9 Duck Heads & 1 Great Leap

Getting There

It all began at the ugly cow-milking hour of 4am, where we crammed suitcases full of down jackets and padded winter coats into the back of a taxi cab in humid Manila. I baked blueberry muffins the night before and brought them to the airport in a Johnnie Walker box, and we ate them while waiting in a long line to check in.

Once through, we were corralled into a strange waiting area where 99% of the passengers sat watching TV and we sat underneath the TV watching the passengers. Carl laughed at us until he was accosted by a large man who was celebrating “getting” his fiancee from the Philippines. It was an appropriately bizarre beginning to our trip.

We landed in Beijing with no trouble; our next task was to organize a cab to our Air BnB, using a map pin and the only address we had: Beijing, Beijing Shi.

Later, I showed Judson the address and he stared at me.

“This literally says, Beijing, Beijing City.”

“Oh. You mean there’s no street information?”



Miraculously, the cab driver found it, and we spent about 15 minutes wheeling our luggage back and forth between two buildings, unsure of which was our Air BnB. The receptionists in the lobbies were unhelpful, with one woman going as far as to ignore us while gobbling potato chips. In the end, Alicia convinced a receptionist to let us use his phone to call our Air BnB host, and we piled our heavy bags into a closet-sized lift and headed up.

By the time we were settled, it was nearly 2pm. Judson had arranged to meet us at a brewery at 6, after which we’d head around the corner for some Peking duck at 7:30. In the meantime, we were pretty hungry, so we headed into the chilly Beijing afternoon for some lunch.


We settled on a large restaurant with towering windows looking out onto the street, where peddlers sold cold turtles in small tanks and shivering bunnies. The view wasn’t the best, but they had picture menus, so our standards were met. Together we ordered what we thought would be a modest lunch to tide us over until dinner: some dumplings, soup, tofu, stir fry, and duck for Carl and Alicia. When the waiter left, we all congratulated each other on successfully ordering our first meal in China.

Oh, how wrong we were.

We immediately knew something wasn’t right when the waiter returned with our first plate of dumplings. (Sorry, did I write ‘plate’? I mean platter. Or hubcap.)

There were over 20 dumplings on the plate. I know because I ate half of them and I counted.

It was impossible to try to communicate “take it back!” through gesture, so we sat helplessly while our waiter returned to our table with more and more food: 2 steaming vats of soup, 49 dumplings, 2 heaping plates of beef stir fry, 2 plates of tofu, 8 sticky buns, and 2 baskets of onion pancakes.

It was like that “12 Days of Christmas” song gone terribly wrong.

For the finale, we all watched in horror as the waiter placed a simmering pot in front of Carl and Alicia.

“This must be the duck,” they said, and we all peered into the pot to see 9 saucy duck heads floating in the pot.

“This doesn’t look like the picture! I didn’t know it was duck heads!” Alicia cried. To their credit, they both tried eating the duck heads, but no one was sure how you go about doing that as there’s not much meat on them. In the end, they nibbled on the tongues and we exchanged painful looks as we tried to eat as much as possible so as not to appear rude or wasteful.

We waddled out of the restaurant a little after 3, to the laughter of our 3 waiters who were probably telling their friends about the 6 fat Americans who’d eaten their week’s food supply.


Not pictured: the duck heads.


20+ dumplings.

Lost in Translation (Again)

Blair and Carl kindly offered to pick up our tickets for the Trans-Siberian Railway, so we thought it would be a good time to explore the Forbidden City or Tiananmen Square. Alicia, our chief navigator, tried to find the subway route on the map. Even with our combined efforts, we had no idea where the subway station was, so we hopped on a bus instead.

Almost immediately, a bus employee standing in a little booth began barking at us in Chinese and gesturing to the price list on her booth. The bus chugged off toward Tiananmen and we dug through our pockets looking for small bills.


A kind woman standing nearby came to our aid with change, and we whispered a chorus of thank-you’s, the only word we knew.

The lady in the booth told us when the Tiananmen stop was coming up, so we jumped out and found ourselves at a subway station. Before us stood a long, unmoving line of people. Unsure of exactly what they were standing in line for, we filed in behind them, studying the map. It looked like we were in line for Tiananmen Square. I didn’t remember waiting in a line last time I was there, but I also don’t remember how I got there last time, so I was basically useless.

Overhead, the sky was white-grey and a chilly drizzle began to fall. The four of us huddled together in our warm jackets and hats as the line shuffled slowly forward.

Suddenly, toward the front, men began waving IDs in the air at a security guard who was squinting at them purposefully.

“I didn’t bring an ID,” said Holly.

“Crap, neither did I.” I also didn’t remember needing one the last time. Rosie reached into her pocket and waved hers into the air, but Alicia recommended we wait and see if we could get through without them, so we did.

“Maybe they were looking for someone,” Alicia suggested.

We got through in the end, and found ourselves in a large square looking for the famous face of Mao. As we drew closer, we found a mass of people crowded against some barricades. It seemed like they were looking at something, but all we could see was a man riding around on a cleaning machine.

Confused – and shouted at by guards – we took a photo and decided to try our luck with the Forbidden City.

It was closed.

Cold and wet, we all agreed it was time to find the brewery. It was only 5, but we figured we’d need a good hour or so to navigate the subway and the photo of the map I’d taken with my phone.


Looking at…barricades?


Boy were we happy to find Tiananmen Square!

One Great Leap Forward

The subway was easy to navigate in the end, and the map Judson had sent me provided good direction. As we walked through the cold, dark streets of Sanlitun, we all tried to imagine what the brewery would be like.

“I hope it’s inside and warm,” I said.

“I’m picturing a pub,” said Rosie.

“I hope it has a place to hang your coats up,” said Alicia.

I am happy to report that it was all of these things. Great Leap Brewery was warm with a warehouse-pub vibe and very tasty beers. I ordered myself a pumpkin ale and counted myself one happy gal.

Judson showed up soon after, which was thrilling in itself. It had been over a year since we’d last seen each other but, as always with him, we picked up easily where we’d left off. He chatted to Carl and Blair about brewing, and we told him about our lunch mishaps as he led us around the corner to the Peking duck place.

At this point, I realized that I’d been awake for over 16 hours straight and was starting to feel exhausted, but a few beers and some duck pancakes helped to reenergize me. Everyone else went back to the Air BnB after, but Judson and I checked out another brewery and then went back to his to chat with his roommate, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal (it’s like meeting a celebrity!) and to watch The Witch, a film he’d downloaded knowing my obsession with Halloween.

Throw in a little Aberlour and Sturgill Simpson, and I’d say the first 24 hours in Beijing were a success.

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