Running out of time before our scheduled departure, pad Thai for all was ordered before we even sat down- quickly consumed, final bites taken half-standing then sprinting back out the door.
Next stop the Forbidden City, home to emperors and the center of Beijing. Layer upon layer of massive red buildings with gold tiled roofs surrounded interior courtyards. We walked deeper and deeper into the center, sweating under the sun and swarming crowds of people. With more time we would have peeked into the many buildings and rooms wrapping around each courtyard, but another brisk walk kept us on the exterior, finishing up in a garden overwhelmed by crowds before boarding our vehicles back to the hotel.
Meetings and dinner across the street - unremarkable, but enough for our heat-exhausted team.
Morning means more dumplings and now the addition of wonton noodle soup and warm soy milk with a piece of fried dough that I deem the Chinese churro. Our next destination: Temple of Heaven, the site of twice-yearly ceremonies and sacrifices by the emperor. Layered gates and expansive grounds lead to blue tiled round temples. Crowds were less touristy and more local, including large groups of senior citizens line dancing and old men painting an endlessly evaporating string of Chinese characters with water on the slate tiles. Our animated guide told stories of dragons and snakes and pointed out places in the courtyard where claps and whispers resulted in echoes in varying numbers. She is delighted when we ask her to join our group photo.
Lunch brought us to a Szechuan hotel - site of the province's Beijing offices. All provinces have these local offices- the larger ones also boast hotels and restaurants offering regional favorites. Food was spicy and unusual - the first meal we had that didn't have an obvious American/Chinese takeout counterpart. Our favorite was a cold chicken dish soaking in a spicy oil, called "saliva chicken" a sort of mistranslation of "mouth-watering," which it absolutely was. Cold noodles (also spicy), mashed potatoes with an oniony edge and an essentially inedible platter of deep fried chicken bones and dried chiles termed "chainsaw chicken" rounded out the meal. Everything was flavored with litlle grey-green nubby Szechuan peppercorns - supposedly illegal in the US for their potentially hallucinogenic properties. They left our mouths tingling with a numbing heat more anesthetic than spicy.
Following lunch we headed to Yashow Market one of Beijing's many "silk markets" specializing in counterfeit goods of every brand and description, booths hawking strings of colorful beads, fans and chopsticks and the custom tailor, Wendy, who we had been told to seek out. Wendy's booth was stacked high with suiting fabrics, cashmeres, silks and wools with pictures of Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush (other satisfied customers) smiling down at us from the walls. Our team swarmed around picking fabrics and handing off favorite jackets to be copied while Wendy's staff snapped around measuring tapes, clipped swatches and quickly sketched our desired garments.
There were plenty of other booths deserving our attention as we bartered for headphones and sunglasses, necklaces and tea, sometimes rather dramatically. Bargains bagged- we headed back for more meetings then a late dinner at the next door diner we coined "Denny's" - horribly disappointing to the point of sickening - we hurried instead to the American-themed bar across the street "Mississippi," complete with pizza, deer heads on the wall and plenty of country music.