We were very lucky in Beijing. My cousin, Antonio, works for a large tech company in Beijing and generously offered us use of his driver and his administrative assistant who is fluent in English. He and his family were out of the country on vacation during our visit, so unfortunately we didn't have the chance to see them. We also received a list of things to do in China from our friend CJ, who has spent a lot of time in this country. It was incredibly helpful and saved us lots of planning time. We gave our list to Antonio's admin who provided us with feedback and then set up our driver for the next few days. Easy! We'd initially thought of hiring a guide in China, but with Antonio's driver & admin, CJs recommendations and our guide book we felt comfortable without one.
Our driver picked us up from the airport and we made the half-hour drive to the hotel with our eyes glued to the window, as we were so curious to finally see this famous Chinese city. After we checked into the hotel, we spent the afternoon checking out the immediate area around the hotel. It was very modern, and full of luxury malls and fancy car dealerships. It reminded me of LA without the palm trees. There were several businesses in the area, resulting in sidewalks full of well-suited young professionals and coffee shops on every block. This was so far off from what we both expected. We thought it would look a little more like the streets of Sheung Wan in Hong Kong - densely packed narrow streets with old buildings, shops, cars, bikes and people. While there were a lot of people, it was very spacious, modern and organized. Aside from the Chinese characters everywhere and the occasional Chinese-style architecture, this could have been a city in the US.
The Great Wall of China
Our first full day was a busy one. Our driver picked us up at 6:30am and took us to Mutianyu - one of the many sites along the wall. It was about an hour and a half ride, and we arrived right after the site opened for the day, and before all the locals and hawkers set up shop. Initially we had planned to stop off at the Ming Tombs on the way back, but ended up scrapping this idea as it was a bit out of the way.
When we arrived, we were among the first people to buy chair lift tickets that day. No one was there. We had the wall to ourselves and it was glorious!
The ride down was a lot of fun. We were both cautious at first, frequently using the brakes. As we became more confident in our tobogganing abilities, we flew down the second half of the course.
On our way back from the wall, we stopped off to check out Beijing's Olympic Park, home to the games of the 2008 Olympiad. We remembered some of the famous structures, such as the distinctive bird's nest stadium and aquacube where the swimming events were held.
Chris was dying to see what the Peking Duck tasted like in Peking, so we did a bit of research and ended up heading to DaDong, a famous roast duck joint near our hotel. To reach DaDong, you have to go into - you guessed it - a mall, and take the elevator up to the fifth floor. We emerged into the restaurant, which was furnished with modern decor and a giant brick oven area in the middle with lots of ducks waiting to be roasted. We showed up around 7 and the place was packed. We had about a twenty-minute wait at the bar (as a side note, it seems that the practice of having a drink at the bar while waiting for one's table is a somewhat Western phenomenon, as we seemed to be the only ones doing this!). We were seated and Chris, of course, ordered his long-awaited duck.
The duck is served not by the portion, but by the duck. Since I don't eat birds, this meant Chris would have an entire duck to himself. I scoured the tome-like menu for some alternative choices and settled on an interestingly presented papaya salad, pumpkin soup and some beef cubes served with truffle and lime salt.
Soon, the food began to trickle in. The duck is carved table-side and is served with the traditional thin pancakes, sauce (in China they use a sauce made from fermented berries instead of plum sauce), and condiments such as julienned onion, radish, cucumbers and pureed garlic. You are also given a bowl of large sugar crystals. You are supposed to dip the pieces of duck skin in the sugar to give it a crispier texture and sweeter flavor. (Traditionally, having roast duck in Peking meant eating only the skin, while the rest of the meat was used in other dishes, such as soups. Today the dish is typically served with the meat as well).
We later looked into my foolish mistake and ascertained that we had ordered Wagyu beef (also known as Kobe beef in Japan). While I was familiar with Kobe beef, I had never heard of the term Wagyu, thus had no idea to double check the price. This is the most expensive beef in the world because the cows are genetically predisposed to marbling, which keeps the meat from getting tough. Supposedly, the cows are also given nothing but beer to drink and receive regular massages while listening to classical music. I must say the beef was tasty, but also by far the most expensive dish I've ever ordered in my life. I guess these are the pitfalls of switching currencies every few days. It was an expensive lesson learned, and I will be heavily scrutinizing all menu prices henceforth!