Five Roasted Ducks in Beijing

A summer week in Beijing tested us and roasted us, but we couldn't help but love the city's dynamic history and present.

Five Roasted Ducks in Beijing

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by midtownmjd on October 14, 2007

Beijing, with its 15 million residents and seemingly a highway for each one of them, is at first glance an overwhelming concrete jungle. It’s also ground zero for some of the world’s most fascinating history, so it was important to us to cut through the city’s modern challenges and explore its past and its role as an epicenter of Chinese culture. Most highlights, then, were areas and moments that transported us to a Beijing that felt light years away from ring roads and department stores, along with those that revealed the capital’s contrasts as both an ancient city and a modern Olympic host.

My favorite neighborhood in Beijing was Houhai. Situated on a picturesque lake and lined with upscale restaurants, bars, boutiques, and, for better of for worse, a Starbucks, some residents think its recent commercialization is a travesty. But, so far at least, it’s managed to meld these storefronts with a sense of tradition. When night falls, neighborhood couples show up with a boom box for some informal, outdoor ballroom dancing. Watching them move so elegantly to Chinese music with the lake and lights as a backdrop was a moment to remember.

Meals were definite highlights in Beijing; we particularly loved the intimate, imperial-style dinner we had at Li’s Family Restaurant in the Wangfang hutong. And definitely plan to visit at least one roast duck restaurant—the precision and tradition involved in the dish's preparation are amazing.

Tiananmen Square during the day is impressive, but at night it’s spectacular. Stop by then for a look at it lit up with thousands of lights—minus daytime’s noticeable pollution and crowds.

Probably my favorite thing about the city is the feature that makes it feel the most exotic and distinct: its hutong districts. These alleyways of communal homes and restaurants (and home-restaurants) are quickly losing ground to skyscrapers, so wander through them while you can.

The city’s temples, and the Temple of Heaven in particular, are awe-inspiring. But my two favorite things that I saw while staying in Beijing aren’t technically in Beijing: the Summer Palace and the Great Wall. We spent a day exploring the excesses of Empress Dowager Cixi at the Versailles-esque palace on the outskirts of Beijing and a day hiking the Great Wall at Simatai/Jinlanshing, and I wouldn’t want to dedicate any less time at either. ${QuickSuggestions} The most noticeable things about Beijing on our July trip were the oppressive heat and pollution. We happened to see it at its worst, but be prepared with allergy medications, sunscreen, and anything else you can think of to help beat these elements.

ATMs in Beijing are spotty: some will give you money and some won’t. The most reliable ones are in tourist hotspots, like inside the Forbidden City.

There is an unfortunate lack of information in English even at the most significant sites, so bring along your guidebooks or rent audio guides when you can.

One priority before arriving should be to have all of the addresses and words you need written in Chinese. This is a lifesaver in cabs. We lucked out in that one of my travel companions had an expat friend living in Beijing who lent us his cell phone and helped with translations. It felt like cheating, but I would say this is one place where you should use any advantage you can to better communicate!

It may also help to check whether major sites are closed prior to your arrival. We missed out on seeing Mao’s mausoleum and parts of the Summer Palace, which were closed for renovations in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics. We may have planned better or saved some time had we known this beforehand.

Beijing gives you access to the best of China’s arts and entertainment, along with a very active nightlife, so take advantage. We really enjoyed a Beijing Acrobatic Troupe show at the Tianqiao Theatre; besides being ridiculously impressive, it’s long been a part of Chinese culture and is something we wouldn’t normally see at home.

The best place we found for souvenirs is a one-stop shop: the Friendship Store on Jianguomenwai Dajie. The huge emporium may not offer the best deals in Beijing, but you can find anything for anyone, from jade to silk to tea to Olympics items. It’s a pleasant store with some English-speaking employees and a desk for changing money.

I’ve never felt safer in any city than I did in Beijing. Obviously, common sense is always important, but it’s nice to know you can explore at night or go on your own for a bit without reason to worry.

