The Bagel Lady of Beijing: Part One

Since we’ve returned from our travels abroad, it’s been a whirlwind month of reflection, visiting friends and planning our future. One of the main reasons we set out into the great blue yonder was to gather inspiration for a few ideas that have been rumbling around in our heads. We wanted to visit people on the other side of the world who had similar values or intentions. While we were on our way, Tracie’s sister Sannie emailed us and reminded us that since we were headed to Hong Kong we should really try and meet up with King and Margaret, Tracie’s aunt and uncle’s close friends. Sannie gave us the number and while we were there we called them and asked if they wanted to meet up.

As you know , one thing led to another and King and Margaret pointed us in the right direction for several people to talk to and visit with during our trip. They understood our intentions for the future and got our vision. Like that they put us in contact with Lejen Chen, the Bagel Lady, in Beijing, China. They told us we should look her up when we got there and Margaret even sent off a polite introduction via email. But Beijing was a long way off from Hong Kong. So, we didn’t move too much towards setting up our meeting. We kind of put it off. And that’s too bad, because we only had one lovely day with her. One day was enough, however, to give us a new perspective of what Beijing could be.

We’d been down and out on Beijing. Hating it, in fact. It’s huge. Everything is built to intimidate and control. It all started with the Forbidden city some 600 years ago. To give you an idea of how huge it is, we spent a whole morning there and we only got to the interior wall of the palace – we didn’t even make it to the living quarters. And there are wide expanses of granite or slate pavement that batters your knees and sears your brow. I can imagine a little bit how it must have felt to foreign dignitaries that arrived at the gates. Awestruck is an understatement.

But there is this emptiness to Beijing’s scale and growth. While the history is there in the Forbidden city and other sites around the city, it’s also crumbling as you head to the metro. Vast blocks of centuries-old neighborhoods are leveled while you sleep off your dumplings from the evening before. We wondered if there was any kind of cultural preservation. It seems that everyone and everything is all about making the fastest buck. Nothing slows down. Its all crushing, bearing down on you, hard to breathe.

Then we received a phone call from Lejen, that she was back in town and was going to be available one of the days we had left before we headed out of China. So Tracie put her head down and mapped out a course of action for navigating the Beijing bus system to make our way out past the 3rd ring road where Lejen’s restaurant, Mrs. Shanen’s, sits.

Interior Dining Room at Mrs. Shanen’s

It’s in a mostly expatriate area. I mean, who else would be looking for a bagel? Not the Chinese you’d expect, but she has built a local clientele base, some of whom have “pioneered different preparation techniques” from frying to dredging in sesame paste and butter1. The restaurant is a roadside cafe sitting out in desolate surroundings amidst new outcroppings of expat gated communities and industrial parks. Never judge a book by its cover or its location.

The dining room was one of the most relaxing we set foot into in China. She’s definitely created an oasis in the middle of a desert. It has the vibe of quiet and ancient meditation while still maintaining a upbeat contemporary European look. Step in from the road to fresh lemonade, Arnold Palmers, grass fed burgers, chocolate cake, bagels, Fair Trade coffee and delectable Chinese teas.

Lovely tea sets rest during a lull on the service station shelves


Tracie’s Lemonade

My Arnold Palmer

There is nothing like stepping out of the Beijing heat into a quiet American style cafe. Forget the culture shock of China, welcome to the culture shock of little America in China. But Mrs. Shanen’s and Lejen Chen are beyond satisfying an expatriate community in China. They are also enriching a culture that seems lost and a partial reflection of what it could be. Lejen has found a way to fill a need and spread little flowers while she does it, figuratively and literally.

Mrs. Shanen’s is one part of Lejen Chen and her husband Shan En ventures into bringing wholesome good food to Beijingers, expats and locals alike. She launched the bagel factory back in 1996 and has grown the cafe and now is successfully running an organic farm and CSA to boot. As we left the cafe to go visit the farm I remarked on a room off to the side that seemed setup just for kids and she said “Yea, we’re thinking of turning that into a pizza joint…maybe.”

the Industrial Back Alleys of Beijing, a Little Bit of Gotham, Any
Wu, April 19, 1999 Nytimes.



