Monthly Archives: October 2016

Eating Peking Duck in Peking


I stayed on in Beijing, just for a few days, whilst the G20 summit kept many ordinary Hangzhou residents out of town.  For us, school did not start until 8th September and many businesses and factories were closed to contain the pollution levels and guarantee healthy air and flawless, deep blue skies for the visiting world leaders.  It seemed the perfect time to explore what Beijing had to offer and put ‘faces’ to the many prominent names linked to the capital city of China.

A visit to Mao’s Mausoleum was not on the forefront of my agenda, but as it came with the ‘Camping on the Great Wall’ package, we duly joined the long line of Chinese tourists filing past the mummified body displayed in its crystal coffin.  Located on Tiananmen Square, Mao’s resting place was flanked by two brown statues portraying the revolutionary struggle spearheaded by The Great Helmsman. As taking photographs inside was not allowed, it was impossible to check whether this was the real Mao lying there, or – as rumoured – a Madame Tussaud’s make-over version…


Mingling with the bustle of tourists in Beijing’s remaining ancient hutongs -a network of narrow alleys crisscrossing and linking traditional courtyard residences- offered a flavour of China’s past.  Many of the hutong neighbourhoods succumbed to China’s post-war thirst for modernisation and were demolished to make way for boulevards and high-rise buildings.  But those that survive are now carefully protected and thrifty Chinese entrepreneurs and shopkeepers are taking full advantage of the abundance of visitors to the area.

Although the Forbidden City counts as one of Beijing’s highlights, I missed out on a glimpse of the inside as I was too late to get hold of a ticket.  So I took the metro to the Summer Palace instead, the grand royal retreat for the emperors to escape the oppressive Beijing summer heat.   The magnificent buildings overlooking the stunning Kunming lake surely warrant a full day’s attention,  but spending just a few hours in the opulence of China’s past was pretty impressive.



By then I had made acquaintance with Fiorella, a Peruvian Canadian, who was on a blitz trip through China on her way to Malaysia and beyond…  We spent Monday morning queuing at one of Beijing’s train stations to collect Fiorella’s pre-booked tickets to Xian, the next Chinese highlight on her tour…  If we had thought that Monday morning was less busy than a weekend, we clearly got that wrong.  The lines were long, indecently long…and trying to figure out which one was intended for foreign visitors took Fiorella’s clever foresight:  she had a picture of the Chinese symbols on her phone.  Although we managed to circumvent the eternal wait for tickets, we had less luck with changing money.  Banks in the area surrounding Tiananmen Square merely service tourists in need of quick cash with ATMs abound and not a living soul behind a counter…


But the best part of a visit to Beijing must be sampling Peking Duck in the very town of its invention.  Street vendors displayed huge containers full of ducks, carefully keeping the prized severed heads separate.  And many restaurants offered it on their menus.  I had already tasted ‘proper’ Peking Duck when we returned from our ‘Camping on the Great Wall’ adventure, but Fiorella had done her homework and selected one of the best and most famed venues to devour the delicacy: Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant.  We were not exactly dressed for the occasion, not realising that fame went hand in hand with class and in our touristy shorts and strappy tops we looked rather under-dressed for the event.  But customers are customers and we were invited in nevertheless.


We watched our Peking Duck being craftily carved and displayed, head cleaved in half to expose the contents in all its goriness.  We learned how to use chopsticks to one-handedly fill and wrap the delicate pancakes to encase the slivers of duck, spring onions and cucumber, liberally doused in plum sauce.

Was it better than the Peking Duck I have eaten in UK Chinese restaurants???  Maybe not… but the skin was indeed crisp to a crackle…


Conquering the Great Wall of China


dscn3007-2The notice at the entrance said it all: ‘This section of the Great Wall is not open to the public’.  Not that this deterred our tour guides.

We were joined by a wizened, wiry and axe wielding  Chinese man who forged a path for us through the dense bushes and overgrowth.   When the climbing became too steep, he fashioned himself a walking stick from a sturdy branch and lead us to the section of the wall we would explore.  No such luxury as sticks for us, humble trekkers…  None of us had quite prepared for this kind of journey, only ever seeing pictures of the official Wall of China where throngs of tourists and locals jostle for a bit of space on the proper steps of the Wall…  But we had signed up for a ‘Camping on The Great Wall’ adventure, and an adventure it was certainly promising to be…


We finally reached the Wall to start our ascent.  Whereas the more touristy parts of the wall have been carefully restored to former glory, the part we visited had not yet benefited from a make-over and was showing definite signs of long periods of decline and neglect.  We  clambered over rocks and boulders, over roughly hewn steps disintegrating with passing time.   Facing a sheer wall offering very narrow ledges to support our feet certainly gave some of us the jitters.  ‘Where on earth was the rope to hold onto??’ grumbled the Germans in the group… ‘What about health and safety??’ crossed our minds…  As there was no alternative on offer and no one wanted to chicken out, there was only one way to go: upwards and onwards.

This section of the Wall may not have been ‘open to the public’, but we met other hikers keen on avoiding the hordes of tourists.  And even the locals got their penny’s worth as they had set up a stall midway to the turrets and sold bottled water and iced beer.  Welcome refreshments during our arduous trek.


On reaching our final destination, we were awarded with spectacular views of the surrounding hills and a sumptuous BBQ courtesy of our tour guides and the local ‘sherpas’ who delivered our tents and supplies to the top of the wall.  We drowned our walking aches and pains with local beers and warmed ourselves by the heat of the campfire whilst dancing the night away..  There was very little point in aiming for an early night as the flimsy mats underneath our sleeping bags were hardly covering the hard slabs and spiky rocks at the top of the wall and were certain to keep sleep at bay.




And the promise of a dazzling sunrise over the mountains??  The early morning fog blanketed the surrounding hills, adding a dash of mystery, but blocking out the early sun rays.


Luckily, our journey back to modern civilisation was a lot easier… it appeared that there was a much less challenging track leading to the wall, the one used by the locals and the porters who carried up our tents and food..  But I suppose, using that one on the way up would have detracted from the ‘adventure’ and the accomplishment we felt at reaching the top of wall…