We got in a taxi, opened the laptop and pointed at an address in Chinese, with a photo of the restaurant, knowing only that it was somewhere out near the 3rd ring road to the north. The taxi driver was confused for a bit, then took off. It seemed very far away, and then further, and it was almost 10pm on Sunday night and the restaurant closed at 11, and we hadn't called to make sure. Down a very industrial rubble-ish street right on the frontage road to the 3rd ring road the taxi driver went down a narrow alley, which dead ended. He asked another taxi driver for directions. We couldn't understand! He pointed into the giant block of construction in progress, and let us off. At a little hotel nearby a guy came out and helped us, after much discussion in Chinese and pointing at the web page on the laptop, leading us back down the alley, through another alley full of ridges made of rebar and metal plates and enormous speed bumps to which I learned the word for "watch out!" as there were no streetlights or anything. (Zond-7 pushed my wheelchair, because my neck was hurting from idiotically playing too much nethack on the plane.) A complete maze, through concrete blocks and deserted-seeming apartments and the big walls blocking off construction and demolition. Finally we came to a corrugated iron wall cracked open slightly, held shut by a chain. Through the crack and down across a demolished building in the shadows we could see a cool pink glowing sign in a very fancy font "Pure Lotus". For a minute I considered folding up my chair and squeezing through the crack in the wall. Our friend from the nearby hotel gestured and sighed and repeated something that must have been "Well, hell, there it is, but...!" He led us out again past the apartment block, past the defunct expensive furniture store, past the other demolitions and some parked cars behind more tiny apartment balconies with laundry hanging out, past a hole in the wall butcher shop and corner store and down the rebar-corrugated steep-sloped entrance to the alley, out to the side street, then out to the main street. He motioned for us to give it a good try from the other side of the block, around the corner, and we waved goodbye.
Zond-7 and I match very well in our love of randomness and getting lost, of being slightly unnerved but liking it that way and keeping good spirits up, and not minding if the goal does not happen or things don't work out - we are good travel companions that way.
The sidewalk was multi-levelled and cracked, so we went in the street in the bike lane. At a break in the big construction-hiding walls (plastered with ads and Olympics posters) we dove into a dirt alley bordering on a partly demolished office tower. I wheeled over glinting mirror glass and gravel. Guys in hard hats and jumpsuits gawked at us - wondering what the hell was going on - it was after 10pm - where could we possibly be going and why - Finally, the other street. We had just cut a corner but had not really penetrated into the interior of the block. About halfway down the block there was an opening with cement trucks and what looked like an auto body shop and -- once we ducked through it - A SIGN for the restaurant. A couple of twists and turns and more signs - we joked we would keep following them as they receded into the distance - we saw the empty field and the corrugated padlocked wall that we had seen from the other side of the block - and the street kept twisting and getting darker, dead-end-like. The dead end opened into a paradise of little water garden and wooden deck, carvings, an enormous door 15 feet high made of logs pivoting in the middle to swing open without a sound, and lotus holograms projected on the floor, blossoming, next to an enormous yet delicate wooden model of a buddhist temple. Interior decorator monks had waved their magic wands to create perfect spot lighting and draped fabric and rock niches with candles and brocaded seats like little thrones, more water gardens and flowers, all an impression of peaceful cool light and openness. Incredibly sexy waiters with matching monk uniforms - sort of thin slightly tattered open shirts and loose pants for the guys and elegant pale pink fluttery things for the women - Well, monks can have aesthetics too - And can be obviously young hipsters with awesome haircuts - as they gracefully hand over giant menus that are pieces of art themselves with strange-ass names like The Peace Settles and Purifies or Love Without Reason which turn out to be carrot-pineapple juice or soup with gingko nuts and lotus seed and wild yam and several kinds of odd and delicious fungus, with soup dumplings. A monk, or nun, or hipster in pink ruffled nun suit, laid out enormous leaves as placemats, with carved sticks and spoons made of giant cowrie, flower petal shaped plates, basically everything was leafy and made of wood or shell or sometimes tinfoil made to be artistically leafy. The straw to my carrot-pineapple juice was bent into a rather lovely pattern winding around yet another leaf slotted and stuck on the edge of the tall thin porcelain cup. I kept sort of jaw-dropping and becoming more and more hyperaware as I'd realize things like, the person laying out our plates was doing it carefully with one hand while doing a buddhist mudra with the other.
The soup with different kinds of gourd and squash and fungus was one of the most delicious thing I've ever eaten, and had a smokey flavor that sent me into a Proustian tailspin of trying to remember what smell or childhood taste it evoked. Nothing I could name, but it was a little like the smell of the ocean combined with wood smoke.
After we came in the enormous 15 foot high wooden door made of logs slowly pivoted shut. We were the last people into the restaurant.
Everything was so beautiful - I'm really not exaggerating - you are totally dead-souled if you eat here and don't have a blinding epiphany. Mine was that, earlier in the day, I was having a strong feeling of impatience, railing against my problems with mobility and walking and pain, going so far as to say bitterly that I wished I could walk better and I was sick of it all, and it isn't fair, and it used to be so easy; it was a place of strong self loathing and wanting to curl up and hide and cry. This doesn't happen to me all that often, but it did happen yesterday; it was partly exhaustion and jet lag as well as hunger to be able to do and see more and have it all be less inconvenient, less conspicuous, less fussy and above all not painful. BUT in Pure Lotus I considered all that as I nibbled chewy vegetarian fish in spicy sauce and Zond-7 and I sappily gazed at each other as he gave me half of the last of his most perfect transparent dumplings stuffed with mushroom from his chopsticks, and of course, the obvious epiphany to have (and the one I usually try to live inside) is that everyone carries around problems and obstacles, and pain, and I'm lucky to know what mine is and to have so much awareness and enjoyment of life (and to have such an amazing nice life.) On top of that, if I can fly halfway around the world and go to a city where I don't speak the language and can't read anything or talk to anyone, and despite not walking very well and having a wheely exoskeleton, can still make it through broken glass and concrete rubble and smog and darkness to this odd delicious aesthetic loving nirvana which we will think of as nirvana although it is only for rich people who can afford a 50 dollar dinner, then, there is nothing to complain about in life and things are just fine.
Two of Pure Lotus's staff got us a taxi and then came with us out the winding alley to help us in and to help us communicate with the taxi driver who was not quite sure where our hotel was. They helped stuff the wheelchair into the trunk and were so amazingly patient with our ignorance of language and everything. We so didn't deserve such consideration. Also, I was grateful for the moments when taxi drivers, hotel staff, and our hipster monks and nuns giggled with us at the ludicrousness of the situations and language barrier and perhaps at our nerve for being in those situations.
I have a soft spot for very beautiful places carefully constructed and hidden in industrial settings (like my favorite cafe in my hometown).
Aside from that I am astonished that looking online for reviews of this place, it's all just "best vegetarian food in Beijing" and nothing about the total amazingness of the experience.
We almost had heart attacks when after we thought we were finished (but we weren't sure because we had no idea what the heck we ordered) they brought out what looked like an enormous hand-polished tree stump with smoke pouring out. MY GOD is it another course of food? No- it was dry ice bubbling from a tiny pool of water in the wooden bowl with a tiny stand made of the same wood inside, with tinfoil leaf (nature + artifice perfect combination) and real leaves (pandanus?) with small mandarin oranges, ripe and sweet. I was in awe.