Beijing Is Not Our Best Friend

What can I say about Beijing? Honestly, I'm finding it hard to say something nice about it at the moment. It's HUGE and that's an understatement. The city is on such a monumental, grand scale that it made me feel like I was the most insignificant speck. Every day we were there we walked for hours and we felt like we had gotten nowhere. Blocks of government buildings have been built to intimidate and impress, not to be useful and inviting. Everything's spread out and the city map we had made the distances seem deceivingly short. The traffic (that we've mentioned previously) is horrendous and frustrating and practically unavoidable. There's a neverending tide of people in every conceivable means of transport and on foot. Every major intersection here makes Shibuya seem like child's play because it's literally a free-for-all.

Everywhere we went we were unbelievably frustrated. Take for instance our visit to the Forbidden City. Thinking we'd be clever and to save some time, we decided to take the bus. We got to the end of the line and realized we were at the southern end of Tiananmen Square, not the northern end. All we wanted was to cross the giant ten lane boulevard, either to walk up Tiananmen Square (about 880 meters on one side) or to take a different bus back. We walked around the bus area for literally ten minutes and we could not find any way to cross the boulevard. So we gave up and took the subway (it only had an exit on the northern side of the boulevard if you paid), which took another half an hour to just get to the stop closest to the Forbidden City and was still another twenty minute walk (I am not joking) just to the entrance of the damned place.

By then we were already running out of steam and we were getting run over by hordes of tourists. To us it just seemed like the Forbidden City was a bunch of wide open, weedy open spaces with no places to sit and imposing imperial style buildings in various states of disrepair. Maybe it should be renamed the “Forbidding City”. After walking for another half an hour we finally found some benches in the shade to nap on, and we decided it wasn't worth hanging around so we left to get some food. I had a bunch of restaurant listings and I vaguely knew the street where it was located so we hopped back on the subway. Lo and behold, the restaurant was on the top floor of a crappy mall and of course you had to take eight levels of escalators. Not only did we get stuck behind a family trying to haul a wheelchair up the escalators, we then discovered the restaurant was gone! (Did I mention that this was one giant CCF?)

We took another bus back to the neighborhood where the hostel was and tried to find a place to eat. Finally deciding on one, we sat down and tried to order. You'd think it would have been easy enough, the menu had pictures and all we had to do was point. Of course, the waitress insisted on thinking that I spoke Chinese and kept blabbing on even though I was like “I DON'T SPEAK CHINESE JUST STOP OK??!!” I threw my hands up in despair, we finally got our food, we drank beer. Before we were halfway done they shut off half the lights in the restaurant. We resigned ourselves to the fact that visiting the Forbidden City was a big fail and collapsed back at the hostel.

Almost every day in Beijing had been a comedy (or horror, from our point of view) of errors like that. Every time we felt just confident enough with the buses we would get totally screwed. We took a bus to visit a farm on the outskirts of the city, but of course we accidentally took an express bus (not that there were any signs or indicators there was a difference) that completely bypassed the neighborhood altogether and we had to flag down a cab on a desolate highway. Even getting back to the airport was a nightmare, the bus we took when we first arrived didn't pick up in the same location and didn't even drop off at the terminal we needed to be at. That was another twenty minute shuttle bus ride from where we got off! Luckily we left FIVE hours early for the airport, it ended up being just enough time.  When we've given up on public transportation in exasperation, empty cabs would pass us by, eject us because we weren't going in the direction that the cabbie wanted to go in, or would drop us blocks from the location we wanted to be at because they didn't feel like it. Wayne and I have gotten used to looking at each other, rolling our eyes, and saying “CCF!”

I could go on with the examples (oh wait did I mention the chunks of raw chicken in my curry noodles?) but I think you get the idea. We've had low level annoyances and difficulties in other parts of China on this trip but we've more than managed. We've been able to say, that's not a big deal, we can work through it and brush it off. But for some reason in Beijing it was happening so often that we had a hard time putting a smile on our faces again. I honestly have a hard time understanding how anyone could live here long term, it seems like you develop coping mechanisms to the point where you just don't notice anything anymore. Of course we've had some good experiences – hiking the Great Wall, sharing meals with old and new friends, visiting the Green Cow Farm – but this time the bad has outweighed the good. We were not sad at all about leaving Beijing, we were totally ready to say “Zai jian zhong guo!” and “Ciao Italia!” instead.



