Monday, March 27, 2006

stinky tofu and drunken shrimps

This morning, before leaving, I check the weather forecasts at Yahoo! Weather.

Yes, the weather forecast is "dust". There are sandy deserts not far from Beijing, and when the weather is very windy the dust blows into the city.

We begin with a visit to the Summer Palace. It is an enormous residence built near a lake. The weather is so cold and windy that it is hard to enjoy it.

For lunch, we tell the guide that we appreciated that yesterday we went to a much better place than the touristy place of Saturday, but that we would like a meal not catered to Western taste at all. (Yesterday's place still had a bit of American Chinese restaurant taste.) We got what we wished for. The first dish was pork served with some vegetables that had been dried and then re-hydrated. The cut of pork was probably the one used for bacon: half of it was fat, but it was cooked in a way that was eatable. Next course was stinky tofu, a dish that has a reputation for being, to put it mildly, an acquired taste. The guide and the driver were eating with us, so there was no wimping out of it. To me, it tastes rotten, in the literal sense of eating something that has gone bad, but I can imagine how sharp cheese tastes to someone who has never eaten it. I am sure I will give stinky tofu another try, but not too soon. Finally, the highlight of the meal were the drunken shrimps. They were served in a bowl that looked boiling hot. It turns out, instead, that it is a cold dish. The shrimps are put alive in a marinade that is made mostly of alchool. When the dish is served, the shrimps are still alive and kicking (this is what I mistaked as boiling). After a while, when the kicking has almost stopped, you pick up a shrimp with the chopsticks, by the head, and put most of the body in the mouth. You chew, and then you spit out the pieces of shells that you did not chew. Again, I did not feel like wimping, and down went the really fresh shrimps. They actually tasted quite good.

The restaurant was ridicolously overstaffed. Eight people were milling by the door to greet us when we arrived. At least two people were near our table at any time.

We continue with a visit to a Hu Tong, an old style neighborhood with small alleys and old houses. Most Hu Tong were torn down for new developments, but finally the government realized that they had cultural and touristic value. The tour was embarassing, at least to me. We went around in a rickshaw, with a person pedaling to tow it, a means of transportation that I find ethically questionable and, more importantly, I felt as dignified in the rickshaw as I would be in a horse carriage in Central Park. It really says "silly Western tourist." (Of course, in Central Park, it says "silly Japanese tourist"). As part of the tour, we walked into somebody's house, and they offered us tea and sat down for a while. Again, the notion that somebody's house would be a tourist attraction because "it's so exotic" bothered me to no end.

Many of the houses have been converted to bars and to souvenir shops, selling Mao's red books, posters of the cultural revolution, but also posters of Che Guevara and the like. It is clearly only a matter of time before we see stores selling t-shirts that read "my grandson went to Beijing and all I got is this lousy t-shirt".

Update 4/3/2006: Pictures

The cherry trees are in blossom

and some of them are amazing

This is how the Hu Tong looks from above


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