Friday, 29 November 2019

Beijing’s Twilight Hutong Scene!

So, after taking care of a few things after my Lost Plate Breakfast Hutong Tour, I arrived at Yonghegong Lama Temple Subway Station for the Evening Hutong Food Tour. Meeting with Emily, my second tour guide and the rest of the group. Yes, my time keeping was equally as bad but thankfully it was fine. Getting into my rickshaw ride with my first beer felt amazing! Let's go! 

Driving away from the subway station into the dimly lit Hutong alleys gave me life for certain! After a short drive our gang of rickshaws arrived at our first stop of that Evening Hutong Food Tour with Lost Plate Tours. The restaurant felt cosy and we were made to feel very welcome, their speciality dish was Zhang Jia noodles. I adore that Beijing noodle dish, I was straight in their with my chopsticks to finish the whole portion! The others in the group were brand new to China, for that reason they didn't know what to think about the dish but my taste buds were loving life! Emily, our guide was friendly and she was able to recount the local features of the restaurant as a Beijinger, she knew what she was talking about! Leaving that endearing noodle house behind us, it was back on the road towards the second stop of the tour. Yet again the tourists from America in the group were fascinated about my life here in China. Go B! 

Sitting down within the second restaurant allowed the group to get to know each other more, we had a quieter corner and the passing of the dishes was a great opportunity to talk with each other. People hailed from the USA, Ireland and myself being from England it was nice to have a familiar Irish neighbour at the table. The Chow Mein like filling worked so well within the soft pancake that we wrapped as if it was a baby in a blanket. The sautéed aubergine was cooked so well it almost tasted like potatoes because it had such a crispy texture, definitely a plus! Our second stop was set within a former Hutong dwelling where two rooms were actually being rented our for local living whilst we sat in the adjoining restaurant. I was so glad in that moment that I had four hours or so between the two tours as to let the mornings treat digest before hitting the Hutong during the twilight hours! Honestly, truly it was going to be another tasty affair with Lost Plate Food Tours! Another beer, please Em?

Going back out into the Hutong night scene it was apparent that we were away the tourist trap alleys, we wouldn't frequenting those during that night tour. Word on the street was that the area of the Hutong we saw was so clean and well secured because President Xi's mother-in-law was supposedly living in the vicinity! The others had spent little to no time in China, their experience with Chinese toilets wasn't too good but with Emily's quick thinking the ones we found were spotlessly clean! I was loving the detail on the door fronts that we passed between the second stop, the nighttime Hutong view had me loving Beijing even more! I had only ventured into the Hutong's once before around the Gulou area, only hipster style views on show! Nothing pretentious or shiny was on show for us, the Hutong alleys looked modern but they retained their ancient charm with their door fronts on-point! No, we didn't need Gulou at all B!

Back into the rickshaws it was time for us to drive through the city streets to reach our third location. I had met some people that morning during the Breakfast Hutong Tour who had were on the evening tour the night before, after hearing about their experiences I knew that the food would be delicious and the beverages of a certain kind would be flowing! So far I had met another group of interesting people but with that Irish connection it was easier to talk with them compared with the people from the morning tour, it was a cultural thing! But being a current Beijing expat I helped those American tourists during the morning, I was still gracious. No shade intended! The noodles from the first stop were just as good like my Beijing kindergarten serves their own version at lunch time. The second stop served us a delight addition, with the local area feeling humble and nothing like the lights that the tourists see! No, I don't really drink Baijiu, but I wasn't going to say no to a shot!

The roads in China are generally not a place for the faint-hearted, with a few twists and turns we arrived at our third venue. Being a Halal establishment it wasn't a place for boozing but that wasn't case at all, also dubbed as a men only environment I definitely scouted for the looks as we stepped into that lively testosterone filled eatery! I'm not a stranger to Halal food in China made my the minority people from West China but the tourists in our grew were being schooled that night! Seated upstairs it was great to see a family with more than one child enjoying their Saturday. One couple were making me laugh to myself, the husband was enjoying his drinks whilst his lady wife was not having any of his antics! Spirits were high, the beers were flowing and that helped the conversations as things became more relaxed the banter within the group made us all laugh out loud! Emily brought a bottle of Baijiu to the table!

