Thursday, May 21, 2009

BEIJING, Li Qun's Motherduckin' Roast Duck

We were invited on a trip to Beijing, China last month. I went over to do a story on the Chinese government's interest in skateboarding. It's a strange story and you'll likely read about it in THE SKATEBOARD MAG soon enough. But the other reason I went was for the food. And if you saw Andrew Zimmern's entire episode dedicated to Beijing, you'll know it's one of the most fucked up culinary destinations on the planet. On our first day, however, we decided to play it "normal" and go for the roast duck. They say you haven't visited if you don't go see the Great Wall and have roast duck. Here's the duck story. OK? OK.

Tania was slightly irked/confused by my insistence on going to this place. I’ll admit, it was kind of a knee jerk reaction/choice, but once I read about Li Qun’s Roast Duck (pronounced LEE CHOON) in our copy of Fodor’s, there was no other place to get Roast Duck in Beijing. “Every other place that says they have the best duck is bullshit,” I said to myself. “Li Qun’s is the best, period.”

This is a quality I’ve seen in not only my father, but in most middle aged men: we settle on something for absolutely no reason and with little evidence, except because someone told us about it or we read about it somewhere, and then we adopt the information as our own and the impression becomes firsthand experience. Nothing could dissuade me. We were going to Li Qun and I wouldn’t hear of anything less. “O-kaaay,” Tania said.

It was good. But in hindsight, I have no idea how good it was because I’ve never had Peking duck before and thus had nothing to compare it to. But I enjoyed it. And, given the language barrier, which is extremely thick—even those Chinese who “speak” English sound like they have a mouth full of marbles and they got their voice running through a distortion pedal—I’m surprised we were able to hire a taxi and get to the restaurant and back as easily as we did. The accomplishment of actually finding the place (the first of many independent outings into the city) was as delicious as the meal. For one thing, they made it out to be in the middle of a ghetto maze. But that, of course, was one of the attractions of this hard to find gem.

Derrr, where's the duck restaurant?

The truth of the matter is it’s one block from a major intersection, and about ten yards off the main street. And there’s a big sign. As well as a bunch of crudely drawn ducks on the wall at the entrance of the alley all marching to the restaurant. The guidebooks made it sound like it was a quest to the top of Everest. I read another account online by a fellow who was duped into paying a guide to take him through the “hutong” (their version of a Brazilian little flavella) because he’d never find it on his own. We not only had no trouble finding it, but there was a man in the alley who seemed to be waiting for us. “Right here,” he beckoned, and ushered us into the restaurant.

The charmingly crappy alley way front door at Li Qun's.

"Hell and fire were sworn to be the least!" The duck oven.

The first thing you see when you walk into the dark and smoky foyer is the wood-burning oven with the ducks hanging inside. I was like a moth drawn to the light and went into the fire room. “No, no, no,” I was told, that was the wrong way, “In here, in here,” he pointed. So we made a left through the meat locker curtains and into a hallway with the dining room off to the side.

The dining room at Li Qun's.

It’s someone’s house converted into a restaurant. A skylight lit a small, cluttered dining room that was dominated by the color red. To our left, a small group of waiters and cooks hovered over a table with a large pile of shredded duck in front of them. They all turned and looked at us, something was said, and they all laughed. “I wish I knew what the joke was when they were laughing at us,” Tania said later. It might have had something to do with the fact that we were quite early for dinner and we were their first customers of the evening. We had had nothing to eat since breakfast. We were starving and I, at least, had hit the wall. Not the Great Wall, just “the wall.”

An older gentleman with an open shirt exposing a dirty wife beater beneath, beckoned us to come in. “Welcome, welcome,” he said. The owner perhaps? A waitress in a traditional red top tagged in and led us into a small room off to the side. The room was yellow, with three tables. A window with bottles of wine separated us from the main dining room. We sat down, and the waitress plopped two menus in front of us, and then she got out her pen and paper. It was time to order. This is something we found very common in China. I’m not sure if they’re being polite and attentive, or you’re just supposed to know what you want already? But they don’t walk away after you’re handed a menu. “Uhhhh…?” We stumbled through the pages of the menu as quick as we could. She saved us the trouble by intervening and, in a manner that displayed her history of dealing with foreign diners in the past, she quickly went over the menu.

