Sightseeing in Beijing

BEIJING — The subway here is one of the world’s largest. But it’s hard to get a “sense of place” from underground, so I walked around the neighborhood and hired a car and an English-speaking guide to get to know China’s capital.

The sedan was a comfortable BMW 5 series built in China. This is BMW’s largest market. A young man who introduced himself as “David” was an affable English-speaking tour-guide. His business card read “David Kwang.”

We spent the afternoon tooling around Beijing. Central Beijing is surrounded by rings, starting with the 1st ring, then the 2nd ring and so on. We spent most of the time in the core area.

We passed well-known places such as Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the resting place of Mao Zedong, Temple of Heaven, Houhai Lakes, Jingshan Park, and the Drum & Bell Tower.

At some spots, we got out and walked around. It was good to have David around because he could answer random questions that occurred to me.

One of the most fascinating sights are the hutongs, which are alleys formed by rows of courtyard houses, dating back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The lanes have exotic sounding names such as Nanluoguxiang or Yandaixie Street.

I remembered these alleys and residences from visiting Shanghai last fall, where they are called lane houses, dating back to colonialism (early 20th century). This so-called real estate showdown between Beijing and Shanghai is further explained here.

Signs commemorating China’s 70th celebration are posted all over, as they were in Chengdu. National flags were posted all along the boulevards.

I also noticed the Western influence: billboards touting the new iPhone Pro at bus stops, as well as Starbucks coffehouses, and Kentucky Fried Chicken fast-food restaurants.

As we traveled around, I recognized the spot where Chinese President Xi Jinping gave his 70th anniversary speech on national television earlier in the week.

I also recognized the boulevards that had been the sight of a massive military parade on TV— about 15,000 personnel, and hundreds of pieces of weaponry and equipment.

Along with the other buildings, David also pointed out the Zhongnanhai compound (AKA “Gate of New China”) that houses the offices of Xi Jinping.

David said Beijing had attracted record crowds for this week’s 70th anniversary celebration. People came from all over China for the weeklong festivities.

It resulted in traffic gridlock and countless road closures — and we experienced the tail-end of all that.

The streets of Beijing are a mix of bicycles, pedestrians and vehicles. Compared with other cities I’ve visited, they mostly stay out of each other’s way — except for the occasional pedestrian who wanders out in front of a car, daring the driver to stop. We experienced a few near misses in our sedan.

Some of the colorful bicycles that line the streets are offered for ride sharing. Chinese mobile apps such as WeChat are used for communicating, while others such as Mobike are used for renting the bicycles.

As with Chengdu and Shanghai, I was impressed with the cleanliness of the streets and boulevards — at least the main ones. I figured they were kept extra tidy for this week’s festivities, but recalled that Shanghai’s boulevards were clean too.

The sight of electric cars is becoming more common in Beijing. I spotted a few Teslas, among other brands. The electric cars have green license plates compared to blue for gasoline-powered vehicles

In recent years, more electric cars have been sold in China than the rest of the world combined. The government offers incentives to electric-car owners, such as a less expensive licensing procedure, David explained.

Though Beijing is notorious for its smog, I have been blessed with relatively clear skies this week. I think fall is a good time to visit from that standpoint.

We returned to the hotel around dusk. I said goodbye and headed inside for a cup of green tea in the lobby. I went for a swim in the hotel pool, ate a hot pot for dinner and caught up with the international news on CNN. It seems that whenever there’s news about the protests in Hong Kong, the TV goes dark for a moment before returning to the next news item.


Peking duck in Beijing

BEIJINGPeking duck, also known as Beijing roast duck, has been a mainstay in Chinese cuisine ever since its creation during the Yuan dynasty of 1279-1368.

We’ve long been fans. I enjoy making the dish as well. I order the fresh duck from Grimaud Farms in the San Joaquin Valley.

Grimaud’s trademark Muscovy ducks are delicious and have been served at restaurants ranging from the Zuni Café  in San Francisco to Jean-Georges in New York. We have enjoyed them on special occasions.

I sampled Chinese roast duck when I visited Shanghai last fall, noticing that the server used a sharp blade to shave thin slices of the golden-brown duck for plating. I was dining alone, but I could see tables of other diners enjoying the festive experience.

I was eager to eat Chinese duck again — this time in Beijing. I ordered 1/2 of a duck in advance and was seated at a table that faced an open kitchen. It was a front-row seat, like at a chef’s table.

I could see the chefs chopping vegetables and preparing other dishes. One the dishes was malatang, referring to “street food” that is popular in Beijing. (It consisted of skewers of beef, fish and veggies seasoned in spicy fermented bean paste, chili oil and Sichuan pepper broth that was grilled on an open fire).

