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Beijing Li Qun Roast Duck

Have I died and gone to roast duck heaven?? I think I must have. Tucked into an old hutong alley in Beijing is a true gem – Li Qun Roast Duck Restaurant. Yes, it’s in various guide books so it’s no longer a secret, but that doesn’t make it any less good. This is truly fabulous food. And exactly what makes this truly fabulous food? 

Firstly, the location – just follow the ducks painted on the walls to get to this old house down a small lane. The restaurant entrance is a red door leading down a dark hallway. At the end of this you can see the flames from the duck roasting oven straight ahead, with five fat ducks hanging inside. I can already tell that this is going to be a memorable meal. Walk past the fireplace into the covered courtyard, where the elderly owner is having a bowl of duck soup before the busy night ahead, and chatting with the waitresses. Doorways lead off the courtyard to various ‘dining rooms’ which were presumably once living areas and bedrooms. The walls are painted a cheery imperial yellow and there is geometric patterned lino on the floors.  If you imagine your grandmother decided to convert her old weatherboard cottage in Spring Hill to a char-grilled steak joint, you’ll get the picture. It’s very home style. 

Secondly, the food. At Li Qun they make just one type of dish here, and they do it really well. These Beijing ducks are plump, with a fine crispy skin. The oven fire is fuelled by fruit tree wood, rather than gas, so the ducks have a delectable smoky edge to the crisp skin and succulent meat.  The accompanying pancakes are thinner than wafer and a little larger than others I’ve eaten, which means they can hold a bit more duck and hoisin sauce. We chose several side dishes like cucumber smashed with garlic, and deep-fried peanuts with vinegar, to cut through the richness of the duck meat.
Thirdly, there’s the ambience. Here, it’s contagiously fun and every single person is enjoying themselves immensely. It’s a low-brow, home-style experience. Don’t dress up, don’t expect an indoor bathroom, but do come with a big appetite. As your chosen duck is being carved at your table into clever slices, each with the necessary crisp sliver of duck skin, you can appreciate the theatre of it all. And the cost? About $15 a head, including tsing tao beer.

Beijing Hand Made Shoes

When I decided to break my silence and talk about shoes I knew there would be no stopping it. Now I’m going to tell you about the handmade shoes in Beijing. The Nei Lian Sheng store is at the other end of Dazhalan Jie to the dumpling restaurant I visited yesterday. This place has been turning out traditional Chinese cloth shoes since 1853, similar in style and construction to those made by the Moganshan shoemaker

The outside of the store is highly decorated in gold, blue and red, and as you pass through the wide gold-trimmed doors you feel as though you have stepped back in time to an era when retail shopping began. I imagine the interior is laid out in much the same way as it has been for the last hundred years or so, the inside walls lined with shelves of cloth and leather shoes, and the wooden and glass cabinets displaying more of the same. A central island of shelves is surrounded on four sides by more glass cabinets, and these display the shop’s premium shoes made from coloured and embroidered silk.

Of course I had to buy a pair – I chose a simple black traditional design with straps, they are as comfortable as slippers and will be perfect for tramping the streets of Shanghai in summer. 


See how the sole is made from folded layers of fabric, stitched together? And how it is heavily hand-worked with tiny little stitches in hessian thread? How lovely is that?

Beijing TianHai Dumplings

Odd perhaps that the first thing I’m writing about in Beijing is food, when there are all those other magnificent things, like the Temple of Heaven and The Forbidden City, to write about. But not really – I start thinking about lunch exactly five minutes after breakfast is finished. And the best thing about China is that lunch starts soon after 11am, about the same time as I would usually be tempted to eat a slab of cake and drink a quart of coffee. Dumplings, on the other hand, are much more satisfying than cake, and make an excellent fast lunch. Plus, eating lunch at 11.15am means you can start dinner at 5.30pm, leaving enough time for a small supper before bed. 

These particular dumplings (jiaozi) are from TianHai restaurant on Dazhalan Jie. I was ridiculously proud of myself because I could read both characters in the restaurant’s name, although the mental efforts required almost killed me. I seem to remember a similar feeling as a five year-old sounding out the word c-a-t for the first time. It goes something like this: 

me: hmmm……hey! I know that character! that’s ‘tian’!……OK,OK…tian something…….oh! that looks the ‘hai’ in ‘Shanghai!’ Guys!! You guys! This is the TianHai restaurant!!

guys: Yeah……it says that in English above the doorway Fiona………..

Hmmm. Encouragingly, the place is full of Chinese eaters as well as tourists, and has a pleasingly shabby interior with dark wooden tables and chairs, art deco lamps and loads of atmosphere. And cheap! This plate of (exactly) 22 jiaozi set me back 12 kuai ($2). They were really delicious, with a rustic thick skin with a bit of bite, and a pork filling flavoured with ginger, some rice wine, and shallots. A little vinegar to dip each one in, a cup of green tea, and that’s lunch. All over by 11.34am.

