Arriving in Beijing, I did the typical tourist things. I spent a few hours touring the Forbidden City. I ventured outside the city to visit the Ming Tombs and the remote Mutianyu section of the Great Wall.
Even so, I know what my dear readers care about: How was the duck?
Don't worry. I didn't hit Beijing without tasting its most famous dish, Peking Duck. And, of course I hit one of the most lauded duck-dens in town -- Dadong -- to try an authentically glossy, dark brown, crisp-skinned quacker, sliced by a master and stuffed in wafer-thin pancakes with slivers of scallion and cucumber and a dab of hoisin sauce.
It wasn't the Great Wall, but awe-inspiring nonetheless.
That said, what really made me develop a taste for Beijing was one of those Louis Vuitton Soundwalk audio guides I'd mentioned earlier. This time, I had acclaimed Chinese actress Gong Li leading me through the labyrinth of a bustling hutong district near the Central Academy of Drama, where she had studied in her youth.
Weaving in and out of tiny alleyways, Gong Li lead me to a haunted bell tower and the homes of warring neighborhood pigeon trainers, acquainted me with local philosopher and poet Mr. Wu and cricket aficionado Mr. Kung, pointed out an old revered weeping willow tree and new cafes crammed with students, and directed me to a Muslim food stall, where I couldn't resist the aroma of frying vegetable fritters...
...purchasing a handful of these bite-sized treats for a single yuan. I popped them into my mouth as I continued to wander through the ancient quarter, passing colorful markets, the Air Force compound and the grounds of the Central Academy of Drama itself.
The tour concluded at a serene courtyard hutong restaurant called Source which specializes in Szechuan cuisine.
Glancing into the charming dining room, my stomach began to rumble and I immediately recognized that a few wee fritters didn't constitute lunch. So, I gave into Source's fixed lunch menu and quickly found myself enjoying a range of delicacies, including a spicy Pork Rib, tongue-numbing Dan Dan Noodles and flavorful Chicken with Straw Mushrooms Baked in Bamboo.
Staring out into the restaurant's peaceful garden, filled with pomegranate and date trees, listening to the sweet sounds of a bird singing, while sipping a cup of fragrant tea, I couldn't help but silently thank Gong Li, Louis Vuitton and whatever stroke of luck that had landed me there.
You rarely get moments quite like that in your life. And, they rarely come with kickin' Dan Dan Noodles to boot.