Horay for the Wanfujing Bookstore!

Being the rookie that I am, I had left Sydney thinking that I could easily find a bookstore and pick up a read once I was in China. Bzzzzzzzzt! FAIL!! I don’t know why I thought the common Beijing bookstore would all have books in English -of course they are all in Chinese!

After being in China for 2 weeks, I was STARVING for a good read. You have to understand, I really put myself in what seems like the depths of downtown Beijing, in the Hutongs, where I’m surrounded by locals and the occasional traveller who can speak some english, and that some english is broken, badly.

In my room I have available 106 TV channels but there’s only one in English which is the looping news channel (I swear looping is what happens in Hell). So while I’m up to date with current affairs, I’ve been lacking in free-flowing conversation filled with wit, intellect and humour – all the things I’d get back home over a meal with friends

So I went on the hunt for the largest bookstore in Beijing, and found it in the Wanfujing Bookstore which host 7 floors of books, the 4th floor being Foreign literature – JACKPOT!!

I had been meaning to read Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts for some time, and had been saving it for my trip, however, in all the 3 bookstores I ended up finding that hosted English literature, Shantaram, the book that I really truly madly wanted, was all sold out.

So, to keep me sane, I chose 3 books.

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho – for insightful encouragement (Mark I know you have this book but you could never find it..)

Committed, By Elizabeth Gilbert – I’m curious to learn more about the ideology, and reality, of what marriage and committment is. (don’t get any ideas!)

And Sex and the City, by Candace Burnshell – for laughs and kicks.. and a healthy dose of cynicism.

Now all I need to do is find a second-hand bookstore to swap and restock – being a book-a-day girl, I’ve already gone through 1 1/2 of the 3! So if anyone can recommend a fantastic read, I’d really appreciate it, just email me, or comment.
Thx , T 🙂

The Forbidden City gossip

I’ve been putting off blogging about the forbidden city. Not because of any lack of content, quite the contrary, there’s just so much to say! The history is so interesting and extensive that I could have easily written a ten page essay on the subject! Then the other day as I was skyping with my best friend Dale, the topic of the Forbidden City came up, and I thought the copy of this Skype chat would be a much more interesting way to communicate some of the ‘gossip’ I find so enthralling about this amazing oriental monument = )

