Home > Journal, Travel > Beijing Part 1: Impressions & Hot Pot

Beijing Part 1: Impressions & Hot Pot

Note: Just to let everyone know beforehand, this post is going to be pretty negative, but that’s just because it’s the experience I had! Luckily, this day was the only “bad” one, so this will pretty much be the only negative things you’ll read about the trip!


We landed at Beijing Capital International Airport (Terminal 3, the largest in the world), and as we slowed down from our taxi, I noticed something – a smell. What was that? Something in the airplane? Something burning? The pollution? And what was that fuzzy stuff flying around outside? It looked like it was snowing! I knew Beijing’s pollution was one of the worst but surely not enough for chunks to fly around the air like ash, right?? I started thinking it had to be some plant thing more like dandelion seeds. I soon overheard someone in the plane say it was indeed from trees.

As for the smell, I can’t say they were also from trees, though. It was indeed pollution. Woe is me for it was with me throughout my stay in Beijing!

But really, woe are the Beijing citizens, is what I kept thinking. Only one day do I remember seeing what may have possibly been normal clouds of water on a barely visible blue sky. Every other day it was hazy and relatively dark. Crazy how pollution has been allowed for so long. We already have American cities apparently at such levels. There’s a prediction (don’t know how reliable, I forgot where I read it) for Beijing that within a few decades virtually every single citizen will be sick with something due to pollution, and I’m not surprised if American cities have already faced similar predictions.

The government allowing it is one thing, but what about the people? I met a few people who did tell me they plan to leave because of the pollution, so good for them, but if only more people did that. If people just started ignoring their reasons for staying whether they be nostalgic or for work or something, and worried more about their health, I’ll bet you the government will THEN magically find a way to turn things around – once they notice their cities are going ghost town. Well, that’s just my random, not seriously-thought-out opinion.

Anyway, moving away from my pollution rant…

It had been quite a few years since I’ve been at an airport – much less flown – so I had a little stupid moment where I wasn’t quite sure on where to go to meet with my group. I’m sure it must be logical and I should just keep heading for the exit, but come on. I prefer to be sure, and here’s my first chance at really trying out my Mandarin. So I asked some workers where the waiting area was. 

Ha! Just kidding! At my level, would I know how to say “waiting area”?

Someone who worked on travel survival phrases might, but not me; that wasn’t my focus. What I ACTUALLY said was 如果我有朋友正在等待我,他们会在哪儿?”If I have friends waiting for me right now, where would they be?” (When speaking a language you’re studying, instead of giving up, always find a way to use what you do know!) They told me where to go and I found the professor there waiting for me with a Penn State flag. We went to the waiting area where the Americans were all chatting in a group. As we waited there a few hours for other students to arrive, I met and sat with the two Chinese students who were already there, and mostly chatted with them. Once everyone made it, we went out to the bus. Although we didn’t get a good look, I noticed this building that seemed to rise out of the ground like a natural hill – or built into a hill.

This is the kind of blending with nature that I like, so it it was cool to see, but I only got to see it from the side. Only recently did I happen to find a picture of it on Wikipedia:

Station of Terminal 3 of Capital Airport

Turns out it’s the subway station for the airport.

On this first day, after waiting that long in the airport, there was only time for checking into the hotel and having dinner. Dinner was to be hot pot.

Pretty much just like the Hot Pots I had – only without all those sticks; we just used our chopsticks.

So for those who don’t know, hot pot is a type of meal where a pot of boiling water is left going on in the middle of the table and plates of raw food are served. That way, you all pick what you want, throw it into the pot, then take it out and eat it hot and freshly cooked. Hot pot is usually very hot and spicy, as the boiling water is spiced – after all, the raw stuff is plain. In restaurants (at least), the pot is divided into a plain (just water) and spicy side. While some places have you order the food from a menu, this place was a buffet, with long tables with tons of vegetables, greens, and meats. A few things were even freshly chopped, such as slices of lamb meat.

So, how was it?

Terrible. Probably my worst restaurant experience ever.

But I don’t really blame the food, as you’ll see in a bit.

“And now… the rest, of the story”

Here’s how it went. I picked things recommended by the professor and fellow Chinese students, and picked others at will, but I had no idea what the natural flavors are, how they cook, how how they should taste afterwards. It’s pretty cool that the water is so hot, these things cook fast. The lamb meat turned dark within 5 seconds, and seemed fully cooked 5 or 10 more later.

So then the taste test. I might have put the meat in plain water first to check the cooking of the meat and to taste what it was like plain, but then I went for the spicy side. Well, first impression was that of course, the spices made it quite hot, but I figured I should be able to tolerate it once in a while. However, I didn’t particularly like the blend of spices. It was ok, but not fond of it. I kept putting other things in it, and every single thing seemed to taste exactly the same – they all completely absorbed the flavor of the spices. Shrimp, lamb, squash, greens – all tasted exactly the same. Sadly, it was the same issue with the plain water side; nothing seemed to have its own flavor. I felt disappointed and a bit confused. Not only did this not seem to make sense, but I was starting to worry “real Chinese food” was even MORE different than I thought – and I wasn’t going to like it!

At least I’d find some relief in the drinks right? There was a relatively wide selection – of things I don’t drink. A whole refrigerator of liquor, bottles of beer, and even lizard and snake wine.

Only two fruit juices, probably orange and pineapple (seemed to be typical at meals). No good either. Quite watered down. I had to resort to coke, despite my usual aversion to such drinks – both to avoid that sort of junk and because the gases fill you up too fast.

Final taste judgment

Well, I sort of lied in saying the food had no flavor. There was ONE flavor they ALL had, no matter what they were dipped in or how they were cooked, it was in everything. And it wasn’t good. Even the coke seemed to have it. Every single meal afterwards had food with that weird flavor. What was it?? I had my suspicions, but I didn’t feel it was confirmed until we had our first meal in Dalian. I still could be wrong, but it seems to me it was the stink of Beijing’s pollution that I had been tasting. Indeed, my nose never got used to the smell, so I guess it was most obvious when eating. Horrible!

Everything was back to normal during the rest of the time in China. No stink messing with my food, and I happily found I easily enjoyed and liked Chinese food.

My first night in Beijing surely did not go very well. Luckily, this was the only fully negative experience I had in China.

Good things to come! Up next, the rest of Beijing? Can I get through it all in one post and not make it long? We’ll see.

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