The roasted Huairou Farms duck was cooked in a wood-fired brick oven (apple, peach and date wood). It was served with leek, cucumbers, sugar, sweet bean sauce and pancakes.

It’s fun to assemble the dish: You place one of the paper-thin pancakes on a plate, and top it with a piece of crispy-skinned, tender duck, cucumber, scallion, and sweet bean sauce, and fold it together. Then grab it with chopsticks. It was delicious.

I ordered a side of wok-fried Chinese kale and minced garlic. I paired it with a glass of French wine (M. Chapoutier, Belleruche  Côtes du Rhône Blanc, Rhone Valley). Dessert was a scoop each of homemade green tea and mango ice cream.

It was a wonderful meal and a memorable dining experience, and I also enjoyed the people watching. Good times in Beijing.

“Camping out” at the Rosewood Beijing across from “Big Pants” building

BEIJING — We’ve enjoyed some superb, five-star hotels in our travels — along with some splendid budget accommodations, once for as little as $10 a night in Taxco, Mexico — but the Rosewood Bejing is extraordinary. And it exemplifies the good travel deals that are available in China.

The 282-room Rosewood Beijing, located in the Chaoyang District opposite the iconic CCTV Tower, is the first China property for Rosewood Hotels & Resorts.

The 54-storey, OMA-designed CCTV building is a spectacular sight to look out on to, its eccentric shape giving rise to a local nickname: the Big Pants Building. The Forbidden City is 20 minutes away by taxi, traffic permitting.

“Big Pants” Building

​The Beijing Rosewood’s public areas are accented with Chinese touches and contemporary artworks and “repeat guests can expect all manner of personalised extras, including pillow cases embroidered with your initials,” according to the London Telegraph.

“The indoor swimming pool under a sky-lit atrium is particularly lovely just after sundown when the lights come on.” (see video below)

The well-appointed rooms are akin to living quarters, full marble bathrooms, and adorned with original Asian artwork, even classical Chinese novels such as “Dream of the Red Chamber.”

The hotel’s Country Kitchen is a favorite with local diners and the Peking duck is roasted in a wood-fired oven. I’m going there tonight for the duck.

I woke up late this morning so I sampled room service — in this case, “hot and sour prawn soup, bamboo shoot, mushroom, tofu, eg, ginger and chili oil” and “Gong Bao Chicken: dried chili, ginger, peanut, Sichuan pepper, and steamed Wuchang rice.” It was delicious.

Room service at Rosewood Beijing

So let’s get down to brass tacks for those serious travelers: I’m “camping out” at this beautiful hotel for four nights on the American Express “Fine Hotels and Resorts” program. It’s $860.47 for four nights ($215 per night), which includes a complimentary night, room upgrade, daily breakfast for up to two, guaranteed 4 p.m. late checkout, complimentary wifi and $100 food and beverage credit.

It would be impossible to experience this in San Francisco, Chicago or New York — let alone London or Paris. And travel deals like this — 10 days for as little as $500 , including air fare from the West Coast — abound in China.

Here’s a detailed video tour of the hotel and some Beijing sights:

College tour season

“In this age of Google, GPS, virtual college tours, electronic guidebooks and private college tours, there is still no match for the gut feeling one gets when stepping on a college campus and talking face-to-face with the people who make that community what it is. The campus visit is one of the most important and enjoyable parts of the college application process,” as The New York Times reports.

This week my wife and our son are on an out-of-state college tour: It began with Rice University in Houston; then they flew up to Chicago to visit Northwestern (where I went to grad school) and the University of Chicago; then they headed to Hanover, New Hampshire, to visit Dartmouth, and they are wrapping it up in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins tomorrow before heading home.

Booking this trip tested our acumen at using spare frequent flier miles (thanks to Southwest and United) and finding hotels next to campus.

It included some field trips too, such as a visit to NASA Space Center in Houston and the St. Lawrence String Quartet at the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth. (The same musical group visited Grass Valley last spring thanks to InConcert Sierra). It’s a small world.

The “six types of parents you’ll meet on a college tour” is here.

Visiting Beijing as Communist China turns 70

BEIJING — I woke up to a glorious morning in China’s capital on the 18th floor of the Fairmont Beijing (no smog for now), ate a solid Chinese breakfast (congee, fresh fruit and tea), and went for a stroll in a tree-lined neighborhood. The leaves are turning golden brown, but it still is shirt-sleeve weather.

The streets were filled with a confusing mash of cars and bikes, along with bold pedestrians who waded into the traffic. Like Shanghai on a previous trip, I noticed the boulevards were clean and well landscaped.

Back in my room, I checked on the progress of our son’s college tour via iPhone. AT&T charges $10 a day for unlimited calls to the U.S. from China, so it’s no big deal to talk regularly (and no Great Internet Wall to hassle with either).

