Archive for November, 2007

On any visit to Lhasa, there are a few sites you just can’t miss.  In addition to Jokhang Temple (as discussed in our last post), the must-see attraction is Potala Palace.  As we arrived by bus from the airport, I suddenly caught a glimpse of the Palace.  Built into the side of a hill, the Palace rises above the rest of Lhasa enabling a view of the striking building from most vantage points in the city.
Construction of the Potala Palace commenced in 1645, with the white palace completed in 1648 and the red palace completed in the 1690s.  In total, the Palace consists of 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and 200,000 statues.  The white palace was used as the Dalai Lama’s winter residence while the red palace was devoted to religious study and prayer and houses the tombs of several former Dalai Lamas.

Fortunately for visitors, the number of people allowed in the Palace each day is limited.  During our visit, we felt like we had the place to ourselves most of the time.  It was especially interesting to see the former living quarters of the Dalai Lama.  While not spartan, the residence was definitely not as opulent as many of the royal palaces in Europe.
In what was probably the highlight of our stay in Lhasa, we visited the Sera Monastery.  Prior to the Cultural Revolution, the monastery housed some 5,000 monks; now, a few hundred remain.  There are multiple chapels in the monastery.  In one, we found gorgeous statues and a large group of pilgrims fighting their way around the chapel.  In another, we happened upon a ceremony where dozens of monks were chanting in deep voices – somewhat soothing, but also a little frightening.
At 3:00 p.m., we headed to the garden near the monastery.  Every day, hundreds of monks gather there for 2 hours of furious debates.  From our observations, the monks split up into groups of 2 or 3 monks, with 1 of the monks assigned the duty of asking the other monk(s) a serious of questions.  Depending on the answer or in order to make a point, the questioning monk slaps his hands together in a somewhat violent manner.  It makes the US Presidential Debates look incredibly boring.  It’s readily apparent that the monks truly enjoy the debates, with the monks smiling and laughing frequently.  The debates are a long-standing tradition that will hopefully continue.
With Shanna in bed with a stomach virus on Sunday afternoon (Tibetan Food – 1; Shanna – 0), I headed to the Drepung Monastery, which at one time was the largest monastery in the world, housing over 7,000 monks.  After enduring a bus ride that took an hour and a half (but should have only taken 20 minutes; long story) and then almost getting into a fight with a Chinese cab driver who was trying to rip me off (luckily, I outweighed the guy by about 100 pounds), I made it to the monastery right before closing time.  Since this is the low season anyway, I had the monastery free to myself (well, other than the 1,000 monks and countless sheep who live there).

After roaming the monastery (which is built on the side of a mountain) for about an hour and getting completely lost, I noticed a monk on top of a nearby building.  I waved at him and pointed in both directions trying to get some advice on which way I should go.  He pointed the way towards his building, which turned out to be the monk’s living quarters.  Once I made it to his building, I looked up and asked for further direction.  He pointed to the door and made gestures that I should come join him on the roof.  Who am I to turn down a monk?
Once upon the roof, the smiling monk – who was enjoying the beautiful afternoon and reading his prayer book – asked if I’d like some tea.  Again, who am I to turn down a monk?  Next thing you know, I’m following him to his spartan living quarters on the first floor.  The room, which was about 8 feet in length, 6 feet wide and 5 feet high, was simply furnished with a tiny cot and about 30 religious books.  Attached was a tiny room where there was a small stove for boiling water.  Once we entered the room, he offered me a seat on the cot and prepared the tea.

For the next hour, we flipped through pages of a Tibetan/English phrasebook he had in his room, trying to learn tidbits of information about each other.  I learned that he was 34, became a monk at 14, was not from Tibet but from a neighboring province, was a big fan of the Dalai Lama and had an older brother who was killed as part of the Cultural Revolution.  After drinking several glasses of tea and exhausting all of the relevant phrases in the phrasebook, I said goodbye.  It was an experience I will never forget.

