Hidden Hutong, Forbidden Cities, a Great Wall, and Roasted Duck in Beijing

Glancing at the crispy skin of the golden-roasted ducks hanging from steel hooks in the shopfront windows, surrounded by wandering hordes of identically dressed tour groups taking identical photos, breathing heavily and with tear-streaked eyes from the smoggy haze that blurs one’s vision, heeding the call of the street-side vendors hawking steaming piles of dumplings fresh from bamboo steamers, and finding myself lost amidst the paper lantern-lit maze of back-alley hutong, I knew that I must have finally arrived in big city of Beijing.

Despite over a year of travel through Europe, Africa, and Asia, the endless miles I’ve logged under my belt, and the travel-trail grit I’ve permanently worn into my shoes, my mood was still apprehensive upon stepping foot in China for the first time.  It is a marvel of a culture if only for the sheer scale of its virtues: a landmass nearly the size of the entire European continent, over a billion and a half citizens, a long history stretching back thousands of years, hundreds of ethnic groups (each with their own unique history and culture), and a bevy of iconic sights that are instantly recognizable the world over.  Add to that the difficulties for a foreign visitor – very little English being spoken or written, a brisk, direct attitude (some may say unfriendly) in dealing with interpersonal communication, long miles and many hours necessary to travel from place to place, a very strong military and security presence in all public places, and the uncertainly as to what one will be confronted with around each corner – and it is perfectly understandable why venturing into the realm of one of the world’s new super powers is intimidating, to say the least.  But it wouldn’t be traveling without a little bit of pain and hardship, and thus it was time for me to experience the world through the eyes of the Chinese.

As mentioned above, Beijing is my first port of call, both for the fact that it is the capital city where the cultures and customs of all of China’s provinces converge and for its bounty of historically and politically significant sights – not to mention the fact that given both of the above sentiments, it is also one of the (relatively) more traveler-friendly cities, meaning it is a good place to ease into the Chinese mentality without being completely thrown into the deep end.

Red paper lanterns casting an inviting glow upon the street below
Hutong, or small alleyways, that comprise much of the social fabric of the local communities – a place where you’re equally likely to see a group of cigarette-smoking old men playing cards over a few glasses of beer or a group of young mothers exchanging gossip while they attempt to wrangle their small children
A lesson in Chinese Calligraphy (if you can read this, you’ll notice that the two words to the right hand side of the paper in front of you spell my name, Andrew Amiet, (or at least the closest translation that the teacher could provide)
Wangfujing Dajie at sunset, a posh shopping street that houses many of the high-end designer boutiques and Western hotel chains
A Bodishattva statue dating to around a few hundred years BC on display in the Poly-Art Museum
A common street scene
The Buddhist Relief Tiles of a wall at the base of the White Dagoba in Beihai Park
A lovely stroll through the shops and cafes of the Nanluongo Xiang Hutong
Dancers practicing their moves in the Temple of Heaven (which is really a park, in fact)
The Drum Tower, with its acoustic counterpart, The Bell Tower, just up the street
Another scene from the Temple of Heaven

Although it is more in line with the recent memories of the city’s emergence onto the world’s stage than of its historic past, the Olympic Park (from the 2008 Summer Olympics) is another interesting sight, if for nothing other than the memorable stadiums and arenas or the fact that it was the most expensive Olympic Games in history.  Unfortunately, the area is more of a ghost town now (as are most Olympic Parks around the world), but that didn’t stop me from having a look around:

The exterior surface of the National Aquatics Center – better known as “The Water Cube” – which housed the swimming and diving events
A quick peek inside the Water Cube reveals the pool where Michael Phelp’s won all of his medals (and for a few bucks, you can actually swim here, too)

The most iconic sights in the city – and the most crowded, unfortunately — are that of Tiananmen Square and the nearby Forbidden City.  The former being the world’s largest public space and sight of countless public events, Chairman Mao’s funeral, and the now famous pro-Democracy demonstrations in the late 1980’s (when a man famously stood his ground against an oncoming tank); and the latter being the massive, 500-building complex that served as the reclusive home to two Dynasties, where formally the price of uninvited entry was your life (happily, this edict no longer stands).  Both sights are lined up perfectly on a North-South Axis (as is much of Beijing), with Tiananmen Square covering the Forbidden City’s Southern Flank:

The Gate of Heavenly Peace, marking the South entrance to the Forbidden City
Looking back over the crowds gathered in Tiananmen Square
The Hall of Supreme Harmony – the largest of a series of preposterously named gates and halls that you’ll pass through on your way to the heart of the Forbidden City
The handle of one of the many shuigang, or bronze pots that once held water in case of a fire within the city

An exercise in one-point perspective
The Forbidden City’s outer moat casting the reflection of one of its guard towers
Upon exiting the city to the North, you’ll be immediately faced with a pavilion sitting atop a large hill in what is called Jingshan Park. Be sure not to skip out on the climb, if for nothing other than the view back over the entirety of the massive Forbidden City