Peach Blossom Snow

If it should snow in springtime in China, particularly after the fruit trees have begun blossoming, it is known as a ‘peach blossom snow’. It’s not very common, but so far this Spring there have already been a few occurrences in China’s north.
We had taken an afternoon walk through the Mutianyu orchards and chestnut groves to the neighbouring village of Yingbeigou, using Eloise Walter and Emily Spear’s descriptive and lovely “Walking Guide to Mutianyu” (they have it for sale at The Schoolhouse). I wish all walking guides were more like this one – it fits perfectly in a pocket, it’s well written and has just enough detail to keep the walk interesting without feeling like you’re on a guided tour. 
On the way home, winding back through the chestnuts, it began to rain, cold and hard, and the wind picked up its pace. Looking up. we could see a cloud descending rapidly over the mountaintops. We ran! But before we could find cover the rain became soft flurries of peach blossom snow. It didn’t settle for long but it looked so beautiful! 

The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu

We stayed in Mutianyu at a wonderful village house, number 101, run by The Schoolhouse  at Mutianyu. 
The Schoolhouse is like a poster child for sustainable eco-tourism – they have helped turn the village into a destination in its own right with a restaurant, lodgings, a glass-blowing studio, community projects, and a series of traditional village houses which have been carefully restored to protect the original footprint, but now have energy-saving bonuses like double-glazing and under-floor heating.

Outside, village life goes on as usual amidst groves of gnarled chestnut trees and orchards of peach and apricot. Little pathways wind up and down over the hillsides and between the stone houses. Firewood is collected, gardens are tended and children take the bus to school. Higher up the hillsides still, the Great Wall watches silently and protectively over the village, as it has always done.

Great Outfit for the Great Wall

Chinese women sometimes have a knack for wearing the most incredibly impractical outfits.  Every time I have been on top of a mountain in China, there is always someone in skyscraper heels, wobbling over uneven paths and being steadied by the hand of a boyfriend, girlfriend or husband in more sensible shoes. The outfit usually also involves at least one piece of completely weather-inappropriate attire – think sable-trimmed coat in summer, or sparkly miniskirt in winter. Why be practical when you can be outrageous?
(To be completely fair, I have my own wardrobe full of impractical outfits, and shoes – how I love them. But I never wear them to climb a mountain.)

The Great Wall at Mutianyu

Wow. The Great Wall of China may not be visible from space (that’s a myth, apparently) but it is still bloody amazing. We arrived in Beijing last night to miserable rain and dark grey skies. After leaving Shanghai in the throes of spring and arriving north in the depths of winter, I was ill-disposed towards the city. We headed instead to the little village of Mutianyu, for two nights by the foot of the Great Wall, arriving just on dusk to lovely old houses and steep winding streets, but unable to make out  the wall through the heavy rain.
This morning, though, we woke to glorious sunshine and clear blue skies, with that unmistakeable silhouette of the wall visible far above us.

The climb from the village passes through about a thousand roadside stalls selling cold water, cold beer, pyjamas, souvenirs and walking sticks. Should you need a lace parasol, they have those too. Further up the hill stretch rows of ladies calling out to offer you a taste of their dried fruits and candied walnuts. 
Just before the Best Great Wall Cable Car entrance a ming dynasty guard in fully authentic plastic helmet was playing Chinese chess (xiang qi) with a worried guy in a suit. 

I opted against the cable car, even though it was the Best, and the chair lift (no such impressive title for it), and walked up instead, a steep but not impossible climb. The view from the top is all the more impressive when you have had to puff and pant your way uphill on foot. And what a view – rugged mountain ranges stretch away both north and south of the wall. The steep brown hillside is dotted with the white puffs of the first peach blossoms of spring, a delicate contrast to the solidness of the wall itself stretching like a great stone ribbon unfurled to the horizon. Walking along the top, through the gatehouses and up and down the stone pathways, I am struck by the wall’s absolute magnificence. Don’t ever pass up a chance to see it. Ever.

I’m trialling a new larger size photo format. Let me know if you have problems downloading them.

Shanghai Expo Starts in One Week! Oh no!

Shanghai International Expo begins in exactly a week. I haven’t been ignoring it, it’s just more like a state of denial. Expo has become such a pervasive influence on my daily life, I kind of hate it before it’s even started. The endless Expo topiary, building construction, roadworks, repainting and disruption has gone on so long it’s become part of the fabric of Shanghai life for me. And now it’s nearly here.

