Beijing '10 Day 14 - Saying Goodbye With the Best Hutong Experience, SheShaHai, 100-Year Old Lamb Restaurant & NanLouGuXiang

July 18, 2010 (Sunday)

My dad’s local friend was the same friend who took us a few years ago to YongHeGong (Lama Temple) 雍和宫. I have always met with him in every one of my travels in Beijing. This time around we agreed to meet in the WuDaoKou subway stop. He used to drive his tiny car a couple of years back but now he has switched to public transportation due to the heavy traffic and pollution. Even the special treatment for small cars like having access to certain roads did not attract him anymore to the prospect of having to wait for hours to get from place to place or looking everywhere for a parking spot. He said biking was also not a healthy and safe option for him because of the pollution and the diminishing bike space in the bike lanes. To take the subway though, you would have to follow a winding path of twist and turns up and down although it will get you places. He said I should visit again in the next few years because a few more subway stops will open (he was right). The bus was by far the cheapest but it cannot escape traffic, the heat and the huge number of people riding it. Finally, according to my experience, to walk was to torture your feet or to get some exercise and inhale smog.

We got off at JiuShuiTan 积水橝 to start with our Hai Trips and took the exit nearest a famous restaurant. He told me that in the old days, it took around 1000RMB to eat in this restaurant and it was considered to be a rare affair. We took the narrow road at the side of the restaurant and a view of the lake QianHai 前海 and some boats greeted us. 

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This was part of the lake that the emperors crossed to get to the Summer Palace. It was also the less traveled route that encompasses all of QianHai 前海, HouHai 后海 and BeiHai 北海, together they are also known as SheShaHai 什刹海.

The first authentic Beijing delicacy for the day was SuanMeiTang 酸梅汤, a typical drink in the olden times, from a small store named something like SuanMeiTing 酸梅亭 selling different kinds of dried berries. It roughly translates to Sour Berry and the one we drank was made from, well, very nice, sweet and fresh berries. The drink was so refreshing and the taste was not too heavy unlike the powdered or ready-to-drink in restaurants and supermarkets. The cost of this delicious drink was 3RMB.

We continued circling the path passing by a lot of leisure fishing poles set upon the shallow waters, with its owners patiently waiting and checking their gear. 

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My dad’s friend YanBo told me that fishing was slowly becoming a more and more popular pastime here in Beijing and people fish even though their catch is inedible just for the fun of casting their hooks into the water. I saw the professional poles though and he said that people really spend much on their gear and bait.

In a distance, we saw students practicing rowing and kayaking because there is a nearby sports school taking advantage of the facilities in Qianhai. 

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There are also red lantern boats that are rented out at around 200RMB, especially at night, where you can order some restaurant food, listen to a person serenading you in a traditional instrument and eat all at the same time while enjoying the beautiful evening scenery.

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It might probably cost close to 1000RMB in all the total experience. There is a man-made islet reachable by boat for feeding wild ducks that swim freely in the water. This location is also a popular ice skating site during winter. 

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By the time we saw more tourists, rickshaw bikes and lotus blossoms, I guessed we were approaching the more populated area of HouHai.

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The bridge where QianHai meets HouHai is the only passable route by car and the shortest point between the two sides. Only one boat can pass under it at a time. It is called the YinDing Bridge 银锭桥((YinDing Qiao) because it looks like an inverted half YinDing coin.

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The surroundings of HouHai was a mix of the new struggling to keep up with the restrictions to keep the place old. Bars and restaurants mostly catering to foreigners were set up but still within the HuTong 胡同 setting. Much of the HuTongs around the lake are still intact and provides a great backdrop and adds an ancient feel to the area.

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We ate in one of the restaurants that have been here and have not moved for a hundred years near the bridge. This was the best place to eat some authentic Beijing food. The outside does not look inviting but as soon as you step inside, you’ll notice that the restaurant is famous among the locals. 

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The specialty of this restaurant is lamb mixed with cilantro and onions placed in a heating pot. 

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There was no awkward smell or aftertaste, just pure bliss until you’ve eaten the last piece. This method of cooking lamb and the flavor made eating lamb enjoyable and light in this hot weather. We also ordered some vegetables and a yummy and light pastry made of papaya. 

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Locals call it one meat dish, one veggie dish and one dessertThis was the typical simple Beijing meal, even so when we talk about eating what is considered authentic old Beijing cuisine. 

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My dad’s friend also introduced me to a pot of JuHua Tea 菊花茶, which was perfect for the warm weather. It was weird that although it was a hot drink, you can taste the feeling of coolness it brings especially if you add rock sugar. It tastes better when the tea starts to turn bright yellow. This, according to him, was the usual tea Beijingers drink for the summer. There is actually a hot Chinese tea that can make you feel cool somewhat like the experience people get from peppermint tea back home. The whole meal cost around 200 to 300RMB. The experience and our lunch chat was priceless.

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Since the HouHai area was more developed for foreigners, there is actually a part lined up with a few stores next to another loading dock for renting boats. You may see toys or items that have the old Beijing flare. If you’re lucky, you might see a person selling sugar-made blown animals in sticks. YanBo said that people used to blow on the sugar leisurely and eat it after back when they didn’t have money for food. This was a dying art and only a handful of people know it nowadays. Next to the stores was a row of well-established bars and veranda restaurants with a view of the lake. 

