonderfully written with a bit of humor …an excellent read!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 12, 2020 at 3:20 am

      Thank you Laurie !

      Reply
  10. Kara Lewis

    February 13, 2020 at 5:36 am

    This is amazing, Kirsten!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 13, 2020 at 5:57 am

      Thanks for reading, it’s very surreal in China right now.

      Reply

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Snake Skin

I’m really sorry I let you down. I made promises I just couldn’t deliver.

If you recall in my last post Chinese Medicine I planned to drink a pot of Chinese herbal tea everyday to try and improve my reptilian skin, itchy scalp and overall parched demeanor caused by Beijing’s cold dry winter. I know you were hoping I could share the results of a miracle cure.

 

Traditional Chinese Medicine moisturizing tea

 

The concoction, brewed from a collection of beige roots and twigs, smelled a bit like a musty wool blanket that had been stored too long in a closet. It didn’t taste bad but as the holidays approached there was too much competition.

My first-ever  homemade eggnog with a splash of Captain Morgan’s did nothing for my skin, but it uplifted my spirits tremendously in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

 

You can’t buy eggnog in Beijing, but homemade was so easy !

 

Then there was the buttery yellow Chrysanthemum tea given to me by a friend. The color just made me happy, and I’d choose the floral aroma any day over the musky medicinal potion.

 

Chrysanthemum tea

 

And then there was the treasured Cadbury’s hot chocolate mix, which felt like such an indulgence topped with homemade whipped cream.
(Instant hot chocolate is a foreign luxury good, not readily available.)

Peet’s Coffee made its debut in Beijing this winter, and Santa brought me a shiny red mug for Christmas. It just didn’t seem right to fill it with Moisturizing Yam Tea.

 

 

With all of the competing beverages, I just couldn’t face another cup of astralagus root and dried yam tea.

In an effort to soothe my winter-weary skin, I turned to another (this time external) popular Chinese remedy: snake oil.

I know what you’re thinking. That’s what those fly-by-night traveling salesman used to sell at carnivals in the early 1800s, right?

Actually, it turns out that snake oil has a long history of popularity in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Made from the oil of water snakes, this omega-3 fatty acid rich substance has been used to soothe skin, cure dandruff, relieve split ends and reduce arthritis.

A quick visit to Wal-Mart and I strike gold: there’s snake oil cream right next to snail slime extract. Maybe these cold-blooded creatures can help.

 

 

Online shopping offers more choices, from Snake Oil exfoliating gel to Snake Oil hair removers and whitening creams.

 

I’ve ordered a moisturizer and a scrub. I passed on the snail slime. I’ll check in again in a few weeks and let you know things are coming along.

 

 

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.