And lastly, what people say about Beijing bathrooms is often true. Bring tissues, your sense of adventure, and some flexibility (literal and figurative). ${BestWay} Accept that you can’t walk everywhere in Beijing. Our guidebooks said exactly this, but we were determined to be the first people to see Beijing completely on foot. Then, on our first afternoon, we wasted a couple of hours walking to the Temple of Heaven (with nothing remotely interesting to see along the way) and had to admit that the books were right. Beijing is incredibly expansive and not at all conducive to walking.

The subway was a good alternative, particularly from the train stations, where taxis charge inflated fares and we couldn’t find one willing to use the meter. Surprisingly, we didn’t find the subway to be too crowded, even at rush hour. It was cooled by fans and seemed efficient, and, at three yuan, is a great deal.

We hailed a lot of cabs, which worked out great. It was a treat to go to a place where the price of a taxi ride doesn’t make you feel guilty about the small luxury. Look for a red oval sticker on a taxi’s window to see its rate and to make sure it’s licensed and regulated. At some spots, like the Xi Zhan train station and the Summer Palace, cab drivers try to negotiate a fare ahead of time, but I’d hold out for one that agrees to use his meter.

We did run into one strange occurrence at Houhai when we had to approach six taxis at the taxi stand before one agreed to take one of my girlfriends and me to our hostel. We have no idea why it was such an issue, though, because the hostel wasn’t too close by or too far away. But in general, for all its size, traffic, and highways, Beijing is fairly easy to navigate by subway or cab. (We attempted to try the bus once too, to the Summer Palace, but couldn’t find the one we needed and ended up in cabs.)

Far East International Youth Hostel

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by midtownmjd on October 14, 2007

The Far East International Youth Hostel was the perfect place for us to stay in Beijing. Established by the Far East Hotel in 2001, its dormitories and private rooms are lower-cost alternatives to the rest of the hotel, but share a very pretty lobby and a helpful staff.

Our two rooms, #110 and #111, were a double and a triple on the first floor, and were about US$15 dollars per person per night. They were air-conditioned and included TVs, bureaus, chairs, and comfortable twin beds. Each also had a perfectly adequate private bathroom with a shower, and we received fresh towels each day. Our toilet had to be fixed twice while we were there, but the front desk was quick to send help.

There were two computers with free Internet in the dining room (a.k.a. Taste of Home Restaurant) where we ate breakfast each day. At 35 yuan per person, it was a little pricier than outside options, but the buffet was expansive and featured both Asian and Western choices (tempura is a surprisingly good addition to cereal and eggs). The hostel restaurant serves food and drinks all day long, or you can order a brown-bag lunch to take out. There’s an outdoor section, too, and an indoor TV and movie area. If you’re in need of something the restaurant doesn’t have, there is a convenience stand off the main lobby that sells everything from medicine to ice cream.

The hostel offers events such as beer nights, and while we didn’t partake in any of these, we did take full advantage of its tourism desk. We signed up for our transportation to the Great Wall there, as well as our night at an acrobatics show. There were countless tour options, and all were reasonably priced. If I had been staying there alone, the organized outings would have been a good way to meet other travelers. The desk also arranged our early-morning van pick-up when we were leaving for the airport.

The hostel’s rooms, amenities, and service were enhanced by its location in a traditional, centrally located hutong. Just a 20-minute walk from Tiananmen Square, its small alleyways and community feel seemed far away from the massive plaza and tourist hub. The Hepingmen subway station is about a 15-minute walk away, and hutong residents literally pointed us in the direction of the hostel as they deduced where we were headed.

I would recommend this hotel-like hostel to anyone.
Far East International Youth Hostel
90 Tieshuxie Jie
Beijing, China
+86 (10) 51958811

Li's Family Restaurant

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by midtownmjd on October 29, 2007

If there’s one spot to which I would send a friend visiting Beijing (outside of the obvious), it’s Li’s Family Restaurant.

