Each cup of tea represents an imaginary voyage. - Catherine Douze
I've always said that China is all about seizing opportunities for me - so what do you do when you absolutely love tea and a Chinese tea enthusiast offers to take you to discover the world of tea at the tea market? You say yes thank you!
Around three weeks ago, my great Italian friend Alessia had organised for a group of us to go to a tea market located on the north third ring road. Chinese teacher and tea enthusiast Lucy was going to meet us there. Lucy is a larger than life character. Always super elegant, this time dressed in red from top to toe, speaks perfect English and is extremely knowledgable. Lucy took us to one of the many small tea shops where a lovely young woman was waiting for us. She is the daughter of tea producers from southern China and was proud to let us sample various types of tea - both from the family farm and other producers.
Lucy had prepared a booklet for each of us with basic information about the different types of Chinese tea. We were introduced to green tea, yellow tea, white tea, Wulong tea, black tea (called red tea - hongcha - in Chinese) and dark tea.
Here are a few of the interesting facts we learned:
Shop til you drop
I decided to buy two of the teas we tasted:
We are blessed to have family and friends who are willing and able to take the trip across the world to visit us in China. The people who have been here so far have been impressed with the amount of things to do and see in Beijing. Even two weeks don't seem to be enough time to cover even the most famous sights and a mere fraction of the restaurants here - but here is what an ideal visit to Beijing looks like to me.
Sights and shopping:
1) The Great Wall
If I had ONE day in Beijing, I would spend it by the Great Wall! It is simply magnificent!
My dear friend Agne and her daughter Indra have just been to visit us for 10 days. The Great Wall was on our programme the first weekend! This time we went to the Mutianyu section of the Wall. It's located around 90 minutes drive from Beijing and is one of the most well preserved and beautiful sections. Yes it is quite touristy but once you're up on the wall (we took the Cable car up the toboggan down) you completely forget about the selfie stick and "I climbed the Great Wall" t-shirt craze at the entrance.
We chose to stay at a small courtyard hotel in a village 6 K from Mutianyu. A perfect way to avoid the evening traffic back to the city and to experience something really authentic at the same time!
2) The Lama temple
One of the only "active" buddhist temples in Beijing. The atmosphere at the Lama Temple is what I love the most about it! The beautiful alley leading down to the entrance, the smell of incense, the monks and the devoted Buddhists who pray. The halls and courtyards are also stunning and the last hall of the temple hosts the biggest sandalwood Buddha in the world.
3) Temple of Heaven
This Iconic park is a popular sight with our guests. Not only is it stunning and full of life but it is also conveniently located right next to the Pearl market a place where guests tend to almost literally shop till they drop!
4) The "trio": Tiān'ānmén Square, The Forbidden City and Jingshan park
These 3 sights are so easy to combine in one day - and each impressive in their own way.
a) Tiananmen Square is the world's largest public square and you probably know it from the Student protests (and massacre) in 1989 and from the Beijing news reporters' background shot: the enormous portrait of Chairman Mao.
b) The Forbidden City. Probably Beijing's most famous sight! It is also the largest palace complex in the world and 24 emperors lived here! I have been there several times but must admit that we've never taken a guided tour. We've only explored on our own - and with our "Lonely planet" book. This place is enormous and I believe that if you took a guide, you could walk around for 4-5 hours. And while I like learning about China's history and culture, I am not that much of a hard core history fan. I do, however, always recommend that our guests watch the wonderful movie "The last Emperor" before going to the Forbidden city!
c) Jingshan park: Come here for the view! You won't regret it! Right across the street from the exit of the the Forbidden city lies "Jingshan park" also known as "Coal hill". The park itself is beautiful and seems like a botanical garden. But it is an absolute must to make your way up to the temple on the hill! The view over the roofs of the Forbidden City is simply indescribable as is the view over "modern Beijing" on the other side of the temple.
5) Guloudong Dajie and Houhai lakes
I love the street Guloudon Dajie! Such a vibrant street with loads of restaurants and quaint shops. It is the perfect point of departure for a nice walk around the surrounding Hutongs, the Bell and Drum towers and the lively Houhai lake.