When the Imperial Family grew tired wallowing in the heat of the city and needed a brief respite from the claustrophobia-inducing confines of their walled-in home, their retreat from the Forbidden City is what is now known as the Summer Palace.  Essentially a gigantic park complete with photogenic bridges spanning various lakes and rivers, deliberately designed gardens, scenic views towards the mountains and simple, uninterrupted natural space, this was where the royal family let off some steam.  Interestingly enough, although it is located almost 20 kilometers outside of the center of Beijing, the city has continued to grow and expand as time has passed, and now has enveloped even the areas surrounding the Summer Palace, as well.  The grounds of the Palace itself, however, are still left gloriously unblemished:

The path around the Kunming Lake allows for a peaceful stroll away from the chaos of the normal crowds
Looking up towards the Buddhist Fragrance Pavilion
Suzhou street, a sub-section with the Summer Palace grounds that imitates the look and feel the real Suzhou, a canal town in Jiangsu Province

For those, like myself, who dream of one day visiting the mountainous Southwest province of China known as Tibet, but who are unable to make the trip (it is currently closed to all foreign visitors, else it would be on my itinerary), a fair approximation would be the sprawling Lama Temple in Beijing, the largest Tibetan Buddhist Temple outside of Tibet.

The main hall of the Lama Temple, which houses an 18m high statue of the Maitraya Buddha that is supposedly carved out of a single piece of sandalwood (unfortunately, no photography was allowed inside, else I’d have a photo for you)
A colorful Mandala on display inside the temple
Detail of a Bronze Prayer Wheel

Getting out of the city and away from the smog for a day (that’s actually a bit of a joke, as you really can’t escape the smog no matter where you go), I was next off to see one of China’s most enduring legacies: the over 2,000-year old engineering marvel known as “The Great Wall.”  Although you can visit the Great Wall from virtually any of China’s Northern provinces, some of the most well-preserved and majestic sections lie within a few hour’s drive of Beijing – which turns out to be a blessing and a curse, as it means that there will likely be tens of thousands of other visitors attempting to see the same areas alongside you.  Regardless, if you avoid the closest few sections and opt for a longer drive (I chose Mutian Yu as my destination), the crowds thin out quickly and give you clear access to the thousands upon thousands of steps that are necessary to arduously traverse any length of the Wall.  The views are worth the climb, however:

When asking around about what constitutes the cuisine of Beijing, I was usually met with the same answer: the city doesn’t have many historic or representative dishes itself, but that given that it was the Imperial seat for the country, it was where dishes from all across China were imported and then honed to a higher art, fit for a royal banquet.  Thus, much of my culinary exploration through China will come as I continue my travels in other provinces, but there was still one characteristic dish of the capital city that I couldn’t leave without having sampled: Peking Duck (though it is often referred to here as simply Roasted Duck).

The first bit you’ll be served (my favorite part) is the crispy, crackly skin from the duck’s breast, which you then dip in a bowl of sugar before enjoying the crunchy texture
The chef will then neatly pile the rest of the breast and thigh meat, after trimming away all of the bones and cartilage
As you’ll notice, you’ll also be served a basket of thin, steamed pancakes in addition to a dish of julienned scallions and a soy bean-based sauce

Roll them all up into a neat pouch and enjoy!

My multiple splurges on Peking Duck (I had to try both the open-oven and closed-oven versions, obviously) weren’t my only means of sustenance while in the city, however.  Another aspect to Beijing that I hold close to my heart is the large variety of street food.  Whereas many visitors don’t get past the live scorpions, starfish, silkworms, and cicadas that are on offer – though, as a side note, these are all just novelty items for the tourists that the Chinese themselves don’t really eat – there are still many excellent options to be had.  After Beijing, I’m headed for the quaint town of Pingyao, but before that, I’ll leave you off with a few of the tastier (if still slightly disturbing) snacks I found while wandering the streets:

Crowds enjoying the fare in the Donghaumen Night Market
It was difficult for me to go a day without stopping over for some pillowy-soft Pork Dumplings
Yanjing, the local beer of choice
Stinky Tofu – the name says it all in regards to this dish of fermented bean curd, so be happy that you can’t smell anything over the internet yet
Pork Intestine Stew with Tofu and Cilantro
A big bowl of Tripe (Cow’s Stomach) served with a generous dollop each of sesame paste and chili oil
And finally, because I know you love to see my smiling face, here’s a picture of me making short work of some grilled squid

About andrewamiet

I'm a 29 (now 31) year-old former desk jockey who is now making my way around the world, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and culture that the world has to offer.

15 Responses to “Hidden Hutong, Forbidden Cities, a Great Wall, and Roasted Duck in Beijing”

  1. I like how you open your post by mentioning the Peking duck. It’s one of my most favorite dishes ever! As usual, I love your food pics. But that particular shot of the stinky tofu really intrigues me. Last May when I went to Guangzhou with a friend there was one time when I smirked upon smelling something putrid. I thought it was the sewage. But then my friend told me that it’s actually the smell of stinky tofu.