We had three choices: traditional roast duck for two, popular roast duck for two, or vegetarian roast duck for two. Not sure what a vegetarian roast duck is, and we hate everything that has the word vegetarian attached to it, so we were left with two options: traditional or popular. “Popular” meant “white people order this.” So that left us with one choice: traditional. We added two beers. The waitress grabbed the menus and was off. We both were sad to see the menus taken so quickly, we wanted to peruse the other pages, but it’s probably a good thing we didn’t because we definitely didn’t need any more.

The beers came first. The label made it appear to be a nice bottle of ginseng tea. It was a normal. Next came the appetizers, and this was the part of the meal that separated the “popular” from the “traditional” meal. In fact, I think it was only one of the appetizers that separated the two orders: duck liver. The livers were sliced sideways and the sections produced looked like flower petals. And that’s how they were arranged on the plate, like a duck liver flower. “Very elegant cat food plating,” I thought.

The appetizers. Roasted duck wing salad is in the center, surrounded by broccoli, some cucumber, egg rolls, and the liver flower.

I didn’t much care for the first bite, but I later attributed that to my tongue’s forced isolation and lack of exercise throughout the day. It looked, and tasted like cat food. But by the fourth bite, I had begun to acquire a taste for the stuff.

“You can acquire a taste for anything, but who wants to?”
—Harry Dean Stanton to Crispin Glover, after he samples the latter’s tomato soup in the movie Twister.

The other three appetizers were pretty much normal: an eggroll cut into slices, a plate of broccoli in sauce, and a shredded duck wing salad. It must have been duck, but it looked like chicken in the egg roll, and it tasted a little gamey. Other than that, it was all really good.

It wasn’t long before they arrived at the table with an entire dead duck on a plate. “This the duck we killed for you,” they seemed to say. “She she!” I said. That’s “thank you” in Chinese. It’s pretty much all I said the whole trip.

After they show you your dead duck, they take it over to this little table and carve it up.

And then it looks like this. Little petals of duck flesh. Mmmm.

They took the duck to a table behind us, carved it up, and returned with a plate of meat. The proper way to eat roast duck—again, I read that this is the “proper” way to eat duck, but I really have no idea—is to take some meat, put it between one of the little pancake things, smear some sauce on it, and add some cucumber and scallion. I must say, it was delicious. The duck was juicy and smoky, and the dark, slightly sweet sauce accented the flavor perfectly. The crisp sharpness of the vegetables complimented the richness of the meat. My only complaint would be I would have seasoned the duck with a touch of salt. Otherwise, it was the best duck I’ve ever had. Which, admittedly, isn’t saying much.

"Just a one more bite, it is a waffer theen!"

As we ate, the restaurant began to fill up. The couple next to us were very chatty with the staff. At one point, the man got into a small argument with a waiter over their duck’s carcass. We later learned they were haggling over the price of deep frying it. “It’s the best part,” the man said to me. It looked like it had been crucified when it came back.

We learned they were Chinese, but living in Vancouver. They were ultimately very disappointed in Li Qun’s roasted duck. For one, he explained that he preferred the Americanized version of Peking duck—he regretted admitting it because of his Chinese heritage, but he insisted the duck you get in America and in Canada is better. But most of all, they were upset by the prices. Apparently Li Qun’s had been much cheaper in the past, but they’ve recently raised their prices. “Because—well, because of you guys,” he said.

I was done, but I needed to use the bathroom. This simple task became a chore throughout the trip and I dreaded asking where it was. I never found the right word. “Bathroom? Restroom? Toilet?” None of these words worked and I refused to point at my dick and pantomime taking a piss. I’m classy like that. Someone would always eventually figure out what I needed, but we never learned the word for toilet. Might have been more useful than the other two words I did learned. But that’s another post.

You don't have to tell me twice, "No shit? No problem!"

After visiting the toilet at Li Qun, I like to imagine the English word they use for “toilet” is much cruder. “Shit hole?” “Shit place?” “Piss fuck shit?” "Hell Place for Make the Poops?" I don’t know, but I loved the “NO SHIT” signs. You can’t see it in the photo, but it’s all over the tiny bathroom. It’s written no less than a half dozen times. I’m guessing the first couple were written kind of high up and then the artist realized, “Oh, children will be using the bathroom and so I better put the warning down at their height. ‘NO SHIT!’ you little shits.”

