Today started with no real plans, other than picking up our rail tickets to Mongolia. We had a quick talk with the girl working in the reception, and she suggested we head for a short walk to an interesting street. The walk wasn’t so short, but it did give us opportunity to drop in to a random Chinese dumpling restaurant. It’s certainly more than a little overwhelming ordering food here. I can read some of the Chinese characters (and Risa can read a whole lot more) so we have a reasonable guess at what we’re ordering, but it’s still just that, a reasonable guess. This morning, that reasonable guess was a win and we had some delicious steamed buns and vegetables. Our little plate of six was likely ridiculed by the locals with their massive heaped plates (but we planned on snacking and sampling as much food as we can, so can’t afford to fill up).
It wasn’t too much longer until we arrived at that interesting street – Nan Luogu. Turns out (by way of co-incidence) it is also a street that was suggested to us by a friend. First impressions were of streets crowded with tourists, with shops catering to their (our) needs – there was even a Starbucks! The shells of the buildings were beautiful, but the pretty façade was defeated by the bright advertising of the shops. There were bubble tea shops every 20m, but they are so delicious (and cheap here – $2 for a giant strawberry/banana pearl smoothie) that I couldn’t complain. We ventured down some of the small alleys, and immediately confronted the dirty reality of real downtown alleyways. It was also amazing how green and quiet the area was. In fact, we were quite surprised at how many beautiful trees there are lining the streets here – we expected nothing but concrete.
After continued exploration, we saw an old building that dominated the local skyline. It turned out to be the Drum Tower (and the accompanying, though not visited by us, Bell Tower). We bought two entry tickets (¥20 – $3) and happened to arrive just in time to catch the hourly drum performance at the top of the tower. Getting to that performance meant we first had to summit a vertigo inducing staircase. The Drum Tower was used to let people know the time of day. There was one extra-large drum, and several other large drums. The performance was a little like an amateur taiko (Japanese drumming) performance. Not a lot of intensity or especially tight rhythm. On display were a variety of methods that were used to keep track of the time, from elaborate water systems, to other simpler methods using incense sticks. It also gave us a chance to look out over the surrounding alleyways, but it mostly made it obvious how bad the haze was today (though, for Beijing standards, it wasn’t too bad).
Travel company that we booked our rail tickets to Mongolia, CITS, were based in Wangfujing, the giant pedestrian shopping mall area. I was surprised at how large CITS were – they had their own entire building. It was a strange experience walking around the dimly lit hallways looking for the random office that issued the tickets for our train.
Outside and back in Wangfujing Avenue, it is an enormous pedestrianised boulevard surrounded by large multi-story department stores. It was surprising how uncrowded the area was. In fact, we were rather amazed at generally how uncrowded Beijing has been.
Our friend suggested we visit a special Beijing Duck restaurant in the area, so even though we weren’t all that hungry, we went in search of it with little more than a picture of our friend standing in front of a fibreglass duck statue to go by. Sure enough, we showed that to a local and they knew exactly where we were looking for. It is a five story building specialising in Beijing Duck, Quanjude. We were suggested to go to the fifth floor, but it didn’t seem open (and looked quite high end). Staff told us to go to the second floor, which looked more like a restaurant that was open to serving the like of us. Just wanted a taste, so ordered half-duck roll set. There were carts rolling around the restaurant with freshly roasted duck, and the smell was intoxicating. After being teased several times, our duck finally came out and was carved for us right beside the table. I thought it smelt good, but the taste was unbelievable. Strangely enough, best Peking Duck I’ve ever had.
We searched one of the department stores for some outdoor equipment (I need to get some hiking boots, small down coat and a trekking backpack for Kyrgyzstan), but found nothing in my size (or budget). Risa found some cheap shoes, so wasn’t a complete waste of time. One of the drawbacks of being tall in an Asian country. I did manage to find an English version of Lonely Planet Turkey, so it wasn’t a complete loss for me.
Our friend also suggested we visit a side alley that serves all sorts of odd snacks on skewers. This narrow alley was packed – an absolute stream of humanity. I started off sheepishly (pun intended) with a delicious grilled lamb skewer. The further down the alley we walked, the more odd food they had on display. The one that stood out the most to us were the scorpions. These little guys were still alive and wiggled and danced every time they were bumped (so, of course the shop attendant constantly banged the counter to get the tourists attention). There were also other curiosities including tarantulas, sea horses, cicadas, starfish (didn’t realise they were edible), beetles, snakes, lizards and baby birds. Since we were here, we bought a skewer with three little dancing scorpions. They were thrown into the deep fryer, sprinkled with salt, and had their stinger clipped. It was then that we realised that they were ¥100 ($18 or $6 per scorpion). It tasted like crunchy and salt. But, when in China…
Made our way to Tiananmen Square. There were security checkpoints that scan baggage set up in the underground entryway (subway entrances also have security checkpoints that you have to pass through). We saw a large crowd of people in the distance, so like a sheep we went and joined to find out what they were looking at. Everyone was holding their cameras up and taking photos – I thought that there must be a celebrity or other notable in attendance. It seems that we arrived just in time to see the parade of guards exit from Gate of Heavenly Peace and cross the (enormous) road to lower the flag. They regrouped and crossed back over the road carrying the flag (with traffic in all lanes blocked while this is happening). Found out later happens every day at sunrise/sunset. For once we were in the right place at the right time!
After the ceremony finished though, the entire square was closed and everyone was promptly herded out by military/police. It was bizarre. They seemed quite serious, so we followed along like a good sheep.
The crowds flowed across the road to have a closer look at the now illuminated Gate of Heavenly Peace (complete with giant Mao image). Impressive sight at night, if somewhat of Communist Party propaganda.
It was nearly 9PM when we finally stopped at random restaurant near our hotel. Fortunately for us there were pictures of the meals on the walls (which lowered the risk of a bad selection). Picked a dish that looked like a dug leg on a bed of rice with some vegetables. Turned out to be just that – a delicious duck leg on a bed of rice with vegetables …and some not so delicious beans. Can’t win them all.