I had been walking all day, starting south of QianMen in one of the old Beijing Houtongs, remnants of a much older Beijing. I worked my way through the crumbling old neighborhood to the LiQun duck restaurant mentioned in a guidebook, a small, out of the way place where the only English I heard spoken was the word “Duck.”
“Duck?” Yes, I nodded. Duck.
They brought me a whole, massive roast duck, shiny and red, a duck that until its recent loss of motility had been as well fed as I was about to be. Carved into neat stacks of thin slivers, it overflowed two large plates. Add dishes of sauce, sliced cucumbers, sprouts, thin pancakes to wrap it all in and a large Yangling beer so as to avoid the dangers of tap water. Enough food for my whole table. Unfortunately I was the only one sitting there at the time. Apparently I ordered the People’s Liberation Army Officers’ Mess Hall Happy Meal.
After honoring the duck who gave its life to fill my table, I spent the entire day waddling it off. Tienanmen Square (Chinese for “You can’t get there from here”) is enormous, much larger than I had imagined. It’s more Official than ugly, and sized for a few million people.
I was a half hour too late to see the Maosoleum, where the frozen popsicle of Chairman Mao’s body is brought upward daily out of the deep freeze to be displayed to the flag waving crowd. When I was a kid, everyone “knew” that Walt Disney had cryogenically frozen his body somewhere deep in Cinderella’s Castle. Apparently Mao had heard this as well, but actually had it done.
Well, it gives me a reason to go back to Beijing. Can’t see everything in one trip.
In the endless flat plaza of Tienanmen Square, children call out to me, and Chinese tourists come up to say Hello or take their pictures with me. Some really are tourists, I’m sure. Anyone who can speak a few words of English. Others want to walk with me, “practice their English,” see the sights with me—as long as those sights include a stop at a local teahouse where, I’m sure, my bill would somehow end up much higher than it ought to be. I politely demur and insist on going where they will not follow. The men’s room works well for this.
Here’s a tip: if you’re walking in Tienanmen Square and very friendly young Chinese claim they’re also tourists and want to see the sights with you, head toward the giant portrait of Mao outside the ticket gates of the Forbidden City. That place charges admission, so it’s bound to shake off any lampreys.
The Forbidden City is huge. They don’t call it the Forbidden City Block, after all. Emperors had to stick palace after palace in the place just to have places to rest as they walked in their enormously heavy Star Wars outfits from one end to the other. It’s quite impressive, and the GPS-enabled headset was well done, but I got Ming’d out after a few hours in the Hall of Supreme Harmony, Palace of Heavenly Purity, Hall of Mental Cultivation, Palace of Oh My God My Feet Are Killing Me!
As sun set, I continued northward skirting Jingshan park through another old Houtong where Deng Xiaoping had lived. Here in the remnants of old Beijing beyond the Forbidden City, where once the relatives of the emperor, courtiers and eunuchs lived, the extremely wealthy now live in large homes connected side by side with poor families crammed into squalid 10 meter rooms, a warren where multiple families share a single cold shower from a barrel on the roof and babies squat to crap in the alleyways.
Still further north I came to a series of beautiful lakes surrounded by bars, restaurants, gardens: Beihei, Quianhai, Houhai. A truly lovely place to stroll, where young lovers boat on tranquil waters reflecting multicolored lights from shore. I joined a group of giggling girls at an outdoor grill and pointed my way through roasted spiced meat on a stick and some sort of sugared fruit before continuing northward past the tourist areas, through the quiet areas around Xihai lake and onward toward a subway station.
Ten hours of a most excellent walking tour of Beijing, a city not known for being walkable!
I ate quite a lot of good food on this trip, though what sticks in my mind (and my teeth) are the challenging fare I consumed…
At lunch with the China development team: Pigs foot and a bowl of gelatinous sea vegetable soup that was filled with tiny white wormlike fish that had little black spots for eyes.
At a mountain retreat with Wang Ping and Justin: a trout I caught in a heavy net, well seasoned and full of bones.
At the infamous Wangfujing night market: ostrich on a stick, raw sea urchin I ate directly from the spiny urchin body, fried scorpions, odd desserts.
I didn’t try the bloated and extremely nasty looking silkworms, though in my defense I did try silkworms two weeks later…at lunch with my team back in San Francisco!