Put back on your Beijing goggles, because I’m about to talk about the two most traditional things I did while in Beijing: Eat Peking duck and see Peking Opera. And in case you didn’t know, Beijing used to be known as Peking. Apparently, when the French first came to China, they were in a part with an uncommon dialect whose pronunciation was closer to Peking than Beijing.
So one night, me and my friends made reservations at a very expensive Peking Duck, or Kaoya, restaurant. It turns out that it was quite fancy and all of us were under-dressed in gym shorts and backpacks. But that was no worries. The people who were better at Chinese were fed up with ordering, so the task was left to me and my friend. I floundered while my friends rose to the challenge. I’ve since become a professional at ordering my favorite dishes and I can almost, almost, read a menu.
Well the roasted duck is prepared in a room apart from the table and the whole duck is wheeled to you. There, the chef carves the duck into tiny slices and gives them to the table. These slices are in two categories, meat and crunchy skin. The crunchy skin is eaten separately with sugar as a bit of a snack. But the meat is wrapped up into a tiny tortilla with onions, cucumber, garlic, and a special barbeque-esque sauce. The end result is quite tasty and definitely a Beijing original. While some of my friends would kill a man in Reno just to eat some Kaoya (duck), I found it to be good, but nothing to write home about. But I guess I am, so who knows?
It’s a really fun meal, and it encourages the family style well. It’s also a Beijing classic so if you find yourself there, be sure to have it. The next night, was the first clear night in Beijing and I could see the very close mountains. Here is a picture from my dorm room to show how beautiful Beijing could be without the pollution (even then it’s a touch polluted).
A couple of days later, my group went to take a trip to the Peking Opera, or 京剧(jingju). I had heard interesting things about Peking Opera before I went. I heard it sounded weird, or off-putting. Some liked it, others didn’t. I went in waiting to be underwhelmed. Well, the particular theatre we went to was almost a dinner theatre. Everyone sat at tables and drank tea during the performance. Fortunately, during the performance, there was a large screen above the stage that displayed the song lyrics in both Chinese characters and English. The costumes were very pretty and the choreography was… Asian, lots of ribbons and swirling, pretty cool, but not mind-blowing. And now to describe the music.
WARNING This is typical of Peking Opera. My experience was not the exception. WARNING
The earliest illustrative description I heard was that of a bat orgy. This wise person was mostly correct. The screeching of the female singers was nearly unbearable, and supposedly considered beautiful. The best singers voice was somewhere between a meowing cat and a creaky door hinge. The background music was even more unbearable. There was a clacking noise and a slide whistley noise, and a clangy tin sounding thing. There was no sense of rhythm and the one drum they had, an actual instrument, they used maybe once. The metaphor I eventually came up with was a Pots and Pans salesman driving his rickety wagon across a ricketier bridge. With slide whistles (think whale noises on fast forward?). I’m really glad I went, but it is truly something I will only do once.