I'd been having a darn good time in Beijing. Still, the party didn't really get started until I put myself in the hands of professionals.
Get your minds out of the gutter!
I wasn't hiring out some Beijing boy toys!
Instead, I was paying for the privilege of having some gourmet guides show me around town -- guides from Hias Gourmet, an upscale boutique firm specializing in tourist and corporate culinary events and travel.
Goodness knows, I do love a good boutique, and Hias Gourmet was a winner all the way around.
First up, was a "Tea Safari" gastro-walking tour which introduced me to Jenny Yap, one of Hias' top gourmand guides. She lead me through Maliandao Street in the Xuanwu District, where I was able to visit a mind-boggling, multi-floor tea mall and spend time at an intimate, exclusive shop across the street sampling Pu'er and other fine teas under the direction of a young, but knowledgeable master of the leaf.
Jenny and I took to each other at once. And since I was the lone tourist on this particular gastro-walk, she indulged my lust for culinary exploration, following up our tea adventure with a trip to Beijing's trendy Houhai Lake area for dinner at a Hakkan gypsy restaurant. There, we ate Salt-Baked Shrimp, among other dishes, and talked world politics through the night.
Over debate about McCain and Obama -- and a few Tsingtaos to wash it all down -- Jenny promised that the next evening would be delightful as well. Luckily, I signed up for another Hias experience -- a foodie walking tour of the city's up-all-night Ghost Street with Hias Gourmet founder Adlyn Adam Teoh.
Even so, worry-wart that I am, I hedged my epicurean bets with an early evening trip to the Dong Hua Men Night Market, near my hotel. The market's red lanterns went on for blocks -- and so did the scent of rancid frying oil.
And yet, I could understand the draw of the market's numerous stalls, chock-a-block with Chicken, Lamb and Beef Kabobs, Starfish for the eating, Glazed Strawberries and Lady Apples, frying Pork Dumplings, Steamed Buns Stuffed with Cumin-Dusted Lamb, Stinky Tofu, and bugs aplenty, all waiting to be downed by over-zealous tourists looking for a Zimmern-esque photo opp.
At any rate, I wasn't feeling particularly Zimmern-esque and I showed up on Ghost Street famished. Good thing too, because Adlyn knew the street all too well, and had been warned by Jenny that I was one for the real-deal experience.
Real-deal for Adelyn meant one thing: Spicy Duck Necks.
Cooked with pepper and spices and stewed in a low fire, Spicy Duck Necks had become a favorite guilty pleasure among Beijingers. No surprise, one bite of the peppery, tender flesh and I was hooked. I was gnawing my way through my third when Adlyn insisted we move down the street.
"Ghost Street," also called Guijie Street, she explained, is a major dining destination for Beijingers, sporting over 100 restaurant choices and hours that can stretch well past 4am. One of the most popular dining choices on the strip is Hot Pot, and Adlyn promised a genuine Hot Pot repast.
Yay! And if dipping thin slices of mutton and shrimp into a selection of earthy Mushroom, Chili Spice and mild Vegetable Broths wasn't enough of a good time, Adlyn also ordered up a platter of searingly hot and spicy Crawfish...
...which required plastic gloves in order to crack open their bright red shells to get to the sweet, chili-infused flesh.
We continued to meander and chatter until the early hours, at which point Adlyn insisted that I spend the next night -- my last night in Beijing -- in her company as well. She wanted to take me to her favorite foot massage spot in the city, followed by swank drinks and nibbles. She refused any argument.
I loved Adlyn.
Indeed, the next night she took me to an underground spa for the most blissful reflexology session of life. (If you want the name, you'll have to email me directly and prove that you deserve a similarly orgasmic, life-altering experience.)
We followed up our divine foot rubbing outing with a trip to another body part -- Face -- a luxurious Oriental dining oasis where the well-heeled enjoy top-notch cocktails and pan-Asian fare.
After our hour-and-a-half foot rubs, we certainly qualified as "well-heeled."
And, after a few cocktails and some goodies from the kitchen, I most certainly felt qualified for a few zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz's.
Adlyn ushered me into a taxi. I waved farewell, promising to stay in touch -- and hoping she'd let me return the favor by allowing me to show her the town in New York.
But, until then, it was time to say "bye-bye Beijing."