Beijing, Hotel Review Redux

I’ve just wrapped up another week in Beijing, visiting my awesome team, and eating endlessly. Chinese food in China is significantly different from Chinese food in the US, as you would expect, and frankly although I sound like a snob for saying it, it’s better. I’m a big fan of the eggplant dish they serve here.

My hotel room has a scale in it. This, has only served to make me repentant the next day. It has not, of course, modified any of my eating habits.

With that, I give you a hotel review of the Somerset Hotel in ZhongGuanCun, Beijing.

First off, I’m not entirely sure why, but I ended up with a two bedroom apartment (rather than a one-bedroom). This room is bigger than my first and second apartments, probably some 800 square feet, and comes complete with a real kitchen (there is no “-ette”, it’s a real kitchen and if I wanted to make a Thanksgiving Dinner I could do it between the oven and 3-burner stove).

I could then serve it at my dining room table for six, and then we could retire in the living room on the couches with my view of the city.

In short: big, and overkill for just my needs, but has been crazy comfortable.

There is a washer/dryer (single machine, does both things sorta well) and breakfast is provided on the 5th floor each morning. There is a gym, and a minimart, but no restaurant on site; if you want food at night then hit the Carrefour hypermarket that’s about 1km away and shop to your heart’s content. You can get local (very, very local) or you can browse the imported aisles if you need your French wine or Italian pasta.

In short: great for a longer stay and if you don’t have dinner plans every night (short of one Peking Duck night – and there’s a great restaurant for that 3 blocks away – that’s described my experience).

PS – they have all kinds of toiletries that they simply provide: toothbrush packs with toothpaste (presealed in plastic), conditioning shampoo, body lotion, and of course soap. They also have cotton swabs (also prepacked in plastic) and laundry detergent (ditto) and shoeshine cloths. But good luck finding a razor, or deodorant (this time I remembered mine, but if you forget yours, hit the aforementioned Carrefour).

Tweets from China

Surreal moment: Watching “The Countess from Hong Kong” looking out my window at the “Silicon Valley” of Beijing. BTW: awful movie.

The reality that your options for TV include the umpteenth review of the recent plane crash, “Freaky Friday” (the newer version), or soap operas in a language you do not understand (and the subtitles do not help).

There is a horrible, horrible movie out there called “Painkiller Jane”. Do not watch it. Life is precious.

China is a lot like Italy: they want you to eat their wonderful food to excess, they are gracious hosts, there are a million dialects, there is rich and comprehensive history, and five days is not enough.

You do not miss the freedom of your ability to blather inanities into the ethersphere until it is taken away from you. #notweetsfromChina

Graceful moment: walking out of a traditional Chinese restaurant, full of glorious cuisine, in the warm hearty atmosphere of my team, and missing a step and sprawling on the floor. #spriainedankle

MSN has come up with the top 50 countries to grow old in. The top 25 are all countries with socialized medicine and progressive education. #notacoincidence

Insomniacs tell themselves they will catch up on sleep as soon as they get the chance. When a business trip and insomnia collide, you feel like the Powers That Be are fucking with you. I felt like somehow jet lag would work for me this trip. I was wrong.

No one need fear a society in which you can leave your bike unattended, and unlocked, just outside your office building. For nine hours.

When you have to make six plane trips in fourteen days, 24/7 news coverage of a plane crash and a copilot with suicidal tendencies is no comfort.

It’s rare that I ascribe to the wisdom of Angelina Jolie, but she does have a point: we have an excess of news, but a dearth of action based on it.

Beijing, Part II

After three days of meetings, 1:1’s, whiteboarding, catching up with my mentor, and amazing team lunches and dinners, I was on my own, for a day, in Beijing.

My hotel was in the “Silicon Valley” district of Beijing, in and of that the area is populated with many of the tech offices; Microsoft has two buildings there joined by a skybridge (which announces “Hi, I’m Cortana”). As I can easily get lost when I haven’t done my proper research and got my bearings, I elected for a day-tour on my one day off.

