Last Day in China – The Forbidden City

There are some trips where you have mentally left the country way before the plane actually takes off. My last day in Beijing was one of those days. I woke to a gray gloomy sky. In another mood I might have thought the fog gave the city a romantic or mystical quality, but on this particular morning it just felt dreary.

Jiaozi for Breakfast

The day started well with breakfast at a baozi/jiaozi (dumplings) joint on the corner just across the street from the Jade Garden Hotel. The owner just stared at me when I walked into his empty little restaurant at 10am. I asked him in Mandarin if he had baozi or jiaozi . He said he had both, so I got a pan of jiaozi and a bowl of warm soy milk. I don’t normally drink soy milk but sort of ordered it inadvertently when I told him I don’t like sweet soy milk. But I do love the pork filled jiaozi dumplings and why not a bowl of soy milk to wash them down? All for just 4 yuan (less than $1).

I left the restaurant with a full belly and a sense of accomplishment. The gloom was starting to lift off of the day. I headed over to the Forbidden City for a quick spin. On the way I was stopped by three different “artists” wanting to show me their exhibitions. They all start off with helpful directions in solid English, then comes the “where are you from?” before the pleasant invitation to see their artwork. I’ve read about these scam “artists”, I just didn’t realize how prevalent they were.

Forbidden City

The entrance to the Forbidden City was packed with Chinese tourists with a few westerners mixed in adding a little color contrast in the sea of black heads. I had forgotten that today was a national holiday, Mid-Autumn Festival when moon cakes are exchanged.

I was really not in the mood for more Chinese crowds and debated whether I really wanted to follow the masses under the portrait of Mao and through the gates. I’ve visited the Forbidden City twice before and was sure I would be back again, but here I was and the line was moving so why not? It’s hard to imagine just how immense the complex is. Once past the ticket entrance the crowd thins due to the sheer size of the pavilion-flanked square. Today I wasn’t focusing on the history of the place or the need to see anything in particular. I was just wandering and looking for interesting photo opportunities.

On my last visit, in April of 2005, the grounds were under extensive restoration in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. Now most of the buildings were freshly painted and in good repair with only a few left in a more natural weathered state. While these older looking buildings have more charm and historical presence they were swamped with tourists trying to photograph their dark inner sanctums. After a while the gray skies caught up with the hordes and I was feeling that urge to flee.

Chinese Noodle Soup

Through the north exit and back on the streets the masses thinned. Not far from Wangfu Jing I found a noodle place with an upper floor overlooking the street. A quiet place to slurp down my last bowl of noodles, but quiet never lasts in China and I was soon joined by a noisy family.

Last Dinner in China

Spent the afternoon packing and resting up for my 2AM flight to Johannesburg. By dinner time I was hungry again but did I really want Chinese food? The Subway across from the hotel was looking tempting. In the end I just couldn’t do it and went into a Chinese restaurant two doors down, a smaller mid-range place with pictures and names both in Chinese and English.

Most of the other patrons were Chinese except one westerner sitting alone. After we had both ordered he asked if I spoke English and if I wanted to share our dinner. Something that you would normally not do at home seems perfectly reasonable where everything else around you is so foreign. 

Pierre, a computer science professor from France in China on business, was a delightful dinner companion. He had ordered a lamb in pastry seasoned with Middle Eastern spices and a broccoli dish, and I fava beans with pickled veg and beef with mushrooms. But not just any mushroom, a chicken flavored mushroom I had read about.

When the beef dish arrived it was the strangest looking beef I’d ever seen. We both poked at the transparent gelatinous substance and tasted it. It had a mild peculiar flavor and a smooth somewhat resistant texture.  Just what part of the animal was this? Thank goodness I was dining with an adventurous Frenchman who didn’t balk at the strangeness of the dish. We continued our conversation, I even tried a little French, but I just couldn’t stop wondering what exactly I had ordered. 

Finally I asked to see the menu and discovered there were two brownish looking dishes with mushrooms. When I had flipped back to the page in the menu to ask the waiter if I was indeed ordering a type of mushroom, I had flipped to the wrong page and inadvertently ordered different mushroom dish, one with sea cucumber not beef. While not technically a bug, it’s close enough for me.

September 12, 2011

For links to all the posts in this series see the Kunming page.

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