6) "Atmosphere" bar on the 80th floor of the ShangriLa hotel
I've included this bar in the "sights" section because it is the perfect place to enjoy the view over Beijing. I don't think one really grasps the size of this city that is home to almost 25 million inhabitants until you've seen it from a high rise building in the middle of the Central Business District. And of course the view only gets better while you sip one of their great (and rather expensive) cocktails - or while you enjoy their weekend brunch.
7) Tuanjiehu Park and market
I've written about Tuanjiehu Park before! You won't find it in the guide books but it is definitely one of my favourite places in Beijing! And it's only a short walk from our apartment! I call it our little gem in the middle of the city. Always full of activity! Tai chi, opera singing, work-out, traditional dance, a choir that meets 3 times a week and so much more! I usually combine our visit to the park with a visit to our local market the Tuanjiehu market, It is not only a wet market but there is a "non-food" section with everything from souvenirs and clothes to stationary and cleaning products.
What and where to eat
1) Peking Duck
The Imperial dish Beijing roast duck is a must when you visit Beijing! The roast duck is characterised by its crispy skin and in the best restaurants, it is carved in front of you. It is served with small, thin pancakes, a variety of thinly sliced vegetables and hoisin sauce. If we want to go a bit fancy, we take our guests to the famous Dàdong restaurant - otherwise a simpler and cheaper option is the Great Wall restaurant near our place.
2) Hot pot
I must admit that I'm not a huge fan of hot pot but I'd say it's a must to try it! At the centre of the table, you receive a huge pot of boiling broth. You can choose spicy or non-spicy broth. You then order your choice of meat and vegetables to cook in the broth and have a good time around the table fishing what's yours!
3) Jian bing
I rarely let my guests leave Beijing before they try my favourite street food snack the "Jian bing". It is a big pancake with coriander, egg, spring onion, green salad and crispy strips of fried wonton inside. Yes I know it sounds strange but trust me - I could eat it every day!!
Our guests normally try dumplings at least once during their stay! Whether it's Beijing style or my favourite Cantonese style. Most people like them and they are often a hit with kids....except mine, You can choose different kinds of filling but the most popular type in Beijing seems to be pork and/or green vegetables - and too much garlic for my taste. BUT there are two dumpling places I love! One is the rather fancy chain "Din Tai Fun" (originally Taiwanese) and one is our little local Cantonese dumpling place.
5) Yunnan cuisine
The Yunnan province is located in the southwest of China and borders Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. It is on the top of my list of places I want to visit but so far I have only been able to enjoy the food from this region. It is absolutely delicious! It includes many spicy dishes (but not too spicy in my opinion) as well as lovely fresh noodle dishes, crispy spring rolls and even goats cheese. My 2 favourite restaurants in Beijing are, in fact, both Yunnan restaurants! One is called "In and Out" and is located in the Sanlitun "embassy area" while "Dali courtyard" is located in Xiaojingchang Hutong in a very charming courtyard setting!
6) Japanese food
Yes we live in China but also very much enjoy other types of Asian cuisine. I love Japanese cuisine! I often go for Japanese for lunch (almost all Japanese restaurants have a large variety of set lunches on their menu. For around 70 kuai (more or less 10 euros) you get a very generous lunch with all kinds of delicious food to taste. Our family often goes to a Japanese "all you can eat" restaurant down the road for dinner, It's called "Four Seasons". Order anything on the menu as many times as you like for 168 kuai (23 Euros) per person. Drinks included,
7) Finally: my preferred Western options
I think most westerners who live in China crave Western food from time to time! I do too! And when I have days like that, my 3 favourite places are:
- "Cantina Agave": Mexican food and drinks in Sanlitun Village
- "Moka bros" : Swedish chain of cafe style food. I always end up ordering their yummy kale and goats cheese grilled sandwich!
- "Blue Frog": American style burger/diner joint. The food is really tasty and the calorie intake enormous. But who cares!
Voilà I hope our next guests are ready - and hopefully some of my dear followers are now inspired to come and visit Beijing!
