(Birds in a Beijing alleyway)
In contrast to our long planned and much anticipated trip last year, the decison to go to China this year was completely spontaneous. We discovered a flight deal for $620 (round trip - all taxes included!) which is outrageously cheap for an international flight. After making sure the seats were actually inside the plane (visions of us being strapped to the wing) we nabbed a pair of tickets. Clarence's parents took advantage of the dirt cheap seats as well and together we planned an itinerary that took us through Beijing, Weihai, Guangzhou, and then home from Hong Kong.
We didn't have much time to plan, but that was offset by fact that Clarence's parents can speak Mandarin, Cantonese, and the dialect spoken in Weihai which covered 100% of our bases language-wise . I, on the other hand, could only offer my enthusiastic pointing and impressive charade communications skills (which DID prove useful last time we were there. Useful and possibly embarassing).
I won't bore you with everything we saw and - more importantly - everything we ate. It was a completely inappropriate amount of food for a blog post, like a novel series amount of food. But I do want to share some trip highlights as I know mainland China, and especially Weihai, are not commonly on people's holiday destination wish-lists.
(View of the Summer Palace from our little boat)
In Beijing we stayed in the same hotel as last year. Sure, it sounds a little boring and unadventurous but it's in the perfect neighbourhood. Just far enough away from the tourist areas to find the cheap local eats, but right beside all of the major transportation routes.
We skipped the forbidden city and National Museum (been there, done that) in favor of exploring the Summer Palace. We rented a little boat and traveled around the palace grounds via the lake just enjoying the view and the joys of low tourist season small crowds.
The highlight meal of Beijing was a Peking duck dinner. There's no shortage of famous restaurants serving the succulent wood-fire roasted ducks so it was after much deliberation that we chose Liqun which opened in 1902. The building is tucked away in a crumbling hutong (alley neighbourhood) and there was a unique charm to eating in a building so old. Less charming was lack of bathrooms - toilets were located down the street in a community restroom.
Bathroom issues aside, the meal was amazing. The roasted duck slices were edged with crispy skin and eaten wrapped in thin pancakes with hoisin sauce, cucumbers, and green onions. The rest of the meal was made from the remainder of the duck with dishes like duck pâté, and duck feet in mustard sauce.
(Weihai's beautiful shores + a replica of the Ting Yuen which was destroyed in battle with Japan )
During our visit, the air in Beijing had been unusually clean because surrounding factories had been ordered to shut down during the APEC conference. Obama and other world leaders were in town and the government wanted to make a good impression. People started joking that even the dead had to wait to be cremated until after the conference.
Comparatively, as soon as we traveled outside of Beijing the air was smoggy and the countryside looked bleak. It was a foggy day to begin with, but the smog made the sun looks like a hazy orange globe from a post-apocalyptic movie. Thankfully the scenery and air vastly improved as we moved towards the coast and after a 3 hour train ride and 4 hour car trip we arrived at the beautiful coastal city of Weihai.
With it's beautiful shores and red-ish mountains, it's obviously why Weihai has become a popular vacation spot for Chinese tourists from other areas of China. It's a prosperous city and everywhere we went they were constructing new resorts and hotels along their coastline - a combination of glamorous modern buildings and adorable thatched roof cottages for rent right on the water.
We'd been told that the hospitality in Weihai is legendary, and after spending a week there with a variety of relatives as hosts I have to agree. I've never encountered anything like it! These relatives are not immediate Aunts and Uncles, and Clarence had never met any of them before. Yet, we were whisked from feast to feast where piles of sparkling fresh seafood and expensive delicacies were served. At one of the lavish lunches we were each presented with our own pot of soup which contained a whole Fugu - a poisonous puffer fish which requires a specialized chef to prepare it - along with dish after dish of their best local food.
The photo above is from one of the more casual dinners we had at a seafood hot pot place. The aunts and uncles kept filling our pots with a mind- boggling variety of crabs, clams, and oysters. They also kindly attempted to put a few cockroach-looking bugs into my pot. I initially declined (insert horrified emoji face here) but eventually ate a few out of curiosity, much to their delight. My illustrious track record of never turning down a new food remains intact.
The food in Weihai is very different than the Cantonese, Szechuan, and Northern-style noodles available in Canada. Seafood is eaten at every meal and the dishes are very savory and salty which I absolutely loved. They don't eat their food with rice like South or alongside noodles like the North. Instead, each meal has only one or two hot dishes along with a wide variety of cold savory dishes like boiled peanuts or kimchi (thanks to their proximity to Korea) with steamed corn bread served on the side.
(Tea and fruit at our hosts' apartments)
In between feasts we were taken to relative's apartments where they served us fruit and tea. Clarence and I couldn't understand most of the conversations but we had a great time touring their flats and relaxing on the couches or balconies sipping tea until the next relative picked us up for a meal. We felt like two spoiled house cats just eating, lounging, and being doted on the entire visit.
(Checking out the public art along Weihai's coastline)
Our hosts entertained us on a schedule they had prearranged with each other and a few of them had even taken time off of work just to ferry us around. It was a surreal experience and we all felt incredibly grateful and indebted to them by the end of our time there.
(Chinese wife cake from a famous Guangzhou bakery filled with winter-melon and wrapped in flaky pastry)
From Weihai we flew to Ghoungzou which is the third biggest city in China with a population of 14 million people. The food there is more along the lines of what Canadians are used to: copious amounts of dim sum, Chinese bakeries, and delicately flavored stir fries served with white rice.
(Dim Sum in a restaurant with a beautiful outdoor courtyard)
Our stay was far too short and we only had time for a bit of shopping, sight seeing, and dim summing. I hope we can eventually make it back there as the city was easy to navigate, affordable, and the food was delicious. Plus it has that appealing contrast of futuristic modern architecture butted up again century old alleyway neighbourhoods.
(Beautiful, beautiful buns)
From there we took a beautifully scenic train ride to Hong Kong, and once we arrived I made a beeline for the amazing Hong Kong baking. Why are their buns so freaking good? I'm completely defenceless against their delicious ways. My personal kryptonite are cocktail buns: soft white bread stuffed with a sweet and buttery coconut filling. A close second are the coconut cream buns with BBQ pork buns coming in third.
Oh Hong Kong bakeries... I'm already filled with bun-related nostaliga.
(Hong Kong skyline)
Our time in Hong Kong was spent visiting a few friends and relatives, site seeing, and (obviously) enjoying the delicious food. Before we knew it we were back on a plane home to Calgary with a suitcase full of pants that no longer fit.
So long China! I can only hope that we'll meet again during an off-season seat sale.