Peeing was allowed. And that's my Chinese beer. Delicious.

After we relieved ourselves, we got a cab back to our hotel and died. We had gone from starving to stuffed and we were still being ravaged by the jet lag. We passed out early.

After we were done eating, we had a smoke outside. When we were done, we threw our butts into the "ashtary."

During the night, I was once again able to find an ingenious way to blame my farts on something other than my own butt. It’s getting more and more difficult these days. Tania is on to me. I don’t think she believes me when I point at Beckett or Gary anymore. And when they’re not around, there are very few excuses I can muster. But over there in China, providence shined upon me.

PFFFFT! I farted. “Oh my,” I said, waving the sheets about to let the stink out, “somebody must have stepped on a duck!” Tania smacked me. But not long after, I farted again. PFFFFT! “Wow, it really sounds AND SMELLS like there’s a duck in this bed!” Smack! And then another, PFFFFT! “Oh it sounds like someone is lighting off FIRE QUACKERS outside! Maybe it’s Chinese New Year?”

Friday, May 1, 2009

BELIZE: Xibalba

Guests get one free excursion with their stay at the Cotton Tree Lodge in Punta Gorda, Belize. We chose to go see the Mayan ruins at Lubaantun, and then go cave diving at the Blue Cave. Our fellow guests gushed about the chocolate making tour that was also available. They really thought we should go see how chocolate was made. “It was AMAZING!” they all said. “Really?” I said. “That’s cool, but I don’t really like chocolate.” “I didn’t think it was going to be that interesting, but IT WAS!” “Yeah, well, I really don’t care how chocolate is made.” “You guys should totally do it, you’ll LOVE IT!” Ugh.

We went to Lubaantun first. Our guide was a little fella named Antonio. Antonio was very nice. He lives in a village only 20 miles from the Cotton Tree, but it takes him an hour to drive to work. Antonio is a farmer. He is married with two children. He was very interested in American marriages. Especially “the honeymoon.” He thought that was weird. I have a feeling Antonio probably just took a two hour break from farming for his marriage. He wondered if our marriage was arranged. I told him no, I chose Tania. Apparently in Mayan culture, it is traditional to have an arranged marriage. Antonio bucked tradition and chose his wife. “Why not an arranged marriage?” I asked. “I might not like her,” he said.

Antonio shows Tania a rubber tree at Lubaantun. That's where rubbers come from.

They don’t know the real name of Lubaantun. “Lubaantun” is a modern Mayan name meaning, “place of fallen stones.” Which is a funny name because there are indeed a lot of fallen stones, but there weren’t any fallen stones until the explorers discovered the site and caused the stones to fall. Not sure which one of the early explorers blew the place up in the early 1900s, but it was probably the Englishman, F. A. Mitchell-Hedges, as he seems to be the most retarded of the group. Besides claiming that he discovered the site 20 years after it had been discovered, he also claims to have found “The Crystal Skull” there. The Crystal Skull is one of those things that is in the league of cryptozoology alongside Big Foot, crop circles, and the aliens. Whichever one of them blew up Lubaantun, they used the most modern excavation techniques available to them at the time: brute force and ignorance.

Tania and Antonio stroll past the "fallen" stones.

In the middle of the site was a large, solid structure. Like any good archeologists, they wanted to know what was inside the structure. So they blew it up. And I suppose it was shortly after that, that they renamed the site, “Lubaantun, the place of the fallen stones.” There should be some sort of ex post facto law applied here? Something Latin, right? You can’t just go and destroy something and then name it. That’s not archeology, that’s art. You take a perfectly good block of marble, or a canvas, and then you ruin it with your stupid ideas, and your paints, and your chisels, and then you name it. Maybe Lubaantun was a performance art piece? Blowing up ancient ruins is kind of like tagging National Landmarks. I like that.

After Luubantun, Antonio drove us to the Blue Cave, which is about 45 minutes further into the jungle over dirt roads. Antonio parked the truck at the edge of the wide, but shallow, river. Mayan women were washing clothes in the water under the shade of the trees on the bank, young girls were slapping rocks with tshirts, and young boys bathed naked. One kid had an old scuba mask on and was hunting fish with a spear. Filthy old curs with giant tits skulked about looking for scraps of food.

