Archive for the ‘Beijing’ Category

Commune by the Great Wall

17 December 07

Looking for some swank at the Great Wall? Try Commune by the Great Wall by Kempinski Hotels. Definitely that is a new definition for the word commune. Looks pretty luxe to me. The hotel features villas designed by 12 Asian architects. There are suites as well as standard and deluxe rooms. While I don’t usually stay at ritzy, expensive hotels, this one is worth it for the design alone.

They have Christmas and New Year’s packages starting at 1588 RMB per night. ($215 or 150 Euro)

And no, this is not an advertisement! I just like the way this place looks!


Pizza Hut Lands in Linyi

26 November 07

This post was much better the first time I wrote it, but then it was eaten by the Great Firewall of China. I’ll try to rewrite it but frankly, I am so annoyed and frustrated and TIRED of this ridiculous censorship and the fact that I have to use a special program just to see my own damn blog that I feel like revealing all of China’s state secrets right here, today.

But I won’t. Everyone already knows about them, anyway. Instead, I will tell you about eating out at Pizza Hut. Because what is more hard-hitting: exposing China’s corruption and propaganda or discussing the insidious infiltration of Western fast food chains?

Pizza Hut just opened its doors in Linyi. This is a pretty big deal, evidently. There were long lines out the door for the first week. Linyi already has KFC and McDonald’s, so all we need now is a Starbuck’s and the holy quartet of fast food will be complete – fried chicken, hamburgers, pizza and coffee creations. I’m not radically anti-fast food or anything (actually, I’m a few rungs down from radical, but I’m definitely on the ladder). I don’t like fast food much, but I do eat it from time to time. Eating American fast food in China, however, is kind of like a little escape into a familiar corner when you just feel overwhelmed by all the craziness. American fast-food restaurants represent the easy choice and on bewildering China days, it is the sanest choice. (Besides, it helps you to appreciate the diversity and taste of Chinese restaurants!)

So it was with curiosity and a pizza craving that we set off to see Pizza Hut for ourselves. Kunzilla was right. Pizza Hut is a high-class joint in China. All the Linyi elite were there. The whole place has the feel of a fancy European cafeteria. I even felt a little under dressed.

The menu is very familiar. All the usual chain restaurant appetizers and salads are there with the pasta dishes and pizzas you’d expect to find. The biggest difference is in the portions. The small pizza is 9″ and the large 12″ and that is it. No mega-super-sized pizzas or drinks on offer here.

We had fried calamari, (no joke about the small portions, there were literally three or four rings!) two pizzas – one “edge” style without crust and one “pan” style, and a cranberry crisp cheesecake for dessert (again, a completely normal sized portion for most of the world, but an American would have asked to see the manager.) The food was as expected. It must all come from a central processing plant, anyway, as it all tastes the same everywhere. I’ll admit I enjoyed the pizza. Pizza is such a great food. How can you go wrong with bread, cheese, pepperoni and veggies, and you can eat it all with your hands! Yes, you are supposed to eat pizza eat with your hands. I stand firm on this.

The biggest shock, of course, came with the bill. Eating out in Linyi is super-cheap. You never have to cook a single meal if you don’t want to, since eating at restaurants and noodle shops will set you back the same or less amount of money. The DH and I regularly spend less than $10 for dinner. Our bill (we splurged) came to 230RMB (20 Euros or 31 USD). !!???!!! Twenty Euros for a two-person meal!!? (Well, we did have leftover pizza for brunch the next day.) Outrageous!

My recommendation for the best pizza in China is The Tree in Beijing. They offer thin-crust, wood-fired pizzas, pasta, sandwiches, great Belgian beers and free wi-fi. Located in the Sanlitun area, close to the embassy district, you will definitely pay Western-style prices for food and drink, but it is fresh, delicious and unique. Of course, the best pizza in Linyi is still to be found at my friend L’s house. She makes it from scratch.

In Beijing

19 April 07

Thursday morning, Steak & Eggs Diner, Beijing.

I survived my 10 hour hard seat train ride. What an ordeal. I am actually looking forward to a plush economy airline seat! The ride was monotonous and not to exciting, although as I was passing through the ticket control I did witness a guy try to get on the train without a ticket. He just showed his red Communist Party book and spoke in Chinese. The guards were not impressed. They shoved him back through the gate and told him to get lost.

