In a previous post I wrote about my once in a lifetime experience with the Great Wall of China, a childhood dreaming. At the conclusion of the walk we pushed further north within 300km of the Mongolian border to a little village for lunch, all part of the tour.
It was close to Chinese New Year and there were signs of the impending festivities everywhere making great photo opportunities of the celebration preparations. zig zagging our way through the cars, people and bikes it was becoming very apparent I was no longer in “touristville” and somehow had become the attraction. It didn’t help I was in a private vehicle, sitting in the back like I was being chauffeured. I guess I was.
I have only ever felt like this once before and that was in the small town of Hazyview, South Africa. Many years ago my wife and I were attending a church leaders workshop hosted by a friend of ours out of Johannesburg and on the last day we stopped in this little town. In attending to some grocery shopping we soon found ourselves to be the only white in people in the supermarket. For me it was the first experience of what it must be like for refugees and immigrants alike who over the decades have settled in Australia, clearly standing out. Even though no ones says anything, you just know you are different and if you don’t, the curious peeks at you, reminder you you’re from a different place or heritage.
Stepping out the car the cold air bites and alivens my senses as my guide whisks me into a small restaurant. I’m not very adventurous in my eating. I’m a meat and veg sort of guy with some pasta. That said I love Chinese food, actually I need to qualify that statement. I love Australian Chinese food, aka Sweet and Sour Pork, Honey Chicken, all wonderful dishes I learnt were not at all Chinese on my first trip to Hong Kong, a few years earlier.
A rookie in Asian travel back then, I was so excited to be going to the home of Chinese food and eat it all fresh. Well it was fresh alright. Hanging in the windows, contorted forms that in some case I could not work out what the animal was! And I had grown up in the bush and not naive to what it takes to put a steak on the plate. So, stomach churning mixed with a “what the heck is that in the dish” I scoured Hong Kong for McDonalds and a burger.
Somewhat more experienced this time round, I’d eaten goose at least. I was ready to take on whatever was served up. A boiling dish of broth with veges and bits of some discombobulated animal were placed in front of me. This is OK, I did this with beautiful thin strips of steak in Tokyo, I can do this I told myself. At that moment the head of a chicken bubbled to the surface. Red, it flesh free flowing bouncing in the bubbles and eyes like clouds staring at me, I felt like I had just stepped into a fringe festival horror movie. I am going to start small I reassured myself. The vegetables look doable.
My guides tuck in and I gingerly pick out the vegetables, hoping horror head doesn’t make another surprise appearance. The chop sticks tap something hard and it’s not the head. Grasping the sturdy slippery form I drag it to the top, it a chickens leg. No not a drumstick, nicely crumbed and succulent to the bite. This is not KFC. It’s a fully formed leg, skin, bones and claws and somewhere in there, meat. My eagle eyed guide spots it, before I can drop it into the boiling depths of the broth and starts laughing with his companion. Then in English tells me you picked it up you eat it, a rule I think they just made on the spot. I verbally wrestle with them but it’s fruitless I cannot get out of this one.
With his words “be careful of small bones” in my thoughts I try and use a mind over matter technique telling myself it’s just chicken and forcing all images of chickens, especially our pet ones from my mind.
My teeth make contact with the patterned and hard but flexible skin, which stretches under pressure and resistantly won’t give way. Finally making a hole in it the juice escape rushing into my mouth and flooding my taste buds while my brain still comes to terms with me chewing on a chickens leg. I can feel the little bones of the ankle pricking the roof of my mouth like some life less attempt to resist being eaten.
I put on a “yes that is great” face and hope that one bite is enough to satisfy my guide. It’s not and a few minutes later I get away with not having not eat the feet and claws. Shortly after I’m offered the chickens head, but I protest I didn’t pick it up and they hesitantly back down. We take a photo to remember the occasion and I have to say once I got my brain out of repulse mode, it wasn’t too bad.
The ride back into Beijing is grey and lifeless, winters grip strong on the land. I was still disappointed I didn’t get to walk more of the wall for the effort to get here. I felt partly robbed of the experience and not ready to let go of my Beijing adventure just yet.
I started asking about the 2008 Olympics and before long my private tour would take in a drive by of the Birds Nest and Aquarium, but what was to be most special was a drive around Tiananmen Square and the Hidden Palace.
In this political heart of China there is one effigy that is so well known and so profound it etches in your memory, it’s that of Chairman Mao, who ushered in the Cultural Revolution and was the founding father of the Peoples Republic of China. It sits proudly looking over Tiananmen Square now a bustling hive of activity. A blending of the old and new China both in it’s architecture and it’s people.
As a westerner I have been watching China transform and grow all my life. There is something very spiritual about being in the place that bore the hall marks of those periods
Bidding adieu to my fleeting but engaging date with Beijing I boarded the bullet train for Shanghai watching 100’s of kilometers of farms, new and old cities a like etched in snow whizzing past my window at over 300km and hour.