Journey across China from Beijing to Bortala. Day 1- Beijing

The hazy morning sun, the wide intersections flanked by colossal buildings accommodating commuters on various forms of conveyance, and the hustle and bustle of a morning market are scenes characteristic of the center of Beijing. What strikes me as a distinct difference from the previous times I had been here is how refreshingly balmy it was on what should have been a scorching summer day in late May. I had arrived here to meet up with archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology for their annual drive across China to a Bronze Age site in Bortala Prefecture, Xinjiang. With grant support from the Penn Museum, I participated in last year’s excavation which revealed a large double walled stone enclosure and several slab burials with gold, ceramic and bronze grave goods. This year’s fieldwork will be carried out between June and September.

I spent a day in Beijing before our trip. Thanks to the generous hospitality of the people with whom I have become acquainted through my academic research, I was treated to a rich assortment of Beijing specialties, beginning with breakfast at an eatery adjoining a local fresh food market filled with exuberant crowds and pungent smells of pickled vegetables. My company found it somewhat amusing how bewildered I was by the dishes he had selected for me given my Asian heritage, I had no clue what they were. One of them is a millet porridge topped with a salty sesame paste, another is a pudding made from peas (wandou 豌豆). My favorite is the sweet congee with various kinds of beans. A quarrel between two elderly women in the queue soon diverted our attention from the food. Considering the argument was set off by what was simply an accident where one person bumped into the other and knocked over the bowl on her tray, the lengthy 15-min-squabble seemed unwarranted to spectators but the two women had no intention of refraining themselves from public impropriety.

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Lunch at an inconspicuous small restaurant called Yuebin 悅賓 (meaning “to please the guests”) in a hutong 胡同 (small alleys in neighborhoods made up of historical courtyard residences) was a pleasant surprise after that brash display at the morning eatery. The restaurant is a hidden gem known probably only amongst the locals who frequent from neighboring workplaces. I was told that it is the first privately owned and operated eatery after economic reforms were implemented in 1978. Within five minutes of placing our order, all our four dishes – sliced pork stomach, fried sliced potatoes, diced roast beef, and a delicacy called wusitong 五絲桶 made of a five-veg-and-meat filling inside a crispy pastry – were served.

The experience at an upscale Chinese Islamic restaurant where I had dinner with a professor of Chinese frontier history is comparable to the humble presentation at Yuebin if not for its overzealous service and gawdy furnishings. The restaurant is inside the heritage park of the city wall of Yuan dynasty Dadu 大都. A dozen stewards flanked the entrance and we were greeted by several who then escorted us to our table. Although it felt uneasy to be ‘closely monitored’ throughout the meal, the Lanzhou and Gansu cuisines – lamb skewers, fresh yoghurt, bamboo shoots, fried meat buns, sweet pea soup (huidouzi 灰豆子) – provided a delightful conclusion to a day of culinary adventures before the ensuing travels- the first leg from Beijing to Dingbian, Shaanxi.

(Due to intermittent internet access, there will be a lag between my travels and my blogging)

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