Before we toasted with our Beijing Baijiu shots we tucked into our beef parcels, damn they were so delicious! Yes, those shots went down a treat! The male orientated venue reminded me of my former Beijing nightspots where its sometimes impossible to spot women! Getting back into the rickshaws it was onto out final eating place for the night, I listened to Emily speak to the driver and it sounded like we were going to have something that was barbecued. Yes, our modern Inner Mongolian barbecue served us some amazingly tasty beef with potatoes and mushrooms. Finding ourselves within a former factory setting, we all walked in a bar that by some miracle sold a fresh pulled pint of cider! Taking our seats I minded my business because the cider had me sipping like my life depended upon it! With the jet-lagged few needing their bed, the first members of the group left for their hotels. I made my night with a few more pints of cider, what a wonderful tour that Saturday night!

Marry The Night!

Joseph Harrison 

Monday, 25 November 2019

Beijing's Hutong Breakfast Club!

Uncharacteristically early on a heavily polluted Saturday morning, I found myself in a taxi that was bound for my first food tour of the day set within Beijing's Fuchengmen Hutong's. Even thought I was running a little bit late that was all going to be fine, the timings of that food itinerary were flexible with Lost Plate Food Tours! Of course, I was the only expat in the group! 

Meeting Kelly, my guide for the mornings Hutong breakfast tour felt like such a relief. Thankfully two additional people were yet to arrive before the tour could commence. Being a birthday treat, I had used some money to book tour of Lost Plate Food Tours in Beijing to get the best of the Hutong's before my 2020 move to Ningbo. The first foodie stop was only around the corner, taking our seats in a former temple like building we waited for our first slices of a Beijing breakfast. We all tried a series of weird tasting Beijing snacks, each obscured tasting bite held secrets from Beijing's past! I really enjoyed the cake-like treat because it wasn't so sweet. The fermented mung bean soup was definitely an acquired taste indeed, amongst such surroundings I wholeheartedly took the liberty to shock my tastebuds! The tour was just getting started, in the best way my Chinese was coming through amongst the tourists! More food, please! 

The second stop found us standing in front of a glass-fronted cookout, three local cooks were preparing some tasty Chinese pastry like bakes! In full view for all to see, the wooden surface was spotlessly clean with fresh looking produce being used to make the beef filled delights. Kelly kindly ordered one bake each for us to sample, the cooks were amused to see us, a gaggle of foreigners who were excitedly taking photos! Taking my first bite into the super hot pastry bake gave me so much, that beefy pastry snack had be fooled, no I wasn't eating anything made by Greggs! Connecting me with a familiar home treat from Great Britain, the second call during that breakfast foodie tour left me with high expectations for the next stop as we entered the winding alleys of the aged Hutong's that chilly Saturday morning. It was nice knowing the city, giving advice to the American's who were visiting Beijing for the first time felt good. That beef bake set me up for the tour! It was so very 好吃 B!

The alleys gradually became more narrower as we made our way into the Hutong area. I had been to Beijing's Hutong's many times before that Saturday morning but with my time getting shorter before my move I wanted to appreciate every single second! Admiring the doorways that individually told their own version of events to us, I was living for that! Our third foodie stop presented itself as Kelly ushered us into a small and local feeling family run cafe sized restaurant that was deep within the Fuchengmen Hutong. Ordering the soy milk had me slurping away like nobody was watching, the fried Youtiao served a familiar taste of life in China! The savoury tasting tofu bowl wasn't something that I would usually order because it wasn't like the sweeter variant that I had tried during my visit to Hong Kong, but it was all for the experience! Yes, the sweet doughnut like loveliness went down a treat with the soy milk! OK!

Catching my breath and keeping it together, the food consumed during the first part of the Lost Plate Food Tour was very tasty indeed! Kelly our guide was very informative, asking me questions about my life in China and testing my Chinese language skills kept things amusing, I tired my best to sound like a local! Things were chilled yet we kept to the schedule, the recent sit down breakfast food had almost filled some of the people in the group but I was raring to go! Stopping for a freshly made Jianbing pancake was the one, the lady had put quite a lot of spice in my Beijing made Tianjin style all day Breakfast pancake even though Kelly had asked for it mild. I wasn't mad because I don't mind the occasional spice, that bite-size Hutong treat was just the ticket! That Saturday morning, the Hutong dwellers were busy out doing their bits and bobs whilst we were eating everything that was in our path! For all the food that was being consumed, it was surely a case of 'money well spent!'