Sera Monastery Video:

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Potala Palace Video:

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Quickly after arriving in Lhasa, Tibet, I fell in love with the place. The more I travel, the more I seek out places that are truly foreign. I seek experiences that just don’t make sense. These types of experiences abound in Lhasa.
Lhasa has expanded to a population of over 250,000. Much of this growth has been in the new part of Lhasa, with its generic Chinese-style concrete buildings. The old part of the city – Barkhor – is where the real action takes place. Walking down the narrow alleys, your senses are overwhelmed with monks and religious pilgrims begging in the streets, yak carcasses being slaughtered by local butchers and yak cheese and yak butter being sold by the pound (or, actually, by the kilo). ((By the way, if you’re waiting for a post on Tibetan food, don’t hold your breath. The cuisine of Tibet can be summed up with one word – yak. Just imagine a high-quality piece of Angus beef, then think of the opposite. That’s yak. Enough said.))
As you wind your way down the alleys, you’ll eventually reach Barkhor Square, the heart of the old city. The centerpiece of the square is Jokhang Temple, the holiest site for Tibetan Buddhists. The Jokhang Temple was built in 642 (yep, that’s 1,365 years ago!) to house the Jowo Shakyamuni Buddha, a gold Buddha statue brought to Tibet by a Nepali princess who married the then-king of Tibet and basically started Tibetan Buddhism. The statue has become the most venerated object for Tibetans.

Many Tibetans make a pilgrimage to Lhasa at least once in their lifetime just to visit the Jokhang Temple and its Jowo Buddha. Of course, they can’t just hop on I-65 and arrive in Lhasa in a few hours. The journey, through harsh terrain, can take weeks or even months. Some of the most reverent Tibetans travel by way of prostration, where they place their hands together, touch their foreheads, chest and stomach and then slide across the ground making sure to touch their forehead to the ground (resulting, in some cases, in wounds on their forehead). After the slide is complete, they get up, walk 2 or 3 steps to the spot where their hands ended up after the slide and then repeat. As you can imagine, this is not a very fast mode of travel. I’ve read that some Tibetans have spent years traveling between holy sites in Tibet by way of prostration.
When we first approached Barkhor Square and the Jokhang Temple, we were swept up in the “kora” of the Jokhang Temple. The kora is a route traveling in a clockwise direction around the temple. From dawn to late in the night, you can see many Tibetans traveling this route either by walking or by way of prostration in hopes of earning merit as a Buddhist. Many of the Tibetans are holding a prayer wheel which is basically a stick with a wheel on the end, which houses prayers written in Tibetan script. As the wheel is moved in a clockwise direction, the prayers are released up to heaven. Similar prayer wheels line the sides of building and temples, allowing you to turn the prayer wheels as you walk by.
The line to visit the Jokhang Temple was extraordinarily long. After waiting for a few minutes, a few of the pilgrims tried to explain to us in Tibetan that we foreigners (who were going to pay a sizeable entrance fee) weren’t required to wait in the line. After some hand gestures, we finally figured out the protocol and made our way to the main entrance. The temple was quite dark inside, relying on yak butter candles to provide most of the lighting. Instead of doing a quick tour of the temple, we decided to jump back in line with the pilgrims who were slowly visiting the many side chapels that housed multiple statues of Buddha and other gods.

The devotion and reverence of the pilgrims was extraordinary. They took their turns touching their forehead to the altars, leaving small sums of money in front of the statues and refilling the candles with a fresh batch of yak butter (which has a distinct smell that I won’t soon miss). Unlike most of the temples, mosques and churches I’ve visited throughout the world that seem more museum than place of worship, this place was alive. After the Cultural Revolution in China that prohibited religion in Tibet for several years, you got a sense that the pilgrims to the temple wanted to get in all the worshipping they could just in case they are prohibited from doing so once again. We left the temple emotionally exhausted (and physically sore after enduring the endless pushing of the pilgrims as we made our way through the temple).

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Until only a few years ago, the only thing I knew about Tibet was that lots of people who like the Grateful Dead, hugging trees and world peace (according to the many bumper stickers on their car) also wanted Tibet to be free.
The Tibet Autonomous Region is technically a part of China, but it is a world apart.  The people, the language, the religion, the clothes, the culture, the food – well, everything – is different from the rest of China.  It is geographically located in the western part of China, north of India and Nepal.  In Southern Tibet lie the great Himalaya mountains, including Mt. Everest which straddles the border of Tibet and Nepal.  With an average elevation of 15,400 feet, Tibet is known as the “Rooftop of the World”.

