Peking duck, brights lights & famous sites..

The fact that our train from Lhasa to Beijing was actually really comfy meant that we didn’t have to catch up on any sleep once we arrived in Beijing so had the whole of our first day free!

Our first stop was the internet bar in the hostel so that we could look up a few of our options for the city and we drew up what looked like a great itinerary, even if we do say so ourselves!

One thing we thought was that you can’t come to Beijing without sampling the famous Peking Duck in it’s homeland so asked at the hostel reception for restaurant recommendations. The girl down at the travel desk told us of a place called Quan Ju De – one of Beijing’s oldest and most famous (and most expensive) roast duck restaurants.

The restaurant has several branches in Beijing but we went to the one at Hou Hai (aka ‘bar street) as we wanted to go out for a few drinks afterwards too. I have to say, we’ve never seen ducks treated like swans before – In the UK you simply get a plate full of shredded duck, here they bring the entire duck out in front of you on a carving trolly and proceed to meticulously carve it with a cleaver, carefully laying out strips of it onto gleaming plates (shaped like a duck of course). The waiter then brings over some sliced cucumber, scallions and spicy sauce (which we had to pay for individually on top of the duck which cost nearly 200 Yuan!) and puts together a pancake for each of us, carefully picking up two slices of duck with chopsticks, dipping it in the sauce and adding the other ingredients before wrapping the pancake up (again, using chopsticks) and giving it to us. Never had our duck pancakes done for us before!

The duck itself was gorgeous – ten times better than what you get back home – it was so moist and the skin tasted a bit like bacon! yum yum. Didn’t take us long to polish that off. We abandoned the chopsticks in the end – it tasted so good that we didn’t want to waste time trying to be posh so just used our hands!

After we’d eaten we walked around Hou Hai bar street, which was all lit up like a Christmas tree! The bright neon lights from all the bars lit up the lake they surrounded and really was quite pretty – but the noise coming from the bars wasn’t! At first we couldn’t tell whether or not they were all karaoke bars but then we realised that they had actually paid ‘singers’ as their live entertainment. Unfortunately, they were all the most dire singers we’d ever heard! Most of them were singing really depressing ballads and strumming guitars listlessly and some were singing awful, sickly sweet and terrible love songs as a duo!

Needless to say we didn’t fancy going into any of these bars and headed straight towards Hou Hai Paradise Club & Bar which was pumping out dance and hip hop at about 200 decibels – definately drowned out the rest of them! The club was pretty cool – although expensive! We paid 30 Yuan each for a small bottle of Tsing Tao beer – whereas at ‘normal’ local restaurants etc, you can get the huge bottles for 10 or even 5 Yuan. Because of this we didn’t buy many but just sat there and enjoyed watching the local teenagers dancing like loons to Lada Gaga and Fatman Scoop! It was VERY entertaining! Everyone around us seemed to get very very drunk and as soon as we started getting shirtless Chinese boys coming over to us and trying to give us a hug, we left! Hou Hai was definately an experience, but I don’t think going there on a quiet Monday night really helped and I’m sure the atmostphere there would be much better at the weekends!

So that was the end of our first night in Beijing and we were already beginning to see that it was a very diverse city, where you can experience lots of different sides to the culture there and pick and choose where to go depending on your interests.

The next day we went right ‘back in time’ with a visit to the Forbidden City. This is the 500+ year old Imperial Palace of Chinese Emperors from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. Most of the buildings were built in 1420 and were absolutey beautiful. Typical ‘ancient chinese’ style, with reds, gold and blacks and murials of chinese dragons and other mythical creatures.

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We wandered through the main courtyards and buildings of the city, trying to read every information plaque that we could. It was fascinating to imagine what it must have been like for the Emperors, their wives and staff to live there.

We saw thrones that the Emperors used to sit on, even the place where the last Ming Empress hanged herself.

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One of our favourite parts of the Forbidden City was the Imperial Garden, which was decorated with Cypress and other ancient trees. Chinese music is even piped out into the courtyard giving the whole place a really relaxing feel.

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It was great and we spent most of the afternoon there and left dot on closing time at 5 o’clock. At the back of the Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square and we were able to literally walk straight through the two massive gates leading up to the square.

We saw the giant picture of General Mao which faces the square and stayed to watch the lowering of the flag ceremony which happened just after sunset.

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The ceremony itself wasn’t the most impressive we’ve ever seen – we had to stand there for AGES until anything happened – Army troops came out bit by bit to march around the flag, but everytime we thought something was going to happen, they just stopped and stood there in a row! After two hours of us standing there and watching this ever so slightly drawn out ceremony, they raised their guns, lowered the flag and then marched off across the main road, stopping the traffic which one minute before was cramming the streets.

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On our way back to the hostel that night we walked through Wangfujing Street – a massive shopping street about 8 minutes walk from Tiananmen Square. This street put Piccadilly Circus to shame – we lost count of the number of big neon screens it had and the street was simply packed with designer shops and swanky malls. It was certainly a huge contrast to the ancient Beijing we had encountered less than two hours ago!

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We had such a great day during our second day in Beijing that we decided to round it off with a second Peking Duck! This time however, we decided to ‘stay local’ and spied a roast duck restaurant down the road from the hostel. After being assured by Michale (the travel desk and general ‘helper dude’ from the hostel) that the food was good, we headed down there. We were joined by a guy staying at the hostel called Vinny, who Richard met at reception the other day – he was in Beijing with a girl from Hong Kong that he had met in Shanghai, so they both came and also had duck.

This one was just as good as the duck at Quan Ju De, albeit served without the same ‘flair’ – aka dumped on a plate looking slightly messy! The BIG difference was the price – we managed to get a whole duck, pancakes etc and 5 big bottles of beer for 75 Yuan – that’s seven pounds fifty! The meal the night before cost just under thirty English pounds, without the beers! The local restaurant we ate in this night was slightly scary however, as it wasn’t the cleanest and we got to watch the cat playing with a cockroach on the floor next to our table during our meal! We woke up alive the next day though, so it must have been safe enough.

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After we ate we went out for a couple of drinks in a bookshop. You might think that I’ve just written this wrong but it actually was a bookshop! Vinny and Bonny had been there the night before and told us we had to see it to believe it, so we walked down there and were greeted by the Chinese Harry Potter (he seriously looked like Harry) who showed us round the corner of the shop where about 6 tables were laid out with people drinking cocktails!

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It had a really cool vibe and was supposed to close at 1 am but we stayed in there to just after 3, when the last remaining staff finally got bored of us and hinted at us to leave. The shop/bar was called Waiting for Godot on Jao Diao Kou East Street, so if you ever find yourself in Beijing, go and check it out!

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