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Back 'Hutong' Duck

Last updated by fletchtom at 2011/6/11; Destinations:

Strangely, part of any guidebook that interests me the most is the directory at the back giving details of a destination's transport, practicalities and logistical tips. Of these tips, travel guide authors invariably give advice of local scams and annoyances-Beijing, and Tianamen Square in particular are no exception.

On the 16 hour train from Xi'an to the Chinese capital I referred to my book to decide where I should go and what I should be cautious of. Whilst planning my trip to the Great Wall and The Forbidden City, I noticed a warning that lone foreign men were prime targets for local girls to lure into traditional, spiritual tea ceremonies. It appears that part of these ceremonies include presenting the victim with an astronomical bill. Those that disputed these bills tended to regret it.

I finally arrived at my hostel after spending a sleepless night on the train, 30 minutes with the worlds most incompetent taxi driver followed by a bumpy rickshaw ride and wished I hadn't when I was led to my bunk in a 10 bed dorm in the £3 a night establishment.

Both curiosity and the stench of the room persuaded me to venture out and not to catch up on sleep. The concrete marvel that is Tianamen Square was only 500 yards from the hostel so that was my first port of call, before doing the thing that was number one on my to do list-lunch of Peking Duck!

Armed with my camera and map I hit the square where within 4 minutes two Chinese girls approached wanting to practice their English and ask me about my travels in Beijing. Alarm bells rang and without stopping I tried my hardest to shake them off, but their persistence only convinced me further that I was soon to be met by a gang of mandarin shouting thugs. The two of them continued to follow me and ask where I was going so without showing any interest in tea I told them I was going to a duck restaurant. "I know the best place for duck in town" one of them said excitedly and in a slightly flirtatious fashion. My heart sank and I wondered how I was going to distribute my cash and cards into different pockets in preparation for my imminent mugging!

I was led off the square and down various back alleys (hutongs) and through an area I suspect would scare most of the Han people. The souvenir markets turned into livestock markets, the English translation signs became obsolete and the looks on the faces of the locals became more and more unfriendly to foreigners. We must have walked for about 25 minutes, and not once did I have the opportunity to slip away, but in fairness my safest option was probably to stay with these girls as it's likely I'd still be trying to find my way back to the city centre. We suddenly came out of an alley and onto a small road filled with motorcycle repair shops, hardware stores and a few houses whose front rooms had been transformed into makeshift kitchens to feed the workers of the street. Among these decrepid buildings was a small restaurant with long wooden benches, filthy windows and 3 old Chinese women sitting around a table about half way down. Placed opposite, a glass protected kitchen contained two chefs standing by an open door into a yard-both smoking, keeping an eye on the burning hobs and the numerous roasted ducks hanging from the window. As we walked in, all 5 of them stopped their conversations (and cigarettes) and looked at me; their eyes scanning me up and down in unison. The only saving grace of this dodgy out-of-town eatery was the succulent smell. The lunchtime rush was over and the tables and floor were covered in bones and dirty chopsticks, you could see several meals had been enjoyed here in the last hour or so. Perhaps this wasn't the girls first visit here today and perhaps I wasn't the first foreigner to be taken to this place.

We were led to a table behind the women who had returned to their conversation and the girls asked me what type of duck I wanted, they had told me that they were only going to drink tea and recommended a brand I should share with them. I politely declined and insisted on seeing the menu so I could check the prices. Only the food prices were itemised so I thought as long as I didn't partake in any ceremonial rituals I might still escape with my airfare home.

Having already earmarked all my cash to the two chefs (and possibly their brothers) on my way out I decided on ordering a whole duck and 3 cups of tea. My lunch arrived and my mouth salivated like it's never salivated before, slices of perfectly cooked duck served with delicate pancakes and rich, creamy sauce. Although they had already eaten I could see the jealousy on the girls faces as I rolled my first duck parcel. Their expressions were still the same as I rolled my second, third... and sixth too! After finishing all the meat I couldn't resist chewing the bones and making sure there was nothing left on the plate. It had been the best meal I can remember eating but reality hit home when I was presented with the bill. This was the moment of truth, I was on the other side of the planet from home, cornered in a quiet restaurant in the middle of nowhere with nobody knowing where I was. How much was I going to be ripped off for? Did I have enough cash? Shall I try and run? Would I end up looking like the sliced duck if I tried? Timidly I opened the bill to find a demand for Y45 (roughly £4.50). I nearly offered to leave my wallet as a tip!