Envisioning a trip to China conjures thoughts of interminable layovers, inconvenience, and painful restlessness after 15 hours in a steel tube. Luckily, Air China, and a handful of other airlines offer direct flights from LAX to Beijing, as well as other China destinations. Grateful for modern pharmaceutical technology, we slept a good portion of the trip. Falling asleep late at night in Los Angeles and waking up three hours from one of the oldest cultures on the earth was exciting and wiped the anticipated negatives out of our equation.
7,000 years of recorded history and civilization makes China a neverending paradise for explorers of every bent. History buffs, outdoor adventurers, artists, naturalists, politicos and foodies will all be enchanted. China is home to over 55 different ethnic minorities, each with distinct food, clothing, traditions and language. Their land mass is only two hundred thousand square miles more than the United States. There are less than 80 people per square mile in the U.S. and more than 520 people per square mile in China. At 1.2 billion, their population is more than 4 times that of the U.S. In 1989 during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, nearly 300 million people throughout China actively participated over the course of fifty days. Try to imagine the entire population of the U.S. simultaneously participating in a political movement.
Chinese know gigantic. Disembarking at the newly famous Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital International Airport is akin to landing in a scene from Kubrick’s A Space Odyssey. It is an immense 14 million square foot glass and steel edifice containing 64 restaurants and 84 shops. London Heathrow would easily fit inside this one titanic terminal. We pre-arranged a driver who spoke solid English to transport us to our hotel and we highly recommend this course of action. Everything about landing in Beijing is overwhelming. The last thing you’ll want after a 14-hour flight is to discuss directions with a taxi driver whose first language is Mandarin. Visit their website to pre-arrange your ground transpiration. You can negotiate the price a bit, but if you’re from a large city like Los Angeles, New York, London or Chicago, you will be pleasantly surprised at the pricing for all your car travel. Hiring a driver for your trip to the Great Wall or any other destination is well worth the cash. Don’t miss the Great Wall. It’s staggering.
Many of the teens and 20-somethings speak some English. It is now taught in most schools from an early age. However, most of the country speaks English as well as we speak Mandarin. You can’t show a taxi driver a map in English and point — pointless! Most of our taxi rides were preceded by two conversations. The first between us and our hotel staff to obtain our destination written in Chinese characters (don’t leave your hotel without your notebook and pen). The second chat was between our concierge and the taxi driver. Always have whatever restaurant, bar or hotel number with you. Often, it is easier to dial your phone and hand it to the taxi driver, so he can get directions. Beijing is so behemoth, just having an address is not enough.
Bring an unlocked GSM (AT&T, T-Mobile) cell phone and buy a SIM card from China Mobile or China Unicom. Similarly priced, but China Mobile is said to have better coverage outside the big cities. Initially, the activation process stymied us, but the young concierge in our hotel had us live in a matter of seconds. Having a Beijing phone number makes your trip infinitely easier and less expensive. Catching a phone number with two “8”s and no “4”s was like hitting the jackpot! The number 8 is very lucky in Chinese, whereas the word for “4” sounds like the word for “death” and is considered bad luck. Each new Chinese friend was elated by our numerical fortune. They take this stuff seriously.
The Fushe Courtyard Hotel is created in the traditional Chinese siheyuan family style. Famous Chinese, political officials and families prefer this style of home. Everything about Fushe was special, including the name, the food, bar, ancient style and the people. Sheng Wu, one of the owners, was gracious enough to invite us in to take a gander despite it still being under construction. It was breathtaking while also being a “home on the road” (translation of Fushe). Our next visit we will make it our resting place as it is also near Beijing’s center.
Thankfully, we found Hotel Kapok, a newly renovated boutique hotel just a short walk from the walls of the Forbidden City whose modern décor is reminiscent of the Viceroy or Mondrian. The service was exemplary. There were near brawls between staff members to help us! What a refreshing experience. The only institution we visited that reminded us of home was the Chinese post office. Being a disgruntled postal worker must be universal.
