Beijing was our first stop and I'm so glad that we decided to start there. Familiarising yourself with a new country in a city with good train and bus links is a smart plan and we were also able to give our China Mobile Hong Kong sim card a whirl to test that it worked before we ended up staying in places without wifi. I can't recommend that sim card enough, we got the data only package which works out at about £2 a day but being able to use Happy Cow on the go, whip out Google translate whenever we needed it, and to use Apple Maps and their surprisingly excellent transit info made everything so much easier than it would have been otherwise. If you're travelling to China via Hong Kong you can pick up one of these sim cards at the airport but if not you'll have to order it online. You wont be able to buy it in China!
Beijing has some iconic landmarks and Tiananmen Square was one of our very first stops.
We headed there on our first evening to watch the flag lowering ceremony and then we were there again the next day to check out the area in daylight. One thing that I hadn't realised about the square (and about China in general) is the high level of security you have to go through to get in there. Whenever you go onto the subway or into a train station anywhere in China you need to scan your bags through an airport style scanner and entering Tiananmen Square is no different. Local people need to show ID cards and everyone needs to get their bags scanned. I also received a bit of a pat down by security. Obviously this level of security means that there are lines and it would seem that certain entrances to the square will be closed, when we went there were only two open entrances so lines were long and you just kinda need to go with the flow but expect there to be a queue.
Obviously I needed snacks to fuel my explorations so after Tiananmen one of my very first stops in the city was Beijing Zheng Long Zhai Vegetarian which was listed on Happy Cow as a vegetarian store. There were no photos and just a couple of short reviews so I had no idea what to expect but given that I wasn't sure whether we'd be able to find exciting snack foods anywhere else I decided that it'd be worth the subway journey.
It turned out to be a little shop chock full of products. There are freezers running all around the store and then above those are gluten products, soy products, and noodles. In the centre of the store are more noodles, a fun (and so cheap!) pick 'n mix area full of individually wrapped gluten and tofu snacks, and some baked goods.
Because Nick and I had no way of cooking anything until we got to Xi'an (our third stop where we were booked into a Citadines aparthotel) we skipped the frozen stuff and focussed on things that'd last well and be portable. We were super lucky when we visited because another shopper noticed us scanning ingredients with the Google translate app and overheard us discussing which things were likely to be vegan and came over to speak to us. She was from Beijing and had been vegan for over 22 years, we had a great chat about veganism and she helped us choose what to buy. It turns out that everything in the store is vegan but there's one brand of mock meats that her and her family avoid because, as she put it, they maybe aren't as kind as they say they are. I remembered that there was a scandal with a mock meat company a while back because it turned out that their faux meat wasn't as faux as they were claiming so I figured that maybe this was the company. I decided to listen to her advice and swapped out a couple of the things in my basket so here's the brand and logo to look out for if you want to do the same.
I did some googling and honestly can't find anything to back up what she told me online but I'm not searching in Chinese so maybe that's why? Here's our haul from our first shop...
My favourite things were the cuttlefish noodles in the blue pack, the vegetarian teriyaki duck (which made an epic snack on a 15 mile hike later on in our trip), and the little individually wrapped soy meat snacks which we returned and bought a lot more of. I also liked the different bean paste buns and the little cakes made an excellent breakfast. When we went back we also bought little packs of crackers, a couple of different types of gluten, and some meat floss buns which were super weird but in a good way.
Obviously we were starving by the time we were done there so we headed out of the North Gate and towards the nearest spot on Happy Cow. We tried to take a bus there but despite me being ready with my mosh pit elbows there was no way we were getting on that bus - someone tried to climb up me to get past and onto the bus. It was like a rugby scrum! We decided to walk. We had plenty of other successful bus trips within Beijing after this failed attempt but this is such a touristy area and we were there at such a busy time of day that it didn't seem worth waiting for the next one!
The restaurant we had our sights set on was the Fu Hui Ci Yuan Vegetarian Cultural Restaurant, it was about 4 in the afternoon by the time we were ready to eat so we were pretty pleased to find them open and happy to serve us despite a lot of the lights being off. We were given a menu with pictures and English translations which was super helpful and we ordered a five spice tofu dish, some steamed buns, a fried Chinese toon pancake, and some steamed white rice to share.
I'm a notorious over-orderer but this was pretty spot on - portions in China can be huge because people like to eat family style in large groups and share food. The tofu dish and the toon pancake were my faves from this meal, I discovered a love for toon when I was travelling in Taiwan and now whenever I see it on a menu I get excited and must order it - it's a little spring onion like in flavour but maybe a little saltier and with more depth. Love! The steamed buns weren't great because they were stuffed with greens rather than what I'm always hoping for, mock pork. I never did find any mock pork buns in China, they always has greens, greens and chilli, or greens and mushrooms which aren't really my faves. I actually prefer a straight up plain steamed bun to any of those but again, those weren't the easiest to come by. I'd definitely recommend a visit to Fu Hui Ci Yuan, it's easy to find and in the perfect spot to grab a meal after a long day of exploring central Beijing.
That's all for now folks, I'll be back soon with my favourite Beijing vegan spots and photos from my trip to The Great Wall. Have you been to China? Would you like to go? Where's top of your must-travel list? China's been at the top of mine for so long now that I'm not even sure what my answer to that question is at the moment!