Every city we visit, I post photos that capture the everyday magic of the city. Here are the picks for Beijing:
After trying the down home version of Peking Duck at Old Beijing Restaurant two nights ago, we had to compare it to the much hyped Da Dong, supposedly the best Peking Duck in the city. Seems like the contenders for best Peking Duck are Da Dong and Duck de Chine from what we read. Both are fine dining, and Duck de Chine is more Chinese-French fusion, so we opted to go for Da Dong.
It was really nice and fancy inside, definitely our nicest (and most expensive) meal to date. Although considering the prices, it probably is along the lines of a moderate dinner in New York.
We ordered the Peking Duck of course, and they even charge you 8 RMB a person for the condiments on the side (plum sauce, scallions, wrappers, etc) but it comes in a fancy dish and they add other non-classic things like seaweed, radish, and garlic paste (which was amazing).
The duck came out and we had it carved tableside (they do this so you can see you’re getting the whole duck and everything it accounted for). Even the carving is a system where they carve it so it comes out two nice oval shaped piles of duck and one plate for the drumsticks.
So, the verdict? AMAZING. The skin is so crispy and definitely ate many pieces of duck skin just by itself. =) They have some sugar you can dip the skin in which is nice, but I preferred it on its own. We ate the whole duck no problem—the portion size was definitely smaller than what we had two nights ago. The duck was 235 RMB (plus 8 RMB/person for condiments) versus 118 RMB a duck two nights ago. So, double the price. Worth it!
We also tried the well known braised eggplant dish which was very nice and for dessert we finished off with candied apples which were just the perfect amount of crispy and melt-in-your-mouth goodness. Mike claims he could’ve eaten the whole dish of candied apples by himself. Sugar monster.
A splurge, but was nice since we’ve heard Nepal doesn’t have great food, and we’ll probably be eating cheap for the next three weeks.
There are a couple of sections where you can walk on the Great Wall: Badaling is the main one where everyone goes, Mutianyu is a little less crowded where you can ride a toboggan down the Wall, and Jinshanling/Simatai are farther out but less crowded.
We decided to go to Jinshanling with a tour organized by our hostel, since this was most recommended to us as off the beaten track, and you can hike the wall for about 6km. The tour was our most expensive attraction at 280 RMB each. It was a 2.5 hr drive out there on a Saturday, I think it can take up to 3 hrs on a weekday. When we got there, it was pretty much all Western tourists and only one other large group there. It was so nice to have the Wall pretty much to yourselves, makes for some great non-tourist-crowded photos.
We were blessed with beautiful weather as well and the sky was a vibrant blue. The moon was also already out, so the contrast was pretty striking against the bricks.
We hiked through 22 watchtowers over 2.5 hrs; the first 9 were restored in the 1980s, but past watchtower 9, it was all original Wall and much of it was crumbling.
We brought lunch and ate our sandwiches looking over the rolling mountains. Such a fabulous day and a great way to end our last full day in China! We highly recommended seeing this section of the Wall over the more touristy sections.
Today we went to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. We hiked up to the top pavilion in Jingshan Park just north of the Forbidden City to get a spectacular bird’s eye view of the entire complex (also another tip from Tyler).
We originally planned to enter through the North Gate and exit through the South, but when we got there, a sign had been put up saying everyone was now required to enter through the South and exit through the North. Foiled! So we hopped on the bus to get to the other side.
We did our obligatory cursory walk through Tiananmen Square—not much to see there, just a giant plaza. You can go see Mao’s preserved body on display in the mausoleum, but supposedly it’s very hard to get in and you have to get there extremely early. Not our cup of tea.
The Forbidden City was built in the early 1400s, so it was in use for about 500 hours before the last emperor was overthrown. Most of the emperors rarely left the walls of the Forbidden City, and they lived there with the Empress, concubines (some records say there have been up to 10,000 concubines at one time!), and eunuchs—the only other men allowed in the palace to ensure the authenticity of the offspring.
We passed through the ceremonial halls where the emperor would see his subjects and officials, and it’s a series of elaborately carved thrones. They don’t let you inside, so you are left pushing and shoving against the tour groups in these tiny doorways. I think my head was going to explode from the crowdedness.
One of the stairways leading up to a hall holds a 17 meter long, 200 ton marble carving that came from a single giant slab of marble. It was transported to the palace from the west of Beijing; water was thrown on the streets to freeze so they could slide the huge slab all the way to the palace on the ice.
