After concluding my business in Wenzhou I had planned to visit Beijing for a couple of days on my way back to the US. How could I miss an opportunity to see the Great Wall, one of the wonders of the ancient world and the Forbidden City immortalized in Bernado Bertolucci’s epic movie ‘The Last Emperor’! According to plan, I landed at Beijing’s vast, sprawling airport primed for an exciting trip.
My hosts had made excellent arrangements and Xu Di, my able translator accompanied me on this leg of the journey. He was very helpful, a fun companion and with his aid, the entire trip went smoothly without a hitch.
It was late afternoon by the time we checked into our hotel. We were hungry. After a brief discussion we both opted for the fabled Beijing Duck. When in Rome do as the Romans do. I know. Extrapolating on that theme; when in Beijing, eat Beijing Duck. Xu selected the 10th Siji Minfu Beijing Roast Duck Restaurant. It had an excellent reputation and was also conveniently located in Qianmen at the south end of Tian’anmen Square, a popular tourist destination.
We took a taxi and were dropped off close to the restaurant near some Hutongs. Hutongs are ancient alleyways built over several centuries crammed with traditional four-sided houses laid out in a square with all doors opening into a central, shared courtyard.
The courtyard is the epicenter of hutong life. Adults sit there in the evening smoking, drinking tea or chatting while the children play.
Life, happiness and misfortune are all shared as one big, extended family. But with modernization and the population explosion, the ancient hutongs of Beijing are being bulldozed to give rise to modern high-rises. But life in an isolated, small apartment in a tall, cigarette carton type building does not have the same charm. This story is true in all big cities in every developing and developed country. It is a price we pay for modernization and development.
We walked along the street gazing at the hutongs, the people and observing the panorama of life passing by in one of the largest, busiest cities of the world. We turned into Qianmen Dashilan’r, a long street crammed with tourists and shops catering to them. I saw a McDonald’s (you can see the M in the photo). Enough said. But it was picturesque. Soon we came to the restaurant and entered. We were ushered to the top floor. On the way up I saw the wood-fired ovens where the ducks were being roasted and how roasted ducks were taken out of the oven, hung up to let the excess fat drip off, patted dry and then primed for carving.
It was a large restaurant and very busy but we managed to get a table. We ordered half a duck and some appetizers. The appetizers were bought in a long tray. Among the notables were pieces of cubed, jellied pig stomach, spicy beans and a small mound of fish and tofu blend. The latter was unique and my favorite. I had a weissbier with the appetizers while we waited for the duck to be carved and brought to our table.
It soon came along with the pancakes and a dish of accompaniments. The waiter ceremoniously placed the tray containing the carved duck pieces on a stand with a small flame underneath to keep it warm.
Among Chinese cuisine, Beijing Duck stands out akin to Tandoori Chicken among Indian or Foie Gras among French cuisine. So, a little explanation will not be out of order.
The carving: The skin is first removed, carved into small pieces and served. These are the first to be eaten and best eaten warm. The skin from a perfectly chosen and roasted duck should be a dark reddish brown with a lining of fat cooked to a crisp. Dipped in a little garlic sauce and sugar, it leaves an indelible sensation as it melts in your mouth. Next the breast meat is removed and carved into small, succulent semicircles.
Let me describe the ritual to eating this. You pick up a paper thin (and it is ‘paper’ thin) steamed pancake in one hand, place a few pieces of breast meat on it, brush it with a little fermented sweet bean sauce, sprinkle a few chopped scallions, wrap it neatly into a small, bite-size packet and gently place it in your mouth. You close your eyes, chew thoughtfully and let the flavors seep in. It is a unique, exquisite taste. We cleaned our palates with beer and repeated the cycle several times. We did justice to the duck and were soon full.
It was evening by the time we stepped outside onto the street blazing with lights. The crowds were still there as we leisurely walked north towards Qianmen (the popular name for Zhengyangmen) gate and the Tower. This was once part of the old city wall and guarded the southern entrance to the city. After the communist victory in 1949, the Beijing garrison of the Peoples Liberation Army was quartered there.
They vacated it in 1980 and it is now a major tourist attraction. To the south of the gate is the tall Archery Tower. It does not take much imagination to mentally picture armored soldiers in plumed helmets centuries ago shooting arrows from the top floors at besieging troops below. It was brilliantly lit and I took pictures as we walked around it.
I looked at the enormous Tiananmen Square to the north, its far end enveloped in darkness. I would be traversing it the next morning. We hailed a taxi and headed back to our hotel at the end of a very busy but satisfying day. I was ready for bed but already looking forward to the next day.