The night before I left I got a call at 10pm:

Her: “Hello, this is your Tour Guide. You need to be outside your hotel at 6:30am for your tour bus, okay?”

Me: “Ok.”

Her: “What time are you going to sleep? I will call you later with your bus number.”

Me: “I was asleep when you called.” 

Her: “What time are you going to sleep?”

Me: “I was already asleep.” 

Her: (Pause) “Oh. I will call you at 6am tomorrow to tell you your buss number.” 

Me: “Okay.”

Her: (Demanding) “Why do you not want to go to the Great Wall?”

Me: (Nonplussed) “What??”

Her: (Demanding & Impatient) “You signed up for Forbidden City and Summer Palace. Why do you not want to go to the Great Wall?”

Me: (Defensively) “It’s not that I don’t want to go, it’s that I only have one day, and my friends told me to do this. 

Her: (Warning) “Are you sure you don’t want to go to the Great Wall?” 

Me: (Too tired to care…)“Maybe next time.” 

Her: “Okay” (hangs up)

Thanks to the aforementioned jetlag/insomnia I was up at 4am, answering emails and toddling around. Breakfast is not available at the hotel before 6:30am so I walked over to the 7-11 and purchased Mystery Breakfast and orange juice, both of which were decent. At 6:30 I got on the bus. I was the first person on it.

After 3 more stops the bus was half full, including a woman behind me who appeared to be retching into a plastic back (based on sound). I was relieved when the tour bus stopped just outside the Forbidden City and Linda, my Tour Guide (from the phonecall the night before), got on and said “You’re from the Crowne Plaza, right? Come with me.”

It wasn’t hard to tell, I was the only non-Asian person on the bus.

With Linda I joined up with two other gents, both from Singapore, and realized that we were on the “English Tour Guide” tour. We walked to the Forbidden City, along one side, and then along the moat (it’s about 50 meters wide). Linda pointed out the four gates into the City (North/South/East/West) with their ritual uses (West is for dead people to go out, only the Emperor could use the South—except on her wedding day the Empress could, too), the four watchtowers in each corner, and the large gate doors with 81 metal studs in them (9×9, because 9 is the highest single-digit number and the Emperor is the highest person, aside from their deity). We walked through the South Gate (neaner, neaner Emperor) and into the first part of the Forbidden City.

(Side note: as our Guide returned from purchasing tickets a young Chinese couple approached her and asked her something. She turned to me: “They want to take your picture.” Me: “Wha…why??” Her: “They haven’t seen a white person not on TV before”. Me: “Um.. okay…” Somewhere in China I’m on an iPhone.

The Guide explained to me that they were not from Beijing, and that no one from Beijing or Shanghai would even care. But they were tourists, too, and apparently white people are on the list of things to look at.)

The Forbidden City is both larger and smaller than you’d expect. The first piece we walked into can best be described as a large courtyard, with buildings on each side. Beyond those buildings are other areas/courtyards, with more buildings, of varying significance.

“You see that building?” she said, pointing to a single-story building (don’t let the description fool you, a single-story building in the Forbidden City is about 3 standard US stories). “That building is NOT important.” That building had ornate lacquer, multiple pillars, gold-leaf dragons embedded in the top around it, and impressive marble stairs leading up to it. (Then again, so did every other building in the complex).

“It is NOT important because it only has 1 level. In Ming and Qing dynasty, you have 1 level for ‘regular building’. Two levels for ‘Emperor building’. And three or more levels for Temple. Emperor needed more levels than regular but could not have as many as God.”

We walked from one building to the next, marveling at the ornate carvings and the excellent restoration work that had been done. “See that building? Not important. Emperor would stop there to change his robes.” This would become a recurring theme: “That building? Not important.” I have many, many pictures of these buidings (both non-and-important ones).

After walking all over the Forbidden City we went to the Temple of Heaven (“See? Three level. Very Important.”) where I discovered that the architecture was indeed beautiful but I didn’t want a picture of the inside bad enough to withstand the jostling that was clearly de rigeur. I walked around the perimeter instead, taking pictures from the hilltop that the Temple sits on.