Antonio busted out a typical Belizian lunch for us to eat on the rocks on the bank of the river: cucumber salad, watermelon, beans and rice, and greasy chicken in a greasy sauce. “Greasy” here is good, not bad. So good, that I might have eaten a little too much. I knew we were going swimming, but I reasoned that we had to hike a mile or so over rough terrain and I needed the energy. I did indeed need the energy, but I later learned that I didn’t need the “other” energy that came with our meal.

Antonio got the life vests out of the back of the van. “Here are the big ones,” he said. “They are for you because you two are bigger. And I will take the small one, because I am smaller.”

As we hiked up to the mouth of the cave in our life vests, ours bigger, and his smaller, Antonio would occasionally pull over on the trail to show us something and educate us with some jungle knowledge. The first plant we stopped at was used to make brooms. It did indeed look like it would make a good broom. But that’s not all! Apparently the root of the plant kills fish. Antonio told us that if you take the root of the plant and throw it into a shallow pond, within minutes, all the fish that are hiding below the surface float to the top. “It makes them drunk or something,” he said. We also learned that you never take anything from the jungle unless it’s a full moon. If it’s not a full moon, worms will come out. I didn’t quite understand that one.

As we hiked, the trail grew tougher and tougher, but the scenery became more beautiful. As we went higher and higher, the river began cascading through rocks and making waterfalls. The trail got muddier. We wondered how the older folks that were staying at the lodge had managed it? It was no wonder they liked the chocolate making tour better.

The entrance to Xibalba.

Total metal cave.

It didn’t take long to reach the mouth of the cave. It was huge. It looked fake. The water was too perfect and the walls looked like they had skulls carved into them. Which gave the cave an even more sinister look than I had already imagined. It’s called “The Blue Cave,” but the Mayans refer to it as an entrance to Xibalba (pronounced zhi-BALL-buh). Xibalba is a kind of Mayan underworld/hell. “The place Xibalba,” it says on Wikipedia, “was associated with death and was ruled by twelve gods or powerful rulers known as the Lords of Xibalba. The first among the Lords of Xibalba were One Death and Seven Death. The remaining ten Lords are often referred to as demons and are given commission and domain over various forms of human suffering: to cause sickness, starvation, fear, destitution, pain, and ultimately death.”

I was thinking, “Oh my god! This is sooooo METAL!” (And, yes, there is at least one black metal band that has taken the name Xibalba.) Little did I know that this was more than the fake cartoonish theater of metal, and that I would soon be visited by one of the real demon lords of Xibalba.

We all took our shoes off and left them at the mouth of the cave. We put on our headlamps and strapped on our life vests, and waded into the deep pool at the mouth of the cave. The water was clear and cool. The cave took a sharp right, and everything got dark. A little further on, the cave took a sharp left and everything went pitch black. Not only did I have the shitty headlamp—our other guests had warned us, “Don’t take the orange one, it sucks,” sure enough Antonio handed me the orange one… crap—but I also learned that I suck at swimming. My shoulder is fine now after the surgery, but in the previous ten years I pretty much avoided swimming at all costs because it easily dislocates in the water. And as Tania and Antonio took off at a Michael Phelp’s pace, I huffed and puffed and tried to find rocks to stand on and catch my breath. We were swimming upstream. The source of the river is deep in the mountain. I couldn’t see shit because I had the orange headlamp. And on top of all that, I started getting weirded out by the cave. It was pitch black and we were swimming into Xibalba. Who knows where the bottom of this river is and what the fuck is swimming around down there? There were bugs flying up my nose and stalagmites hanging from the ceiling, threatening to drop on my head. Every once in awhile I’d stub my toe, or bang my knee, on a protruding rock. (It was actually really fun, and the danger factor made it really cool, but when I’m writing, whining is kind of fun.)

Tania with the awesome head lamp taking a rest in the cave. It is pitch black here, by the way. Blacker than the blackest black metal. None more black.

Antonio finally paused in a cove that was especially calm, and pretty, and laden with stalagmites hanging from the ceiling. We were deep in the cave. Probably close to a mile in. I learned from other guests that we had gone much farther than they had. “Did you make it to the waterfall?” they asked in that haughty, challenging voice. “Yeah,” I said, “the waterfall was, like, the halfway point on our journey, chuh!”

