From Xian we took the deluxe Z train to Beijing. The Z trains are highly touted for their speed and luxury, but we didn’t see much of a difference between these trains and the others in China despite the fact that the ticket costs an extra US$15.

We shared our compartment with two Chinese aviation engineers. They spoke pretty good English, and we enjoyed sharing our phrase books with each other. They owned a particularly funny phrase book entitled “Understanding crazy Americans”. It contained all sorts of American idioms that would be utterly confusing to someone just learning English—like when we ask a question but it’s really a command. I do this to Chris all the time saying “can you do this or that” rather than the simpler request of” please take out the garbage”.

Upon reaching Beijing we planned out our six days of visiting the city. I can’t claim that we used our time wisely though. Looking back, we really saw very little of Beijing. It seems in every large city we wander quite a bit rather than making it to our destination quickly. We’re good navigators, but we move with the speed of turtles it seems. During our six day tour, we visited the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the Great Wall; we dined on Peking Duck, dumplings, and street food; and we shopped the likes of silk street and bar street while a tailor speedily sewed three cashmere suits for us.

We situated ourselves near the Forbidden City at the Jade International Hostel. With a dumpling shop right around our corner and nightly cheap eats just blocks away, this is a perfect spot for budget travelers. We spent our first full day touring the Forbidden City. Established during the Ming and Qing dynasties, it took workers 14 years to build the imperial palace. Today 980 buildings exist within the city walls. However, many fires swept through the complex in different years so we’re not sure how many original structures (if any) still stand.

Walking through the giant gates and enormous courtyards made us want to watch the “Last Emperor” to gain some insight into the clothing and way of life in the city. Until 1912, twenty-four emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasties called the Forbidden City home. When the last emperor of China was ousted from the city walls, the complex became a museum.

Many relics can be seen here today, that is if you can weasel your way close enough to the glass enclosures. Chinese tourists flock to the Forbidden city in droves. We’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Within the city, a museum houses clocks given to the emperors as gifts from around the world. Much of the collection comes from the imperial workshop, while many others were given as gifts. It’s an impressive display of craftsmanship, but a pity that few are still in working order.

We strolled through the imperial garden and came upon two trees intertwined. The imperial gardener planted the trees after a marriage and they grew together so that you could barely make one out from the other. They reminded me of my favorite quote from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin—”Love is a temporary madness…And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part…” Like Pelagia’s parents, these trees in the imperial garden had lost all their pretty blossoms but were one tree not two.

Across from the Forbidden City lies Tiananmen Square. We walked across the courtyard within just a few minutes and then looked at each other perplexed of what to do next. When in doubt, go shopping. And, that’s exactly what we did.

We spent a good part of one day looking for Yangsho market near “bar street”. This famous market housed in a four-story building is home to “Alice My Tailor.” Based on recommendations from the internet, we headed directly to this tailor shop to scout out their fabrics.

Being sufficiently impressed with their range of fabrics we entered negotiations but not before slipping that we’d already bought suits in Vietnam. This little slip helped us greatly in our negotiations as the saleswomen started immediately with our highest asking price. In a matter of minutes, we had her to the lowest price we thought she’d accept at US$100 per suit. Perhaps, we could get her down to US$80 with more negotiations—but we thought $100 was a fair price. In three days time, our tailor made suits were ready to go (of course, we returned for one fitting during those three days but it’s still an exceptional turnaround)

A visit to Beijing wouldn’t be complete without dining on Peking duck. We chose Quanjude Restaurant for our first Peking duck experience since its supposedly world famous as the best in Beijing. With five floors of tables, this restaurant means business. They swiftly walked us to our table and quickly led us through the menu. We ordered a half a duck with the usual accompaniments of green onions, plum sauce, and pancakes. We didn’t really know what to expect but luckily the waitress led us through how to properly eat our meal while the carver expertly sliced the meat at our table.

Peking duck reminded me more of mu shu pork than anything else. With little pancakes laid on our plate, we spread plum sauce and added green onions and roasted duck to it before rolling the pancake up.

Along with duck meat, we received a plate of deep roasted duck fat dipped in sugar. It was melt in your mouth goodness. Yes, I know it doesn’t sound appetizing but believe me—-it was quite tasty.

Even though we enjoyed this experience, we learned duck is not one of our favorite dish. We liked the plum sauce with pancakes much more than the duck itself.

During another dining adventure, we headed to the night market where stalls sold all sorts of delicacies from sea stars to noodles. We avoided the stalls of scorpions, beetles, snakes, and the like and chose instead to dine at a stall where several locals gathered. It looked like a mu shu pork joint. We ordered up two pancakes layered with plum sauce and filled with pork and vegetables. They turned out to be quite tasty but with so many dining options presenting themselves in Beijing, we never returned for more.

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