30 August 2011

Scenes from a (Great) Wall

Violet Dear conquers China.

The Great Wall of China. When I was a little girl my grandfather would call me out of bed, no matter what the time, to show me noteworthy television programs about science, politics or travel. As a result I was probably the only 8 year old on my block to miss a day of school to watch the Berlin Wall come down.

National Geographic programs were my grandfather's favourite, and I was pulled out of many a night's slumber to watch sea creatures snake their way through technicolour coral reefs, intrepid mountaineers scale K2 and treasure hunters search through Egyptian tombs. Shows about outer space always fascinated me above all else, and I remember quivering with anticipation when I would hear Carl Sagan's voice inform me about the “billions and billions” of stars in the sky. Billions. Those are big numbers for a little girl.

It was around that time that I learned of the only man-made structure visible from space- something so colossal, so monumental that it marred the earth's surface like a jagged, winding scar – the Great Wall of China.

Slithering its way across the tops of breakneck mountains and rocky crags, the Wall was started around 200 BC and restored by the Ming Dynasty in the 15th century as a defense mechanism against the barbarian Mongols (I have a little experience with them myself. My grandmother was Ukrainian and had more than a dash of Mongolian blood running through her veins, as evidenced by her epicanthal fold, and my mother and uncle get asked if they if half Asian or Inuit. Thanks Genghis!)

All the king's horses and all the king's men....

When I decided to come here to Beijing it was my one major thing on my “must-see” list, so I was shocked to find out that there are dozens of different Wall sites. Other than a few that have been repaired and maintained, most of the Wall is crumbling and wild, with many stretches far too dangerous to climb. My friend living here in China works for a motorbike sidecar tour company that specializes in trips to the Great Wall, and so he spends his days traversing its lesser known sections. He was excited to take me on a 3 day trip to visit a few that tourists rarely see.

Wild Wall at Jiankou.

We started our tour at Jiankou, a low point in a valley between two peaks. Once we stepped up from the forest trail and onto the Wall itself I was struck with the raw and ravaged beauty of the ancient stones, the sheer size of the structure snaking its way off into the hills on all sides of me. The Wall is less like one long continuous ribbon than a map of the London Underground - it branches off schizophrenically and winds across multiple mountain tops and connects with the ancient guard towers that dot the tops of the hills.

It's a hot mess.

Guard towers, the site of a lot of hot "Brokeback Great Wall" shenanigans, I'm sure.

Jiankou was a serious hike – we spent a lot of the day scrambling up the sides of destroyed towers, scuttling over rubble on hands and feet and climbing up staircases so steep they had to be ascended like a ladder. I'm not normally afraid of heights, but at some points the trail was so treacherous that my knees were shaking like little earthquakes and I thought I would lose my balance and tumble down the side of the mountain below.

Oh, that's ok. I think I'll take the elevator.

After four hours of trekking, and witnessing a fellow Canadian take a nasty spill down a destroyed staircase, we reached another low elevation point in the Wall where we could safely descend back down the mountain and head to the guesthouse. Jiankou was wild, eerie and wonderful.

Huanghuacheng at dusk. The prettiest ever.

The next day, after a motorbike trip though more mountains, we trekked up the side of another Wall site, this time to visit the slightly less ruinous ruins of Huanghuacheng. After a series of steeeeeeep climbs (too steep for stairs – that tells you something) we reached the plateau of the Wall and began the equally steep downhill walk. It was with knees bent and doing a strange little shuffle that I kind of bunnyhopped my way back down. The trademark Beijing haze in the sky couldn't ruin the view of this strange, haphazard Wall zigzagging its way into the distance.

"Stairway to Eternal Palace of Unending Happinesses" just never caught on.

By skipping the typical tourist Wall sites and heading into the wilder, less reconstructed sections we missed out on the throngs of domestic tourists fighting their way along the paths and managed to experience one of the world's most important landmarks in relative peace and quiet. Not quite like seeing it from a space shuttle, but I do think that my grandfather would have approved...

The author with her grandfather, eating ice cream and watching some Jacques Cousteau.

29 August 2011

Back That Ass Up - A Sandwich in Beijing

The Hutong version of grilled cheese and tomato soup.

When I think of "Chinese Food." my brain does not veer in the direction of soup and sandwiches. Sure, no Vietnamese food porn session is complete without a thought or two about Banh Mi, and I have had a few good naan and curry wraps in India, but this is a very, very different part of the continent. This is China. And though my love of the sandwich is well documented, while I am in Beijing on a spur of the moment 2 week trip to visit some friends I was not expecting to enjoy any. Noodles and dumplings and Peking Duck - yes, but not meat and bread.

I was wrong.

Houyuan the dog encounters a donkey earlier in the day while at the Ming Tombs.

After a long, four day motorbike sidecar trip (my friend works for these guys, and so we have had full access to a bike) to the wild sections of the Great Wall spent hiking and eating hearty country food, we arrived back in Beijing's Dong Zhi Men Hutong at 3:30 pm with rumbling stomachs.

"Want to grab a sandwich?" my pal asked me.
"I only want to eat local food!" I shouted back over the roar of the engine. He smirked.
"Oh, it's local. You'll like it."

The proud and noble steed awaits his fate as my sandwich.

We arrived in front of the restaurant a few moments later, and once we headed inside I noticed the walls were covered with photos of livestock. But wait... there seemed to be a lot of pictures of ...donkeys? My friend finished ordering in a flurry of Chinese, pausing only to ask me, "do you want one or two?"

After the waitress had left, I looked at him, wide-eyed. "Are these donkey sandwiches?"
"Yes. They are. They're wonderful."
"Did you get this idea when we encountered those donkeys at the Ming Tombs?"
"Uh huh."
"You're a sick s.o.b."
"Uh huh."

(Now, Ms. Violet Dear has a confession to make. In Peru in May things got a little... weird. I ate a little more chicken than I intended. And when I got back to Vancouver for my birthday I decided to order one of my favourite dishes on the planet, duck confit. And since then.... well, let's just say I am on a pescetarian sabbatical, shall we?)

I decided to eat the donkey, Eeyore be damned.

Philadelphia can go fuck themselves.

The sandwiches arrived, kind of like pressed little panini inside kind of a dense oily ciabatta. Sauteed with the cubed donkey meat were peppers and chilis and onion, making the whole experience feel a little familiar.

"It's like a Philly Cheesesteak!" I exclaimed, happily taking another bite. The meat itself was like tender, slightly fattier beef. It was delicious.

The sandwiches are traditionally served with a garlic vinegar for dipping, and optional chili paste for slathering inside (I went for it, of course.) We ordered a few bowls of egg drop soup to go with the donkey, but the results were less than enjoyable.

A delicate broth of water and egg essence.
Sometimes I feel like China is fucking with me.

I'm pretty sure that the broth was simply the water used to poach the eggs, and there was no yolk to speak of. I valiantly tried a few spoonfuls and then decided that egg water soup was not for me.

The best part of the meal was the bill. For four sandwiches, two bowls of soup and a big 750 mL Yanjing beer, the total was 4 dollars. I gladly picked up the cheque.

So the next time you find yourself wandering around the hutongs of Beijing, make sure you make an ass of yourself and eat a donkey sandwich (sorry, couldn't resist.)

<3 V. Dear

Um. Sorry. My bad.
I feel like an ass about it, I really do. I can't help it if I'm assinine.

K, I'm done. Promise.

Ass. Heh.