Today’s first stop was the yak yoghurt shack. It’s about a ten minute walk from our hotel and seems to always have a queue outside. I had plain yoghurt and Jean-Pierre had his with mango. And when I say yoghurt, it was really more like a white custard. It looked horrible - a thick skin on top and a jelly-like consistency - but it tasted like heaven. I almost felt sad we hadn’t had any before now - what a wasted opportunity!
We scoffed our yoghurt right there on the street and then headed south to Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City.
Here I am on Tiananmen Square with a flag pole coming out of my hat:
A kid we met in the square, having a snack:
Me and Mao, a guard and a fire hydrant:
We had already decided to get a guide, so once we had gone through Tiananmen Square, we kept our eyes peeled for likely candidates. As it turned out, we were extremely fortunate to find an amazing, fun and hilarious guide: Xile. He’s 20, speaks fluent English with a sort of Mexican hip hop lilt, and regaled us with Sean Paul songs and Borat quotes. We ended up spending the whole day together, hanging out and laughing. By the end, we all agreed that we were the same kind of people and would try to stay in touch.
Here are Jean-Pierre and Xile, pals for life:
The Forbidden City is too vast to see in a single afternoon (or even a day) so we focused our attentions on the areas my cousin Michael had recommended - in particular the concubine’s living quarters.
Xile took us through the city pointing out the most interesting sections and painting a picture of life as an Emperor - and a concubine. I think the Forbidden City is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been to. We really only scratched the surface, which intrigued me enough to want to come back one day.
It was bitterly cold. In fact, the coldest day since our arrival. So much so, that after a few hours of touring the palace compound, we were ready to move on to somewhere warm (although not before shaking hands with the last Emperor’s nephew who is a calligrapher. We spent some time having his calligraphy explained to us).
Our dinner the night before was pretty dire, so were keen for Xile to recommend somewhere for us to eat lunch. He took us to a nearby Hunan restaurant, which was a total dive. The table next to ours was filled with smoking, drinking, ashing-and-spitting-on-the-floor men. And yet, once again, we were surprised by the quality of the food. It was delicious.
We ate Mao’s favourite dish: a sweet pork belly with capsicum. A bubbling hot dish of sticky tofu with chilies. We also had a whole baked fish with shitake mushrooms, which everyone agreed was outstanding.
Xile then took us to the Pearl Market, which was much like the black market we had gone to the other day. It was hectic and mostly full of tacky clothes and bags. The sellers were more than keen to attract our attention: they would grab our arms, block our path, or pull us in different directions. We managed to find a few hidden gems, but decided to draw that episode to a close after an hour or so.
We had a quick Tsing Tao beer and peanuts with Xile at the ‘Leymo’ Cafe before saying our goodbyes and heading to the theatre to see the Shaolin Monks.
Buoyed by our experience at lunchtime, we braved another dive of a restaurant near our hutong for dinner. But it was a disappointment. The same kind of smoking, spitting men. The same sticky table tops and ash on the floor, but not the same calibre of food.
We had lamb with cumin, which was OK - a bit like naughty, fatty popcorn. Also a tiger salad (green pepper and cucumber) and a stringy beancurd salad.
Utterly exhausted, we made our way back to our hotel and the warmth of our rooms. It was now bitterly cold and we each had more layers on than ever.