Adventures of Life in Beijing

 

“You’re very good at silver linings,” a friend texted me recently.

I’d just shared with her that we probably won’t be able to come to the US for a visit this summer since China has banned foreigners from entering. If we leave, there’s no telling when we can return.

I tried to highlight the positive.

“The good news is that lots of places are opening up for travel here. So instead of petting bunnies at your place I might be riding camels in the desert in Inner Mongolia,” I told her.

 

Tengger Dessert, Inner Mongolia. Courtesy of Beijing Hikers

 

I’d spent weeks dreaming of sipping wine together on her balcony and snuggling with her two pet bunnies this summer.

 

Maybe next summer, George and Bella

I just knew that running my hands through George and Bella’s fur was the antidote I needed to my stress

As I scrolled through the fuzzy duo’s Instagram feed Triple Chin George tears started to roll. I realized I’d have to settle for virtual bunny therapy this summer. At least I’d be in good company with George and Bella’s 969 other followers. (You should check them out. This much cuteness has to  lower your stress.)

Here’s the silver lining. As our return to the US this summer seems unlikely, we’re being forced to dig deep to experience more of what China has to offer.

 

Still round the corner there may wait, a new road, or a secret gate.    – J.R.R. Tolkien

“The great thing is we live in such a big country,” I said to my sons as we discussed our summer plans. “We can go hiking in the mountains near Tibet or go to Hainan Island for scuba.”

I’ve tried really hard to put a positive spin on things in the last four months and rock this China adventure for all it’s worth.

 

Exploring the Forbidden City

 

 

It’s not always easy. Constantly feeling like an outsider (no one wants to share an elevator with a foreigner), innumerable temperature checks by guys in hazmat suits, and a ban on leaving the city have taken a toll. (The guys in white jumpsuits showed up in my dreams one night, jolting me awake and making my heart race.)

I feel like I lived through the pandemic twice. Once when it was at its peak in China and a second time as the virus swept across the globe.

Watching my home country succumb to increasing death and confusion from my living room TV is surreal. It’s like tracking a hurricane as it approaches landfall, waiting for destruction but being powerless to stop it.

I need to be refueled by hugs from friends and family and have meaningful conversations that don’t include my phone as a translator.

I want to go out to eat and have everyone’s meal come out at the same time, and not have to fumble with chopsticks.

My kids looked forward to seeing  how many times they could eat at Chick-fil-A in a week, or ride The Incredible Hulk Coaster without puking.

And the thought of seeing them hanging out with their friends? It would mean everything’s right in the world again, kind of like finding the missing sock in the dryer.

I get a lump in my throat when I think about everything we’re missing. Unlike boxes of Clif Bars and a good jar of face cream, enduring friendships and cultural familiarity can’t be ordered online.

 

With shipping from the U.S. these babies cost about $4 each but they’re so worth it. We ration them in ziplock bags marked with everyone’s name.

 

We’re all missing out on something important this summer.  Just like many of your plans, mine will have to wait.

But as I imagine my family camping out under the stars in the desert

 

Inner Mongolia, courtesy of Beijing Hikers

 

Or exploring the spot where the Great Wall plunges into the sea,

 

 

I think I can see a faint glimmer of a silver lining.

 

Every cloud has a silver lining. Sometimes we just have to look really hard to see it.

 

I hope you find a silver lining in this difficult time. I’d love to hear about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments (9):

  1. Shari Johnson

    May 22, 2020 at 1:03 pm

    love seeing your heart and travels through your post…

    Reply
  2. Michele Greenwood

    May 22, 2020 at 2:44 pm

    Love, love, love this. And you.

    Reply
  3. Maria

    May 22, 2020 at 2:48 pm

    My silver lining hopes are for local camping this summer- under the stars in nature with my family…

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      May 23, 2020 at 6:09 am

      Sounds like that should be possible !

      Reply
  4. Erin Rauch

    May 25, 2020 at 1:53 am

    This is such a beautiful post! Love your silver linings and thankful we are blessed to see them as so many do not. Miss you, friend!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      May 25, 2020 at 3:59 am

      Thank you,hope you guys are well.

      Reply
  5. Fran

    May 28, 2020 at 11:05 pm

    K-
    The ONLY time I camped under the stars was with you in Joshua Tree. I would do it again in a heat beat – as long as you and yours were tagging along. 🙂
    I have it in my mind to drive across the country to see my parents and to let Daddy know how things have been for you in China. He still asks about you and hope you are able to embrace the “difficulties” of living abroad, while enjoying the small things. I tell him you do. Some pork buns come to mind. Be well my dear – you are loved. FM

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      May 29, 2020 at 3:43 am

      So happy you can visit with your dad – say hi for me! Take care-
      K-

      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.