    • Luckily, the Stinky Tofu was similar to Durian in that it smells terrible, but actually tastes really good. As a disclaimer, though, I’ll admit that there are actually two different kinds of stinky tofu, and I’ve only tried the milder, pale yellow version. The second version, some have referred to it as Hunan style, is supposedly much funkier and is actually is fermented to the point of being completely black. Hopefully, I’ll work up the courage to try it sooner or later.

      And I totally agree about Peking Duck being absolutely amazing. I’ve had it a few times in other countries, but the Beijing versions were infinitely better – almost completely different dishes altogether.

  2. Andrew, is this a one-day trip? If it is, it’s nice to know that you can see these places and experience a bit of Chinese culture in just a day?
    How was the local beer?

    • This was actually six days spent in Beijing (if I had squeezed these all into one day, I would have been a tired puppy). The timing of my posts is always pretty screwed up and rarely reflects how long I’ve spent in each city (usually because I can’t always find time to spend a few hours pounding out a post, but in this case, it is the access issues I’ve run into with wordpress being blocked in China). The Forbidden City, The Summer Palace, and the Great Wall all merit most of a day just in themselves (the first two for their size and the latter for its distance outside of the city).
      And as far as the beer, it was unfortunately a pretty mild, bland lager(but unoffensive), but after having tried the paint-thinner clone that is called baiju (the very popular Chinese liquor that everyone seems to drink here), the beer tasted like th nectar of the gods – ha ha.

  3. Love the kunming lake shot! Beautiful!!!! And you are certainly looking like a happy camper!!

  4. For all the places you’ve been, I’m surprised by your opening’s apprehensiveness about traveling in China. Can you post more about the language and culture barrier you encountered getting around? That being said, the Forbidden City looks beautiful and seems to have far fewer tourists than I expected.

    Also, note to self: bring bathing suit to Beijing so as to swim in Olympic pool. 🙂

    • I was actually a little surprised at myself, too, as it has been a while since I’ve felt nervous about any new country. I actually kind of relished the feeling, as it brought back memories of the very beginning of my trip. And I’ll try to address the language and cultural barriers more in future posts — it isn’t anything that can’t be overcome, obviously, but there are just a few more barriers to conquer and getting around and being able to communicate than in other countries I’ve visited. But these are also the little things that make traveling fun, too!

      And definitely do bring your suit. I was sad that I didn’t, as I would have loved to race down the lanes, passing the lane full of old ladies in shower caps, only to jump out and do my best Phelp’s celebration. Ha ha 🙂

  5. Cheers from the land o’ cows, corn, and Amish!

    Mihran and I are back in Northeast, Ohio now and already missing Beijing and Chengdu (ohh, the cheap, delicious street food). We’ve started a wishlist for places to visit a few years from now and will keep reading your blog for cool recommendations!

    It was great meeting you and we wish you all the best with your travels. Don’t come back to Ohio too soon but feel free to contact us if/when you do!

    -Amanda & Mihran

    • Hey guys!

      Great to hear from you, and glad that you make it safely back to Ohio. It was a lot of fun hanging out in Beijing, and I’ll definitely drop you a line the next time I’m back in the States. Best of luck checking off as many destinations on your wish list as possible, and hopefully our paths will cross again in the future!

      Andrew

  6. First off, best section of the Great Wall to visit. I couldn’t believe I was actually standing on the great wall of china. Secondly, I am very jealous of your Summer Palace photos- I could barely see three foot in front of me in the smog in June , let alone get good pics. The best meal of my trip was with a local chinese farming couple on the way back from Mutianyu. Didnt speak a word of english, and i very little Mandarin, but the fresh, delicious and authentic quality of the food said it all. Once again, amazing blog thank you.

    • Oh yeah, I got very lucky with the weather when I visited the Summer Palace. I was in Beijing for about 6 days, and only about a day and a half of that was relatively clear — the rest was just smog, haze, and clouds. And I love the story about your meal with the farming couple. It is always the small, unexpected encounters that leave the longest-lasting memories. Thanks for reading!

  7. I was in Beijing this past February and your post brought back some very fond memories! Although it was generally freezing at the time (even while dashing about the Forbidden City), I lucked out with the weather and most days came with gorgeous blue skies! I experienced the reverse with the Summer Palace; the time I chose to go happened to be the smoggiest of my 6 days there. It was then that I understood why people felt the urge to hack up and spit on the street, you could literally feel it clogging up your throat.

    One of the most memorable experiences was when a friend of a friend took me out for traditional Beijing snacks at a low-brow, dimly-lit eatery. I had this amazing meat and vegetable dish wrapped in tofu skin, dipped in egg yolk and then fried – they call it “Jianbing”. I also tried the tripe… loved the sesame paste but not the intestines itself!

    I love how you learned to write your name in Chinese with the traditional calligraphy brush; if read phonetically it says “Andelu Amiyete”. Did you write the words to the left as well? I see something about a “little fat sheep”…

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