The busy Hutong scene around us was going off, people were out and about with their Saturday business to take care of! A real sense of Beijing could be felt that morning, being in the outer-bowels of the city's sixth ring road, it can be easy for me to forget what the beating heart of a city actually feels like! Before our Jianbing's Kelly had bought us a fresh mandarin orange, it was the perfect snack to clear my palette before the final foodie stop of our Breakfast Hutong tour that morning. Going a few paces over the way we found ourselves outside a whole in the wall, selling cured Halal meat it was a business that had a real sense of normality. To keep it real, one of the group members talked the talk but he wasn't willing to try the more delicate parts of the final snack. Staying true to the mornings theme I tried several parts of the Halal cured snack, it was just another day in China. Oh, I needed room for the evening tour!

Walking for a few seconds we found ourselves outside a noodle shop, that was actually the final foodie stop of the tour! Cramming inside the thankfully warm noodle shop, we were served a taster of the noodles to try. The shop stood as a firm favourite in the local area, prospering from healthy trading during the working hours of the workers from the nearby office buildings. Leaving a long queue behind us, the local people could continue with their noodle quest without six foreigners taking the tables up. Stumbling upon a lovely coffeeshop that was set within a rather modern feeling Hutong building served up a lovely hot Chai Latte for me! The Breakfast tour had concluded, it had filled me up with the numerous stops that fed me up, the knowledge acquired helped me understand Beijing's unique Hutong asset. From the history behind the fermented soup at the beginning to the concluding slice of modernity, it was an education! Thank you to Kelly and also Lost Plate Food Tours!

Breakfast Done Beijing!

Joseph Harrison 

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Itaewon, Seoul: After Hours!

It's no secret that during Seoul's after hours period it can get crazy, only experiencing the weeknights during my 2018 Golden Week left me wanting much more! Celebrating the birth of my first born nephew, I booked a return flight and a bed in a hostel for my birthday weekend to Seoul, South Korea! Only packing my rucksack, I took off, bound for the lights of Itaewon!

Landing with a wild plan, Gimpo Airport greeted me with a friendly welcome after my years absence from South Korea. Not going to lie, it felt weird standing in Seoul because the last part of the peninsula I had been in was the DPRK. Hitting the Seoul Subway, it didn't take long before a sea of gorgeous South Korean menfolk were in my sights! Itaewon grew ever closer, a foreigner friendly enclave within Seoul's buzzing city scene that had a colourful hill that I planned on returning to that night. Checking into my G Guesthouse hostel dorm, how the walk from the station had me all nostalgic, I never realised until that moment how much I had missed the uncomplicated cool vibe of that South Korean sub-district! With things feeling correct I headed out for food, I needed to prepare myself for the nights antics that lay ahead of me. No sweet talking, I was on the pull because those guys had me feeling excited! Go!

Walking down memory lane, I found the same place that I had enjoyed some pre-session food back on the first night that I was in Seoul! Getting my chicken tikka goodness devoured, I ensured I would be able to be consuming those beverages and then some! Zaffran served me the same honest Middle Eastern food, not costing much I was still quids in for those drinks on the hill. I was feeling all kinds of love for Itaewon and Seoul itself as I walked around the hilly commercial centre, those winding streets with their Korean signs had me in the right space! Beijing being only a short flight over the sea, I had to take that chance! The random decision to book those flights on the night my nephew was born was the right choice, Owen knew it was the right thing to do! Having only been in Seoul for around three hours or less I was living my very best, I was high on life during that early evening moment before any drinks had been seen off! In the land of a certain liquor, I needed my first Soju!

Walking into the same convenience store that I had before on that fatefully amazing night back in 2018 had to be in my 2019 return! Heading straight for the booze, the fridge filled with alcoholic drinks had to be my destination! Getting my first Soju with a grapefruit flavour was my chosen tipple, I needed that drink! Handling the Korean Won felt mad, everything is in thousands and in China I use mobile apps to pay for everything so I needed to be extra mindful with my money. That was before the booze hit! Getting back to the hostel, it was time to make myself look fresh for the night that lay ahead of me! Suited and booted with my H&M black over-sized tee, skinny blue jeans with my black boots to complement the look! 29 was feeling damn good, not stressed by that extra number I was ready for Seoul's Homo Hill to serve everything to me and much more! Being early I still wanted to get everything started! Yes!

