By the time we got back from our sodden trip to the Great Wall, the rain had stopped falling. After hot showers and a nap, we walked 3.4km to The Silk Market, the Beijing version of a knock-off mall. Much nicer than those in Shanghai–very clean, glass-enclosed shops monitored by video camera, making it a hazard for shop owners to pursue would-be clients out of the shops ( a regular occurrence in Shanghai). We spent a bit of money, walked back the 3.4 km and pondered the differences between Shanghai and Beijing, China’s two biggest cities (at the moment.)
Shanghai is a busy, multi-ethnic, hip, happening place. It ‘s architecture is endlessly fascinating, and not just in Pudong. Take a cab anywhere and you can see a variety of building styles, cheek by jowl, but with space in between. Today I noticed that many of the buildings are curved or in some way, divergent from rectangular, as if it is a crime to build regularly shaped structures. There are still many 5 or 6 storey walk-ups, interspersed with stately old homes and modern buildings. Look up at the skyline and you’ll see pencil points, turrets, pagodas, crowns, pearls, gilt domes and bottle openers. In the French Concession, stately old French-style mansions still exist along tree-lined streets and lanes. It’s a wonderful clutter of styles.
In Beijing, our overwhelming impression of the architecture was that things were built to impose: along the 12-lane Chang An Lu, the buildings are squat, heavy, linear affairs of no more than 18 or 20 storeys, largely lacking in points of interest. Even their more adventurous buildings give the impression of somewhat dour bulk. No walls of video or flashing lights here. The Museum of Natural History is off-putting–the thought of that much “natural history” was decidedly uninviting: the staid-looking building is nearly a block long. Many more traditional-style buildings remain in Beijing, whereas all but Yu Yuan Gardens in Shanghai’s were razed during The Cultural Revolution. The hutongs or alleyway neighbourhoods in Beijing also differ from those in Shanghai. They are enclosed in walls and structured around ancient rules regarding the four directions. Streets of all sizes are tree-lined, shady and lovely and there are many small lakes designed for relaxation and a slowness of pace. A visit to the Houhai neighbourhood gave us a taste of local cuisine, hutong insights garnered from a pedi-Tuk-Tuk, and a vision of the pedi-boats to be rented on a clear day Nice, but hip and happening, no, although the bar scene looked like promising, judging from the plethora of velour-covered banquets. Beijing takes itself seriously, as the home of the government must. Cabs don’t honk, drivers obey traffic signs and pedestrians wait for signals. All very correct. (Ed. note: One of the things which really stood out to us was that Shanghai’s women are FAR more sophisticated than Beijing women. Even Jiaxing women match the Beijing women. )
(Ed. note: For the sake of accuracy and journalistic integrity, the 5 preceding photos were actually taken on Friday, the day we visited The Forbidden City, and not after we went to The Great Wall.)
On our last night, we decided we really had to try Peking Duck. Officially, it is now supposed to be called Beijing Duck but somehow it just doesn’t have the same ring to it. After reading the Lonely Planet guide book (thanks, Michael and Barb), we decided on Dadong, where the duck is purported to be 43.5% leaner than others. Pretty exacting numbers, we thought, and decided to give it a shot. We asked the concierge to call us a cab but instead, he directed us to a new Dadong a block away, just off Wangfujing Lu, a pedestrian shopping street. WOW! It was an average-looking sort of restaurant with pretensions to modernity, but the food was simply amazing. Of course we ordered the duck immediately upon seating, as it takes some time to prepare. Then, we started with duck pate, enough for 4 people at least. Really really good. Then sauteed eggplant with about 20 garlic cloves and a wonderful sauce. Again, amazing. We weren’t expecting fried rice noodles with osmanthes to be anything special but it was fantastic! First the accoutrements, then the duck finally arrived. It is hard to describe how delicious this was. The skin was crisp and razor-thin, and dipped in sugar, it literally melted in your mouth. The duck meat was unbelievable–so lean, moist and delicious! The finale was fresh lichee, still on the branch, set in bubbling dry ice. Too much wine and a few scotch for Geoff and the meal was perfect! No question it was the best meal we have had in China. Cost? $150 and worth every penny.
More rain greeted us on our last day so we rented a private cab to take us out to the Bird Nest, then on to the airport. We all saw this structure during the 2008 Olympics, and it still has the power to inspire. The beams that make up the ‘nest’ are huge– Geoff stood in the picture for perspective –with lots of odd angles that make for lots of dusty ledges, very difficult to clean. It is, nonetheless, a wonderful stadium, still in use.
Because of the weather, we didn’t bother with the Summer Palace or the Temple of Heaven, but we enjoyed our quick view of the capital just the same.