The time difference is simple to manage: When it’s daytime here, it’s night-time there.

“How’s Hanover, New Hampshire, Mitchell?” I asked our son. “Well, it’s sort of like Nevada City,” he said, referring to the small-town feel. I reminded him that our town lacks a world-class college such as Dartmouth. He agreed and was excited about the campus tour.

After working a while this morning (putting our lifestyle magazine “to bed” with our designer via email), I went for a swim in the Fairmont’s sweet indoor pool.

These hotels — the big Western brands — blend Eastern and Western culture: They are adorned with beautiful Chinese artwork, floor-to-ceiling windows, plush furnishings, and state-of-the-art features (including curtains that open at the touch of a button).

I used frequent traveler miles to stay at the Fairmont, but the prices for these four-star hotels are roughly half what they are at home. Right now, at least, traveling to China is a bargain.

In the hotel’s swimming pool — where swim caps are required — I soon was joined by a vacationing Chinese family: Mom, dad, their toddler and grandma. We smiled and said hello, but neither of us knew the other one’s language, so that was about it. It was a relaxing time.

Back home, at least in Washington D.C., the political climate was tense. “Trump’s meltdown,” CNN International was reporting when I turned on the TV. It showed our President dodging a reporter’s question and then insulting him. Not exactly “presidential.”

The news — the Western broadcast, not China’s — has pointed to our politics as being in disarray this week, marked by impeachment proceedings, political infighting and more. The falling stock market also gets wrapped into the narrative.

To be sure, China has its own problems. “Hong Kong violence overshadows China’s anniversary celebrations,” the Financial Times’ summed up in a front-page headline. Like others, I’ve been surprised at China’s military restraint — at least so far.

The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal was waving the American flag (as expected): “Mr. Trump’s policy reflects a new bipartisan American consensus that China’s economic abuses must be confronted.”

Hong Kong’s escalating violence contrasted with China’s weeklong festivities here on the mainland to celebrate 70 years of Communist rule. People have been celebrating and behaving unified (also as expected).

It’s a festive atmosphere, complete with fireworks and parades. The streets are filled with banners, posters, flags, even fresh flowers commemorating 70 years of communist rule.

Cars are decorated with China’s flag, as locals show their patriotism. I thought of the “State of Jefferson” flags I see on some cars in our small foothills town and laughed to myself.

The protests in Hong Kong is China’s problem, and the political friction in America, topped with talk of impeaching the president, is our nation’s “bete noir.” Meanwhile, the world’s economy is slowing while each side waits for the other to blink.

I am hopeful for a resolution to this “trade war,” but I’m not holding my breath. China and America are in parallel universes.

The brief video clip in this post shows what was being broadcast on television. I recorded it with my iPhone.

“Panda-monium” in Chengdu

CHENGDU — The People’s Republic of China was founded 70 years ago, and I rolled into town just in time for the weeklong celebration.

The traffic is greater than usual when China goes on vacation. Roads are blocked for celebrations, parades and other public gatherings. It’s 100 times worse than navigating around Pasadena during the Rose Parade — the closest comparison I could think of with a jet-lagged brain.

On the way to my hotel — the Ritz Carlton Chengdu — the driver abruptly stopped at a gridlocked intersection, hopped out of the car and started talking (with real vigor) into his cell phone. I soon found out that the road to the entrance to our hotel was blocked off, so a hotel bellman met us at the mini-van to walk the last few blocks — not exactly a ritzy arrival. Ha!

I was greeted warmly at the front desk, apologies were extended, and I was allowed to check into my room at 9 a.m., much appreciated after a 14-hour plane flight. I took a quick nap before my first “excellent adventure”: A visit to the world-renowned Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.

Chengdu is one of China’s most popular cities behind Beijing and Shanghai, thanks to two hot draws: The Panda base and spicy Sichuan food. (Chengdu has been named a UNESCO city of gastronomy). Apple iPhones also are manufactured here.

I had set up a tour of the Panda Research Base before I’d left home, and the tour guide “Kate” and driver”Mr. Jiang” met me right on time and took me to the Panda base, just outside of town.

In the 1960s, when four panda reserves were established in China, only 30 percent of infant pandas born at breeding centers survived. Now the figure is 90 percent. The Chengdu Panda Base is relied on throughout the world. This fall, breeding experts from Chengdu traveled to Berlin to help a panda named Meng Meng look after two newborn cubs.

Kate, a recent college graduate who showed me around, was well versed on panda lore. She was impressed that I had some knowledge. I’d been around pandas before: At the National Zoo in Washington, and at the zoos in Tokyo and Mexico City. What’s not to love about a panda? They’re cute, furry, cuddly and herbivores.

