Friday, September 30, 2005

Biking through Beijing and Mongolian Hot Pot

I spent the afternoon with Jack, the great tour guide we met last April through our friend Arlene Stein. We did a bike tour through Beijing, for a story I'm working on for the Journal, actually. I did a similar your with him in the spring and I wanted it to be somewhat different. The first time we started at Behai lake and cycled south and up to the Forbidden City. You can’t take a bike in there, but went to the front door, then all around the perimeter. It was very memorable. Today’s was in some ways not as good, but it was fun.

Riding a bike in Beijing is pretty wild. If you’ve ridden in NYC at all, you could adapt pretty quickly. If not, it’s an adjustment for sure. The streets are very crowded with cars and buses –it’s not like the old Beijing pictures you see of huge avenues filled with bikes. Certainly, there are a lot of bikes as well as pedestrians, but that just adds to the insanity. Also, they have right on red here but “come to a complete stop and then…” does not seem to be part of the equation. Also, the bikes you rent are pretty wobbly. Last time my pedal fell off and the seat fell off of my friend Andrew’s bike. No such problem this time, but these are definitely the Yugos of bikes.

We went in and out of streets and drove through the hutongs – the old, alleyway houses. It is narrow but quiet and peaceful and cool in there. No cars. Apparently, all of Beijing used to be covered by these, but they are all being torn down. In the drum tower neighborhood where we were, there are still plenty and they are nice to ride through.

Close to the lake, they are pretty crowded with tourists on “hutong tours,” however, many of them zipping around in the back of pedicabs. The most interesting thing was when I was waiting for Jack near the bike rental place, a line of pedicabs came by, each of them ferrying Western parents holding their newly adopted Chinese babies, who were probably 8-10 months old. There must have been 12 or 14 in a row. You actually see this all over Beijing. After you pick up your baby you have to stay in Beijing for a certain amount of days to get the paperwork done or whatever. So couples are touring around with their new babies. It is quite remarkable to see the mothers giving them bottles, the fathers carrying them in Baby Bjorns. It’s nice and a little weird.

We stopped for lunch at a Mongolian Hot Pot restaurant. I hadn’t had that yet and it is really good. They bring out these big cauldrons of broth, filled with big ginseng roots, huge garlic cloves, leeks, nutmeg (big balls), things that looked like buckeyes and all kinds of other crap... we got one hot, which was similar but also blood red from the myriad chili peppers. Jack pointed to it and said, “It is very much like traditional health soup.”

Then they light a flame and the thing starts bubbling in 5-10 minutes and they bring out whatever you choose and you start dunking. We opted for beef and lamb over things lik e brains and, for a few extra quai, sheep penis. We also got some noodles (def. fresh made) and a big plate of vegetables that included tofu, lotus root, three or four kinds of great mushrooms and some big wide noodles I think were made of bean curd. You also choose a dipping sauce and jack suggested sesame, which was excellent. It was all delicious. When we were getting towards the bottom of the platter, I came across a brown block about the size and texture of the bean curd. I picked it up and asked Jack if it was a different type of tofu. “No,” he said. “That is goose blood. Very good for health, especially the lungs.” I didn’t want to seem like a wuss, so I dunked it and ate it. I figured that I have to start getting over queasiness over what I eat and the sooner the better.

Truthfully, you could have put a piece of tire (or sheep penis, I suppose) in there and dunked it in the sesame sauce and it would have tasted great. The goose blood didn’t hold up to the heat too well though. The beef, tofu, mushrooms and wide noodles were the best. And it will be a while before I try the sheep dong, especially if I have to pay extra for the honor. Of course, this whole feast was only about $6.

There was a fish tank behind us containing worm-like things, which I am going to assume were small eels, probably 5-6 inches long. I didn’t even notice them until a guy came out of the kitchen with a net and started fishing them out. He walked back in the kitchen and a few minutes later came out with a big platterful for the couple behind us. The woman grabbed them with her choppies and went to work.

After lunch, we rode up to the lama Temple and Confucius Temple. Bikes are not allowed in either so we just checked them out and moved on. On the way back, we rode down a street with a lot of little music stores, filled with guitars. I had not seen that yet and was excited. We stopped and I went into one and it cracked me up – just like an American store, except tiny. There were two surly, long-haired guys sitting there. One was smoking a cigarette, the other was playing a PTS-type guitar through a high gain, thin-sounding amp and playing classic weedly weedly highly technical bad shred. I took a quick look and saw you can get a Chinese-made guitar for about $120 and a Chinese decent looking amp for the same. The latter could be important to me because I think I blew mine up. I’ll go back and try them out at some point. American made stuff costs a fortune, but all the lower end stuff at home is made here anyhow. I just wasn’t sure if it’s also available.