I should perhaps mention that you should always make space for cheap but wonderful massages, manicures and pedicures in your programme :-)
On my 10 minute bike ride to Chinese lessons, I ride past 46 restaurants and a big shopping mall with another 25 or so eateries inside. I'm not sure why but I counted them the other day. As if I needed to remind myself that it's convenient and fun to live in the city and to be spoilt for choice!
Some of you may remember my blog post from last month about possibly moving outside the city The idea of a lovely villa with a garden as well as a shorter distance to the kids' school started to seem attractive to us. But there is no denying that my husband and I are city people!
In a city of 25 million people, there are obviously places that are very far away from us but everything we need in our daily lives lies within biking or walking distance from our home. Whether it's work, Chinese lessons, the supermarket, the hairdresser's, the dentists', the dry cleaners or said variety of restaurants.
We like to have the hustle and bustle around us. We do not mind the slightest that you can hear the traffic on the busy road below us from our apartment on the 7th floor, even with all the windows closed. The charm of Chinese 差不多 "quality" housing.
We like how distance is never really an issue when it comes to discovering the sights in the city centre. The fact that we can meet friends in the evening or go listen to some live music without too much planning going into it. The fact that, just by crossing Nong Than Guan Nan Lu, we're in the Tuanjiehu neighbourhood with its markets and communities where it's not uncommon to meet elderly men taking their birds in a cage for a walk. We agree that taking your bikes to the theatre in the evening is priceless - as is biking to the Forbidden city on a Sunday afternoon.
But most of all, we like to feel part of the city. See Beijingers, listen to Běijīng huà being spoken, horns being honked and spit being spat! ....no wait...
Cooking has always been one of my least favourite chores and since we moved to China I have really tried to find the passion for cooking by buying new cook books, strapping recipes from magazines and watching cooking channels - including my friend Jens's genius youtube channel peking papa. But alas. Ask me to host a dinner party and I'll be quite happy but everyday cooking, not so much.
But I have a solution for that. An incredibly privileged solution! Like 99% of expat families in Beijing, we have an Ayi. A maid. She comes a whopping 5 times a week for 4 hours. She tidies up, washes and irons our clothes, cleans and...cooks. I still have to get used to having a maid so I am still as disorganised as when we lived in Belgium. I would like her to cook but I forget to plan ahead, buy the necessary groceries or ask her to pass by the market so she can pick up what she needs. But all that is going to change now thanks to my new purchase! A cookbook of everyday French dishes with all the recipes written in English AND Chinese! Ladies and gentlemen I give you "Cuisine mei wenti!"! Mei wenti means "no problem" in Mandarin. The book is divided into sections with starters, main dishes, side dishes and desserts and includes useful information about the differences between Western cuisine and Chinese cuisine. For example, point 6 is "MSG is not usually used" [in Western cuisine]. Yes this book is the kind of idea I wish I had had! Just like other great ideas that cater for expats and tackle the language barrier here in China. But the woman who DID have the idea is called Olivia Guinebault and I am very happy that my neighbour Anna passed me her contact. However, I am very curious to see if the book lives up to its promise on the front page: "Daily cooking becomes a pleasure". Well if not for me then for the Ayi :-)
It is no secret that one of the things I love most about Beijing are its parks. There are plenty of them. Different from most parks in western countries. Less grass and more concrete but believe me: concrete pathways, lakes and Chinese architecture is a beautiful combination.
The parks in Beijing are not just there to look pretty. They are used by people of all ages, all walks of life and they especially come to life early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Activities vary from Tai Chi to opera singing, practising sword skills and playing Ma Jiang. It always touches me to see how the elderly come out and socialize. You do not need to know who's there to join in on a spot of Ma Jiang, "walk" your birds or practise Tai chi. You just join in and make new friends. One of the most lively parks I've visited in Beijing is the Tuanjiehu park. It is situated around 15 minutes walk from our apartment and is what I call a little gem surrounded by skyscrapers. When I walk into this park, I forget about traffic and the smoggy days and I remember one of the reasons why I looked forward to moving to China: the incomparable park atmosphere!
I took these pictures of Tuanjiehu park on two different occasions: a morning walk with my friend Berni and a morning walk alone (in the snow) 2 weeks ago. Enjoy!