Back at the hotel, I drank water, tea and sugar in the room and then asked at the desk about getting a cash advance on my credit card. No, not possible. They referred me to an ATM machine. I explained that this didn’t work — I’d been trying all day — and they said that the ATM in another hotel 500m down the road was special. I was pretty sure they meant just that it was hooked up to the same international networks that I’d been trying all day, but it was too hard to explain this. So I took a hike down the road to try. I held my breath through the solvent clouds at construction sites on the way, wishing I’d brought the bike to speed through them. The hotel was upscale. They were hosting a big meeting with wealthy-looking Arabs — about oil I figured. The ATM failed as expected. I asked for advice at the desk. They told me to try the ATM. I walked back.
This meant I had to eat dinner in a restaurant that accepted foreign credit cards, not the “local secret” I fatuously supposed I could find and enjoy after one day in Beijing. I had visions of fake local food served up with fake smiles and tour groups from the US talking loudly nearby about how crazy/impressive/tiring their day on and off the bus was. Ah well, who was I kidding? I was really, really hungry. My guidebook suggested a few candidates nearby. An American-style sports bar? A French restaurant favored by diplomats? A Peking Duck place with some kind of celebrity chef, whose duck is supposed to be 38.4% less fatty than the next guy’s? That would do. Looked to be about two miles away.
I began walking down the Sanlitun, sort of the international business bar strip. I could have a Bud Lite to disco music in any of several neon-lit dives right or left. People approached hawking DVDs, watches, “beautiful lady bars,” and various things I didn’t understand. I walked faster, for what seemed like far too long. I wasn’t seeing the cross street I was looking for. I stopped finally at a major intersection and pulled out my guide book, making for a lamp to study it. A woman approached in my peripheral vision. She said something I didn’t understand. I looked up and she repeated that something. It ended with “MAH-sa-jee.” “I don’t understand,” I said, just then understanding that she was a sex worker offering me a massage, the three-syllable version, stressed like “massacre.” “You don’t understand?” she challenged perfectly, smoke and mint on her breath, dark lipstick. “No, no thank you.” Behind her, and from the sides I saw several more figures approaching like hungry cats. “Is there anything else I can help you with?” she offered, seeming sincere. I was about to ask directions, but the tightening circle of the undead around us was freaking me out. “No, thank you!” I said darting away.
I was growing really faint. I regretted not settling for the hotel restaurant; perhaps they could charge it to my room. Retracing my steps past the same gauntlet of vendors on the way back, I came eventually to the crossing I had missed. The street name changes with the direction it runs, and I had been looking for the version whose sign was at my back as I passed it the first time. I proceeded on to the restaurant, fifteen or so minutes farther. The facade was lit with rather ghastly green lamps. Above on the glass office towers were giant animated light displays for the likes of Toshiba, Hitachi, and Daewoo. Lots of black cars and parking attendants. I went in. It was full. There were plastic versions of the specialties in plexiglas cases, and dozens of framed testimonials from Bulgarian diplomats, Indonesian trade ministers, and so on. There were boxes of cheap California wine on offer for the waiting area, and you could get ultra-pasteurized cartons of sea-cucumber soup with saffron (or something) gift-wrapped to go. Little 2008 Olympics logos were here and there: practicing to kick some major tourist ass, they were.
I waited half an hour, seated. As I followed an attendant to my table, I noticed what looked like a laser pointer spot on the back of her satin jacket. But then green and yellow lights blinked next to it, and I realized that they were shining through the fabric from a radio transceiver box strapped to her back. I followed the wire up the nape of her neck to a discreet earpiece. She sat me at a large table (as I had feared), alone, and presented me with an English menu. The menu extolled the fame and skill of the chef in fairly ridiculous terms. I wanted the duck, but other things too, and I was afraid that in spite of my hot hunger, I wouldn’t be able to finish much of what I ordered. I asked the server if she could recommend a few dishes to complement the half duck that wouldn’t be too much, explaining that I was very hungry, but… “You will enjoy numbers four and six” she interrupted woodenly. I went to look at what those things were, not eager to try sea cucumber. I asked about another item. She paused for a very long moment, not looking at me, and I began to rephrase my question. Then she interrupted again to tell me that I would enjoy it also. That’s when I realized that she was animatronic! That blinking box! Somebody was listening to my questions remotely and piping responses to her ear, just like the President of the United States! I concealed my shock and consented to her recommendations, or rather those of her unknown translator. I wondered how many waitrons/world leaders you could run from a single operator, and whether I should turn off the flash before taking any food pictures.
When the duck arrived, a new person came and asked me if I had ever eaten Peking Duck before. I said probably not. She stood closely beside me and very graciously walked me through the procedure. The first bite is of skin dipped in sugar, nothing else. She waited to ask me how I liked that. It would have been great even if I wasn’t about to pass out from hunger. She complimented me on my chopstick skills, showed me a few favored condiment combinations, and finally let me dig in. She wasn’t a robot. It was all very nice, except “the best part,” which was the split head of the duck, dry, dark and bony, which I bit tentatively and returned to the plate.
Returning to the hotel, I wanted to avoid the Sanlitun with its hawkers, hookers, and partying foreigners, so I walked instead through the deserted embassy blocks. Deserted, that is, except for the People’s Liberation Army, standing watch in front of the well-lit, double-gated, barbed-wired, barred-window embassy buildings. The guards stood stiffly at attention on little platforms aside the gates, and at close intervals between them, maybe forty yards. Their walkie-talkies emitted comical noises suggestive of 1980′s video games. Chad, Bolivia, Slovenia: all enjoying the same full-dress Army protection this fine late quiet night. I said “nin hao” (hello) softly to each guard as I passed. In all I passed maybe fifty of them, and only one returned my greeting. Maybe he’s still being disciplined. As I passed the UNICEF embassy gate, the guard got off his pedestal and marched alongside me to the center of the gate, where he snapped to face me, just in case I was thinking about hurling myself against the UNICEF fortifications. It was just too weird to laugh about at the time, the Pac-Man “bonus points” noise emanating from his hip notwithstanding.
Emerging from the embassy blocks, I turned down two more MAH-sa-jees (same pronunciation) before I got to the hotel parking lot, which on the edges was thick with men aggressively pushing cards offering god knows what, their car doors open to whisk you away. I decided that I would try the hotel restaurant the next evening.