Nestled at #11, Yangfang hutong, the intimate, house-by-day-restaurant-by-night spot is run by Chef Li, with his family employed as servers. The story goes that Li’s relative was the Forbidden City’s last imperial chef, and that Li cooks using his handwritten recipes today. I’m not sure how accurate the tale is—I read one account where the relative was a dishwasher, and one where Li is a math professor—but the food and ambiance are the best around.

Tipped off by a friend who’d eaten here, we called about a week ahead to make our reservation for five. We ended up having to switch the night of our reservation, though, and they were completely accommodating about this.

I’m still not sure how we managed to steer our cab driver to the correct hole-in-the-wall, except that I had no hand in it, but we arrived and were immediately seated in a room with only two tables. It also had the hallmarks of a family’s living room, including a computer desk and shelves heaving with magazines.

We selected our prix-fixe menu of choice (there are several, each at a different price point), and the food (and oolong tea, wine, and beer) began to arrive, course after course, on imperial-style small plates.

Everything was elevated to a new level: green and brown bean curd; spicy radishes, cabbage, beef, and chicken; spareribs; spiced celery; fried bean cakes; fatty pork with cabbage; roast duck with pancakes; fried chicken filets; melon soup; eggplant; Mandarin fish; rice; fruit. I’m also pretty sure the snow frog in custard was brought to a whole new level, although I’d never had it (or heard of it) before.

My only disappointment is that my guidebooks scared me into believing (perhaps accurately) that I shouldn’t consume shellfish in China, so I had to stare at the biggest, most beautiful, most perfectly fried prawns ever without eating them.

Besides the food, which rivaled any I’ve had traveling (included my long-held favorite meals in Italy and Greece), it was nice to be the only tourists there. It began to rain heavily as we pulled up to Li’s, and I couldn’t have imagined a cozier place to watch the rain, escape the hordes of tourists we left behind at the Summer Palace, and reflect back on our trip on our last night.

I don’t even care if Li’s legacy is a tall tale; his food speaks for itself.

Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by midtownmjd on October 29, 2007

I’m quite proud of one recent certificate of achievement: the seal of assurance that I ate a genuine Peking duck dinner in one of Beijing’s oldest duck establishments. Beijing's Quanjude Hepingmen Roast Duck Restaurant presented my friends and me with this diploma of sorts after our meal, and it included the number duck we had consumed—the count goes back to the first duck served here in 1864.

The restaurant, one branch in the popular Quanjude chain, houses several floors of ballroom-size dining rooms and could probably seat 1,000 people. We were shown to the fourth floor, where most of the tables were full of local families, and some with American and Japanese tourists.

For 120 yuan each, we had a feast of duck, duck, more duck, and a few other things. The whole duck is carved and served just as it was on this spot in 1864: tableside; cut into a precise number of slices; and presented on the lazy Susan, head and all.

It’s served with crepe-thin pancakes, plum sauce, and onions, and together they make the perfect roll: crisp and succulent, sweet and sharp. And Quanjude does it well.

For side dishes, we filled our lazy Susan with corn, pine nuts, and peas in sauce; soup; rice; asparagus with mushrooms; and duck-tongue dumplings. Some things were better than others; the vegetable dishes were delicious, but the rice tasted like the boil-in-a-bag variety and the curious soup was lacking in both taste and texture.

But overall, once you throw in some oolong tea and Yanjing beer, it was a great dinner and experience. You can’t visit Beijing without indulging in the deliciousness and drama of Peking duck, and Quanjude is not at all a bad place to start.
Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant
32 Qianmen Avenue
Beijing, China, 100051
+86 (0)10 6511 2418

Great Wall at Si Ma Tai

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by midtownmjd on October 14, 2007

Hiking the Great Wall takes a while when you stop every 2 minutes to exclaim, often with expletives laced in for emphasis, that you’re on the Great Wall of China (!!!). It’s one of those moments that you consciously commit to memory, but then by the next day you feel like it never even happened. I suppose it did happen, though, because I have the (sweaty, smoggy) photos to prove it. Despite the miserable July conditions, the trip was a highlight of my stay in China.