The greatest distinguishing characteristic of Tibet is its religion.  Tibetans practice a form of Buddhism that is unique to this area.  To a Westerner’s eye, it is much more ritualistic and colorful than schools of Buddhism you’ll find in other parts of Asia.  When you’ve seen pictures of monks wearing funny-looking hats and chanting “Om” in a deep voice, there’s a good chance they were Tibetan Buddhists.
The leader of the Tibetan Buddhists is the Dalai Lama ((“So I jump ship in Hong Kong and make my way over to Tibet, and I get on as a looper at a course over in the Himalayas. A looper, you know, a caddy, a looper, a jock. So, I tell them I’m a pro jock, and who do you think they give me? The Dalai Lama, himself. Twelfth son of the Lama. The flowing robes, the grace, bald… striking. So, I’m on the first tee with him. I give him the driver. He hauls off and whacks one — big hitter, the Lama — long, into a ten-thousand foot crevice, right at the base of this glacier. And do you know what the Lama says? Gunga galunga…gunga — gunga galunga. So we finish the eighteenth and he’s gonna stiff me. And I say, “Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know.” And he says, “Oh, uh, there won’t be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.” So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.” – Carl Spackler (aka Bill Murray), from Caddyshack, the movie.  Sorry, folks, but I had to do it.)).  According to Tibetan Buddhists, the Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of a prior Dalai Lama.  He is to Tibetans as the Pope is to Catholics – and then some.  They worship him.   As you may know, the Dalai Lama met President Bush while on a US visit a few weeks ago.  This was major news in Tibet and in China (where the officials expressed their great disappointment on the meeting).  In fact, the government temporarily halted issuing permits for foreigners to visit Tibet ((In order to enter Tibet, foreigners must be part of a “tour group” and be issued a permit, which of course costs money.  I’m assuming the permit is there in order to keep out “Free Tibet” activists, but it’s mainly a farce and an easy way for the Chinese government to make money.  For independent travellers – like us – who avoid tour groups at all costs, with the help of travel agencies you are able to receive a permit as a “tour group” of two – in our case, Shanna and me – and not actually have a guide or set itinerary.))  Luckily, they quickly changed the policy, and we were able to obtain a permit.
Tibet and China have had a long history as neighbors, with Tibet remaining independent from China for most of its history.  This began to change in the past few decades.  In 1950, China invaded Tibet, making Tibet a “national autonomous region” with the Dalai Lama still in charge.  This didn’t go well, and things started getting ugly.  Eventually, it got so bad that the Dalai Lama had to flee Tibet in 1959, making India his new home.

The next several years were brutal for Tibet.  Communist China and its anti-religion movement had a field day in Tibet, banning religion, destroying religious buildings (reportedly over 4,000 monasteries were destroyed) and burning religious texts during the Cultural Revolution.  Many Tibetans, including monks and nuns, lost their lives during this time.   The Tibetans refer to this period as the time that the “sky fell to the earth.”
After the ban on religion was removed in 1976, Tibetan Buddhism and culture began to re-emerge.  Calls for independence from China have occurred since then, but have been quickly squashed by the Chinese government.  Therefore, the “Free Tibet” cause has largely occurred outside the borders of Tibet.  Of course, the Chinese are not willing to budge on their stance on Tibet, noting that Tibetans should be thankful to the Chinese for rescuing them from the serfdom that existed before the Chinese arrived and for investing millions of dollars in Tibetan infrastructure and other government services.

The future of Tibet is unclear.  Thousands of Chinese are moving into Tibet because they believe opportunity awaits them, similar to the Go West movement in America in the mid-1800s.  This mass migration, plus the increase of Chinese tourists, has been facilitated by the recent completion of a new railway linking mainland China with Tibet.  Many Tibetans believe this addtional Chinese influence will ultimately lead to the dissolution of the Tibetan culture and an end of Tibet as it is today.  Stay tuned!

