I grew up on the Olympic Games. They were on my TV without fail every 2 years since I was a child. Citius. Altius. Fortius. I’ve been obsessed with them ever since, so I was particularly ecstatic about getting the chance to visit two of the most recognizable Olympic venues in recent history. Bird’s Nest. It is gargantuan. Magnificent is the most suitable English word, but I think Chinese does it better: “壯觀” [zuang guan]. It’s like spectacular, magnificent, and ginormous combined in a single word. When I saw the Bird’s Nest on TV, my initial reaction was, “that’s what they made?” Didn’t quite see the beauty of it. Being able to see the steel threading up close changed my mind.
Entering the Bird’s Nest was like walking into the TARDIS. The Bird’s Nest is definitely no police box, it was so much larger on the inside. What’s so great about the design is that you can see the action down on the track pretty clearly, from any seat or row.Across in the smoggy distance was #2: the dazzling Water Cube. “水立方” [suei li fang]. I would have loved to see it at night, glimmering with iridescence, but I guess I now have an excuse to return to Beijing. There’s actually a huge water park inside the Water Cube right across from the Olympic pool, that’s open to the public. Sounds cool, but you’d probably pass on the experience. The water most likely hasn’t been changed since the Beijing Olympics.
It’s about 11:30am in the morning by the time we leave the Olympic sites and head off towards “慕田峪”. Mutianyu is like the Secret Garden of the Great Wall. Most tour companies and tourists go to “八達嶺” [Badaling]. That’s where I went 10 years ago when I was last in Beijing. Badaling is about a bajillion miles long with a chaotic, pulsing morass of tourist bodies. It’s overcrowded with peddlers hawking at you from every direction. Mutianyu, on the other hand is delightfully empty in comparison. The mountains are lush: pebbled with cute little coves of farmers’ villages. Mutianyu is much less popular due to its inaccessibility. The path is tucked away in the dense woodlands of China–a pretty drive if you have the time.
Our time at Mutianyu was short. At 1:30pm, the sun was directly above, threatening to broil our skin. I was also exhausted, having barely slept a wink since we stepped on the plane from LAX nearly two days ago. A migraine knocked at my temples and with breakfast eaten nearly 5 hours prior, hunger began to set in. My mom and I managed only a short 20-minute excursion down the back of the Great Wall before deciding that we really wanted to eat lunch. So lunch happened in the quaint namesake village of Mutianyu.
An open-air restaurant with only 5 other people dining. Fish so fresh, it was still swimming around when we ordered. Our appetizer was a sampler plate of “野菜” [ye cai]. Wild vegetables grown only in the mountains of these parts.
“香腸” [xiang chang]. Homemade sausage is pictured top left. Little millet “小米” [xiao mi] cakes are shown in the bottom left. I found them a little dry, but food’s food when you’re hungry! And instead of rice porridge we had millet porridge. Essentially a heavily-watered-down version of polenta. Mom loved it. Millet is very common in Northern Chinese dishes because cultivation of millet began in 4500BC, whereas rice came later. The dish in the top right is “柳樹葉”. Willow-tree leaves, deep-fried in tempura batter. So good! A lot of chestnuts are also grown in Beijing, so Mr. and Mrs. Wei ordered napa cabbage stir-fried with red and green bell peppers and fresh chestnuts. Nom. Mr. Wei, my mom’s friend, was a large man and manage to polish off most of the 8 dishes we ordered.
Now nearing 3pm, our day tour was coming to an end. We were supposed to meet up with the rest of tour members at 6pm in the hotel lobby. But we made one little last stop before we headed back into the smoggy abyss of Beijing city: a fruit stand.
Gotta love the colours. In one swift motion, Mrs. Wei bought us a bag of fresh tamarind, a large bag of cherries, several plums, apricots, and two melons. We ended up giving most of the fruits away to the overworked tour guides and staff; there was no way the two of us were going to finish that much fruit in one night–we were flying to Xinjiang the next morning. We kept the green melon with stripes (middle right). Unbelievably sweet, like ambrosia.