Enveloped in hutongs (traditional Chinese villages), teahouses, rickshaws, dumpling and noodle shops, Hotel Kapok is ideal for those wishing to get immersed in Chinese culture. It is walking distance to Tiananmen Square, Mao’s Tomb, Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City and more. Many hotels have a booking agent who speaks English to book your inter-China adventures and evening excursions to dinner, the Chinese Opera or Acrobat shows.
Our ultra-modern room was complemented by a state of the art workout facility with sauna, free internet, air conditioning, and daily treats of orange and apple juice, tea and bottled water. Did we mention the staff was beyond eager to help us? Despite the staff’s broken English, our weak “Ni hao ma?” (Hi, how are you?), showcased the humble helpers as future Shakespeareans. Tip: the Chinese of all ages love the Lakers! Kobe is the only person in Beijing whose picture is bigger than Mao’s. We brought a bag full of Lakers caps as gifts and handed them out to our fabulous hotel staff and other friends we made throughout our trip.
Only one real surprise — our bed. Upon first sitting down we wondered if they had forgotten the mattress. “This is just a box spring, isn’t it? It’s a new hotel, maybe they haven’t unwrapped the mattresses yet?” We called downstairs to find out if they had a bed mishap, but discovered our slab was actually a luxury Chinese bed. Hard as a rock! At first we were concerned. By the third night we were sleeping soundly and rising refreshed! Upon returning home we asked Dr. Bates — our picture of health chiropractor — what he thought of our ultra stiff sleeping surface: “I often sleep on the floor or on my extra, extra firm mattress.” We bought the firmest mattress in the store upon our return. Our backs have never felt better!
Prices for room service, hotel dining and bar drinks were similar to Los Angeles. Worth every penny was the breakfast buffet — a prismatic presentation of hot and cold traditional fare. Our favorite was “jian bing” or Chinese pancakes made with batter, eggs, plum sauce, spicy sauce and other tasty ingredients like chives, shallots, cilantro and crunchy cabbage. Kin to a French crêpe, except that half of the ingredients used in China are unavailable beyond its borders. We would often ask, “What is that vegetable, or spice? How do you translate it into English?” Commonly, the response was, “No English translation for that. This is special Chinese vegetable.” Sadly, we are getting bamboozled on Chinese food served in the States. It’s not even close to the seasoning sophistication we encountered in Beijing.
Food is celebrated and symbolic throughout China and part of a trilogy of good fortune. A common sight is the Chinese symbol for “good fortune.” The character ( . ) is comprised of three separate characters, or three sets of strokes. One is of a house, a square “rice field” representing food and what looks like a stick figure representing clothing. When those three basic needs are fulfilled, they consider themselves fortunate.
Among the panoply of cultural treats and unique customs, the Chinese do not form lines. No orderly queues are found waiting for the bus, an exhibit or food — just a Sino-swarm of jostling, confluence and contact — even in a relatively sparse group. It’s not being rude; it’s tradition. Chinese are accustomed to a world where space is sparse. Bumping into, leaning on and caroming off others is how it is. Initially, we found the space invasion culture a bit uncomfortable, but soon embraced the perfunctory response to human traffic.
Stop for “jiaozi,” (dumplings) at a traditional mom and pop food joint for lunch. Generally, no one speaks English there, but pointing usually works fine. The little dives dole delectable and inexpensive cuisine. A couple of beers, dumplings and noodles for two run about $5. Sit by the window and take in the swirling pedestrian masses dancing with rivers of bikes and cars. Shockingly, we didn’t witness a single accident. The symbiotic relationship between pedestrian, cyclist and auto is astounding. The balance and agility are wonderous! Watching a young man, his wife and child on one bicycle navigate the treacherous, traffic-soaked thoroughfares of Beijing appeared stunt-like to our American eyes.
