Day 6 was a different take on Beijing to some degree. We concentrated a bit more on the modern landmarks, beginning with two that would be familiar to anyone who was conscious during the 2008 Olympics: The Water Cube, and The Birds Nest (photos). Unfortunately, our tours were limited to an external view of these landmarks.
Jenny had gone out of her way to name the French architect for the National Centre for the Performing Arts, so I fully expected her to tout Chinese artist/dissident Ai Weiwei’s input into the design of the Birdsnest. She never mentioned him. I found that omission curious, and telling. I assumed that it reflected a diminished status resulting from his outspoken behaviour. I’m sure that some Chinese must view statements like this one with some disapproval. And, of course, as I write this, he continues to anger both the National and Shanghai authorities, the latter having once again put him under house arrest just days ago. I saw no point in pressing the issue with her, though.
The structures themselves are impressive enough, although a film of typical Beijing grime somewhat diminishes the effect of The Water Cube. It was a bit difficult to take pictures that might do them justice, since we walked across the plaza on the north side, essentially forcing me to shoot into the sun from most angles. It would have been good to return in the evening to take a picture of The Water Cube at night, but the facilities were some distance from our hotel, so that wasn’t practical, and this was to be our last day in Beijing.
From the ultra-modern, we once again turned to antiquity with a visit to The Summer Palace, the summer retreat of emperors since the 12th Century, although the gardens themselves were not commissioned until the 18th Century. At that time, excavation of 2.2 Km2 Kunming Lake began, and the earth from the lake bed was used to form Longevity Hill. As with every Chinese garden we visited, we were impressed with the sense of serenity, even when it was swarming with thousands of people. With a little imagination, one can imagine how glorious it must have been for Emperors and their entourages to enjoy them in some solitude (photos).
And again, we were blown away by the level of detail in the workmanship. We walked most of the 0.75 Km length of the Long Corridor while staring up at the ceiling. Every single beam and ceiling panel is painted with unique paintings – essentially a 700m-long open-air art gallery (photo).
After we left the Summer Palace, Jenny took us to lunch. Jenny had grown up in northeastern China, just a few kilometers from the North Korean border, so she wanted to take us to a restaurant that served authentic northeastern cuisine. We were more than happy to oblige.
While there weren’t startling contrasts between the food she ordered us and what we had been eating to that point, there were a few distinct differences. First, a couple of the dishes were obviously braised, a much longer cooking process than the flash-frying and deep frying that characterized much of what we’d eaten so far. She also pointed out that the beans used in northeastern cooking were of a different sort, and that meats (in particular chicken) were most often cooked bone-in for added flavour, something which could only be accomplished by the slower braising method. The result was a flavour profile which wasn’t particularly spicy but perhaps more full-bodied than more southerly dishes. Once again, though, we were mildly surprised that the prevalence of cilantro in Chinese cooking, something that we had never experienced in Chinese dishes in North America.
I believe this was the day that we had a conversation with Jenny about dogs. We were discussing the surging popularity of dogs as pets in China, something that we had already made note of ourselves. It seemed particularly odd to us in a culture where almost everyone lives in apartments that dog ownership should be so common. And it was obvious from the neatly groomed appearance and mannerisms of the dogs that their owners lavished considerable attention on them. We also marveled at how well-behaved Chinese dogs tended to be. In all the time in China we only saw two or three yappy dogs, and even though they were almost never on leashes, dogs always walked calmly with their owners down the busiest streets without the least fuss. I came to attribute canine popularity to the One-Child Policy. In my opinion, middle-aged men and women found themselves with an empty nest long before they had exhausted their parental instincts, and so their dogs filled the gap left by their child’s absence.
But I digress. Back to Jenny. For Jenny, this coddling of dogs was just silly. As she said, “In the North, we have dogs too, but we have them for … (she struggled for a moment to find the right word) … warning.” And then without the slightest bit of self-consciousness added, “And to eat.” As we both did our best to maintain unruffled faces, she went on, “Dog is very nice.”
Later in the day, when we were alone, we took the time to have a huge chuckle at this little exchange. There was something so incongruous about this sweet, naive, petite little girl delivering that line with such deadpan candor: “Dog is very nice.” We would repeatedly return to that moment throughout the trip, and it would always elicit the same reaction.
After lunch we toured a few shopping districts, Luogo Lane, an row of expensive shops ironically located in the poor Hutong district, and the Dashanzi Art District, a group of former factories which have been repurposed as art studios and galleries. Neither was really where our head was at at the time. They were interesting, but not exactly what we had come to China to see.
Our final stop for the day was Qianmen Shopping Street, a pedestrian street a bit more to our liking, simply because it has a history of some 600 years. Even so, among the many more traditional shops are sprinkled Haagen-Dazs outlets and McDonalds. We enjoyed the stroll for the architecture, but we didn’t do much actual shopping.
Jenny thought that we really ought to try the classic in Beijing cuisine, so she had arranged a Peking Duck feast for us at a reputable restaurant. Of course “reputable” and roast duck come at a price, so this wasn’t our cheapest meal in China (about $40 a piece). While we certainly enjoyed the meal, we both agreed that it was a matter of “Been there; done that.” There are plenty of meals I would happily have again that cost a fraction of the price.
After our feast, we retired to the hotel to rest up for another day, and a new city.