China is open today as it ever has been to the rest of the world, and undergoing mind boggling changes, but it remains distant and mysterious to many. The country is big and varied as Europe. Calling the cuisine “Chinese food” is similar to saying “European food” because there is no such thing. Every region has its own distinct cuisine and flavour. There is enough material from the one trip to fill pages of my travel log.

It was a sparkling clean, modern city with wide streets. The hordes of bicycles were nowhere to be seen. Instead it was filled with new luxury cars, and electric bicycles that moved silently past us. The two cigarette butts we saw on the sidewalk were swept by the time we walked past. We did find people, though, lots of them jammed in subways and train stations, but otherwise, it was nothing like I imagined, except the smog.
Our first food foray took us to Snack St or Wangfujing in the centre of the city. (By the way, get use to the long, anglicized names in China.) The food was disappointing. Most of it sat in piles, repeated items stall after stall. Many of the street cooks were replaced by sellers who were merely peddling the food. As least the scorpions were … live, and fried to order. They were crispy and tasty, and left a little tingle.  Fortunately faith in the food was restored at Dongximen, or “Ghost Street” which opens at night under rows of red lanterns.

We devoured the steamed pork belly which melted like butter and the Peking style roast duck … the skin was light and crispy, not overdone and chewy like most, and the flavours of the duck blended perfectly with the nutty sauce and supple pancake.
It was perfect.

The street came to life in the evening. This guy was literally preparing the hot pot outside on the street, using charcoal to boil the water. Live fish was brought out to be weighed on the sidewalk and next door, people waited for their tables in rows of chairs with tea and bowls of toasted pumpkin seeds. It was dining entertainment for us

The next morning, we came across this terrific version of bacon and eggs sandwiched between bread baked over a griddle at a street corner. We wanted more and went back to the same spot but never saw it again.

THE hike worthy of all the food consumed was on the Great Wall. Jinshanling is a section of the Wall farther out in the mountains. The driver we found told us that he would drop us off at one end of the wall, and pick us up “by the road” at the other end. Uncertain but off we went.

The trek, climb, really, went for miles without a soul in sight. It was the Wall at its best, despite the fact it disappeared into the mist. We were caught in a thunderstorm and torrential rains near the end. Apparently it was the biggest in 30 years, quite believable, because the water level was knee high within a couple of hours. The good thing was the rain cleared the smog, and we witnessed a gorgeous sunset over Beijing. Oh yes, the driver did pick us up at the other end of the wall – no worries!

Beijing traffic is notorious. Our 20 min ride to the train station turned into 60 min which meant we missed the overnight train to Xian. It was also an extra day, of course, to taste delicacies like the ancient Palace snack foods in Jiumen. Each stall had its own specialty delicacies made on site like the freshly rolled pastry filled with ground lamb and stock. One bite and if pointed in the wrong direction it pisses all over your dining companion – real date food!

The day finished at a food court with a monstrous bowl of steaming soup, packed with tofu and fresh fish, and we watched as the restaurants closed with military precision. One minute the place is teeming with people, and then they turned the lights off and everyone files out at exactly 9. For those of you in the restaurants business this is great for the close – no stragglers to content with.

Even restaurant staff was managed in this regimented fashion. They were lined up outside like a platoon, and would go through the drills with their manager

We finally got into the train the next day. Battling the crowds and noise to buy tickets at West Beijing station is an adventure in itself, especially if you don’t speak the language. An English speaking counter exists but that would have been too easy. Next time I will continue the story on the night train, six bunks to a cabin.

This whole adventure is one that you should experience. In fact I have been thinking about gathering a group of those interested to come with us to discover China – no tour groups. You will hike the Great Wall at Jinshanling rather than with the rest of the horde, learn to get your own train tickets like locals, and we will squeeze into bunks on the night train. Of course, we will eat at the best places we found, and if you like, have a bite of scorpion.

By Chef Robert Sturm