My trip to Beijing two weeks ago is fading from my memory, encouraged by the head-turning speed of the trip and the exhausting catch-up I’ve been playing since I returned, so I figured I’d better get it on paper before the whole thing fades away.
Although the trip was not that much shorter than my previous trips to Kuala Lumpur and Ho Chi Minh/Hanoi, having only one day of recruiting to go through made it seem quicker. But unlike my previous trips, this time I was traveling with a Chinese coworker, which made the trip a bit more fun. No arguing with cabbies, no blank looks and failures to communicate, I got through smoothly and even got some good food out of the deal.
Fortunately, my coworker was not from Beijing but rather from a rural area far from the capital, so she was not insulted when I donned a mask before exiting the airport. Instead, she had a matching mask, plus an extra for her sister that came there to greet us. I kept the mask on almost 100% of the time when I was outdoors or even near a door, even on the day when the sky was blue instead of smog-colored. The way Chinese weather gets reported here in Japan, you wouldn’t think there were blue sky days.
Because of our busy schedule, we only got out once during the trip, to a Szechuan Restaurant, which was my request. A friend from Beijing (not wearing a mask, since he was used to it), took us there on Saturday night after getting a tip that, by Beijing standards, it wasn’t crowded. Beijing standards must be brutal, since it was still about a 40 minute wait, but at least we got to wait inside, and they brought us several cups of tea and some nuts. Little did I appreciate then that they would be the last food items of the evening that would not cause pain.
I tend to be pretty brazen about my spicy food. I lived in Thailand before, where I would add chili oil to my already scorching street-food meals, so I figure I can handle anything that any other country throws at me. But it’s been three years since my mouth last dealt with “Thai spicy” and Japan’s aversion to all things spicy (wasabi doesn’t count) has left me as weak as a baby, without even the kindness to let me know. Meanwhile, the dishes at this restaurant, I fancy, could have given Thailand a run for its money.
I have a chili plant in my back yard. It has about as many chilis on it as were in each of the family-style dishes we ordered. And to make things worse, the friend that took us there insisted on my joining him in a toast of Baiju- a toast that was about the size of a full glass of wine (sipped, of course). Baiju may be an acquired taste, but if that’s the case, it’s not on my list of acquisitions and that night did not help. The taste reminded me of the smell of rubbing alcohol, although it was only 38% alcohol, and it had the less than desirable effect of spreading the burning around my mouth without diminishing the sensation, nor dulling my nerves. By the time my coworker took pity on my state and took my glass away to prevent further toasting, I was a little buzzed, but mostly just feeling sick.
If you have the stomach for Szechuan food and its spice, I highly recommend it, but you should probably consider coconut milk and rice to go with your meal, rather than Baiju. Also, if you’re going out for Szechuan food and Baiju and you have a daily word count to hit, you’re going to want to do it beforehand. Trust me.
This was not a particularly Beijing-y visit, compared to my last trips, where I struggled through crowded markets and packed temples. We cabbed it directly from the airport to the rather high-end hotel where our recruiting fair was held, stayed in the hotel and adjacent Beihang University for most of our events, and went out only once for dinner. Even our subway ride back to the airport (thanks to a marathon that day, it was a bad day for catching a cab) was relatively uncrowded. Compared to my last visits, it was like going to Hong Kong instead of Kowloon. Night and Day. A lot less culture, but a sense of safety and comfort. I guess it’s a sign of how much I’ve aged that I appreciated that!
Now, I’m back in Japan and looking forward to at least 4 work trip-free months through the end of the fiscal year (in March). After that, who knows where I’ll end up!