[8/13/2010 9:54:49 PM] Tiara Rugdee: You know, the Forbidden City is still the largest Palace in the world and took 15 years to build back in 1406-1420, the guy who built it was the Yongle emperor, who was self-appointed through violence and murder of his own nephew. For part of the build material, he forced the people of Szechuan to go deep into the south-western woods to cut down hundreds of thousands of these old trees (pheobe zhennan wood), and send the logs down mountains and rivers floating over 1000 miles to Beijing – they didn’t have trucks then! It took 4 years for these logs to get to Beijing by nature alone. Many of the people from Szechuan didn’t make it out of the woods alive, they had to deal with soldiers, disease, wild life, and weather without any shelter to chop these massive timbers. Amazing!!
[8/13/2010 9:56:11 PM] Dale Pullin: Hahah that’s full on!!
[8/13/2010 9:59:44 PM] Tiara Rugdee: It’s the eunuchs who worked in the palace that really interest me. They used to keep their balls and penis in a jar with them, or in a safe place at all times. These jars were actually called the chinese word for ‘Precious’. Very Lord of the rings.
[8/13/2010 10:00:35 PM] Dale Pullin: wtf!!!!!!!
[8/13/2010 10:00:40 PM] Dale Pullin: balls and penis????????????
[8/13/2010 10:00:42 PM] Tiara Rugdee: The belief back then was that you couldn’t move on in the after-life (to heaven) if you were not complete (your body) so the eunuchs thought it very important to be buried with their ‘precious’ in the hope of tricking the Gods into believe he was still a complete man.
[8/13/2010 10:00:46 PM] Tiara Rugdee: yup. (to balls and penis)
[8/13/2010 10:01:00 PM] Tiara Rugdee: some as young as 12, 13 years old
[8/13/2010 10:01:11 PM] Dale Pullin: why did they have their packages removed???
[8/13/2010 10:01:28 PM] Tiara Rugdee: The belief was that eunuchs were pure of evil thoughts, and the most loyal of servants. the theory was that since Eunuchs could not have sons, they would not be ambitious as they had no one to pass their assets on to.
[8/13/2010 10:01:58 PM] Tiara Rugdee: It was a class/status thing to have eunuchs, it showed your authority and level in the Society. Only Royalty and Government officials kept Eunuchs.
[8/13/2010 10:02:29 PM] Tiara Rugdee: The Emperors only employed eunuchs and servant girls because it ensured that any heir from the empress, or 2400 concubines, would definitely come from his imperial line
[8/13/2010 10:02:30 PM] Dale Pullin: so they were slaves?
[8/13/2010 10:03:11 PM] Tiara Rugdee: no, they were paid. many grown men chose to become eunuchs in their later life for a better life and to work in the palace, rather than starve or have their families starve. The common people were very poor.
[8/13/2010 10:03:42 PM] Dale Pullin: shie+!!
[8/13/2010 10:04:57 PM] Tiara Rugdee: In the operation for a grown man, they would be asked one more time before-hand if they wanted to become a eunuch, and if the man agreed, 2 men would grab his legs, another guy would hold him tightly around the waist, he would then be given some nerve stunning tea and be lying on this type of bed that was semi declined, and then the ‘knifer’ would cut off his balls and penis as close to the body as possible with a small sharp knife.
[8/13/2010 10:05:34 PM] Tiara Rugdee: then to stop the bleeding, the ‘knifer’ would put a metal plug in the wounds, make the man walk for 2 hours (he wasn’t allowed to lie down), with no liquids for a couple of days. It was an agonising process made even worse cos they couldn’t pee during this time
[8/13/2010 10:05:42 PM] Dale Pullin: how did they not bleed to death???
[8/13/2010 10:05:58 PM] Dale Pullin: and how did they make sure their urethra wasn’t lost inside the body??
[8/13/2010 10:06:39 PM] Tiara Rugdee: After the 2 days (I think it was 2 days), they would unplug him, and if the new eunuch could pee it was deemed he would be ok and go on to ‘Eunuch training’ at a princes home for a couple of years before he was allowed to work in the Forbidden city. After the training, the prince would also have to vouch for the eunuchs character and that he had become ‘pure of evil thoughts’ before being allowed to step foot in the palace
[8/13/2010 10:07:04 PM] Tiara Rugdee: oh, if the man couldn’t wee, cos the hole had closed up, then he would be left to die an agonizing death of not being able to release. from the front.
[8/13/2010 10:07:26 PM] Tiara Rugdee: apparently there weren’t many unsuccessful operations like this, otherwise thousands of grown men wouldn’t have volunteered.
[8/13/2010 10:08:05 PM] Dale Pullin: fuck thaaaaat
[8/13/2010 10:08:05 PM] Tiara Rugdee: The other really interesting part was the relationships between the eunuchs with the concubines. They were known as ‘vegetarian relationships.’
[8/13/2010 10:08:12 PM] Dale Pullin: ?
[8/13/2010 10:08:20 PM] Tiara Rugdee: Some of the thousands of concubines wouldn’t see the Emperor for years, and living in the Forbidden city their whole lives with no contact from the outside world, the eunichs were the only ‘semi’ male contact they had
[8/13/2010 10:08:37 PM] Dale Pullin: whats a concubine? one of the Emperor’s wives?
[8/13/2010 10:08:45 PM] Tiara Rugdee: no, mistresses, harem
[8/13/2010 10:08:48 PM] Dale Pullin: ah right
[8/13/2010 10:09:57 PM] Tiara Rugdee: The theory behind it was that due to the low survival rates for children, the emperors would have thousands of concubines (around 2400 for the Yongle Emporer) to conceive with, and if anything happened to the empresses male off-spring, the throne would go to the highest ranked concubines son
[8/13/2010 10:10:40 PM] Tiara Rugdee: interesting thing about being one of the Emperors concubines, if they happened to outlive the emperor, after his death the remaining concubines would be dressed up for him and hung, along with all their servant girls. And we’re talking 30-40 servant girls each.
[8/13/2010 10:11:36 PM] Dale Pullin: holy shit that’s hardcore
[8/13/2010 10:12:10 PM] Dale Pullin: So I wonder how many people wanted to go work for the emperor when he was getting old? heh
[8/13/2010 10:12:59 PM] Tiara Rugdee: The concubines didn’t have a choice
[8/13/2010 10:13:06 PM] Tiara Rugdee: If you were pretty you were fucked
[8/13/2010 10:13:09 PM] Tiara Rugdee: Literally
[8/13/2010 10:13:34 PM] Tiara Rugdee: And anyone who hid their daughters or cut their hair to make them ugly would be arrested and punished
[8/13/2010 10:14:14 PM] Dale Pullin: lolz
[8/13/2010 10:14:34 PM] Tiara Rugdee: Outside of the palace people were very poor. And with the Forbidden City being forbidden to the rest of China, besides the thousands of eunuchs, concubines, servant girls the Emperor and Empress, some government officials and monks, the Emperor became disconnected from his people almost as soon as he was throned
[8/13/2010 10:14:49 PM] Tiara Rugdee: and if he was throned at a young age, he would be at the mercy of his eunuchs
[8/13/2010 10:14:59 PM] Dale Pullin: that’s’ bizarre
[8/13/2010 10:15:05 PM] Dale Pullin: so who ran the show?
[8/13/2010 10:16:35 PM] Tiara Rugdee: the first Forbidden City Emperor was in control, though he was a tyrant. emperors after seemed to be screwed up in one way or another..
[8/13/2010 10:17:18 PM] Tiara Rugdee: because there were so many imperial offspring, the sons would be raised by eunuchs, and the ambitious eunuchs would groom the boys to achieve their own goals. Some of the childhoods were horrific, cos the eunuchs would manipulate the sons and break them down physically and mentally until they were weak in mind and easily controlled
[8/13/2010 10:17:34 PM] Dale Pullin: I see!
[8/13/2010 10:18:10 PM] Tiara Rugdee: they only stopped the tradition of eunuchs in the early 1900s
[8/13/2010 10:18:35 PM] Dale Pullin: twisted
[8/13/2010 10:18:57 PM] Tiara Rugdee: it’s such a tragic history
[8/13/2010 10:19:41 PM] Tiara Rugdee: a magnificent culture cultivated on blood and tears
[8/13/2010 10:21:03 PM] Dale Pullin: yes indeed – Plenty of history to learn everywhere you go! 🙂

