Last night we ended up eating at a Belgian restaurant with some friends from Caitlin’s program. It was expensive by Beijing standards but normal for ours. I had rabbit in mustard sauce with stewed red cabbage and potato croquettes. Two things surprised me. The first was how full I felt after finishing. Eating a large amount of asian food makes me full, but it doesn’t sit heavily. This meal made me feel fuller. The second surprising thing was noticing that there was no sign of chopsticks; I noticed when we finished eating that we had all used silverware.
Apart from silverware and western cooking, Beijing suffers from lack of large dogs, quality cheese, crusty french bread to go with it, coffee, good beer, and chocolate chip cookies, among many other kinds of cookie. If you are planning to visit Caitlin in Beijing bringing one of these food items is a sure way to gain favor with her. Households, apart from hers, also don’t have ovens, as discussed in a previous post. I hoped to have an entire day of baking before leaving the East Coast but ended up too busy finishing my semester to do any at all. Instead I settled for a bag of homemade chocolate chip cookies from the Potbelly Sandwich Works in Dulles Int’l Airport, which gave me the opportunity to discover just how much cookies in China mean to Caitlin. She placed them directly into her special stash of special treats, where they were left undisturbed for several days.
Or so I thought. Lounging around on Thursday evening I casually remarked that we ought to try those cookies I brought. This elicited the most pout-lipped, shoulders hunched, head down, eyes up, sheepish “I already have” reply that I have seen in my entire life. My younger sister looked so guilty. “I thought you already knew” she said. “I haven’t been keeping it a secret. They’re really good.” Clearly, because they were really good, she was hoarding them according to a don’t ask-don’t tell philosophy. And, because I am older than she, and because I can get cookies like that all the time, I don’t begrudge her the right to hoard them. After all, among other less important things of scarcity, Beijing has lack of chocolate chip cookies.
We baked these a day later. There is a small handful left.
I’m visiting Caitlin in Beijing. It took 23 hours, door to door, in 9 separate vehicles. There were three trains each in New Jersey and China, two airplanes, and one people mover at Dulles International Airport. Luckily for me I don’t mind traveling.
China is a place of contradiction. After 12 hours in Beijing, most of them spent sleeping, I feel at home here but out of place at the same time. It is both cheap and expensive, Crowded and spacious. I was offered my first glimpses of the country as we came in for landing at Beijing International Airport. The flight path took us over vast empty white territory of Siberia and Mongolia before we turned into our final descent, made from the west of the city. We passed over dry plains, followed by huge and pointy mountains, and finally the outskirts of the city where I caught a glimpse of the Great Wall. The buildings I saw were in clusters — densly packed but widely spaced. The airport is huge. We taxied up to the new Terminal 3 building and were one of only about 5 planes docked at what must be close to 50 gates. The inside is so large that photos do not give any sense of its scale. In a country so large and populous it felt strange to be inside a building that was so immensly over-adequate. The terminal felt extremely empty. This was my impression of the contradictions of China.
It required three trains to get to my sister’s house: exactly the same number of trains that I took to get from my house to the airport. Her neighborhood could be Long Island City in New York or Korea Town in Los Angeles. It is not as dense as I thought it might be, but there are lots of people and shops. There is a convenient metro station. I arrived at dinner time and so eating was one of the first things we did. A meal of fried naan and Xianjang vegetables plus two lamb skewers cost us 20 RMB for two people. That is $3. Even in Egypt food was not quite that cheap. I was extremely impressed. Beijing is considered expensive, and Caitlin regaled me with tales of eating 5 course meals with four people at restaurants in the countryside for 40 RMB. If all I do in Beijing is eat, I will be completely happy unless it makes me sick. On my suggestion we went to a bar after dinner for a quick drink and for my second lesson in contradictions. My beer cost RMB 35. Almost twice the price of our dinner for two. We spent close to 15 dollars for four drinks. China is both cheap and expensive, according to your habits and living standards.
Xinjiang Vegetables, Fried Naan, Lamb Skewers (Meat Sticks)
Today I need to get house slippers, register at the police station, buy an extension cord for my computer and get a SIM chip for my cell phone. Obama will be inaugurated a little after midnight tonight and we are trying to find out the best place to watch. Right now it is breakfast time and I am hoping for some yummy yummy street food.