Hitting the first bar, I figured out people didn't surface till 1 am, I realised fast that I needed to run the night by my own rules! Heading over the road, I returned to 'Always Homme' to recapture one of those places that I had visited first time back in 2018, it felt removed and if truth be told I wanted to run to the lights of the bar over the road. Finding a seat at the bar inside 'Why Not?', I changed my drinks from beer to something stronger! The Long Island Ice Tea got me in my stride, followed by a Pina Colada or two that got me in the mood for dancing! Homo Hill was popping during that late night moment, it was difficult to see women because 99% of the custom was made up with men. Those Korean beauties were looking mighty fine that Saturday night! Was I looking for some fun that night? Had I got on plane for just a drink? No, I knew what I wanted to do! The drinks were going down well, the North Korean moisturiser I had on got me serious compliments! Did I look 23, for real B?

ID? In my four years of living in China I had never ever been asked for any form of identification! Thankfully, I managed to find my provisional drivers license in my bag, disaster averted for sure! After successfully gaining entry into 'Queen' it had to be another Pina Colada! The guys were looking fine, little did I know I was getting my life before a K-POP storm! South Korean queens filled into 'Queen' without any warning as the music changed from western to the camp choreographed anthems of todays Korean music icons! I got myself onto the raised platform to dance alongside the flaming hot talent, those Korean queens knew the dance routines to those hit South Korean pop jams. In a pleasant state I danced along to that catchy beat as if my life depended on it! Even if it was for one night only I was going to enjoy every moment! From touching down into Gimpo that afternoon, it had all been amazing! Seoul gave me life!

Knowing that the drinks had been consumed for the night, also I had danced for a respectable amount of time, but I knew one more venue had to be frequented before calling it a night! Going into the dark, I wasn't going into the unknown because I had played tricks there before. Knowing what I wanted had to be known, the weeknights had been quieter so I had the pick of the bunch and it wasn't like the venue I had been to recently in Singapore. Nevertheless, I knew the night would bring the right stuff for me and all of that debauchery. No shady business was going to go down, no poor choices that time because I had my head together in that darkened moment. I enjoyed those close twilight interactions but knew deep down I had gotten my fill, getting my things together I made my way back to the hostel with a clear conscience. I had a flight to catch later that day, I had to keep some kind of consciousness! Making my Asiana Airlines flight to Beijing hours later, the nights trip had been ace!

Oh Soju!

Joseph Harrison 

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Beijing's Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City & Jingshan Park...

Taking my time, I knew that saving Beijing’s top governmental and historical sights would be worth my wait. Trusting China Highlights once again allowed me to keep things right on schedule, teamed with a knowledgeable guide that made it feel like a breeze within the madness of Tiananmen Square! With all the commotion it did seem rather hectic! Was Tiananmen sacred?

Meeting my tour guide Cactus at Qianmen subway station at the agreed time allowed me to begin my Tiananmen experience. The post Golden Week crowd levels were just as high that Saturday even though the holiday had finished. The mausoleum of Mao Zedong stood before me, I didn't fancy visiting that imposing part of Beijing's Tiananmen because I had done my bit in North Korea, that's enough leaders in state for me! The sheer magnitude of people that were busying around Beijing's most famous governmental point of interest had me feeling that their visit was a big deal! The National Museum of China stood before, I didn't feel the need to visit that museum to see the exhibits because it was quick trip. Some young people asked me for a photo together, I politely declined in Chinese. Tiananmen's immense feeling and craze made me feel like I was in the true capital of the country! Yes, that Beijing moment had arrived!

The whole of China had recently celebrated the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China, the formation that consists of modern China that was established in 1949. The elaborate military parade caused quite a stir, closing businesses and even my school down before the festivities commenced in October 2019. My flight to Singapore was pushed forwards three hours because of the military airshow that forced the airport to close down during the morning and part of the afternoon. Standing amongst the crowds I wasn't the only person in my tour during that late morning period, a British family had joined so it was interesting to tell them the in's and out surrounding life in China as a working foreigner. Back to the square, I had never quite seen such a frenzy in one place before, people seemed like Tiananmen meant so much as if it was a sight of pilgrimage! I, myself stood in awe of the imposing buildings that Beijing is so famous for. Those guards were frozen!