Poo puzzle solved

During my time in China, whenever I’ve seen a local baby, he or she is never wearing a nappy, and instead wears baby shorts with a split down the backside so the babies butt is always bare (we’re talking babies and toddlers).

I’ve been curious as to how this system works – Where does the faeces go? On the streets? At such a young age, were babies able to warn their parents in advance when they needed to make a toilet run ? What if there wasn’t a toilet around??

The other day when I was exploring the town, I saw this man who had been walking his dog come to a halt, place a doggie bag under his patiently waiting ,squatting dog, and when the bag was suitably positioned, the dog then began to crap right into the doggie bag. Being a canine owner myself, I thought this was a breakthrough in the dumping/cleaning process.

Today, I was happily watching the seal show at the Zoo Aquarium, when the young chinese family sitting next to me caught my full attention by hovering their baby close to the ground, its legs bent and in squatting position, the mother then placed an open sandwich bag under the baby’s bottom, and soothingly coaxed him into doing his business by making blowing and whistling noises.

I felt a clash of emotions as this tiny human obediently strained to do his mothers bidding beside my left leg.
Satisfied ‘ So that’s how it works!’
Impressed ‘what a smart baby!’
Uncertainty ‘ is this normal..?’ looking around
Offended and slightly paranoid, ‘Do I give people the shits?’ (see blog titled Tale of two toilets)
Interest ‘what happens next?’
And ‘should I give the lady eating a hard boiled egg in front of me the heads up?’

As if on cue, the seal show came to a close, and I made my exit traveling faster than the speed of smell.

A day at the Beijing Zoo and Aquarium

I had been undecided on whether to visit the Beijing Zoo. I’d read the good reviews but was skeptical that the zoo would live up to my standards of what a good zoo should be, and anything less would only depress me. However, what I did want to visit was the Beijing Aquarium, and to get to the aquarium you had to go through the zoo.

Arriving at the Beijing Zoo train station, I didn’t immediately know the direction to take, so I followed my nose which eventually led me to the Zoo’s entry gate

The Zoo was much prettier than I expected, with lots of serene chinese gardens, a picturesque lake and wide spacious walking paths to accommodate all the people. Being a sizable zoo housing over 450 different species, I would have liked to see a lot less people space, and more animal space. If there's a need to have wild animals in captivity, at least keep their artificial habitats as close to what nature intended as possible – Singapore zoo sets a great example on how this is done http://www.zoo.com.sg

The Zoo's Aquarium had a variety of amazing aquatic life on showcase. However, the hundreds of children ignoring the ‘do not climb over the barrier’ sign’ and standing on the ledge of the display windows made viewing limited to little heads, bodies,and shoulders. Recommendation – visit the Aquarium when it’s not school holidays!

At the Beijing Zoo and Aquarium, the warning signs are not enforced. An example from the dry Zoo was this guy who wanted a closer picture of a monkey so he threw lollies into the enclosure to tempt the monkey nearer, it worked and the guy got his photo, but no doubt that monkey’s paying for it with an upset tummy. This happened right in front of the ‘Do not feed the animals’ sign. I voiced my disapproval, but no-one understood me, they just shook their head and probably thought I was asking for the food court directions.

Even though the warning signs were in both Chinese and English, all the Aquarium information was in Chinese only, which made it almost impossible to learn anything factual. Fortunately, I’m able to stare at aquatic life for hours, (it’s the closest I get to meditating), and observing these beautiful sea creatures was interesting enough.

Highlight – The Dolphin and Seal show is packed with action and humour, displaying how incredibly smart these animals are and is not to be missed!

