A trip to Beijing: Of Food and other Philosophical Musings

The fourth installment of Dr Madhumita Sen's account of a visit to Beijing.

Next stop, lunch. We climb the grand curving marble staircase, decorated at each landing with magnificent lacquer-work, and come up to the first floor, which is a large open dining area, already busy with diners. Large round tables are filled with delectable food, and suddenly we are really hungry. We are led to a separate enclosure and sit around a round table big enough to seat 10 people. We unload our gear and relax. Plates of food start to arrive, and Alice comes with a small bottle of rice wine and tiny china wine glasses. This is a traditional wine, reserved for special occasions, and is the strongest wine in China. At 56% alcohol, it is probably the strongest in the world! We pour the wine and click ‘cheers.’ After all, we have climbed the Great Wall, a childhood dream fulfilled! The wine burns down my throat like very strong whiskey ... got to sip it slo-o-owly.

A word about the food in China. There is no separate type of food for different times of the day. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all the same. It starts with a large bowl of soup (today we have tomato and mushroom), followed by plates of different meats and steamed or fried vegetables in bite sized pieces. There are always at least 3 types of meat, a fish or two and some sea food. (Alice lets us know that vegetarian Chinese are really rare and pork meat is the most common non-veg food, all Chinese love their pork!) The meal is always followed by fruit platters, filled with thinly sliced melons of different types, and sometimes grapes. Today we have watermelon, honeydew and black grapes to finish the meal. No desserts are offered, usually, but my son cannot resist finishing with an ice-cream!
{I remember reading in Medscape that the incidence of Hypertension and CVD(cardiovascular disease) has increased about 100-fold among urban Chinese in the past 25 years. However, in the five days we were in Beijing, I did not see anyone really obese (apart from some foreign tourists!), and most of the locals, of all age groups, seem really healthy. Their diet, in spite of all the pork, is healthy and balanced as well, so I’m not sure why the poor CV health – is it stress?}
After a sumptuous lunch, we are on the road again, towards the royal tombs. Alice tells us that all the royal tombs have been sealed for centuries by the emperors, but during the cultural revolution, this particular tomb had been opened up, and was ransacked of all its jewels and riches, including priceless Ming artefacts and old royal silk robes. Some have been traced and now kept in the National museum, but many are lost forever, so the Chinese Government has mandated that no other tomb be opened to the public, they can only be viewed from the outside. We are going to visit this one and only opened tomb.

I ask Alice if all Chinese bury their dead and she tells me that this was so in the past, but now most people choose cremation, except the very rich, since land is in short supply. This leads me to ask her what her religion is. Alice smiles and tells me that she has no religion (like most Chinese in China today!) but if she feels the need to pray, she prays to The Buddha. I am curious about her ‘Christian’ name. She tells me that all Chinese who work with foreigners adopt a western name for convenience. Her real name is Tian Shi, meaning angel (all Chinese names have meanings, that’s nice, just like Indian names). When she first came to Beijing she adopted the name ‘Helen’ but on joining her present Travel Agency, there were too many Helens already, so she changed her western name to Alice!

As we drive towards the tombs (called Ding Ling), we notice the surrounding high mountains. Alice has a story about these: when the first Ming emperor was looking for a place for the royal burial chambers, he specially chose this area for its Feng shui properties, it being a valley in the north south direction, close to a water body (the river) and surrounded by two high mountains which he named Dragon mountain and Tiger Mountain, which would protect the dead on their journey to the after-world.
We arrive at the tombs and enter a large clearing, with brick flooring and modern roads and an ATM machine on one side. The gate to the tombs leads to a lovely ancient garden, full of trees and stone seating areas. The walls have gargoyle-like dragon heads to act as water drains – these, we are told, are sons of the dragon which likes water!
On entering the sacred walls of the tomb, we walk down 7 flights of stairs (! We’ll have to climb back up!). The place gets colder and damper, and as we go deeper, the walls (all made of marble) become like waterfalls, seeping underground water. We finally reach the actual tombs, where there are marble thrones and peace offerings to the dead, which include rice wine, incense-sticks and paper money to be used by the dead in heaven. In the next room, the Emperor’s tomb is in the middle, with his first wife and favourite concubine on either side. These are surrounded by many boxes which had held treasures, but now lie empty.

On our way back up, we see a sign stating that pregnant women, those with heart disease and hypertension should refrain from going down to the tombs!!! Wish I had known that! After the tiring climb up, we make our way back through the gate (by the way, entering a graveyard must be from the side-entrance, only the dead can ENTER from the front gate, but we can exit from this gate, and this means we are back to the land of the living!). Thank you Alice, for saying the correct ‘mantra’ that brought us back, as we step over the gate!
We now drive back to Beijing, another long drive. This time we all take a little nap! Back in Beijing, we enter during the evening rush time, and it takes us more than an hour to get to the restaurant for dinner. Today is special, we are being treated to a proper Peking Duck dinner! This is a ritual developed by Chinese royalty many centuries ago, but now of course, there are many restaurants catering to a typical Peking Duck meal. This meal involves many rituals. First we must wash our hands (this is one of the few Chinese meals that involves eating with hands), then seat ourselves around the round table. Refreshing jasmine tea is served in tiny bowls, really welcome! Then comes the soup, and various snacks – meats and vegetables. We eat slowly, the main dish is yet to come ... Finally, the duck and its accompaniments: thinly sliced crisp duck, with fine sticks of cucumber and spring onion, special Peking Duck sauce, and the wraps, made of flour, but looking more like small, very thin pancakes. Alice shows us how it should be eaten. We first take a pancake on our plate, pick up a slice of roast duck dipped in the sauce, some slivers of cucumber and spring onion and place them on the pancake, wrap them up and eat. Yum! This is a treat! We gobble these up pretty quick!
Then comes rice and more meats: pork, vegetables in gravy, prawns.... we are already full! But we do taste these, too. Alice attacks the pork, slices of crispy meat and sauce, they are delicious, wish I had a bigger stomach! Finally, the fruit tray .... a fresh melon slice is a perfect end to this rich repast.

We roll ourselves back to the van, and Joe tells us we will be driving around Tiananmen Square and Changan street (where the big and modern Beijing buildings are), to see the lights. The roads are brilliantly lit and the square looks magnificent at night. The monument, Chairman Mao’s tomb, even the plants are lit up by fairy lights. We drive along the road and see the big buildings of Beijing, including the CCTV building, called “undersocks” by the locals, because it looks like a pair of giant
underpants! All the buildings are lit up in different ways, and some even have psychedelic light shows on their surface; truly impressive! We ask Alice what is the electricity source for Beijing. Apparently, all of Beijing’s electric supply comes from Hydroelectric power sourced outside the city.
Our next treat for the night is the famous Beijing Acrobatic show. We drive up to the Theatre, and Alice leads us to our seats. The place is choc-a-bloc full, and there are vendors selling popcorn and LED light sticks! The show is awesome, no wonder Chinese acrobats set the yardstick for the world! The grand finale is FIVE motorcyclists driving in unison within a metal net globe!
We drive back to the hotel, still recovering from a truly eventful day! So many dreams have come true ....


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