We arrived back in Beijing on the morning of Friday, November 4. We were picked up at Beijing airport and taken back to my apartment to rest up for the last segment of our journey, slated to begin the next day. That evening we planned to have the long awaited, Peking duck dinner at one of the specialty restaurants, but we were foiled in our attempts because of the need to have had reservations in advance, which we failed to secure. We ended up eating at a Teppanyaki style restaurant similar to the one I took Madison to, on her birthday earlier in the summer. In fact, Madison joined us for this meal. For what it’s worth, we did have roast duck at various times and places throughout our travels and, as I’ve mentioned previously, It’s my opinion, it’s a very overrated dish.
On Saturday morning, we were picked up by our tour guide, Linda (of “Sophie is twelve years old”, fame) and her driver, to be taken to the Forbidden City and Mao’s tomb at Tiananmen Square. Our first stop was Mao’s tomb, which is a few blocks away from the Forbidden City. Security was, obviously, very tight and as you would expect, photography inside wasn’t allowed. Prior to entering the tomb, you pass by a passel of sellers of white roses outside for those who want to leave them to honor the Great Helmsman. Business was brisk. We were ushered through a large, palace-like building. Everyone is kept moving quickly and I would estimate I saw Mao’s body lying in a glass coffin, roped off and in the center of the room, for about thirty seconds, before exiting. Outside the room where he lay in repose, there are masses of those white roses that people had left. It was all very fast, yet very solemn with the honor guard PLA soldiers and plainclothesmen hovering about. Even though there were throngs of people, you could hear a pin drop. No one spoke or perhaps, dared speak.
“Third time’s a charm”, as they say. The first two times I was at the Forbidden City I wasn’t able to get a ticket to enter. I only saw the periphery areas. This time, my entry was not to be forbidden (oy). Linda escorted us and gave us the history behind the place, in all the tawdry stories of royalty and entitlement that bespeaks the highest echelons of ruling elites, everywhere and every time. The Ming Dynasty was no better or worse, no more cruel or less cruel than other monarchies throughout history although the Trump Monarchy is only just beginning, so time will tell (you know I just had to get that in here somewhere.)
The Forbidden City is almost overwhelming in its scope and size. It just seems to go on and on. It really is an amazing experience to see, up close, just how a group of people viewed themselves in relation to the rest of their society and the world. The Chinese really do things “big,” even six hundred years ago. In terms of sheer size, The Palace of Versailles, for example, is like a Motel Six in comparison to this place (the Forbidden City consist of 980 buildings) and I can say that, having been to Versailles. Although to be fair, the P of V does have a lot more grandeur in its style. We are talking about the French, after all.
The final part of our tour was to take in a traditional tea ceremony. This was the part that we dreaded as it as a byproduct of our tour obligation. We could have bypassed it by paying an additional fee but thought, “what the hell…” We were glad we did it. We learned a great deal about tea and its influence and importance to Chinese society and greatly enjoyed sampling the many varieties as well as the rituals associated with it. Some of the teas we could buy were quite expensive with the most being about $1500 a pound. “No thanks.”
Thus, we come to the conclusion of our sightseeing tour of China. I am so grateful for Nancy and Sophie’s visit, as I was able to indulge in many sights I would have, otherwise, not seen. In actuality, I have, as a result of their visit, seen far more of China than many of my western collegues who have lived here a lot longer than the nine months I’ve lived here and for that, I am very thankful.
Although our travels were over, I still have some in my immediate future. At the end of this January, I will fulfill an ambition I held since before coming here. The end of January marks the beginning of the Spring Festival and the largest national holiday in China. I will be off to Harbin. It’s the northernmost city in China and is close to the Russian border and, as a result, has a very heavy Russian influence due to the influx of people escaping the aftermath of the 1917 revolution. There, I will partake of the annual Ice Festival and see things I could never have possibly imagined, as well as experience temperatures I have never been exposed to. I will be there for three nights. In my wildest dreams, I never, ever thought I would visit Harbin. But, in four weeks, I will be staying right in the heart of the city. The wonder of it all!
The last item of our touring agenda was dinner at the Black Sesame Kitchen. If you’ve followed this blog you may remember that we met up with some ladies during our food tour in Xi’an, who ate there and highly recommended it. Nancy followed up and made dinner reservations for Nancy and Sophie’s last night in Beijing. We pressed Minnie (“she’s so tiny”) into joining us and she was happy to oblige.
As it turned out, the only time we, as a family, squabbled, was on this, our last night together. We decided, after much debate to take a (much dreaded) taxi to the restaurant because of time constraints. Minnie was working and would follow, on her own. As is often the case, taking a taxi vs. the subway is a dubious choice because traffic is an unending nightmare in Beijing. It seemed as if we were plodding along at walking speed, the entire time we were in the cab. The issue was that the restaurant had one seating, and you needed to be there at a “time certain” as dinner was served all at once to everyone. Of course, it didn’t help that we couldn’t communicate with the cab driver (beyond the written instructions we handed him) so we had no idea of how close we were in relation to the time we needed to be there. As you would expect, as we began to think we’d be late, thus, missing out completely, recriminations started to fly about how we should have left earlier and or, we should have taken the subway, etc, etc and who was to blame, etc, etc, ad nauseum. We did get over it, though.
Just as things seemed at their grimmest, the driver pulled over and pointed in the direction we needed to walk. We got out, completely flummoxed about what direction go in. We finally saw a hotel which was a landmark and a clue and we walked down a completely non-descript, dark alley, hoping we were going in the right direction although we had little basis for thinking we were. After some time, we actually ended up exactly where we needed to be, at the Black Sesame Kitchen, with a few minutes to spare, thank Ceiling Cat! (“fleas be upon him.”) Minnie, amazingly, found her way there, not too long after we arrived.
The restaurant is in a hutong, a traditional, Chinese domicile. As you can see from the photos, there is a kitchen and a dining room. There is an additional dining room across a courtyard. We, along with about fifteen other patrons enjoyed watching the food preparation and cooking, via an overhead mirror. The other guests were a variety of westerners including a group of women from Sweden who had been there previously. A Dutch woman who keeps a food blog, and wanted to write an article about the food, was sitting next to me. So, the mix of people, alone, was interesting and conversation among the entire table, flowed freely. Minnie, was the only Chinese person at the table. I have to wonder what she thought of all of this. I suppose I could ask her. We are collegues, after all.
As you can see from the pictures, the food seemed to be an unending parade. Additionally, wine was free flowing. The various courses were delicious beyond description. Suffice to say, there’s a very good reason it’s listed by Trip Advisor as number three out of 11,834 restaurants in Beijing! The price for the experience? 300 RMB or $45 a person. You have got to be kidding me! Is it better than the French Laundry in Napa? I don’t know but I do know, you will pay over seven times as much and I know you won’t have the same experience of sitting with a diverse group of travelers from around the world to talk to. Gentlemen, don’t forget to wear your tie when you dine at the FL; it’s mandatory.
Thus, I come to the end of this long discourse of Nancy and Sophie’s visit to China. They arrived in late October and, as of this writing, it’s late December. They’ve been gone for two months now. I don’t know when they’ll be back. It was a fantastic experience and I know it adds to Sophie’s extensive travels. As she mentioned on her Facebook page: “22 countries and counting.” She is a world traveler and I look forward to her return visit. Nancy won’t be visiting in 2017 because she’s going to Uganda (and yes, “Uganda be kidding me!” I hope somehow she stays safe there.) I also welcome my other family members and friends to visit me, as it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to visit a place that should be on everyone’s “bucket list.” There is no place in the world like China. Experience it!