Is this place really necessary? 95% of the population is Han Chinese. I need to discover what happens inside this 20+ story building.
When I was in Beijing way back in 2005, my classmates and I often lamented the lack of Mexican food available to a city of 17 million (now 19 million). There was a single Mexican restaurant and it was downright terrible. I remember being so desperate for Mexican/Tex-Mex food that I ate Taco Bell three times over the course of a two-day visit to Shanghai. That Taco Bell has since closed, but don’t worry about Yum Brands – there are more KFCs in China than there are McDonald’s.
Prior to my arrival this time, I was pretty nervous about the my dining options. The internet(s) said that a few Mexican places had opened in Beijing, with reviews indicating they met or exceeded expectations. I had just spent a week in Puerto Vallarta visiting my father eating the most delicious food.
Mexican is without a doubt my favorite type of food. It used to be Chinese, but once you eat so much it begins to lose its luster. Plus, I was reminded two nights ago about how Chinese dishes can go completely awry. I ordered this chicken dish braised in a honey sauce, assuming that it would be sweet and delicious. Erroneous! Not only was the dish extremely spicy, but they literally used the entire chicken: bones, fat and skin in addition to the meat. For those of you who know me, I subscribe to the Inhalation Method of Eating where I try to eat as much as possible in as little time as possible. Some might call it Shoveling, but when you’re using chopsticks it’s not really shoveling, is it? Well I got burned my style and ate some chicken bones accidentally.
I was on my way out of my apartment complex to explore more of my neighborhood when I saw a white guy sitting on a bench typing furiously on his iPhone 4. I politely asked him if his iPhone was from the US, and whether or not he knew a place to get it unlocked in Beijing. We got to talking, and it turns out his iPhone was from his last assignment in Dubai and it’s really only AT&T and Verizon that lock their phones to the service. We chatted for a few minutes and agreed to grab dinner together later in on the evening.
He’s a commercial interior designer from Seattle (originally Cincinnati) and has been in Beijing since January. He said he’d like to try this Mexican place in Sanlitun, the bar street/expat hangout area with tons of interesting places to eat, drink and shop. I readily agreed, anxious to get some delicious food in my stomach after the previous night’s debacle. Sanlitun (三里屯) literally means 3 li (a Chinese unit of distance that’s 0.5km) locality, named so for its distance to Dongzhimen where I live. My new friend guided me through a shortcut to Sanlitun and Saddles Mexican Restaurant.
This place is legit. Tons of tequila, reasonable prices, delicious food – with the Chinese characteristic of impeccable, prompt service. We had a great conversation despite out age difference (he’s 51, I’m 27) and his employment vs. my distinct lack of job. We covered politics, life in China compared to everywhere else we’ve been, going to the Chinese tailor, dating, our personal history and more all over our Coronas and food.
But I digress. Let’s discuss the food. Our appetizer, chips and salsa, came in about one minute. The chips were still hot, the salsa chunky and extremely flavorful. The jalapenos in it weren’t as spicy compared to North American standards, but that suited me very well. Furthermore, it is evident they make their salsa fresh – the firm texture of the vegetable chunks indicated that this salsa didn’t come from a jar, nor had it been sitting in the back for days. I ordered the soft-shell beef tacos, which came out with flour tortillas and fresh sour cream, guacamole, and some other sauce I didn’t get to trying about 5 minutes after we ordered. Excellent shredded beef (not Taco Bell-style) with the proper lettuce, tomato & cheese to meat ratios. An infinite improvement from the Mexican restaurant from 6 years ago. I give Saddles’ food a B+, the atmosphere an A- for attempted authenticity as well as Mexican hats made available to bar-going patrons, and an A for service.
All in all, the discovery of this place as well as the experience of making a new friend makes me really happy. Afterwards, my friend left and I met another dude I had been emailing with for a serious boozing session, but that’s a story for my next blog post.
This post isn’t about happy endings, sorry. I’m not one to pay for sexual favors, although I guess one could argue that dating really is paying for love in its own way.
While exploring my neighborhood, I notice the Chinese for massage (按摩) on a small storefront. How I remember the characters from way back in the day, I just don’t know. Maybe I just really like massages? I am a true sucker for head scratches, too. Just like a dog. Also, its extremely hot outside and I am hoping to escape into air conditioning
The signage has absolutely no English, so I presume it’s not a place for foreigners. I walk in to the small storefront anyway, ask for an hour-long Chinese massage and am led to the back room. Its large with 8 massage tables in a row, 7 of which are occupied by Chinese people. This is a clothes-on massage parlor, so get your mind out of the gutter. Also, there’s no air conditioning.
