Getting There - Aneel's Travelogue

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Beijing Beijing, China, Thursday, 02 September 2010 8:58pm

What to say about Beijing? It's huge. It's crowded. It's amazing.

It's funny, coming from Ulaanbaatar, where the State Department Store (a five story mall, basically) is considered a tourist attraction. In Beijing, there's something much bigger around every corner and nobody would think to mention it. Distances that look trivially walkable on the map ("Oh, that's just one big block away...") turn out to be thirty minute hikes.

The place is so big that even the locals don't seem to know their way around. We learned early on not to trust people when they gave us directions. I suspect that there's a pressure to give an answer, rather than seem like you don't know. As a result, people often seem to point you in the wrong direction. We had one taxi ride that should have been about two big blocks and should have involved no turns, but the taxi driver managed to squeeze in several turns and a u-turn before setting me down one alley off of where I should have been. It's possible that he was just running up the meter, but, if so, he's a good actor. He seemed genuinely confused.

You've probably notice that I've been using the plural pronoun above. It just so happened that my friend Dave (Gumbo) and his fiancee Amy were in town. We saw a lot of the sights together and generally had a great time.

We started things off right: with a meal. Beijing-style dumplings filled with shrimp, duck, and donkey. We then did a walking tour through Tian'anmen Square to the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City seems almost like a punishment, in retrospect. It's full of giant, tiled courtyards, which were blazingly hot in the midday sun. We only discovered the cool, tree-lined gardens late in our visit. The architecture was also strange. I had expected much more variety in a complex so large, but each area was very similar to the next, and it was hard to keep track of which was the Gate of Supreme Harmony and which the Gate of Preserving Harmony. We did see some great examples of the interrelationship between the development of Chinese calligraphy and brush painting in one of the museums. Sadly, we got to the other museum area after they'd stopped selling tickets for the day.

On our second day, we focused on neighborhoods, rather than monuments. We browsed Liulichang Cultural Street, where we saw lots of shops selling calligraphy supplies (brushes, ink, paper) and art (brush paintings, paper cuts, leather puppets, sculptures, chops). We visited the Donghuamen Night Market, where they sell every food that you can skewer on a stick (beef, lamb, squid, snake, cricket, cicada...), and then headed over to Ghost Street for dinner. One source claims that Ghost Street is called that because once there was a night market there and the lanterns gave it a ghostly aspect. Today there are so many red lanterns that it's almost as bright as day. We ended up at a Sichuan place and ordered way too much food. It was spicy, but tasty.

I visited a couple temples on Monday: the Lama temple, which was devoted to Tibetan Buddhism in 1722 to attempt to strengthen ties with China's conquered provinces of Tibet and Mongolia; and a Taoist temple which had a great many displays depicting various departments of the underworld, where the dead might be judged. There were scores of life-sized dioramas depicting the wicked bemoaning their fates while judges looked on sternly and bureaucrats stamped official documents.

We had dinner with Amy's high-school friend, who happens to be working in the US Consulate in Beijing. I now have a card telling me who to call if I get into trouble while I'm in China. The dinner was in a district that fit my preconceptions of Hong Kong, rather than Beijing. Lots of glass, posh restaurants and bars, and an Apple Store. We had drinks afterwards at a bar with 100 imported beers on the menu. We had to have another round because there was a downpour, complete with lightning. Happily, it let up enough for us to get a cab.

On Tuesday we visited the Temple of Heaven. We'd meant to see the Underground City, a complex of tunnels under Beijing that was originally planned to be able to house 40% of the city's population in the event of a war, but we found the entrance was closed. The Temple of Heaven was much more pleasant than the Forbidden City. In addition to the rectangular halls set around square yards, there were some circular buildings. The whole complex was full of trees, making the temperature much more pleasant.

We had our first Beijing Duck for dinner. This was the "Ultralean" creation of a famous Beijing chef. It turned out to be good, but not great. So much of the pleasure of eating duck is the delicious grease that it seems a shame to deliberately make it lean.

After dinner, we saw a acrobatic performance at the Tiandi theater. It was a lot of fun, with a wide variety of acts (juggling, balance, umbrella juggling with the feet, diabolo, shooting stars, plate spinning, hoop jumping, and a finale featuring a dozen girls on a single bicycle). When the acrobats came out after the performance, I was amused to note that even their burly bases were about 5'6".

Wednesday was our Great Wall day. We'd met a taxi driver named Liu earlier in the week who spoke good English and offered to hire his car out by the day. He picked us up and drove us out to the Mutianyu section of the Wall, which was less heavily touristed than the closer sections, but still fairly close to Beijing.

The weather was overcast and misty, so most of our pictures from the wall are... atmospheric, rather than spectacular. But it was great weather for hiking around: not too hot. We took a cable car up to the wall itself and then walked to the furthest tower in one direction. Beyond that point, we could see more wall stretching off into the distance, but it was unrestored, so trees were growing up through the middle of it and the towers were crumbling.

We continued back past our starting point to discover that we'd chosen the hard direction to start. We'd clambered up steep, uneven steps (some were knee high, some were an inch), but in the other direction it was largely smooth, rolling flagstones.

After a couple hours, we headed down. Instead of the cable cars, we took toboggans along a metal chute. It was lots of fun until the minders started yelling at us to slow down, and then it was quite a bit of fun.

Liu took us to a Beijing noodle restaurant for a late lunch. It was the best tastiness-to-cost ratio of the trip to date, so we got some more restaurant recommendations from him.

Our last night in Beijing started with dinner at his recommended duck restaurant. Dave brought along a half dozen astronomers from the conference he was in town to attend, and we ordered a couple of ducks. We wanted to get the "Duck" and the "Imperial Duck" to sample the whole range of what duck can be, but the waitress warned us off of the "Duck". We went with the "Choice Duck" instead. The waitress asked us if we were okay with waiting, because the Imperial Duck would take a while to prepare. It sounded like she said 8 minutes, so we shrugged and said sure.

We polished off a lot of side dishes: scallion pancakes, dumplings, eggplant, spinach with peanuts. Then three plates of duck slices appeared. One with just meat, one with just skin, and a third with skin still on the meat. It took us a while, but we ate it all. We were congratulating ourselves for ordering a good amount of food when we noticed that they were carving another duck. It turned out that all three of those plates were the "Choice Duck", and we had yet to start on the "Imperial". The waitress had said 80 minutes, not 8. Luckily, the "Imperial" was delicious. Far and away the best Beijing Duck I've ever tasted. Very greasy. Very flavorful. Excellent with the mint and scallions provided.

We rolled out the door, stuffed, and hopped in a couple of cabs to a bar district north of the Forbidden City. It fronted on a beautiful lake, and was covered with bars and clubs. We ended up having outrageously-priced drinks on a rooftop bar overlooking a bridge under which boats were being paddled.