Like Beijing before the Olympics, the city has undergone a massive ‘clean-up’ both literally and, well, ‘morally’. Here’s how I see it, from a ‘small-fry’ man on the street perspective:
1. All pirate DVD shops are now closed. For foreigners like me, these shops are a lifeline of current release movies and old favourites unavailable elsewhere. Except, of course, that they’re not really closed. Last week I walked past a regular haunt, it was shut, padlocked, windows completely curtained. And then a familiar face appeared from a doorway and said “need some DVDs?” I felt like a crack addict looking for my next high. Furtive phone calls were made, then a guy with some keys appeared and opened the padlocked doors. He turned on the lights and inside, all was exactly as it had been before. Including all the up-to-date new releases for 10 kuai each. And then we were locked inside by the guy with the keys, from the outside. Now I really felt like a drug addict. I chose my DVDs (Crazy Heart, first season of Glee, District 9), paid, then after several more furtive phone calls we were unlocked and released. Bizarre. Except that everyone’s happy – the DVD guy, the police, the customers, and even better, it looks like there’s been a major crackdown. Perfect.
2. All intersections in Shanghai will now obey Shanghai Official Traffic Rules. Previously, intersections were a confused tangle of cars, bikes, motorbikes, trucks and buses, all honking their horns and driving on the wrong side of the road. Traffic lights, particularly red ones, were regarded as an advisement only. But everyone knew the unwritten rules,and so it all ran quite smoothly. For example, taxis always go through red lights but honk their horns as they do so, to let everyone move out of the way. Buses stop for nothing and no-one, not even police. Pedestrians and cyclists know that zebra crossings are meaningless. And scooter drivers always drive on the wrong side, whilst smoking a cigarette and talking on their mobile phones. These are the rules.
Now, all intersections are patrolled by two policemen and four traffic guards, plus or minus four Expo volunteers with small red flags and fluorescent armbands. Now everyone will be made to observe the road rules as they are written down.
And the result? Chaos. Everyone is totally confused. What are those red light for? Are you serious officer? I have to actually stop and wait?? Intersections have become places where policemen argue with scooter riders all day about why they can’t get around a red light by driving on the footpath. And the poor pedestrians, accustomed to crossing when there is a break in the traffic, are being held back at corners until the little green Walk man appears. Emotions are running high.

3. Whenever I go on the subway, I have to pass through a security check, including a bag X-ray. A friend had a highly dangerous bottle of red glitter nail-polish confiscated, yet another walked through with a recently purchased kitchen cleaver, unstopped. Perhaps there’s a gang of nail-polish wielding graffiti artists roaming the subway painting small but subversive slogans on the walls. Who knows?

4. On a positive note, there are now five thousand Expo taxis. They’re clean, they’re cute, and they have seatbelts in the back seats. All the rest of Shanghai’s taxis have no seatbelts in the back seats, although sometimes there is a seatbelt but nothing to plug it into, or a plug but no seatbelt. Intriguing. Of course, in the Expo taxis, you don’t have to actually buckle up. It’s not illegal to not wear a seatbelt. But they’re there. And they look good to foreign visitors, even if nobody actually uses them. And that’s what counts.

I’ll be in Beijing for the next few days. Catch up soon on all the news from the North.

The Good Oil

The Chinese are great recyclers and they put us to shame in many respects. But sometimes there has to come a point where recycling goes too far. This week I was out walking and was drawn to a lively and  packed Chinese restaurant. Everyone inside looked like they were enjoying themselves, certainly, they were all eating. I was starving, and was about to walk in when I noticed the adjoining kitchen, above.

Through the grimy windows and smoke blackened walls I could see five cooks crammed into a space the size of a bathroom. Steam billowed out through the windows whenever the lid was taken off a big pot, and the roar of four wok burners going full bore all at once could be heard above the din of orders being shouted by the waitresses. 

Then the extractor fan pipe caught my eye. Coming directly out from the kitchen wall, it was covered in a patina of grease and dirt. Hanging from it, if you look carefully below, were two plastic bottles positioned to catch all the cooking oil as it condensed along the inside of the pipe. Now, you might say that this was just to prevent the pipe from getting blocked, and was going to be thrown out later. But I’ve seen and heard enough in Shanghai’s backstreets to know that this cooking oil was going right back where it came from – the kitchen.

Oil recycling, albeit not like this, is apparently common in Chinese restaurants – big restaurants sell used oil to small restaurants, who use it again and on-sell it to ever smaller restaurants. At the bottom of the food chain, literally, are the myriad street stalls who make some of the tastiest food in town. Rumour has it that even congealed oil from inside street grease-traps is retrieved, heated, strained and resold. I’m both disgusted and fascinated by this – on the one hand, it’s totally revolting, on the other, oil is heated to 240 degrees for deep frying, which should be hot enough to kill anything really, even cockroaches. 

Pop-up Shop, Changle Lu

This little shop, if you could really call it a shop, cuts keys and that’s about it.  As you can see, it’s also configured for night-time trading. The shop owner wheels it out on a small trolley from his doorway onto the footpath each morning, and wheels it away again at the end of the night. 

Every single street in Shanghai has a pop-up key cutter like this, as well as a pop-up mending shop (a treadle sewing machine on a trolley) and a pop-up bicycle repair shop. Usually there are also two or three pop-up cigarette sellers and a few random pop-ups, like the lady outside the entrance to Fuxing Park who sells batteries on odd days and slippers on even days. It’s so convenient to be able to get my batteries and slippers on the way home from the park. 

They all represent a kind of street-level micro-commerce that used to be common in the west until it was regulated out of existence. Bring back the street vendors! They give the city so much life and character. Can you imagine never having to walk more than fifty metres to get your keys cut or your trousers re-hemmed?