My masseuse barely weighs 80 lbs and looks like she’s in middle school. I lay down on my stomach, she covers my back with a cloth that has the same texture as a napkin (despite already having my t-shirt on), and she gets to work.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have had massages while vacationing with my family, but I’ll be entirely honest with you – this girl has the strongest hands of any person alive. Had I not seen her before laying down, I would have thought that I was getting worked over by a bodybuilder. In addition to deep kneading, she gives me extended pokes in spots I’m not aware are actually pressure points. Did you know that its possible to make a person’s arms flail by pressing on their shoulder blades? Me neither.
I completely forget how to say the words for “too strong” or “too hard” and every possible synonym, so I whine and “owww” my discomfort. Her response is to laugh at me. She does not let up. For the entire hour.
Two points stick out as being particularly uncomfortable. One: When she wants me to roll over, she hooks her finger under my collarbone and pulls, flipping me over so quickly I can’t fathom how she manages to put a pillow under my head. That really hurt, and I check my collarbone for bruises in the mirror when I get back to my apartment. The second uncomfortable part is the last part in which she “massages” my scalp. I use the quotation marks because it feels more like putting my head in a vise than trying to relax. Again, I signal my discomfort but she just keeps at it with her iron grip, pressing pressure points around the ears, eyes and neck with such ferocity that I begin to imagine various scenarios that might cause her to hate foreigners the way I hate the Nazis and obese people.
When my eyes starts to tear she just grabs her napkin-towel, wipes away the tears and keeps on crushing my skull. After a few minutes my cell phone beeps at me indicating my hour was over (I am worried that I wouldn’t get a full hour so I set a timer) and I announce I am done and have to go.
The experience costs me 35 yuan (roughly $5.45) and whatever the price of the multiple doses of Advil I swallow when I get home.
The Chinese are cracking down on free WiFi across Beijing. I had read about this nearly a week before my departure, with articles saying that the government is forcing all providers of free WiFi to install a system that registers each person in an attempt to monitor any individual’s internet activity. The Great Firewall of China (GFW) blocks access to Facebook, blogs, message boards, anything with political dissent and pornography. Apparently they have a “nipple censor” that scans downloading images for the aforementioned nipple, and will block the image as a result.
I’ll be entirely honest: I don’t really care about why the Chinese government chooses implement the GFW. However, I did need to let my family know that I arrived in Beijing to my apartment safely. The sublet does not have the promised wireless internet because the prior tenant had damaged the router with a spilled soda. My Macbook Air doesn’t have an ethernet cable port, so I took my useless AT&T iPhone and went to the first place I could find that advertised free WiFi.
Of course they had already implemented the new registration system, which requires every individual to input their name and cell phone number. I didn’t have a Chinese cell phone, so I asked the nearest Waiguoren (foreigner), an American student named Dave, if I could input his cell phone so I could let my parents know I’m alive. He agreed, and I used his cell number. They sent him a text with log-on information, and I used my iPhone to email my parents that I’m okay and happy
For all you travelers coming to China in the near future, prepare for this system accordingly. That means, don’t count on free WiFi like every single US Starbucks. Also, Egg McMuffins taste exactly the same in China as they do in America.
I awoke this morning in my apartment after sleeping on the hard Chinese mattress. Not that I’m complaining that it was hard – as a stomach sleeper, I prefer a harder bed, but the mattress is without a doubt firmer than anything I could have purchased in the States.
I have a sublet for the next two months in the Dongzhimenwai area, meaning I’m just outside the 2nd Ring Road on the northeast corner (there are currently 5 Ring Roads in Beijing with more under construction). My complex, called Seasons Park, is designed for expatriates and middle-class Chinese and was built about 8 years ago. I wasn’t sure if it is just my little studio that had a hard mattress, but upon exploring one of the nearby 4 gigantic malls on my first full day in Beijing, I found the Chinese equivalent of Mattress Discounters.
Naturally, I felt inclined to ensure that I was getting my money’s worth in terms of a comfortable mattress. Much like I would have done back in the US, I walked inside of the mattress store and flopped down on the very first mattress as if I was scuba diving off the side of the boat.
Now I have a large bump in the back of my head. I tested every mattress in the store and sure enough, only the Tempurpedic knockoff and another pillow-top version would match American buying preferences.
In my limited Chinese, I asked why all the mattresses were so hard. The store clerk responded in broken English, “Because it better for back.” I explained that Americans prefer ultra-soft mattresses, and he responded point-blank that softer beds are for fat people.