After meeting up with our tour guide just outside the hotel, my fellow tour group members and I board a bus and head to our first stop of the day. As we approach the pearl museum, it appears to be a small independently run establishment. Once inside, we are given various lessons on the history of pearls and how they are formed and harvested. We are also taught how to tell if a pearl is real or fake. Our tour concludes in an enormous show room where pearls of every imaginable shape, size, and color are for sale. This museum is clearly government run due to the size of the show room and the army sized battalion of sales ladies waiting to sell us their goods. Something tells me that this government run setup will be a recurring theme when we visit the silk, jade, and embroidery museums later this week.
As we depart the pearl museum many dollars poorer, we head back to the center of town and head to Tiananmen Square. Due to the events of 26 years ago, our tour group is noticeably quiet as we approach this site. Upon entering the square, one cannot deny the enormous size of this place. Rather than being an intense and uncomfortable experience, our group is now fairly relaxed due to the thousands of Chinese citizens all around us who treat it like any other tourist site. Not wanting to wait in the long line to see Chairman Mao’s body, our stay in Tiananmen is fairly brief.
What I am not prepared for, however, is how much time we are about to spend next door at the Forbidden City. This is mostly due to the fact of its massive size taking up an incredible 180 acres. As we walk up and down the stairs leading to each successive building and courtyard, it is amazing to think that only the Emperor, his family, and servants were allowed to enter this gigantic piece of real estate. As we depart the Forbidden City and make our way to the bus, it is impossible for us to ignore the physically handicapped people begging for money. It is a bit surprising that these poor souls are allowed to congregate so close to such a popular tourist site. I just assumed that the authorities would ban them from this area. And yet here they are all begging, singing into portable sound systems, and looking hopeful despite what fate has brought them.
After an intense first day of sightseeing, I am really looking forward to tonight’s group dinner of Peking Duck. This is an iconic dish that I have wanted to experience for many years. And what better place to experience it than in the city it is named for? Found on the fourth floor of a nondescript building, the restaurant’s first floor entrance is guarded by a giant yellow duck. Once inside, it is clear that this establishment does the bulk of its business serving this dish to both tourists and locals alike. Served to small and medium sized groups in private rooms all over the restaurant, the dish indeed lives up to its reputation.