Known as the 'Gate of Heavenly Peace', the commonly known 'rostrum' hosts the world famous portrait of Mao Zedong. I won't go into the life and times during Mao's era but having the chance to see that portrait solidified my time spent in Beijing. The motto of the 'republic' could be seen with all of its red and white glory, the less mentioned about its meaning the better. The sense of patriotism that could felt in the heavily polluted air that afternoon was amazing, people were living their best lives according to their 'China Dream!' I took the whole experience as I found it, standing there in that moment felt like I had achieved something special because this focal point held the same precedence Buckingham Palace does for those who identify as 'Royalists' in the United Kingdom. It stood as a true symbol of China. Having took me two years to get there, it had been certainly worth the wait! Yes, Beijing's true staple!

In essence, Tiananmen Square proved the buzz I was expecting it to have with the droves of Chinese tourists and overseas alike. Moreover, the devotion from the Chinese visitors stirred a certain question in my mind. A certain party known as the CCP still stands at the forefront of the vast Beijing governmental square with the hearts and minds of the visitors following the cause. I really found that part quite interesting and utterly bizarre in the same sense, there was a lot to comprehend and to take in that afternoon. In a sense Tiananmen Square and its famous rostrum possessed a rather domineering feel with the party commanding the attention and the presence of guards had everybody walking in the right direction, minding their behaviour at all times! After some research it was said that the portrait of Mao Zedong had been replaced before the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China was founded. Being part of a tour made things easier for the security was tight!

Passing through the 'Gate of Heavenly Peace' allowed us to enter the Forbidden City. Once home to the previous emperors throughout China's many dynasty's, this gargantuan palace housed the ever-changing Chinese imperial family until the fall of the Qing Dynasty. The maddening crowds grew ever more as myself and the small group tour approached the 'Gate of Supreme Harmony'. Upon entering the 'Gate of Supreme Harmony' the wide palace centre impressed me much! In my minds eye I imagined the closing scene during Disney's Mulan, if only a gaggle of crossdressers in imperial Chinese dress shuffled through before me, we can have our dreams! Capturing the photo on the left wasn't too much of a chore, the crowd flowed nicely so the photo didn't have an overloaded feel. Funnily enough it was another correct Beijing feeling felt that day! If truth be told I wanted to run away to take more photos, of course I did just that!

Learning a lot about the Forbidden City's history impressed me much, the common people that surrounded the closed city were in fact barred from visiting the palace completely. The changing emperors all shared one recurring passion to keep concubines, sounding like some line-up a gentleman's club the concubines would all line up ready to be picked out by the emperor. The race to produce an heir fell onto the wives and concubines of the many emperors who lived within the walls of the Forbidden City, nowadays in China families don't frown upon having girls born instead of boys. The interesting stories had me gripped, I wanted to know more! As we made our way through the main part of the Palace Museum, it was apparent that a lot of the design had been dictated by number sequences, those door-knob formations had me all confused. Even though the interior of the buildings were closed, the exterior told enough of as story. Perfectly, my Beijing day was falling into place!

Crossing the intersection from the Northern Gate allowed us to reach Beijing's Jingshan Park, entering without any hassle it was time climb to the very top. Fun fact, once the moats had been dug out that surrounded the Forbidden City, the soil was used to create the hill at the said Beijing park. Climbing to the top of Beijing's Jingshan Park should've given the picture postcard view over the Forbidden City but with the polluted skies creating a hazy mist I was served something completely different. I tried to look at the hazy view as if it had a sense of mystery, with a little editing I have come to terms with the photo captured to the right. The walk up was something else, leaving me breathless it wasn't just the smoggy air that had been short of breath during that afternoon of Beijing delights. Would I return to take a less hazy photo? No, it was the true way I was meant to see it! Not feeling bitter, it was time to finish things.

From those first crowds whilst I waited at Qianmen for Cactus, to the steep incline to the top of Jingshan Park the day had been a success! The feeling of Tiananmen Square gave me all the governmental realness that I had been longing to witness, that Beijing open square had got the power for sure! I was polite, opting out to that that street selfie! The strong fabric of a certain party had the crowds transfixed by a certain portrait. I was true to my calm, I didn't want to see museum exhibits nor see leaders in state because I just didn't feel that was meant for my Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City day. The pollution may have belted down on Beijing, suffocating the skies above the Forbidden City from the peak of Jingshan Park, in the end the world still turns. The afternoons itinerary was just enough and worth the price, I was impressed! Heading back to Shunyi, it had been like medicine to go back into the city after my Golden Week hiatus. Beijing's Tiananmen chapter is now closed.

Pollution Galore!

Joseph Harrison