As usual, on the train platform everyone was lined up in neat rows in the approximate positions of the train car doors. BUT, as soon as the train rolled in and stopped, mayhem ensued as everyone rushed towards the doors, pushing and shoving. I muttered obscenities under my breath, only to discover the guy behind me in “line” spoke very good English. He later approached me and apologized for his fellow passengers. He kept saying that it was terrible the way everyone rushed and pushed and he wished everyone could be more civil. He also told me he was an old-fashioned guy who wanted to support China’s peaceful rise while maintaining traditional values. We had a nice conversation. He was on his way to Beijing for a law school interview. I hope he makes it. China needs level-headed, well-spoken people like him in leadership positions.

I’ve just received my flight tickets and now I’m heading to the airport. More to come this weekend!

A Friday in Beijing

27 March 06

Friday in Beijing we visited the embassy district, to do some business at the US and Spanish embassies. The driver from our school dropped us off a few streets from the embassy, as close as he was allowed to drive. Since we weren’t really sure where we were, we just started walking up a side street. It soon became apparent that we were close to the embassy – all the barbed wire and video cameras gave it away. I felt like I was walking through a DMZ.

At the end of the street, there was a barrier, albeit a very small one. It was just out of view of the guard standing on the corner in front of the US consulate. There was no way around the barrier, except to walk back the way we came – really far. So we did probably one of the dumbest things you could ever possibly do in a militarized zone – we jumped over the barrier. No biggie, though. I think the guard thought we came from a car parked beside it. As usual, it was a big security check at the embassy, quite a contrast to the Spanish consulate, where we just walked right on in, with cell phones and everything!! OOoohhh….

Anyway, at the US embassy I achieved the expat rite of passage that really tells you you’ve been around – I had another 20 pages added to my passport. It seems I completely filled my passport! I love all the stamps and visas. I can’t wait to fill in the new ones! After visiting the US embassy, we took a long leisurely stroll down the tree-lined streets, admiring the embassy buildings and trying to guess each country by its flag.

The Mexicans are particularly proud of their flag, as you can see in the photo below. Quite risky to take photos of the embassies, with so many guards and police standing around, but this had to be seen to be believed!

That’s right, the flag is actually bigger than the embassy.

We took a break at Le Petit Paris, a nice little cafe with a patio facing the street – perfect for people watching. There were so many expats in the neighborhood we could have been in Europe.
Just have a look at the following photo and tell me, Is this place European or WHAT!!??

We had espresso and cheesecake here. Now that is the best way I can think of to spend an afternoon.

Later that night, we ate dinner at an Indian restaurant, The Taj, because after 6 months of eating pretty much only Chinese, you need a break. The food was great and so was the ambience. Afterward, we once again strolled through the neighborhood.

This area is Northwest of the embassy district, almost directly North of the Forbidden City, close to our hotel. It is one of the very few traditional, old-style areas of Beijing that has managed to avoid the wrecking ball. There are very tiny, narrow little streets called Hutongs, and lining the streets are walls and doors. Beyond the doors are the courtyard houses, where anywhere from one to 10 families may be living. I haven’t been inside any, but I am dying to know what they are like. There are a few hotels and guesthouses located inside courtyard houses and I would love to check one out.

One hutong is developing as a sort of hip place to go for dinner and coffee. It is called Nanluogu Xiang Hutong, which means Drum and Gong Alley. We walked up the street, searching for some good coffee and dessert. We were stopped half-way up because a Chinese film crew was making a movie. On their break we were able to pass by. Our first stop resulted in some very disappointing coffee, but at our second stop, Xiao Xin’s, we had some delicious cheesecake (the second of the day!!) and a chocolate and hazlenut milkshake. Yummmy! These businesses along the Hutong are popular because they offer free Wi-fi for those with laptops and a really relaxed, more traditional Chinese style architecture and design. I loved it and I hope I can go back and explore more in the daytime. I don’t have any pics, but here is an article with pictures and descriptions:
Asia and Away – Drum Roamin’
The whole place has a really Bohemian air which is a nice change from the usual touristy bars and restaurants of the Sanlitun area.