Taste Restaurant in Nanluogu Alley

What drew me to Taste restaurant was it’s real estate – an old, gray bricked church, with one of those circular windows at its peak. Inside, the decor is cosy with striped material covered wooden furniture, and display cabinets hosting a range of liquor and crockery. At Taste, patrons are easily influenced into a relaxed state by the modern chinese intrumental music that plays throughout the 3 levels of this establishment

Like half the cafes and restaurants in Nanluogu Alley, the menu had a large variety of traditional chinese, modern chinese and western favourites on offer

Keeping it light, I selected the Salted Fish and Chicken with Eggplant hot-pot.

I wasn’t expecting to be impressed. I’d already eaten at a couple of restaurants in Nanluogu Alley and had been disappointed as my selections never quite hit the spot, you know, when you want to wiggle in your seat because you’re just so happy?

Taste was tasty! Visually pleasing, the course glistened enticingly in a mixture of spiced oils, and was simply garnished with chives, shredded garlic and seared ginger. The clay pot enabled the decently sized portions of tender eggplant to stay hot and juicy throughout the entire seating, while the chicken and salted fish, cast only to highlight the eggplant as the primary ingredient, had been minced and blended finely with the herbs.

Though initially disappointed that the chicken and salted fish didn’t come in bite size, I realised that the dynamic of flavour and texture would not have been so perfectly balanced for each mouthful if the meal had been prepared in any other way.

Rating – Excellent!

The best Peking Duck in Beijing?

No Beijing experience is complete without Peking Duck, and being a mean Peking Duck eater, I wanted to start with the best that I could find and was willing to travel far for this culinary experience.

The Roast Duck Restaurant
The Roast Duck Restaurant is located in the district of Chaoyang, and is both majestic in appearance and service. Aesthetically complete with a happy dancing golden statue on entry, there are 5 waiters purely for meet and greet, all equipped with walkie talkies to efficiently seat the large busy dining floor.

The Peking Duck – Roast duck delicately sliced with perfect portions of meat, fat and crispy skin. It was GOOD. However, I feel it was the quality of produce that let this dish down slightly. The ingredients of roast duck, plum sauce, cucumber, and spring onion wrapped in a corn pancake was fresh, but the combination didn’t have the crunch, the contrast in texture, or balance of flavours at the standard that it should have. It didn’t taste as good as the Golden Century, my favourite Peking duck eatery in Chinatown, Sydney.

Complementary dishes
Crispy duck skin on a thin slice of duck fat dipped in sugar – Tasty and quite enjoyable initially, then kind of unsettling as the duck fat and oil kicks in and you have to either swallow, or inconspicuously spit into a napkin.

Milky duck broth with thinly sliced cucumber – I could see where they were going with this entrée, using the subtle duck flavour of this dish as a precursor to the roast duck. For me, it was more like eating the poorer cousin of Cream of Chicken soup, quietly sitting in its category of ‘a dish you ate purely out of circumstance’ – Because it was there.

Roast duck head and brains with duck tail – Firstly, I didn’t know that ducks had tails? But having my adventurer hat on, I ate the tail, which was just like normal duck meat, and then courageously went to try a tiny bit of the brains, but as I clumsily picked with my chopsticks, the half head flipped over and this duck eye was staring at me. No amount of balls could make me eat this duck now- I take my meat faceless.

Verdict? Good Peking Duck. Average complimentary dishes. Definitely worth the culinary experience, but don’t expect the best Peking Duck in Beijing.

Nluogu Alley

Near where I am staying in Beijing, amongst the Hutongs, is Nluogu Alley.

I stumbled onto Nluogu Alley by serendipity. After having the rickshaw ride that would have scared Death, I made the driver drop me off ‘somewhere’ and started walking map in hand towards my hotel.

Roaming away from the hustle and bustle, I came apon this charming, tree lined alley with a variety of cafes, restaurants and bars, and all sorts of interesting beautiful boutique shops.

Filled, but not overcrowded, with wandering people, bicycles cycling by, and very few cars passing through. I met a pretty white goose ( yes GOOSE), wearing a sign card around its neck. Interesting choice for advertising, but it got the job done with many locals and tourists pausing to read his message and ask him for a photo. This goose had a great job, happily roaming this beautiful alley and making friends with every waddle.

Charming. Did I mention this alley was charming? I was completely charmed.

Nluogu Alley is complete with traditional Chinese architectured terrace houses, many with rooftop restaurants, shops selling Love Potions, local fashion designers and Arts & Craft boutiques – This was my kind of hang out!

I’ve already decided to check out every eatery in Nluogu Alley, and with so much variety I’m not sure if the rest of Beijing is going to have a chance..

Previous Older Entries Next Newer Entries