The Forbidden city, what can I say? By the time we arrived at the ancient palace, I, along with generally everyone in my group, was so cold that getting my fingers to turn on the camera was a chore. By my best recollection, the temperature was somewhere between 10 and 15 degrees. I won’t lie, I hated the Forbidden City. It was just so damn cold that I was unable to do much of anything other than focus on getting through as quickly as possible and back to the relative warmth of the bus. Under most circumstances, I am more than happy to relax and enjoy a good historical site, but this was not one of those occasions, and my cynical half was out in full force. The initial excitement that I had about visiting this famed attraction degraded with each of the courtyards we passed through. It was a gorgeous place, but after the second dauntingly large plaza I had determined that all of the sections and buildings looked remarkably similar, and was happy to move on.
One of the joys of traveling amongst a massive group is that inevitably you will loose someone. Be it in a crowd, during a bathroom stop, distractions at a tourist attraction, somewhere along the way one or more people will get split up. And though many talks had been had about the importance of staying together, along with an equal number of threats about the little remorse that would be had in leaving stragglers behind, these tactics proved to be no means to an end. Having made our way to the end of the city (which I had taken to calling the ‘Frozen Shitty’), we found all but one member of our party. The plan had been that if anyone were to become separated, we would reconvene at a clearly visible set of benches in front of the exit. Arriving at this point, it was apparent that the missing individual hadn’t heard these instructions, or believed that we had already left him behind.
Stuck. I trolled around in the gift shop for all of five minutes, mostly for the warmth, got completely claustrophobic and left in search of a cup of coffee, only to find that there was none to be had. Finally, after a good half hour of waiting and a number of phone calls, Ronald determined our friend had gotten on to a bus with a different group, and we were off and rolling once again, very cold, slightly agitated, but ready for a long anticipated lunch of Peking Duck.
This meal, which is (surprise surprise) a Beijing specialty, has a name that brought me some confusion. Peking, though spelled differently, is pronounced the same way as Beijing (look here for an explanation of Pinyin and Wade-Giles pronunciation). My confusion came from the fact that every time I said Beijing Duck, as opposed to its traditional western pronunciation with a P and K, I found myself being corrected by our guide. When using Chinese, however, this was not the case. It is as though the western name has overridden its Chinese counterpart. But enough about linguistic nuances, lets eat!
During the short ride to the restaurant, I was told that part of the preparation in a traditional Peking Duck meal was the usage of all parts of the duck to create a variety of dishes and components. I thought I was clear on this aspect, but upon beginning the meal, it was apparent that by all parts, Ronald did in fact mean all of them. At this point, I will note that I almost never eat duck at home, and find it for the most part to be far too heavy for me to digest easily. At the time, I was of the mind that I was in China and if there was any place in the world capable of crafting a legendary meal out of a canard, it would certainly be this restaurant that we had entered. Every one of the five floors we walked up had a restaurant, and each one of them specialized in duck. I was told (though I have no proof of this) that ours was the finest. It sat all the way up top.
A few meals into our stay in China, I began to work on the principle that it was far better to eat first and ask about ingredients later. Ninety percent of the time, the dishes I tried were amazing. The other 10 percent were moments in which I gained an almost immediate sense that whatever I had eaten was a mistake. The duck meal looked relatively innocuous, comprised of many small dishes, and I quickly began to load up my plate. One of the first things I ate was a small dark cube, very smooth in texture. Assuming that it was a piece of chocolate, I tossed the malicious block into my mouth, immediately finding it to taste horrid. I was told by the fuwuyuan (general term for an attendant at a restaurant and other places of service) that it was some combination of fat and liver scrapings. Strike one. There were long strips of a gelatinous material, and after much debate about their contents (and having been disheartened by the initial culinary horrors that I had already suffered), we asked what they were before daring to taste. “Duck Webbing”.
Duck Webbing? Like the material in between the feet? Sure enough, duck webbing can also be used for a dish. I eventually gave in, ate one of the strips, instantly regretted the decision, and spent the next minute or so fighting the urge to run to the bathroom before being able to swallow the so-called delicacy. Enough with theses petty starter dishes, I said, moving on to the main course.
The rest of the meal was very good, though the general abuse that had been dealt to my taste buds early on remained strong in my mind. Sometime later, as we wound our way around town for an evening of parties and celebration, the meal would come back to haunt me. But hey, it was China, and if Andrew Zimmern survived, so would I. With the lunch concluded, we loaded back onto the bus and headed off to Beijing Language and Culture Institute （北京语言大学）to meet with Madame Liu, who Ronald labeled the Hillary Clinton of China. We were on the bus for no more than thirty seconds before realizing that, for the second time that day, we were missing someone. Stuck again.