Epic Traffic

You can’t talk about China without talking about the traffic. We’ve
only been in Beijing for a few days and already we’ve been in multiple
traffic jams of epic proportions, where nobody moves for an hour and
everybody is just honking. Yesterday we were stuck on a bus for forty
minutes at a single intersection, we moved no more than a hundred
feet. And it’s not like we could have gotten off and walked, we were
miles from our destination because everything in this city is so
spread out.

Our acupuncturist friends have dubbed situations like this as “CCF”
(China Cluster Fuck), and there’s really no other way to describe it.
Wayne’s already written about how terrible and crazy the drivers are
here, and it’s been true everywhere we went. But the problems in
Beijing are magnified because of the sheer number of vehicles on the
road (apparently the statistic is that 1,000 new cars hit the road
EVERY DAY in this city) and the fact that no one follows any traffic
rules. For instance, we’re not really sure what the cause was of the
traffic jam we were stuck in yesterday. But a bunch of drivers got
impatient because traffic wasn’t moving, so they pulled into the lanes
of oncoming traffic. Which of course blocked everything up even worse
for far longer. A couple of drivers even drove up onto the sidewalk
and started honking at the pedestrians to get out of the way!

It’s not like you can avoid the traffic on the subway either. There
are just so many people crammed into the cars that you can barely
breathe or even get off at your stop. Even with all the new subway
lines, it doesn’t seem to fulfill people’s need for getting around the
city. Most expats that we’ve talked to swear by their bicycles, and
that the only way to get anywhere remotely on time is to ride.

Unfortunately it seems like people here feel like they “need” cars,
and it’s understandable given the distances between things and the
uncomfortable ride on public transport. But unleashing huge numbers of
new (bad) drivers onto the road with no apparent plans for traffic
calming just seems like the craziest, ass-backwards thing to do. I
feel like there had been an opportunity to do something totally
innovative with urban planning and transportation given that ten years
ago the city was mostly filled with bicycles and that there weren’t
any legacy systems that had to be dealt with. But instead it seems
like it’s a headlong rush into crappy car culture that’s just going to
get worse and worse. It makes me appreciate New York so much more –
and the next time there’s a twenty minute delay on the subway, I am
going to thank my lucky stars that I’m not stuck on a bus in a two
hour traffic jam in Beijing.


All the Tea in China

What is an experience in China without tea? We arrived back in Beijing and we tagged along with some American acupuncturists to visit a tea shop and we learned more about tea in one afternoon than I think we've known in our entire lives. The shop is owned by a family that grows, harvests and packages their own oolong leaves in Fujian province, but they also carry other types of teas like green tea and pu'er. They were the most gracious people and we sampled more than ten teas for four hours! It very much had the feel of a wine tasting without the getting-drunk part. Here's a bit of what we learned.

First off, there are many varieties of tea that come from different plants, and within that different grades. By tasting them side by side, we really got a sense of the different flavors and mouthfeels. You have to follow different brewing times and methods depending on the type of tea. In general, you do not soak the leaves for very long, and you drain the steeped water into a separate glass teapot. One brew/pour of the leaves is called a pao, and how many paos you can get out of a batch of leaves is dependent upon the quality of the tea. You also need the right equipment – those giant English teapots will not do, you need much smaller ceramic teapots or containers to do the initial brewing and small glass teapots to hold the brewed tea. If you do acquire one of the small ceramic pots, you must keep it soaked on a regular basis to keep the pot in good condition, and it gets better with age and usage. 

All tea (except pu'erh) should be stored in airtight containers in the freezer to preserve freshness, and this should keep the tea for about two years. Check the date of harvest to make sure you're buying the freshest tea possible!