Happy Thanksgiving from Kathmandu!  Although we’ll probably be without the normal Thanksgiving trimmings this year (not a lot of pumpkin pie to be found in Nepal…),  we’re so glad to have a day to reflect on how much we’ve got to grateful for.  Happy, happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

Including Macau, Hong Kong and Tibet, we’ve spent almost a month and a half in China.  Along the way, we’ve observed many things that were different from our preconceptions of China and others that seemed just downright odd.  In no particular order, here’s a list of a few of them:

  • Items You Will Not Receive When Sitting Down at a Chinese Restaurant:
    • Napkins – Either the Chinese are the most careful eaters in the world, always inserting each bite into their mouth flawlessly, or they have a lot of dirty shirt sleeves.
    • Water – At home, we’re used to downing glass after glass of free water at any restaurant.  This is not the case here, where it seems as if the Chinese drink little, if any, fluids while eating.
    • Rice and Soy Sauce – Judging from restaurants back home, you would assume that these two are staples of the Chinese diet.  However, rice is rarely served in most restaurants that we’ve seen.  To get soy sauce (assuming they have it, which is rarer than you would think), you have to make a special request.
  • Spitting
    • You may have heard rumours that a lot of Chinese people spit in public.  We’re here to confirm that those rumours are 100% true.  Male or female, old or young, rural or urban — there seem to be no boundaries to letting the phlegm fly.  The Chinese are aware of Westerners’ discomfort with this habit, and have even started a campaign to hopefully eradicate the practice prior to the Beijing Olympics in 2008.  We wish them luck!
  • Items Not Often Found in a Chinese Restroom:
    • Soap
    • Paper Towels
    • Toilet Paper
    • Western-Style Toilets

 We quickly learned to always come armed with our own soap and t.p.

  • Lines
    • Simply put, they don’t exist.  No matter what you’re in line for – a train ticket, an ATM machine, anything – there’s a good chance you will be elbowed by a tiny Chinese woman aiming to get in front of you.
  • Mattresses
    • A Chinese woman we met told us that many Chinese people believe that hard mattresses promote healthy bones.  If that’s the case, the Chinese have the strongest bones on the planet. 
  • Split Pants
    • Upon our arrival in China, we noticed a unique component of many toddlers’ pants.  They seemed to be split up the back.  Upon further observation, we came to understand that this feature was a way for parents to save money on diapers and save time spent on taking bathroom breaks.  In one swift movement, the child is free to relieve him or herself wherever and whenever the need arises.  We’ve witnessed this phenomenon in Tiananmen Square, on sidewalks, in parks, in trash cans and in the middle of the street.  Privacy and sanitation seem to be of no concern.

We’d love to see a similar list prepared by a Chinese tourist visiting America for the first time.  We’re sure it wouldn’t be pretty.

In the last few weeks, Derek and I have enjoyed one of the many benefits of long-term journeys: travel friends.  On short vacations, one’s priority is often to catch up on much-needed time with family and other loved ones.  When life on the road is more of a routine than it is a break from one, however, travelers have time to get to know each other–to share meals, stories and travel advice–without worrying about missing out on quality time with anyone from their “real lives” back at home.  This is one of the best ways to learn about must-see places and to begin to understand the different realities of living in a country other than our own. 
We’ve been lucky to meet a lot of great people during our time on the road so far.  In Yangshuo, we met three Americans who live just outside of D.C.  Gene, Betsy and Kitty gave us some invaluable Tibet travel advice, without which we wouldn’t be staying in the wonderful hotel where I’m writing this.  

We met another pair of newlyweds, Peter and Regine (who are also doing a travel blog), on a bus from Ping’an to Guilin.  We later shared dinner with them in what turned out to be one of my favorite cafes on the planet–Prague Cafe in Lijiang.  The next morning, in the same place (yup, we went back!), we started talking to an Australian couple, Phil and Viv, and ended up spending most of the next two days with them.
Tea with Phil and Viv in Shuhe
And, in a small Naxi guesthouse in Tiger Leaping Gorge, we got to know Martin and Martina, a Czech couple with whom we can’t wait to have dinner once we finally make it to Eastern Europe.  These great people and others have made our already great travel memories even better.
Tiger Leaping Gorge
Better still is the knowledge that Michael and Kelly, some dear friends from Nashville, are meeting us in Nepal in four days (and counting!).   They come bearing new sticks of deodorant and clean socks.  That, indeed, is what friends are for.

