At this point, we were half way through our trip. We again had pastries for breakfast and then found ourselves at the Hongqiao Pearl Market. This four-story shopping center had anything and everything you could possibly want at a discounted price. Electronics. Pearls. Clothing. Tea sets. You name it, and it was probably there. Everything was priced high. The vendors expected you to haggle. There’s a Chinese theory that if the first visitor to your store buys something, you will have a profitable day. Thus, the retailers are much more likely to sell at a very low price if you are the first guest in their store. It is recommended to start at a third of the listing price and not to go much higher than that. I’ve haggled at markets all over the world, and I don’t like it. But you know the saying…”When in Rome…” So I put on my negotiating hat and exchanged some Yuan for discounted Chinese products. We spent the entire morning here, people watching, haggling, and filling our backpacks with Christmas gifts for our loved ones back home. Ironically, while virtually no one in Beijing spoke a word of English, the vendors at the pearl market knew it fluently. I’m not sure if this was the more educated class of people, or just simply a skill set needed for their jobs. None the less, it struck us all as something memorable.
Across the street was the Temple of Heaven. Like so many temples, there is a deep meaning within it. The basic principal for the Temple of Heaven is that it represents the relationship between heaven and earth, and was used to pray for good harvests. The top is blue, and the bottom a rusty red color. It was built in 1420, and in amazing condition. Surrounding the temple is an expansive park, equally as beautiful and well-kept.
That evening, we ventured out for Peking Duck. Peking was the former name of Beijing, and Peking Duck translates to Beijing Roast Duck. It is, by far, the most well-known food in Beijing. The process of preparing it to be eaten is what makes it such a treat for locals and tourists alike. After the duck is hung to be roasted, air is blown between the skin and muscle (to separate the skin from the muscle). It is then filled with a sweet liquid and roasted over a fire for at least 24 hours. The skin becomes crunchy and sweet.
The restaurant we went to was named Quanjude. It originated in 1903. We ordered one duck for the four of us, not having a clue if this would be enough or too much. It turned out to be the perfect amount. The duck came out on a cart with a chef. The chef skinned the duck and placed a small plateful of skin slices on the table. We dipped them in sugar, as that’s the customary way to eat them. They were extremely sweet and chewy, and reminded me of a rich dessert made with lard. It’s something I will never forgot, and I’m not sure if it’s because it was so good or because I knew I was eating duck skin.
The chef continued to filet the duck and sat two plates of white meat on our table. We wrapped the meat in a Chinese pancake with spring onions and a sweet bean sauce. I was getting ready to reach for the third plate that had arrived on our table. This one looked like dark meat. Just as I was about to grab a piece with my chopsticks, Matt said, “Renee. I don’t think you want to eat that. I’m pretty sure it’s the duck’s head.” He was right. After examination, we could see the brain, optical socket, and beak. I guess this is another delicacy in China…one I’m glad I didn’t accidentally experience.
The next day was the day we were most excited about. We were going to see the Great Wall! Our tour picked us up at 7 am and we made a stop at the Ming Tombs on the way. We were told that the weather near the Great Wall would be about 10 to 15 degrees colder than the city, so we bundled up a little extra that day. But as soon as we unloaded from our tour van, I knew it was going to be brutal. We took a funicular up to the top of the Great Wall. We were at the Badaling section as this is one of the most accessible sections of the wall. Once on top of the wall, the wind whipped strongly around us, almost blowing our hats away, and biting our skin. We had hand warmers in our shoes and gloves, and I tried my best to ignore the cold, not wanting it to steal this experience from me. I couldn’t help but think of the guards that were forced to stand watch 24 hours a day, hundreds of years ago, having only fire to keep them warm.
The wall was not full of people that day. November is an off-season time of year, mostly due to the weather. But this was to our advantage as the wall can become full of people in the summer months, literally filling every area, and taking away from the experience. We were very lucky to see it and experience it the way we did.
On our way back to the city (the Great Wall is about a 90 minute drive from Beijing), we stopped at a tea shop. Tea is a very, very common drink in China, and it was neat to learn about the different kinds and what ailments they are used for.
Still chilly from our hike on the Great Wall, we decided to try hot pots that night. Hot pots are customary dish in China. They are basically a giant pot of broth sitting over an open flame (or charcoal) in the middle of the table. The broth is heated and a variety of ingredients are put into the ‘soup.’ In our case, we had tomato and pork broths. We ordered beef, lamp, onion, spinach, potatoes, bamboo, yucca, and a variety of other vegetables.
We were given aprons and hair ties, which I discovered was very much needed. Hot pots are messy! We were each given a ladle that we could use to ‘scoop’ out whatever we wanted from the soup-like mixture. I loved the cooked spinach and Tony loved the lamb. Amelia and Matt had a hard time using their chopsticks, so I’m pretty sure they were just eating whatever they could manage to get into their mouths!
The most memorable part of that evening was the staff, who appeared to be mostly college students. We were having so much fun with them. They taught us how to ‘hot pot’ and how to use chopsticks. All of this with no words, just hand signals and smiles. After we finished our hot pot, the staff walked out with a plate of freshly cut fruit and a fancy note, taped to a straw, sticking out of it. On it said, “Hope you can get well very quickly! Best wishes to you!” The English was perfect. They also handed me a gift bag with some potpourri in it.
There was no way to explain to them that my wheelchair was permanent, so we smiled gratefully and enjoyed the fruit. The staff that night certainly made the experience one of the favorites for each of us. It reminded me that one of the things that makes humans different from other animals is their compassion, and while our cultures are so different, there can be something so similar if you look deep into it.