Jaimé Bell, center, and her sister, Katie, get a picture taken at the Forbidden City in Beijing. The Steamboat Pilot & Today and the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association sponsored a trip to China for local teacher Jaimé Bell, who is touring the country with a group of fellow Routt County residents.
Steamboat to China: Jaimé Bell blogs about the Far East
Editor's Note: The Steamboat Pilot & Today and the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association sponsored a trip to China for local teacher Jaimé Bell, who is touring the country with a group of fellow Routt County residents.
Sunday, Nov. 6
Jaimé Bell gives a little insight into the importance of gardens to the Chinese. Here, she explores the Lingering Gardens in Suzhou.
If you want to find a pillow filled with silk worm droppings that supposedly will cure insomnia and migraines, go to Suzhou, the silk capital of China. Or maybe you are looking for a sheer piece of silk embroidered with a double needle so the picture is different on both sides.
If you want to buy the best green tea in China, go to Hangzhou and visit the Plum Family Farm, where they grow the leaves for emperor’s quality dragon-well tea.
On the fourth day of our trip, the group left Beijing for these two smaller cities — Suzhou and Hangzhou. These cities are known as resort towns where the Chinese also come for vacation. Although both places still have between 5 million and 8 million residents each, they have a more relaxed feel than Beijing, which is buzzing with almost 20 million people.
The first thing I noticed as we approached Suzhou was the perfectly placed and manicured flowers and trees, which reminded me of parts of Amsterdam: flowers, parks and canals juxtaposed with modern city structures and the old town historic district.
The air also was cleaner — though it was still a bit smoggy, we could see some blue sky, and my throat didn’t burn with pollution. The buildings and roads looked newer. In the industrial part of Suzhou, most buildings are not even 15 years old. Tall and slender high-rise apartments cluster together with parks and shopping districts, all very chic and stylized. Sky cranes punctuate the horizon, indicating a burgeoning demand for new residences.
Our tour guide mentioned that Chinese people do not own their land, only lease it from the government for 70 years at a time — and the government can make people move at any moment. They tear down old, smaller places to build new high-rises to fit the growing population.
I asked if this made people upset. The guide said people generally like to be moved out of their crowded, decrepit buildings. The government gives them money and allows them to be closer to the city and in a newer apartment.
But I thought it was a shame that the Hutongs are disappearing from the city. The Hutong is an older section of Beijing where small houses and rooms gather around a common courtyard area with shared facilities. Much of this area is run-down, yet the feeling of community is strong — it reminded me of when I visited Pompeii and saw the excavated houses with courtyards and public baths.
We were able to tour the Hutong in a rickshaw and eat dumplings with a family who lived there, and it felt so genuine, like a harkening to the past. But extended families still do live together in the more modern houses and high-rises; it is not uncommon for six to seven people to live in one house (from grandparents to grandchildren).
While we were in Suzhou, we toured several gardens: Tiger Hill, with a 1,000-year-old Buddhist pagoda that has an uncanny resemblance to the leaning tower of Pisa, and the Lingering Garden, which used to be a private garden 400 years ago and now is one of the four most famous gardens in China.
We also took several boat trips, the first in Suzhou’s Grand Canal, which looked very much like another Grand Canal I visited in Venice. The canal in Suzhou was reminiscent of the Hutong’s narrow alleys and dilapidated structures, but it also was quaint with flower boxes in the windows and laundry strung across narrow patios. The second boat tour was in Hangzhou’s West Lake, known as heaven on earth, with private island pagodas. Our time in Hangzhou was a picturesque deluge. It was pretty much a torrential downpour that whole day.
These two cities certainly were highlights, and people mention them as favorites: Beijing’s strong, active Yang in contrast of Suzhou and Hangzhou’s meditative Yin. Although each place was new to me, I felt a deeper connection, an archetypal similarity to other places around the world that channel the same, calm and vibrant energy.
Tuesday, Nov. 1
Armed with Pepto Bismol, Tums, Beano, Imodium and a pilfered vomit bag from Air China, I embark on a gastrointestinal journey through Beijing. I consider myself a “foodie” — I’m not afraid to be experimental and try anything once. My parents raised me to take a “no thank you” bite of everything offered, so I guess that has transferred to my adult eating habits.
The first taste of China our group experienced was actually on the airplane. We awoke to a breakfast of tuna salad, a roll filled with red bean paste and a dinner-like meal of noodles and seafood. Our subsequent lunch and dinner experiences followed suit. We sit in groups of 10 at a round table with a lazy Susan in the center, and dishes of sweet pork, beef and celery, cooked cucumber, Peking duck, bok choy and peanuts, egg drop soup and fried fish are placed on the rotating center. We pick off what we like and place it on a tiny plate. After the meal, we are served a dessert of watermelon or maybe oranges or tomatoes. The size of the plate is deceiving and a matter of contention in our group — it is difficult to tell how much you are eating, so for the first few meals we came away with grossly distended bellies.