The Great Wall Sure is Great

27 March 06

It sure is a great wall. ~Richard Nixon

I’m inclined to agree with the president. The great wall was amazing, truly worthy of its title and its membership in the seven wonders of the world. A big thanks to Ting at Tings Tours for an outstanding tour. Visit the website for some great photos of the wall in the beautiful, lush Spring and Summer. As you can see in my photos, it is definately still Winter!

The Great Wall is enormous, stretching some 600 kilometers across Northern China. There are a few areas, close to Beijing, that have been reconstructed for tourists. I haven’t been to that part, although I’ve heard it is amazing, too, but really crowded with tour groups and souvenir hawkers. We chose to go to a part of the wall that is untouched, unrenovated, practically in ruins. Very few people go there because it is more difficult to get to. I’m not even sure it is officially open. There were only a handful of tourists here, so it was completely peaceful.

It is breathtaking – literally! You must walk up a steep incline, twisting and turning up the hillside to reach the ruins. I thought I was gonna die for a few seconds. (And American T, if you are reading this – you weren’t joking about the incline, it’s ridiculous! I’m sorry we teased you about being out of shape.) But when you emerge, out of the underbrush and trees, and see the spectacular view of the valley below, the clear blue sky overhead and the ruins perched precariously along the summits of the hills and mountains, for as far as you can see into the distance, all you can do is stand there with  your mouth open and say WOW. And then you immediately find a rock to sit on to catch your breath.

The valley below

On our way up to the Great Wall, we drove up a windy little road past many new hotels and resort areas. Seems that this area is very popular among the newly wealthy Beijingers who want to get away to the clean air of the mountains for the weekend. Mostly it is popular among Chinese. The Western tourists are still very rare in this area. We also passed many small villages, which appeared to be quite old. They still had the old courtyard style houses, with gray tile sloping roofs. We saw many old men working in the fields, carrying bundles of sticks, and generally fixing things up after the winter.

What was most incredible to us, after being in Shijiazhuang with smelly, smoky air, was the refreshing quality of the air. It was like clear spring water, you just couldn’t get enough of it. We could see for miles. Several jets past over us, many miles up, but they seemed so close we could reach out and touch them. I could have stayed there all day. Especially since I really didn’t want to descend that slippery little goat path back down!!

Me among the ruins of a guard tower.

That’s the beginning of the trail up to the wall. The boxy thing up top is a guard tower. Doesn’t look that steep or far, right? Yeah, that is what we thought. The blue sign you see in the distance says, “It is everyone’s responsibility to keep the Great Wall clean (or something like that). The Great Wall is closed for reconstruction.” I don’t know if it is closed or not, but it sure welcomed us.

See more photos at Flickr!

Beijing – Sunday

8 January 06

After another restless night thanks to the bear exhibit, we all woke up cranky, tired and wanting more sleep. But, the checkout time had almost arrived so we pried ourselves up and out to find some food. I knew right away that we would not be making a trek through the Forbidden City that day. I felt way too lousy, stuffy and coughing, with a full blown cold.

Instead, we walked a few streets over to a mall that has an enormous food court. I’ve never seen anything like it before. It had a bunch of fast food places and a Chinese style cafeteria, with all kinds of food. We had some Japanese style grilled food (Think Benihana’s only way cheaper).  Afterwards, all I wanted was some good coffee and a couch to rest on. We had 2 hours to wait before heading back to the train station.

If you ever find yourself in an international city with some time to spare, and you just want to relax but you don’t know where to go, here is a tip for you – head to the nearest 5 star hotel. They always have fabulous lounging areas with couches and coffee!! We spent our last 2 hours in Beijing at the Hyatt sipping cappucinos.

Back in SJZ that night, we were surprised to find our academy director outside of the train. Seems he had been in Beijing on business and took the same train as us. When he saw all of us on the train, he called to have our school van meet us at the train station. (We had all planned on taking taxis back to the airport.) As we drove out of the city we realized that we were heading towards the backroads. Evidently, there was so much fog that the highways had been closed, and soon we knew why. The backroads were also enveloped in thick fog. We were driving at about 20km/hr. The trip usually takes 40 minutes, but that night it took almost 2 hours. Thank goodness for our director, because we surely would not have found a taxi willing to drive us home.

It was a really fun weekend.  Even though we didn’t go to any of the usual tourist sites, we still have plenty of time to return and see it all, including the Great Wall.

