Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 16, 2017

© Jeremy Ferguson

Recalling the Forbidden City, Prince Gong’s Palace was home to an 18th-century high official executed for corruption.

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Forbidden Beijing

From provocative art to unusual eats, 10 reasons to explore the hidden corners of the Chinese capital

It is capital to the world’s most populous nation and epicentre of the most profound national transformation in history, but Beijing gets no love: ever the dowdy maiden aunt to showgirl Shanghai, it’s too big, too dirty, too intimidating, too authoritarian.

And don’t forget the pollution: the capital is an orchestrated frenzy of 20 million people and five million cars. Beijingers have long kissed off blue skies for a nightmare that billows when milkshake-thick pollution blows in from the industrial furnaces of the Yangtze.

All of the above happens to be true. But there’s much more to it: Beijing transcends the stereotype that lurks in the collective Western imagination. And it’s probably more confident and vital now than it’s been since the heyday of the Ming.

The 2008 Olympics have come to symbolize an eagerness to participate in the world at large. The Olympics take credit as the stimulus for flamboyant modern architecture, a genuine dedication to greening its urban spaces — its boulevards and meridians are not only green, but artistically green — and even a newly galvanized restaurant scene. Beijing austerity is giving way to the pleasure principle. So there are good reasons to linger beyond the tourism juggernauts of the Great Wall and Forbidden City.

1. A bed at court

Who needs the Hilton when you can stay in a 300-year-old family compound in a buzzing hutong, an old neighbourhood of narrow streets and walled courtyards?

Courtyard 7 Hotel (7 Qiangulouyuan Hutong, Nan Luo Gu Xiang; courtyard7.com) is our address. It represents the current trend of transforming and preserving historic buildings — including brothels like the one in which the Dowager Empress’s son acquired a fatal dose of venereal disease — into boutique hotels. (The brothel is especially popular with backpacking Westerners).

Our small room with its traditional framed Chinese bed and silk coverlet lay in the “unmarried daughters” quarter. Sometimes it felt as if we’d popped back into the last days of the Qing Dynasty.

We warmed to its traditional character: its intimacy against the proportions of the megalopolis, the dogs — Yaya and Tyler, gorgeous Siberian huskies — that patrolled the property at dusk, the red lanterns after dark and the breakfast treats from smoked duck to fluffy omelettes made to order.

2. Beijing bicycle

One of the city’s most informal and enjoyable tours is a Pedicab Hutong Tour (bookings can be made at your hotel). It weaves three visits into a half-day of sightseeing, and your guide accompanies the pedicabs on a bicycle.

Our first stop was the former residence of Soong Ching Ling, the widow of Sun Yat-sen, first (and failed) President of the Republic of China. The most human of the infamous Soong sisters—older sister Mai-ling married Chiang Kai-shek and ran off to Taiwan with the country’s greatest art treasures — she spent her final years surrounded by mementos in this oasis of tranquility. Then there was lunch in a working-class hutong. The amiable owners turned out a simple, delicious meal: a stir-fry of green chilies, cucumber and pork; another of chicken and carrot; and pork and cabbage dumplings. Abundant laughter lubricated the cultural exchange.

Final stop was Prince Gong’s Palace, which appears to be a chunk of the Forbidden City air-lifted to another part of town. The 60,000-square-metre palace is even more famous nowadays as the setting for a TV series about its first owner, an 18th-century high official executed for corruption — thus the crowds.

3. Shock art

The government may appear prudish and censorious in the headlines, but you’d never know it from the artistic freedom (how about those copulating ladybugs?) on show at 798 Art District (Ceramic 3 Street, 798 Road, 798 Art District; 798space.com), a creative enclave located in a cluster of former military buildings.

At 798, paintings and photography, ceramics and sculpture reveal a brilliant new generation of Chinese artists. Galleries come interspersed with coffee shops, pizza houses and clothing boutiques, a kind of Beijing SoHo, and it’s exhilarating.

4. kitsch is king

Welcome to the Goliath of flea markets. Panjiayuan (Third East Ring Road, Chaoyang District) has 4000 stalls and 10,000 vendors. Even a pound of fleas for a few yuan wouldn’t seem unlikely in this sprawling outdoors bazaar. Browsers poke around among vintage cameras and typewriters — remember McLuhan predicting that obsolescence would create art? — jolly Buddhas, knock-off bronzes of the Terracotta Warriors, Chinese lamps, furniture, scrolls, antiques and jewellery carved in miniature from walnuts and olive pits.