Oolong tea is a relatively light tasting tea, somewhere in between black tea and green tea. Generally it comes from Fujian province or Taiwan. We tried four varieties of oolong, Golden Guanyin, two grades of Iron Guanyin (roasted over heat), and one baked oolong. The high quality Iron Guanyin was hands down our favorite, as it had a nice balance of fragrance and smoothness. It's also the tea that the tea shop family prefers to drink in their home. Golden Guanyin had a strong fragrant aroma and was more astringent, but apparently smokers and other people who have no tastebuds prefer that one. The baked oolong is preferred mostly by old people as it has less caffeine. Oolong is harvested twice a year, once in May and once in October. The May harvest is considered more fragrant while the October harvest is smoother and more highly valued.
Brewing temp: Boiling water

Brewing method: Use the ceramic cup with a lid, it's about the size and shape of a regular cup. Use about 3 tablespoons of leaves or so. DO NOT drink the first pao, you must rinse the leaves first. Wait about 40 seconds after the first pao before you do the next pao, and make sure all the water has been drained out after each pao. On the second and subsequent paos, wait a few seconds and then pour the brewed tea out into the glass teapot and serve. You can get about 8 paos out of good quality Oolong. Also, you can keep the cap on the ceramic container at an angle.

Green Tea (Dragonswell)
The higher quality dragonswell tea comes from up in the mountains, as the air quality is better. The first harvest of the year on Ching Ming (around April 5th) produces the best and most expensive tea, and as the season goes on the price and quality gets cheaper. We definitely preferred the higher quality mountain tea as it was less astringent. Green tea is considered to have cooling properties, so too much can damage your stomach. It's good to drink in the summer, and you can do a cold steep in spring water overnight in the fridge.
Brewing temp: 70 degrees celsius (boil water and set aside for a few minutes before pouring over the leaves)
Brewing method: Use an open container, like a tall glass, as covering the tea leaves will cook them and change the flavor. So don't cover it! You don't need to rinse the leaves the first time either. Steep for a minute or two and drain. 

Jasmine tea is considered a rather common and cheap tea, as any kind of tea leaf can be used to make it and it's processed, thus not as pure. It doesn't really come in grades, rather just in strength – strong or mild. The tea leaves are sent to Guanxi for the fermentation process because the tea leaves have to be mixed with the jasmine flowers at the flowers' peak freshness and those flowers from Guanxi are held as the most fragrant in all of China. The tea leaves and flowers are smothered together and then baked to remove the fluid. The jasmine tea actually came off as too flowery after trying the oolong. It was almost bubble gum like in flavor and aroma after tasting the oolongs.
Brewing temp: boiling water
Brewing method: Use about two grams of leaves in a small ceramic teapot. It's a short steep,similar to oolong, but it's a bit more forgiving. make sure you cover it when you're steeping. You can probably get about six paos out of one batch of leaves.
This is a dark, fermented tea that gets better with age unlike the previous teas – it's like the Barolo of the tea world, with less risk. The tea leaves come from Yunnan province, the one we purchased was from the Xishuangbanna area in southern Yunnan. It has a strong, yet smooth flavor and can be the most expensive – the older the tea, the more expensive it gets. To save money, you can buy a raw pu'erh and save it for a few years (at least three). It comes in two varieties, raw and cooked, and it's sun dried so this gives pu'erh a particular flavor. It absorbs odors, so make sure you don't store it in the kitchen. Anywhere else will do, literally a corner of your living room is alright. It's a great tea to serve to guests, because it lasts for many paos (15 times for raw, 25 times for cooked) so you can drink it all day and not change the leaves. Pu'erh is also good for your health as it reputedly lowers cholesterol, and it's excellent for old people to drink and to drink in the winter, as it's considered to have warming properties. 
Brewing temp: boiling water
Brewing method: Use a small ceramic teapot and do two rinses before you start drinking. In the first two rinses, make sure the chunks of tea leaves are broken up so that the water steeps evenly. Also, do not pour the tea out from very high. Do NOT cover the teapot when you steep, and it's a quick steep like oolong (a few seconds). Only use the cover to pour the tea out into the clear glass teapot, make sure you drain all the water and uncover the ceramic pot after you're done pouring. 

The name of the tea shop is Lin Xiu Ji, it's located in the tea street. (they picked us up in a van so I really have no idea how to get there.) Their cell number is 1339 197 8916, but no one who answers the phone really speaks English. You can also email them at, the person who checks that email address speaks some English.