January looks like it is going to be a good month. On the 26th, Spring Festival starts and we are off of work for one week. A group of us are planning on spending the week in Cambodia. We are working out the details now. I am really excited about this. I have wanted to see Cambodia ever since I watched “The Killing Fields” years ago.

Beijing – New Year’s Eve Out

8 January 06

For our New Year’s Eve dinner, T. suggested we eat at a Spanish restaurant he had been to before, Tapas. Seemed appropriate since half of our group were Spaniards. It was a really nice place. There was a mix of Westerners and Chinese dining. We had some really excellent food and wine. I wish I had felt better but it was fun anyway. In Spain, it is a tradition to eat a grape at each chime of midnight, so that you end up with 12 grapes and your mouth completely full. We tried to do that, but the waiter had not brought enough grapes. We left after 1AM to meet up with the rest of the group at a nearby dance club.

Here we are at Tapas: DH, Myself & M. and T., DH and Myself:
DH, Myself & M at Tapas T., DH and myself at Tapas

At the dance club I began to realize that many of the things I had noticed about Beijing were very different from the experiences I had had in Shijiazhuang. I guess I had a bit of an epiphany where I realized – Huh, all my students were right! (Many of the students had told me that Shijiazhuang is a very small city and very rural and not as fun/nice as their hometowns.) I just thought they were more partial to their hometowns. I’m not saying anything bad about the people in Shijiazhuang, but I guess I had unconsciously decided that all of China must be like it. Well, maybe it is, but Beijing sure isn’t. For example, we were not nearly the celebrities we are back in SJZ. In Beijing, people didn’t stop everything they were doing to stare at us. They must see so many Westerners that we are not so special.

Another thing is that in Beijing there are a lot of bicycles, but nothing like in SJZ. The whole city seems more like a city. The streets are wide, the sidewalks clean. The air is noticeably cleaner, although there is still a great deal of pollution. The traffic is not as crazy, although still chaotic. It is the capital, I suppose it must be bigger, more modern and better than a provincial city, right?

I think that I really needed this trip to remember that I am living in one very small part of a very big country, and I have much to explore!

Beijing – Saturday Shopping

8 January 06

Saturday morning we woke up early (9AM is early when you’re on vacation!) and had a really delicious Western style breakfast. (Eggs, toast, bacon, sausage) Then we decided that we would go shopping – M. for a camera and DH and I for an Apple Powerbook. Seemed simple and straightforward – a quick trip to the computer market. After all, we knew exactly what we wanted.

At the computer market we did find exactly what we wanted rather quickly, but then the problems began. Just a word of warning – if you are planning a visit to China, bring lots of travelers cheques or if you’re brave – cash! Do not rely on a credit card. Do not think that you can just throw down a card like you would do in many other places on the earth. I’ve used my North American credit card at a beach shack in Costa Rica…but never have I had so many problems as I had in Beijing trying to buy a computer.

See, to use a foreign credit card, the merchant has to call the Bank of China, they have to approve it, and then they take 5%. We agreed that was okay, with a little discount of the computer price, but then my credit card company wouldn’t allow the charge. I needed to call them to say it was actually me and not some sort of fraud. Well, it took another hour just to figure out how to call internationally. From a computer market, there was no phone that was able to make an international call. We finally had to download the internet phone program Skype and set up an account so that I could call my credit card company.

Almost 4 hours after we walked in, we walked out with my new computer. M. and T. were totally annoyed. I can’t believe they stuck it out with us, as the whole building had “power heat” on, and it must have been 30 degrees (90 F) in there.  I was pretty stressed out over the whole thing and not feeling so great from the cold, but the moment I realized that the computer was mine I was ecstatic.

We were so worn out by the experience that we decided to put off until Sunday our trip to the Forbidden City. We needed some food and some siesta to prepare for New Year’s Eve.

Beijing – The Hostel & First Night

7 January 06

We had made reservations at Jade Hostel, which is in downtown and very close to the Forbidden City, Tianenmen Square and shopping areas. I have stayed in hostels and small hotels before, so I had a pretty good idea what it would be like – bunk beds and shared bathrooms. Indeed, we did have a four bed room with bunk beds and there were shared bathrooms, but the whole place was a lot nicer than I expected.

There was a large room which served as a Western-style restaurant and lounging area with a TV, stereo, DVD player and a fusball table. It was very clean and quiet. (Well, except when our large group was making noise!)

