There are certain destinations that a vegetarian traveller includes on his or her bucket list – with a caveat. Something along the lines of: 'can't wait to visit, but will probably go hungry'.
Travelling as a vegetarian has never been an issue for me. When faced with a trip to a notoriously meat-centric culture, we veggies just plan ahead and research where the veggie-friendly restaurants are and what the meatless local dishes might be.
As I headed to Beijing, I thought to myself, "better pack a few extra granola bars". I couldn't wait to tackle the Great Wall and stroll the paths of the Summer Palace, and really, would I be bothered about food in the stifling heat of Tiananmen Square and the cool serenity of the Forbidden City? (Probably, hence the granola bars.)
To my great surprise, not only was I not at risk of starving to death during my 10-day visit, but I ate like a pig. Vegetarianism may still be a foreign concept to many Chinese, given the perceived link between meat consumption and wealth. But that doesn't mean there is sneaky chicken lying in wait beneath every noodle. You can definitely eat well in Beijing as a vegetarian; you just need the right attitude.
When my husband and I checked in to our hotel – the plush Four Points by Sheraton in northwest Beijing – we found what appeared at first to be a bland, Western-style menu in the buffet restaurant where we were to begin each day. We had some fun exploring the more authentic Chinese dishes on offer, however, creating what one fellow diner called our East-meets-West breakfasts (for me, this meant chow mein noodles and hash browns).
We quickly sussed that the best fare was to be found outside our shiny, air-conditioned hotel.
Finger pointing became a daily activity, along with all manner of vague hand gestures and pathetic attempts to pronounce pinyin Chinese words. The picture menus that waiting staff automatically hand to foreigners proved the most useful. You can just about tell if a dish is going to have meat in it, if you squint. (Dumplings are a different story.)
Friends who had recently returned from Beijing recommended several vegetarian restaurants, though we didn't manage to try them all. One we missed, which has repeatedly been voted best vegetarian restaurant in local magazines, is Pure Lotus, located in Chaoyang District. My friend shared dreamy stories of monks in robes leading diners under parasols to their somewhat obscured restaurant where wizardry with mock meats is said to be performed.
For us, the Holy Grail of vegetarian artistry in Beijing was to be found down a dingy hutong (those ancient city alleyways that are endless fun to explore). I had read about meatless mecca Baihe Vegetarian (or Lilly's Vegetarian, depending on what you're reading), in a guidebook and carried the address scribbled on a piece of paper. After over an hour of searching and crisscrossing the insane traffic of Dongzhimen junction, it began to feel like a meat-free myth.
We woke a sleeping policeman in an information kiosk, and he did his best in hand gestures to send us the right way. Another half hour of circling later, it clicked; I was mixing up Dongzhimen Beidajie with Dongzhimen Beixinqiao (I was weak with hunger, you see). We made it at last to the hidden-away restaurant, just before closing.
Once again, we ordered too much. Dish after dish of eerily accurate faux meat creations came out of the kitchen in this peaceful sanctuary of a restaurant: spare ribs, fried chicken, even a version of the local delicacy Peking duck, all crafted from tofu and wheat gluten. They do seafood too, which is really strange. We drew the line at spicy pork intestines. Fake meats are a bit of fun, but the fresh vegetables, delicates noodles and sauces flavoured with fragrant Chinese spices elevated it to a deeply satisfying meal.
So Buzzing Beijing is a vegtarian delight – who would've thought? There may be ducks hanging in windows and beetles on sticks (and try not to notice the live animals hawked on the roadside) but a vegetarian can eat just as well as their meat-eating fellow travellers. Arrive with an open mind and you'll leave with a full belly.