A few blocks from out hotel and within steps of the famous Wangfujing Snack Street, is the modern Oriental Mall. No bargains here, but this Orange County-like shopping center is great for people-watching the younger generation. Fascinating is a visit to the Friendship Store or Silk Market. Try out your negotiating skills — you will be haggled to death. You may want to skip this bargain battle shopping trip if you are unnerved by people touching you or a consistent loud din of, “Helloooo lady, you want bag? Sir, buy your wife nice bag or jacket!” An exaggerated “helloooo” is the standard greeting to Americans. The Chinese think that our “hello” sounds funny and exaggerate for their own amusement. Two weeks of this is hysterical.
Beijing is beyond bustling, especially at meal time. On our list of Chinese culinary musts was Peking Duck. The Beijing DaDong Roast Duck Restaurant is renowned and extravagant, but well priced. Calling this version of Peking Duck a gourmet dinner would understate the privy journey our pallets took. The “Duck Doctors” (as we called them) are artists. The duck was sublime. The flavorful meat can be dipped, sugared, or placed inside tiny pancakes with a choice of more dips, spices and vegetables which you are expected to assemble with chopsticks. Each Chinese province has thousands of appetizers, meals and desserts — all part of the supersized China we experienced.
The 600 year old, 180 acre Forbidden City — the largest Emperor’s palace in the center of Beijing — contains 9,999 rooms and halls that took over 1 million laborers to build. The gigantic expanse of the “City,” contrasted with the minute attention to detail is unfathomable. Marvel at the walls, doors, furniture and decorations built with precious Chinese wood, “pinyin” and Beijing marble that took lifetimes to create. Never will so many “wows” leave your lips…until you cross the street and visit Jingshan Park.
When the 164 ft. Wide moat for the Forbidden City was dug, the excavated earth and rock was shaped into a hill nearby that, by legend, protects the palaces from evil spirits. It is the most remarkable view in a perfectly flat Beijing. In the event you have a clear day, hike up to the place where Chongzhen, the final Ming emperor, hung himself as the city was being attacked by rebels.
After hours of climbing and walking history, we stumbled upon a gem called The Emperor Hotel. Enjoy grandiose views of the Forbidden City and surrounding Beijing sky scrapers from its rooftop deck and lounge — a rarity in Beijing. Service, as usual, was perfect. The mojito — magnifique! The martini — not so good. Be warned that it was impossible to get a perfect martini in Beijing. We tried. We really tried. The preparation and presentation were spot-on. After a day of walking the hazy streets of Beijing, we were parched and grabbed that cold, wet martini glass for a sizable sip and nearly spewed it out.
The martini endeavor drew us back to the Kapok and the bartender with whom we had developed a chummy relationship. Determined, we walked him through a proper procedure for a martini. The “drop of vermouth” idea was absurd to him. He couldn’t do it and could not understand why we would want to short change ourselves with so little. After broken “Chinglish” coercion, we were able to take possession of the glass and shaker and demonstrate an American interpretation. We put 3 drops of vermouth in the glass, rolled it around to get full coverage and then inverted the glass to drain the excess vermouth. You would have thought we were Bill Murray by the way our faithful bartender chortled.
If rooftop bars don’t relax you, seek the Dragonfly Relaxation Retreat for meditative mellow moments. The name sums it up. The décor, ambiance and service are flawless. Hotel Kapok is only a few doors down, and we could maintain our rub-induced sedation and snag a nap at our Beijing abode before heading out to seize the night.
The Beijing Opera and body contortions of the Chinese Acrobats are vibrant, colorful, artistically creative and stunning. In retrospect, no surprise that China wrangled so many gold medals in gymnastics and diving — if one can balance forty people (literally) on one bicycle, it’s likely nailing a double flip with a half twist isn’t a far reach.
Part of the Beijing taste adventure is the romance of creating your own dipping sauce at every meal. Similar to sushi joints here, Beijing restaurants have bottles of soy sauce on the table. In escort are bottles of vinegar (a prominent flavor in many Chinese cuisines) and a spice like hot sauce or red-pepper flakes. Something to make your meal a little extra “la” (Chinese for spicy). It was as if we had fulfilled an ancient Chinese rite of passage and formed a bond with each chef and waiter when we asked for more “la” in our food. After a few days experimenting in pre-meal sauce mixology, we deftly doled out personal proportions of soy, vinegar and heat, maximizing the delight each dish brought to our taste buds.