At the hostel we met up with some of the other instructors who also came to Beijing to celebrate the New Year, another 8 or so. What a group. Everyone knows that pilots are crazy, right? I briefly thought, just what the heck am I getting myself into, going out with a bunch of pilots? I considered staying at the hotel and making it a very early evening, but I was in Beijing and you just don’t want to miss out on any opportunity to see the city, so after eating in the hostel, we all went out to find some fun.

Other instructors had told us that a fun place to go is the San Li Tun bar street, a whole street lined with, you guessed it, bars. So we took a taxi there. Indeed, the street was lined with about 20 bars, each one with a pushy Chinese guy outside trying to get the Western tourists in the door of their respective bar. It was actually very interesting to hear some of their lines. “Come in, Happy Hour, Cheap…”

We were there at like 9PM, which is evidently very early because there were not very many people. This meant that the guys were trying extra hard to get us to go into each bar. We did go into a few, the ones that had girls singing, I did mention I was out with 12 guys, right? Well, it turns out that every girl band that was singing was absolutely awful. They just kind of swayed back and forth and sang very pop-y music. We were about to give up when we found a very little cafe, with only about 4 tables. It was very cozy and was playing good music – U2, etc. Our big group piled in and proceeded to pull in all kinds of Westerners that we saw on the street. Eventually, the place was filled with ~ 10 flight instructors, a group of English teachers from Japan and South Korea, and I think, some ambassador’s kids. For about 2 hours, that little place became a goldmine.

That night, back at the hostel, I was worried that I would keep everyone awake with my occasional coughing. Little did I know that I was staying in a room with 3 bears. It was as if they had planned ahead, deciding who would snore for when and how long, as none of them actually snored at the same time, thank goodness, I really couldn’t handle an entire bear choir. Somehow, I managed to get some sleep.

To Beijing – The Train Ride

7 January 06

I have a lot to say, so I’m going to try to do it in installments! Also, these are more straightforward what we did posts, without a lot of deep thought!

The second trip to Beijing in less than a week began on Friday afternoon as we tried to get a taxi into the city. For some strange reason, there was only one taxi, and its driver was nowhere to be seen. Eventually, we got a ride in a private car. (The legality of that is in question, but we did feel rather highfalutin’ being driven in a comfortable car!) We were four – DH and I, our friend from Spain, M., and of course, American T. I must say it was a really incredible feeling leaving Shijiazhuang. Other than my little trip to Beijing for the check-up, I had not left in 4 months. Finally – a chance to see more of China.

We took the afternoon train from Shijiazhuang, a trip that usually takes 3 to 4 hours. Trains criss-cross all of China and are a popular form of transportation. They say that just before Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) it is nearly impossible to even get a seat on a train or bus as the entire population travels to their hometowns to celebrate with family. There are different classes depending on the train route. On our route – considered VERY short, as some trains travel 20 to 30 to 50 hours from one end of China to the other – there were two classes, soft seat and hard seat. The difference being the amount of space and cushioning on the seats. We took soft seat and I was very comfortable.

I kept my eyes glued out the window for most of the ride. The views were similar to the highway views, except that we got a closer look at some of the villages. Granted I saw only flashes from the window of a train, but rural village life seemed pretty extreme, in some areas I saw what could be called hovels, and in others I saw simple brick homes. I was suprised to see a large number of graves, lining the edges of fields and in some cases, right in the middle of a planted field. They appear to be tall, rounded masses of dirt, sometimes with a marker and sometimes not. A Chinese friend told me that this is the way village people bury their loved-ones. Again, I am reminded of the immense population of China. We passed hundreds if not thousands of graves and hardly went a mile without encountering a small village.

The monotony of the trip was occasionally interrupted by a saleslady walking the aisle of the train. They sell assorted things – drinks, snacks, noodle-bowls, fruit, magazines and for some reason, socks. On the trip back, a woman gave a presentation on the merits of the socks she was selling for about 5 minutes.

We arrived at the Beijing West Train Station in the early evening. The station is fairly new and has lots of signs in English and Chinese. It has a very unique design, somewhere between traditional and modern.

Beijing West Train Station

I couldn’t wait to get into the city to see what it was like, but I was pretty disappointed that my cold just kept getting worse. My throat was killing me and I was starting to cough. I’m sure I was very charming company.