Eating Peking Duck in Peking

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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…

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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…

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