After this we headed to the Pearl Market, a government-run facility that aims to expand China’s burgeoning cultured freshwater pearl market. These are not the “Rice Krispy” pearls of my memory, but beautiful, round pearls that come in five colors: white (everyday/purity), black(indpenedence), purple (for romantic love), pink(friendship), and gold (dragon lady/super fancy). Be warned: you walk in and you get to help them open up an oyster and see the cultured pearls within, but you also are then followed by your very own salesperson for the rest of your time in the shop. Even if you’re just looking. The variety is impressive and I bought something (hey, I was in China!), including my first (and only) Chinese Diet Coke.

Chinese Diet Coke tastes exactly like American Diet Coke, which is surprising. As the male person remarked, “Diet Coke doesn’t even taste the same in Canada!”

After this we had lunch that was right next door to a fish market. Most of the items for sale there were what you’d see in any decent fish market in the US, with one notable exception.

We then went to the Summer Palace. The Summer Palace was about 40 minutes away and the van got quiet with sleepy tourists, which was good. When we arrived we were refreshed and the guide explained that the lake which bordered the Summer Palace was artificially made—or partially so. “Half was here. Half was made. They took the dirt from the half that was made and made that hill there,” she said, gesturing to a hill with a temple atop. “This was a present from the Emperor to his mother.” It’s pretty impressive when you take into account the size of the lake and the size of the hill, never mind the actual building architecture. As with any tourist attraction, the buildings were laced with gift shops and gift stands, and crowded with people much as the last two spots. “All the children are out of school for summer,” she said. “Now is the time when all of the tourists are here.”

tourists, like us :)
Tourists, Like Us 🙂

Our final destination for the day was Mr. Tea, a teashop. We were treated to tea service and learned how to properly drink tea (it depends, apparently, on what kind of tea, if you are going to slurp it or “chew” it or sip it). We learned how to hold the teacups (ladies: thumb and forefinger at the top, middle finger to the bottom, ring and pinky finger extended; gents: thumb and forefinger at the top, middle finger to the bottom, ring and pinky finger curled in under the cup. If men do it the “ladies’” way, they are considered “girly”. If ladies do it the men’s way, they are considered to be “dragon lady”). One variety of local tea is called Pu-er tea, and it’s very good; as with our other shop-stop this one meant we had a shopping assistant at our very elbow, coaching us on what else to buy. I noticed in both places there was no real dickering but they really emphasized the upgrade (“Don’t you want a necklace with that? What about when you go to a party? You need to be dressed up!”) (Trying to explain to this very delicate, feminine creature that I do not go to parties, and that I spend the majority of my time either at a computer or in equally unglamorous events seemed moot.)

I got back to the hotel at about 4pm, tired but happy. There are other tours available at the hotel and of course a ton more to see, which I will do on my next trip.

Beijing Airport

If you’re going to be stuck in an airport longer than you expected, Beijing Terminal 3 isn’t all that bad.

I arrived 3 hours early courtesy of my reliance on the calendar set by corporate travel booking. It turns out when you have a 4pm flight, your corporate travel team books a calendar for 1pm, because they figure that’s when you need to be leaving your hotel to go to the airport. My jetlagged insomniac brain saw that my flight left at 1pm, and I got here (courtesy of no-traffic Saturday morning) at 9:30am. Oh well.

Air Canada (my carrier) would not let me check in until 1pm, so that meant I had some serious time on my hands before I could get to the gate. Fortunately, there’s a variety of eateries, gift shops, and services *before* security, so I’ve spent some time (and some yuan) while waiting. I cruised the gift shops, of which there are about 10 (of varying degree of price: there’s a Chinese Gold jewelry shop and there’s the local equivalent of a drugstore, and everything in between). These are the kind of airport gift shops where if you wanted to score a dust collector or a silk scarf or a set of chopsticks or a stuffed panda bear, you’re set.