5. Tibetan temple

Beijing’s temple and lamasery of Tibetan Buddhism is one of the most important of its kind in China. All towering gilt Buddhas — yes, a gilt complex — burning incense and shuffling penitents, Yongehong or Lama Temple (12 Yonghegong Road,Dongcheng District; beijinglamatemple.com) is authentically intense and mystical even without the reeking yak butter and guttural chanting of its the Roof of the World counterparts.

6. Confucian wisdom

The lovely 13th-century Confucius Temple (15 Guozijian Street, Dongcheng District) complex, a short walk from the Lama Temple is a tribute to China’s greatest ancient scholar and a tranquil escape from the omnipresent throng. Its vibrant hues — cinnabar, blue, green, yellow — urge you to sit down and collect your thoughts before trekking off to the next great sight. Simply a perfect place to be, reputedly by order of Kublai Khan.

7. Silk trade

There are two multi-storey markets that offer a shopaholic field day. The Silk Market (8 East Xiushui Street, Chaoyang District; silkmarketbeijing.com) overwhelms with 1700 vendors' stalls and 20,000 visitors daily, you can have a silk mandarin robe custom-made and delivered to your hotel (and wind up feeling like Confucius) or ferret out a knock-off Rolex that should last at least a few years. And be ready to haggle for all you’re worth: you should pay about 20 percent of the asking price.

The HongQiao Pearl Market (46 Tiantan Donglu, Dongcheng District) has a tighter focus with pearls for every budget — serious buyers will proceed straight to the fourth and fifth floors for the best — and a rooftop view of the Temple of Heaven.

8. Duck out

The restaurant Quanjude, whose past with Peking duck stretches back to 1864, has opened some 60 franchises from Hong Kong to Melbourne, but it’s no longer queen of the hop.

The current hot spot, Da Dong (22 Dongsi Shitiao, Dongcheng District; beijingduck.com.cn) is all Manhattan swank, with showbiz lighting, a 160-page menu, a wine list burping with premium labels and a young crowd oozing hip. The menu covers impossible ground, everything from Caesar salad with a wonky mustard bias to braised sea slugs. In the Chinese fashion, all courses arrive at once, like a swarming. They should sell whiplash collars.

But it’s all about the duck, birds roasting at ferocious temperatures while a platoon of cooks perspire like bodybuilders in Hell. The whole point is the skin, cut from a fatty duck, meticulously trimmed and sliced into thin strips, crackling, unctuous and savoury, the essence of umami. The meat and broth courses to follow qualify as dénouement. Guests are invited to take home the carcass to make soup.

9. Divine dining

The foodist’s Beijing soars at Pure Lotus (6 Jiangtai Road, Chaoyang District), possibly the most beautiful restaurant in the history of vegetarian food. The restaurant draws its inspiration from temple and palace, its rooms sensual with silk blinds and gauzy, tent-like curtains. Servers materialize in slinky, sequined shifts. Music — here Thai, there Indian, with chants and temple bells — floats in from the Buddhist canon. It’s no surprise the restaurant’s founder was a monk from Wutai Shan, one of China’s four sacred Buddhist mountains.

Your hands are sprinkled with “happiness water.” And happiness it is (except that no alcohol is served). The eye feasts first: dishes emerge exquisitely on billowing lotus leaves, abalone shells, burled wooden platters, in nori cones and under sprigs of bamboo.

And for once, beauty and culinary acumen prove compatible: a faux shark steak actually outclasses the real thing, and you’d never know it’s tofu. Chili chicken would fool us again, the tofu mimicry a triumph of flavour and texture. Fluffy dumplings stuffed with tomato show astonishing delicacy. Vegetarian is finally dancing in my spotlight and I’m reeling with surprise. “Piao liang,” whispers a tablemate — Mandarin for “beautiful.”

10. Fried bugs

At Donghuamen Night Market (Dong'anmen Dajie, Dongcheng District), a gauntlet of stalls under red lanterns offers a supremely exotic array of local snacks including raw and fried scorpions, big and hairy king spiders, centipedes, silkworms, water beetles, snake kebabs, dog meat, sea stars, bull frogs and sheep penis. But the most curious is “fried enema.” Could be, something had gone lost in translation.

Next day, I was still cackling at the fried enema when our guide, the radiant Amelia Sun, took us to lunch at her neighbourhood fave, a hole in the wall whose name translates as Old Beijing Scallion Pancake.

For a total of $15 for four, the mom-and-pop kitchen served up tiny shrimps eaten in the shell, spicy cabbage in a head-exploding mustard sauce, pressed pork dipped in soy and vinegar and, lastly, a kind of fried noodle cake drizzled with rip-snorting garlic sauce. The latter was particularly tasty. “What is it?” I asked Amelia.

“Fried enema,” she said, a smirk playing at her lips. Something lost in translation? Oh, yes.

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