We signed up for a 1-day excursion through the Far East International Youth Hostel and boarded a van at the crack of dawn for the 3- to 4-hour trip to the Wall. Two of my friends got off at the first stop, Jinshanling, to hike the 5 miles to Simatai. The rest of us remained on the van for 30 more minutes and got off at Simatai to spend the day (from 10:30am to 3pm) hiking in that area.

Neither of these starting-off points is overly touristy, and we had our share of moments where we were the only people on the Wall for as far as we could see, which is a pretty heady feeling. Sometimes, though, local merchants latch on to you for part of the hike. If you ignore them, they’ll turn to the next hiker; if you buy something, they’ll hike with you all day long. We returned to the van having bought nothing, but my friends that hiked from Jinshanling showed up with matching Olympics hats, shirts, and books. They looked like they’d just come from Disney World.

We ended up hiking from Gate 2 to Gate 8 before turning back, which put us at our van exactly on time for the trip back to Beijing. The path to each gate (the benchmarks of the hike) became steeper as the numbers climbed until we were reaching them by ladder. While not exactly difficult, the hike is harder than I thought it would be. There is an option to take a cable car back down, but we stuck to walking. The most difficult part was probably the 20- to 30-minute hike from the end of the Wall to the van, because my legs were jelly by then. It’s also the point where you begin to run into more people urging you to buy things; at one point, I heard a guy passing by me lament that they were "f***ing with [his] feng shui." Clearly mean, but kind of apt at the same time. We used the phrase liberally for the rest of the week.

Also messing with our feng shui was the van ride itself—harrowing, to say the least. And I’d put Great Wall toilets in the same category. But overall, this excursion is as magical as you imagine it to be, and Simatai is the perfect portion of the Wall for anyone interested in a less touristy but still accessible (and gorgeous) stretch for hiking.
Great Wall at Si Ma Tai
Si Ma Tai
Beijing, China, 101508
+ 86 (0)10 6903 1051

Beijing Acrobatic Troupe

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by midtownmjd on October 29, 2007

For someone who gets creeped out at the thought of Cirque du Soleil and looks away during The Late Show’s Stupid Human Tricks, I was surprisingly excited about seeing an acrobatic show in Beijing—and, sure enough, I loved it. The show was the perfect combination of a look back at a centuries-old tradition and a preview of China’s expected gymnastic prowess at the 2008 Olympics.

There are several acrobatic troupes based in the capital. I wouldn’t have had any idea which to choose, but the tourist desk at our hostel organized tickets and a van for a small group of us to see the Beijing Acrobatic Troupe at the Tianqiao Theatre. It was a 15-minute drive from our hostel in the Qianmen neighborhood, so I would guess it’s not too far (applying Beijing standards) from Tiananmen Square.

The theatre was only about a quarter full, and the space reminded me of any shabby-yet-functional New York theatre, but bigger. Drinks and popcorn were available before the show, so we grabbed some and took our seats in one of the front rows.

The show opened with its two best acts, but the quality remained high for the entire 90-minute show. The talent of the performers—ranging in age, I would guess, from 6 to 30 years old—was unbelievable, save a dropped plate here or there. To my relief, the show was light on contortion, focusing instead on prop-based, choreographed routines under flying dishes, hoops, hats, spools, and more.

The feats of even the littlest kids were astonishing, and they at least had the appearance of enjoying themselves. And they were adorable—I’m pretty sure it’s the first time I ever pondered stealing a small child to take home.

The music and costumes were gorgeous, and definitely made the show for me. I thought we’d be impressed by the performers, but I didn’t realize it would be such a foot-tapping, jaw-dropping event. It seemed like the audience should have been larger for such an effort, though; I hope our extra-loud clapping helped mask the small turnout.

I would definitely recommend attending this or another acrobatic show in Beijing—you can even pick up a DVD at the theatre to show your friends at home.

I still haven’t run out to buy tickets for Cirque du Soleil, but the Beijing Acrobatic Troupe has me considering it.

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