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Saturday
Oct312009

The Preserved Eggs

In a sleepy daze I heard the wheels touch the runway, the air-brakes lift up, the tires shriek and a german-accented voice calling out: "Welcome to Beijing Capital International Airport, where the local time is 1:07PM".

I'd been told Chinese immigration checks were fairly benign, but I was coughing like crazy from eight hours in an airliner cabin and a cold I got a couple days ago, so I wasn't feeling too confident handing my Swine Flu Prevention Form to the health service official. I was given a complimentary surgical mask and escorted to a "quarantine area" where I stood in open air about three feet from the customs immigration line. A very attractive Chinese girl then asked me why I had ticked the boxes marked "cough" and "sore throat". "Well, because I caught a cold a couple days ago and I've been coughing a little. I'm sure it's not a big deal." She told me that no, it didn't sound like a big deal, so here's a new form and would I please fill it without ticking those boxes, stupid idiot that I am – or words to that effect. So much for inflexible bureaucracy.

Getting to our hotel was straightforward: train, subway, five minute walk. I don't know exactly how I expected Beijing to be, but this certainly wasn't it. My first impressions of Asian cities have always been epic. Bangkok has those impossibly large traffic-jammed boulevards. Seoul has a fractal approach to street planning that means every side-street is the entrance of a huge labyrinth. Tokyo is, well, Blade Runner with asian people. Beijing, however, felt almost sedate. Traffic wasn't much denser than in Brussels. The street was lined with low buildings, shops, residences. Except for the ideograms, we could have been anywhere. Yet I liked it immediately: it felt powerful and calm, confident but unassuming, important yet easy-going.

Our hotel was in one of the old "Hutongs", traditional low-key streets that gave the city its nickname of "sprawling village". The room was small but clean, with three single beds and a flat-screen Changhong TV. While enjoying an afternoon with a six-hour jet-lag is pretty much a losing proposition, we decided to take a walk in the neighborhood.

After a while we found a traditional hole-in-the-wall restaurant and ordered food. Feeling particularly enterprising, Micha ordered possibly the foulest of all Chinese delicacies: preserved eggs. "Preserved eggs" is a huge misnomer: the eggs are actually left to rot for months in a tasty marinade of clay, ash, lime and salt – but not, as myth has it, horse urine, although it could hardly make the dish worse. Simply looking at the brown/green yolks sitting on a sickly white goo made me queasy, but I ended up trying them anyway. (Peer pressure will do that to you.) They don't taste nearly as good as you might think. Another highlight was the "Super Spicy Chicken Wings": the Chinese really don't kid about spice. That said, most of the food we ordered was actually very good.

Afterwards, we continued our walk towards a covered market selling freshly slaughtered whole animals. We tried a bunch of street food, which was universally good, and finally went back to our hotel for a shower before hitting the clubs. Or at least that's what I think the plan was. As soon as I entered the room my sleep-deprivation kicked up again with a vengeance. I crashed on the bed and slept for 12 hours straight.

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