A chilly, foggy Friday morning and we made the 2 hour flight to Beijing. I know it’s 2 hours because we made that flight twice. Turned back just prior to landing in Beijing we returned to Xian airport for a long and frustrating wait in the terminal where we made deletions to our Beijing itinerary to compensate for the lost time. Finally allowed to reboard we returned to Beijing and permitted to land in fairly thick fog. Although our arrival was 7 hours late Lin, our guide, was waiting and escorted us to our Beijing base camp; the recently refurbished, and very comfortable Jianguo Garden Hotel.
The hotel is very centrally located to Beijing’s major points of interest but the singularly most impressive aspect was the staff attentiveness and eye for detail. On checking in, and the obligatory passport handover, the reception staff quickly observed that next day was Michelle’s birthday. The results of that keen observation were both surprising and delightful.
Naturally, the delayed flight had kicked our tight itinerary out the window and our dinner reservation at a Hunanese style restaurant had been cancelled. Our indefatigable guide had made other plans, however, and we were directed to a Mongolian restaurant in a hutong directly behind the hotel. When I asked Lin the name of the restaurant his reply was “The Mongolian Restaurant, that’s what we’ve always called it”.
Whatever its name, the Mongolian Restaurant was another fantastic discovery. It had purely Mongolian cuisine, and was staffed by ethnic Mongols with a sense of fun and playfulness that put any thoughts of Genghis Khan’s nastiness to the sword. We feasted on lashings of lamb skewers, lemon and caraway steamed cabbage, garlic, chilli and sesame braised chicken and a host of other dishes that appeared with scary regularity. Naturally a couple of chilled Tsingtaos knocked the sharp edges off anything super hot. After a brief stroll back to the hotel we settled in the bar on the foyer mezzanine and enjoyed a couple of quiet nightcaps.
We’d lost almost an entire day from our very tight sightseeing and dining schedule, but that wasn’t going to deter Lin from ensuring we’d be able to tick off all the highlights. Sniffing the wind on this very chilly morning (so different from the temperate Shanghai) he decided the fog may lift and today might be the best to visit the Great Wall. Bundled into the car, sporting our brand new North Face jackets purchased for a song at the Moslem markets in Xian we headed off to visit mankind’s single most impressive construction at Mutianyu in the hills about 70km northeast of the city. As we drove we noticed sky blue gaps forming in the mists and our hopes rose for a clear view of the Wall. It’s Saturday, and we’re visiting one of the most popular sites in the world and, as we neared the Mutianyu section car park, it was soon apparent that the standard 150,000 tourists were lining up ahead of us.
Beating uphill into a veritable wall of humanity Lin ducked and weaved to the head of the entrance ticket line, then herded us past the crowds to the ticket counter for the cable car which would whisk us up the steep hill to the base of the Wall. Huffing and puffing from the steep run up to the cable car, then from the climb up the narrow steps (I have decidedly un-Chinese size feet), my gob was smacked at the vista before me when I made the final step to the top of the Wall. And it wasn’t the hordes attending a local cell-phone company’s marketing promotion atop the Wall.
Before our eyes the last wisps of fog were burning off and the sheer magnificence of this section of the Great Wall was laid out to the horizons, both east and west. First built in the 6th Century, and renovated in the 16th Century, the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall rides the crest of steep forested hills, runs for about 22km, and is around 8m high and 5m wide; designed to stave off attacks from both directions. The air was crisp and cool, and sitting on a parapet, dangling my legs off the wall face, I reflected on the sheer logistics necessary to construct, maintain and man this amazing edifice.
All too quickly our time on the Great wall came to an end, and we returned to the car to resume our scenic tour of Beijing. On the return trip we stopped at a Government owned Cloisonné factory where we had a quick lunch and Michelle picked up a few trinkets for gifts. Back in Beijing we’re driven to a densely populated hutong area; warrens of narrow lanes and alleys where households shelter in communal courtyards behind high walls. Hutongs are a particularly Beijing concept, and are gradually being torn down and replaced by more contemporary roads and buildings, but there is a strong movement to preserve some of them for their social and cultural history.
We engaged a local hutong guide and a pair of rickshaw drivers to take us on a tour where we learned about hutong life and visited a home for a personal insight into a family’s life. It was a surreal feeling, perched awkwardly on a musty sofa, encouraged by our translator/guide to ask questions through her to our temporary host, a retired meteorologist and his wife who apparently augment their finances by allowing home invasions by a procession of foreign tourists. We were spared our awkwardness when another pair of unfortunates, a German couple, was ushered in with a perplexed look on their faces.
To cap it off, our rickshaw drivers had done a bunk and we were stranded mid-hutong with a grumpy and over-stretched guide.
Finally, we were returned to our car to be driven back to the Jianguo Garden to freshen up before dinner. Awaiting our return was a birthday gift for Michelle, courtesy of the hotel management. The gift was a handmade jade chop with her name in both English and Mandarin, accompanied by a luscious, and very rich, cream sponge. We decided to leave the cake for dessert, for tonight’s dinner is at Beijing DaDong Roast Duck Restaurant.