It was time to escape from the polluted cities of China.
While I’ve always loved the city life, there is an unequalled joy of exiting the urban sprawl and heading to the mountains.  I guess that love started for me at an early age, as my family hooked up the pop-up camper and hit the road to explore national parks and KOAs throughout America.  Many of my fondest memories occurred by the campfire toasting hot dogs (we called them weenies) and marshmallows.  I would kill for just a couple of s’mores right now.

After a couple of days in Lijiang, we caught the 8:30 a.m. bus to Qiaotou, a small town near the start of the Tiger Leaping Gorge.  During the 2 hour bus ride, the concrete buildings we were used to seeing started to disappear and snow-capped mountains soon followed.
The Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest gorges (or canyons) in the world, having a depth of over 10,000 feet in some places – approximately twice the depth of the Grand Canyon.  The gorge, which only runs for 8 miles, is split by the great Yangtze River – the longest river in Asia and the third largest river in the world.  Tiger Leaping Gorge received its unusual name due to its width, which narrows to around 100 feet in at least one place.  Legend has it that a tiger jumped the river at its narrowest point to escape an approaching hunter.

From reports we’d heard, the hike through the Tiger Leaping Gorge is not to be taken lightly.  In fact, several people have died in recent years attempting the hike during bad conditions.  The trail is very narrow at points, with huge drop-offs just inches away.  All the guidebooks insist that you only go when the weather is good.  Luckily, we avoided the rain.  Nonetheless, parts of the trail ran right under flowing waterfalls that required careful footwork in order to avoid a fatal slip.
Upon arriving in Quaitou, we immediately hit the trail.  The trek can be easily done in 2 days; however, we had time on our hands and wanted to truly appreciate the beauty of the gorge.  After hiking 2 hours, we stopped at the Naxi Family Guesthouse, a small guesthouse in a village inhabited by the local Naxi people.  Our hosts set us up in a basic room with hot water (a huge plus).  While there wasn’t any heating, we were provided with an electric blanket and Shanna stole 2 extra blankets from an empty room down the hall.

We had a relaxing afternoon and evening exploring the local village and sharing travel stories and fried rice with our new friends from the Czech Republic and Boston.  We also met a family from Montreal, Canada who was traveling around the world for a year with 3 daughters (ranging in age from around 8 to 14)!  Very impressive!
Day 2 of the hike was the most challenging, requiring us to climb the “24 bends” – bends that curve straight up the mountain.  After conquering the bends and reaching the summit, we were rewarded with an amazing view and a mostly flat to downhill hike for the rest of the day.  A few hours later, we arrived at Halfway Guesthouse.  This guesthouse  received some notoriety after Michael Pallin (a British actor made famous from Monty Python films and now a star of several series following him on journeys throughout the world) stayed here during his filming of “Himalaya” – a fantastic series that Shanna and I watched before we left on our trip (it’s available at the Green Hills Library in Nashville).  Day 3 was short – a 2-hour hike to a small town where we caught a ride back to Lijiang.
For nature lovers, the hike is not to be missed.  The scenery is stunning.  At one point, I had Shanna convinced that the word “gorgeous” was coined by an English explorer who visited the Gorge hundreds of years ago.  The height of the gorge walls is hard to comprehend.  It wasn’t until I saw a bus – the size of an ant from our vantage point – driving along a road at the bottom of the gorge that its size fully sunk in.  I found myself torn between gazing at the impossible beauty of the gorge and watching the trail before me to ensure I didn’t slip down a 3,000 foot ravine – or run into one of the many mountain goats we spotted along the trail.

