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A fast, furious, fun night in Beijing

BEIJING

Judging by what I hear, the restaurant is worth the journey.

Judging by what I fear, I may never live to get there.

Saturday night in old Beijing, and just my luck, I have a cab driver who has seen The Fast and the Furious one time too many. He flies along the crowded streets, careening around a stopped bus (yikes), barely avoiding a wide-eyed woman on a bicycle (whoa), cutting off a red car that didn't see him coming (look out!).

It is a giant game of chicken, and I am ready to settle for the bronze. And yet, the cabbie presses on. He makes sudden, jerky turns. He zigs when you least expect it. He treats red lights as if they are suggestions. At one point, swear to goodness, he leans his head out of his window as he drives. He drives as if the police are chasing him, and come to think of it, why aren't they?

All in all, I would be safer back in the Olympic zone.

Nonetheless, there are times you have to leave the Olympic security guards and venture into the city. Otherwise, you are not in China. Otherwise, you are in Olympia.

And so a friend of mine and I have decided to go to a restaurant called the Drum and Gong.

My cab driver had never heard of it.

Several times he stops, squealing his brakes, and looks for the fourth time at the Chinese lettering on the piece of paper from the Transportation Desk of the Olympic media center. He asks us a question we dodn't understand, and we give him a suggestion he doesn't understand. Somewhere along the way, I am certain we bonded.

And then he is off again. He turns into a tiny hutong — a narrow street or alley — on a road the width of an alley. He beeps the horn at an old woman walking stiffly along. He darts around children who look even younger than the Chinese gymnastics team. He beeps his horn at everything in his path.

You say you want to go to China? Trust me. This cab is faster than the airlines.

This is part of the Olympics, of course. They are not just about games, they are about cultures. They are about taking the reader on a grand adventure. They are about asking the boss if the Times offers hazard pay.

Finally, after a half-hour thrill ride, the cabbie hits a main road again, and he starts making reckless turns again. Evidently, he has entered a hutong on the wrong side.

He enters another, more crowded hutong. He drives another mile, mile and a half. Suddenly, he stops. He tells us it is behind us. Somewhere.

So we get out, paying him for the ride and tipping him for the unexpected thrill of getting back onto solid ground.

The hutong is packed, like Bourbon Street without the sleaze. But sure enough, we eventually come onto our restaurant. It is a small, cramped place with eight tables.

A server places the menus on our table, and it darn near tilts. The menu is as thick as a book, and inside there are photos of 120 items. Let's see. You can have spicy fried bullfrog. You can have chicken feet. You can have stir-fried duck's gizzards with liver and stomach, or fried pork intestines, or squid with quail eggs.

Elsewhere in the city there are carts that sell starfish and scorpions and seahorses on sticks. It is like the Fear Factor buffet. Come to think of it, does Chinese TV have a Fear Factor, and if so, what do they make the contestants eat? Peanut butter?

This, I am told, is the beauty of China. They eat everything the earth provides. Or, as the saying goes, anything with four legs that isn't a table.

And so the two of us order enough food for four people. We order hot and sour soup, and dumplings and mushrooms and rice and two kinds of duck and a dish of peas and shrimp. The point is to taste things, not to eat.

Our bill? Twelve dollars each. (Contrast that with a hotel meal I had that cost $60, and really, it wasn't any better).

Afterward, strolling the streets of the Nan Luogu Xiang hutong was an amazing scene. Every few feet the road was packed with locals watching the China-Germany basketball game. Cars would ease through, and small children in pajamas wandered in front.

Andre Bryant, a former Harlem Globetrotter, was watching. He was here on a church mission, he said. At 6 feet 9, he had some of the people not being able to decide whether to watch him or the television.

At a nearby shop, I found a nice tea set I thought my wife would like. The price was 410 yuan, just under $60.

Too much, I said. She whispered she would give me a discount. Ten percent!

No, I said. I didn't want to spend more than 150 yuan. She rolled her eyes, as if that was the most ridiculous thing she had heard. Finally, when I started to leave, she said she would do it for 200. No. One-eighty. No. One-sixty. No. I thanked her and walked away.

Fine, she said 150, about $20.

"Lose money," she said. "I will lose money.'

On the street, the crowds were getting bigger. The T-shirt shops were jammed. The barber shops were full. The bars were crowded.

We were 15 miles from the Olympics, give or take a million.

Yeah, for all its problems, this country is worth getting to know. If the cab gets us back in one piece, I will tell everyone.

A fast, furious, fun night in Beijing 08/17/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 1:10pm]
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