In my last post I contemplated the idea of tour group vs. independent travel, landing on the side of the independent and the unexpected. I conveniently forgot that I, in fact, have a guide who is always available to me while I am in China.
This is Jay. He is 24, very hip and knows pretty much everything there is to know about Beijing. If he doesn't know, he finds out. Over the last month I have learned to appreciate the value of a good guide - especially when dining out. Navigating a menu in China is an adventure to say the least, as the translation from Chinese to English often does not make any sense; or a menu item that sounds quaint - like a bird's nest, for example - is something you might think twice about ordering unless you have a truly adventurous palate.
Jay negotiates for us when we want to buy knock-off bags, tells us where the best tables in town are, leads us to the posh nightlife. He answers our calls when we are in a taxi with a driver who doesn't know where to go and doesn't speak any English (even if he did threaten to tell the taxi driver to send us to the airport when we speed-dialed him one too many times). I like to think of myself as resourceful and able to figure out any city, anywhere; but China is just so different that it helps to have someone around who can help me navigate through the culture I am visiting.
Through a mutual acquaintance, I met a women named Adlyn who has started her own culinary tour company in Beijing. She tailors gourmet dining experiences for visitors and last night, met my colleague and I for dinner. It was the mid-autumn festival in China, everyone was out celebrating under the full moon and tables were very hard to come by. One phone call from Adlyn and we were in a quaint, hard-to-find, very local hutong restaurant called Dali. There isn't a menu; you are served whatever they are cooking that day. It is cuisine in the style of the Yunnan province and the food is rustic, slightly spicy and delicious. We washed it down with a cabernet from Chile, seated in the courtyard under cool night air with a mixture of locals and foreigners, a cricket providing the soundtrack (seriously, it was the loudest cricket I've ever heard. I began to think that in China, crickets are professional musicians and this one was hired to be the house band at Dali). I know we could have stayed there all night, it was one of those experiences you just want to hold onto for as long as you can. Adlyn promised us more local experiences in the near future and, as with Jay, I felt very lucky to know her.
So. I still believe in researching and planning your own trip, leaving room for the unexpected; but I cannot deny the value of a good guide. Even if it's only for one day, hiring someone to lead you around a foreign city who can translate the history and culture of a place, order a fabulous local meal for you and tell you stories over a good bottle of wine is truly a luxury. God, re-entry is going to be a bitch.