Like so many places I’ve encountered during my years of travel, Tiger Leaping Gorge is a place to be visited soon.  As we humans continue to feed our need for power and resources, many natural wonders are in danger.  Based on stories I’ve read, there is a strong chance that a dam will soon be built near the Gorge that will virtually stop the flow of the Yangtze River in the gorge and displace approximately 100,000 of the Naxi people who live in the area.  Hopefully, the powers that be will come to their wits and avoid destroying one of the truly “gorge”ous places on this planet.

Below is a video of our hike through the gorge, set to music.  I’m sure some of my guy friends (especially Kevin Howard and Jeremy Stephens) will be touched by the music, so you might want to have tissues nearby.

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If you were to mix together one part Boulder, Colorado, one part Venice and one part Beijing, your result surely would look something like Lijiang, the lovely southwestern town where we just spent a few days.   Like Boulder, it’s situated in the foothills of snow-capped mountains.  Like Venice, its old city ((Lijiang is divided into a charming old city and a traffic-filled new one.  Almost of all of the tourist attractions are located within the thankfully-off-limits-to-cars confines of the old city.)) is crisscrossed by canals, many of which are still in use.  And like Beijing, it’s sometimes overrun by massive Chinese tour groups, which move down its streets seemingly without regard for anything in their path.  Lijiang is a quaint place, though sometimes more in the Disneyland sense that the charming-village one.  We had a wonderful time getting lost (Derek figuratively, me literally!) in its narrow, cobblestone streets.
One afternoon, we tagged along with our new Aussie friends, Phil and Viv, and explored two nearby villages that were a bit removed from the normal tourist track.  In Baisha, we paused to watch Naxi ((The Naxi are a Chinese ethnic minority based in Lijiang who, until recently, lived in largely matriarchal societies.)) locals playing a hot game of mahjong.  In Shuhe, I felt a deep appreciation for the relaxed, travelers’ lifestyle that we enjoy as we sat on a bridge and listened to songs played by a Frenchman and his band of Chinese hippies.  On a tighter schedule, we may have passed by this motley crew without a second thought.
The next day, I paid a visit to the nearby Dongba Research Institute.  Over 1,000 years ago, Naxi shamans, or Dongba, created an incredible written language that is composed largely of pictograms.  The only hieroglyphic language still in use today, the Dongba language is a dying art.   A renowned Dongba scholar (who, incidentally, sports a very fantastic headpiece) was recruited to the institute to teach his ancient art to Chinese students.  I was lucky enough to encounter one pupil, who instructed me in the intricacies of the incredible pictographs.  I left the institute as the proud owner of a marriage certificate created for Derek and me by the scholar himself.  Our backpacks have little room for souvenirs, but we’ll make an exception for this one!

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Our time in China has been nothing if not a lesson in the relative brevity of our own country’s history.  This lesson really sunk in as, during our time in Xi’an, we stood in front of an army of terra cotta warriors and tried to wrap our minds around the fact that a Chinese emperor ordered their construction some 2,200 years ago.  (Kind of makes July 4, 1776 seem like yesterday!)
The emperor, Qun Shi Huang (incidentally, the same guy who began construction of the Great Wall), reportedly decided that the army would suffice to guard his spirit in the afterlife, but only after one of his generals reportedly (and this is only according to our guide; I couldn’t substantiate it with research!) talked him out of his initial idea for spirit protection: burying alive 3,000 children whose spirits could keep him company.
The army itself is notorious.  You may already know that each warrior’s face is unique. But did you also know that, before the tomb–with all of its warriors, its bronze weapons and its gold chariots–could be sealed, it was torched, either by the many members of the populace who resented the emperor’s cruelty or by the 700,000 workers who had been conscripted to build it all. (According to our guide, the workers, too, were to be buried alive in the tomb, so as to ensure that the knowledge about how to break into it would die with them.)  Whomever the cause, the fire destroyed the tomb’s roof, which crushed the warriors and created an intricate puzzle for archaeologists to assemble a couple of millenia later.
Equally fascinating is the fact that the 7,000 warriors that have been uncovered so far represent only a fraction of those actually constructed.  Huge portions of the land surrounding the emperor’s tomb, as well as the tomb itself, remain unexcavated, in part because a river of mercury reportedly courses through it.  The frenzy that started in 1974, when a farmer digging a well accidentally uncovered a mysterious terra cotta head, ((What did the Chinese government pay the farmer for this discovery, which turned Xi’an into one of the top three tourist destinations in China? A whopping 30 yuan, or about $4 US.  In the government’s defense, that’s all that the farmer asked for; he wanted the equivalent of a day’s wages. So you don’t feel too sorry for the poor farmer, you should know that he and his family have reaped a handsome profit from  the book that tells the story of his discovery.)) surely will continue for a long time to come.

