I’ve been chased down a rural Kenyan road by children shouting Mzungu at the first white person they’d ever met; I’ve had selfies with half the young people at an Indian historical site; and I’ve needed a personal security guard in suburban Nigeria. China’s indifference isn’t that bad.
And China isn’t unwelcoming to travellers, it can just feel pretty inaccessible. I have tried to venture out and explore on this trip but, unsupervised, even the hotel has proven something of a challenge at times.
The local team took me to a Halal restaurant round the corner from the facility. In North China Halal restaurants are common, we’re not far from Mongolia and there are quite a few Muslims about.
The restaurant was above a butcher’s. It was an austere room – Lino floor, high ceiling, bare walls and dark wooden tables with rickety chairs. Perhaps this is how the workers’ paradise was meant to feel.
The tables around us were apparently filled with a fairly typical local clientele; pissed retired people. My colleague Clive (I love the Western names Chinese people choose for themselves) explained that the local population is old and the done thing in retirement is day drinking with friends. The tables were full of overflowing ashtrays and empty bottles; the air of smoke and toothless laughter. Halal food combined with infidel drink passes for fusion round here.
We may only be a couple of hours from Beijing but the food was distinctly regional and ‘Northern’. It was very different to the Cantonese Chinese food we’re used to in the UK; less bright colours and more murky browns. There’s a lot more lamb, or more accurately mutton, and (obviously) less pork. On the whole things seem to be less spiky and spicy vs. both Anglo-Chinese food and the food I had on my recent trip to Sichuan. Instead there’s a heavier, more offaly earthiness, not unwelcome when it’s minus 5 outside.
There was squidgy and crispy lamb on skewers, not minced exactly but more a mash of flesh and organs. The sort of stuff that frying gives a delicious sweetness and texture, but I can’t eat boiled.
There were also dumplings, of course, here containing slow cooked beef and celery. They came with a bowl of vinegar to cut through the richness of the meat
Luckily the numbing chilli I loved in Chengdu had made its way across China too, here in a delicious dish of tofu with shredded beef shin.
Beyond this meal I’ve been confined by language and cowardice to my hotel buffet. I did try and venture out to a dumpling place. I could see tables of happy people noisily eating piles of deliciousness. I asked for a table for one, the waitress responded in Chinese (fair enough) and showed me the menu (also in Chinese, again fair enough given we’re in China). She then gave me a look which successfully communicated that we both knew this wasn’t going to work. I nodded and walked away.
I have a love/hate relationship with hotel buffets. When I first started traveling for work the buffets of Asian hotels were places of wonder. The occasional ‘All you can eat’ birthday treats of my childhood had combined and multiplied. Now, I’m bored of them and the slightly shit facsimiles of local and surrounding cuisines.
One of the great joys of buffets should be that you can choose what you want, and, importantly, what you don’t want. I made the decision to reject the ‘braised lamb spine’, the ‘chicken cartilage’ and the sheep soup that smelled so awfully of farm and fat. But, the waiters didn’t seem happy to leave the only westerner in the place to make his own choices.
I was proudly brought a whole crab (in which I found barely any meat but a lot of feathers), and a weird dessert soup thing that was effectively have a melon swimming in honey and Lemsip.
I was already disappointed in myself for being back at the buffet, I didn’t need these unrelenting attacks. I need comfort and found it in a soup bowl I filled with ice cream and chocolate cake, because I’m a really adventurous foodie traveler like that!