Day 11: Beijing
Our train was scheduled to arrive in Beijing at 7:15 AM; around 6:30, lights and music came on throughout the cars and we got ready to disembark. We’d slept OK, though the rumble of the train woke me up quite a bit. At 7:30, the train pulled into the station and we went looking for a cab.
When we got to the taxi queue, there was a massive, unorganized line of people waiting as a slow trickle of cabs pulled in. For once I was glad to have my bigger suitcase, all the better for pushing my way through the crowd. An hour later, we were finally in a taxi and heading for the sanctuary of the Peninsula Beijing.
Upon check-in, we met the hotel’s food and beverage director with whom I had worked in Chicago for a couple years. He gave us a great map of the area and a few pointers on where to go, and we spent some time relaxing in the room before heading out to the Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City was a short walk from the hotel, and we had a couple of hours to wander around before it closed for the day. Officially known as the Palace Museum, this area is the world’s largest palace complex and was home to 24 emperors over 500 years. The symbolic center of China, it is said to contain 9,999 rooms (9 is the largest odd number less than 10, so the Chinese consider it both lucky and important).
The buildings were amazing, loaded with exquisite architecture and detailing. We walked through the Outer Court, over marble bridges and past enormous Chinese lions guarding the entrances to the halls. Each gate and hall has a name and a specific purpose, and though you couldn’t enter any of the halls, hundreds of people crowded around them, taking pictures of the ornate thrones and decorations inside.
The Hall of Supreme Harmony has a gorgeous central ramp made of marble carved with dragons chasing clouds, and was reserved only for the emperor. Another broad walkway paved in marble bisects the entire palace and was reserved exclusively for the emperor’s sedan chair. In imperial times, no building was allowed to exceed the height of the tallest in the palace.
The Inner Court contained the private living quarters of the emperor, his family, and servants, as well as several more halls, galleries, and the Imperial Gardens. The sheer size of the complex was overwhelming; the palaces, courtyards, and gardens just kept unfolding as we got further inside. We followed bunches of tour groups out at closing time and decided to go back to the hotel for a nap before dinner, saving Tian’anmen Square (just south of the Forbidden City) for another time. On the way, we passed by a row of street food stalls offering the strangest collection of items we’ve seen yet, including starfish, sheep kidneys and intestines, octopus, and pig’s blood soup. We would not be eating here for dinner.
We had a dinner reservation at Dadong, a famous Peking duck restaurant, and we met up with our friend Sarah from Yangshuo. I had researched the best duck restaurants in Beijing, and this one consistently received excellent reviews. We ordered a whole duck with all the accompaniments plus sauteed broccoli, and then watched as our duck was first presented and then carved tableside.
The duck was excellent, served with thin pancakes, hoisin sauce, thinly sliced cucumbers and green onions, and pickled radish, and our server showed us how to fill and fold the duck and veggies inside the pancakes (kind of like a mini-burrito). An unusual accompaniment was white sugar; our server told us to dip the crispy duck skin in it, and this was a delicious, addictive combination. We ate every last piece and then sat and talked for a couple hours before heading back to the hotel. This meal was so good we may have to come back again before we leave, and it was a lovely ending to a long day.