More interesting and less crowded are the side exhibits to the east and west of the main halls. You can see the living quarters and we went inside the museum where they have imperial treasures on display. One of which is a jade carving weighing over 5 tons and took 10 years to carve. Impressive.
Overall, it was a tourist zoo in the Forbidden City, but once you got off the tour group circuit and into the side halls, it was much more enjoyable.
Beijing is famous for Peking Duck, so of course that was our obligatory first meal. We went to a restaurant recommended to use by Tyler, our translator friend we met in Pingyao, since he lives close to our hostel in Beijing. There are a number of more famous places for Peking Duck which we might try, but we wanted to give a local down-home restaurant a shot.
The restaurant is called Old Beijing, and is on the corner of Guozijian hutong and Andingmen Street. It’s quite unassuming from the outside, but was busy, so we took that for a good sign. We asked for dish recommendations other than Peking Duck, and our waiter suggested ma dou fu. This is what came out:
I know what you’re thinking! That looks like a big pile of…something. But believe me, it was amazing! He explained it’s made of tofu skins and then blended with spicy oils, and then there are pinenuts or lotus seeds in it. Such great flavor. We ate almost the whole thing but had the save room for the Peking Duck. And here it is:
We ordered the whole duck, since it was such a better deal than half the duck. We didn’t quite finish, since we also had a vegetable dish on the side. The owner also sent us a duck soup, made up of the bones from our duck on the house, so we had an absurd amount of food. The duck was really good! There’s two plates in that photo above, but it came with three plates of duck. The wrappers in China are different too: instead of the fluffy white buns, you use thin wrappers more similar to what you would use in spring rolls or mushu pork. It’s nice since you don’t fill up on the bun and can eat more of the duck. We’ll probably try one of the fancier ones in a couple of days (fancier and probably double the price) so we’ll compare!
We have four days in Beijing, so it gives us a good amount of time to do the major attractions here without trying to rush them or combine two into one day. Yesterday we went to the Summer Palace, which is northwest of the city center and easily accessible by subway. The Summer Palace was like the ultimate royal garden where they could escape the city during the hot summer months. It’s been around since the 11th century. Empress Dowager Cixi is most associated with the gardens, as she rebuilt the palaces in 1888 and then restored them in 1902 after Anglo-Allied troops burned the place down and occupied it for a year.
Cixi is the infamous Empress Dowager who rose to power from being the Emperor Xianfeng’s favorite concubine. After her son became emperor, she ruled as regent, and when he died young, she put her nephew as puppet emperor in place so she could continue to rule. There is a huge marble boat in the lake that she built with the funds that were supposed to go towards strengthening China’s navy (which subsequently suffered major defeats against the Japanese). Cixi was extravagant, known for having 108-course meals and releasing 10,000 caged birds on her birthday. Her name kind of reminds me of Cersei (think I’m reading Game of Thrones much?)! Ha.
The gardens are beautiful and it was a nice sunny warm day of strolling around. Mike and I escaped to the west side and walked along the causeway, away from the tour groups.
A lot of the pavilions were beautifully restored and the most magnificent are the bright colors of the painted walkways and temples. The Summer Palace is known for its 900 meter Long Corridor, which is a pleasant covered walkway that has each panel painted with a different scene.
At the top of the Tower of Buddhist Incense, we enjoyed a gallery that displayed old photos of the Summer Palace from the early 1900s. Some were even taken by the Allied troops that occupied the Palace. Any bronze and glazed brick survived the fires of the Allied troops, but everything else was destroyed and had to be rebuilt.
Beautiful gardens and well worth the quick trip out here!
After an unrestful night on the sleeper train, Mike and I opted for the day time train from Pingyao to Beijing. You take the slow train from Pingyao to Taiyuan (17 RMB) which takes 2 hours and then transfer at Taiyuan to the high speed train to Beijing which takes 3 hours. This is much faster than the regular sleeper train which takes 12 hours!
There is such a big difference between the slow and fast trains. On the regular slow trains, it’s packed and they also sell standing room tickets. So even though Mike and I had seats, we had people hovering over us the whole time and there’s trash all over the floor. The conductor was nice and directed us through the crowds to our seats and had to kick people out of our seats who apparently missed their stop.
The high speed train is extremely modern and nice, no standing room seats here! We watched a rented movie on my iPad pass the time, and we were there in no time.
No more trains for a while–next up is the last city on the China tour: Beijing!