If you go upstairs from the ticketing gates you will find not only a Burger King (no thank you), but also a tea house/massage service. You can get a foot massage, a back massage, and/or tea. I opted for all 3 (again, plenty of time to kill). With my complete lack of Mandarin I pointed to the English Words saying Foot Massage and was beckoned by a nice lady in a uniform down a hallway, another hallway, and into a wood paneled alcove. There we turned through a maze of a hallway past individual wood-paneled massage rooms, until we got to mine. I was beckoned to sit, and then I was brought a cup of sweet water. As part of the foot massage they soak your feet in hot water, and I do mean hot: it’s the kind of hot where you have to convince yourself they couldn’t possibly have expected you to put your feet in something that would scald you.

There I sat, while my feet turned an impressive shade of scarlet, and a man came in.

Oh, there’s another cultural shift.

For me, massage has usually meant women for women, and women/men for men. Or at least, I’d be asked. There was no asking here, but then again there was no nakedness (even for back massage). They drape a light towel across your neck and shoulders and go to town. If you have a knot when you walk in, you do not have a knot when you walk out. You can wince and gasp all you want, too. The nice man with the scorpion tattooed on the inside of his wrist does not care, and he will take care of it.

By this time I had a roommate, a nice lady who never got off her phone the entire time she was in the room. I figured I should suck it up for her benefit, too.

The foot massage part was even more robust; there were pain points and more pain points, and something that felt not unpleasantly like they were cracking your toe knuckles. I don’t know a better way to put it than that. After a while I gave up and got my phone out too; Sudoku and foot massage ftw.

Then I had tea.

They have a special tea here in Beijing, called Pu-er tea. It looks like black tea but is not as strong, and has purported healthful properties. As part of tea service they give you a little plate of sunflower seeds and plastic-wrapped biscuits, neither of which really interested me, and then they make the tea in front of you, leaving you with a tiny cup and a glass teapot to pour from. That’s where I’m at right now, typing away on the local free wifi, waiting for my airline to open.

Some other travel tips for you:

  • Local hotels will tell you it costs about 600Yuan to get from their hotel to the airport (especially if you’re in the “Silicon Valley” district). The cab is less than 200Yuan, but it’s cash only (they can give you a receipt).
  • Not all of the toilets are the standard Western variety. There’s a few squat-style ones, but they’re usually marked on the outside of the door so you can tell before venturing into the stall. This is true not only for the airport but for restaurants as well.
  • You get a better conversion rate if you use your credit card or cash, than if you use USD in the airport. Exchange rate in the airport gift shops is 6Yuan to 1USD, for cards and otherwise you get 6.2Yuan to 1USD. Best to get your Yuan stateside and come prepared.
  • Most restaurants will take credit cards, but small shops and smaller eateries will not. Also, not all US credit cards are accepted, and we had a devil of a time using our Corporate Amex in anything but our hotel and very large, established restaurants.
  • American branded food (e.g., Burger King, Hagen Daaz) is more expensive than local fare and way more expensive than back home. You’re in Beijing, you don’t need ice cream.
  • Almost everyone knows some basic (and I do mean basic) English: hello, this way, please, etc. However for the most part service staff know these words as symbols and are expecting a set of standard responses. For example, I was asked this morning, “Would you like some more coffee?” To which I replied, “Sure, I’d like a little more coffee.”  Because I didn’t say “yes” and instead used “sure”, and because I added “a little” in there, the look I received in response was nonplussed. I switched it to “yes” and that sorted things out. The service staff’s accent is usually very light for these practiced phrases, and you will be lulled into thinking you can have more robust conversations with them (e.g., “Do the biscuits have nuts?” never got a real response because I couldn’t make myself understood). (I didn’t eat the biscuits).
  • Most hotels can arrange a tour of the sights (which I did). However in retrospect if I had spent a little time planning (if I had had it) with a subway map and done some research on the sights, I could’ve easily seen it without going with my little group. I would not have got the educational bits from the tour guide, but I could have read those in advance, as well.
  • The air does indeed get smoggy. I was fortunate to come in after a rain so my first 3 days were gorgeous, clear, and blue. By the fifth day it looks like we’re in a cloud. Drinking tea helps the throat soreness you get from this.
  • If you love your toiletries – especially deodorant – bring them and do not count on buying them here. I ran low on deodorant while here and thought I’d just pick up another one to be covered (no pun intended) – good luck with that. The local 7-11 had toothpaste, etc. but no deodorant. A bing search for “Is there deodorant in China” will get you humorous and informative results.
  • Don’t eat the street food (at least, we were cautioned by our local friends not to do so). DO eat with an open mind. I have had several different kinds of critter and a variety of vegetables, and it was all great.
  • At the airport you need to fill out a little yellow and cream colored card, usually available on tables right before you walk up to customs and immigration. If you miss it and get all the way up to the person on the other end of the glass, they’ll send you back to get one and fill it out and then get back in line… which is usually long. So, read all of the signs and look for the little cards.
  • Once you’ve passed security (on your way out from Beijing) the shops are predominantly duty-free, and high-end souvenir. There are a few places to eat and, if you really want one, there is a Starbucks.