I was really looking forward to this dinner. Beijing (Peking) Duck is a favourite dish, and the opportunity to experience it in its traditional home doesn’t come too often. DaDong roast duck restaurant is a converted Imperial rice store and is generally regarded by locals and expats alike as THE best place in Beijing to experience this local delicacy. If you don’t have reservations you need to prepare for a long wait for a table. It’s a coolly elegant restaurant, with a polished slate floor, contemporary design and excellent tableware. The kitchen is behind a glass wall and gives a great view of the gaggle of chefs preparing the restaurant’s signature dishes.
We had a duck banquet for three, prepared and served at the table, plus shared six side dishes from the mighty tome called the menu. We also had 3 beers, a chrysanthemum tea and a bottle of the local Guo Tou whisky for the princely equivalent of AUD82. This is considered rather expensive in Beijing, but an absolute bargain back home, and the duck was exquisite. There are many other eateries specialising in Peking Duck, and any visit to Beijing wouldn’t be complete without visiting one.
Following our excellent repast we were driven back to the hotel, where we again slumped into chairs in the cocktail lounge for the obligatory nightcap. We retired to bed soon later, fat and happy to have experienced such a profound day.
Sunday morning arrived, cool, windy and threatening showers but we still had much more to tick off on our itinerary. First up was a quick look at Beijing’s latest architectural controversy, the just-opened National Theatre, known locally as the ‘egg”, followed by a stroll across Tiananmen Square before entering the Forbidden City opposite. The National Theatre was an impressive, bold building, especially given its location right next to the symbolic heart of Chinese Communism, The Great Hall of the People, Mao Zedong’s Mausoleum and Tiananmen Square. I was vaguely disappointed with Tiananmen Square; somehow expecting it to be larger than it was, even though it is a huge expanse of windswept space, teeming with baseball-capped tourists shuffling magnetically behind their flag-bearers.
We crossed under the wide boulevard often seen in military parades and emerged at the Tiananmen Gate; the entrance to the Forbidden City; the fortress/prison/home of successive Imperial families and their attendant armies of soldiers, eunuchs and concubines. To say this complex is massive is a serious understatement. Almost 1 km end-to-end and 750m wide, surrounded by an 8m wall and a moat 6m deep and 50m wide, the Forbidden City is the world’s largest existing palace complex. With our limited time we had little chance to explore the Forbidden City in any detail, but we made our way down the length of the huge complex and inspected a few of the more obvious details in this remarkable compound. The first major encounter was the Meridian Gate, the backdrop to such diverse cultural events as Three Tenors and Pink Floyd Concerts.
The centre section of the Meridian Gate is now used to host cultural exhibitions from around the world; on our visit we enjoyed a presentation of military armour and armaments on loan from the Spanish Government. Moving through the huge compound we browsed through a number of pavilions and rooms and tried to get a sense of the might of Imperial power that would rule China from this massive compound. Our wanderings led us to the exit at the Gate of Divine Might at the northern end of the complex, and we rejoined our waiting car.
The morning’s ambulation had worked up a raging appetite and I eagerly anticipated a meal of Steamed Big Fish Head in Crash Chilli; a Hunanese dish that came with the personal endorsement of China Bestours’ Jimmy Liu. Driven through a warren of hutongs and back streets, we would have no hope of finding Yue Lu Mountain Dining Place if not for our expert driver and guide, but when we arrived we
discovered another hidden local gem. A much more casual affair than last night’s deluxe diner, the Yue Lu Mountain still packs a punch with terrific regional Hunanese fare. Asking Lin to place my order of the steamed big fish head in crash chilli he advised me that it wasn’t available, “the machine is broken” he added. I was crestfallen, but heartened by the banquet that eventuated after Lin’s ordering. Steaming platters of sautéed kale with roast pork, river shrimp, braised bean curd and black fungi, stir fried noodles and lotus root soup followed by sticky sweet pumpkin cakes in rapid succession. I secretly believed that Lin avoids seriously spicy food (hence the ‘broken’ crash chilli machine), but his selections always turned out to be plentiful, interesting and delicious. The damage was about $12 each.
Following lunch we hopped back in the car for the crosstown journey to the Temple of Heaven, a Ming Dynasty temple set in a vast public park. While the temple and other buildings displayed outstanding and quite beautiful architecture, we were more taken with the usage of the park as a public meeting place. As we wandered around we saw clusters of people dancing, exercising, and performing tai chi, playing mah-jong, flying kites or simply sitting and chatting.
We ambled across the park to a tea house where we were instructed in the proper methods of tea-tasting in a traditional Beijing tea ceremony, and we picked up a couple of different tea varieties for domestic consumption. On the way back to the hotel we stopped to stroll down Liulichang Street, apparently the oldest street in Beijing. Known as ‘antique street’ by many foreign residents in Beijing it’s only about 750m long and has many small shops selling traditional name chops, artist brushes, ink stones, paper, and other art supplies. We wandered the length of this street and continued further along an intersecting hutong where we observed probably the most real examples of everyday Beijing life.
