Adventures of Life in Beijing

Sacred Places & Friendly Faces

Last week a friend and I made a quick overnight trip to the city of Datong in Shanxi province, home to two famous Chinese landmarks, the Yungang Grottoes and Hengshan mountain scenic area.

Datong is less than one hour by air from Beijing, but the experience was a world apart. My head is still spinning from the dizzying mountain heights, spectacular scenery, friendly people and one insane Didi driver whom I’m still trying to forget.

We headed straight from the airport to the Yungang Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage site dating from 450 AD.

 

This series of ancient Buddhist temple caves is comprised of over 50 caves and some 50,000 plus statues.

 

 

The caves, some of which are several stories high, contain ornate carvings and  paintings, with golden Buddhas and colorful scenes of emperors and religious deities. Out of religious respect, photos are not allowed in some areas.

 

 

The largest statue is over 60 feet high, and the level of ingenuity required to construct these beautifully decorated sandstone caves is mind-boggling.

 

 

Almost as impressive as the scenery was the lack of crowds. We strolled leisurely, exploring the caves and stopping to enjoy an ice cream in the shade (My Chinese is just good enough to avoid the salted egg and red bean flavors in favor of a coffee one, thankfully).

 

 

Just like any good theme park, the exit from this attraction ended in an area filled with restaurants and gifts shops.

We took a break from sightseeing to sample the locally produced vinegar and admire the dried chilies from a safe distance (no sampling necessary).

 

 

Samples anyone ?

 

Lunch of freshly carved noodles with ground pork and a few stuffed buns set us back about $3 each, including water.

 

Knife-carved noodles are a Shanxi province specialty.

 

It’s pretty cheap to travel around China subsisting on some kind of noodle dish, fruit, yogurt,  bread or dumplings and tea, water or beer depending on how stressful the day has been. And these are all words I know how to say in Chinese, which makes things easier.

After a quick catnap at the hotel (our non-smoking room held strict warnings not to smoke in the bed), we explored Datong, which was once the beginning of the trade route headed to Mongolia.

We enountered some ghost town- like areas, with a shocking absence of crowds. After three months of living in China, I’m just used to wall-to-wall people. What a refreshing change.

 

Where is everyone?

 

Datong’s old city walls are beautiful at night.

 

We started out early the next morning, once again expecting large crowds. Our anticipated destination was the Hengshan hanging monastery, an ancient structure attached to the side of a cliff with spindly wooden poles. I had seen this feat of engineering in pictures, which is what lured me to Datong in the first place.

Does it count as getting lost if you don’t arrive at your intended destination but never actually lose track of where you are?

In our case I’ll just call it serendipitous that our crazy driver passed the turnoff to the hanging monastery and took us instead to Heng mountain scenic area. I won’t bore you with the details of the trip, but after three hours with Driver Wang we were just happy to get out of the car. Anywhere. Alive. The actual destination was of  secondary importance.

We looked up at all of the monasteries on the hillside and assumed we had arrived at our intended destination.

 

I thought this was the hanging monastery.

 

 

Fueled by chips and cookies from our backpacks and buying water along the way, we started out hiking. In China, at least everywhere I’ve been so far, hiking means stairs. And lots of them. I was thankful for all of the times I opted for the stairs over the escalator in the subway station.

 

Stairs, stairs, and more stairs.

 

Each set of  stairs brought us to another vista – a monastery, a rock outcropping, a small temple, or a man with a thermos of hot water selling instant noodles.

 

 

The farther we went, the farther we wanted to go. Where does this lead? What’s over the hill top? What’s around the bend? It was impossible to stop. The views got more spectacular as we ascended.

 

 

And there was only one way to go – up.  We climbed over 100 flights of stairs, gaining a few thousand feet in elevation.

 

The final push to the top.

 

The surrounding peaks, temples and valleys were our primary focus, but to our fellow Chinese hikers we were the center of attention. In this somewhat remote area away from Beijing, as a couple of foreigners we drew a lot of attention. I’m guessing for some, we might have been the first “weiguoren” they had laid eyes on. Everyone wanted pictures, wanted to know where we were from. It was a friendly curiosity, and we shared  a spirit of commaraderie as we urged eachother on.

 

Katie in the white hat is a local university student eager to practice her English.

 

 

 

What we didn’t realize until we reached the top was that we were sharing a pilgrimage; we had summitted one China’s five sacred peaks.

This was not the hanging monastery we had set out to see, but something much grander that we achieved with sweat, quivering muscles and smiles from strangers.

 

 

It was breezy at the top, and I twirled around in exhilaration, taking in 360 degree views that spanned mountain ranges and neighboring provinces, unobstructed by human development. I can almost imagine what it was like as caravans of traders traveled from here along the Silk Road centuries ago.

 

 

 

We kept an eye on the clock, realizing we needed to return to the parking lot before evening came unless we wanted to spend the night on the mountain. We headed down, making more friends along the way.

In the U.S. such strenuous hikes might lure outdoorsy types who spend half their paycheck at REI, or at least weekend warriors and fitness buffs. Not here. From a four year old girl carrying a pretty red purse to a hunched over octogenarian, they climbed up the mountain. Sporting dressy pants, parasols, flip flops, cozy slippers, sequined tops and warm sweaters despite the upper 70s heat, our fellow hikers looked more prepared for a shopping trip or lounging at home than an adventure in the wilderness.  They put us to shame with their level of fitness, earned from a car-less lifestyle where carrying groceries, cycling to town and climbing stairs in the subway were part of their routine.

Not wanting to chance it with another crazy driver, we took a public bus back to Datong, thanks to a friendly young couple who helped us buy tickets and find the right bus.

Not a bad bus ride. It even had AC.

 

We travelled on small country roads,  passing farms, stopping for passengers and taking our time. $3 and 2 hours later we arrived back in the city and caught a cab to the airport.

I’ve climbed high peaks in Mexico, trekked up hills in Nepal, visited Alpine mountain tops in Europe and seen some splendid wilderness in the United States. I found something special in each of those places. Being in nature (in the mountains especially) feeds my soul like nothing else. Maybe I feel closer to God because I’m high up on a mountain. Silly, I know.

But there was something different about this trip, about these vistas, about this mountain top that will stay with me. Perhaps it was the sheer adventure of getting there, navigating everything on our own without a tour guide, or not realizing we had just summitted a sacred peak until we saw the marker. Or the strangers encouraging us on the way to the top, surprised to see two foreigners in their midst. Or the freedom of a  360 degree view after being hemmed in in Beijing.

I’m not sure, but I loved it, and I’m hooked. There are many peaks to climb in China. I’ll let you know which one is next.

If you enjoy following my adventures, would you consider subscribing to future posts if you haven’t already? You’ll find a “subscribe” button in the menu at the top. And feel free to share this blog with a friend. I’d love to have your company, and I promise not to make you eat any chili peppers along the way.

 

 

Comments (2):

  1. Paula

    September 12, 2019 at 2:24 pm

    As always Kirsten, I love your adventures.
    i do not know anyone who deserves
    this experience more.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 13, 2019 at 3:11 am

      Thank you Paula! I appreciate your kind words. Just trying to soak up as many experiences as I can.

      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.