August 25, 2012
The lunch we had at Mutianyu is an experience I am unlikely to forget in a hurry. As mentioned in my previous post, the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China is favored by tourists who prefer a less crowded and greener experience. After a hike at Mutianyu, we were ravenous and asked our driver/guide Tony for a recommendation for lunch. He recommended the ‘Red Lantern House’ located close by. We drove down a couple of hundred feet to it and parked on the dirt area next to the narrow road.
A colorful entrance, decorated with red lanterns of course, led to a concrete driveway sloping up. On the left side of this driveway was a house that seemed ancient but well kept. On the right was a built up pond covered with a roof, beyond which was a small garden and then a covered seating area with elaborately carved tables and chairs, all overlooking the majestic hills in the background.
We were the only patrons at the restaurant, not surprising considering it was around 3:30 PM. We pored over the exotic menu. A young girl stood by patiently to take our order while an older man who seemed to be a chef waited at the entrance to a long, wide corridor. I ordered something safe — a chicken preparation with rice. My husband George, meanwhile, decided to order fish. The girl would write down our orders and also shout them out in a sing-song voice to the man at the back, who would then shout them out to someone else inside the house. We sat back to wait for our food to arrive.
We watched curiously as we saw two young men proceed to the pond with a basket shaped fish net attached to a long pole. We continued to watch in wonder as they began circling the pond, repeatedly pushing the net in and lifting it out empty. This was accompanied by much animated discussion in Chinese. By now it became obvious that they were trying to catch a fish for the dish that George had ordered! After a few minutes, the young girl who had taken our orders also joined the effort, watching and giving suggestions. Our guide/driver Tony also walked over to watch, as did George. The chase went on for at least 20 minutes. It was clear that the young men were not exactly experts at it.
Finally, one of the men triumphantly emerged with a fish still alive in the net basket. He took it inside the house. We could hear the sounds of pots and pans coming from a window, which we assumed must belong to the kitchen. Then we smelled gas. Next, we saw giant flames at the window, leaping out of the window bars! We rolled our eyes at each other, and hoped that it was all part of the plan.
It was taking some time, so we explored the surroundings. My daughter Saachi and I chased a butterfly that was flitting about the zinnia flowers in the garden.
We lounged on various seats and looked at the interesting decor.
Then the waitress invited me inside to take a look at the house. After a moment of hesitation, I asked Tony to accompany me and followed her down the long, wide corridor. We made a left and, suddenly, I was in this tall interior space with wooden balconies overlooking an interior seating area from two floors above. The entire construction inside seemed to be of wood,with a maze of doors and corridors leading off from the central space and the balconies. I was imagining ninjas leaping off the balconies in ancient times!
After what seemed like a half hour, our food arrived. The fish looked like it had been split open, marinated and cooked, all while it was still wondering what happened to it! There it lay, artfully split and splayed, baring its teeth at us. I can safely say that this is the freshest fish I have ever tasted!