Back to the hotel to prepare for an early dinner before taking in an “authentic” Shaolin kung fu show.
When we were planning our revised itinerary due to the lost day transiting from Xian, one of the “disposable” experiences was dinner at a vegetarian restaurant, due to our confirmed status as committed carnivores. Nonetheless our revised itinerary included this night’s early dinner at a Tibetan vegetarian restaurant known as Pure Lotus. Our driver somehow navigated us to our destination, in a courtyard behind tall office towers in a commercial block just off the third ring road. Behind the massive, cantilevered timber door before us was a restaurant experience like few other.
Pure Lotus is strictly Buddhist, owned and staffed by monks, though you’d never know it by judging their ultra-cool uniforms and hairstyles. The massive coffee-table menu lists absolutely no meat of any kind, and no alcohol, yet the dishes presented were both visually exciting and completely delicious, and their “vegetarian” beer (alcohol-free) was the equal of any more conventional tipple.
Our sublime dishes included spicy crisp eggplant cake, “shark slice”, vegetarian sausages, lotus pond crispy fragrant lily bulb, “sour sour sweet sweet vegetarian ribs”, and spicy mushroom claypot, finishing with a bowl of tiny nectarines in a dry-ice “bath”. This delicious meal, presented in such a magical, mystical atmosphere with gentle Buddhist music and “Jungle Boy” silently projected onto the back wall, was a highlight of our entire trip. A great shame we had to leave, but the Legend of Kung Fu show awaited, and it really doesn’t pay to keep Shaolin masters waiting.
Back across town we find ourselves, once again, in a crush of tourists as we settle into our seats in the Red Theatre for the ninety-minute tale of one man’s quest for enlightenment. Although cheesier than a camembert cardigan, the show was an entertaining blend of martial arts and gentle comic opera and seemed to be greatly appreciated by the hordes of foreigners who had joined us in the theatre. After battling our way out of the carpark we asked to be dropped off near the hotel to explore a night market and wander down the local shopping street. Still full from our wonderful dinner, we weren’t inclined to partake of street food so we caught a cab back to the hotel to pack for tomorrow afternoon’s flight back to Shanghai.
With still a few more sights to tick off, our first stop next morning was the Summer Palace, the Imperial holiday home set in an enormous park surrounding Kunming Lake on Beijing’s northwestern fringe. As with the Forbidden City, signs of Imperial self-indulgence were everywhere, but there was no doubting the beauty of the location. We wandered through the summer palace complex and further afield under the dowager’s personal covered walkway around the lake shore, before catching a “dragon boat” back to our point of entry.
Returning to the city area we stopped off at an official government silk factory to be shown the hand manufacture of silk quilts. While there we purchased a quilt and sheet set, a couple of silk ties and a smattering of trinkets for gifts, at prices generally higher than noted in other stores and markets, but still a bargain compared to home.
Back in town, we turned northwards towards the construction zone of the Olympic Games site. Without any access to the site to take photos, our driver obligingly pulled over to the kerb on a busy eight-lane highway to enable a quick shot of the main arena; the “bird’s nest” as it’s known.
Next we head off to Gold Mountain City, a nearby restaurant, for our final Beijing lunch of scorching Sichuan cuisine. This Chonggin-style restaurant specialises in hot pot dishes, but very unlike the fare we experienced in Xian’s luxe Four Seasons restaurant only a few days ago. At Gold Mountain city the hot pots come in a tandem format; one half with a moderate vegetable stock, the other half a seething, lethal chilli/pepper combo that would remove stomach lining faster than caustic soda. We enjoyed Mongolian lamb, beef flank, beef with black pepper, shredded pork with chilli, spiced pickled vegetables, and glutinous rice with lotus roots. Raging thirsts were quenched by Yanjing, a local beer.
The final stop, before Beijing’s Capital airport, was the emerging arts scene in a reclaimed communist-era electronics factory known as 798 Space. This fantastic concept is now home to a raft of avant-garde galleries, studios, design centres, restaurants and bars reflecting China’s emergence as a contemporary cultural force. We roamed through fascinating galleries, exhibition spaces and quirky bookstores before having to complete our journey to the airport.
Our flight back to Shanghai was relatively uneventful and we were greeted at Pudong International by Cherri, our host/guide for the transfer to the Jing An Hotel. Cherri couldn’t understand our consternation we she advised arrangements for our dinner en route. After 2 hours on a plane, nursing a seething belly-full of Sichuan cuisine, dinner was furthermost from our minds and Sichuan indelibly imprinted as the meal most likely NOT to have prior to any future flight.
Still, it’s our last night in China, Cherri is charming and it would be churlish to turn down the arrangement, so it was back to Paulaner Brew House in the French Concession for another swipe at authentic Sino-German cuisine. This time we dined al fresco, away from the raucous music and pall of cigarette smoke, and we had a pretty good, if gastronomically innocuous, time.