We investigated local beverages to extinguish the food-induced fire in our mouths. Beer was always available; Tsing Tao was the most common, and cheap. The traditional Chinese spirits are yellow rice wine (huang jiu) and Baijiu, a clear liquor made from rice or barley. Huang jiu is served warm in a pitcher or bowl and known for its unique taste and amber color. Baijiu is Chinese moonshine and anywhere from 80 to 120 proof and comes in a green glass bottle in different sizes to fit different budgets. We tried to be open and appreciate these for what they were — and we certainly recommend that adventurous types try it once for the experience. Still we could only conjure “furniture polish” and “gasoline” as descriptors of the taste.
Another cultural discernment: sour and tart tastes are widely enjoyed in China. Apparently the part of the pallet that enjoys vinegar is more pronounced in the Chinese genome than in the West. From the French, vinegar means “sour wine” and, similar to the martini recipe, might be another translation taken too literally by the Chinese.
There are 2 prominent brands of Chinese grape wine: Dynasty and Great Wall. $8 for the entry-level and around $35 for the high-end. Expensive by Chinese standards — you get so used to paying $4 for a giant meal and $3 for a 30 minute taxi ride that anytime you have to shell out double digit dollars, it feels expensive. These wines, along with the famous little green bottle of whiskey are sold almost everywhere. The first bottle of Great Wall Red we picked up from the small merchant shop across the street from the hotel was drinkable, but it was a little “off.” Air-conditioning and refrigeration are luxuries and we chalked up the subtle but obvious sour taste to improper storage. We didn’t give up hope and purchased second and third bottles from another store and a restaurant which, sadly, yielded similar results. We concluded that all the bottles were somewhat cooked from a dearth of cool places to store and transport. A dinner conversation with one of our new friends shed a new light. Chinese produce wine in a similar fashion to the rest of the world with one intentional deviation.
Wine is left open to air before bottling so it will oxidize. They enjoy that sour, tart, vinegary taste in their wine. We would have appreciated that information four bottles earlier.
Despite the indigenous 5,000 year old tradition of sour wine, there are some wonderful wine bars in Beijing. La Cave tenders 150 different international vintages from $15 to $150 per bottle and offers a first-class wine experience. It’s suitable for an intimate evening or relaxing with friends, a refined oasis in a crowded, energetic city.
Pavillion is another great escape when needing to scratch your wine itch or simply a break from the Beijing bustle. A comprehensive wine list and expansive outside garden foster relaxation. It caters to upscale western travelers, is comfortable, spacious and delicious.
Just across the street was the largest bowling alley we had ever seen — 100 lanes! Not in the mood to bowl, but rather for a quiet night cap, we ventured downstairs to what we thought was an upscale restaurant decked out in entirely white décor. We approached the concierge for directions to the bar only to discover we were inside the largest, most profound karaoke experience we had ever encountered! The Chinese are beyond serious about karaoke. To see the practical applications of such committed singing, make your way to Houhai.
A few strides from Pavilion, near Workers Stadium sits the renowned Green Tea House which was a tour de creatif from the décor to the cuisine. Chic is an understatement. Gold fish in wine glasses. Shrimp on hot firey coals. A wine list sparing no expense. Chairs sporting 8 foot high backs. It was real life Alice in Wonderland. Bombastic blocks of cheese sit on expansive cutting boards at the bar. It is over-the-top in every way, yet somehow stays refined. We felt under-dressed in our urban explorer clothes, but were attended to swiftly and with grace.
The “looking good” export from the United States has not yet plagued Beijing. However you are dressed is fine for wherever you go. We found the absence of self-conscious demeanor a pleasant discovery, and as a result, it became a disposition hyper-magnified about our own culture. Their focus was on sharing: food, traditions, lore and their homes. They were fervent in catering to visitors and the preservation of their culture. There is a pervasive feeling of “we are all in this together.” In the end, we discovered Communism does have an upside.
– LISA FRANCE & DAVID JAMES