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I’ve been to hundreds of Chinese restaurants in my days. They seem to be everywhere in the States, with Chinese entrepreneurs setting up shop in every shopping mall or available street corner.  In many cases, the primary attraction of a Chinese restaurant is the buffet. After paying a nominal sum, you line up to gorge yourself on fried rice, eggs rolls, wanton soup and sweet and sour chicken.

Before coming to China, I had heard that the food here is completely different than the “Chinese” food found in America. That statement is as true as the statement that the Red Sox won the World Series this year (GO SOX!). We’ve been here for a month and haven’t spotted one plate of General Tso’s Chicken or Moo Goo Gai Pan (actually, I’d pay an untold sum for some General Tso’s Chicken right now, especially after the bland, and somewhat disgusting, meals Shanna and I have endured at times).  In fact, we’ve been completely shocked at how little rice we’ve seen consumed. You practically have to beg for rice at most restaurants here – and soy sauce?  forget about it.  You might as well be asking the waiter if you can drink your tea out of the holy grail.
Li Qun Roast Duck (with reflection)
The one item I’ve seen at Chinese restaurants in the States that I was confident I would find in Beijing is roast duck (or, as we call it back home, “Beijing Duck” or “Peking Duck”). You can find Peking Duck at many Chinese restaurants in the US. Unless you go to restaurants that specialize in Peking Duck (like the wonderful Peking Duck House in New York City’s Chinatown where I recently took my mom, who has become quite an adventurous eater in recent years), you may have to order your duck a day or two in advance.
Li Qun Roast Duck
After a little research, we discovered two restaurants that were reported to excel in roast duck in Beijing – Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant and Li Qun Roast Duck Restaurant.  The former, Dadong, is an upscale joint that caters to wealthy Chinese and tourists. The white tablecloth restaurant is huge and gorgeous.  There must be a staff of a hundred catering to your every need. Once your duck arrives, a chef dressed in white meticulously carves the roasted goodness right in front of you.
Roast Duck and pancakes at Dadong
The second restaurant, Li Qun, has a completely different environment.  Hidden in the hutong (the old, historic neighborhoods) south of Tiananmen Square, Li Qun has a very rustic feel.  There are only a handful of tables and you must call in advance in order to ensure a duck has begun the roasting process.  A diner looking for immaculate conditions in their dining experience would be better off heading to Dadong.

The process of eating duck is the same at each restaurant. The duck, including the duck skin, is sliced in front of you. You might think – duck skin? Isn’t that disgusting? Actually, the crispy duck skin is easily the best part. Keep in mind that I also think fried pork skins are a culinary delight (which have been so slandered by high-browed diners that I prefer to eat them in solitude for fear of judgment).
Duck side dishes at Dadong
The sliced duck is accompanied by, at a minimum, three items – “pancakes”, sliced scallions and hoisin sauce (a delicious plum sauce).  The pancakes are thin, translucent and round; they have very little taste as they are primarily used as a vehicle for consuming the duck.  Similar to making a fajita, you stuff the pancake with duck, scallions and hoisin sauce. In some cases, additional items are available including sliced cucumbers, garlic paste and sugar (a crucial item, in our opinion). The stuffed duck pancake is nothing but fantastic.

After comparing the two restaurants, we couldn’t choose a favorite. While we liked the upscale atmosphere at Dadong, we also appreciated the old-school charm of Li Qun. The duck was exceptional at both. [embedplusvideo height=”350″ width=”450″ editlink=”″ standard=”″ vars=”ytid=eDZ8FJUCxKM&width=450&height=350&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep3994″ /]