Chengdu’s Panda Research Base is a remarkable place. It has been ranked as one of the 15 “happiest places” in the world, according to CNN. Over 80 pandas are now in residence. We saw a dozen of them swinging on rope swings, galavanting about or just snoozing — all in natural surroundings.

We also saw two newborn panda cubs in a cute wooden playpen in one building — a real treat that even excited Kate, who was a regular at the Chengdu Panda base.

The Panda base was crowded because of the national holiday. Families were milling about the grounds, and children were wearing panda t-shirts or panda ears (like Mickey Mouse ears), or hauling around stuffed panda dolls.

All of the visitors were having a great time. I noticed many of the families had arrived on big yellow buses, painted with pandas.

On the ride back to the hotel, Kate showed me some of her photos and videos she has stored on her cell phone — including the unusual red pandas — and offered to email them to me later in the week.

While resting up at the hotel, I looked out my window and saw hundreds of people gathered in a nearby square. Giant TV monitors showed parades that were going on throughout China, including the biggest one in Beijing, where I’m headed later.

Leavin’ on a midnight flight to China

CHENGDU — Despite trade war tensions, America and China work hand in glove — at least when it comes to Hainan Airlines flight #470.

The 14-hour flight from Los Angeles to Chengdu pairs a state-of-the-art Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” with the great service of Hainan Airlines — China’s only five-star airline as ranked by Skytrax.

I snagged a roundtrip business class ticket for less than $1,500 roundtrip — less than half what you’d expect to shell out for this flying experience. (I used some miles accrued from a previous Hong Kong Airlines flight, but that knocked the price down by only a few hundred dollars).

I’m going to spend about 10 days in China, visiting Chengdu (home of renowned Panda Research Base) and touring the capital of Beijing. It is my second trip here — I visited Shanghai last fall and enjoyed it.

It is “Golden Week,” when the Chinese are on vacation, so I can expect some big crowds. But it was the most opportune time to take this trip. (Our magazine was “put to bed” for fall).

I’m writing this blog entry onboard after a good night’s sleep on a lie-flat seat with plush bedding, made up by the flight attendant. They hand out PJ’s too (with a distinctive red design, of course).

All told, this is a first-class flying experience in business class, matching or exceeding most trips like this that we’ve taken. (A business class trip on an Air France Airbus-380 for LAX to Paris to splurge for my wife Shannon’s 50th birthday comes to mind).

I’m sitting in my comfortable seat drinking a Nespresso coffee that I chose from a dedicated “coffee menu” that was handed out at takeoff, along with a dinner and breakfast menu and a wine list. I chose “Lungo Forte,” “a complex blend of South and Central American Arabicas, Lungo Forte holds intense roasted noes with a subtle hint of fruit.” Well, OK then.

Breakfast was a tomato and avocado omelette, filled with bacon, mushrooms, spinach; fresh-squeezed OJ (honest); a basket of croissants; and “seasonal” fresh fruit. It hit the spot when I woke up.

On takeoff, I toasted with a glass of French champagne (Leventre Dedieu Grand Cru) in a proper glass flute. Dinner began with shrimp dumplings, a salad (quinoa, spinach, green peas, broccoli, goat cheese, lemon and almonds); and the main entrée was “braised beef cheeks, baby carrots, mashed potatoes and Sherry wine sauce.”

In a nod to Northern California, dessert included Humbolt Fog cheese (a favorite that we regularly purchase at Tess’ Kitchen Store in Grass Valley or Wheyward Girl in Nevada City), along with Gouda and Swiss and fruit.

The business class cabin was about half full (traffic from the U.S. to China and Hong Kong has slumped markedly since the protests in Hong Kong). Nearly all the passengers were Chinese.

A crying baby onboard? Yes. But it was no problem because the passengers received Bose noise-canceling headphones for the flight.

I listened to classical music (including violinist Joshua Bell, whom InConcert Sierra has hosted in our town), and I watched some movies and documentaries. Our son would have been thrilled: An entire category was dedicated to Marvel movies (again, a “symbiotic” relationship between China and in this case, Disney).

When our flight landed, I was picked up in a Buick mini-van (included with my ticket) and driven to my hotel, the Ritz-Carlton Chengdu. I used frequent traveler miles for the stay, but the rates were about half what you’d pay in America for a Ritz Carlton. Great service too when I arrived, as expected.

I had planned to post this article during the flight but there was no internet. I thought about chalking it up to China’s “Great Internet Wall,” but I had read where the service had been inconsistent aboard this aircraft, so it had been dropped for now.

To be sure, there are real trade tensions between the U.S. and China and it’s no laughing matter. But this was a great flight. Hats off to Hainan Airlines and Boeing for a five-star experience on my midnight flight to China.

More posts later, as warranted (and allowed). Here’s our plane passing east of Pyongyang, on route to Chengdu, from the seat-back monitor: