Fresh off the bullet train from Shanghai, I arrived into Beijing late on a Saturday evening. It took nearly an hour for me to make my way to my friend Jeff's neighborhood, despite the excellent directions he gave me. Jeff and his wife Evelyn met me at a small cafe, having just returned from a one-day ultimate frisbee tournament outside the city, and led me back to their apartment. It was the first time I had seen Jeff since a mutual friend's wedding just after we had graduated college - he had spent the years since teaching English in Korea and China, getting married, becoming fluent in Mandarin, and now working as a freelance translator.
We got up early the next morning - Jeff was in between freelance assignments, so he offered to be my tour guide for the two full days that I had in the city. He was an absolute godsend, expertly navigating the city's mass transit systems and leading me through narrow neighborhood alleys to sites and restaurants and breweries. I was perfectly happy to follow his lead, relax, and enjoy my time.
We picked up a couple of compact, portable breakfasts from a shop around the corner from their apartment - a sort of pancake with lettuce and meat that was filling, delicious, and cheap. Our first stop was Tiananmen Square, just outside the Forbidden City, and most well-known for the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989. Since it was a public holiday weekend, Mao's mausoleum was closed, which makes two communist leaders whose preserved bodies I have been near to but haven't seen! The day was incredibly hazy, and we simply wandered the large square a bit, slowly making our way towards the Forbidden City and the massive portrait of Mao out front.
We crossed the street, passing under the road and up to the other side, entering the gates and purchasing our tickets as we watched a pair of girls wearing headbands with "traditional" ornamentation take selfies while holding Chinese flags. Ah, China. Inside the next gate, there was a massive courtyard with a central building, a pattern that would continue as we made our way through the city. There was a set of three small bridges, the central one more ornately decorated, leading over a small moat, which we crossed to enter the central pavilion.
The other sections blend together in my mind, but we saw huge lion sculptures in bronze - a male and a female, the male with his paw on a ball representing the earth, the female with her paw on a cub. There were other bronze statues as well - a crane and a turtle with a sort of dragon head. There were tiered pavilions with dragon head "gargoyles", and there were massive slabs of stone with intricate carvings of dragons, a symbol of the emperor. The interiors of most of the buildings were open enough to look in on the decor from the open doors, each venture to do so resulting in much pushing and shoving and jockeying for position… in other words, the Chinese method of queueing. The buildings themselves were covered in subtle ornamentation, bronze dragons swirling in the window frames.
We briefly stepped into a side area - one of many - this one displaying a set of bronze bowls and other objects. We then cut into a garden featuring a massive tangle of stone with a Chinese roof on top, as well as other stone features, statues, and neatly trimmed bonsai-style trees.
From the garden, we wound our way out of the expansive city, heading immediately across the street to Jinshan Park and heading straight up the stairs to the very top, to a small temple with an excellent view of the Forbidden City spread out in front of us, through the hazy smog.
I followed Jeff as we descended down one side, into a larger park, where we almost immediately came up on a large group of men singing a cappella, conductor and all. We stood transfixed for a few moments, taking in the amazing music until they wrapped up the song, then continued a bit further, as we could hear other groups in the distance. We also came across a small group putting on a sort of ballroom style dance practice / performance, but as soon as I got close, the lead guy with the microphone started trying to recruit me to join, and I quickly retreated. We walked back towards an exit, walking out just as a handful of sleek black cars with diplomat plates pulled up, secret service-looking personnel in suits and earpieces swarming, and a couple of well-dressed women got out, began shaking hands and chatting, and walking towards the park, entourage in tow. I have no idea which dignitaries they were, but it was a fascinating sight!
It was already well into the afternoon, but Jeff had a specific lunch spot in mind, so we got to walking, first down a quiet alleyway between typical old Chinese homes - these alleyways are called hutongs - then past a small lake through a small park that made me think of a particular section of New York's Central Park. This one was full of little pedal boats, many in the shape of rubber duckies, and despite signs saying, "No Fishing", "No Swimming", "No Climbing", there were plenty of men fishing, a group was swimming (and splashing loudly), and dozens of people were perched up on the fences watching it all.
We turned and crossed over a small canal, just opposite a romantic little bridge, turning down into another hutong, until we arrived at the spot Jeff had in mind, a little Muslim spot that promised a similar set of flavors to what I had tasted in Xi'an's Mulsim Quarter. Just as similarly, I grabbed a little glass bottle of drinkable yogurt from a store next door to wash down the spicy, savory flavors of the chicken dish we shared. Our next stop was just around the corner - the Great Leap Brewing Company. It had a cozy little courtyard and was filled with locals and foreigners alike, and I sampled a flight of four of the unique beers they had on tap, while Jeff enjoyed a couple of pints. For me, the Banana Wheat, the Liu the Brave Stout, the East City Porter, and the Honey Ma Gold. The last one is made with Sichuan peppercorn, leaving a tiny hint of numbness on my tongue! Jeff had the stout and the Buddha Blonde. I was very happy with my selection, and the rest and the tasty beverages revitalized me.
From there, we continued through the alleyways of the hutong, turning onto Nanluogu Xiang, a mostly walking street packed with people and unique shops - bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, boutiques, and all sorts of inventive snacks, from decorative hard candy to a light doughy pastry I sampled. Vendors were also dotted along the streets selling everything from Lego-like figures to swirls of cotton candy. We walked all the way to the end of the street, then turned back to the other end, where we caught the metro back to the apartment.
Exhausted, I didn't think I was hungry enough to venture out for a real meal, but I joined Jeff and Evelyn at an outdoor table at a neighborhood restaurant, where we had the most delicious Kung Pao chicken I have ever tasted. The next morning, Jeff and I would venture out to see one of the sites I had built my entire RTW journey around…. the Great Wall.