I have another post, in which I’ll go through my “tourist” day here in Beijing, but it’s now 1:10 and I can finally check in. Woo hoo!

Beijing, Baby!

One of the advantages to having chronic insomnia is that when you travel halfway around the world and you wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning, it (in itself) is not a foreign thing. It also means you get through jet lag a lot faster, because you’re used to sporadic sleep.

I am typing this in my room at the Crowne Plaza in Beijing (the one on Zhi Chun road, if you want to be specific… there’s 3 or 4 others). I will not be able to upload it to WordPress until I get to work, though, as I am behind the Great Firewall, and one of the things you do not get to do here is engage in Western social media. Twitter, Facebook, Swarm/Foursquare, WordPress, etc. are all tabled until I can get into the office and leverage their VPN. As it is nearly 5AM and the pool I intend to swim in this morning doesn’t open for another hour, let me show you around what I’ve seen thus far.

(NB: when you travel for work, you spend a disproportionate amount of time in a hotel and in an office or conference center. A lot of this is going to essentially be skewed by that.)

First, the airport: It reminds me of a cross between Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle, and Vancouver. Think great long hallways sided by glass on one side (to the outside) and art on another, multiple long stretches with those flat conveyor-belt people movers, from the gates to a large central area filled with meandering, lost people and a variety of signage in both Chinese Traditional and English. I was really surprised at the volume of English, because it was not only in the directional signage (Parking, Exit, Baggage Claim, etc.) but also in the ads. But hey, we’re in an Airport, so that’s fine.

beijing_buildingsMy hotel transfer was in an SUV driven by a gruff man who said nothing (in Mandarin or otherwise). Thirty minutes got me to my hotel and I got to see the Bird’s Nest on the way in; the thing that really impressed me was the volume of high-rise apartment complexes. I am not exaggerating when I say I probably saw more than a hundred of them. The architecture of these buildings is pretty homogenous; tall, cream-colored buildings with uniform portrait rectangular windows, flat faces, only a select few apartments have balconies.

Many of tbeijing_boxeshe windows have what looks like an air conditioning unit but installed below the window (not in it), I found out later that those are the exhaust motors for the wall-mounted air conditioning units on the inside.

The best way I can describe Beijing is to take the relative building heights and proximities of New York City (so, very high, very close), mix it with an expanse the size of Los Angeles (so, very wide), give it infrastructure similar to what you’d see in Phoenix (wide roads, wide sidewalks), put in architecture that resembles both London (great tall glass buildings with architectural arches or curves) and the Eastern Bloc (tall grey or cream colored drab functional buildings), slather everything with Chinese Traditional characters in a variety of fonts and colors, and then add the people.

Lots and lots and lots of people.