Is it a stalagmite or stalagtite? I don't care, they both rhyme with fight, which is what I had to do with that demon.

“We will turn back, here,” Antonio said. He pointed into the darkness where we could see the river bend to the right around a corner. “It gets too narrow around that corner.” Fine with me, I was done. I was perfectly ready to float with the current back into the light. We rested, took some pictures, and then dove back in the water and started floating downstream.

The entrance to the cave is over my shoulder. The demon is in butt, out of frame.

And that’s when I was attacked by the demon. He entered me from behind. I had barely taken two strokes down stream when I felt my butthole being battered from within. The demon was in my fundament and he was thrashing about, pounding the walls of my lower intestine and demanding to be let out. Oh it was horrible, I could barely swim. It’s really hard to keep your butt clinched tight and swim at the same time. I considered pulling over and dropping trow and letting the demon escape, but then Tania and Antonio, who were downstream of me, would surely get attacked by the swift moving demon. So I reasoned that the best course of action was to keep my butt cheeks clinched up tight and contain the demon until I could find a proper place to deposit him.

"Is that you Tania? Antonio?" Tania bought this really weird plastic bag thingy that turns your digital camera into an underwater camera.

When we finally reached the exit to the cave, and daylight, I was weary from battling the demon. I barely had the strength to pull myself up the rocks and out of the water, and I almost lost him in the process. It was obvious to me then that he was using me as a host to transport him out of Xibalba and into the world of light where he could wreak his havoc. I vowed to suffer his abuses and to never free him into our world.

Tania was really into the underwater photography. Trippy.

As we began the grueling hike back to the van, I let Tania know about the demon in my butt and I told her that I needed a toilet to perform this delicate exorcism immediately. We had passed a strange camp on the way up, perhaps they had a bathroom? But when we got to the camp, it was deserted and there wasn’t a bathroom in sight. I thought of squatting down on the side of the trail and letting him out near his cave, but it was a nice day and families were strolling about, swimming in the river, and picnicking on its banks. Even if I found a spot to evacuate the demon, what was I going to clean up with? A tarantula? Antonio just got through telling us that you could huck a plant in the river and it’ll kill a hundred fish. I’m not wiping my butt with some sketchy ass jungle plant. I thought about wiping with my stupid Hurley shorts, but then I’d have to do the rest of the hike in nothing but a life vest and a pair of Vans.

I practically died on that hike back to the van. It was pure torture trying to jump from rock to rock, and climb up and down the steep steps of the trail with a demon pounding on my back door. At last we made it, but I barely had the demon under control. “Are you alright?” Tania asked. I said that I wasn’t, but I had already decided that I would try and make the drive back to the lodge. I was frightened of the journey. What if the demon escaped in the van on the drive? It was a risk I had to take. The demon had to be deposited in a safe place so that it could be sent straight back to Xibalba. “I can do it,” I said as I strapped the seat belt on.

The 45 minute drive was daunting enough at the outset, but what I had failed to consider was the condition of the roads: very, very, VERY bumpy dirt roads. For almost an hour. I grabbed hold of the armrest and white knuckled it all the way back to the lodge. It was excruciating. I wanted to fart at times, but I knew that was the demon trying to trick me into relaxing my bowels. The demon did his best to escape, but I kept my cheeks clenched and gritted my teeth.

Me vs. The Demon on the drive back.

I sing it often, but only because it’s so true, “Why is the last mile, the hardest mile?” As we came in view of the sign for the Cotton Tree Lodge, I thought, “Ah, finally.” But the mile long driveway to the Lodge is probably the most pitted and potholed road in the world. I bounced and swayed, and shivered and shook, all the way to the parking lot—I barely made it—but when Antonio put the van in park, I still had a demon in my butt. Success!

I bid Antonio well, gave him a healthy tip, and made a beeline for the toilet in our hut. I told Tania to take her time. “Gimme a few minutes,” I said, “this could be dangerous.”

In the end I defeated the demon from Xibalba. I sat down over a lake that sucks whatever falls into it back to that dark evil place the Mayans call Xibalba. Most of the world will never know how close they came to seeing the end of the world. Thanks to my butt cheeks, we will live another day.

The Demon, on his way back to Xibalba.