We were SO looking forward to our five days in Beijing. Not only to explore the city and visit The Forbidden City and The Great Wall … but to soak up the luxury of The Grand Hyatt hotel to restore us before the next rough leg of our trip.
Just before we moved to Hong Kong, Zak spent the better part of a year living in a Hyatt for a work project. So he had a LOT of Hyatt points, some of which he redeemed for five nights in the Grand Hyatt in Beijing.
Aside from the cushy room, complimentary happy hours in the Club Lounge and great breakfast spread, the hotel also had one of the best Peking Duck restaurants in the city – so we had to indulge.
This Duck. Was. Amazing.
<Vegetarians may want to skip down to the next section…>
We had a set menu which included half a duck, plus so many other salads and dishes. There was a big open kitchen in the center of the restaurant, and we were sitting right near the duck oven, with its own dedicated master chef (apparently chefs apprentice and train for years to prepare proper Peking Duck). It’s like a cavernous pizza oven, and he used a long rod with a hook on the end to take the ducks in and out, and to move them around within the oven to get that perfect crispy skin.
The duck is carved at your table, and we were served three platters: duck skin only (like the most light, melt-in-your-mouth crackling ever), breast meat, and breast meat with skin on. Then you also get a steamer basket of thin pancakes/wrappers, sticks of spring onion and cucumber, and a bowl of plum sauce for dipping.
It was so amazing. So crispy and flavorful. I’d had great Peking Duck in Hong Kong and this was even better. Yum.
Plus then we got a huge dessert platter which included a red bean cheesecake and some jasmine tea ice cream.
We hadn’t had an upscale Western-style service meal in such a long time, it was all fantastic.
But First … The Mongolia Shopping List!
This trip is an amazing experience – but it’s really a journey, not a vacation! Every few days we have to have ‘admin time’ to review our upcoming planning, adjust reservations, buy supplies and do laundry in the sink!
After Beijing, we would spend Lunar New Year in Mongolia – and we needed gifts! (It’s like Christmas and New Years rolled into one, their biggest holiday of the year!)
Our shopping list was long: We needed gifts for 6 individual specific people (each with various requirements like “something feminine”, “loves tea”, “not made-in-China” etc.), plus then a ‘grab bag’ of maybe 20-30 ‘stocking stuffer’ type gifts for men, women and children which we could pull from depending on who we met.
We’d planned to do this shopping in Beijing, as it’s a major international city, and that means we wouldn’t have to carry all those gifts for the first month of the trip!
But in reality, that meant we spent most of our time for a day and a half shopping for gifts around Beijing! Plus a quick stop at Uniqlo for extra thermals for ourselves, and at the Apple store for a new power cable for my laptop (gotta keep blogging! :))
Our first full day in Beijing we also met up with Zak’s brother who was in town on business, so we had some respite from shopping to explore other areas of Beijing with an epic long walk in the freezing cold… <cue foreboding music…>
The first day of our tour was so ridiculously cold – and worse – it was extremely windy.
I used to think it was an old wives tale that you get sick from cold windy weather, but no more. After our walk with Zak’s brother the day before, I woke up feeling run-down with a slight cough. We headed out on our city tour. Soon, I was completely freezing. My toes were painfully cold. Again, I put too much trust in my weather app (when am I going to learn?!) The temperature wasn’t too bad – but the wind chill was arctic. It was blowing so hard we had to turn around so our backs were getting the brunt of the wind, and even then it would sometimes almost push you over with strong gusts!
I was grumpy. And getting worse.
It was SO cold and unpleasant, I think I took one picture the ENTIRE day of our tour. Zak seemed fine, but I was absolutely frozen, and my health was going downhill. I think I wasn’t very pleasant to be around most of that day…
When it’s that cold I just hunker down into ‘survival mode’ and honestly didn’t enjoy seeing the sights at all. I think Zak liked The Forbidden City though, here are some pictures from him! I just wanted to go soak in a hot bathtub.
A Calligraphy Experience
In Xi’an we’d visited their ‘calligraphy street’ where little shops sold brushes, ink stones and paper to do traditional Chinese lettering. We also noticed several shops with resident calligraphers who would create wall hangings with whatever message you wanted. We’d wanted to buy one in Xi’an, but the language was a problem (not only knowing which characters to ask for on the hanging … but to even explain to the calligrapher what we wanted!)
Our tour guide was so amazing, when we mentioned the calligraphy she rearranged our schedule to incorporate Beijing’s local ‘calligraphy street’. Together we visited several shops till we found one that felt right, and met their in-house calligrapher, who has been practicing more than 20 years.
After choosing the message, type of paper, orientation (horizontal or vertical) and style of writing, she served us tea and we settled in to watch her work.
This was by far our favorite moment during all of Beijing, and probably China overall. It was such a local, non-touristy activity, and when she realized that we were interested in her work, she spent a long time showing us different writing styles and painting characters for us in different styles etc. It was fantastic. And now we have a great souvenir to bring back to London (and a lightweight, rollable one too!)
So what message did we get on our wall hanging?
The Great Wall
Fortunately the weather cleared the next day, and it was still cold, but blue and sunny (and surprisingly warmer on top of the wall!)
I woke up with a cold/cough, but really wanted to see The Wall, so wrapped up much warmer than the previous day, and we set off.
We visited the Mutianyu section of The Great Wall which was a 2 hour drive from Beijing.
We took a cable car to the top – and apparently sat in the same car as Bill Clinton did!
Amazingly it was warmer and sunny on the top, and really beautiful to walk along. Because I was feeling under the weather, after a couple watch towers I sat in the sunshine while Zak and the guide went further along.
Mongolia Here We Come!
As we finished our time in Beijing, it was only two days until Chinese New Year (Lunar New Year), so the city was crazy with people shopping, traveling, preparing for a long holiday visiting family.
It started to sink in that this was the end of our time in China. We’ll both miss it. It was much better than we’d anticipated. Armed with Google Translate, you can overcome most of the language problems, and we really found it easy to travel around. (The Chinese train system is so amazing! Will write another post on this, but it’s really organized, efficient and clean! This was a very positive surprise for us.) We’re certainly going to miss the Chinese food too, which we’ve been eating for almost 2 years. Although we’re really looking forward to the next part of the trip, leaving China is closing the door (for now) on this part of our lives for 2 years … so it feels a bit bittersweet.
Our next leg was an overnight train journey to Ulan-Baatar, the capitol of Mongolia. So we loaded up our suitcases, bags of gifts, and food bag stocked with instant noodles and other tasty portable delights and waved goodbye to China! North-westwards!