The first breakfast at the Marriott didn’t help our gluttony. As we walked in to the sparkling expanse of the dining room, our eyes popped. Michelle, my roommate, went straight to the soup counter, and the chef designed a wonton soup with the ingredients she pointed out. I started with the yogurt, which is very thin but delicious (the Chinese drink their yogurt through a straw). I saw tiny dried fish, seaweed salad, congee (a gruel-like rice pudding), dim sum and dumplings with all kinds of meat fillings. There also was Western food like cereal, omelets, cheeses (which my sister said you never see in Chinese grocery stores) and french fries. The amount of food was overwhelming — we were in foodie heaven. Michelle was so excited that the next morning she woke me up at 5:30 a.m. just so we could be there when it opened 30 minutes later.
But the real joy (and test) came on the third day of the trip when my sister Katie and I went rogue. Our guides told us never to eat food from street venders — just stick with the group and eat all the meals at the government-approved restaurants that were all starting to look and taste alike. All the tour groups were ushered to the same places — the safe places. So my sister and I ventured out on our own, starting off with recognizable foods from the vendors. While visiting the Yonghegong Lamasery Temple, we bought a baked sweet potato and corn on the cob. At the beautiful Summer Palace, we meandered through the hilly gardens and ate roasted chestnuts and candied hawthorn fruit on a skewer (looks and tastes like crabapples). Toward the evening, we worked our way to the Pearl Market and the truly bizarre edibles.
The smoggy evening air increased the surreal quality of the market — venders shouted and grasped at my arms, pulling me in. I saw bread fruit, steamed duck feet and all manner of meat on a stick: beetles, bugs, liver, snake, squid and, of course, scorpions. Once I got past the feeling of bug legs and a scorpion tail in my mouth, it just tasted like a spicy, crunchy chip. Afterward, my sister asked me if I’d ever eat scorpion again.
My reply: “It was fun once, but I wouldn’t eat it again — not for all the tea in China!”
Monday, Oct. 31
A day exploring the street vendors of Beijing provides some interesting culinary opportunities for Jaimé Bell.
Steamboat to China: How to eat a scorpion
Sunday, Oct. 30
After about 18 hours in planes (not to mention time in cars and buses), about eight hours in various airports (including two hours on the mangy airport floor trying to get a nap) and finally a brief 10 minutes in an airport restroom trying to salvage the vestiges of our humanity, 39 bleary-eyed Americans stepped blinking into a crisp Beijing sunrise.
The sun rose — red through the ubiquitous smog — and cast an eerie glow as we arrived at Tian’anmen Square. My first impression of China is sensory overload, assaulted by the sights and smells of hundreds of thousands of people. More cars than we have in all of Steamboat rush by on the eight-lane freeway, beeping and swerving, cutting and merging, while mopeds with kids on the back, bikes piled high with crates of fruit and businessmen with briefcases weave and dart through the traffic. I guess this is the Chinese version of roulette.
Tian’anmen Square is huge — the biggest in the world — and can hold 1.5 million people and has 20,000 visitors a day. Although I stuck out with my blond hair, I felt lost in the crowd and a bit faint at the thought that I was supposed to meet my sister here. I couldn’t have chosen a worse place to find someone. After about an hour of slowly mounting panic, I spied her near the communist flag in front of the huge picture of Chairman Mao, who smiled enigmatically down on us. My sister, Katie, is teaching English at a university in Zhengzhou, Henan (a province south of Beijing) and came to visit me for a few days.
The tour moved from Tian’anmen Square to the Forbidden City, where 24 emperors of China ruled. As I tried to listen to our guide and absorb the beautiful, ancient architecture around me, a middle-aged Chinese man pulled at my arm and pointed at his camera. At first I thought he wanted me to take his picture, but no, he wanted to have a picture taken with me. I thought it a bit odd but went along with it. And then it happened again, and again. By the time I began to lose count, I started to develop a bit of an ego, or maybe a complex. Am I a freak or a celebrity? My sister (also a blond) said this happens to her all the time. She will be sitting on a park bench and within 15 minutes a crowd has gathered around her and has started taking pictures. It was a first for me.
There were many other “firsts” for our group that day: our first squat toilet (lovingly known now as the squatty potty), our first truly Chinese meal, our first time being cheated by a street vender, our first good bargain and our first jay-walking experience — which may not seem very thrilling unless you’ve lived in an Asian city. Here, jay-walking is a life-and-death situation in which your heart accelerates to the speed of the several-ton bus coming at you without so much as a tapping of brakes. Unfortunately for me, Katie loves this adrenalin rush, but the whole time my instincts were shouting, “You aren’t seriously thinking about throwing us into this death trap?” As my legs slowly turned to Jell-O, we crossed our last street and stumbled into the hotel elevator. Exhausted but in one piece, I marveled that I lived to blog another day.