Forbidden Delights

Trip Start Jul 03, 2009
Trip End Aug 16, 2009

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Flag of China  ,
Monday, August 3, 2009

We're out of Xi’an early and en route to Beijing. Xi’an has constructed a new airport, but our flight left from the old section, a large, dimly lit room with an overabundance of cheap electronic toys and an underwhelming selection of food. The effect of the mostly empty room, the early hour, and the beeping and buzzing of hundreds of the same toy was eerie. Our flight into Beijing was thankfully uneventful.

We’re staying at the Crowne Royal here in the country’s capital, and our location is great for sightseeing: close to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen, the Metro, and several tasty restaurants. The effect of the Olympics is evident; Beijing is the cleanest city in China we’ve yet been to. It’s also fairly easy to navigate on foot, with wide boulevards and a fairly law-abiding set of drivers (by China’s standards at least).

A not-subtle focus on security and health also sets Beijing apart from other destinations. Each hotel is outfitted with temperature scanners that monitor the body heat of each entrant for flu prevention purposes. The Crowne Royal’s in-room literature urges all travelers to take seven days resting before seeing any of the city’s sights (again, to prevent flu). There are cameras everywhere, and every bag is screened upon entering the subway.

We began our site seeing with food (of course!) at the amazing restaurant Made in China. Housed in the Grand Hyatt hotel, it features a comforting décor and open kitchens with views of chefs making Beijing’s famous Peking Duck. We were lucky enough to get one of the restaurant’s Chicken Pouches, a house specialty that one normally needs to order several days in advance (someone cancelled their order). To make this dish, the kitchen stuffs a whole bird with mushrooms, pork, and chestnuts; wraps the whole package in tea leaves, encrusts it in a salt dome, and then cooks it low and slow for 6 hours. It was, quite simply, just about the best chicken I’ve ever tasted. The meat slid off the bone at the lightest touch, and we picked every one clear. (watch the hilarious video of Maribeth breaking the salt dome open.) We also had delicious crisp-fried duck breasts with mini sesame-crusted pancakes and noodles with pork, radishes, onions, and a mustard oil so strong it made the back of my head tingle.

Stuffed, we headed to Tiananmen Square. It was an odd experience. The square is the world’s largest: it can hold over 300,000 people, is the size of 90 football fields, and is flanked by several Soviet-era buildings. In the middle is an obelisk with a reproduction of Mao’s handwriting. To the north is the famous picture of Mao. From one perspective, it was thrilling to be in such a famous place. From another, it felt uncomfortable to be playing tourist at a location that casts such a long, and unpleasant historical shadow. I suppose I expected a quiet, empty location, filled with leering security guards zealously attempting to tamp down seething dissent. What we found was a bright, open courtyard full of families and children.

From Tienanmen, we headed north to the Forbidden City, a 7.5 million square-foot compound that served as the home to 24 emperors. It’s hard to do justice to a place like the Forbidden City: it’s an understatement to say that it’s beautiful, or gigantic, or imposing. I’ll let our pictures do most of the talking, except to say that we spent three hours exploring at a pretty good clip, and we only covered about one-third of the palace grounds.

One thing the Forbidden City does not offer is air conditioning, and, for the first time in country, we saw blue skies. We also felt Hong Kong-like heat. In short, after several hours out in the sun and having been up since 5, we were tired. I suppose all of this is a set up to justify our dinner at Pizza Hut. (One more attempt: Our friends Rachel and Kyle told us that Pizza Hut China was not to be missed because here it is on the scale of a nice night out). It’s not an experience I’d need to repeat again. Sure, the service was fine, the restaurant clean, and the food inoffensively bland (yet eerily uniform the world over), but a cultural experience it was not.

Tomorrow: A Cab, A Walk, A Speedboat, and 2 "Pleasure Boat" rides later, and we’ve only covered 20 miles
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i hate it i feeling like vometing on this sgtyvkhycf8siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiibt6

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