Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Best Beijing Breakfast Cost $3 for Six People; Delicious Donkey Meat for Lunch at the Great Wall

On our first full day in China, we hit the culinary jackpot with a one-two punch, first at breakfast in Beijing and then at lunch at Mutianyu.

We awoke at the Days Inn Forbidden City in the heart of the hutong of old Beijing having mostly adjusted to the time change. The claustrophobic and spartan rooms of the property didn't seem so bad in the gray dawning light of a cold December morning. Besides, we were all cheered by the notion of getting out to experience China again. We wouldn't have to see the inside of those depressing rooms again until late in the day.

Our driver, Joe, picked us as planned promptly at 7:00 AM. We wanted to get an early start on the two hour drive to the Great Wall at Mutianyu. On the way we had decided to stop for a local breakfast, eschewing the Western breakfast buffet at the Days Inn. I knew this might be a problem for our 12 year old son's limited palate, so we stocked up on junk food for him if push came to shove.

We let Joe pick a place for breakfast, and later for lunch. He knew from previous experience with us that we are adventurous eaters.

Joe meandered through some
nondescript neighborhoods to a forgettable-looking restaurant about halfway down a boring back street. It had the usual dingy door and windows, and I couldn't make out the sign if indeed there was one. He explained that the restaurant, like many, was open only for lunch and dinner, but that in the mornings leased its space to families who brought in their own cooking pots, pans, steamers, foodstuff, and serving bowls and plates to offer a quick and dirty traditional Chinese breakfast to folks going to work along the avenue.

Inside we were the only Round Eyes to be seen, and no one spoke English. We joined the queue for ordering, and Joe suggested a plentitude of pork-filled dumplings, fried bread, and two kinds of soup. We eagerly complied, and the bill came to under $3.

At the table I wondered how good this could really be and whether we'd bought too much, but when we tucked into the soup, bread, and dumplings, everything was so delicious that soon everyone wanted more, and then more still. It was a madhouse of elbows and chopsticks vying for more. We feasted on that simple breakfast!

Truth be told, we were only mildly hungry when we arrived, but the wholesome and good food stimulated our appetite. Only our son was not sated by the fried bread and had to be placated with some sweetbreads we purchased at a stand next door as we left.

It was a memorable breakfast, made more special because of our low expectations.

The ride out of Beijing into the countryside was a pleasure, with little traffic once the city was left behind. En route we passed under one of the region's main rail lines, with long unit coal trains moving behind electrified locomotives.

Closer to
the Great Wall at Mutianyu we also passed through the surrounding village where Joe pointed out that land prices had skyrocketed. I thought the new housing developments looked bleak, depressing, and prison-like. I couldn't imagine why anyone would like to stay in them unless contemplating suicide, and I mused as much. Joe said the cool, clear mountain air beat the heck out of the unrelenting summertime heat and traffic pollution of Beijing, and I realized that, yes, everything is relative. I could understand suddenly why people would tolerate the dismal dreariness of these unimaginative developments to escape the hell on earth that Beijing has become.

We reached the Great Wall at Mutianyu by mid-morning and bundled up against the winter cold in the mountains. I was surprised that the prices seem to have increased considerably since 2004, but the $20+ equivalent per person did also pay for the chair lift to get us to the Wall from the valley. It would otherwise have been quite a hike.

My fear of heights got a good workout on the flimsy chairlift ride over the valley to the top of the wall. Our kids loved it, though, and wanted to do it again. No, thanks. I had a death grip on the chair rails going up which, of course, wouldn't have helped had the overhead cable snapped or if the car had simply slipped off the cable and crashed into the rocky ground far below.

I read that the Great Wall at Mutianyu has been considerably rebuilt, but it looks and feels appropriately ancient. We never tire of walking the Wall. It's a marvelous experience every time, especially on such a cold, clear, blustery winter's day in December. The vistas are magnificent, and it's a sobering reminder of the determination, ingenuity, and longevity of the Chinese spirit. Being there is to admire China.

This is the place Chinese officials bring foreign dignitaries. Bill Clinton has been to Mutianyu, as have countless others. A few days after we were there, Secretary of Defense Gates was brought to Mutianyu on a state visit.

Another benefit of going to the Wall in winter is that there are few tourists to ruin the experience by, well, by being there. Selfish, yes, but one wants to take in the Wall alone in a reverent state that is difficult to achieve when scores of foreigners are cleverly quipping to one another in a multitude of languages, "Hey, it sure is a long way down!"

Traipsing over the Great Wall is all up and down, and often seems like a lot more steep ups than downs. It's a unique, wonderful experience that makes one believe that mankind's abilities are limitless.

The way down was a simulated bobsled run on a stainless steel sinuous track. Once again our kids enjoyed it more than I did, but at least the track was on or close to the ground. We left the Wall for lunch, now somehow famished from the mild trekking despite having been filled to the brim at breakfast.

Joe chose a local restaurant not far from Mutianyu because he wanted us to enjoy one of the local mountain delicacies, donkey meat. The restaurant, like most in China, was clean, neat, but not much heated. We were shown to a small private room that did heat up quickly, and we ordered several dishes, including the famous donkey meat.

Soon the dishes began to arrive, along with local beer. Everything was scrumptious, including the donkey, which was served in thin slices and looked much like country ham slices in the South. But the donkey had a very distinctive flavor reminiscent of nothing I've ever eaten before. Everybody tried it, and all liked it, even our picky son.

Once again we consumed the food as if we hadn't eaten in weeks. The bill came to Y146 (about $20) for beer, water, donkey, snow peas, chicken, pancakes, rice, and Sprite--enough for six people. We left ready for a snooze in the car en route back to Beijing for further adventures.

Next time: Summer Palace, Beijing McDonald's (for our son), a Chinese foot massage, and the Kung Fu show at the Red Theater (getting there in PM traffic was a nightmare).


Blogger dafydh said...

amazing post. I googled for breakfast in Beijing and what a find.

6/05/2011 8:49 AM  

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