Those nice, wide streets are crammed with a variety of vehicles (bikes, motorized and not; taxis; foreign and domestic autos) and people. Much like Manhattan, the guidance on crosswalks seems to be largely based on judgment rather than any actual signaling device (of which green man purportedly means go, red hand means stop). The brick sidewalks are crammed with a variety of people (male, female, old, young, professional, etc.). Street vendors have blankets on the ground from which you can purchase a variety of cheap knicknackery, there is also street food which we were cautioned (by local friends) not to eat. The subways are efficient and much like what you’d experience in any real city, and they are air conditioned. Personal space is not a concept people are familiar with here.

In the three days I have been here, the air has been clear and clean, thanks to a thorough rain on the morning of my flight. I’m looking outside my window though and I can’t see the sun rise, even though it’s perceptibly lighter. I can’t tell if what I’m looking at is smog or real clouds, but I’m sure I’ll find out later on my walk to work. The smells largely are defined by where you are at, so along one block you’ll smell a variety of food smells, along another you’ll smell a variety of not-food smells. Deodorant seems to be optional.

My hotel clearly caters to Western visitors: every electrical outlet in the room has converters built in, both for US and Europe (including UK). And I do mean every electrical outlet: the ones at the desk, the ones in the bathroom, the ones on either side of the bed, and even the one in the closet. If you’re staying at the Crowne Plaza here, you don’t need an adapter.

beijing_privatepotty
Ain’t no potty like an East coast potty.

The bathroom is roughly 40% of the room size and features a separate toilet (like, it is in its own glass room), shower (own glass room), and tub large enough for 2. Toiletries include things like dental hygiene kits, shoe shine kit, etc. My room has two gas masks so if the air quality gets super bad, you’re covered.

As you go downstairs to breakfast there’s a large fish tank to view, complete with Arrowanas and koi that are larger than them. The breakfast buffet is the sort that anyone can find something they eat (e.g., vegetarians, picky Westerners, adventurous foodies, etc.). It’s my goal to try everything before I leave but I’m not sure I can.

 

 

The volumes of food here are insane.

Granted, we are doing “team lunches” and “team dinners” which means eating in a variety of really nice restaurants, at really large circular tables. I have learned that you have two sets of chopsticks – one for serving yourself (so far, they have always been brown with gold handles), and one for actually eating with (black with silver tips). Sometimes there’s a serving spoon, other times there is not. We surprised our local coworkers here by the fact that we could use chopsticks. In these cases, the food has been served ‘family style’ and has ranged from mild and sweet to “I don’t have any sinuses anymore” hot. I promised them I would try everything and I have, which sounds more adventurous than it is. No one has ordered the sea cucumber yet (it is exactly that – take a sea cucumber out of the water, cook it as-is, dump it in some soup, and serve it… just lying there. Not sure how you eat it, it’s not even sliced.) But I’ve had organ meats and the like, and everything I’ve eaten has tasted wonderful. After the first day our local friends decided they didn’t have to haze us.

Food pricing is another interesting thing. Case in point: yesterday’s lunch was 10 people in a high-end restaurant, 10 different dishes plus tea and a blueberry yogurt drink thing (tasty!), and we walked out the door for about 530 Yuan (read, about $87). The ice cream we had later on in the afternoon from the Hagen Daaz cost more than that on a per-person basis (about $10—and it was not grandiose size).

beijing_quackEating is almost a sport here, although we learned you do not eat all of the food (otherwise you are indicating that you were waiting too long and got too hungry, and/or your host/ess didn’t supply enough for you). I don’t think we could have eaten all the food if we tried. I’m taking advantage of the gym here daily (nice – 3 treadmills, 2 ellipticals, 2 bikes, free weights, and 6 weight machines) and coupling that with our daily walks to/from the office should hopefully undo some of the gastronomic damage. There’s a scale in the bathroom.

I have one more workday here – barring the fact that the recycle bins have small descriptions of what constitutes as recycleable both in Chinese and in English, you couldn’t distinguish this office environment from any other that Microsoft offers in Redmond – and then tomorrow I am taking the day off to go do some sightseeing. With my stellar sense of direction (I can get lost in my hometown) I am going to rely on the hotel’s package tour that it offers, so I’ll pen a follow up on that.

In the meantime, I’m going to go swim some laps. Last night was Peking Duck.