I land in the Chinese capital on a very humid, hot and grey Saturday morning. My first stop is The Opposite House, a cozy modern Japanese boutique hotel in Sanlitum I discovered last year, which will be home for the next few days. As soon as I open the door of my spacious studio, I drop my bags, jump in the restoring rain shower, grab a couple of cups of iced coffee from the free mini bar, and head out for a brief visit of the Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City, a World Heritage Site since 1987, for almost 500 years has served as the home of emperors and their households, and is formed of 980 buildings. It’s glorious. Something I find quite unusual is that the Chinese Emperor had planned for his buildings, a separate building for his official wife, as well as smaller homes for his mistresses!
Yellow is the traditional royal colour; that’s why almost all roofs are covered with yellow glazed tiles. There are only two exceptions. The library at the Pavilion of Literary Profundity with black tiles because black was associated with water, and therefore fire-prevention and the Crown Prince’s residences with green tiles associated with wood and growth.
I find my way in the crowds, overwhelmed by the gigantic dimensions of the palace. At the end of my visit, after a few minutes spent resting in the shade of the Imperial Garden, my hunger takes over and pretty soon I am on my way to Niu jie (Ox street), home to the largest Muslim community in Beijing, one of the oldest and best integrated ethnic and religious minorities, for a much needed and off the beaten path lunch.
Back in the 17th century, Ox Street was an important market spot for halal beef and mutton. Today the food selection is extremely varied, from yangrou chuar (lamb kebabs), rou jiamo (meat in a bun), shala (salads) and other dishes of a distinctly Central Asian flavour.
Instead of the obvious and safe choice of a restaurant, I opt for the more adventurous Muslim food market – where quite literally nobody understands me, or I understand them. Here, after browsing the ground floors occupied by several bakeries, I settle for the second floor food court, where I manage to order a lamb bun, a savoury spinach baked pancake, and some delicious kind of soft pan fried meringues, served with white sugar.
With a full belly, I then venture two blocks down, to the historical Mosque for a brief visit. Niujie Mosque is the city’s oldest and largest mosque and was built in 996 by an imam named Nasruddin, the son of an Arab imam who came to China to preach the Islamic faith.
Just when my jet-lag is about to take over, I jump on a taxi and head back to Sanlitum to wonder around Yashow Market 雅秀市场 and stop for mani and pedi at Creative Nail Beauty Salon on the fourth floor.
My next pampering stop is a 10 minute walk away, not far from the Women stadium, Bodhi, a city spa that offers a variety of Chinese, Asian and and Western-style massages. They also offer free food or juices with any treatment – a little dumpling snack is always a good idea. I opt for the 1 hour traditional Chinese massage, and I walk out feeling completely relaxed, though I struggle to stay awake quite a few times during my treatment. Before heading to my hotel for a solid night of sleep – you know … when you fall asleep and wake up in exactly the same position – one more stop on my itinerary is planned.
What’s a trip to Beijing without eating duck? Dinner at uber famous Da Dong restaurant is therefore the only answer to that. This Beijing roast duck restaurant has become a real institution.
Celebrity chef and owner Dong Zhenxiang has been working on perfecting his method for roasting Peking duck for over 20 years. He is now able to extract the fat from the skin by extending their time in the oven. His restaurants even use a patented techniques to dry the skin to its crispy consistency. And I have to agree.
My duck was crispy and juicy indeed. Possibly one of the best I ever had. Coming with a selection of trimmings including a silky plum sauce, crispy shallots, sugar, a pungent garlic puree, preserved vegetables, pickles, radish, cucumber and of course its pancakes. I also order a selection of modern dishes – from the 160 page long menu -the biggest highlight – after the duck- is the cherry foie gras. All washed down by a refreshing Green Apple Martini.