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This place will become packed at night and on weekends.

It took us almost 4 hours to complete our sightseeing stroll on one side of the lake from our starting point and by that time, the heat was already getting to us. 

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We cut the trip short when we got to Starbucks near the other entrance of HouHai. We will not go further straight across the street that leads to BeiHai.

We proceeded to our next destination by taking the bus to GuLou Dong Da Jie 鼓楼大街 near the Drum Tower. We stopped at ITea for some herbal grass jelly with coconut milk drink

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It was nice to ward off the heat with this 10RMB spooned drink but I wished there was no bitter aftertaste in the jelly and there was more of the sweet coconut milk. Along this street, you’ll find a lot of stores opened by young locals to cater to other locals in the same age bracket. There are stores that have mostly mixed imported items in display such as Roxy and Quicksilver. 

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This place is where you’ll find the students chilling out on weekends. This was not, however, the main attraction in this street because on this same street, you’ll find the back entrance to another budding place of interest, the Nan LuoGuXiang 南锣鼓巷.

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The NanLuoGuXiang is just a straight 3-km. street filled with locally owned stores selling all sorts of stuff such as cute mugs, trinkets, clothes, photos and the like. 

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They are housed in refurbished HuTong structures. 

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There you’ll find the remains of an old pawnshop, a watermark indicator and an old façade of a store that must have closed in the early 1900s.

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One of famous stores here is a small postcard store opened by a foreigner who fondly calls himself Wu SanGui 吴三桂, apparently a famous character in Chinese history. YanBo and the other bystanders were jokingly looking for his beautiful Chen YuanYuan 陈圆圆. He must be proud to be the first and only foreigner that opened shop here in this street. His outgoing personally and outlook in life would definitely endear him to the locals and shows in the stuff he sells. 

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His 5RMB postcards include restored old photographs of China taken by foreigners printed on postcards. His view shows his appreciation for Chinese culture coming from the perspective of an outsider, a different side from what we typically see. He talks in Mandarin so fluently and expresses himself well, with the ultimate proof being his personally made 2011 calendar with a short introduction, which he himself wrote, in English and Chinese. This project took him a lot of time to accomplish, with all the interviews and research done from Chinese experts and finally, developing his own point of view on China. He said that people think of WuSanGui negatively mainly because he failed in his life and they choose not to see the other side of him because he was regarded as a traitor and opportunist. This foreigner chose a name that expresses his views stressing the importance of looking at a person and all things from both sides.

Another store, which is insanely famous at this street, is one that sells Mongolian Cheese 蒙古奶酪 (MengGu NaiLao)

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YanBo took me to this place because it has been featured in television numerous times. The line, he said, could take up a huge part of the street. 

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True enough, when it was our turn to buy the 9RMB cups, there was no more original flavor and only 2 menu items were left to eat. 

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We each got a wheat-flavored concoction that is a cross between yoghurt, what we call taho back home and soft cheese. 

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It was okay but I could never finish a whole cup of eating the thing. The pieces of whole chewy wheat though was entertaining to eat and made it yummier and it tasted authentically Inner Mongolian.

Things got more exciting when my dad’s friend told me that we were going to visit his friend who lived in this HuTong area. It was just a few meters away from where we were. I wouldn’t have imagined that my last day would catch up with my zest for adventure and my willingness to learn more about my beloved Beijing. Others will kill for this opportunity and I have often thought that I was running out of time. I would get to experience a typical Sunday afternoon with people who have lived in this city all their lives. I have always believed that this is how any trip should be.

We started our way around the entrance and walked in zigzag for a few minutes. 

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There was only one route and it must be very hard to walk around here at night because there were no light poles. 

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The doors of the houses are located in different corners at some awkward bend. We approached the only renovated and modernized home of them all and there they were, a vibrant and cheerful father, mother and daughter team. Because of the One Child Policy, couples are only allowed to have one child and they love them dearly even if the child is a boy or a girl. The next generation though is allowed two children if both the husband and the wife come from being an only child.

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We talked for the rest of the afternoon while I marveled on the two hand painted red Chinese pillars inside the house, which is like the pillars in the Imperial Palace. 

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Their daughter, who is now my friend, prepared some Yunnan Pu’er Tea 云南普洱茶 while I munched on the watermelon and fresh peach-like fruits handpicked from the garden. 

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I enjoyed how the conversation easily flowed from life to business to work and all and I was fortunate enough that they did not talk very fast in Chinese so I understood almost everything. This was how they spent their weekends, sometimes on a friend’s house enjoying a puff while drinking pots of tea, chatting about anything and nibbling on some fruits. 

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The view from the open-aired 2nd floor was superb and you’ll get to see the Hutong roofs while you sit and finish your tea. 

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It was on this porch that I bid old Beijing goodbye as the sun started to set. We also said goodbye to my new uncle, aunt and sister to take our last dinner and go home before it gets dark.

For dinner, we had Corn mixed with Salted Egg 咸蛋黄玉米粉 (XianDan HuangYuMiFen) 

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and Cold Lotus Root 莲花藕 (LianHuaOu) with Sticky Rice and Sweet Sauce 

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and a pitcher of fresh Papaya Juice 木瓜汁 (MuGuaZhi)

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