From the beginning, the stars weren’t aligning for me and China. My first application for a visa to China was denied. The reason, I work for a news/media company, and although I wrote on my application that I was going for pleasure, not business, I was rejected. Beijing may have hosted the Olympics, but that still doesn’t change the fact that China is a communist country. Foreign press is not welcome unless it is authorized. I argued and argued, but no one wanted to listen, and they just sent me to another line when they got tired of talking to me. Finally, after being shuffled back and forth between several windows, someone told me to come back with a letter from my work stating specifically that I was not going to Beijing on company business. An hour later, to the dismay of the people at the embassy, I was back with my letter, signed by my manager and on company letterhead. Another hour later, I had my visa. It took an entire day of waiting on line, running across town twice in the pouring rain, plus two application fees and one hefty expediting fee, but I got my visa. Unfortunately, I also got food poisoning from a bad gyro at the diner next door. I should I have seen it has a sign, but of course I didn’t. That would have been too easy.
During the last few days in Korea, David and I were having so much fun, David suggested we skip Beijing altogether and stay in Seoul for a few more days. Of course, after all I’d been through getting my visa, there was no way I was not going to Beijing. Even when David’s friend from the States who now lives in Beijing told us the day before we were set to leave Seoul that he mixed up the dates and was going to be out of the country that weekend (WTF, you invited us!), I still insisted we go. I was going to eat my Beijing/Peking duck, even if it killed us. The next day, we woke up late, missed the bus to the airport, and then missed our flight to the mainland. Again, signs, but I’m a tenacious little sucker when I have my mind set on something. We rebooked, and we landed in Beijing just after nightfall. We checked into our hotel, and David passed out. I went to the supermarket in the mall next door to the hotel and bought extremely expensive mangosteens.
Underneath a fancy mall, everything in the supermarket was ridiculously overpriced. I bought four tiny mangosteens for around $6.88. Crazy, but they were good; sweet and pulpy with a bit of tartness. Not the unicorn of fruits like everyone says, but good.
The next day, alone, and ill-prepared to venture out on our own since we had been planning to rely on David’s friend, we did what tourists normally do in a foreign country. We went on a tour. We paid our respects at Ming’s Tomb, browsed at the mandatory souvenir shops, and climbed the Great Wall. In between it all, we were driven to a building called The Friendship Store, and were provided lunch at the restaurant inside.
When we got to the dining hall, our table was already piled high with plates of food. They had known our group was coming and had already set out the food. Unfortunately, they must have gotten word of our arrival too early, because everything was room temperature. In addition, all the food, while pretty to look at, was soggy, dry, bland, and overall, bad. Most of the food went untouched, but even still, while our little tour group sat looking at each other miserably, waitresses kept coming over and piling more plates on the current stack of plates. I’m not sure what they were trying to prove, especially when the new plates of food weren’t even hot. (Yes, there is a bounty of food, but the bounty sucks!) I guess we should have known something was up when our tour guide said he wasn’t going to eat with us.
When we got back to the hotel that night, I was still optimistic, and quickly changed for a Peking duck dinner. On the flight to Beijing, a nice woman we met on the plane recommended a restaurant known for Peking duck. She said Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant had the best roast duck in Bejing. Seeing she was the only local we knew, we took her advice and went.
At Quanjude, the roast duck was carved table-side, and we were served different parts of the bird in stages. First to the table was the skin with a side of course sugar.
The skin is usually my favorite part of Peking Duck, but unfortunately, the skin wasn’t as crisp as I would have liked. Still, dipped in sugar, it wasn’t half bad.
Next was a plate with half the head (half the head since we ordered half a duck) and slender pieces of neck meat, and one plate of meat accompanied with pancakes. Condiments and vegetable fillings were ordered separately from a list on the menu. I chose scallions, cucumber, sweet bean sauce, and minced garlic. The duck wrapped in a pancake with a little bean sauce, hot garlic, shredded scallion, and julienned cucumber was pretty tasty, but even better was the tender neck meat and the nutty duck brains. That said, it wasn’t the best roast duck I’ve ever had. Again, for me, Peking duck is all about the skin, and the skin just didn’t cut it. Later we each got a bowl of white soup made from the duck carcass. It was again, good, but not spectacular. The total for the meal (tea, duck, and condiments and fillings), was around $23.58. It was pretty cheap, but I’d gladly have paid more for a more delicious meal.
Considering all the work it took to get to Beijing, I wish the food had been better. This time, it just wasn’t meant to be.