On day three in China, I decided to check off the major Beijing sights with a solo tour arranged through my hotel. I breathed a sigh of relief when I walked into the lobby to discover that my tour guide was a young, friendly 30-something Chinese woman--this was actually going to be fun!
Together, we drove to Tiananmen Square, the heart of Beijing. As we meandered, my tour guide explained that on weekends, the Square is much more crowded with tourists from all over China. If this was considered "not crowded," then I never want to see it on a weekend. Everywhere I looked, Tiananmen Square was swarming with groups of tourists in matching outfits, school groups with matching uniforms and families taking photos with selfie sticks. It was a madhouse. We walked around, skipping Chairman Mao's crystal coffin and instead heading in the direction of the Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City
The sun was shining and blue skies were peeking through the smog as we followed the stream of people into the gates of the Forbidden City. This massive palace was once home to Chinese emperors and their families and includes around 8,000 rooms across 180 acres.
Fun fact: Chinese emperors traditionally each had 72 "wives," all of which lived within the imperial palace walls. Bonus: the Forbidden City was constructed entirely without the use of nails!
My tour guide led me from building to building to see the living quarters of past royalty, official meeting areas and even the garden where deer once roamed free for the Emperor's entertainment and relaxation. The intricate details woven into the construction of the Forbidden City were impressive, especially considering it was built in the 1400s.
Duck blood for one
With the major touristy attractions out of the way, my tour guide and I stopped in a silk factory where I learned how silk fabrics are made from silkworms (a fact I wish I could un-learn) and she dropped me off at a local mall so I could grab a quick, authentic Chinese lunch.
Having traveled a decent amount and having lived in New York City for almost 2 years, I consider myself very self sufficient and independent. But, as I wandered around this multi-level Chinese mall, I found myself wishing for help, preferably in the form of a Chinese/English translator. Not only was I the only American, but every restaurant (minus Sizzler) featured all-Chinese menus of food I had never even heard of. So what's a New Yorker to do?
I decided to go for the most popular food stall with the longest line. Everyone else is doing it, so the food must be good, right? As I moved closer and closer to the cashier, I hesitantly asked my neighbors in line, "Do you speak English?" Thankfully, the young Chinese guy in front of me understood my confused tone and ordered me the same thing he ordered, which I quickly discovered was duck blood and vermicelli soup. I admit I was skeptical, but when in China, do as the Chinese do.
Believe it or not, the soup was amazing. If nobody had told me that the gelatinous chunks were duck blood, I never would have guessed otherwise. It was spicy, hot and delicious (and only cost about $2). According to Wikipedia, this dish is a traditional soup from Nanjing, China and also includes gizzards and duck intestines. The next big trend in New York dining: duck parts?